Cucumbers and the silly season

Photo by Scott Elias

All through my journalism career I tried to take holidays at this time of year – the peak summer period known universally as the ‘silly season’ It’s called that, here and abroad, to describe the sudden drying up of real news stories (or even cleverly disguised fake stories). The media must continue on its 24/7 quest for yarns, but the fare becomes increasingly trivial, short on detail and (gasp) exaggerated.

In Australia, the ‘do not disturb’ sticker can safely be slapped across the calendar between December 23 and January 26. This is when all traditional news sources and their spin doctors head for the beach. Businesses close, parliaments and law courts go into recess. It’s down to emergency services to keep the media fed, and there’s a limit to the amount of mayhem holiday-makers can digest through the festive season.

Smoke but not much fire

Here’s a splendid example of a silly season story, introduced by a breathless headline: “Warwick church struck by lightning”. The fire brigade turned out in numbers to St Mary’s Catholic Church, a Warwick landmark, as did spectators. St Mary’s administrator Kathleen Cuskelly told FOMM the fire was not serious but could have been without the call to emergency services by a witness to the lightning strike. The blaze, which damaged two square metres of ceiling above the side aisle, was extinguished by a lone firefighter who found his way in through a back door.

The church-hit-by-lightning yarn certainly livened up the week for weather-watchers, braced as always for a natural disaster but more often left without a real story.

Mariah Carey’s Times Square technically-flawed performance on New Year’s Eve had the celebrity writers rolling in oily hyperbole. Carey described by as the ‘golden-throated chart-topper’ was left on centre stage unable to cope with lip syncing which went awry. Someone played the wrong track, leaving the lesser-crested warbler nonplussed. The Daily Mail (UK) summed it up:

Mariah Carey has stormed off stage after she lashed out during her botched New Year’s Eve performance, after the wrong lip-sync track played.”

That’s a lot of storming and lashing over a relatively tiny tinkle in a teacup. Besides, Mariah sang the hell out of Auld Lang Syne at the start and that’s what counts, right? And she appeared to know all the words.

A few days prior to this earth-trembling news, like so many other heat-stressed people, I was hanging out in the local supermarket, hovering around the deli fridges, a packet of frozen peas clamped to the back of the neck. My mobile chirped and there was a text message: “jar of pickles pls.” Thus challenged, I quickly grabbed a jar, added it to the week’s supply of groceries and headed for the check-out.

The peak summer months, when Europeans and North Americans lock up and head for the beaches, coincides with the cucumber harvest. So their ‘silly season’ is known in many northern countries as ‘cucumber time’.

The ever-useful Wikipedia reveals that in many languages, the name for the silly season references cucumbers (more precisely: gherkins or pickled cucumbers). Examples given include komkommertijd (Dutch), agurketid (Danish) and agurktid (Norwegian, where a piece of news is called agurknytt i.e., “cucumber news”).

There are other examples: the Sommerloch (“summer (news) hole”) in German-speaking countries; la morte-saison (France) and nyhetstorka or news drought, in Sweden.

Media analysts have speculated that people employed as public relations consultants or media advisors in private enterprise and government now outnumber real journalists by five to one. The highly-paid spin doctors take January off and go to the beach. So their carefully crafted “news” releases, sanitised, scrutinised and signed off on by at least 10 people slow to a trickle then stop.

Meanwhile, the skeleton squads left holding the news forts have to forage for items to fill the ironically larger news holes (in the newspaper business advertising also takes a holiday). So the only thing a reporter or a news crew can do is follow the fire engine. On arrival, take emotive video of the cat stuck up a gum tree and hope (though only deep within their craven souls) that the rescuer in the cherry-picker might take a nasty tumble from a great height. The video editor can lip-sync it later and the presenter can do the nodding I-was-really-there-honest footage later. Back to you in the studio, Brian.

Bob Hawke lobbies for nuclear waste (again)

Perhaps the most egregious silly season story thus far was the reporting of comments made at a Woodford Festival talk by former PM Bob Hawke. Mr Hawke said Australia should embrace nuclear power and become a country where the world can store its nuclear waste. Mr Hawke has said this before, many times, but most news reports lacked this kind of background.

Warming up for Woodford, perhaps, Mr Hawke trotted out the nuclear waste trope at Sydney University late last year.

In 2013 he singled out South Australia, a vast and sparsely populated state, as best suited to (underground) storage of nuclear waste.

At Woodford 2016, the 87-year-old former politician employed much the same rhetoric he used when floating the idea in September 2005:

“Australia has the geologically safest places in the world for the storage of waste,” he then told the 7.30 Report’s Mark Bannerman.

“What Australia should do, in my judgement, as an act of economic sanity and environmental responsibility, is say we will take the world’s nuclear waste.”

Then Labor Opposition Leader Kim Beazley sharply responded to the comments by Hawke (who retired from politics in 1992):

“Bob is a respected father figure in the Labor Party, but that’s well outside the platform.”

In 1999, foreign company Pangea Resources tabled a specific proposal to build an underground radioactive nuclear waste storage facility in central Australia. South Australia and Western Australia swiftly responded by passing nuclear storage prohibition acts. Nick Minchin, Federal Resources minister at the time, said an emphatic ‘no’ and Pangea, a consortium of Swiss and British firms, folded up its tent.

Industry website estimates that the nuclear industry has generated about 76,430 tonnes of used fuel over the past 40 years. Most nuclear plants recycle used fuel, which will ‘eventually’ be permanently stored as high-level radioactive waste. US Congress made a pledge in 1982 to build such a facility at Yucca Mountain, Nevada, but the proposal has been ensnared in political wrangling since and was shelved by Barack Obama in 2010. Bloomberg reported in November, however, that a Trump White House would make the permanent dump site a priority.

Finland and Sweden are meanwhile working towards the first permanent radioactive waste sites in the world, the first of which could be operational by 2023.

But as then Federal Health Minister Tony Abbott told the 7.30 Report in 2005 (and little has changed):

“There are a lot of politics in this. Now, right at the moment, we can’t even get agreement on where to put a nuclear repository for Australia’s waste, let alone a repository for the world’s waste.”

Mark Bannerman closed his 2005 report with this apt quote from a Northern Territory woman:

“If it’s safe, take it down to the Lodge, put it under Kirribilli House. I think they’ve got a hide.”


Things go better with Santa

By Guest Writer Phil Dickie*

Photo by Susan Brown: A sumptuous Saint Nicholas awaits customers in a Berlin department store. He’ll sit with the kids, but you have to take your own photographs.

Think Santa Claus. Think an overweight gent with a white beard wearing a distinctive red coat with white fur trim and a hat to match.

In the English speaking world, that’s it. But while the tubby one is certainly known in continental Europe, he is not alone. Often, he is not even there in the Christmas accessory departments and when you make discrete inquiries you might be told “Oh, you mean the Coca-Cola Santa Claus.”

A rough census through a well-stocked Swiss Christmas department turned up around 40 distinct Santas, absolutely none in the generic costume of the English speaking world. Most had white whiskery bits, but a goatee could be as acceptable as a flowing white beard. Some were even thin, many sported gold and silver threads and autumn colours were certainly popular.

While we have opted for the single depiction Santa, Europe continues to provide some support for the rich, varied and multilayered traditions that lie between a couple of fourth century bishops and a Coca-Cola casting couch. Our Santa, it must be said, doesn’t look very saintly anymore. On the other hand, some of the multiple Santas of Europe also would look much more at home in a pagan romp through the woods than they would preaching from a pulpit.

It is generally accepted that the original St Nicholas was the fourth century Bishop of Myra. A few remnants of Myra have somehow survived the lack of development controls on building greenhouses around the modern Turkish town of Kale – including the mostly Byzantine elements of the basilica where St Nicholas, benefactor of seamen and prostitutes, was buried in 343 AD.

But St Nicholas is no longer there. Freebooting Italians removed his bones, or at least some bones, in the 11th century. Freebooters from Bari just beat freebooters from Venice with an identical plan, so it was Bari that got to follow the usual trajectory of development in those days – bung the bones in a new crypt, build a new basilica overhead and sit back and enjoy the pilgrim trade. Maybe the Venetians were still sore about this when they diverted a crusade against the Muslims into sacking Christian Byzantium (now Muslim Istanbul) a couple of centuries later.

St Nicholas, meantime, spent the centuries appearing, disappearing and performing unexpected miracles all over Europe. To give the pilgrim trade something to fasten on to in a suitably lucrative way, churches, shrines and even villages dedicated to St Nicholas sprang up. But you have got to be careful. A Swiss St Niklaus kirch is just as likely to be for the 15th century soldier, statesman and saint who helped fit the pope up with a Swiss bodyguard. Having arranged a powerful friend, he then advised the infant nation to prosper by leaving the neighbours alone and staying out of their wars.

Other times, the stories are deliciously obscure. The Matterhorn Valley church of St Niklaus (of Myra) was meant to be constructed safely in the middle of a field but the builders kept losing their tools. Then a boy survived a rockfall, exclaimed “Holy Nicholas wouldn’t permit it” and the church was built on the site of this miracle. The church has had an accident prone existence ever since, being flattened by an avalanche in 1720. The 36-metre steeple of the much rebuilt church is now dressed up as the world’s tallest Santa Claus each December – but still looks more bishop than billboard.

Others will tell you that the ancestor of Santa Claus wasn’t St Nicholas of Myra but Bishop Basil of Caesarea. The Roman Empire had many towns called Caesarea but this one is also in modern day Turkey, not that far north of Myra as it happens. Basil, who lived around the same time as Nicholas, is rather better documented in early church records as an actual preaching, politicking and existing cleric than his rival.

In central Northern Europe, children allegedly began receiving mid-winter gifts from a former demon who had turned virtuous under the influence of a usually un-named saint. This may well have been a Christian rewrite job on earlier tales that the undisciplined Norse god Wodin was also uncharacteristically kind to children when the seasons were hard.

A mix of the Mediterranean and the northern traditions is believed to have provided the basis of both the English Father Christmas and the Dutch Sinterklasse. Sinterklasse emigrated to New Amsterdam, and Father Christmas presumably followed when the American city changed its name to New York.

Not even Coca-Cola claims to have created Santa Claus in the modern image, although he was certainly popularised in 1930s advertising designed to lift the mid-winter appeal of refrigerated soft drinks. Coca-Cola, pundits will be delighted to know, was mainly responsible for the girth of the red-robed one, although the artists were trying to convey jolliness rather than the consequences of drinking too much Coke.

The American Santa then travelled everywhere that Coke did, which was everywhere US service personnel were sent or stationed during and after the Second World War. In other words, nearly everywhere there is.

Coke’s artists were working up an image that had been built up by a succession of earlier American poets and artists who transformed Sinterklaas and his English relative into Santa Claus. A satirist gave him a wagon in 1812, a poet turned that into a sleigh in 1821 and another poet added eight reindeer and a preference for diving down chimneys a year later. Santa gave up smoking (a pipe) in 1849, got the basic costume from a commercial artist in 1863 and a North Pole address from another poet in 1869.

“Which Santa sells best?” I ventured to ask Maurice Schilliger, proprietor of the Swiss store where I conducted my census. He wasn’t sure. “I do design, not commerce,” he said. Maybe, but maybe he also majored in diplomacy.

“Er, where are all these Santas made?” I asked. I was thinking, I must confess, of some vast factory floor in China where the proletarian masses are stitching up Santas to any requirement.

“The North Pole,” he said. Of course. Where else.

*Phil Dickie is an expatriate Australian journalist and author best known for ‘outing’ corrupt police and politicians in Queensland. Together with an ABC Four Corners programme, his series of investigative articles led to the Fitzgerald Inquiry in the 1980s and won him a Gold Walkley award. Phil, now based near Geneva, Switzerland, recently concluded a five-year stint as inaugural global issues manager with WWF International and is again available for interesting assignments or employment.

(Bob and She Who Is 10% Irish are on holiday!)