‘We Are Still Here’: remorse, the national psyche and country

In recent times I have been fortunate to have experienced the friendship and wisdom of other Aboriginal people working for the recognition of our culture and history, in concert with environmental protection for both Aboriginal people and the wider community. In a recent conversation with my good friend, Bruce Pascoe, he spoke of the absence of any genuine sense of remorse within the colonial psyche. He was not referring to the momentary guilt that some white Australian experience in relation to the theft of Aboriginal land and a history of violence against our people. I believe Bruce was considering something far deeper. Inhabiting a relaxed and comfortable view of colonisation in Australia requires little thinking at all, let alone responsibility for the sins of the past. True remorse, while asking more of people, would produce invaluable outcomes for all Australians. With remorse comes reflection. With remorse come recognition – and with will – mutual respect. This was Bruce’s point.

[map 22 - Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

[map 22 – Hanging Rock, Victoria, Australia]

I see strong connections between this lack of remorse, the subsequent absence of thought and Australia’s regressive stance on climate change generally and the degradation of our environment more specifically. I also see a clear connection between a lack of will to protect the environment and the Australian government’s abuse of Aboriginal country. Equally, an abuse of Aboriginal cultural and sovereign relationship to country is ultimately an attack on all Australians.

The Australian government is currently attempting to reverse the World Heritage listing of 74,000 hectares of old-growth forest in Tasmania, in order to allow logging to recommence. Within the World Heritage area, important Aboriginal sacred sites will again come under threat if the heritage listing is reversed. This is a shameful act. Considering the history of violence and repeated attempts of dispossession and extermination that the Tasmanian Aboriginal community have faced, one would hope that the wider community would not allow this violence to continue. If we were a truly remorseful nation, hopefully due consideration and thought would result in a more informed view. But in a country that plays lip service to Aboriginal rights, such reflection is not possible.

Reading the newspaper yesterday morning (Age – 14 June 2014), in an essay by Andrew Darby, I read about the courage of Ruth Langford and Linton Burgess, two Aboriginal people, amongst many others, who are fighting to save their country and protect the World Heritage listing of the rain forest surrounding important cultural sites. On a visit to the area recently, the couple ‘called to the old fellas … we let them know we are still here.’

We are still here

Please consider for a moment the deep courage of this act. Consider that the Aboriginal nations of a land that came to be called Tasmania by British colonials, have resisted proactive attempts of genocide for more than 2oo years and today stand tall to protect both their ancestors and their children. Ruth Langford, Linton Burgess and the Aboriginal people of Tasmania are heroes to Aboriginal people throughout Australia. They should also be regarded as heroes to the nation, as they are fighting to protect their country and environment. In doing so, they are protecting the planet.

Next week, Ruth Langford will join scientists and environmentalists at the annual meeting of the World Heritage Committee in Doha, Qatar, in an effort to stop the Australian government’s move. I wish her, and her brave people every success – always was, always will be.

Tony Birch


The Tern


For more than a year now my elderly neighbour, Jack, has been sorting through his life and getting rid of some of his stuff. While we’re not family, and have known each other for just a couple of years, a lot of what he has no more use for has come my way.

He began with hardback copies of The Encyclopaedia of Australian Tractors and Tractors and Modern Agriculture. He offered them to me one sunny morning as we were talking across the scraggy hedge of lavender that passes for the fence separating us. Read more


Image: Time

The world has gone to Lima, apparently with the view of saving the planet. Signals are being beamed to us in microsecond wires of communication. We Are Here To Act. Not really, of course. Lima is an exercise in semantics, spin and a photo opportunity that will certainly eventuate after frantic discussions. The tone will be one of urgency, desperation in search of a communiqué to wave before the gathering throng, Chamberlain-like. This has been the practice of such gatherings for more than a decade now. All talk and little Climate Change action. The Australian government should not have been so nervous about attending. There was no need for the hardline government minister, Andrew Robb, to chaperone the Foreign Minister, Julie Bishop to Peru. She could have demanded real cuts in fossil fuels, supported the need for renewables and rowed back to Australia to eat into her own emissions, and it would have made no difference to the outcome. (Perhaps it would have embarrassed her Prime Minister, Tony Abbott – and perhaps not – nothing seems to embarrass him).

It may appear contradictory to suggest the last rhetorical flush we need is urgency. For sure, the state of the planet is desperate. Despite Minister Bishop claiming that Australia’s – no, the world’s – Great Barrier Reef is in fine shape, reputable scientists have warned us, time and time again, that the reef is in a dire situation. One that may well result in its death. I could go one here about other aspects of urgency: around clean air, contamination of waterways, drought, increasingly ferocious weather events, etc. etc. Oddly, perhaps, I do not think talk of urgency and panic get us anywhere. The language may provoke some to action, and I applaud this. Action is vital. But many run in fear, bury their heads in the proverbial sand and do nothing. This mood of panic has been strategically exploited by the Abbott government in Australia, and other administrations around the globe.

Urgency is the language that allows politicians to look busy-busy. I do not disregard that fact that there would be many present in Lima – NGOs, Indigenous groups, and members of government themselves – with a genuine brief to create something of substance. But we need more of an outcome than another piece of paper being thrust at us; while paradoxically, real change to deal with climate change moves at glacial speed. (Although, I suppose, glaciers are moving a little more quickly these days?)

However desperate our situation has become, we need to act with patience, not panic. It is the only means by which change of substance will eventuate. Consequently, I have been thinking more about the ways in which Indigenous engagement with land and a philosophy of environment and ecology may provide both an intellectual and scientific way forward for us. (I did mention this on occasion on my recent ‘European tour’, with little response. I think that most people in Europe, like white Australia, relegate Aboriginal knowledge to the status of romantic folklore, at best.)

I was speaking to a friend recently, talking about the practice of ‘soft eyes’, used by some Indigenous communities in Australia (and I would think worldwide) in seeing the land. I am not qualified to go into the intricacies of the practice. It would be both foolish and disrespectful to attempt to articulate the cultural and intellectual value of ‘soft eyes’ here. But I do feel qualified to respond to what I regard as the wide cultural lesson to be learned. ‘Soft eyes’ is a way of looking at land, and sky, and water in a way that refuses to focus on a single object or site. By seeing nothing with detailed specificity, one is able to engage more fully with the whole. Another aspect of ‘soft eyes’ is that it takes patience and time, to both learn the technique and respond adequately to what one is actually seeing.

After Lima there will be Paris, and who knows after that. I haven’t checked my schedule. But, in the words of an Aboriginal elder and poet of the nineteenth century, ‘we all become bones … all of us’. There is a holistic reality in these simple words. And a lesson for each of us. We … 

Tony Birch

Trust and our children

Bunjil Shelter - The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil Shelter – The Black Ranges, Western Victoria

Bunjil’s Shelter is the most significant Aboriginal rock-art site in south-eastern Australia. It is also one of the oldest shelters, at around 6,000 years. Tourists visit the site each year to photograph the art work. Many leave without knowing the important story that the art work represents. It is a story about country and custodianship. It is also a story about the protection of children, the care and leadership we provide them, and the future protection of the country we entrust in them. The story simply stated, within Aboriginal culture, is that Bunjil the Eagle watches over all children from the sky and endeavours to keep them safe. This is not simply a ‘fairytale’ or folklore (in a dismissive sense). The story of Bunjil has vital meaning in contemporary Australia for Aboriginal people. The story also acts as a guiding point for the sustenance of all peoples and the environment.

The Bunjil story within Koori (Aboriginal) communities in Victoria comes with a high level of responsibility. It is incumbent upon adults and parents to care for our children. It is important that we provide them with education. That we nurture them both emotionally and intellectually. In return, we hope that when our children grow, they will accept the responsibility of caring for each other and the environment. This is the trust we place in our own actions, and their acceptance of responsibility that comes with age.

Some might read the above as a naïve and simplistic statement; be they realists, cynics or pessimists. They may be right – on occasion. In Aboriginal communities, we have sometimes failed to live up to the expectations we rightly impose upon ourselves (although far less so than the ceaseless ‘doomsday’ media portrayals of our communities). What is more common, in Victoria at least, is that in providing guidance to our children, to both teenagers and younger kids, we are reaping the reward of young people increasingly taking a lead in working with the environment. As they come to accept the role of custodian, they in turn find trust in their own decisions. Put simply, the satisfaction that comes with the job justifies whatever sacrifice they make.

Last weekend, a friend of mine – Stephen Muecke, a writer from Sydney – came to stay with our family for the weekend. Things went pretty well (except that my father is quite sick in hospital – he will recover, I’m sure). The weather was fine, sunny and clear; my football team, Carlton, played out a dramatic draw against an arch rival, Essendon, in front of 60,000 people. On Saturday night, we had a great dinner at a Greek restaurant with my closest friend, Chris Healy (also a writer) and my wife, Sara (a writer, academic and all-round extraordinary woman).

On Sunday morning, with the football and dinner over, talk turned to our concern not so much for the realities of climate change, but the current Australian government’s inaction on the issue. As often happens, the conversation shifted to our own responsibilities and the action we need to take to shift the government’s position. We wondered – as we often do – if what we do, write, has any impact at all. While, naturally, we hoped it does, we weren’t at all certain. We then spoke about our children (I have five, Stephen has three), and young people in general. While neither of us wanted to feel that we’d let our children down in failing to live with the environment – although, in fact, collectively we have failed – we had to accept that any sense of disinterest our kids might convey around issues such as climate change is an outcome of the lack of responsibility and leadership provided within institutions of power, such as mainstream politics and media.

These institutions are of our own making. I’m a believer in the mantra that we get the politicians we deserve. In Australia, the shallowness of the environmental policy trumpeted by conservatives has been more than matched by the Labor side of politics. Inaction, outside the dedicated environmental and activist movement, is a shared experience in Australia. If we think we deserve something more, we have no alternative but to act with greater energy and conviction. If we do not do so, we cannot expect our children to trust us. Nor can we expect to entrust the environment to them.

To return to Bunjil. The eagle’s protection of children is unconditional. The role ascribed to Bunjil is in recognition of knowledge, wisdom and spiritual leadership. Nor is the nurturing of the young by Bunjil contingent: there is no expectation that at some time in the future, those children will grow into the role of responsibility; that they will, without question, reciprocate the care provided to them. This may not appear, at first, to be a great deal. That eagle, up there in the sky, puts in an enormous effort looking after the young. There is no guarantee of gratitude. Consider, then, how both powerful and tender the contract becomes when children do recognise all that hard work the eagle has done – for them. They come to trust the eagle and respond accordingly. If we want our kids to show interest in the environment and to fight for it when necessary – if we want them to trust us – we’ll have to get up there in the sky and do the work.

Looking for Bunjil - outside my front gate

Looking for Bunjil – outside my front gate

Tony Birch

Postcards from the Baltic Sea

  1. The Palace of Culture

Before heading towards the Baltic Sea, I have to stop in Warsaw and stay in one of those over heated small hotel rooms which stink of smoke. Well, each time I visit Poland, I get a mixed sense of desolation and nostalgia. Even though this time I come here for the Weather Station’s project to do with the issues of climate change, still, I feel I am a cultural tourist – wandering in those foreign streets reminiscent of some old Polish films I watched when I was in China.  From a historical point of view, one can say Poland is a sorrowful land, that gives an impression like the solemn landscape of Siberia seen through a Dostoevsky novel. As a Chinese growing up in a communist house, we had some interesting ideological connections with East European countries. Bolesław Bierut’s name is still mentioned a lot in post-Mao era China. As I walk along some stately broad street in the center of Warsaw, I feel I am back again in Beijing, passing through a gigantic brutalist urban space, trying to find somewhere agreeable to sit and think. Actually, the more I walk around Warsaw, the more the city resembles for me Harbin – the northern capital of Chinese Manchuria. Harbin has this particular style of architecture that shows up in Warsaw: a mix of classical European mansions and brutalist socialist buildings.

The Palace of Cultural and Science was the place where I screened my film UFO In Her Eyes some years ago. I thought it was a perfect place (a gift from Soviet Union) to screen a film about totalitarianism. The building itself reminds me of my mother. For about twenty years, my mother worked in the Cultural Palace of our hometown Wenling in South East China. The Cultural Palace of my hometown was not as grand as the one here, but its function and its style were very similar – serve the people with well intentioned entertainment. And my mother was proud of her job, until one day the building was torn down along with other socialist buildings in my hometown. For some nostalgic reason, I do hope this grand building survives in Poland, not only symbolically, but also pragmatically, despite its complex ideological background.

  1. Czesław Miłosz

Last night I was drinking with some obscure Polish artists in Café Amatorska, discussing the gloomy future of our planet. ‘Stop worrying! Humans will die, but the planet is not going to die! That will be the scenario. It’s a good scenario as far as other species concerned.’ They told me in Vodka infused loud voices: ‘Human species are over-rated! The most selfish species should have been wiped out long ago’. Obviously this bunch of Poles was not Christians. ‘You know what’s the most ecological way to live?’ A painter stared at me earnestly: ‘It’s this: we humans must stop giving birth. So the most destructive species can eventually die out. Charge me with the crime of Against Humanity? Oh yes, please!’ He concluded bitterly. Perhaps they were right, and were more absolute than me. The night continued with sarcasm. But I have never been a good drinker, nor do I like to indulge in fantasies of an apocalyptic world. So I left early with a headache.

This morning, on a train to the Baltic Sea, I am clear-headed, and want to write again. I enter the dinning car, ordering a bowl of Zurek – Sour Soup – meanwhile reading a book from Czesław Miłosz. Is there any connection between this sour soup and Milosz? There must be. Both are great stuff. Sour soup is one of my favourite Polish dishes. The thick broth comes with a boiled egg and sausages, a hearty thing to eat in the cold weather. Miłosz, the exiled poet, essayist and Nobel Laureate, was someone whose poetry I loved reading when I was still writing poems in Beijing. He was hugely important in China with his books – especially ‘The Captive Mind’ and ‘Miłosz’s Alphabet’. Exiled in France then in the USA for 30 years, his writings examined the moral and psychological pressures of life under a totalitarian regime. In that respect, Milosz is similar to Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, except the latter went through a much harder life in Stalin’s gulags. I, naturally, feel akin to these writers, especially when they talk about the dilemma of the impossibility of returning to one’s homeland, and the alienation of living in the western ‘free’ world. Even though Miłosz had a good professorial position in California, he still referred to himself as ‘The Wrong Honorable Professor Milosz who wrote poems in some unheard-of tongue’. He returned to Poland after decades of life in the west and died in Kraków at the age of 93.  Some of best lines from Milosz in my opinions are these:

On the day the world ends

Women walk through the fields under their umbrellas,

A drunkard grows sleepy at the edge of a lawn,

Vegetable peddlers shout in the street

And a yellow-sailed boat comes nearer the island,

The voice of a violin lasts in the air

And leads into a starry night.


And those who expected lightning and thunder

Are disappointed.

And those who expected signs and archangels’ trumps

Do not believe it is happening now.

As long as the sun and the moon are above,

As long as the bumblebee visits a rose,

As long as rosy infants are born

No one believes it is happening now.

I close the book, thinking back to the conversation we had in Café Amatorska last night about the end of the world. Yes, no one believes it is happening now, as long as the sun and the moon are above.

  1. Gdańsk

It’s a three hour train ride from Warsaw to Gdańsk. I pass the grey yellow plains of April. Ah, northern landscape, I sigh. How ironic that a southern person like me has ended up in the north. All my adult life seems to be about living in the cold and big northern cities: Beijing, London, Berlin, Zurich. And how I dream everyday about returning to a warm and lush semi tropical land. I miss the heat and those big leaves and smelly flowers. In my eyes, those small-leaved northern trees are never as beautiful as the big-leaved tropical plants. But probably there are fewer and fewer big leaved plants surviving in my tropical land. This is not only a metaphor but a reality: the tropical land is going. It only exists in our memory or imagination. It only remains in an anthropologist’s photo archive. The Amazon rainforest appears only enchanting in those well-angled expensively-produced documentary films. Perhaps the day when Claude Lévi-Strauss finished ‘Tristes Tropiques’, the tropical land had already been swallowed by the northern civilization – the process that began in England with the pre-Victorian era factory chimneys.

Gdańsk is another sorrowful place. The most famous thing in recent history about the town is perhaps its German character. After the World War One, Germans formed a majority in the city and Gdańsk was not under Polish sovereignty. In accordance with the terms of the Versailles Treaty, it became the Free City of Danzig. In  1939, Germany invaded Poland and the attack began in Danzig; later on the Soviet Union trashed the city entirely. Double rape! No wonder the country has produced those incredible poets and artists in the last century. But the future of Gdansk looks uncertain – the houses have been re-built after the war but most of houses are empty and unemployment is high. People are poor here, with all their good qualifications fading in their drawers.

I stand by the once famous port, now abandoned, with broken ships and messy cranes lit along the bank. The area by the water is waiting to be ‘developed’, to ‘shine’ again. I try to stretch my imagination, visualizing the newly built budget hotels one after another along the harbor in the next five years, with the holiday makers from all over the word coming here to kill their summer days.

  1. Sopot

This is where the famous ill-tempered German actor Klaus Kinski came from. One could not be totally convinced that the eccentric German cinema icon actually was born in this calm and pretty little Polish beach town. Now the city has a population of 40,000. Most are elderly people, and then many tourists. On the beach, the Royal Hotel stands proudly on the white sand facing the peaceful blue bay. Somehow, those grand family houses remind me of the rich town of Deauville in northern France. Maybe Poland’s Sopot is the Deauville of France, if you restrict the comparison to landscape.

In the local library I meet a little group of readers who were given some photocopied pages of my novel. In fact, three pages out of my four hundred page long novel. They admitted that they didn’t have time to read through my book. One woman told me she hadn’t read a single book for years after she had her baby. ‘Of course, I understand that,’ I reassured her and everyone else: ‘Don’t worry, we will just chat.’ So we talked about the reality of being Polish, being Chinese, being in between German power and Russia power. It seemed to me that everyone preferred to be under German influence rather than Russian influence. ‘And what about Communism?’ I asked. A blonde woman shook her head violently: ‘No, communism kidnapped our freedom. We prefer to hide in the religious’. Then a man from East Germany added: ‘And capitalism. It’s better. There is no freedom anywhere anyway.’

  1. Hel

Hel is a pine-tree covered beautiful peninsular. ‘It is the end and the beginning of Poland’, as the locals jokingly claim. It is so long and slim that nearly every house is located right next by the water, with a great sea view.

We stay in the Marine Station where they have kept members of many endangered sea species in their lab. The grey seal is a big thing in the Marine Station. They even have four infant seals in the pool at the moment. As I stare at one of the large, fat, young seal babies diving in the water, I am almost sardonically surprised that this big sea mammal has managed to survive alongside human world for so long. And their great whiskers! I can only admire them. I am told that when they sleep, if they are in the water, half of their brains remain awake, so they can detect any danger around them. But if they sleep on the land, both sides of their brains go into sleep mode. I wonder, given human’s barbarian nature, wouldn’t the seals be killed more often on the land than in the water? In order to survive, perhaps they have to learn to not sleep at all.

In the noon, there are about 20 middle school students around the age of 15 walking me through the forest by the sea. Most of them are local, born in Hel with their parents working on the island for the fishing and tourism industry. The boys impatiently want to show me all the war remains on the peninsular. The girls are talking to me about the pollution in the sea. We enter the ruins of bunkers which were built during World War II and look at the burnt forest in the southern end of the land. Young, beautiful, but vulnerable, they seem to be hopeful but also fearful to leave this place and to enter the big cities for their future.

‘Hel is the most beautiful place in Poland. Look the sea and the forest here! But I think maybe California is better.’ A 14 year old boy remarks while I gaze into the shimmering sea shore.

Standing by the edge of the water, a naïve but profound question rings in my ears: where is our future? What is our future? Well, I think the sea is our future. The sea is the place that gives birth to everything. Yet, humans don’t want the sea, Humans want the land, the useful land. One of the ancient folksongs from the Baltic Sea region goes like this:

Now I’ll sing the sea into grass, the seashore into fish,
The sea sand into malt, the sea bottom into a field.

‘Can we imagine a human world without the sea? Or, the Planet without the sea?’ I ask the students around me. They look gloomy when hearing such a question. We wander about some more, strolling by the abandoned fortifications one after another under the bright burning sun of Hel.

Hello from Romain-Rolland School, Germany

You can find Romain-Rolland-Gymnasium (RoRo) in the northern part of Berlin (Germany) which used to be the French district before the fall of the Berlin Wall. Its European profile is reflected by the variety of language classes offered to the students who learn English and French as their first and second languages. Additionally Spanish, Chinese or Latin classes can be attended. The second core theme is Sciences. At a young age, students learn how to experiment by working on special projects in cooperation with Berlin universities and national education foundations. The school community appreciates social commitment, gives the students a chance to develop their creative skills and teaches them social competences based on tolerance, peace, and considerateness.

RoRo had its first encounter with the Weather Stations project at the ilb International Literature Festival Berlin 2014 when a group of students attended a reading by Mirko Bonné from Hamburg (Germany) and Tony Birch from Australia. The students are in the age of 17 years.

Students from RoRo say:

“I really like the idea of connecting the aspect of climate change with literature so that there is an incentive even to people who might not be interested in this topic. I think in the project we will get to know a bit more about climate change from different perspectives; from the authors and from the other participants. I hope that we will learn how to express topics like climate change through literary texts. I am looking forward to getting more information when Mirko Bonné visits us.”

“I think that climate change does influence all of our lives and that we, as the young generation, should try to make the world a better place. It is not easy to draw attention to this subject, because everyone knows about climate change and its consequences. The problem is that just a few people help to prevent it. That is where the Weather Stations project comes in. They want to reach more and more people, the elders and the youth, and want them to know that with a little help from anyone, things can be changed. By using poems, short stories and promoting our school, we get a chance to take part in it.”

“I think the Weather Stations project will be a great project to learn about climate change and nature in a different way than just by watching TV or reading newspaper articles. I think it is great that we will get to know authors from different parts of the world.”

“I expect to learn more about the problems of climate change and the issues it causes around the world. I am particularly interested in the different opinions of different cultures toward that topic. In America, for example, I have even heard people say that climate change is not a real thing, and just made up by the media or environmental activists. I am excited to discuss these issues in class and with authors from all around the world who are interested in the same thing.”

The Giants in the Water

The huge machines jutted up out of the water like the bowed backs of giant armoured warriors, their shoulders hunched, as if ready to link arms to withstand the coming surge of the tide. Most of the gates they held between them were still invisible below the water. It remained to be seen if they could be lifted in time to stop what was coming. Giants-1Spanning the five-hundred-and-twenty-metre width of the river, and standing as high as a five-storey building, the Thames Barrier was the second biggest flood defence barrier in the world – and in economic terms at least, the world’s most important barrier. If it failed to work today, everyone would find out why.

‘They’re like giant warriors,’ Blowfly said. ‘Jutting up out of the water like that, their backs hunched, ready to lift those gates.’

‘What are you talking about?’ His partner frowned, taking a drag on her cigarette and blowing some smoke.

‘The machines – they’re like giants,’ he repeated.

Jerm threw him a quizzical glance and then turned her gaze to the massive engineering works in front of them. The two investigators were standing about fifty metres upstream on the north bank of the Thames. Behind them was a park, across the river from them, the barrier’s information centre and a car park. From their vantage point, they could see the police divers pulling the dead body out of the water and into their rigid inflatable boat. Jerm squinted at one of the steel and concrete towers. They were topped by what she thought looked like an armadillo’s shell with a big section cut out of the middle. But even that didn’t describe them properly.

How are they like giants, exactly?’ she asked. ‘They’re big, bloody . . . I dunno, machine islands.’

‘It’s just a metaphor,’ Blowfly sighed. ‘Never mind.’

‘That help you much when you’re investigating a terrorist act?’ she inquired. ‘Making up metaphors? Helps to get the synapses firing, does it?’

‘Never mind,’ he growled.

Bill Flynn and Jemimah Hearn, known to their colleagues as Blowfly and Jerm, were part of an international unit attached to Interpol, that investigated crimes with far-reaching consequences. The dead body wasn’t the reason they were here, but they expected it would tie in soon enough. They had been called because a gang of well-organized criminals had broken into the control centre of the Thames Barrier in the dark hours of the morning and destroyed the main computer. Giants-2They hadn’t stopped there – they obviously knew that each of the ten gates that stretched between the towers could be closed using its own controls and the gang had succeeded in breaking through to the access tunnels and damaging most of individual controls as well. Several workers and security guards had been injured in the attack.

‘This must be what it feels like to be on the subs’ bench in the Premiership,’ Blowfly commented.

‘Mm,’ Jerm agreed.

They were only one of a number of units represented at the scene and Blowfly and Jerm were having to step back and wait their turn to look around. As well as the Met’s Marine Policing Unit, there were officers from Counter Terrorism Command and, Jerm suspected, but couldn’t be sure, a few spooks from MI5. She and her partner were here to study the big picture, to investigate the potential repercussions of the crime beyond London, or even Britain. But there was a pecking order here and Counter Terrorism Command were the ones with the biggest, sharpest beaks. In the UK, terrorism trumped every other crime and this was CTC’s turf.

Jerm was tall, with cropped, untidy dark brown hair. She had a face that was attractive in a hard-bitten type of way, but looked designed to deliver bad news. Blowfly was a few inches shorter, a tidy, trimly built man with fine-boned, Chinese features, a gentle manner and an Irish accent. Jerm chewed her lip as she flicked her cigarette butt out into the river.

‘I wish you wouldn’t do that,’ Blowfly said.

‘Yeah, I know. Sorry.’

This case was already getting messy and she wondered if being here was a waste of their time. A few metres away from Jerm was another man, by the name of Brunel. A thickset, sallow-skinned man with dark bushy hair and beard, he was one of the engineers from the Environment Agency, who managed the barrier. He was here to liaise with the police, but they were all waiting for the body to be brought ashore now, so he had time to fret about the gigantic machines out in the river. Giants-4Brunel had a pair of binoculars pressed to his eyes and was anxiously watching the gates. The attack on the barrier had been carefully timed. There was a storm surge expected from the North Sea, a colossal rush of water that would flow right up the river towards London. If the gates were not closed in time, a huge area of the city could be flooded. Millions of people and billions of pounds in property lay in the path of the surge. If the river flooded the city, the damage, and possible death toll, would be catastrophic.

‘So they’re having to crank those gates closed by hand?’ Blowfly asked the engineer.

‘Yes,’ Brunel answered tersely. ‘The outer gates, the ones closest to the banks, are smaller. You can see they’ve already been shut. But it’s the big ones under the water we have to get closed. And it’s taking too damned long.’

‘And they have to be raised up?’ Blowfly grimaced. ‘How heavy are these gates?’

‘About three thousand three hundred tonnes each.’

‘Oookay,’ Blowfly breathed. ‘That should be easy enough, then. You’ve done this before, right?’

‘Only in tests,’ Brunel replied. ‘We’ve never had to do it while facing down a storm surge like this one. You have to prepare for the worst, but . . . you hope that it’ll never actually happen.’

‘And how much of London is on the floodplain?’ Jerm prompted him.

‘About a hundred and twenty five square kilometres,’ Brunel told her.

‘That’s . . . that’s a lot of it.’

‘Yes. And my house is slap bang in the middle of it.’

They all turned to stare at the barrier. The gates were being raised in pairs – the ones nearest the banks first, then the next ones in and so on. The progress was painfully slow. The first two main gates were just rising above the water’s surface. Each gate was like a lengthwise slice of a cylinder, normally lying underwater, flush with the concrete base in the riverbed to keep it out of the way of boat traffic. When the huge hydraulic arms on the towers rotated the axles, the steel slab rotated up from its base, and swung into place to stand on its edge and block the path of the water. With the oncoming combination of a storm surge and the river already at high tide, the gates should have been shut over an hour ago. Even now, the level of the river was noticeably higher than normal.

The police boat had reached the riverbank and now the dead body was being lifted up to the assortment of investigators waiting to examine it. Blowfly and Jerm walked over, joining the huddle of men and women who crowded round the drenched corpse. It was a young white woman, small and of slight build, with shoulder-length brown hair, a narrow, pinched face and blue eyes. She was wearing grey suit trousers, a matching jacket, still buttoned, and a light green shirt.

‘Doesn’t look like she came dressed for sabotage, does it?’ Blowfly muttered.

‘She didn’t work here, so what else was she doing out on that tower?’ Jerm said.

Her skin had a tinge of blue and was marked by post-mortem gouges and abrasions – they had probably occurred where her body had been pinned by the current against the base of the tower wall where she’d been found. A detective inspector from CTC was already looking for any obvious cause of death.

‘Looks like a head injury, here on the back of the skull, but I’d say she drowned,’ he declared. ‘Hit, knocked out and thrown in, maybe?’

Nobody answered. He was only saying what they were all thinking anyway. He started going through the pockets. He found a wallet and opened it to reveal a typical collection of credit cards, loyalty cards, sodden receipts and some banknotes. There was also a driver’s licence and an ID card of some kind.

‘Antonia Abbot,’ the CTC guy said. ‘The ID is for the PR department of a company called Hewbrys Holdings.’

‘We know them,’ Jerm spoke up. ‘They’re the parent company for a few different businesses that have been investigated for environmental offences. Nobody’s ever got anything to stick against Hewbrys themselves though. Funny that she’s one of their people; Hewbrys has their headquarters in the Docklands. If the river floods, they’ll be one of the worst hit.’

‘Maybe she had some grudge against the company?’ one of the other detectives said.

‘And decided to take out half of London along with her own firm?’ Jerm snorted. ‘Hell of a grudge.’

Giants-8‘The video footage from the security cameras showed the terrorists dressed up all commando style,’ the CTC guy said. ‘She’s in a business suit. Maybe she was a hostage. But why her?’

‘And why did the kill her, if they managed to get in and do what they wanted to do?’ Blowfly asked. ‘Maybe she knew something, was involved in some way and they couldn’t leave her as a witness.’

‘It’s all conjecture at the moment,’ the CTC officer said, waving over the medical examiner, who was waiting to take a look at the body. ‘We’re analysing all the video now, but the gang destroyed the cameras as they came through. Let’s move back, let the SOCOs do their work. We’ll contact you when we have any more information.’

It wasn’t quite a dismissal, but it was close enough. The CTC were already marking their territory. The scene of crime officers were hovering, dressed in their disposable white suits, waiting to join the medical examiner at the body. More of them were already visible on the structures out on the river. Jerm caught Blowfly’s eye and tilted her head toward the railing where Brunel was still standing with his binoculars. They walked over together, leaving the others behind.

‘Remember the case with the bushfire in Australia last year?’ she asked her partner.

‘What, in Victoria?’ Blowfly replied. ‘The dead guy in the creek?’

‘Yeah. Guy named Cameron Davis. You remember where he worked? It was one of the places that burned down during the fire.’

Blowfly thought for a moment, searching his prodigious memory for the information.

‘It was a chemical plant – Osborne Solutions,’ he said. He paused, then added: ‘Jesus. That was owned by Hewbrys as well. Davis was hit on the head and left to die too, in the fire. He woke up and tried to put it out, but he burned up anyway. We thought that was just a bunch of git-faced firebugs. You reckon there could be a link?’

‘You think it could be a coincidence?’

‘You know how I feel about coincidences.’

‘Yeah, but sometimes stuff happens that’s really like other stuff,’ Jerm replied. ‘Or it seems connected and we make more of it than we should, simply because there was this random connection when, actually, random stuff happens every day that we don’t make a big thing out of because it’s mostly about stuff that doesn’t matter to us.’

Blowfly threw her a glance.

‘What, you’re a philosopher now?’ he sniffed. ‘So we gonna check it out?’

‘Bloody right we are.’

They both gazed out at the river for a moment.

‘Where are the heads, then?’ Jerm demanded.


‘If those things are giants, y’know, like giant warriors, where are the heads?’

‘Why do you have to be so literal?’ he snapped.

‘You mean, accurate?’

‘Oh, bugger off. Go smoke another cigarette.’

‘What, you like my smoking now?’ she grunted. ‘Or are you just trying to get me to die a little faster?’

‘The thought had crossed my mind,’ he murmured. They both grinned.

‘I think they look more like broken armadillos – the top bits anyway,’ Jerm added.

‘Oh, sure. That works,’ Blowfly said.

Brunel’s shoulders were hunched, his posture tense. The outer pair of gates had been raised and the next ones were closing, but it was like watching the minute hand on a clock. Slower, actually. Even so, the two investigators couldn’t help being impressed.

‘It’s pretty incredible, when you think about it,’ Blowfly commented. ‘Gates that can close off a river this size, hold back the ocean. It’s some piece of work.’

‘Some day soon, it won’t be enough,’ Brunel rasped. ‘Engineering like this, you have to think tens of decades ahead – longer. And this thing certainly won’t last until the end of this century. Giants-6Sea levels are rising, you know? Most people in London don’t pay any attention to what we do here, but every year, the North Sea comes surging in further, harder than before. In the eighties, the barrier was closed four times. In the nineties, it closed thirty-five times. In the noughties, seventy-five times. We can only guess what this decade will be like, but we’re less than halfway through and by March last year, it had been closed sixty-five times. And closing it doesn’t solve all our problems; you can’t block that amount of water and expect it to stay put. Block it here, it floods out in other places.’

He pressed the binoculars to his eyes again, and what he saw seemed to release some of the tension from his body. He ran his gaze from one side of the barrier to the other.

‘We’re going to do it,’ he rasped. ‘The scumbags might have wrecked the computers, but the hydraulics are still sound. I think we’ll close the gates in time . . . to stop the worst of it, anyway.’

Jerm looked out off the riverbank at the water flowing past their feet.

‘Is it me, or has the river risen a bit?’ she asked.

‘Yes, it can happen pretty fast, once it starts. We’ll have to go in a while,’ Brunel said. ‘The water level will come up over this bank before long. Like I said, you can’t block a river and expect it to stay put.’

Blowfly gazed down at the rising water. Then he raised his head and looked around. The city didn’t just stop downstream from the barrier. In every direction, he could see buildings; homes and businesses, stretching to the horizon.

‘You said the barrier won’t last forever – they’ll have to build something bigger. Giants-5The sea’s just going to keep on coming. So . . . where’s all that extra water going to go, when you block it off?’

Brunel looked over at him, but didn’t answer, dropping his eyes to the ground instead.

‘If the sea wants in, there’s only so much you can do,’ he said softly. ‘We won’t need terrorists to do us damage. You stop the sea here, it pushes in somewhere else. If we want to keep living on our rivers, on the coast . . .’ He shrugged and looked through his binoculars again. ‘We can’t protect everyone. We have to prioritize – we’re talking massive cost here, so that usually means taking care of the money-makers first. For everyone else, well . . . somebody’s going to get their feet wet.’

As he said that, he stepped back from the riverbank. Blowfly and Jerm did the same. The water was starting to lap over the lip of concrete. It was time to put some distance between them and the river.

Bishop Blows Hot Air

An unfortunate but accurate summary of Australian Foreign minister, Julie Bishop, and her performance in Lima. We may yet win the title of the dumbest government in the world. A ‘first world’ country with a ‘fifth world’ mentality.


Watch discussion: The Current Climate

Few contemporary issues present us with so much information, speculation and polarity of opinion as climate change. While many in the scientific community argue that the planet is headed for environmental disaster, equally determined sceptics dismiss such concerns. Elected officials and the media have taken sides and fiercely defend their often contradictory positions.

As part of the Weather Stations project, the Wheeler Centre presented a conversation that provided a live audience with a chance to ask experts in the field what’s really going on. All five of the Weather Stations writers in residence were amongst a participatory audience.

Guests on the panel included Amanda McKenzie, CEO of Australia’s Climate Council, the independent body that was crowdfunded after the Australian Climate Commission’s government funding was withdrawn; Environment Defenders Office CEO Brendan Sydes; and David Karoly, a Professor of Atmospheric Science at the University of Melbourne.