Finished reading: Syria’s Secret Library by Mike Thomson 📚

I’ve never cried reading a book before. Sure, I’ve found many sad, gripping, infuriating books that have left their mark, but this remarkable story of a small town of rebels under siege by Syria’s government is something special.

A group of peaceful students decides that books — the knowledge they impart, the escape they provide from a life of horror and tragedy — are more important than anything else. They live and die by the old saying that the pen is mightier than the sword. So they set about collecting a town’s books together into a secure place, all the while being shot at, bombed, starved, denied medical treatment, for four years.

When one thinks of stories of fighting, and what it means to fight, one tends to think of picking up a weapon and facing an enemy. Some of these students do that, of course, and join the Free Syria Army, and hold back the regime’s soldiers against massive odds for many years. But the true fight is an ideological and psychological one, and in their literary sanctuary, filled with books that are banned and savouring knowledge and learning above all else, they stick it to the government and plan for a better future for their revolution.

Reading about children like fourteen-year-old Amjad, and his passion for the library where he becomes Chief Librarian and devotes himself to its operation before losing his enthusiasm and spirit when it’s destroyed, or twelve-year-old Islam, who teaches her mother to read and dives into books, but is similarly robbed of her spirit and dreams for the future by the daily horror of war, is so heartbreaking. Despite this, the biggest lesson I took from reading this book is that the Syrian people are remarkably resourceful, resilient and a (rightfully) proud people.

Hopefully one day that will be enough to help them return from the depths that their country now finds itself.

Finished reading: Shackleton by Ranulph Fiennes 📚

Yet another biography of Sir Ernest, this time written by a bloke who’s walked in his footsteps. This lends a sound credibility to the analyses of the good, bad and (sometimes) ugly decisions made by these wild Edwardian adventurers who were at the absolute pioneering stage of polar exploration. Fiennes’ admiration for his hero in Shackleton is obvious, but he doesn’t fawn over him, discussing both the man’s faults and his heroics and very aptly explaining the colonial environment at the time.

In an age of cancel culture, it’s refreshing to see a man presented as both an admirable hero — forging a path for human discovery in the face of incredible odds — and a tragic figure — womanising, unreliable with money, and seen as a failure in his time — without demanding the reader choose one or the other. Humans are complex. Shackleton was very human, but achieved superhuman feats.

A very nice read.

Converting my DVDs to Apple TV-ready M4V format over my NAS drive 🎥📀🎞🍿

Have embarked on the mammoth undertaking of converting my 750+ DVD collection to M4V to stream over my Apple TV. At this point (the beginning of my foolish quest) I am hoping to fully tag, find artwork, etc. for each and every movie in the collection. We’ll see if I’m still doing that by the end!

Finished reading: Signs of Life: A doctor drops everything to ride around the world for six years 🚲📚🗺

I was down at my local library filling some hours in research of my sometime-in-the-future Europe trip when I happened across Stephen Fabes’ new cycle touring memoir Signs of Life: To the Ends of the Earth with a Doctor. What an awesome book and a happy chance I came across it.

Released in 2020 about a journey from 2010–2016, and filled from cover to cover with amusing anecdotes and frank observations of the different cultures and places Fabes found himself, it’s easy to assume this book is like every other travel book ever written. However, I found his self-aware and down-to-earth manner quite refreshing. He doesn’t ‘tackle’ the world like a cocksure adventurer with a sense of ‘conquest’ or other adversarial, heroic language: he slips by, humbly sneaking in and out of peoples’ lives, and manages to stay true to himself to the end.

His intelligence, education and worldview as an English emergency room doctor are plainly influential of his outlook and greatly influence his judgement of the various challenges he witnessed. It was very refreshing to read a well-written, thoughtful summation of an extraordinary journey.

Near the completion of six continents, end to end, and tallying some serious statistics — over 50,000 miles (85,000 kilometres) in 6 years; 75 countries; from -39°C in Mongolia to 46°C in Ethiopia; 221 punctures, etc. — he recoils at the idea he has done anything heroic. Quite the opposite: he admonishes himself for spending six years not “participating” in the world.

Throughout the book he displays a dislike, bordering on disdain, for what he terms “social media blowhards”. He visits a personal hero, Heinz Stücke in Hövelhof, Germany in the closing weeks of his journey. Heinz is famous for being the world’s most prolific cycle tourist, spending over fifty years on the road before returning home to meticulously catalogue every moment of those five decades. Stücke’s own journey made him misanthropic, untrusting and seemingly reinforced strong right-wing political views. Fabes, in contrast, comes home even more compassionate and hopeful about humanity than he left.

Fabes judges Stücke to be simply obsessed about clocking up miles and passport stamps, without truly appreciating the beauty and diversity of the world. The reader gets the impression (through Fabes’ disappointed perspective) that Stücke’s odyssey would have been vastly improved if there were no people at all on the way.

I think it was this aspect of the book: Fabes’ struggle to find a deeper meaning to what he was doing, to understanding other people despite his own biases, and to the human condition in general that makes this book worth the read. Yes it’s interesting from a cycle touring perspective but that’s not really what the book is all about. Some reviewers found the random jumps forward in time and skipping of places and events disappointing. For example, Australia warrants only four pages, scant on detail.

For a bloke on the mission of traversing every continent but Antarctica, effectively skipping over one of them in the narrative entirely seems antithetical. But the last section of the book gives one the answer why: Fabes isn’t interested in listing places and statistics as personal trophies in this book. He has a blog for people interested in those aspects. He keeps the book focused on the people he met and the things he learnt. He had to compress six years into a few hundred pages.

His bike was just a means to a greater end: seeing the world. Understanding the world. Doing it for himself, not to crow about it later. He doesn’t fill pages with lists of gear or recommended brands of bike. Again, he leaves that kind of thing to his blog.

I loved this book for many reasons and highly recommend it. A great read, a great trip well described, a good way to spend your COVID lockdowns and other free time wherever you are.

I love Rick and Morty, and I’m also a big Highlander fan, so Season 5 Ep 2 “Mortyplicity” had me in fits of laughter. Watch the end credits for the best scenes of the episode. Hilarious!! 📺📽

Finished reading: Nala’s World by Dean Nicholson. 📚

A nice travel story with a heartwarming twist, as Dean picks up a stray kitten abandoned in the wilderness and nurses her back to health. Reasonably well-written (with help from Garry Jenkins) there is something interesting for both cycle tourists — or any type of traveller, really — and animal lovers.

I’ve been following Dean and Nala on Instagram for a while now, so it was nice to read a bit deeper into his trip, his mindset and his story than merely following his social media feed.

Finally got my copy of Dean Nicholson’s Nala’s World, setting down to a nice quiet coffee, croissant and fruit tart at Le-Petit Patissier, a French café in my town; a shitty day is slowly turning around for me. 📚🚲🥐☕️

Watching Star Trek: Lower Decks. 📺🖖🏻

It’s pretty funny in parts, much of the humour is geared towards Trek fans, but even so I imagine new-to-Trek fans might also find it amusing. The character mannerisms, especially Beckett Mariner, are quite contemporary and will likely become dated. But even that is in keeping with much of Trek tradition, so in twenty years one can look back and know they’re watching a 2020-era show. That’s not necessarily a bad thing.

Watched Coffy today with Pam Grier. 📽🍿 Thoroughly enjoyable revenge blaxploitation flick that obviously inspired Tarantino a lot. Grier is just absolutely gorgeous, and the 70s style oozes off the screen. The soundtrack is great, the action good even if the plot is sometimes a bit silly, but otherwise great escapist Sunday movie fun. Will have to check out Foxy Brown next…

A good documentary that highlights just how bankrupt the culture of the GWS Giants is. 📺🏉🦠🎥

Watched Amazon Prime’s Making Their Mark docu-series, finished the last episode last night. Some clubs and personalities come off well, others don’t, but I have to get right to the point and say it: what a damning indictment on the culture at the Greater Western Sydney Giants.

Stephen Coniglio is made the club’s first-ever solo captain in awful circumstances, some unexpected, some totally foreseeable:

  1. The Giants lost the 2019 Grand Final. They didn’t just lose it. They were comprehensively destroyed, kicking not only the lowest score for a Grand Final for 60 years, but their lowest ever for their club.
  2. It was this backdrop, with this kind of hurt in the playing group, that Coniglio is elevated to sole captain, replacing Ward and Davis. Nobody had ever captained this team alone.
  3. The COVID-19 pandemic strikes, forcing first an initial abandonment of the season then a forced interstate relocation for entire football departments and their respective families.
  4. The Giants struggle to perform on the field for a myriad of reasons.
  5. Coniglio struggles with form, despite preparing well he seems to suffer mentally.
  6. The playing group and coaching staff then proceed to almost completely isolate him. With the exception of Heath Shaw, his mate, and some bullshit “motivational” platitudes thrown at him by Leon Cameron and the rest of the GWS coaching staff, at no time does the film show any kind of assistance or outside help given to Coniglio to help him establish his leadership over the group, or even just to check on the bloke’s mental health.
  7. They then DROP THEIR CAPTAIN, the first time in over 20 years an AFL club had done so. Much was said at the time, and a perspective could be argued that Leon Cameron was using a strong message to try and shock his group into form, but WHERE WAS THE ARM AROUND THE BLOKE AFTERWARDS? (except for Shaw).

So looking at the list of events above, (1) the club didn’t expect to lose like they did in 2019 but surely the mental difficulties of the overall group, and a newly elevated sole captain (2), were as plain as fucking day. Compounded by the unforeseen COVID pandemic (3), the group suffers (4). Again, completely foreseeable issue. Richmond were smart enough to not only tell their players how resilient they were, but to check it was so continually throughout the year, enabling the team to weather many embarrassing off-field dramas and claim the premiership. And watching this documentary it’s obvious now why they did it. Because they supported each other in a way GWS did not. They didn’t rely on bullshit motivational sayings and sporting clichés. They got around each other, even as they sometimes bickered internally1.

The treatment of Coniglio had me screaming at the screen. Not since Ryan Griffen in 2014 at the Bulldogs has a club so absolutely missed the mark with their leadership. Now, I understand that the documentary is edited, and a camera can only capture so much, but the distinct impression was that of a bloke completely hung out to dry in every sense of the word.

Now it’s here I make a non-disclaimer-disclaimer: I am a fierce Bulldogs fans, have absolutely hated GWS since their very inception, almost as a matter of course and as such, I am biased.

However I hate the Adelaide Crows with even more venom and history, and came out of this documentary thinking what a remarkable team they put out last year: continually smashed on-field, worst match day results of the club’s history, but the group stayed positive and grew from it. Rory Sloane comes off looking like future senior coach material. Stuart Dew and the Gold Coast Suns also come off a poor-performing season with positivity and togetherness: never even played a final in their club’s history, yet they are there for each other, as Dew, having — ahem! (how do I put this?) — lost the physical conditioning he had as a premiership player — nevertheless gets on an indoor bike on Zwift and tries an Everesting challenge: he has no chance of coming close, but does it purely to bond with his players.

So whilst my GWS-hatred is strong and true, it just infuriated me seeing a guy go through what Coniglio went through. As a kid, Leon Cameron was one of my childhood heroes when he played for the Dogs between 1990–99. I still have his autographed footy card. In this documentary he looked like a totally unfeeling leader of young men, lacking much in empathy and insight into the blokes he’s in charge of. The closing shots of Coniglio sitting alone in the weights room post-season, a metaphor for a bloke wanting to put the season behind him and grow from the experience, but doing it completely alone, will likely stay with me for years. No wonder blokes like Jeremy Cameron got the fuck out of there, and he certainly wasn’t alone.


  1. Trent Cotchin’s wife breached COVID protocols, then a couple of their players did so at a strip club, causing a huge controversy and costing the footy department $100,000 (someone lost their job). [return]

Just watched Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury for the first time since I was a kid (watched it with my father at about 9–10). Still love Ping-Ou Wei’s overacting as “Wu” the interpreter. Classic kung fu movie that still holds up as a nice bit of escapism on a Monday night. 📽🍿

Watching the original Star Wars trilogy, just because. 📽🍿

Another day, another whale doco 🐋📽📺

This one about humpback whales and their songs. They all get together off the coast of Western Australia and the males start singing a song together. Fun side fact: I used to be in the Navy and sailed around these waters, and we both saw these humpbacks quite often, as well as listened to their songs through the sonar array and ‘underwater telephone’. Humpbacks in the Pacific, 5000kms away, hear this song that travels that far and start to sing it too. Just amazing stuff, and that’s what I love about documentaries, always come away feeling closer to nature and able to parrot some interesting facts.

Just watched Kingdom of the Blue Whale and saw footage of a baby blue whale! 🐋📺📽

These beautiful creatures, the largest animal ever to have lived in the history of the world, can grow to 30m (110′) and 150–200 tonnes. The babies are born 6–8 metres (25′) long and weigh 3 tonnes at birth. Just amazing that even an attempt to visualise that massive size without a comparison (like the common two big buses bumper to bumper) is difficult.

This documentary is American but pleasingly dispenses with the over-the-top drama endemic to Yank docos and sticks to the science. They track some Pacific blue whales down to Costa Rica and discover new things about these animals, which we don’t really know much about.

I really liked this one. Great footage, neatly and adequately explained without dumbing it down, and just beautiful creatures to see. ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Sharks of Lost Island documentary 📺📽🐟🌊🏝🇵🇳

Just watched Sharks of Lost Island on Disney+. It was a little ‘American’ in parts — what I mean by this remark is that American documentaries tend to overexaggerate how dangerous a reef shark is, etc for ‘dramatic purposes’ that aren’t truly needed for a good documentary. Sure they have teeth and might bite. So might a poodle. Nature is inherently beautiful and fascinating and awe-inspiring. It doesn’t (and shouldn’t) need fast racy music and suspense to grab viewers’ attention. I find this style most prevalent in documentaries made for the American market and hence my remark.

That said, I watched this doco for two primary reasons:

  1. I love fish, sharks and underwater footage; and
  2. I have been intrigued for years about Pitcairn Island and its centuries-old history and troubles with modern day sexual assaults and culture.

On these points the doco doesn’t really disappoint — the sexual assault stuff is not mentioned, of course, being out of the ‘scope’ of a nature doco — and the viewer is treated to an up-close view of one of the world’s most remote, and difficult to reach, islands. At 45 minutes it’s worth watching just for these things. There was also a young bloke named Alan Turchik who was pretty funny, a kinda wet-behind-the-ears greenhorn on his maiden sea voyage who is all nerves and nerdiness and has to prove himself to the team after a mishap, which you can either watch in the doco or read about on the National Geographic blog. This was very interesting and endearing and something you don’t always see in documentaries (‘character development’ of doco crew).

Recommended. ⭐️⭐️⭐️

Gene singing Alone in S9E8 of Bob’s Burgers 🍔 📺 🎵

I’ve been watching Bob’s Burgers pretty religiously the past few months (I’m in Australia so have only just discovered it) and even though I’m in Season 9 and thought I’d seen some pretty good stuff, nothing could have prepared me for the hilarity of Gene’s rendition of Alone by Heart in S9E8: Roller? I Hardly Know Her! I almost pissed myself laughing!

Listening to and thinking about Kris Kristofferson, and other country legends I hope to see live one day, before it’s too late 🎸🎵💬🎨

Casey leaves the under-ground and stops inside the Golden Crown

For something wet to wipe away the chill that’s on his bones

Seeing his reflection in the lives of all the lonely men

Who reach for anything they can to keep from goin’ home

Standin’ in the corner Casey drinks his pint of bitter

Never glancing in the mirror at the people passing by

Then he stumbles as he’s leaving, and he wonders if the reason

Is the beer that’s in his belly, or the tear that’s in his eye?

Casey’s Last Ride by Kris Kristofferson.

No matter what mood I’m in on a particular day, or in a particular period of my life — happiness, sadness, anxiety, contentment, fury, passion, indifference, love, hate, quiet reflection or a need for a pick-me-up — Kris Kristofferson has written something for me. The master songwriter is my all-time favourite, and I love his music, I love the poetry of his lyrics and how he takes the most profound of life’s loves, challenges and turmoils and makes them simple; he takes simple motifs and makes them profound. You can listen to his songs and hear a simple story and a simple tune. Or you can hear something deep, something perhaps not even intended but you see it there anyway and that’s why his work is true art. For he is that: a true artist. A Kristofferson song can mean whatever you want it to mean to you; a slow, hung-over retelling of a drunken Sunday morning for an addict can reflect your own struggles with depression (sans the addiction), the monotony of life and the world itself — its funny little ways that make it both wonderful and irritating at the same time. Or, again, just a bloke bemoaning a hang-over and the life he lost to addiction. We’ve all felt that same loss of something, whatever the cause. I appreciated Merle in the same way.

I was lucky enough to see Kristofferson perform in Ballarat one night in September 2019. Coincidentally, it was a one-night-only kinda gig and I was on my first day of a solo long distance charity bike ride from Melbourne to Adelaide. I had just ridden 120 gruelling kilometres, only to quickly throw off the school dress — read the story to answer your sudden “WTF?” — to change into my western shirt, jeans and cowboy boots and head down to the Ballarat Civic Hall.

I was enraptured. Some in the audience bemoaned his diminishing performance compared to shows of yesteryear: his vocals struggled and he lost the words to a song at one point (he has Lyme disease which causes memory loss). But not me. I quietly raged inside at their judgment: “He’s in his 80s you bastards,” and just revelled in seeing him live, in listening to him sing his beautiful lyrics and marvel in the true artistry of his work. (He did ultimately retire later that year.) It was one of those days I’ll remember forever, and it ticked off one of my Bucket List Artists, those I want to see live before I, or they, leave this world. I was lucky enough to see Bowie in 2003. Alice Cooper not long after. Pat Benatar in 2010, opened by The Bangles, a nice little two-for-one.

I guess the reason I’m thinking of all this now, tonight, it has struck me that with COVID-19 still raging and international travel still a long way off, especially for us Australians, I stand in great danger of missing my other Bucket List Country Legend.

You hang in there Willie!


Just watched the first episode of Secrets of the Whales narrated by Sigourney Weaver 😍. Awesome footage and story about orcas and their differing cultures. They all have different languages, behaviours, etc. Fascinating, sad and very worth watching. 📺🐳🌊

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly 📽

So I’m a huge fan of The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (Il bruno, il brutto, il cattivo in Italian). I love most spaghetti westerns but this one masterpiece, this perfect movie, I’ve seen it now 1,300 times. That’s right, tonight I watched my 1,300th replay. I swear on my life, I’ve counted all these years since my father showed me the movie as a kid. I’ve even watched it in both Italian and French. It plays when I work, it plays when I’m down and need a morale boost. It plays simply when it’s been a few weeks and I want to watch it again. A little weird and sad maybe, but it’s one of my life’s great loves.

If you have to shoot, shoot; don’t talk!

I remember seeing the movie a few years ago at The Astor Theatre in St. Kilda one night when they had a showing. By that time I’d seen it just shy of 1,000 times but never on the big screen, as I was only born in ’82. So I walk into the Astor, and I’m excited. Like, birth-of-my-kids, Bulldogs-winning-the-flag, EXCITED! I hear Ennio Morricone’s L’estasi dell’oro, The Ecstasy Of Gold, playing in the lobby and the emotion of finally seeing this movie in the theatre just overwhelmed me and I quietly, but still quite publicly, wept. So yeah. Big fan.

My wife and kids groan, and ask when I’ll stop watching it. My answer is always: “When I get sick of it.”

I’m hoping to one day travel (maybe a bike tour post-COVID) on a pilgrimage to Burgos in northern Spain, where the climax in the graveyard was filmed.

Does anybody else have this level of deep love and obsession with a film? If so which one and why (if you even need a reason!)?


A review of Batavia by Peter FitzSimons: Makes Lord Of The Flies seem tame 📚📖

With a prolonged period of bed-rest and boredom forced upon me, I’ve been reading a lot more. This is one of the positive consequences of my situation: more time for introverted activities like reading. In my youth I couldn’t read enough books. I always had my nose in a book and my imagination on some far-off exotic adventure. As an adult I’ve tended towards nonfiction, and particularly history, on the rare occasion I do get time to read.

I am fortunate enough to be presently enjoying all of these things concurrently; I have passed the last few rainy Ballarat days curled up in bed with Batavia, by Peter FitzSimons. Having thoroughly enjoyed FitzSimons’ Burke and Wills, of which I was lucky enough to have a hardcover copy signed by him when I met him at a function in Ballarat; following his journalism in the Sydney Morning Herald; interacting with him occasionally on Twitter; and being keenly supportive of the Australian Republican Movement, which Peter chairs, I guess you could say I’m a big fan of his work.

The author Peter FitzSimons (centre) with my son Declan (left) and daughter Anneliese (right) outside the now-defunct “Museum of Australian Democracy in Eureka (MADE)”.

So standing in Collins Bookshop in Ballarat, I was faced with the choice of either Batavia or Eureka, the history of the Eureka Stockade rebellion during the 19th-Century Victorian gold rush, which held some interest for me living here in Ballarat where it all happened. In the end though, Batavia’s promise of a bloody tale of historical tragedy, murder, treachery, mutiny and drama on the high seas, nearly four centuries ago, won me over. And boy was I not let down!

Batavia is the amazing true story of a treasure-laden flagship of a fleet owned by the Dutch East Indies Company (Vereenigde Oostindische Compagnie or VOC). The Batavia and its accompanying ships embarked on a nine month journey to Batavia (known today as Jakarta, in Indonesia) in 1628–29, on a mission to trade in the lucrative exotic spices that shaped that era of exploration and ultimately changed the world. Tragedy befalls the ship and its crew before they reach their port of destination, and mayhem quickly ensues amongst a crew of desperate misfits and malcontents. The events unfold during a fascinating historical period, full of seafaring adventurers, pirates, vast empires, colonial brutality, the birth of multinational corporate greed, you name it…

As I followed the Batavia’s journey from Amsterdam to the Indian Ocean I was equally appalled and enthralled by the characters that FitzSimons portrays very skilfully, remaining as historically accurate as possible whilst allowing himself the requisite artistic license to bring the characters to life after 400 years. One must remember these people — protagonists, antagonists, major and minor characters alike — really existed. The epoch itself was one of brutal and harsh reality, a world of strict social structures where disobedience could result in death. Where forgetting one’s station and rank was unthinkable and seriously punished. This makes the reckless actions taken by the crew that much more incredulous, but it happened!

Without spoiling the story for those like me who until reading this book had never heard it before, it’s actually quite difficult to read. The brutality, the disregard not only for human life but all shreds of decency, is stark. In the first chapters I was a bit uneasy about the way FitzSimons sets up the central characters, feeling perhaps he was being unfair to paint historical figures — people who actually existed, who had mothers — as “evil incarnate”; by the end of the book I was in total agreement and just staggered at the emotional toll I endured reading about events four centuries ago.

In the preface FitzSimons discusses the struggle of “breathing life into a 400-year-old story” and humbly hopes he is up to the task. I couldn’t put it down. I was totally transported back in time and could almost smell the salt air. A wonderfully written and researched book, appropriately embellished for readability’s sake without sacrificing historical accuracy, this is the best work of FitzSimons I’ve ever read.

I also found the details of the fateful island where the tragedy unfurled interesting from a personal point of view, as I have sailed those waters myself and gazed with the same wonder and awe at the forbidding coastline of Western Australia, or as the Dutch of the time called it, het Zuidland, ‘the Southland’. I also have seafaring ancestors from Geraldton, and in fact one of the small little islands that form part of the Abrolhos Islands chain is named Akerstrom Island, and I intend to find out if this island is named for a relation of my great-grandfather, Erik Albun Åkerstrom.