Politics

Professor Pat McGorry on Australia's mental health breakdown, the Royal Commission, and reasons for optimism

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Professor Patrick McGorry AO is an Irish-Australian psychiatrist, leading international researcher, clinician and advocate for mental health reform. Many Australians will recognise him as the 2010 Australian of the Year and for his leadership of mental health organisations such as Orygen Youth Health and Headspace. Pat is Chair of the Expert Advisory Committee for the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System.

In this conversation, Pat reflects on his early life and journey into medicine and psychiatry, his work in founding and leading pioneering youth mental health organisations, the scale of the mental health crisis in Australia, and the Royal Commission into Victoria’s Mental Health System. It’s a wide-ranging conversation with a deeply humane and intelligent individual, who has devoted his life to solving one of humankind's greatest afflictions.

E quindi uscimmo a rivedere le stelle.
And so we came forth, and once again beheld the stars.

Professor Pat McGorry AO, Melbourne, 19 July 2019

Professor Pat McGorry AO, Melbourne, 19 July 2019

Interview with Professor Pat McGorry AO, 19 July 2019 

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, which features conversations with people who lead meaningful, interesting and flourishing lives, in order to better understand each other, ourselves and the world around us.

 

00:12 I'm very fortunate and honoured to be joined today by Professor Pat McGorry. Pat is an Irish Australian psychiatrist, leading international researcher, clinician and advocate for mental health reform.

 

00:22 Many Australians will recognise Pat as the 2010 Australian of the year and for his leadership of mental health organisations such as Orygen Youth Health and Headspace.

 

00:30 Pat is also the chair of the expert advisory committee for the Royal Commission into Victoria's mental health system. Thank you so much for being here today, Pat.

 

00:38 Pat: Thank you, Nick.

 

00:39 Nick: So, Pat, you're one of the most influential and recognisable faces of mental health advocacy and reform in Australia. For our listeners who aren't as familiar with you or your work, could you please outline the key moments of your life and career journey which brought you to this point?

 

00:52 Pat: Well, I guess it goes back to my own adolescence really. You know, I suppose I was - this was in the 1960's and it was a time of great idealism I think in the world. You know, 1968 was the year of revolutions and I was very affected by that. Maybe temperamentally, I was already predisposed; I'm not sure about that actually, but the times certainly were good for that mindset and that aspiration I suppose in terms of what you could do with your life.

 

01:28 I immigrated to Australia at the age of 15 with my family. I was born in Ireland but had grown up in South Wales and we came to Australia. So, in a way Australia had a delayed sort of experience of those, you know, geopolitical changes in the late sixties. It didn't really happen in Australia until the early seventies but in my own family, you know, my father was a doctor. He had been a TB physician and was a doctor looking after people with chest diseases and coal miners and those sorts of jobs and he thought - he had a limited view of what was possible in a life. You know, being an Irishman - you know, the secure sort of things to aim for were the professions like, you know, medicine especially and these were chosen to avoid I suppose financial insecurity and to avoid the immigrant ship really.

 

02:27 So, they had a mindset that you had to do something safe. So, I had a lot of pressure on me in late high school because I'd always been a high achiever at high school. I always tended to come like first in the year, you know, in exams and stuff like that and I was dux of the school, Newcastle Boys High. So, I could get into medicine, so there was huge pressure to actually do it, you know?

 

02:50 I actually had a much greater interest in humanities and, you know, I suppose, you know, languages and those sorts of things. So, I wasn't - it wasn't really my first choice but he kind of talked me into it and I gave it a go, and I sort of was able to do it. You know, like I succeeded in the first few years of medical school in terms of exams and stuff like that, but it didn't inspire me. It was pretty dull, you know?

 

03:24 It wasn't really until I actually got into the more clinical period and especially when I saw the state of psychiatry, you know, which I had been very interested in intellectually because it was like a blend of the arts and the sciences really, ranging from philosophy right through to I suppose clinical care, and even neuroscience too. So, it had an amazing sort of blend of, you know - what's the word - disciplines within it.

 

03:50 Also, you could see the human rights challenge; you know, the incredible mistreatment and stigmatisation and even abuse in the institutional area of patients, and it was like sort of being in the 19th century at the same time as the 20th century.

 

04:10 So, massive challenge and really an outlet for that sort of idealism that I had spoken about and been influenced by during my, you know, adolescence, but I kind of felt I couldn't - initially I couldn't really be part of it because then you're kind of colluding with this kind of coercive and terrible system that people are being treated within, and I read a lot of anti-psychiatry material and explored other ways of working in the mental health field apart from traditional medical specialisation.

 

04:44 But I had returned to Newcastle after where I'd been at school and I was an intern there, and then a few years after that, a medical school was set up and I was actually a medical registrar at the time and the medical school had a very inspirational professor of psychiatry called Beverley Raphael who was very much a humanitarian person, kind of exuded all the kind of qualities and values that psychiatry should be about, you know?

 

05:17 So, I went and had a talk to her and she encouraged me to give training a go in psychiatry so I did actually go down that track. While the conditions of work were very brutal, I would say, the training and the kind of role models that I was exposed to were much more hopeful and showed a way forward and very preventative focused, and I could see a way that I could actually make a difference.

 

05:45 Nick: As a millennial looking back, I find it astonishing that there was an anti-psychiatry movement at all and considering the changes from when you were starting out as a student to now, the field of psychiatry and medicine must seem like two different worlds.

 

05:57 You mentioned the human nature of the clinical work really animated you as a student but I'm interested to know what keeps you motivated now working at the strategic leadership level of the profession?

 

06:05 Pat: Yeah, well you can see all the anti-psychiatry books right over there, R.D. Lang, and, you know, on my bookshelf still 'Psychiatry and Descent'. I've always been powered by that kind of activism I suppose. I still am. I might look like an establishment figure but just beneath the skin, I'm a very different kind of person.

 

06:28 So, what I kind of learnt was there's a way of actually using the power of scientific approaches and the health system, if you can actually credential yourself within that world then you have a much better chance of reforming things, providing you don't end up getting institutionalised yourself in the process, you know, which is a risk or getting seduced by status and power and those sorts of things. I've seen that happen to many people who ended up doing very little.

 

07:07 So, I think that's how I've dealt with it and I never imagined when I was starting off that I would, you know, be successful in those ways but - so, it's a bit like in football. If you work on your skills and you focus on the thing right in front of you and don't get ahead of yourself, then all these other things seem to take care of themselves.

 

07:32 So many people ask you for your five-year plan. It's not a very good thing to ask because you've just got to focus on the basics in a sense. I mean, you'd have to have a vision about what you want the world to be like and it has to be fairly utopian in a way, and I heard the editor of Lancet last week who we had a meeting with in London, use the term 'realistic utopianism'. In other words, you know, you're aiming for an ideal but it has to be a realistic, you know, sort of vision in a sense.

 

08:02 Nick: Tempered by, yep.

 

08:03 Pat: Yeah, and I think that's sort of what I and my colleagues have been working on, you know, and we have achieved I would say an oases of realistic utopia. Like you mentioned, Headspace, Orygen and previously the EPPIC program, and they're very simple propositions, you know; really intervening early in a humane and expert way with conditions that are potentially very serious, you know?

 

08:28 That's the one thing I did learn in my early days working in psychiatry, that while the philosophy and the human rights perspective of anti-psychiatry was actually spot on, their understanding of the nature of the illnesses that we are dealing with was off, you know? These were very serious problems which were health problems, they weren't kind of social problems. They had social determinants and social influences and impacts but fundamentally, a health model was the right way to think about them.

 

09:03 Nick: Yep, and if you sort of come back to centre frame with EPPIC, Orygen and Headspace and your efforts there of your last 35 years in Victoria alone, why are targeted mental health services so critical for that discreet young period of life in those particular conditions, and I guess why is Orygen, Headspace and EPPIC had so much traction in the community?

 

09:25 Pat: Well, I think one of the first things I learned was I came down to Victoria with Professor Bruce Singh who gave me the role of setting up a research unit at Royal Park Hospital which was one of the old mental hospitals just down the road from here, where John Kade had been the superintendent who discovered lithium, so a kind of inspirational sort of history.

 

09:45 But it was the first time a research unit had been established there and we decided to focus on first episode psychosis. Eventually, we saw that the model of care which was a chronic pessimistic model; you know, someone once described it like the management of the British Empire, the orderly management of decline. You know, that's what the management of schizophrenia was like because no one expected people to get better. They thought it was a deteriorating illness and we saw these young people brought in with their first episode of psychosis into these environments and they were sort of contaminated with this incredible pessimism, and they were traumatised because they saw their futures laid out before them.

 

10:29 They were treated in crude and unhelpful ways with massive amounts of medication which they didn't need. They needed only very tiny amounts and they needed a whole lot of psychological and social kind of help and support which had to be expert and evidence based too, but it wasn't. So, and the families were distraught as well. Often the admissions were involving police, which sadly even today is the rule rather than the exception. So trauma was being inflicted on these young people.

 

11:00 So, the first thing to do was to try to, you know, reduce the harm, the iatrogenic aspects and then start to take the opportunity of, you know, the intervention approach and recovery orientated approach which we did for a number of years leading up to the establishment of the EPPIC program which was much more of a community based, early detection and intensive care approach in the community. It wasn't rocket science. It was - it's absolutely obvious when you saw what the needs of the patients were, if you listened to them and you could imagine what was needed.

 

11:38 It was really applying the principles that you would apply in cancer or heart disease to psychiatry. I actually got the idea for that from Newcastle, from working in a diabetic education and stabilisation centre run by Dr Paul Moffatt of Royal Newcastle Hospital, where newly diagnosed diabetics were brought in on an outpatient basis for an education program for a whole week, and their diabetes was stabilised and they were educated about how to manage the illness.

 

12:07 Nick: A one stop shop kind of thing...

 

12:08 Pat: Yeah, yeah, comping it with dieticians and, you know, other professionals. By the end of the week, their illness was in much better shape and they felt much more empowered to manage it. So, that was a very simple thing.

 

12:23 Now, same approach we tried with people with newly diagnosed psychosis. Much more challenging because their ability to sort of learn and understand was comprised by the illness itself because the brain is obviously involved and the mind. Never the less, the health psychology of it was very similar and most of what we regarded as abnormal behaviour or insight, in relation to insight, was actually just due to the massive challenge of adaptation to the diagnosis as much as the illness itself. So, working in those ways, we just tried to apply the principles that would be normal of other areas of healthcare.

 

13:05 Nick: Yep. So, to get a sense of the scope and severity of what you've called “the Australian health system's mental health breakdown”, there's a really helpful summary on the Australians for Mental Health website which you cofounded, and it strikes me as a really excellent distillation of the key issues in the Australian mental health ecosystem.

 

13:23 It says mental illness affects 4 million Australians. Every day, eight Australians take their own life. Australia's mental health services are fragmented, underfunded, hard to access and of poor quality. People who need help can't get the care they require. Can you expand upon this and perhaps give a more detailed accounting of the size of the problem and the inadequacy of the current model to meet the needs of the population?

 

13:47 Pat: Well, this is a worldwide problem. The Lancet produced a global mental health commission late last year and it showed the state of the problem around the world where even though mental illness is, you know, the number one non-communicable disease in terms of its impact upon the economy, the global economy, and GDP reduction of 4% across the board; much more than - twice as much as cancer, and the reason for that is because it affects people in the prime of life, unlike cancer.

 

14:24 Despite that and despite the prevalence of the problem, it's treated like a minor issue by the health system. So, in something like 14% or 15% of the burden of disease, if you count it carefully in Australia then it receives about 6% or 7% of the health budget.

 

14:44 Nick: In the UK, it's double that in terms of the health budget as well, isn't it?

 

14:47 Pat: Yeah, that's right, but even there it's still - then it's the model of care that's the problem too and the quality.

 

14:56 So, it's not being taken seriously. I mean, another figure that's on the website is the contrast with the NDIS. Here, we have 400,000 people with physical disabilities and the society and the government have decided to spend $22 billion a year on looking after those people in a better way which is good, but you contrast that with mental illness where 4 million Australians are every year affected, probably close to 2 million of those in a moderate or severe way and yet we're spending something like $9.6 billion a year on those people.

 

15:32 So, the mismatch and the underspend is catastrophic and it means that access is poor, the timing of access is poor, there are long delays and even if you get access, the quality is very patchy and inconsistent in a sustained way.

 

15:49 So, all that means that a lot more disability results and preventable deaths result, not just from suicide which you mentioned but also as we saw earlier this week when The Lancet commission on physical health in mental illness was published in terms of physicalness, where people are dying up to 20 years earlier as a result of cardiac disease and cancer in - people with mental illness are dying up to 20 years earlier than everybody else.

 

16:18 Nick: Extraordinary, isn't it?

 

16:18 Pat: It's an incredible, you know, denial of human rights and, you know, I suppose equity. The surprising thing, we have Alastair Campbell coming out to Australia next week to try to help us analyse in public forums and the media why that is the case; why are the Australian public, why are the societies all around the world tolerating this state of affairs? What are the reasons whereby our politicians - you might say how can they get away with it, but I would say how are they not empowered by the public to deal with it? That's probably a more charitable way of putting it because I think most politicians I've met - if there was a groundswell of public pressure and support for doing something more definitive like what happened with the NDIS, they would do it. It's not like...

 

17:09 Nick: A tipping point of public activism and pressure, I guess.

 

17:12 Pat: Exactly. The social movement is weak in mental health and has divided some of the consumers because of the bad experience they've had, don't support what we're trying to say and what we're trying to do. They undermine it actually.

 

17:25 Nick: Yet, there's an incredible potentiality there I suppose for such a social movement because mental ill health does affect everyone personally or in terms of the people that they know, it's one of the most proximate...

 

17:36 Pat: Everyone knows someone or they've had problems them self or there's someone in their family but - and the social movement, this is the whole idea behind Australian's for Mental Health; to create and sort of mobilise and engage the public to create that social movement too because that's the only thing that's missing. We have all the facts; we have all the evidence. We know that mental health interventions work just as well as physical interventions if they're delivered properly.

 

18:02 Politicians and the public know all this. We've got great awareness now and we've got great talent, you know, as well but the missing ingredient is the public's demand for equity.

 

18:15 Nick: Yeah, and I think even when you sort of pitch it in those economic terms, these people pay taxes ultimately, and if they're dying 20 years earlier than they might otherwise, had they received appropriate treatment and care, then that sort of pays for itself in terms of economic terms. That's a hard argument to make to the public or to politicians but...

 

18:32 Pat: Not really. We had a productivity commission enquiry now, as you know, which is looking at this. It was set up partly to look at efficiencies and the current spend which is fair enough, but they're also looking at the consequences of the underspend which is huge expenditure in other areas like, you know, welfare payments. Here in Victoria, we're building prisons at a rate of knots and those prisons are full of people with untreated mental illness. So, there's a whole lot of money that could be saved if we actually funded direct care in a better way.

 

19:05 Nick: So, what would that ideal future state mental health system look like if it was fully funded in the matter, we do services for other non-communicable diseases like cancer or heart disease? I suppose you've already alluded to it, but what would be the social, medical and economic impacts or dividends that we yield from such an investment?

 

19:21 Pat: Well, I think for a start, just on the humane argument, people would - there would be a lot less suffering and there would be a lot less disability and you’d see more flourishing lives rather than blighted and, you know, burdened lives.

 

19:38 But I think if we look at what went wrong here and this is what was part of my witness statement to the Royal Commission and the term ‘Victoria's mental health breakdown’ is relevant here; 25 years ago around Australia in the wake of the Burdekin enquiry, we dismantled the old mental health system of the 19th century and the promise was we would build, you know, a fit for purpose, integrated system, mainstream with general healthcare. So, the beds were reduced dramatically, a huge amount of money was saved by state governments and then the small number of beds left were put into general hospitals and they promised to build a proper community-based system, a platform of care that would enable us to work without so many beds.

 

20:30 Of course, that's been a failure really because, you know, and there's been disinvestment so now there are 3% of the community affected by serious mental illness. Only about 1% of those people actually get 1any access to care in Victoria, so two out of three people are turned away or get no care with the most serious forms of mental illness.

 

20:50 Federal government has actually improved their side of things for primary care by better access and also Headspace and things like that but there's a huge gap in the middle which we call the 'missing middle' which cannot actually get care. It's probably about 10% of the population.

 

21:05 So, imagine if 10% of the population with cancer or 10% who had cancer were unable to get care? That would be completely unacceptable, and it's probably about half of the people with mental illness are in that situation at the moment.

 

21:22 Nick: For example, they were too ill for GP treatment but they're not ill enough to be admitted to hospital or other sort of comprehensive care or...?

 

21:28 Pat: So, it's like sort of with cancer, waiting until people have got metastatic cancer before providing any type of care and then even then it's just patched up and sent away again.

 

21:38 Nick: That would be intolerable in society if that were the case, wouldn't it?

 

21:40 Pat: Yeah, it would be absolutely intolerable. So, that's why we've got a Royal Commission to look at how that happened. Really, the problem was we just dumped the old type of thinking and institutional thinking into the general hospitals and they'd sat there like a big iceberg sort of melting away over the last 15 years or so and we've been drawing attention to that. I certainly have and other colleagues have over the last 10 to 15 years. The governments have been completely deaf to it and even though we've been developing solutions, modern 21st century solutions like Orygen and Headspace alongside of that, they've disinvested in things that work actually in general.

 

22:23 So, there's a complete rebuild needed, redesigned with lived experience heavily involved as is happening now, but a complete redesign; not a patching up. Some of the submissions to the Royal Commission are suggesting all we need to do is just, you know, strengthen the existing, it’s fundamentally correct the design but it just needs to be, you know, reinvested in more heavily. It needs to be properly designed and it needs to have the right age bands, you know, so child up to 11, youth 12-25, adults 25+ and then an old age component, but with community based platforms and the inpatient care as a secondary sort of step, not the primary focus as it currently is.

 

23:11 Nick: Yeah, and one of the issues you've identified in other interviews I've read is that there's a sort of precipitous drop off from age 25. You can't access services that you had been accustomed to. There's no kind of sense of the continuum of mental health care.

 

23:25 Pat: That's right. Well, I think those boundaries have to be soft ones, don't they? Whether it's around puberty or around mid-twenties, you want to have a bit of flexibility because people are at different stages of their lives, but the problem is in the youth area we have built an infrastructure, Headspace, which is promising; it's still got a few weaknesses, but the biggest weakness is once you have a more complex problem, there's no more intensive or specialised piece behind it apart from, you know, hospitals and the hospitals are not structured the right way for young people either. So, the reform task is still at base camp. You know, we have built a base camp but we haven't climbed the mountain yet.

 

24:04 Nick: You can see Everest in the distance, that's wonderful. You are also on record as saying that you're incredibly optimistic. One, because the Victorian state government, the Andrews government has said that they'll accept the recommendations of the Royal Commission's report. There's also a golden opportunity for generational mental health reform of the kind you've alluded to before, with Prime Minister Scott Morrison announcing the government zero suicide goal. Health Minister Greg Hunt has lived experience of a family member with mental health illness and I think a lot of his personal witness to that is quite powerful.

 

24:37 Of course, we've got the Royal Commission into Victoria's mental health system. So, I guess what's your feeling in the community, now that the stars seem to be aligning and how realistic is some of the sort of generational change that's been spoken of?

 

24:51 Pat: Well, we do have this once in a generation opportunity to grasp it. The question for the Prime Minister and Greg Hunt and Josh Frydenberg on the federal level for Dan Andrews and Tim Pallas at the state level and probably other state governments too is do you understand the scale of the task in front of you?

 

25:15 It's not going to be a question of spreading modest amounts of money, millions of dollars or even hundreds of millions of dollars around the mental health sector to patch things up. It's a radical change that's needed. It's going to need state and federal governments working together and I'm encouraged by the fact that Greg Hunt has met with Martin Foley recently. I encourage that and I think reaching out to the New South Wales government. If those three governments were able to come up with a commitment to this from both sides of the river, you know, the state and federal, then I think we could really see some significant change but they have to listen to the small group of experts that really know what needs to be done. It's not a very big group in Australia. Lots of stakeholders are pushing their own vested interests but there's a consensus amongst the people who really understand the nature of what's needed in the system and that obviously includes, you know, key leadership from lived experience from families.

 

26:20 The families and the people who have experienced mental illness really know what they need. They know that we have the ability to provide that too if the cultures of care are right which involve lived experience, having power and influence in those structures, but we've got to have respect for scientific evidence as well and for the leadership of professional groups that can contribute in a multidisciplinary sort of way.

 

26:44 So, it does need a decisive process such as we saw in the nineties with the reforms of the nineties. That wasn't done by consensus, that was done by really having a plan - a clear plan.

 

27:01 I think where the consensus needs to sit is with the public. The public consensus needs to be built and this is why these commissions are so important because the only way you're going to build a public consensus that's going to overwhelm vested interest and inertia and history is with the public being, you know, convinced that there is a plan that's going to work.

 

27:23 Nick: Yep, which is why I think a lot of the reporting that the ABC and Fairfax have done on this Royal Commission is so powerful and potent because of all the striking personal testimonies that have emerged and have been covered really well.

 

27:36 They've also kind of - you know, which is I think crucial in terms of building up that public demand or consensus for a significant investment of public monies into this fundamental system redesign you've spoken about. It is quite disheartening or difficult to listen to I guess the disproportionate ways in which vulnerable minority groups in particular such as Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians, recent migrants, the LGBTQI community and other communities of colour have been affected by the failures and flaws of the mental health system, and of course that has debilitating, compounding negative effects on their lives, especially when it's the young because it tends to ripple throughout their lives.

 

28:19 Pat: Absolutely.

 

28:20 Nick: Could you maybe reflect on the nature of these challenges that mental ill health presents generally, particularly on these vulnerable communities?

 

28:29 Pat: Yeah, well, I suppose as LGBTIQ we've made a special effort within these mental health field, you know, Orygen and Headspace, to actually create a safe space for them, and that's been represented in the data. You know, so people are voting with their feet there that they do come and they will seek help in these safe spaces, Headspace centres for example.

 

28:51 A lot more work needs to be happening in the multicultural communities to make that a reality, you know? I was in Bankstown recently for Headspace when I saw some incredibly good clinical work being done with young women from Islamic backgrounds, helping them deal with the cultural adaptation. You know, they were in suicidal crisis because of this, you know, two world problem that they're in, you know, and the adaptation to that.

 

29:17 So, a lot more could be done there. Indigenous of course as well. Mental health in the indigenous communities has not been taken seriously and not been integrated properly or dealt with properly.

 

29:30 So, lots of challenges but I'll just make the point that even affluent people, even middle class and affluent people, when it comes to mental illness, they cannot get the quality of mental care that they need either. You know, you see these people trying to construct their own health teams. You know, they have means so they can probably do it but it's fragmented and the degree of difficulty is high. The professional groups are not organised in such a way as to meet the needs of the consumers properly. The consumers don't really - they're not really in control of the situation.

 

30:04 Nick: But isn't that extraordinary because even with all the resources and privileges that wealth I suppose would afford you, it's still incoherent and difficult to actually find treatment. I find it remarkable.

 

30:15 Pat: Absolutely. I can't tell you how many people contact me, you know, over the years to try to get help with that and it ranges from people, you know, from disadvantaged backgrounds in our catchment area here, but people from highly affluent backgrounds and who are struggling to find, you know, quality care.

 

30:34 You know, that's what the challenge is, developing financial models and incentives so that we can build a system that's fit for purpose. The expertise is there in pieces, you know, but it hasn't been put together, except in places like Headspace and Orygen and even then, it's still a struggle because we haven't got all of the pieces but that's the challenge. A financial model that's appropriate, a little bit like the NDIS was a financial model, although I wouldn't necessarily go with that one but a financial model that will enable multidisciplinary team care in a seamless sort of way for as long as people need it.

 

31:13 Yeah, so it's all doable. That's where the optimism comes from. You know, I'm very confident that we know what to do. Whether we'll get the support to do it, whether - will we get the consensus? Will we get the follow through from Daniel Andrews and Scott Morrison? I know both of them personally. I believe that they're sincere and the recommendations of the commission here will be very important, but the best and surest policy to strengthen their arm is mobilising the public. So, these political leaders who want to do the right thing realise that the public will expect that of them now and if they don't do it, then there will be consequences too.

 

31:57 Nick: Yeah. So, I think before I mentioned that the power of personal testimony and storytelling and narrative about these extraordinary experiences with the mental health system and mental ill health in general which I think are lost in the kind of blizzard of statistics which are often inevitably anonymous, right?

 

32:19 I think one of the most powerful memoirs I've read about mental ill health is William Styron’s Darkness Visible which I think is one of the most accurate, moving and compelling testimonies I've read about lived experience of mental ill health challenges and the fact that what seems like an overwhelming affliction is actually surmountable. So, Darkness Visible concludes on a hopeful note that I think it might be a nice way to wrap up our conversation today.

 

32:41 It reads as follows. “One need not sound the false or inspirational note to stress the truth that depression is not the soul's annihilation. Men and women who have recovered from the disease and they are countless bear witness to what is probably it's only saving grace, it is conquerable.”

 

32:55 The final quote of the memoir is a line from Dante's The Divine Comedy where he finds his way out of the darkness of hell and the dark wood, and it concludes: “And so we came forth and once again beheld the stars.”

 

33:09 So, how do you interpret that kind of sentiment in the context of your work with young people who feel that overwhelming sense of hopelessness and helplessness, and that their mental health condition would never get better? What would be your final message I suppose?

 

33:21 Pat: It's great that you've brought that up, Nick, because that was the thing which struck me. It was more in the realm of schizophrenia and psychosis that I struck that. I suppose corrosive pessimism is the term I used for it which the system was imparting to the patients actually. It wasn't just the person felt that, but they were told that was going to be the situation.

 

33:45 I mean, a cancer physician would never tell a patient no matter what stage of cancer they were at that there was no hope but that's what psychiatrists were saying to patients who were diagnosed with schizophrenia back in the 1980's. You still hear that occasionally today.

 

34:00 Depression obviously hopelessness goes with the condition, so it's incredibly important to impart hope to people with depression and also psychosis and every mental health condition. It's not deceiving the patient either. It's not pathological honesty we're talking about here because most people do get better and especially now - William Styron was writing in the era before there were any scientific treatments and even then, depression tended to resolve in most cases if the person didn't die from suicide.

 

34:30 So, these days we can get the vast majority of patients better with the treatments we have, plus their own resilience and their own, you know, ability to learn to adapt, a combination of those two things. So, I've got tremendous respect for people with mental illness, the resilience they show and the courage they show and you hear that from the Royal Commission every day, and I think in their testimonies.

 

34:55 So, that's what I - I do feel very optimistic and it's also why I hate the term resilience to be honest because, you know, people often say, you know, if we teach people to be resilient, they won't get mental illness. That's really victim blaming because mental illness happens to people not because they're not resilient, because of a whole range of other factors.

 

35:17 I think most people who are afflicted by mental illness and the suffering that goes with it are highly resilient. I've seen that in my own family. I've seen it every day in my patients and I think we do have something to offer and research is obviously a pathway to looking at cure even. You know, people don't like to talk about cure in mental illness for some reason but I've seen many people cured and I think it's something that we should aspire to in every patient really, if we can. If we can't, we help them to recover and lead the best possible life they can and even if they still have symptoms, that's very, very possible.

 

35:55 Nick: Yep. Pat McGorry, thank you very much for your time today.

 

35:57 Pat: Yeah, thanks Nick.

Rowan Callick on the Hong Kong protests and freedom, democracy and authoritarianism in China

Listen on PodBean here: https://bloom.podbean.com/e/rowan-callick-on-the-hong-kong-protests-and-freedom-democracy-and-authoritarianism-in-china/

Listen on iTunes here: https://podcasts.apple.com/au/podcast/rowan-callick-on-hong-kong-protests-freedom-democracy/id1381295642?i=1000444706189

Transcript below ^_^

Rowan Callick is a highly regarded Australian and British author and journalist with The Australian newspaper. He’s one of the pre-eminent journalists and writers specialising in Asia-Pacific affairs, having lived and worked in the region for decades, including 4 years as China correspondent in Hong Kong. Rowan has won two Walkley Awards for his coverage of China and the Asia-Pacific, and has published three books on contemporary China, including Party Time, The Party Forever, and Comrades & Capitalists: Hong Kong Since the Handover.

In this interview, Rowan reminisces on the 1997 handover of Hong Kong from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, and examines the historical roots behind the 2019 protests which saw millions of Hong Kongers demonstrate against a proposed extradition bill, which would have enabled extradition to mainland China. We reflect on the history of democracy in China, social media and the digital surveillance state, and the growing authoritarianism of Xi Jinping towards separatist movements on the peripheries of mainland China.

Melbourne, 15 July, 2019

Melbourne, 15 July, 2019

Rowan Callick on the Hong Kong protests and freedom, democracy and authoritarianism in China
Monday 15 July 2019, Melbourne
 

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Bloom, a podcast about anything and everything, which features conversations with people who have led meaningful, interesting, and flourishing lives, in order to better understand the world around us. I'm lucky to be joined today by Rowan Callick, a highly regarded and acclaimed Australian and British author and columnist with the Australian newspaper. He is one of the pre-eminent journalists and writers specialising in Asia-Pacific affairs, having lived and worked in the region for decades, including four years as a China correspondent in Hong Kong.

 

00:28 Rowan has won two Walkley awards for his coverage of China and the Asia-Pacific, and has published three books on contemporary China, including Party Time, The Party Forever and Comrades and Capitalists, Hong Kong since the Handover. Rowan, thank you for your time today.

 

00:42 Rowan: Thank you. It's great to be here.

 

00:43 Nick: So, today we are going to be reflecting on the extraordinary and still unfolding situation in Hong Kong, which has been ruled by mass protests and demonstrations against a proposed extradition build with China, proposed by the Beijing appointed Hong Kong executive.

 

00:56 The fugitive offenders and mutually legal assistants in criminal legislation bill would subject Hong Kongers and those passing through the city to the jurisdiction of courts within the legal system of mainland China which are controlled by the communist party.

 

01:09 Now, this has understandably rankled with the people of Hong Kong for a variety of reasons, which we'll uncover through the interview, but before we get there, as previously mentioned, you lived and worked in Hong Kong as a China correspondent for the Australian Financial Review at the time of the 1997 handover. Can you take us back to the colour, movement and feeling on the ground during that historical moment, including the hopes of average Hong Kongers for their city, as it was handed over from Britain to the People's Republic of China, and perhaps what it's been like for you to see millions marching against what's been called encroaching authoritarianism from Beijing 22 years later?

 

01:43 Rowan: It was pouring with rain. What everyone who was there remembers most about that night, just a terrible downpour, and so you saw the British troops playing bagpipes in the rain and Prince Charles, Chris Patton, the last governor, and the Chinese representatives, Jiang Zemin and the party secretary of course and so on.

 

02:20 It was a really tumultuous time. I went to hear Martin Lee, the leader of the Democratic party speaking on the - from the balcony of the legislature, and I wrote a book soon after as you say, in which I posseted three possible futures. One is kind of carrying on as they were; one is becoming just another Chinese provincial city as Li Quan Yu said it was fated to do; and the other was kind of becoming a model for a Democratic rule of law China model for its sovereign.

 

03:15 I kind of plumped in my book for the middle way that it would kind of carry on as before, and that happened and mostly - mostly - but because the National Peoples’ Congress in China retains, which is the kind of ultimate legislature controlling all of People's Republic, they contain the final say for legal appeals. What this has meant is that any big constitutional issue has come to them and they've interpreted it in line with the Chinese constitution which is basically a one-clause constitution. It's actually quite an exemplary constitution, outlining lots of human rights and very much in line with liberal democratic constitutions, but the first clause says that in effect China is ruled by the communist party, so then the rest falls away. So, the interpretation is there by the NPC and those interpretations have started to raise questions about whether China will actually ultimately allow Hong Kong to continue with its own system, this one country/two systems formula that Deng Xiaoping negotiated with Margaret Thatcher how long this will continue.

 

05:04 The accession of Xi Jinping rapidly changed things because he has no patience really with the time of Deng Xiaoping. Deng Xiaoping talked about in foreign policy hide and bide; hide your real strengths, bide your time; and Xi Jinping has had enshrined into the national and party constitutions his thought on socialism with Chinese characteristics for a new era, and it's the new era now and this is an era in which he has no patience for one country/two systems; only for one country/one system. He is purifying, purging China, centralising, personalising power. So, things are changing rapidly and that's what we're seeing.

 

06:00 So, that's kind of the - a bit of a surprise result in the last few years. No one predicted Xi Jinjing. So, before Hong Kong was really - and I would give credit to Beijing, they'd pretty well left them to it mostly until the last few years but under Xi now all bets are off.

 

06:30 Nick: Yep. So, could you maybe step our listeners through the timeline of events in 2019 in terms of the most recent protests and some of the key figures at play on the ground now? I mean, what has the situation looked like in the last 2 months and why has it drawn such international attention?

 

06:45 Rowan: Oh, it's drawn international attention because of over a million people in the streets. Where did we last see this? I'm trying to think in Venezuela, has there ever been? I don't know. I haven't been to Venezuela but I think maybe despite the terrible events there, we hadn't really seen a million people in the streets. So, I think it's the number, about 7 million people live in Hong Kong including all age groups, so to see a million adults in the streets is - and these are streets many people around the world know because Hong Kong is much visited and people are aware of it.

 

07:31 Hong Kong was - just a little backstory. Hong Kong has been derided, both by the British and by the mandarinate, if I can put it like that, of China. People whose language and culture are that of Northern China really has been money grubbing, that basically as long as people in Hong Kong are allowed to make money, they're happy.

 

08:05 Nick: They're not interested in civil and political rights.

 

08:08 Rowan: They're not interested in the rest; they couldn't care less. The arts, culture, freedoms; you know, they are not bothered, as long as they're able to make loads of money, eats lots of their delicious food, buy property, they're happy. This was in my view the biggest calumny against those people, so this is what we've seen, and then what happened? It's kind of the frog in the...

 

08:39 Nick: ... boiling pot of water.

 

08:40 Rowan: ... water; it's just boil and boil. What happened was a group of students started demonstrating what became known as the umbrella movement five years ago, and lots of young people on the streets. This caused a lot of rethinking, ‘oh maybe people in Hong Kong do care about these things’, but it was always obvious because for example the anniversary of the sending of troops to quash the demonstrations in and around Tiananmen on June the 4th, 1989, aroused huge concerns in Hong Kong; not primarily because of this is going to happen here, but out of a genuine feeling of empathy with those who had suffered. Every year, masses of people had been turning out to Victoria Gardens to commemorate that event, hundreds of thousands. I've been amongst them myself several time, so that's a clue.

 

10:03 Then, we had the umbrella movement; lots of young students, and we saw then the rather split democratic movement in Hong Kong - several parties, different names, different ideas of how to get there - had not succeeded, although the legislature is loaded against them but even in reaching the capacity that they could because they were so divided.

 

10:40 We saw then a new entry of young Hong Kongers into not only street politics but after that into legislature politics, and now we're seeing the next wave which is a fairly united, well organised demonstration against what they see as a really troubling move to be able to send to China for trial in courts there, people who have committed or alleged to have committed offences by China. They've seen in the last 2- or 3-years people kidnapped out of China.

 

11:29 Nick: The famed booksellers for instance.

 

11:30 Rowan: Booksellers, raging to Xiao [Jianhua] the founder and prime mover of a company which has made a lot of big families in the party rich and probably is perceived to have known too much, he was kidnapped from the Four Seasons apartment building and has not been heard from since; taken into China.

 

12:02 Nick: This represents the removal of that, it's called The Great Fire Wall that they had; the buffer between Hong Kong's jurisdiction, legal and criminal system and that of China's.

 

12:15 Rowan: So, don't worry; so, the thinking is oh well, these people have been abducted. In the future, no need for the abductions; look, just go through the courts.

 

12:22 Nick: A trumped up charge of historical...

 

12:23 Rowan: Australia itself has had extradition laws awaiting ratification by our parliament but the parliament has declined to ratify them so the government hasn't finally placed them before the parliament yet, and may not now do so, I think.

 

12:47 Nick: Yep. Yep, and of course, I mean, many Australians without the extradition treaty will remember the treatment of Chinese Australian business figures like Stern Hu were sort of over in China and then spent a number of years in jail as well with little transparency in regard to the charges against him.

 

13:10 Rowan: Yes, Matthew Ng is a particularly terrible case because he was charged with something which is not only not an offence in Australia but is viewed as an admirable business policy and he was charged. That was bribery, which he took over a company and then the chairman of it was invited to join the merged board and that was assumed or claimed to be bribery and he was jailed for a period of 11.5 years, and his 14-year-old daughter effectively committed suicide.

 

13:54 Nick: Extraordinary.

 

13:55 Rowan: She was so upset at what was happening to her beloved father. Matthew thankfully is back here in Australia now.

 

14:05 Nick: Yep. So, in many ways I think this, what's happening in Hong Kong, is the most significant geopolitical event in the world at the moment and it's an extremely complicated and high stakes chessboard which throws into high relief many civilizational, political and economic contests. It's symbolic of a new democratic power at work in the 21st century, through the digital revolution and social media as you referenced. Contrasted with the emergence of the digital surveillance state in China and which also foreshadows China's growing authoritarianism and intolerance towards separatist movements on its peripheries, notably in Xinjiang, Tibet, Taiwan and now Hong Kong. So, can you reflect on some of these broader points, the broader significance of what's happening in Hong Kong now with regard to China?

 

14:50 Rowan: Yeah. So, really it asks the question of what is China. It's a really difficult question. China; the English word comes from chin, the kingdom which was the kingdom of Qin Shi Huang, the first emperor whose tomb is guarded by the famous Terracotta Warriors, some of which can be viewed here in Melbourne right now at the National Gallery, a very marvellous exhibition.

 

15:23 China has been really a child of imperial dynasties until 1911 when the final imperial dynasty was overthrown, and people were known as fundamentally the name of the dynasty. So, I'm a Chin-ren, I'm a person of the Chin; I'm a Ming-ren, I'm a person of the Ming.

 

15:52 Then, in the late 19th century, Chinese intellectuals felt it was time to modernise China, so they came up with a name for China, Zhong Guo, kind of central country/central kingdom; and also who are we who are living here, who are most of the people we see around?

 

16:16 So, the kind of - so, they used a name from the past, Han, and they applied that to most of the people living in China. Then, the rest - so, then this became caught up in party ideology, communist ideology, and so 1949, the communist party won the civil war against the nationalists and took over, and so this was all instituted now that the Han who were about 94% of the population and the other 6% - 54 or 55, I forget so called minorities; they're called minorities, ethnic groups - and you can see an idea, but you could see the way in which China is kind of a Han nationalist state, in line with that thinking that emerged in the late 19th century.

 

17:20 When you go to the annual fortnightly sessions of the National Peoples’ Congress; when you come out of the great hall of the people, they're spilling over into the square. The square is locked off from other people. The busses are there to take the delegates back to special delegate hotels, but meanwhile they're roaming around and the 6% are wearing special costumes to show that they are colourful minorities, agreeing to participate in this.  The Han are wearing western style business attire. So, this gives a pretty good clue to thinking.

 

18:15 What we're seeing now is that these boundaries around the borderlands of China are being cemented. Xi Jinping is someone who has his eye on history. As I said, he has personalised and centralised power. He has purified and purged the party and now he's making sure that the country already at the late Qing pretty well at the physical outside extremes of its borders, not going to let any go. Mongolia though was kind of let go by a deal between what we call Mongolia, Outer Mongolia, between Mao and Stalin. So, China doesn't claim that; it does claim Taiwan which has actually not been ruled very significantly at all by any mainland Chinese dynastic control. You could say it was ruled to an extent by the Qing but the Qing was a foreign dynasty, Manchus who invaded China.

 

19:36  Anyway, there's Taiwan there which is a kind of crusade now in the mind of Xi Jinping to reassume or to assume according to your thinking, assume Taiwan into the whole Hong Kong, Macao, Portuguese for hundreds of years and the first European settlement really in the whole of east Asia, Macao, Hong Kong and then Tibet, Xin Jiang in the north west where a million people or so have been plunged into re-education camps. These places are being firmly not only put under control, the aim is more Han people to live in those places; the aim is to Sinicize the religions of those places, so the five big religions of China are now required to be Sinicize and so the references are all internal rather than universal or external. So, Tibet and Buddhists must think China, and Xin Jiang, Muslims must think China and...

 

21:02 Nick: Catholic Bishops must be approved by the state...

 

20:03 Rowan: ... and so on, yes. So, this is a really bold move if you like by Xi in the time, you mention, of global internet; he's created cyber sovereignty using the internet as a tool of control rather than of freedom, but of course there are people in China who use virtual private networks and find out all sorts of stuff, people are travelling all the time; people in China, many hugely intelligent, independent minded people.

 

21:43 So, this is a big roll of the dice by Xi to cement the power of the party before he sees it comes under ever greater siege, but what is it for is a difficult question. You know, he would say it's for China or for its own sake, so he sees the party as representing all that is best in China - past, present, future - and he personally embodies the party.

 

22:25 So, this is - he talks about his red jeans, his red heart because he was born son of a former vice president and vice premier and long marcher, so it's a bit of an existential battle in the - it's been played out quite substantial in the borderlands.

 

22:47 Nick: Yep. So, there's an adage which says that journalism is the first draft of history and I think a lot of the commentary we've said is focused on the particulars of the recent protests, but you did mention the historical roots which are feeding into the anti, well Han or anti Beijing sentiment in Hong Kong, are a result in Hong Kong at least of 156 years of colonial rule by the British which has sort of imparted notions of universal suffrage, civil political rights, democracy and so on. So, I mean, contrary to what the party would admit, over the past century and a half, there has been a long and significant history of democratic movements within China and Hong Kong which have been marked by powerful, symbolic demonstrations such as those we've just seen and talked about, and these recent protests are happening at a particular auspicious time which I hope you can give some life to in the ensuing discussions, but it's 100 years since the May 4th movement in 1919; 30 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre on 4th June 1989; and as you've already mentioned, five years since the Umbrella movement. So, I was wondering if you could reflect on the ongoing yearning and striving for democracy in China, including Hong Kong, with reference to those key events, and I guess how it abuts or jars against the Chinee or the CCP's conception of China, you know, where it says that democracy and that sort of stuff doesn't work for the Chinese people?

 

24:27 Rowan: Chinese people have had elections in themselves. Quite soon after the last Qing emperor abdicated, there was an election. There were elections right through until the late 40's actually with increasing participation.

 

24:43 You'd have to say variable effectiveness but elections with considerable participation happened in China and of course, we've seen in Taiwan since the late 80's people who call themselves Taiwanese. They don't really call themselves Chinese but most people there call themselves Taiwanese but you can describe them as having Chinese ethnicity. Those people have shown huge appetite for elections and for liberal democracy generally.

 

25:28 We saw in the 38 years between the end of the Qing and the decisive victory and the civil war, we saw all sorts of shoots emerging in China; of modernisation, of education for women, of a strong interest in human rights and so on. So, people have said oh, China didn't have a role in the drawing up of the international framework under which we now operate; it's not really true because actually China had quite a big role and Chinese lawyers were very involved in the framing of the UN human rights documents and so on.

 

26:33 Nick: Really? Wow.

 

26:34 Rowan: So, it's just that they weren't Chinese Communist Party. It wasn't People's Republic which succeeded, and many of those people would have been students who were on the streets of Beijing in the May 4th movement who were informed by some of the thinking that was raging through Europe at the time and that tore Europe asunder to some extent in the early 20th century. That thinking was everywhere, including in China.

 

27:25 We saw the 1980's the most liberal and open decade of the seven decades. October the 1st is the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic. The 1980's were the most open decade. It was the decade following - by no coincidence, following the death of Mao in '76. This is the time when people thought we can carve out an alternative future. There was a lot of discussion about this.

 

27:59 One of the leaders in that kind of thinking was Liu Xiaobo, very striking, and in some ways an aesthetic type of person, in some not, but a very striking thinker and someone around whom lots of people coalesced.

 

28:30 We saw him keep pursuing these thoughts. He was jailed after 1989 and then jailed again when he came up with Charter 08 which was signed very rapidly online by huge numbers of people, with the sort of framework for what I think could be described as a social democrat type China in which party and state were separated. The separation of party and state was starting to be considered when Zhao Ziyang was party secretary and then he fell in 1989 because he was perceived to have done too little to quash the protest movements then, and he died still in-house arrest.

 

29:30 So, that thinking of separating party and state re-emerged in Charter 08 and its drafting led to Liu Xiaobo being jailed for attacking state security, one such strange charge, and then he of course died two years ago around the time, of liver cancer still incarcerated. It's the most shocking chain of events. Many people in China admired him and will continue to do so.

 

30:15 Nick: Yeah, and a lot of commentary has kind of centred around this question of one country/two systems, and how it's really been dead for sort of five years now and even longer arguably. Could you kind of outline quickly what one party/two systems was meant to look like and maybe speak about the 2047 transition date and I guess the significance of Xi in all of that, in personalising power and ruling into perpetuity?

 

30:45 Rowan: So, it's about the law mainly because this is the - China has no separation of powers. There's only one source of power and the courts, the army for example is the party's army; it's not even the state's army, it's the party's army. The courts are run by political and legal committees all over China; committees of the party decide policy and ultimately decide convictions or sentencing for controversial matters; not every, but controversial ones.

 

31:25 So, the one - this is the one system but as you said in your introduction, Hong Kong has had since 1840/1841 when the Opium Wars took place between Britain and China and China was required to cede Victorian Island, and then in 1897 ceded what became called Kowloon and New Territories which is on the mainland of China. Victoria is Hong Kong's main island off it, everyone knows, and any other islands which comprise Hong Kong.

 

32:16 So, since Britain attained actual sovereignty over Victoria Island and treaty control of the rest, British legal system has been holding sway there. So, people have got used to being able to appeal to courts, even against ill-treatment by the authorities. They've become used also to a pretty lively independent free media. This is the regime which introduced at a time under British control when corruption was a by-word in Hong Kong involving local property developers, involving British public servants; the whole place was awash with corruption. The independent commission against corruption was introduced there and that's been a model followed in the rest of many places in the world, including here in Australia.

 

33:34 That soon cast fear into people and it's been very successful, and it has been independent. That word is completely unacceptable in the PRC. So, in a PRC controlled Hong Kong, you would have a commission against corruption but not an independent commission, and so the reliance can place in it is different. People in Hong Kong have come to rely on the law, on the courts, to look after their interests. They haven't always been well looked after by the administrators both the British, the succeeding administrators, but they've had the law, they've had access to independent information through media and of course it's a free port as well. So, these range of freedoms are part of what life in Hong Kong is and the identity of people there.

 

34:47 Nick: So, I mean, you flagged there's that looming culmination of the 50 year transition from the handover in '97 until 2047, so we're looking forward now, in which the one country/two systems model will be replace by simply the One China model which is Hong Kong is just another provincial city within China. Given as you mentioned the sort of growing security of identity and prominence of identity in provincial regions like Hong Kong and Taiwan, particularly amongst the youth, how do those two timelines cohere because you've got on the one hand two growing demographics and populations in those peripheral Chinese provinces who have a stronger sense of themselves as Hong Kongers or Taiwanese rather than ethnic Han or mainland Chinese, and yet in 2047 you've got this sort of ticking clock of another 28 years and Hong Kong will be melded into Greater China. So, what does the future hold over the next 28 years, given we're seeing so much protest and angst now?

 

35:44 Rowan: Yeah, the question is what will China look like in 28 years. I don't know. Xi Jinping has through - he's got three big roles in order of power, the most powerful party secretary and then head of the military commission and the third is president which enables him to travel internationally given the appropriate protocol and so on, but through abolishing term limits for the presidency, he's now able to stay in power for in effect, it means for however long he wants. It's going to be risky for him given the number of people who have been purged and jailed on corruption charges to - his life will be a risky one, I think, post retirement if that may happen.

 

36:45 So, we can see if he may want to stay in office for a considerable time. He is now aged 66, I think. At the same time - so, Xi represents one pole and you can see his popularity in China. China continuing to have considerable economic success, international success, and you can see nations around the world flocking to the Chinese political leaders, liking the Chinese model of cyber control, of nationalism, of strength at the centre; the belt and road initiative is effectively a tool of weaponizing China's economic rise and heft.

 

37:53 Naturally, it's attracting people and we're seeing autocrats around the world coming together, admiring Xi as probably the model. So, Xi talks about Putin as 'my most intimate friend', this Erdogan in Turkey and so on.

 

38:20 Is the future theirs? This is a really existential question for the world. You know, is the future one of people having a greater say in closer to where they live? Is it a future of living under the umbrella of an all-consuming state that will look after people as it were as long as you're willing to cede an amount of autonomy to the state?

 

38:58 I think this is an open-ended question but it's not - many people think right now that's the way the tide is going. I'm not convinced that this is going to necessarily be the future for ever and ever. We've seen the tide come in and the tide come out, even in China itself. While probably the subject that is least debatable in China, even with those many highly individualistic, freethinking people don't want to hear the word 'federal', China is the only substantial country in the world in size terms which is not a federation but who knows? Maybe at some stage, China will have to/may consider some kind of federalisation, but at the moment the tide is certainly going against it in the other direction, but we're also seeing those countries in east Asia that are bordering China of 14; not all intimate friends, you know?

 

40:25 So, a Chinese academic friend of mine, Jiu Feng, talks about China as a lonely rising power. So, while there are those autocratic friends like Erdogan, Putin and so on, it's still hard for China to locate many in our region that are going gang busters in the same direction. So, we'll see what happens.

 

40:55 We can all co-exist and we need to because we're all much more engaged than ever we were in terms of people’s movements, in terms of movements of capital, of the supply chains and so on. We need to learn how to coexist, even though our systems are different, but it's a great question: which system will ultimately prevail? Maybe none will prevail. Maybe we'll just continue to co-exist; but within China, will those borderlands start to be able to breathe a little more in their own right? It's hard to say, but I think the history - one thing history shows us is it's very hard to expunge the motivations of historical loyalties, of religions loyalties. So, to those Buddhists who are living in Tibet are unlikely I think to be Sinicized for example, so we'll see how it plays out.

 

42:10 These are important questions and in Australia, we tend to look at it purely through the prism of will we get a coal shipment to land it in Da Lian or something. This is a very - it's interesting, but this is a long way from the centre.

 

42:28 Nick: Yeah. Just the final question is at crisis points like the one in Hong Kong at the moment, what should Western democracies including Australia be doing to express solidarity with those who feel that they are being repressed in Hong Kong, but also at I suppose a governmental level to dissuade China from going down a path of something which could catastrophically end up like another Tiananmen for instance.

 

42:53 Rowan: The Chinese Communist Party spent a lot of money on seeking to control the debate overseas as well as locally because there are echoes. There's no doubt that the tone of the debate internationally is felt in China. We've seen strident criticisms - this week actually - of remarks made by and complaints made by foreign countries about treatment of its own citizens, not that the word citizen is very much used in China.

 

44:46 The alternative is to say nothing and to in fact seek advantage by saying nothing, but there's not a lot of evidence that saying nothing achieves much. China believes that even speaking about what's happening in China is unacceptable. If you speak in a critical way of course; if you speak in a complementary way, of course that's something different, but if you speak critically, this is interference in domestic affairs. Hong Kong is part of Chinese sovereign territory, so people talking critically about what's happening in Hong Kong is viewed by the state as unacceptable.

 

44:47 It's unlikely that by saying things western countries are going to achieve change; but by saying nothing, by standing by, then the West is constantly seeding ground, including back in our own countries. So, if we are not prepared to say anything against behaviour we'd regard as egregious anywhere - I'm not just talking about in China, but in other places, it's a personal view - then I feel that we are conceding the right even to speak and to act domestically and to an extent, betraying our own; betraying those international values that we've made our own.

 

46:00 Are there international values? I believe that there are and this is part of the battleground, is that the view that's being pushed by Xi particularly is that of a shared destiny for humankind and by shared, the view is each state and each government particularly has carriage of its own set of rights or values.

 

46:40 The question of universal values is a very important one. If that is abandoned and some of the judgements I've seen by the UN's Human Rights Council seems to indicate that there's a big battleground there as well, then we're in some considerable trouble and we have to rethink lots of things, even in our own country, if we can't find the courage to speak internationally.

 

47:40 Nick: Rowan Callick, thank you very much for your time.

 

47:42 Rowan: Okay. Great to be with you, thanks.

 

 

Paul Monk: On Western Civilization

 

Paul Monk: On Western Civilization

Listen at PodBean here: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-guss5-8ff9e5

Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.

Here, Paul and I discuss Western Civilization through topics as wide-ranging as erotic poetry, stoicism and the ancient world, and the turmoils of the 20th century. From Pericles via Shakespeare to the 21st century, Paul surveys the roots of Western Civilization and defines it geographically and temporally, before reflecting on its most cherished cultural, scientific and political contributions to humanity, and  concludes by painting a picture of what the future of Western Civilization may look like in a turbulent world beset by ecological crises.

This interview is but one example of the endlessly rich and varied conversations that Paul has kindly shared with me over the years. I am delighted to be able to count him as a friend.

 

Dr Paul Monk, 22/04/2018

Dr Paul Monk, 22/04/2018

 

paul monk: the secret gospel according to mark

Full interview transcript below 

Paul Monk: The Secret Gospel According to Mark – The extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist

Listen at PodBean here: https://www.podbean.com/media/share/pb-yb2a9-8d0e6a

Dr Paul Monk is a poet, polymath and highly regarded Australian public intellectual. He has written an extraordinary range of books, from Sonnets to a Promiscuous Beauty (which resides in Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s library), to reflective essays on the riches of Western civilization in The West in a Nutshell, to a prescient 2005 treatise on the rise of China in Thunder from the Silent Zone: Rethinking China.

Most recently, Paul has written a biography on the life of Brother Mark O’Loughlin: science teacher, mentor to youth, pastoral counsellor to the mentally ill, marine scientist of global stature and founder of ecumenical Christian base communities. The Secret Gospel According to Mark – the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist is the subject of this inaugural podcast, and is Monk’s tribute to his lifelong friend and mentor, whose story certainly deserves wider understanding and appreciation. A comprehensive, loving, and fastidiously researched biography, Monk traces the humble but profound and influential life of a man who sought to live up to the example of Christ, and who was and is sustained by boundless love for humankind. Monk sets down the story of this one precious life with a remarkable consideration of major societal movements across theology, the Church, politics, science and academia, all of which formed the backdrop to Mark’s life and shaped him in turn.

This interview is but one example of the endlessly rich and varied conversations that Paul has kindly shared with me over the years. I am forever grateful for his friendship and support.

You can purchase The Secret Gospel According to Mark here.

Transcript Below ^_^

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Paul Monk – Secret Gospel according to Mark

 

00:00 Nick: Welcome to Eudaimonia, a podcast about people. My name is Nick and by hosting these conversations, I hope to engage with women and men who have led interesting and good lives and broadcast their stories to a wider audience for inspiration and interest.
The show takes its name from the Greek word meaning human flourishing and it is this theme which rests at the heart of the podcast.

 

00:20 My guest today is Dr Paul Monk, poet and polymath who has been a long-time friend and mentor of mine, who has just written his latest book which is called The Secret Gospel according to Mark: the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist. Welcome, Paul, to the podcast Eudaimonia. It's great to have you here and I was hoping you might be able to open up and firstly tell us a bit about yourself and also about the book which you've just written.

 

00:45 Paul: Thanks, Nick. It's good to be on Eudaimonia. This is the technology of our time and I think it's giving us a very flexible means through which to reach a wider audience. Briefly about myself, I set out many years ago after leaving school to get myself what you might call a liberal arts education. I wanted to understand western civilisation rather than just go into a profession. Meaning, truth and value were high on my agenda.

 

01:14 I did an arts degree in European history. I then did a doctorate at the Australian National University in international relations which was about US counter insurgency strategies throughout the Cold War. At that point, I thought I really better a job and I worked in the intelligence services for a number of years after that and they assigned me to work on east Asia.

 

01:31 After six years in the bureaucracy, I lost interest in being a bureaucrat, intelligence work or otherwise. Since then, over more than 20 years, I've worked as a consultant, I've taught in universities and I've written a string of books.

 

01:45 This latest book however takes me all the way back to before I launched into that liberal arts degree and in many ways, it tells the story of the person whose influence on me prompted me to want to do that. That man was a fellow called Mark O’Lachlan who taught me briefly for one semester in year twelve and made an indelible impression. I would never have anticipated 44 years ago that I'd end up writing his biography and indeed, all those years ago he hadn't done most of what I've described in the biography, but he became, after being my teacher, a mentor, a friend, a role model in a lot of ways and an inspiration. In this latest book, I've told the story of how he was all those things to me and as it turns out, to a great many other people as well.

 

02:34 Nick: It's an extraordinary summary and I guess a fascinating insight into how, you know, life can have sliding door moments where you incidentally meet someone. I met you at a pub in 2012 and, you know, we've since struck up an incredible friendship and relationship which has informed many aspects of my life. So, perhaps I'll be writing your biography one day.

 

02:54 Anyway, so could you maybe using that as a jumping off point about Mark, tell us a little bit about how and why he first made that big impact on you. Was it through the teaching of religion or science? I mean, what kind of was that moment in which you knew this was a special person?

 

03:10 Paul: Well, it's probably worth observing though I didn't know it at the time that he met me at Aquinas College in Ringwood in 1974 because he had in a sense been sent to Coventry. He was in a religious order and they sent him out to Aquinas by way in a sense of disciplining him because they thought that he was off the reservation a bit, he was too progressive in his thinking.

 

03:35 Nick: Heretical...

 

03:36 Paul: Heretical in a way, and they wanted to corral him. He says these days that they thought they were punishing him but in fact, it was providential sending him to Ringwood because he met me and my family, but that's all looking back.

 

03:54 At the time, he was sent out there in a teaching role. He was a science teacher, an excellent science teacher but I didn't study sciences. I met him in religion class and for only one semester in year twelve, but what he did in that class was transformative and it really lit a fuse. I might read just a paragraph from the book...

 

04:16 Nick: Wonderful.

 

04:16 Paul: ... where I'm making precisely this point. "I first encountered Mark when for a single semester he taught my year twelve humanities class, religious education, 43 years ago. I found him to be a teacher different from any other that I had had. He was tall, strongly built, spoke in a clear and authoritative voice and seemed to brim with vigorous ideas. At a defining moment, he stood before us with a book called African Genesis by Robert Ardrey and read to us its opening lines. Not in innocence and not in Asia was mankind born. The home of our fathers was that African highland reaching north from the Cape to the lakes of the Nile. Here we came about slowly, ever so slowly, on a sky swept savannah glowing with menace. Man is a fraction of the animal world. Our history is an afterthought no more tacked to an infinite calendar. We are not so unique as we should like to believe and if man in a time of need seeks deeper knowledge concerning himself, then he must explore those animal horizons from which we have made our quick little march.

 

05:17 He read these lines not as some mere academic book learning but as something fundamental to what we needed to understand as human beings. It was the winter of 1974 and this was revolutionary. No lay teacher, never mind any member of a religious order had ever brought evolutionary biology or the science of human origins into a religion class in my earlier schooling. Mark placed these profound matters front and centre and invited us to reflect upon them."

 

05:44 That in me ignited a passion to get to the bottom of the relationship between human evolution, religion and the history of our species that I have lived by to this day. That's why I undertook the studies that I did and it's what enabled me in the end to write Mark's story so many years later.

 

06:04 Nick: That's an extraordinary passage which has these incredible sorts of Shakespearian and Hamlet resonances as well in it but, yeah, certainly it's very moving to hear from you what a profound impact that that passage and Mark's role as an educator, pastor and teacher actually had on you as a young man.

 

06:22 Paul: Well, I should add that there was of course more than that. That was simply a signature moment which I've always remembered but he also brought into religion class an unusual sense of the real human meaning of various passages from the bible. No other religion teacher had brought the bible alive to me in the way that he did, not as a fundamentalist, not as a preacher, not as a dogmatist; as a human being.

 

06:47 There was passages from Isaiah, from Micah, from the gospel, from the actual apostles which he brought into religion class and discussed with us which have remained with me ever since. It was clear to me the better that I got to know him, that this wasn't just doctrine he was teaching, this was the way he lived.

 

07:04 Nick: Yet, this is all extraordinary because you were head altar boy and dux of the school and obviously Mark had that profound influence on you as a Christian teacher but you - I mean, this is just a tangential aside, but you did leave the Catholic church and are an avowed sort of atheist.

 

07:20 Paul: That's correct and this of course goes to the heart of the project because I found myself thinking Mark comes across as completely real and authentic as a human being, the values that he's espousing seem profound, but I cannot make a connection between those values and the dogmas that I'm supposed to recite and profess to believe and I can't make sense of this idea of god. So, I'm not going to keep going to church and saying I believe in god, the father almighty, when in fact I'm not even sure what all this means. In so far as I think I'm clear, I don't think I do believe that but I do believe in justice, in integrity, in compassion, you know, and Mark brought into religion class in addition to the bible and human evolution the novels of Albert Camus and the thinking of John Paul Sartre, these existentialist thinkers who had made an impression on him only a few years before and whom I'd really never heard of before then.

 

08:19 When I left school, as soon as I left school not only did I buy Ardrey's books and read them for myself, I bought the books of Camus and Sartre and I started to put, you know, get my hands on anything I could about what was the church, how did it come about in the first place.

 

08:33 When I went back to university, I studied classics, I studied philosophy, I did reformation history, I did modern revolutions because I wanted to understand quite literally what on earth is going on.

 

08:45 Nick: Extraordinary. So, just moving along in the interview, I mean, what are some of the things that seem to you to make his life extraordinary or worth writing a 700 word biography on which I think is really, you know, a testament to like this great gesture you've made for this incredible man obviously, telling a story about I suppose an unremarkable man in many ways because he's, you know, not a celebrity. He's not famous, he didn't accrue great wealth or fame or power, you know, and yet you say in the subtitle of the book Secret Gospel according to Mark, the extraordinary life of a Catholic existentialist. Why is he extraordinary?

 

09:25 Paul: I would say two levels and let me say, it's not a 700-word biography but a 700 page one.

 

09:31 Nick: Sorry, did I say word? Yeah, I can't edit that out unfortunately. Yeah, first time nerves.

 

09:35 Paul: That was a moment of humour.

 

09:38 Nick: It would be a very short biography, wouldn't it?

 

09:41 Paul: I think the thing that struck me about Mark from very early on was the breadth of his interests and the strength of his character. The combination of these two made a profound impression on me. Subsequent to that, he kept developing. He didn't remain static and he wasn't a figure in my past. We remained in touch and what I realised is that in addition to teaching science and teaching religion at school and doing that exceptionally well, he was an outstanding sports coach. He had been an outstanding athlete as a young man and then he became a scientist of world stature in his own right in marine biology. He became a great mentor of young Catholics in a youth movement called The Stranger Movement and many of them wrote letters to him which I got to read, you know, in recent years in which they testified to his unique impact on them as a person, for his intelligence, his care, his imagination, his freedom.

 

10:47 He also founded ecumenical communities so that he extended the reach of his Christian vision or his biblical vision if you like beyond the Catholic community in which he'd grown up and certainly beyond the male monastic order in which he'd been formed from a young age. He brought women as well as men into these communities. He brought non-Christians, Muslims, Buddhists, Chinese, Thai, Korean, East Timorese into this community and he made that community work. Again, there are letters from numerous individuals from these different backgrounds testifying to what a remarkable father figure he was, what a great community leader, what a great mentor he was, what a splendid human being he was in terms of his humour, his compassion, his intelligence.

 

11:38 So, when you combine mentoring youth, family and communities, being a great teacher, being a great scientist, being a great sports coach and then you add yet another dimension, he became a pastoral counsellor for the psychiatrically afflicted and he did extraordinary things in that field. Once again, I have letters that people wrote to him or interviews that I did with them where they testify to his unique impact because of his capacity to reach out to such people as people, not as patients, not in terms of their illness but in terms of their humanity.

 

12:16 So, you can see from that spectrum of activities that he really has lived an extraordinary life in terms of range, doing more than most people do, but what's really extraordinary is that in every one of those fields, he has delivered with extraordinary integrity and effect in terms of other people, his impact on other people.

 

12:35 Nick:   He's a wonderful model I suppose for the types of lives we'd all like to live, you know, lives committed to ideals, great causes, other human beings, rather than I suppose the, you know, hum drum, you know, I guess tasks that sort of confront us day-to-day and week-to-week and month-and-month which we sort of just get through, right?

 

12:54 Paul:   I think that's true. We live in a culture that is very addicted to celebrity. So, a lot of people read glossy magazines. They're always reading about movie stars. They're reading about wealthy people. They're reading about famous people. What we know from these glossy magazines is first of all that a lot of that stuff is puffering, right? It's not even accurate or honest a lot of the time. Many of these celebrities actually live dysfunctional and unhappy lives. Their impact on others is as often destructive as it is creative or nourishing.

 

13:29 What's remarkable in Mark's case is that he has never been a celebrity. He's never sought celebrity. He has never sought high office even within his religious order, though he's had leadership positions. He has simply sought at every point to do what he felt was called to be done in terms of the biblical background from which he came, you know.

 

13:51 I can't emphasise this too strongly because most of us need models that are real, that are doable, that aren't fantasy land, right; that if we dream only of being an elite athlete or a Hollywood celebrity, we're in many respects off with the fairies. First of all, because it's out of the reach of most people and secondly, because it's often not what it's cooked up to be.

 

14:12 If on the other hand it's possible to live a life which has great impact and is intrinsically rewarding without any song and dance routine or puffery, then that's far more within our reach in principle and that's what Mark has done.

 

14:29 I want to share with you another aspect however of his life and this becomes crucial to understanding the richness of his life as he experienced it because not only was he so compassionate and such a great mentor to so many people, he had a great interest and has a great interest - he's now 83 - in the arts. He loves good cinema, good classical music, ballet, great art and this goes all the way back to when I first met him. It's always struck me that this range of interests on top of everything else contributes to how extraordinary a human being he is.

 

15:09 I'd like to read a brief passage which just - one of many which in the book illustrates this aspect of his life. This is the first time he travelled abroad. He went on what was called a tertiary trip, a study tour, with his order to Rome and got to see a bit of Europe. The passage I'm going to read is his first free day in Rome. It will give you some idea of the kind of mind we're talking about.

 

15:37 "On his first free day in the eternal city, the traveller visited the Pincio, the great hill that had been outside the old city walls during the early history of Rome but was the site of the fabled gardens of Lucullus from the first century BCE and was brought within the enlarged walls of the imperial city in the late third century CE.

 

15:56 What had been the gardens of Lucullus, including a fabulous villa and library coveted by others and eventually taken over by the empire, was by the last 20th century the Borghese Gardens which surrounded the Villa Borghese and the Borghese Gallery. All three would later become favourite haunts of the Christian brother on his returns to Rome.

 

16:14 His first visit was a reconnaissance. He moved quickly onto the Tiber, crossing it at the Ponte Cavour, then visited the Palace of Justice, the Castle of St Angelo, originally the Mausoleum of the emperor Hadrian built in the early 2nd century CE and then Vatican City.

 

16:30 Several days later, he travelled outside the city limits up into the Alban Hills and visited Castel Gandolfo, the papal summer residence away from the seasonal heat. There in a large courtyard, he heard an address by Pope Paul the Sixth to several thousand people from around Europe in Italian but simultaneously translated into German, English and Spanish.

 

16:51 He was stepping here into a quite extraordinary historical setting. Castel Gandolfo is a town that has grown up on the ruins of what long ago was an immense summer residence of the first century CE emperor Domtian which had occupied a staggering 14 square kilometres. Even earlier than that, it had been the site of ancient Alba Longa, dating back before the foundation of Rome itself.

 

17:14 Castel Gandolfo was built in the 12th century but acquired by the papacy when it ruled much of central Italy in the late 16th century. It was handed over to the Italian state as a museum in 2016 by Pope Francis.

 

17:27 Mark took daytrips south to Pompei and north to Assisi but within Rome, his attention was riveted by the endless architectural and art treasures of the ancient secular and perennial religious capital of the western world.

 

17:38 He visited the Capitoline Hill, gazing upon the imposing equestrian statue of Marcus Aurelius, then wandered through the Capitoline Museum and the Capitoline Picture Gallery, laying eyes for the first time on such classical works and sculpture as the Dying Gaul and Eros and Psyche. He was attended Verdi's La Traviata at the Teatro Eldesayo on 20th September, a production of the same composers Rigoletto on the 26th, a second performance of La Traviata on 3 October and a dance fiesta in the Alban Hills that evening.

 

18:10 In between, we find him at the National Museum of Villa Giulia, the National Modern Art Gallery, the Borghese Museum and Gallery and the Catacomb of St Priscilla. His interest in the arts was inexhaustible."

 

18:21 Nick:   That's extraordinary. The second sort of component to the sub-title which I wanted to come back to was this notion of him being a Catholic existentialist. Can you sort of reconcile those two terms for us here briefly?

 

18:34 Paul:   Yes, it's important to understand that Christian theology, Catholic theology in its foundational centuries was greatly shaped by Greek philosophy. In its earliest centuries, that was principally the philosophy of Plateau and Plutinis, the Neoplatonist. In the medi-evil period on the other hand, the writings of Aristotle were rediscovered and it started to become clear that Aristotle was a very different thinker to Plateau, much more of what we would call a secular thinker. There were people who feared that Aristotle's philosophy would pull the rug from under Christian belief. So, people called the scholastics set about trying to demonstrate that Aristotle's philosophy was perfectly consistent with Christian belief and used it to articulate it on a new basis.

 

19:23 Nick:   Aquinas and so forth.

 

19:24 Paul:   Thomas Aquinas is the most famous of the school men, the so-called scholastics. For centuries after that, most notably in the wake of the reformation with the counsel of Trent in the 16th century, scholasticism was the philosophy that defined Catholic belief and to a significant extent also, Protestant belief: Lutheranism and Calvinism.

 

19:42 However, in the 20th century, scholasticism had come under very substantial criticism in terms of epistemology, in terms of how we define what is truth. A number of philosophical schools grew up, the proponents of which one might say were not particularly religious and the same kind of challenge occurred for the church as it occurred in the med-evil period. How would you articulate Christian belief in terms of these philosophies to make them acceptable to or comprehensible to 20th century people?

 

20:15 One of the most notable such philosophies was existentialism. The difficulty with existentialism, unlike the other philosophy of Aristotle, is that it was somewhat vaguer, what exactly is existentialism? The simplest way to define it - and this was crucial to Mark's life - is that scholasticism basically says god is a thing out there, an existent entity in which one believes. The resurrection actually happened. The eucharist is the body and blood of Jesus. The existentialist turn in theology is all of these things have to do with the human imagination. God is a projection of the human psyche as a conscious being in the world, the horizon of being; not a thing or an entity, external to a conversation among human beings.

 

21:01 The eucharist is a symbolic ritual about community, about being members of a body of Christ; that is to say, a redemptive community which we call the church. The resurrection is an event within the human mind in terms of our transcendence of the mundane and of the concern with mortality or of the carnal appetites rising above that despite for example the execution of Jesus, his presence animates the redemptive community called the church. That's an existentialist way of looking at it.

 

21:35 Karl Rahner was a distinguished Catholic existentialist theologian. Mark picked this up in the early 1970s because he started to ask himself I've taught these documents in scholastic terms, I've said I believe them but now that I ask myself what exactly do I believe, I find that I can't make sense of them in scholastic terms, because he was a modern man, because he was a scientist, because he was a highly intelligent and thoughtful person but perhaps existentially he could because if you could understand them in those terms, you could continue to live by the great values which he believed you were called to in that tradition and which he did live by.

 

22:15 So, from that point he tried to live out and find the existential meaning of the Catholic tradition, the biblical texts, the scriptures as they've been called. The argument I suppose I would say of my biography is that he did that with exceptional quality and integrity and that's what made his life a Catholic existentialist one as well as a humanly extraordinary one.

 

22:39 Nick:   This notion of living up to the example or stature of Christ. Is that right?

 

22:45 Paul:   Well, this is an idea that was put to him by the Wesleyan minister, Drew Le Lean, who was his supervisor when in 1991 already aged 55, he undertook clinical pastoral education to become a pastoral counsellor to the psychiatrically afflicted.

 

23:04 Drew said, you know, our call as pastoral ministers are to rise to the full stature of Christ. Now, if we took that in a scholastic sense, it would be a little difficult to understand what exactly it would mean and it might even seem a little blasphemous, Christ being the lord and god. You can't, in the nature of the case, rise to that stature.

 

23:27 If on the other hand we're talking about existential meaning, then Christ is the great myth that grew out of the exemplary life of Jesus of Nazareth and one endeavours to rise to the stature that that myth calls one to which is of compassion, of forgiveness, of healing the sick, of visiting the prisoner, of caring for the orphan and the widow, and it traditionally goes back before Jesus to Isaiah and Micah.

 

23:55 Mark undertook that and what we find in his ministry there is really quite extraordinary. Again, and again, he encountered people deeply afflicted; suicidal, depressed, schizophrenic, psychotic, and he was able to touch them as human beings in such a way that he won their love, their gratitude and their respect uniquely in that environment. I interviewed a number of these people who had actually been drawn back from the brink by his care to living more normal and even completely normal lives.

 

24:33 Nick:   Is this through his work as a pastoral counsellor for psychiatric patients?

 

24:36 Paul:   Indeed, it is. I'd like to share with you just as an illustration of a profound impact he had on some of these people, a letter that was written to him by a 20-year-old girl to whom he had been a counsellor. This is at Larundel Psychiatric Hospital as it then was. She was suicidal. She'd been sexually abused when very young and her life had become a psychological mess but he was able to find her and reach out to her in such a way that she saw him as unique. The tragic thing is that she took her own life unable to go on, but what I'm about to read is a letter that she wrote to him an arrange that he would get only after she had taken her life and these are a few words this brief letter, I think, conveys quite profoundly the impact that he was having on her as on others in aspiring to rise to the centre of Christ as Drew Le Lean had suggested.

 

25:42 The letter reads, "Dear Mark, I know you're probably angry and upset with me but it's because you couldn't possibly understand what it’s like to be me. I decided once and for all to end the nightmare and set myself free. Please forgive me. I want you to know that to me, you were the father I never had but always wanted. You made me feel so special and so happy. Whenever I was with you, the sun shone brightly and I felt safe and secure but you couldn't be around me all the time and I couldn't go on feeling the way I do.

 

26:14 I deliberately stayed away from you in the past weeks in the hope that the longer you didn't see me, the less upset you would be. I hope it worked. Thank you. Thank you, Mark, for all the wonderful times you shared with me and all the things you did for me. Apollo Bay was one of my all-time fondest memories when I said to you what I did in the kitchen that day, that I now felt able to give my life a go. I was really telling you the truth but, in the end, the urge to escape forever was too great. I love you, Mark. Your eternal friend, Kelly."

 

26:46 Nick:   That's very deeply moving.

 

26:48 Paul:   It's quite stunning, isn't it, because you think how could somebody write such a sweet letter, such a lucid letter written I should add in impeccable handwriting without errors or corrections...

 

27:01 Nick:   Recognising the significance of this man and his redemptive power in many ways.

 

27:04 Paul:   ... and then go and hang herself. It's...

 

27:06 Nick:   It's baffling.

 

27:08 Paul:   It's, you know, powerful.

 

27:09 Nick:   You mention in the epilogue that Mark maintains to this day - he's 83, I believe - this incredibly human warmth and, you know, supporting, reassuring educative sort of human qualities identified by Kelly in her letter all those years ago. Yet, despite all that he has seen in, you know, clinical, pastoral work in psychiatric hospitals and a whole range of other facets of his life as a Christian Brother in his order, he has become more melancholic in his later years. It's that sort of just I guess the accumulated weight of all that he's seen in terms of human suffering, that idea from Romans 8:18 and, you know, the world is groaning and we groan with it sort of thing or is it - is his melancholic, I don't know, disposition (not that he is a melancholic person, he's lovely) but, yeah, can you speak to that sense of sadness that he has?

 

28:07 Paul:   Yes, there are several strands to it. I should preface it by saying that over a long period, since he took the existentialist turn in the early 70s, he started to develop his science as an outlet for his passionate imagination as well as these other things. By the time he is becoming melancholic which I think is an accurate description of his mood in the last 10 years or so, he has published 65 scientific papers. He's given papers around the world…

 

28:44 Nick:   A world renowned scientist...

 

28:44 Paul:   He's done five stints of research at the Smithsonian, he's been on an expedition to the Antarctic, you know, he's very highly regarded. So, his life had expanded, his circle of friends had expanded, the gratitude coming back to him from all sorts of people was abundant and you would have thought that perhaps in those circumstances why would he be melancholy?

 

29:04 Well, the answer is twofold. One is that he had striven throughout those years to get his order to also rise to the full stature of Christ, to renew itself, to become more imaginative, to reach out more...

 

29:15 Nick:   The Christian brothers...

 

29:16 Paul:   The Christian brothers, to be less enclosed, less cloistered, less conservative. He'd had only moderate success and that weighed on him, that wore him down a bit so that by about 2008, he's in Washington doing research at the Smithsonian and he's writing back to his community saying that he can't do that anymore. It's almost become traumatic for him. He thinks that they don't want to hear what he has to say; they're not going to change and he's just got to put that aside. So, there's that strand to it.

 

29:47 The other strand is that he became more and more concerned that the world of mankind at large was not moving in a very promising direction, that ecologically we were devastating the planet in terms of going back to another species, in terms of the sustainability in the natural environment of our materials use and our appetites, in terms of I think what he perceived as our culture becoming more and more consumerist, not only in terms of materials but in terms of human relations.

 

30:22 Nick:   Yes, and he has this incredible grasp of quite literally like earth history because he does work in deep time given his scientific work with echinoderms and so on. You know, he's going back, you know, many, many millennia to different periods in, you know, the earth's biosphere and so on. So, he has this incredibly sense I guess of I guess of perspective for humanity, that idea in - that initial reading, was it Ardrey you read about our whole history is just like the last page turn in the book of the earth's history really.

 

30:52 Paul:   I think this is important. I don't think it's led to melancholy, I think that aspect of his life opened up horizons to him that are largely unguessed by those of a narrower outlook, but I haven't talked about the specific fact that you've just touched on which is his marine biological work and his reputation are linked to work on echinoderms, what many people would think of as sea stars though sea stars are only one kind of echinoderm.

 

31:23 The crucial thing here to pick up your hint is that echinoderms are an extremely ancient life form, that all the fila of echinoderms that are in existence today appeared what's known as the Cambrian explosion 545 million years ago.

 

31:41 Nick:   So, I was off when I said millennia....

 

31:42 Paul:   Indeed.

 

31:43 Nick:   Millions of years...

 

31:44 Paul:   Yes, it's hundreds of thousands of millennia, right. Echinoderms are very unusual creatures but among invertebrates - and this will really sound strange to our listeners - as Richard Dawkins points out in his book The Ancestor's Tale about evolution in general, echinoderms are among our closest relatives in the invertebrate kingdom.

 

32:14 Nick:   Is that right?

 

32:15 Paul:   This is one of the many counter intuitive aspects of what we've learned about genetics in by and large Mark's lifetime. So, he's been positioned a, in deep time; b, with exotic and very ancient creatures in deep time; c, those creatures have been sea creatures and the sea became more and more of a metaphor for him in terms of his dreams, in terms of meaning, in terms of ecology. He was at the cutting edge by the last 10 or 15 years of research on echinoderms and a significance of research for our understanding of life on earth, of conversation, of speciation, of environmentalism. So, he was getting his source of transcendence and depth of meaning and his sense of concern and melancholy at the same time.

 

33:11 Nick:   That's quite an extraordinary reflection. I really can't add much more to that. I mean, that's incredible. If I can sort of make a bizarre shift I suppose but all of what you just mentioned in many different buckets of conversation have sort of - you know, they sort of bespeak an incredible energy, a vitality, a - you know, an unerring sense of endeavour, all the while as a Christian brother which we've gently alluded to towards the end of the interview. Of course, that order prescribes that its members must be chaste, so without any sexual relations at all. Can you speak to that notion of chastity and I guess abstinence in the 21st century which is entirely unappealing and just not workable for many people? It's an outdated sort of concept and yet it seems to have underpinned, you know, his ability to be such a wonderful person without any kind of overlay of sexual relations at all. It's almost enabled him to be a more fuller human being but that's an uncomfortable thought, isn't it, because so much of our relations as human beings are tied up in sexual relations basically.

 

34:27 Paul:   Yes, they are. It's been a very notable phenomenon of western civilisation of let's say the last 100 years or so, that our culture has you would have to become more and more sexualised so that we're essentially told at one at the same time that sexual gratification is indispensable to the sanity and wellbeing or happiness of a human being and that what's generally called sexual repression, that is to say non-gratification, is simply unhealthy.

 

35:01 On the other hand, we now know with the 'we too' movement and all this other stuff, that there are all sorts of anxiety about sexual abuse, sexual licence, sleaze, etc. How do we strike the right balance?

 

35:18 Well, I know that when I first met Mark, you know, I was idealistic and I contemplated religious vocation but the central thought in my mind in the 70s was ‘but I'm not going to give you my sexuality.’ You know, I've always been a romantic and I thought, you know, why would I give up women? They seem to be the most extraordinary phenomenon in the world, you know?

 

35:42 So, I, you know, apart from the epistemological questions about theological belief, I thought no, I'm not going to go there.

 

35:47 Nick:   A bridge too far...

 

35:48 Paul:   Yeah, a bridge too far. However, I remained as I said in touch with Mark and he seemed to me to be different to any other religious figure I knew. I knew others - priests, brothers, nuns - who had taken vows. They didn't impress me as having the same qualities of personality so I wouldn't say that Mark was an exceptional person because he was religious or because he was chaste, he was an exceptional person who was religious and chaste but the way in which he lived out his vow chastity has been exemplary and it shows that this can be done. That's the point I would make.

 

36:27 I used to ask him all the way back in the late 70s why are you a Christian brother? Why did you do this? Why would you accept these vows? Why would you limit your life? His response then - and I would say this has remained the case - was ‘I'm not a Christian brother now for the reasons that I was when I took vows many years ago...’

 

36:44 Nick:   When he was 15...

 

36:45 Paul:   When he joined the order as a novice when he was 15 which was very, very young, but he said, you know, he was formed by men of character and intelligence and high ideals. We should make this clear, you know, at a time when there's this sense that too many religious figures seem to have infringed against canons of proprietary or even engaged in really criminal activity, that even according to the Royal Commission is still the distinct minority of religious figures. So, most of them - a great majority - have not been accused of any such thing. Mark stands further apart because not only is he not accused of such things, he has lived quite an exceptional life, a really virtuous life, right?

 

37:34 Let's come back to centre frame, alright? I know many people and particularly women, right, who testify to Mark's integrity, his virtue and also of course his virility. So, he hadn't withdrawn from sexuality out of incapacity or distaste, he was a great athlete and a virile man interested in human sexual relations and in culture more generally. So, he wasn't shut off, he wasn't blind to reality. He was looking it right in the eye and choosing freely to live this way in order to give to others and not succumb to basic appetites. That's exceptional at any time and not least in our time.

 

38:19 Nick:   It is.

 

38:20 Paul:   It's one of the reasons why telling his story was well worth doing.

 

38:24 Nick:   Just conscious of time, Paul. I want to sort of come back to the title of the book again which has sort of underpinned a lot of my questions today. You know, you call the book The Secret Gospel according to Mark. A couple of questions here which I hope you might be able to remember. I know you will, but firstly what do you mean by the gospel, like are you suggesting that there is some sort of message in his life which I actually think that answers itself, having just done this interview? In this book that you have written which is almost the gospel to - which has recorded the life of this sort of Christ-like figure frankly, what would that message be and what makes it a secret?

 

39:03 Paul:   Well, I got the idea for the title from Frank Commode’s book The Genesis of Secrecy where he says that in the 20th century, a guy called Morton Smith found in a monastery in Israel a letter or a copy of a letter - it was an 18th century copy of a letter - apparently written in Greek in the 2nd century by Clement of Alexandria, one of the great church fathers as we call them.

 

39:31 Clement in this letter had said that when St Mark wrote what we regard as the canonical gospel, he wrote it in Rome based on the reminiscences of St Peter, but when Peter was executed under Nero, Mark fled from Rome, went to Alexandria and there says Clement he wrote a second and secret gospel which is only made available for those being initiated into the deep mysteries.

 

39:56 Now, I thought to myself how tantalising is this? Given that the Mark of my story first of all is called Mark but secondly had been christened Peter, right? So, if you just look at his life, there's the...

 

40:09 Nick:   Peter Desmond O’Lachlan...

 

40:11 Paul:   Peter Desmond O’Lachlan is his name. His family to this day calls him Des, right, but he took the religious name, Mark. As Peter Desmond O’Lachlan, he was taken into the religious order and trained in scholastic theology in the old monastic, conservative tradition but over time, he rethought this and he thought to himself no, I think what the gospel surely really means, what this whole idea of Jesus as a salvific figure of the last supper and all the meanings we attach to it, they have an existential meaning. He tried to live that meaning out, not turn it into a doctrine that he sort of self-righteously preached to anybody which he never did. That's in a sense the secret gospel according to our Mark.

 

40:58 What I do towards the end of the book, having told the story of his life in its many dimension, is try to distil out so what are really talking about here? The answer is that Karl Rahner, the existentialist theologian, said if we retreat from the idea of god or deity and the sacred, we run the risk of regressing to just being clever animals with tools and weapons and appetites. We would lose our self of the transcendent.

 

41:26 So, I ask well maybe Rahner was onto something but let's look at Mark's life because what he did is he retreated more and more from that theological language. He was more and more immersed in human community, in human art, in human science and in the truths that science has made plain, did he regress? Demonstrably, in fact, he did not. Did he become merely a clever animal? No, he didn't. Did he lose his sense of transcendence? No, he didn't. This ought to be reassuring.

 

41:55 What Rahner had said is if you also disconnect from the idea of a personal god and god intervening in history as in a biblical tradition, then at best you will be left with natural religion where it is this world and its possibilities in which you seek your transcendence and your meaning.

 

42:16 Well, Mark did do that and one could say that by the 2010's, his religion was in a sense a natural religion but one nevertheless anchored in the greatest calls for justice, the greatest poetics, the greatest methodology if you will of the biblical tradition, but attached now to being a person informed by the scientific sense of deep time and actual ecology and the nature of the world. That seems to me distils the secret gospel so it is a hermeneutical one. It brings down to us in our time the values, the best insights that we can still find if we read what we've so often called the holy scripture but without the dogmas, without the mystagoguery, without the able authority, without the scholastic mystifications; you know the idea of transubstantiation, it's a stumbling block for non-Catholics.

 

43:13 Nick:   Literally eating the body of Christ and the blood of Christ...

 

43:14 Paul:   Body and blood of Christ, what can this possibly mean? It sounds like cannibalism, it sounds weird but if on the other hand - and there are hints of this even in the epistles of St Paul - what one means is that when we partake of last supper consuming bread and wine, we are members of the body of Christ; the mystical body which is the church, which is living differently. Well, that has some meaning.

 

43:38 Nick:   What I think also has meaning, Paul - and this is my final sort of point of today's interview - is that I think that the power of narrative - and you refer to this in the biography. The power of narrative for understanding and engagement is so much more compelling than rigorous, you know, schema of doctrine or ideology or dogma or whatever it might be and particularly those who sort of, you know, blandly just regurgitate what is sort of laid down to them. I think that, you know, stories like Mark's need to be told because it is frankly, I guess psychologically - or I don’t know in terms of engagement - how people relate. I think you'll actually find a lot more people who have lost, you know, touch with the Catholic church, with their faith, whatever it might be - Hindu, Islamic, Buddhist and so on - really being inspired by this lived example of I just think a good human being which we should all aspire to be. So, that's what I - as a final reflection, do you have anything to add onto that?

 

44:46 Paul:   Yeah, I would say that is surely the case. You know, there's an old quip, you know, which points to hypocrisy when you accuse - when you say a certain individual who purports to be an authority is in effect saying do what I say, not what I do; in other words, don't look at my example, just follow my words.

 

45:07 With Mark, it's completely the other way around, right? He has never in all the years I've known him be someone to say this is the truth, take it from me.

 

45:15 Nick:   ... with deeds, not words.

 

45:17 Paul:   Absolutely right and even when he does as he has done exemplary things, he doesn't say you see, I'm the guy whose got it right. He just says well I think this is what I'm supposed to be doing; this is, you know, I'm seeking transcendence, I'm trying to form community. He doesn’t have tickets on himself.

 

45:35 Nick:   Earnest, authentic, genuine, hardworking, humble...

 

45:38 Paul:   Yeah, and you know, he's not seeking the limelight. What he hoped when he asked would I perhaps write his biography was that I could at least help to get the record clear and show what if anything had been the meaning of all the things he'd been trying to do.

 

45:58 Nick:   What does it add up to?

 

46:00 Paul:   Yeah, and I should - perhaps this is a good note in which to finish. So, the bottom line is well you can try things out, whether cynically or idealistically, whether dogmatically or open-mindedly but at the end of the day you have to ask does it work? Well, he founded these ecumenical communities which were clearly experimental. They weren't hippy communes; they weren't social utopias and they weren't monastic communities and they certainly weren't Celtic. They were communities in which people - men and women, old and young, Christian and non-Christian - could come together and what he was able to generate was a community. Always only a dozen or so people, the number of whom - well, not the number but the, you know, specific members of whom changed over time - they would come and go but the community worked.

 

46:51 In preparing the biography, I interviewed numerous people who had been members of his community at different stages. What they said is the community was a wonderful family like place to live, to be mentored, to feel safe; that Mark was like a father figure or a big brother; he was so caring, so competent, so full of humour and interest in his stories. This surely is a model worth looking at.

 

47:17 Then, I would say to some of these people so is it a model that can be replicated? Is this a way for more people in our society where so many people feel alone or uprooted, to be brought into communities that might give them a sense of belonging and identity and warmth and security?

 

47:34 The answer tended to be well it's a good idea in theory but without Mark, I'm not sure whether it would work, right? That's challenging, isn't it? So, can we as it were to use a contemporary term - can we clone Mark? If people look at his life, might they be inspired to say I'm not Mark but this kind of thing is worth doing?

 

47:58 Nick:   Living up to the stature of Mark.

 

48:00 Paul:   Yes, exactly, so that's what the biography perhaps is asking people.

 

48:06 Nick:   Yeah, well it's an extraordinary gift and an incredible gesture. I think it's deeply humbling for him to have someone write about his life in such detail with such depth of understanding, feeling and an incredible understanding of the great sort of seismic forces that are at any stage of human history operating on and influencing the individual. We tend to, you know, labour this idea of, you know, man is, you know, the maker of his own fortune, the artisan of his own fortune but, you know, yes we have faculty within us to do certain things but ultimately we are subject to forces which are incomprehensible and far greater than, you know, the sum total of the actions of our own individual endeavours.

 

48:55 I think you've taken both those things into consideration. You know, Mark as the man and the individual but also, it's this incredible sweep of philosophy, theology, economics, social changes, academic shifts and other social - I think I've already mentioned that - upheaval. So, it's a unique work I think, Paul, and I do thank you very much for being here today to explain it. I hope that we can help Mark's legacy live on through not only the gospel, The Secret Gospel According to Mark, which you've published and is available online but also through this podcast which might broaden the sort of set of listeners a little bit wider.

 

49:36 Paul:   Yeah, and we should point out to your listeners of course that they won't find the book if they go into their favourite bookshop but they will find it online. It's available on a print on demand basis through all the major online retailers - Amazon, Book Depository, Angus and Robertson, Barnes and Noble. For those who are a little finicky about cost, it's a big lavishly illustrated and expensive book but this winter, we hope to produce both a paperback and a kindle version. They won't have all the photographs, they won't have the maps, they won't have the appendices but you'll get the main text, so you can choose.

 

50:13 Nick:   Perfect. Alright, thank you very much, Paul.

 - Ends