Passing bull 191 – The people and the crowd



When people come together to vote for parliament or to serve on a jury – rather similar exercises – we feel good about each other.  But if we see them come together as a lynch mob, we are revolted.  We are revolted because people following the herd instinct are behaving more like animals than human beings.  Most of us are very worried about the crowds behind the gillets jaunes in France.  People have there taken to the streets not just to protest against government but to try to bend the government to do its will.  That is a plain denial of parliamentary democracy.  That kind of government can only work if the overwhelming majority of people accept the decision of a majority.  But ever since 1789, the French have claimed the right to take to the streets to stop government taking a course they do not like.  The result is that France has not been able to push through unpopular reforms in the same way that Germany and England did.  And the result of this triumph of the people is that the people are a lot worse off.  That in turn leads to the gillets jaunes and to the President’s not being able to implement the reforms for which he was elected.  And so the cycle goes on – until one morning the French get up and see a scowling Madame LePen brandishing a stock whip on her new tricoleur dais.  She will have achieved the final vindication of the crowd – the acquisition of real power by real force.

The Bagehot column in The Economist this week is headed ‘The roar of the crowd.’  It begins: ‘The great achievement of parliamentary democracy is to take politics off the streets.’  Well, the English achieved that – but not the French.  The article goes on to refer to street protests being invoked to express ‘the will of the people.’  That bullshit phrase is or should be as alien to the English as it is to us.  It is dangerous nonsense advanced by people over the water like Rousseau – one of most poisonous men who ever lived – Robespierre, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.

The article also refers to social media –the worst misnomer ever – as ‘virtual crowds online.’  It quotes an 1895 book The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind as saying of crowds that they show ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments’ and says that the crowd debases the ordinary person – ‘isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.’  That is because he has handed over the keys to his own humanity.  All this is just as spot-on for social media as it is to those whom Farage whipped up against Muslims, or those for whom Trump did the same, or those who marched last night in favour of Brexit and did so to a ghastly drum-beat that made them look so much like the English fascists from the 1930’s.

For our system to work, people have to show at least some restraint and toleration.  At least two forces are in my view at work in Australia working against us and in favour of the herd instinct of the crowd.  One is social media.  The other is the Murdoch press.  The first is obvious.  As to the second, a New Zealand observer said there were two reasons for the immoderate restraint and toleration of their government to a crisis of hate – the leadership and empathy of the leader of their government, and the absence of the Murdoch press.  In Australia, Sky News after dark regularly parades Pauline Hanson while Bolt and others defends her and while in The Australian columnists attack Muslims as jihadis in something like a frenzy.  And it was just a matter of time before they spitefully turned on the New Zealand Prime Minister and the ‘Muslimist Aljazeera’ – and of course those middle class pinkos at Fairfax and the ABC.

The people behind social media and the Murdoch press are wont to preach about freedom of speech.  The sad truth is that they go to the gutter for the same reason – for profit.

Two more points.  The current disaster in England started when they went and tested ‘the will of the people’ and got an equivocal answer – yes, leave, but on what terms? – with a majority too slim to permit a simple solution to a difficult problem to be found and implemented.  Now we have the awful and degrading spectacle of parliament behaving worse than the crowd.  And people who got where they are on a vote from the people are with a straight face saying that it would be wrong to ask the people again now that everyone knows what lies were told and who has been the worst behaved.  Indeed, their Prime Minister says a second vote would be a ‘betrayal of democracy.’  Some say an election would be better – when both major parties are hopelessly splintered and there is no reason at all to think that a reconfigured group of those responsible for the present mess might do better.

The real betrayal of democracy has taken place in America.  Trump appealed to the crowd to reject the ‘elites’ – people who know what they are doing.  Neither he nor almost everyone in his government has any idea about governing.  But his betrayal is more elemental.  A President is elected, as Lincoln said ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’  Trump could not care less about the people.  He is only interested in that ghastly minority that is called his ‘base.’  And since he thinks his base wants him to abandon affordable health care, he will try to kill it.  And to hell with the people.

It’s not just that the policies of people like Farage, Hanson and Trump are revolting – it’s the people they get to work with them that are also revolting.

It looks like the hour of the crowd is with us again and it may never have looked worse.


But Trump bends history to his will.  May simply bends under the will of others.

The Weekend Australian, 30-31 March, 2019.  Mr G Sheridan

It is an interesting view of the strong man.  Amazingly, the editorial was even sillier.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]



Franklin Library, Limited Edition, Pennsylvania, 1979, translated by A J Church and W J Brodribb, Great Books of the World, 1952; fully bound in brown leather, gold inlays and print; raised spine; moiré end papers; gilt edges; and silk ribbon.

Tacitus was born in the first century after Christ.  He reached senatorial and consular rank.  He wrote mainly under the relatively peaceful aegis of the emperor Trajan, after the murder of the ‘tyrannical’ Domitian.  An early work was a small piece on his father-in-law, Agricola, and a book about the Germans, which would become very influential, but he is remembered for two classical works, his Annals and Histories. 

You will see that like Thucydides, Tacitus was equipped by his experience in public life to write a history of and about his times.  The Annals cover the empire from Tiberius to Nero; The Histories deal with a later period including the year of four emperors.  We are missing parts but we are lucky to have what we have – The Annals survived only in two medieval manuscripts, one of one part, and one of another.

Tacitus concedes that the Republic was doomed by its inability to provide peace, but he yearns for older and better days.  At the beginning of The Histories, he does not hold back on the horrors in store.

I am entering on the history of a period rich in disasters, frightful in its wars, torn by civil strife, and even in peace full of horrors.  Four emperors perished by the sword.  There were three civil wars; there were more with foreign enemies; there were often wars that had both characters at once.  There was success in the East, and disasters in the West….Sacred rites were profaned; there was profligacy in the highest ranks; the sea was crowded with exiles, and its rocks polluted with bloody deeds.  In the capital there were yet worse horrors.  Nobility, wealth, the refusal or acceptance of office, were grounds for accusation, and virtue ensured destruction.  The rewards of the informers were no less odious than their crimes; for while some seized on consulships and priestly offices, as their share of the spoils, others on procuratorships, and posts of more confidential authority, they robbed and ruined in every direction amid universal hatred and terror.  Slaves were bribed to turn against their masters, and freedmen to betray their patrons; and those who had not an enemy were destroyed by friends…..Never, surely, did more terrible calamities of the Roman people, or evidence more conclusive, prove that the gods take no thought for our happiness, but only for our punishment…[After the joy at the death of Nero]  The respectable portion of the people, which was connected with the great families, as well as the dependents and freedmen of condemned and banished persons, were high in hope.  The degraded populace, frequenters of the arena and the theatre, the most worthless of the slaves, and those who having wasted their property were supported by the infamous excesses of Nero, caught eagerly in their dejection at every rumour. (I, 2 to 4)

There are two things to notice.  That is a reasonable picture of hell on earth; and we see immediately why Gibbon idolised Tacitus – rolling, rhythmic doom-laden periods, even in translation, dripping with moral outrage and irony.

Tacitus has however told us that he was then ‘enjoying the rare happiness of times, when we may think what we please, and say what we think.’  He begins The Annals with a snap-shot history of Rome.

When Rome was first a city, its rulers were kings.  Then Lucius Junius Brutus created the consulate and free Republican institutions in general.  Dictatorships were assumed in emergencies.  A Council of Ten did not last more than two years; and then there was a short-lived arrangement by which senior army officers – the commanders of contingents provided by the tribes – possessed consular authority.  Subsequently, Cinna and Sulla set up autocracies, but they too were brief.  Soon, Pompey and Crassus acquired predominant positions, but rapidly lost them to Caesar.  Next, the military strength which Lepidus and Antony built up was absorbed by Augustus.  He found the whole state exhausted by internal dissensions, and established over it a regime known as the Principate.

Previous accounts have been marred by flattery or hatred. ‘I shall write without passion or partiality’ – sine ira et studio.

Tacitus then gives a succinct account of the revolution wrought by Augustus.

He seduced the army with bonuses, and his cheap food policy was successful bait for civilians.  Indeed, he attracted every body’s goodwill by the enjoyable gift of peace.  Then he gradually pushed ahead and absorbed the functions of the senate, the officials, and even the law.  Opposition did not exist.  War or judicial murder had disposed of all men of spirit.  Upper-class survivors found that slavish obedience was the way to succeed, both politically and financially.  They had profited from the revolution and so now they liked the security of the existing arrangement better than the dangerous opportunities of the old regime.  Besides, the new order was popular in the provinces. (1, 1)

The Annals focus on the relations between the emperor and senate, of whom Tacitus is scathing.  A prime function of the historian is ‘to confront evil deeds and words with the fear of posterity’s denunciation.  He goes on to describe Rome under Tiberius.

This was a tainted, meanly obsequious age.  The greatest figures had to protect their positions by subserviency; and, in addition to them, all ex-consuls, most ex-praetors, even many junior senators competed with each other’s offensively sycophantic proposals.  There is a legend that whenever Tiberius left the senate-house, he exclaimed in Greek, ‘Men fit to be slaves.’  Even he, freedom’s enemy, became impatient of abject servility.  (3, 65)

But Tacitus says Tiberius disdained monuments.  ‘Marble monuments, if the verdict of history is unfriendly, are mere neglected sepulchres.’  (4, 38)

The lieutenant of Tiberius, Sejanus, the head of the Praetorian Guard, sets up Tiberius into a reign of terror.  The author records the terror with language of astonishing power, in words that will be instantly understood by anyone who has ever lived under a police state.

At Rome, there was unprecedented agitation and terror.  People behaved secretively, even to their intimates, avoiding encounters and conversation, shunning the ears both of friends and strangers.  Even voiceless, inanimate objects – ceilings and walls – were scanned suspiciously.  (4, 69)

It was indeed a horrible feature of the period that leading senators became informers even on trivial matters – some openly, many secretly.  Friends and relatives were as suspect as strangers, old stories as damaging as new.  In the Forum, at a dinner-party, a remark on any subject might mean prosecution.  Every-one competed for priority in marking down the victim.  Sometimes this was self-defence, but mostly it was a sort of contagion, like an epidemic.  (6, 7)

It is unlikely that anyone reading this has lived under Stalin or Hitler, but can you imagine a more powerful picture of what it may have been like?  In the Agricola (45), Tacitus had said that ‘The worst of our torments under Domitian was to see him with his eyes fixed upon us.’  Writing of these horrors must take a toll.  The author feels a need to talk about his task.

Similarly, now that Rome has virtually been transformed into an autocracy, the investigation and record of these details concerning the autocrat may prove useful.  Indeed, it is from such studies – from the experience of others – that most men learn to distinguish right and wrong, advantage and disadvantage.  Few can tell them apart instinctively.  So these accounts have their uses.  But they are distasteful.  What interests and stimulates readers is a geographical description, the changing fortune of a battle, the glorious death of a commander.  My themes on the other hand concern cruel orders, unremitting accusations, treacherous friendships, innocent men ruined – a conspicuously monotonous glut of downfalls and their monotonous causes.  (4, 32 to 33)

Eventually, Sejanus over-reaches and is murdered.  What Professor John Burrow describes as ‘the appalling ruthlessness of Roman political atrocity’ is pitifully depicted in the treatment of the son and daughter of Sejanus in one of the cruellest parts of Western letters.

The general rage against Sejanus was now subsiding, appeased by the executions already carried out.  Yet retribution was now decreed against his remaining children.  They were taken to prison.  The boy understood what lay ahead of him.  But the girl uncomprehendingly repeated: ‘What have I done?  Where are you taking me?  I will not do it again!’  She could be punished with a beating, she said, like other children.  Contemporary writers report that because capital punishment of a virgin was unprecedented, she was violated by the executioner, with the noose beside her.  Then both were strangled, and their young bodies were thrown on to the Gemonian Steps.  (5, 6)

The Gemonian Steps were next to the prison.  They were called the Stair of Sighs.  After execution, dead prisoners were thrown on to these steps, and then dragged to the Tiber.

What Tacitus is describing here is a form of moral disintegration, a kind of national nervous breakdown, of the sort that the French would experience in the nineteenth century, and the Germans in the twentieth.  Roman virtue in the old Republican sense has gone.  It is no longer active and patriotic, but Stoic.  The last way for a senator to show worth was to commit suicide with style.  The only way out might be this form of escape, and it might protect the family from a loss of property flowing from a conviction for treason.  In truth, the old tradition of the family having to give way to the state might bear very nasty fruit.

In The Histories, there is a chilling description of the reaction at Rome to an invasion.

The populace stood by and watched the combatants; and, as though it had been a mimic conflict, encouraged first one party and then the other by their shouts and plaudits.  Whenever either side gave way, they cried out that those who concealed themselves in the shops, or took refuge in any private house, should be dragged out and butchered, and they secured a larger share of the booty; for while the soldiers were busy with bloodshed and massacre, the spoils fell to the crowd.  It was a terrible and hideous sight that presented itself throughout the city.  Here raged battle and death; there the bath and the tavern were crowded.  In one spot were pools of blood and heaps of corpses, and close by prostitutes and men of character as infamous; there were all the debaucheries of luxurious peace, all the horrors of a city most cruelly sacked, till one was ready to believe the country to be mad at once with rage and lust.  It was not indeed the first time that armed troops had fought within the city; they had done so twice when Sulla, once when Cinna triumphed.  The bloodshed then had not been less, but now there was an unnatural recklessness, and men’s pleasures were not interrupted even for a moment.  As if it were a new delight added to their holidays, they exulted in and enjoyed the scene, indifferent to parties, and rejoicing over the sufferings of the Commonwealth.  (3, 83)

They do indeed look like a people that has gone mad, with not one shred of decency left.

The Germania was to become popular in some quarters, not least Germany, for being complimentary.  This is the way Tacitus described some of their customs:

Affairs of the smaller moment the chiefs determine; about matters of higher consequence, the whole nation deliberates.

In the Assembly, it is allowed to present accusations and to prosecute capital offences.  Punishments vary according to the quality of the crime. 

Without being armed, they transact nothing, whether or public or private concernment.  But it is repugnant to their custom for any man to use arms, before the community has attested his capacity to wield them.

They are almost the only barbarians contented with one wife. 

To the husband, the wife tenders no dowry; but the husband to the wife.

There is little that is barbaric here.  Indeed, the German view on carrying weapons – essential for such a warlike race – is much more civilised than that adopted in those jurisdictions that hold every adult – even an untrained fool – has the right to carry a hand gun, a weapon so much more lethal than anything the barbaric Germans could have dreamed of in their cold, dark woods and bogs.

No, the Roman prejudice was not based on the customs of the kind described by Tacitus, but on the living habits of the Germans, a prejudice carried through to Dante, who in The Inferno mocked their consumption of beer, the ‘guzzling Germans’, and later on the habit of the Germans of defeating the Romans at war.  And Tacitus can set up against the drunkenness and aggressiveness of the Germans, those qualities so missing at Rome – sexual temperance, manliness, strength, courage, and loyalty.

And much would be made in the Renaissance and later of the suggestion that the Germans had no hereditary kingship – freedom was said to be older than absolutism.  The downside was the claim of Tacitus that the German tribes had always inhabited Germany and were of unmixed race.  That could be dangerous in the wrong hands.

Agricola is a loyal tribute to his father-in-law, and has a lot to do with affairs in England.  It begins with these words.

Famous men have from time immemorial had their life stories told, and even our generation, with all its stupid indifference to the present, has not quite abandoned the practice.  The outstanding personality has still won an occasional triumph over that blind hostility to merit that poisons all states, small and great alike.

Is that not just dead true – ‘that blind hostility to merit’ – of our choking embrace of bland mediocrity right now?

Later, he gives a most remarkable address by a Briton (Calgacus) to his troops before battle.  Some of it follows.

Out of sight of subject shores, we kept even our eyes from the defilement of tyranny.  We, the last men on earth, the last of the free, have been shielded till today by the very remoteness and the seclusion for which we are famed.  We have enjoyed the impressiveness of the unknown….Brigands of the world, they [the Romans] have exhausted the land by their indiscriminate plunder, and now they ransack the sea….They are unique in being as violently tempted to attack the poor as the wealthy.  Robbery, butchery, rapine, the liars call Empire; they create desolation and call it peace…..Can you really imagine that the Romans’ bravery in war comes up to their wantonness in peace?  (30, 32)

Finally, Tacitus refers to the fact that Agricola stood up to the evil Domitian.

Let it be clear to those who insist on admiring insubordination that even under bad emperors men can be great, and that a decent regard for authority, if backed by ability and energy, can reach that peak of honour that many have stormed by precipitous paths, without serving their country, by a melodramatic death.  (42)

The translations of the smaller works are from the 1948 Penguin (H Mattingly).  The point may be clearer in the more modern translation in the Oxford History of the Classical World.

Let all those whose habit is to admire acts of civil disobedience, realise that great men can exist under bad emperors, and that compliance and an unassuming demeanour, if backed by energy and hard work, can attain a pitch of glory, which the majority reach through an ostentatious and untimely death.

There is a reminder that we proceed under a real disability.  We are not reading what this great writer actually wrote.  It is the same, for most of us, with Thucydides, and we have to take our translation on trust.  The remarks by an ancient critic about the astringency and severity of Thucydides and ‘his terrifying intensity’ apply equally to Tacitus.  But we have seen enough to show why both these great writers are historians for the ages.


Passing Bull 225 – A glimmer of maturity at long last?


The most polite sensations Australia Day leaves me with are boredom and a kind of resentment – ennui may be the word.  The resentment comes from this.  Those who style themselves as ‘conservative,’ and bust their gut each year to celebrate the day that the English opened their slammer here, and just ignore the grief that we brought to the blackfellas, are usually those most intent on keeping our old flag, with its curtsy to Empire, and on refusing to have our own head of state, but keeping a monarch who happens to be the head of the Church of England.  Nationalism is usually repellent, and the first resort of those who don’t do too well on their own two feet, but when it is mixed with bullshit, which it usually is, it is revolting.  And that is a more accurate epithet for my usual feelings on this day.

So, it was quite a relief to read the front page of The Australian Financial Review that came out on the eve of the day that whatever we celebrate, it is not independence.  Under AUSTRALIA DAY SPECIAL ISSUE we get 2020 REVISION.  Under that:

A burnt-out landscape.  A war zone of dead wild life.  Unbreathable air.  A smoke-damaged vintage.  A laggard on climate change.  Advertising alone won’t repair Australia’s image problem.

(That last one might really put the wind up the Prime Minister, since advertising is about all that he is good for.  Without a script, he is adrift.)

Then there is – still on the front page – a box for an article VIEW FROM THE SHORE.  ‘Rodney Kelly’s ancestor was shot by the Endeavour’s crew and believes the 250th anniversary is a time to put things right.’

Beside that there is a bombshell.  DAVID KEMP: HOW WE FAILED.

‘James Cook’s Enlightenment ideals were discarded by a brash new colony – to the cost of Indigenous Australians.’

Real conservatives are hard to find here, but this one – David Kemp – at least has an impeccable pedigree.  He served as a minister under that awful little man who could not bring himself to apologise to our first nations.  Little Johnnie Howard would have gagged on ‘How we failed.’  He wasn’t there when they aborigines were slaughtered.  (He wasn’t at Gallipoli either, but principle was never his strong suit.)

What Mr Kemp actually said was:

We now know that the hopes of the Enlightenment leaders, fulfilled in so many ways, in relation to the aboriginal people were misplaced and soon betrayed…..The great silence that has settled on this tragic story is now being lifted….Australians have remembered Cook’s arrival on many occasions in the past, and built memorials to the event, but this year will be different, and the differences will record our evolution as nation.  Memorials this year will express a new appreciation that there were two views of what occurred….It has taken 250 years, but we have come at last to recognise that both views must be part of the telling of our national story, and building our national identity.  Australia now is better able to face its past with more realism than before.  It is, after all, a country that is a product both of the scientific and liberal values of the British Enlightenment and of the ancient hospitable, artistic and consultative culture already here, a culture inextricably wedded to the magnificent land we now share.

Those remarks are in my view so significant that I will abstain for now from comment – except to thank and congratulate Mr Kemp for acting as he now has.

In Beneath Another Sky, the English historian Norman Davies looks at the ‘us v them’ issue in a round the world tour.  His discussion of Texas is both droll and enlightening.  In commenting on some of ‘rousing stuff’ about the Alamo, the author says:

One of the failings of patriotism is its blindness to the patriotism of others.

Good blooper

One of the great blessings conferred on our lives by the arts is that they are our chief means of breaking bread with the dead.  Without communication with the dead, a fully human life is not possible.  (W H Auden)

Here and there – These Truths – Jill Lepore – An apologia pro sua morte?


If you have a kid in a group who thinks that he is exceptional – or worse, a kid who has been told by someone in authority that he is exceptional – you may very well have a problem on your hands.  That kid may just think that he is superior.  And a superiority complex may be as dangerous as it is annoying.  We see the very worst of it in Donald Trump.  We see an ugly shadow of it over the august university of which Jill Lepore is a member – Harvard.  And might it be the case that just such a complex lays at the heart of the current decline of that curious entity that we know as the United States of America?

Near the death of this very moving book, Jill Lepore unloads some of the deep thoughts that perforate it.

A nation born in revolution will forever struggle against chaos.  A nation founded on universal rights will wrestle against the forces of particularism.  A nation that toppled a hierarchy of birth only to erect a hierarchy of wealth will never know tranquillity.  A nation of immigrants cannot close its borders.  And a nation born in contradiction, liberty in a land of slavery, will fight forever over the meaning of its history.

That’s not all that they have to fight about.  The theme that runs through this book is that white people feel superior to black people.  And that is to put it softly.

At first sight, some of those observations of the author may look a little large – to adopt a phrase of Oliver Wendell Holmes.  What about the first of them – nations born in revolution are doomed to deal with chaos?  Well, just look at France, Russia, Israel, China, and most nations in Africa, Central or South America.  We and Canada and New Zealand – and perhaps other former colonies – brush up OK in comparison to those born in violence.

Russia and China in particular are living disaster areas.  But if you ask when the French Revolution ended, remember that smooth response of Chou En Lai, and watch out for the next outbreak of the gillets jaunes.  Why on earth would you allow a right of rebellion in your constitution?  The French suffered nearly a century of purgatory after the squat Corsican was finally stood down from his pursuit of glory.  He left France a smoking ruin and Europe a charnel house of five million dead.  Revolution followed revolution.

Any revolution comes with counter-revolution built in – as Shakespeare saw in Henry IV Part I, and the following plays.  (The playwright must surely have chuckled when he wrote that fatuous line for a sometime rebel and now a king: ‘Thus ever did rebellion find rebuke.’)  When Benjamin Franklin signed the Declaration of Independence, he remarked: ‘Well, Gentlemen, we must now hang together, or we shall most assuredly hang separately’.  But they and those claiming under them would be taunted by the same inevitable question: ‘If we could do it to them, what’s to stop them doing the same to us?’  It’s like kids winning control of a magic tree-house –the first thing they do is to kick away the ladder and slam the door on any other bloody freeloaders trying to cash in on their free enterprise.

This is a very fine and timely book.  It will cause me to do a note on These Untruths – all of which this author is aware of, and which this title wryly reflects.  For now, I will just offer some views prompted by the book, and set them against some findings that I made in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

The Americans come across in this book as slow learners and quick buyers.  They won what they call the war of independence for many reasons – all of which were or are on show in the wars they lost so comprehensively in Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan.  In the year of Our Lord 2020, they still have not come to grips with the brave insight of Maximilien Robespierre that no one ever liked armed missionaries.  (Messrs Bush and Blair and, yes, our man had not managed it either.)  If a Russian peasant is being bayoneted or raped by some drooling mongrel, he or she is not concerned to inquire of the ideology of the ratbag who unleashed them.  How did Goya record the response of the people of Spain to the gift of liberation that Bonaparte sought to confer on them?  They reacted with what they and now we call guerrilla warfare.  And it took the genius of Goya to catalogue the horrors.

Take another example.  This book reminds me that Mr Clinton had four things in common with Mr Trump.  He dodged the draft.  He put a member of his family in high office.  He lied big time.  And he had trouble controlling his zipper.  The first two would hardly be attempted, much less condoned, in Australia, but a majority of Americans were prepared to repeat the dose.  With results that were dreadfully predictable.  When discussing Clinton, the author quotes columnist Andrew Sullivan: ‘Clinton is a cancer on the culture, a cancer of cynicism, narcissism, and deceit.’  That is what I mean by repeating the dose.  (I would like to tell you where the column appeared, but in the ocean of footnotes you get with North American scholarship, there is no dictionary of abbreviations.  Apparently I should search for the first ‘(hereafter called …..)’.  That, Mr Publisher, is a real bloody nuisance.)

Americans in this book look easy to sell a pup to – or a fraud.  Just look at the daylight robbery they are accepting – with many applauding – right now.  Just about every day, Trump is guilty of conduct that would get the CEO of a public company fired – point blank, straight out the door.  Indeed, in a nation that valued its capital market, Trump would be under a life ban from directing any public company because of his association with known criminals.  Yet America, once the bastion of capitalism, asks for and expects less from its president.

When President Obama was inaugurated, a friend and I got up to watch it.  We had our first Bloody Mary at 4 am when he took the oath.  We were tipsy at breakfast.  When Trump was elected, I said that it was my worst day on earth.  We knew it was going to be horrible, but no one predicted – no one – the speed of the moral and intellectual collapse of government that followed.  The great republic now lies flat on its face in the gutter.  Our best cartoonist showed Trump lying back in bed with that serene gross indifference of his while the Statue of Liberty lies on her side with her back to him with a face to the artist of the white eyed horror that Conrad depicted in Heart of Darkness.

It is probably too early to diagnose the cause of this collapse, but its scope suggests that the flaws in the fabric identified by Jill Lepore run very deep – and dangerously so.

It now looks clear that we underestimated the impact of the successful attack by terrorist zealots on the twin towers and the sheer ineptitude of the U S government’s response.  It’s as if the nation underwent a kind of slow nervous breakdown, with a huge loss of faith not just in government but in the whole American project.  It’s hard to hold your head up when you keep picking bad fights and losing worse wars, and those of us outside the Union forget, if we ever knew, the throbbing pain of the grief and anger of those who loved the poor men who died for nothing.  American ‘exceptionalism’ had become worse than a sick joke.

And we also underestimated the impact of the Great Financial Crisis – and the ineptitude of all our responses.  Not only did we not lock up enough of the crooks and idiots responsible; we acquiesced in paying them shiploads of money that customarily attract the epithet ‘obscene.’  If capitalism is good, who are its winners?  Those who missed out – which is most of us – felt a sense of unfairness and betrayal.  The whole system looks crooked.  That state of mind can be very dangerous.  Stirrers like Marat and Farage thrive on it.

One by one the premises of the old regime are being discarded.  Jonathan Sumption says: ‘Democracies operate on the implicit basis that, although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision making processes.’  That premise has gone clean out of the window in America and it started to quit the building no later than when the minority – fronted by people like Messrs McConnell and Nunes – determined to put a spoke in the wheel of a black president.  Their reasoning was possibly correct and certainly vicious – if gridlock results, people will blame those in charge.  The trouble is that if enough people cheat at a game, the game loses its purpose and becomes unplayable – just look at cycling then and athletics now.

Lawyers have a saying that has merit.  The most important person in a courtroom is the loser.  If at the end of the fight, the loser doesn’t think they got a fair run for their money, then you the judge have failed in your duty not just to be fair but manifestly be seen to have been fair.  You could say the same for elections, and for the reason identified by Jonathan Sumption.  The most important people when the vote is declared are the losers.  The winner has to try to assure the losers that the government will not act against their interests.  This President, a bankrupted property developer with a water-mouthed spaniel at his back, has hardly even pretended to do anything of the kind.  His insecurity makes him innately selfish.  He and McConnell and the like look to be incapable of positive construction.  They take the easy way out – negative destruction.  Their denials are so Manichaean that you might ask, following the text, whether a nation so dedicated can long endure.  If you put a spoke in the wheel often enough, the whole contraption becomes unworkable.

The American record with their first nations is probably worse than ours – it is certainly more duplicitous, and our indigenous people enjoyed the protection of London for longer than the American Indians.  (So did the Maoris in New Zealand – the mother country was always kinder to the locals than the colonists.)  America had its version of our White Australia policy, but what the book keeps coming back to is the distaste if not contempt felt by so many white Americans for all black Americans.

We had our convicts, and their motley drunken keepers, but slavery is altogether different and more corrosive and corrupting.  It is the ultimate contradiction of any reasonable definition of civilisation.  It is also the reason why it is so disturbing to see seriously educated people describe ancient Athens or Rome as civilised – when each was premised on slavery and that variant of a protection racket called empire.  Indeed, on a bleak day in Maine, you might now reflect that the United States as it stands comes off the Indians slaughtered in unequal wars of conquest or revenge and from what Lincoln called ‘the wealth piled by the bondman’s two hundred and fifty years…and every drop of blood drawn with the lash.’

It is seriously hard to describe as Christian a nation that killed about three quarters of a million people in a civil war fought over what we now call white supremacy.  And after that war – in which the Union was held together by the God given genius and strength of Abraham Lincoln – the Supreme Court tempered if not reversed the result by the infamy of the doctrine ‘equal but separate’; ordinary people showed that there is a little bit of Eichmann in all of us by lighting up the cross of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, for the Ku Klux Klan; home grown terrorist fanatics spent their lust on lynchings – and the crowd just loved it; the South aped apartheid with Jim Crow; Jackie Robinson, returned victorious from the war, was told to go to the back of the bus with the rest of the niggers, and warned that he could not answer back when spat on by fans of his own team if he turned out for the Majors; some of the best musicians in the world could not get a meal or drink in most of those places they played in; counsel told the Supreme Court that its unanimous decision in the school bussing case – a true prodigy of high justice –may not be obeyed; it was said of one of the greatest sopranos ever that when ‘she makes her debut at the Met, she must do it as a lady, not a slave’; and when the current president shamelessly and inanely flirts with the sediments of all this venom.  People outside America do not understand how vicious and pervasive this poison is.

Indeed, you could be forgiven for thinking that the nation as a whole has not forgiven itself for putting a black man in the White House – the very language bespeaks its awfulness – and that the whole disease of and following the election of Trump is a kind of bilious act of rejection – just as I celebrated the end of exams by throwing up every time in full loud, cleansing volume.  The twisted mania of Trump that drives him to seek to reverse anything that that black man did while in office even now extends to rejecting an intervention of the wife of that previous president to improve the diet of school children.  That little bit of petty bitterness fairly recalls the mania of Joseph Stalin.

Some say that Churchill said that Atlee was very humble, but that he had a lot to be humble about.  If that were meant as a put-down, its premise is at best doubtful.  But I doubt that he did say it.  The two men fought the war together and they remained close after it.  But the sentiment comes to mind with American exceptionalism.

Like England before it and Israel now, many Americans believed that they were the chosen people of God.  The white nation was started by religious fanatics called Puritans.  They had been in a minority in England (and they had gone out of favour under that ultimate zealot Oliver Cromwell – some of the madder of them actually shut down pubs!)  But in the Promised Land, the Puritans were the majority.  And this majority had no place in their hearts for losers – winners were those on whom God smiled – and God was evidently not smiling on those creatures with black skins or red skins.  He was certainly not smiling on losers with white skins – they had obviously failed before God and it would be impious in the extreme to question His judgment.

Religion has not been good for America – any part of it.  Rome sanctioned rape by partition in South America.  (You could say the same of England in India.)  The Spanish just read the Papal version of the Riot Act to the natives and then went in for slaughter.  There was of course venerable precedent for the extirpation of women and children unfortunate enough to live on land promised to others by God.

In North America, the Puritans never let God get between them and a dollar.  But He did come between them and those who had not done so well.  Here is the germ of the repeated and tragic rejection of universal health care in the U S.  This is an issue like gun control – ideology prevails over humanity.  The cementing of the rights of the righteous in the Bill of Rights sets the United States apart from all other western democracies.  The resulting slaughter of children and the failure to look after the halt and infirm – the American health system is the most inefficient and expensive in the West – sets them apart from the rest of the West.

These failures of national governance preclude Americans from saying that the United States is a civilised nation – if such a nation is one where people treat each other with civility and with respect for the dignity or worth that each of us holds merely because we are human.  And if the Declaration of Independence did not rest on that premise, just what on earth did it say?

So, to go back to Churchill and Atlee, if American exceptionalism was just preppy, chest-beating superiority – which is about what Alexis de Tocqueville saw – what do you do if you have nothing to be superior about?

These truths is a very fine and readable book that casts a fluid but bright light on the great issues of now.  In a book called A Tale of Two Nations, Uncle Sam from Down Under (2014), I sought to look at some of those issues.  I set out below the chapter on my findings.  On reflection I think that I should have said that in my view both labour and primary industry are better off in Australia than in America because of intervention by the government here that would there be described as collectivist or, worse, socialist.  That would be just another case of a silly ideological label trumping sense and decency.  And it would be one more time that we might go back to that beautiful moment when a brave and canny Boston attorney stood up to that awful Joe McCarthy and said : ‘Have you no sense of decency, Sir, at long last?’

However all that may be, it is now clear that the American model is utterly broken.  For what it is worth, my view, which is partisan, is that most of the blame must fall on those Republicans in the government who have shown a sustained want of good faith in the past and are showing appalling venality and cowardice now.  But it is also clear that all the King’s horses and all the King’s men are no longer there to put it all back together again.  They have been gone a very long time.  And the problem is the same for the U S as it for us and the U K.  In a democracy, a government is only as good as its opposition.

God only knows where that leaves the rest of us.




History is the essence of innumerable biographies.  (Carlyle.)

The world’s worse crimes have been committed by a kind of refusal to treat each man, woman and child for their intrinsic worth when people in power say that the nation or state is more important than you or me.  There we have one issue with trying to make sense of the past.  We speak of peoples who have become nations.  Is it either possible or decent to ascribe general characterizations, or are they just moonshine, and nasty and dangerous moonshine at that?

There is of course another problem.  What would we know?  Very few people reading this will have faced starvation, arbitrary arrest, secret police, censorship, a fanatical cleric in charge, or a lord knocking on the door on the eve of a wedding to assert his seigneurial right; none will have experienced slavery, and few will have felt at first hand that they were being put down because of their colour or their faith.  Compared to most of the subjects of this book, most of its readers are supremely privileged, living in one the freest, securest, and most plentiful nations on earth; and not many readers will know or practise a religious faith in the way that their ancestors did.

How would we know how a Puritan may have reacted to Massachusetts in 1620?  How would we know how an English laborer transported for theft may have felt on reaching Sydney in 1810, or how a Negro slave emancipated may have felt in Savannah Georgia in 1864, or how a Russian refugee may have felt on arriving in New York in 1924, or how a Vietnamese refugee may have felt in arriving in Melbourne in 1974?

And then we see things differently to the way that our subjects saw them.  We have both hindsight and our own baggage, and we find it hard to resist the thought that we may know better than our subjects.

Dr Christopher Hill was a distinguished and luminous English historian.  He was also a Marxist (and sufficiently devout for that belief to survive years in Russia).  Does that mean that we should ignore him, or just watch out and be ready to gloze when words like ‘class’ and ‘masses’ appear?  Dr Hill wrote a book called The World Turned Upside Down.  It is an illuminating account of radical ideas in England during the seventeenth century by a most distinguished scholar of that period.

Dr Hill reminds us that people then believed in magic.  God and the Devil were all about.  People went to witches, believed in fairies, and used charms.  Thieves went to astrologers to see if they would be hanged.  A ‘cunning man’, a white witch, was cheaper than a doctor or lawyer.  Astrologers, mathematicians and conjurors were the same – like our economists.  But scientists were the first to claim that science proved that God exists.  Charles I said that ‘Religion is the only firm foundation of all power’, but the Reformation, although hostile to magic, stimulated prophecy.  John Milton spoke of ‘free trading of truth’ and took it as a given that all men were born free.  Roger Williams compared a church or company of worshippers to a corporation of Turkish merchants.  A Baptist preacher called Mrs. Attaway called for objections after her sermons, like a judge does with counsel after charging a jury.

Assuming that it took a while for the stock of the Puritans in New England to reach that degree of sexual latitude described by John Updyke in his novels – which does appear to have been quite substantial, in one direction or another – what about sex?  How hung up were Puritans about sex in the 17th century?  Yes, ‘sin’ included sex for Puritans, but there was what Dr Hill calls the Puritan sexual revolution.  This was, he says, an important part of the protestant ethic – replacing property marriage, with love outside it, with one based on mutual love.  That was one part.  Another part of the revolution was the downgrading or replacement of the celibate ideal with the abolition of monasteries and nunneries, and the introduction of married clergy.

If that sounds theoretical, here is a statistic that may not be generally known: we are told that at least one out of every three brides in seventeenth century England was pregnant when she was married.  There is such a thing as nature.  The sex drive remains constant, but there have been improvements in contraception.  As Dr Hill remarks: ‘Sexual freedom in fact tended to be freedom for men only, so long as there was no effective birth control.  This was the practical moral basis to the Puritan emphasis on monogamy.  The fact that it has since lost this basis tends to make us forget how important it was in his time.  Unless the seducer was a Don Juan rich enough to maintain a bastard and its mother (as Charles II and the court wits of the restoration could) sexual liberty was a hit-and-run affair.  Many putative fathers must have taken to the road, leaving the mother and the parish authorities to carry the baby.’

That is one way we can go wrong in trying to follow the past – by forgetting how much has changed, and that people’s customs change.  Another way is being one-eyed, as people tend to be with football.  They watch the match from their point of view and are biased, generally hopelessly so; that is part of its charm.  Waltzing Matilda was not written from the point of view of the squatter – it was written from the point of view of the shearer – who happened to be the thief.  The squatters saw things very differently.  One squatter named Mc Bean was so outraged by what he saw as lenient sentences handed down by magistrates against sheep stealers that he posted an advertisement addressed to the thieves, and doubtless the magistrates, in the newspapers.

In consequence of the decision of the magistrate in the Benalla Court, the undersigned would be obliged if sheep stealers would take only what mutton they require for private use.

Benalla would have been the court for the Quinn family of Ellen, the mother of Ned Kelly, and the Kellys with her.  Thomas Keneally mentions the aggrieved squatter in introducing the Kellys.  He says the Kelly boys ‘grew up as part of a group of wild locals known as the Greta Mob.’

The Quinns were a large bush clan, wanted a various times for horse theft, and characteristic of the small, alienated selector and farmer to whom stock theft came naturally and was, if Ned Kelly’s Jerilderie letter can be believed, in the case of the Irish in particular, seen as an extension of vengeance on the stock of landlords in Ireland.

Thomas Keneally is a writer of fiction and history in good standing, but might he be swayed or biased because he is of Irish extraction, or because he trained for the priesthood and was ordained as a deacon?

Mr Keneally says that the stratagems of the squatters were meant to frighten off selectors like Ellen Kelly (Quinn) and that the ‘demand that the police deal strenuously with all stock theft led ultimately to a relentless and vengeful bullying of the Kelly clan’.  After Kelly murdered three policemen, we are told that there ‘are signs that Ned, who was not a killer by nature, became fatally haunted by the men murdered at Stringybark, and from then set about, however aggressively, seeking forgiveness before man and God.’

We are then told that the Euroa hold-up ‘like other of Ned’s acts of hostage-taking was in part a kindly affair.’  In the Jerilderie letter, his ‘denouncement of police competed with his plea for absolution for the Stringybark killings.’  When leaving, Ned gave his ‘normal and eloquent speech about what had turned him into an outlaw.  His anxiety to justify himself is telling.  No other bushranger sermonized to pubs full of citizens or went searching for someone else to publish his apologia….The Jerilderie letter…..seems to come directly from the language of Irish protestors and Irish transportees who saw themselves as victims of a system rather than, as the authorities would have it, criminals.  There existed a pernicious system which had not let him live in peace, Ned claimed…..One aspect of Ned’s instinctive republicanism emerged in the universal Irish peasant hope that America would declare war on Britain…’

And so it goes on.  Ned was so haunted by Stringybark, that it was unlikely that Ned had ‘passed over into a state of nihilism in which death dealing was the chief principle of his life’.  He did not want to murder police at Glenrowan – he just wanted hostages to swap for his mother.  Joe Byrne was sent to warn Sherritt, not to kill him, but Sherritt uttered words which ‘provided Joe Byrne with an absolute warrant for Sherritt’s death.’  But the train came from the other direction, and ‘Ned’s idea of taking those on the train hostage was stymied.’

So, what did it all mean?

When Ned died in 1880, the Melbourne establishment were beginning to develop financial structures which would operate so fraudulently that Ned’s raids on banks would be modest by comparison.

We may take it that Mr McBean would have had a very different view, and may well have been prepared to pay to express that view.  So might other sheep owners or shepherds, or others of Scots descent or who are not of Irish descent.  (The author makes a disclosure: his middle name is McPherson, spelt differently from the Christina Macpherson who played the tune of Waltzing Matilda for Banjo Paterson.)  Mr McBean would certainly have drawn the line at the suggestion that the Protestant Ascendancy, and the squatters and the bankers, and the other members of the Melbourne Club, were guilty of worse crimes.  There were not enough bodies.  From the moment that Ned Kelly shot and killed three coppers in cold blood, that gangster story was only going to end with his death, and the only question was how many he would take down with him.  The number of four might disappoint some of the poor and the oppressed – but not Ellen Kelly, since two of them were her sons too.

So, allowing for waffle, ignorance, and prejudice, are there any general propositions that we might hazard about these two peoples?


Well, it would seem safe to say that the U S at least feels more independent than Australia, and that its people feel that they and their nation are standing on their own two feet in a way that Australians cannot claim while they continue to import their head of state whose position turns on the English Constitution.  The ‘fourth’ celebrates independence; Australia Day looks back to the day that the English declared their foreign jail open.  Australians also look for another long weekend for the Queen’s Birthday.  Anyone who has celebrated the fourth or fourteenth of July in the nations that do so will know just how flat and empty Australia Day may be.  It can be downright embarrassing.


Next, it would be surprising if there were no differences in the outlooks on life of the two peoples looking at the very different ways that their settlers and migrants arrived.  For the most part the Americans did it on their own, while the Australians did so at the cost or with the help of government.  People in America, and their politicians, are not as quick as Australians are to look to government for help in life.  Put differently, Australians seem to depend on government more for welfare than Americans do.  Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than people in England, France, and Germany do.  How many Americans see their side as a plus is an interesting question, but is this also one ground for suggesting that people in Australia, as opposed to the people of Australia, may be less independent than their American counterparts?

Has this distinction led to a greater emphasis on what is called free enterprise or the role of the entrepreneur in America than in Australia?  To go back to our earlier discussion, do people in America rely more on what they can negotiate for themselves and are they less dependent on their classification with the government than Australians?  Is the old difference, or alleged difference, between contract and status still relevant?

These are hazy areas, but Australians going to the U S are frequently impressed immediately by the eagerness of people to do business with them on a one on one basis.  The Americans tend to look and sound more business-like – and it is first person singular: it is what I have or can do, not what we have got or can do.  ‘What are you offering cash for on your first drink?  Can’t you see that I am running a business behind in this bar?’  And, if a tip is part of the deal, don’t be surprised to be told that you have not kept up your end of it.  If in some sense Americans have been more enterprising than Australians, then that distinction may well be being eroded at either end.


The impact of the frontier is much, much more extensive in America than in Australia.  There was a kind of battle or series of wars going on for territory for hundreds of years.  If this led to some rough and tough sense of independence, as it did with the Boers in South Africa, it also has led to an appalling tolerance of guns and violence that so disturbs friends of America.  In any event, that rough and tough independence is not what it used to be.  In the year of Our Lord 2014, the Marlboro Man is not what he was – he is now just a broken down case of slow suicide in public, and the directors of his manufacturer may in the future make new law on freedom of contract.  The macho man is on the wane, and men at large can no longer pretend that women just do not exist.  The whole idea of a man’s world is now just bullshit, although the grosser aspects of American football and ice hockey are some fairly stern relics.


The continuing murderous triumph of the gun lobby in the States is partly down to money – which does seem to carry more weight in America than in other parts of the West – and partly down to what might be called a doctrinaire streak in American public life.  The English Constitution derives from the common law and is set out in many old acts and texts and ultimately is a state of mind.  Its methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code.  That is the kind of function that a constitutional court applies, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma.  This is where the great power – liberal or conservative – arises with the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court.  The right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights is still part of the law in England and the Australian states, but not as part of an unalterable tablet of the law.  The difference is immense – only a lunatic would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the Supreme Court.

Almost no American would want to give up their Bill of Rights, although all sides would dearly like to see a great change in some or other of its manifestations from time to time.  You find people on both sides in Australia, but the short answer is that there is nothing to suggest that a referendum might be passed to amend the Constitution.


Both countries are parliamentary democracies.  The states have more power and substance in America.  (That is a plus there – it would not be in Australia, where there is too much government already.)  The U S gave the president more power on paper, but Australians would not want their nominal leader not to be answerable in the Parliament.  The Australians have by attrition just about ditched an independent civil service, and ministers no longer resign for the sins of their department.  Australia is abandoning the Westminster System by default.

The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons, but to an equally worrying degree.  Money is huge in American politics, and that fact is not good for the image of America.  It resembles a capitalist feudal structure, a hierarchy of power and patronage built on capital rather than land.  It looks to outsiders as if too many people are in the pockets of too few other people.

While Australia remains wedded to English legal procedures, and you can see and feel a horse-hair wig in many state courts, the American court system has developed on its own with benefits to others including Australia.  We should all be grateful that the Americans are continuing to champion the role and place of the jury.

Here is just one example of the differences in government between the two countries, and one that is characteristic.  Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does.  Each side thinks that the other is mad.


Religion got off to a strong start in America.  It got off to a bad start in Australia – the Reverend Marsden was a flogging parson, and the Anglican Church was and is as establishment as you can get – the monarch of the nation, its Head of State, has to be a member of it.  It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians would count their comparative relaxation as an unqualified plus.

The churches in Australia played a far greater role in the development of independent schools.  The churches now have very little part to play in these schools, but the failure of governments in Australia to see that its schools keep up with the private schools – called, after the English model, ‘public schools’ – is a part of the biggest failure of government in Australia – for which the church is not to blame.  Although education is not a Commonwealth function under the Constitution, it is in fact their responsibility.  Generations of ineptitude and buck passing at all levels had led to a disgraceful failure to provide an equal opportunity for the young people of Australia to get the kind of good education that they deserve and that the nation needs.  We now see a parliament composed in large part of those who had a free university education legislating to deny that right to others.  The products of the age of entitlement are kicking way the ladder.  This tragic failure of national fibre may well never be corrected.  It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve.


A sense of independence and self-creation, a real revolution, the creeping frontier, real heroes, and mythical ones, and God have all made patriotism much more visible in the U S than elsewhere.  Americans look to get more involved in national affairs than Australians, and to show more reverence for their flag and at least for the office of the President, but this patriotism can get syrupy in a way that got up the nose of Alexis de Tocqueville and can lead to a kind of moral blindness – in places in the world where that kind of thing might ultimately be noticed.


Each nation got to where it by means that some would prefer to forget.  Both relied at the start on the free labour of imported convicts – they were Australia’s raison d’être – but before they could do that they had to wrest the land from its native occupiers.  They did so in a way that caused immeasurable misery and loss and by means that most people cannot square with the tenets of the religion of the invaders.  There is not much to be gained from getting hung up on labels, as the Turks want to do with the Armenians.  The label of ‘genocide’ may or may not be contentious.  What matters are not labels, but the evidence of what happened, and the moral or political conclusions that can be drawn from that evidence?

These are issues as much for Britain as they are for America and Australia, and that may not be a bad thing, because the British may not get so skittish about a subject that they may know a lot about because of their shame in Ireland and the rest of the Empire.  In reviewing a book by Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Bernard Porter said:

The lesson the Holocaust should be used to teach – if it’s proper for history to be used in this way at all – is that any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right.  It wasn’t just the Germans.  In different circumstances the British might have behaved as badly.  In certain circumstances – and the Tasmanian case is an example – they did.

‘Any nation or people can behave atrociously if the conditions are right’ is you might think a self-evident truth.  It is surprising how many people either do not acknowledge it, or they do not accept that it applies to them, and they do so on the footing of the foundation of the whole bloody problem, the state of mind called ‘racism’, the belief that we are better than they are.


The main difference between the two nations lies in their standing in the world.  America is the biggest economy and leader of what used to be called the free world.  Australia is a client state, not as troublesome as Israel, but not as close either.  Australia loyally followed its patron and protector into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in order to honour and secure the alliance, but not one government has felt able to acknowledge that fact.  There is what is now called ‘a disconnect’ between the governors and the governed in Australia on the subject of honouring the U S alliance in much the same way that there is a disconnect in America on the subject of tax – they are, if you like, the elephants in the room.  But against that is the tendency to hubris that we saw, and the brittleness of Americans noticed by de Tocqueville – and now their obvious lack of appetite for any ventures overseas, for which they receive no offer of help beforehand or vote of thanks afterwards, and which is predicated on the failure of the U N for which the U S is not responsible.


Finally, and for whatever reason, there is a deep streak of orthodoxy and conservatism, or, if you prefer, an aversion to risk and skepticism of adventure, in both countries.

More than one hundred years ago, the English nation elected as their Prime Minister a grandson of an Italian Jew, who went on to become the closest confidante of the most powerful monarch in history; more than eighty years ago, the English elected as their Prime Minister a man of Scottish descent who represented the labouring class; and more than thirty years ago they elected their first woman Prime Minister.  Americans now have their first black President, but it took them nearly two hundred years to elect a Catholic as President, and they are yet to elect to that office a woman, a working man, or a Jew.  All three of those omissions are extraordinary – to speak softly – in light of the contribution to American life made by women, working men and Jews.

In truth, the US does have the appearance of a conservative and hidebound republic.  To this day no one could reasonably run for the office of President of the United States while claiming to stand for working men and women or to profess openly the views on religion that we believe were held by Jefferson, Washington and Franklin – none of whom stands low in the American pantheon.  The inability to move appears worse with a political engine where the gears are clashing, and a disparity in incomes and assets that appears to be growing.

Not one of the criminals behind the 2008 crash ever looked like going behind bars; the great citadels of business look to be beyond, or immune to, the criminal law that otherwise maintains an ever growing prison population; the big corporates just do cosy deals in private with the lawyers and civil servants called regulators; an agreed amount of boodle goes to the State as a bribe; the company adjusts its books in an accounting exercise; the shareholders get a reduced dividend; the real crooks keep their jobs and their unimaginable bonuses; and your average Joe winds up in the slammer for much lower levels of crime.

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor.  There is almost no chance of anyone seeing anything like the vision, drive or guts of someone like David Lloyd George or Winston Churchill in the People’s Budget.  By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less and they in despair vote in real layabouts and charlatans.

Here and there – Annual Awards


Best wishes for Christmas and 2020.  I shall be off for a few weeks, but I commend the list below.  The season of good will is also the season of pay back and catharsis.  My Mum said I should have one every day.

Stay safe and watch out for the smoke.

With Compliments

Annual Awards 2019

Film of the year

The Irishman – an epic in the good old style with three of the best screen actors around.

Sporting events of the year

Two resurrections – Steve Smith and Tiger Woods.

Winx made a lot of people happy – including me, for winning at her last start the day after the Wolf joined his ancestors.

Mesut Ozil.  The German, Muslim, Arsenal footballer who stuck it right up President Xi, and who thereby gave the supporters of Israel Folau something to think about – an experience that they may find exhilarating – or, perhaps, intimidating.

Book of the year

Bending Toward Justice, Doug Jones; Finding My Place, Anne Aly; and Trials of the State, Jonathan Sumption.  (Curiously, the first two authors are intensely sane, but each had two prior marriages.)  (I read Carlyle’s The French Revolution for the seventh time, but that does not fit these criteria.)

Business head of the year

BHP is the biggest shareholding in my small fund, in no small part because of my respect for Andrew Mackenzie, the outgoing CEO.  His education record is formidable – in Scotland, England, and Germany, and in three disciplines; he has a remarkable business sense and capacity to lead; most importantly, he can still behave like a ‘merely decent human being’ – to quote a line from The Russia House.  ‘Leadership’ is a facility that is subject to more bullshit than most others, but Mr Mackenzie has it – in spades.  And he has shown it not just in BHP but at large – in a community that cries out for it – and to the consternation of those dolts who know nothing about business because they have never been involved in running one and because they have not seen the change in the role of business in our community.

Lawyer of the year

Lady Hale of the UK Supreme Court, for herding the cats and striking a blow for the rule of law and common sense and common decency with a single joint judgment.  And because she was once a barmaid and because she wore that brooch.  The U S establishment has not produced it at that level – although the impeachment civil servants looked to be impeccable.

Reporter of the year

Nesrine Malik.  I would not give her any cheek at all.  Seriously bright.  She is from Ethiopia or thereabouts – the cradle of mankind.  She is both imperious and imperial – and with a delicious and imposing sidelong glance.

Columnist of the year

Joe Aston.  For serving it up to people who deserve it.  With a special mention for his gutsy libel lawyer.

Artist of the year

David Rowe.  Easily.  Cartoons are something we do well.  And they are a very necessary guard against depression or madness.

Newspaper of the year

Financial Times.  Producing good newspapers is something that the English do well.  This paper oozes professional decency.  Its views on Johnson are not dissimilar to those of The New Yorker on Trump – but it is not so overtly on a war footing, or so incessantly feeding the beast.  No prize for the worst.

Victims of the year

Those who voted against Trump, Johnson and Morrison; closely followed by those who voted for them.

Mediocrity of the year

ScoMo.  Can someone tell him that there is a world of difference between volunteers’ facing death before killer fires and sending crack armed forces against unarmed refugees and then spitefully repealing a law to simplify the refugees’ getting medical aid – and then putting a plaque on your wall to celebrate – in all humility, of course – your own downright heroism?  ScoMo is a BYO sandwich board – nothing more; nothing less.  He is a ventriloquist’s doll, an organ-grinder’s monkey, and a pencil box with vocal chords.  And if you ever meet someone who is happy to be called a ‘quiet Australian’, could you please be so kind as to let me know? Because we just might have the world’s best practice prize galah on our hands.

Comparison of the year

The New Zealand PM and the Australian PM on national disasters.

Musical event of the year

Jonas Kaufman in opera concert (Andrea Chénier); the MSO Choir and the Brahms Requiem; and my recent acquisition of the Glyndebourne CD set of Billy Budd and my recent re-discovery of the Karajan Boris Godunov.

Symptom of our time

Boeing killed people because money meant more than the safety of you and me.  It then put out unrepentant spin to hold its share price.  For a while the U S government went along with it to save money and face.  No one will go to jail.

Another symptom

The slutty evanescence of Twenty/20 cricket.  And, no, I will not love her in the morning.  As fulfilling as Chinese takeaways in the Fifties.

The Joseph Stalin Award for Bastardry of the Year

The repeal of Medivac.  They did it because they could.

The Geoffrey Boycott Award for Utter and Unlovely Predictability

Anyone from the IPA or Murdoch Press – Brownie points for the quinella.  The IPA in Parliament come from Mars, boy wonders with no experience and less judgment, full of front and emptiness, signifying nothing.  Paterson and Wilson are names to conjure with.  They are true Princes of Bullshit.

Hypocrites of the year

The whole federal parliament.  They pray to start their day and then devote themselves to letting down the same God whose Son would be appalled because they do know what they do.  It is sad to see believers – or so they say – shred their Gospel to schmooze with womanising liars who are so transparently in it for their amoral selves and then turn their backs on refugees – many fleeing from a mess that we had a hand in creating.  Their bizarre response to learning and pollution suggests that they have no children.  Or that they have been bought.  God save us.

Sad sack of the year

Gerard Henderson, the Prince of Sadness in eternal pursuit of the Prince of Darkness – Aunty.  Has driven more people from religion than Savonarola or Mike Pence.  This is a very large statement.

Ratbag of the year

Rowan Dean.  The embodiment of the ugliness in us all down here.  Loves to leer, jeer and sneer at those he regards as inferior.  The ghastly price that we pay for not having a conservative press.  Actually likes Trump, Johnson and Morrison – although his team – yes, team – preferred Dutton.  Dean makes Bolt look like a tame also-ran.

Recipe of the year

Roast vegetables – peel and cut vegies to size (say Dutch Cream or Kipfler potatoes, carrot or parsnip, and zucchini) – simmer on boil for five minutes – place into colander and coat with olive oil and toss with salt, pepper, seasoning, flour and thyme – transfer to roasting pan after melting duck fat on the hob and then lightly repeat the coating process and toss – cook in oven under dripping roast meat.  Reserve vegie water for gravy (for which I cheat).

Restaurant of the year

Tsindos.  OK – I am biased in favour of the Greeks, and this place in particular, but I have been going to that site for more than forty-five years, and any restaurant that puts up with and survives the Deplorables deserves commendation from on high.  Comfort food for the ages.  If you go, tell Harry I sent you.  And wait for the curious look.

Wine of the year

I normally stick with my own, and my own regions, but Bordeaux Chateau Meillac of 2012 for $25 from Banks’ Fine Wines is very acceptable – and it was good to be reminded of that solid old trouper Redman 2013 Coonawarra Shiraz in something like the old Rouge Homme livery.

Aggravation of the year

The continuing despoliation of Shakespeare by miss-casting his plays to make a political point – we need to think about resurrecting the law of blasphemy.

Anything to do with the Mayor of Box Hill (aka our P M) – although Prince Andrew was a late and inspired challenger with an inside run on the rails.

Error of judgment of the year

My resigning my membership of Melbourne Storm and joining Melbourne Rebels.  The former then barely lost a game.  The latter then barely won one.  (I know how Collingwood supporters feel – I was there in 1964 when the D’s won their last pennant.  With my Mum.  And I am in the process of spreading the curse from the Melbourne Redlegs to the Boston Red Sox.)

The Australian Christian Lobby applying publicly collected money to aid a member of the entertainment industry to sue his employer for millions of dollars because they and their supporters were put out that his religious fanaticism led him to denigrate those who differed from him.  The bad taste press thought it was terrific.

And see also Victims of the year and Comparison of the year, above.

Find of the year

Marnus Laberschagne and the Malmsbury Pub – under new management.

Star turn of the year

Anita Hill and those other civil servants who gave evidence before the Congress and whose courage and integrity showed up their political masters for the ratbags they are.  She and they gave us hope that the U S may recover from this catastrophe.

Hardest falls of the year

The whole Republican Party, but especially their soi disant leaders – gloomy, scared old white males bereft alike of integrity and courage – especially those two goons who always turn up behind the same shoulder of Water-mouth McConnell.

Reminiscence of the year

Catherine Deneuve and Juliet Binoche in the one movie.  Just as well they didn’t rope in Emmanuelle Béart as well – they may have had to issue a health warning for fading old men – like the Deplorables (et pour moi aussi).

Realisation of the year

In a two party system of government, it takes two to tango.  And if the opposition isn’t up to it, you can end up with a mess like ours – or England’s or America’s.

Bullshit of the year

This magnificent vote is a reassertion of national sovereignty and national will.

It is a powerful boost to the cause of Western civilisation at a time when it is struggling, and widely seen as under attack.

This is an epic moment in Britain’s long national story.

Johnson is that rarest of leaders; he has bent the arc of history to his will.

The author of the Brexit political project, Nigel Farage, is the other figure who was most influential in this result.  His electoral pressure transformed the Conservatives from a Remain Party to a Leave Party.

Farage stiffened the spines of the Conservatives and then stood down in the seats they were defending to maximise the pro-sovereignty vote.

No smiley koala stamp for guessing the paper or the journalist.  And the poor fellow has crumbled even further since this one.

Australian of the year

Sam Kerr – for being herself, for being the best, and for staring down our worst trait – the adoration of mediocrity and the fear of the novel.

The oncologists at the Prince Alfred Hospital for adopting a philosophical response – nay, a mature or adult response – to the Liver Function Tests that come their way every three weeks in the blood tests that precede each session of immunotherapy.  They also get an elephant stamp for keeping me above the ground.

And most of all, and clear over-all winners, the nurses at the Alfred and elsewhere, for being the crown and cream of the best healthcare system in the world – by the length of the bloody straight at Flemington.  My gratitude knows no bounds.  A safe reservoir of grace and decency.

Aspirations for 2020

My staying above the ground, so delaying my reunion with the Wolf.

Those of us who believe that we might have been privileged to have done something useful fighting back against those pygmies – those gnats straining at a camel – who are just plain jealous.

Trying to bring Sharan Burrow back to help try to right the ship.  I had a bit to do with her at the MFB.  I quickly developed a great respect for her.  She is one of those straight shooters that you quickly sense that you can do business with.  You can see her now on the BBC telling Spanish coal miners that there are no jobs on a dead planet – an inevitable truth that wholly escapes our government – whose minds close at shopping lists and power bills.

Michaelia Cash sacking her hairdresser and fashion designer and then retiring from public life to some very quiet place; not necessarily of the kind that Hamlet commended to Ophelia.  (And while I am there, that Danish prince is a lesson of the dangers of feigning madness.)

ScoMo following his ancestors in the mediocrity bloodline – Little Johnnie and Bro Tony – and getting fired by his electorate.  That would for me constitute irrefutable evidence of the existence of God.

The Demons either putting up or getting put down – if it was good enough for the Wolf, it is good enough for a football club that has been near death since it incurred the curse of Norm Smith.

My getting a standing ovation at the 2020 Brisbane Ring Cycle of Wagner for being noticed for the number of acts I have missed – currently aiming at five out of thirteen – or, as John Steinbeck said of the returning Tuna fishermen in Cannery Row, being ‘embraced and admired’ – but we may forego the twenty-five foot string of firecrackers so nobly presented by the immortal Lee Chong of the general store.  If you let them off in Parliament House, would anyone notice – or care?



Bodley Head, 1982; rebound in quarter mustard morocco, with gold on mahogany title, and coloured boards.

For how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

The late Graham Greene was a fluent and prolific writer who was received into the Catholic Church.  Who better to write a soft, elegiac novel on the strains in the relationship between God and us?

Monsignor Quixote is a tribute to the first novel, Don Quixote, and it comes to us with the throwaway softness of the Eine Kleine Nachtsmusik of Mozart.  Its hero is promoted to Monsignor in ludicrous circumstances.  Like his namesake, he sets out on a quest.  His companion, whom he addresses as Sancho, is a former mayor who is a communist.  Their relationship is as full and touching as that between Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.

Father Quixote is a humble priest in El Toboso near Valencia.  He has a burned out little car, a Seat 600, that he calls Rocinante in memory of the horse of his ancestor.  He does not get on with his bishop, who asks how a priest could be descended from a fictional character.  ‘A character in a novel by an over-rated writer called Cervantes – a novel moreover with many disgusting passages which in the days of the Generalissimo would not even have passed the censor.’  The bishop, of course, has never read the book.  He just started the first chapter and glanced at the last – ‘my usual habit with novels’.  The bishop also takes the view – that we might find unusual in a Spaniard – that ‘men of Father Quixote’s class have no ancestors’.

Our hero was therefore full of trepidation when an Italian bishop pulled up in a flash Mercedes that was refusing to go any further.  But the Bishop of Motopo is very different.  He is offered lunch and ‘an unimportant wine’, and the bishop offers a reply for the ages:  ‘No wine can be regarded as unimportant, my friend, since the marriage of Cana.’  This bishop admires Don Quixote.  When told of the attitude of another bishop, he says:  ‘Holiness and literary appreciation don’t always go together.’

The father fixes the Mercedes – in truth he just puts some petrol in it.  The bishop is both moved and impressed, and the promotion follows later to the disgust of the bishop of the now Monsignor.  As the Italian bishop settles into his revived Mercedes, he says ‘there are no birds this year in last’s year’s nests’.  He confesses that he does not know what the words mean ‘but surely the beauty is enough’.

In his affront at the promotion of his lowly subordinate, the Spanish bishop decides that El Toboso is too small for a Monsignor and sends him out to the world.  And the Monsignor recalls the time when he had diverted an Easter offering to a charity for the poor in prison when the custom had been that the local priest had trousered that portion.  ‘The Bishop had called him a fool – a term which Christ had deprecated.’  Our author is not pulling punches.

The Monsignor and the ex-Mayor set out while swapping stories of traitors – Stalin and Judas.  The Mayor, after vodka, says that the Soviet cosmonauts have beaten the endurance record in space but in all that time they have not encountered a single angel.  Here is a sample of their conversation – this time with Manchegan cheese and wine.

‘A few million dead and Communism is established over nearly half the world.  A small price.  One loses more in any war.’

‘A few hundred dead and Spain remains a Catholic country.  An even smaller price.’

‘So Franco succeeds Torquemada?’

‘And Brezhnev succeeds Stalin?’

‘Well, father, we can at least agree with this: that small men seem always to succeed the great and perhaps the small men are easier to live with.’

‘I’m glad you recognise greatness in Torquemada.’

They laughed and drank and were happy under the broken wall while the sun sank and the shadows lengthened, until without noticing it they sat in darkness and the heat came mainly from within.


‘Then why not call me comrade – I prefer it to Sancho.’

‘In recent history, Sancho, too many comrades have been killed by comrades.  I don’t mind calling you friend.  Friends are less apt to kill each other.’

We remember that Don Quixote is set around conversations between its two leads.  When our latterday pair arrives at Madrid, the Monsignor declines staying at the Palace Hotel to the disgust of the Mayor who then takes the Monsignor to the ecclesiastical tailors to get his purple socks.

His heart sank as he took in the elegance of the shop and the dark well-pressed suit of the assistant who greeted them with the distant courtesy of a church authority.  It occurred to Father Quixote that such a man was almost certainly a member of Opus Dei – that club of intellectual Catholic activists whom he could not fault and yet whom he could not trust.  He was a countryman, and they belonged to the great cities.

The svelte assistant offers cotton socks and the Monsignor says that he wears wool.  The assistant regards the two shoppers with ‘deepening suspicion’.  As they leave, the Monsignor says to the Mayor that the assistant was probably with Opus Dei and the Mayor says, ‘They probably own the shop’.

The two of them ‘killed’ two bottles of wine over lunch, and the Mayor recalled a discussion with Father Herrera who has been installed in his place, and who gets on with the bishop and who is looking to shaft the Monsignor.  Father Herrera had expressed a preference for the Gospel of St. Matthew.  It has, apparently, fifteen references to Hell.   The Monsignor says that ‘To govern by fear … surely God can leave that to Stalin or Hitler.  I believe in the virtue of courage.  I don’t believe in the virtue of cowardice’.  Sensing a kill for heresy, Father Herrera asks the Monsignor whether he questions the existence of Hell.

‘I believe from obedience, but not with the heart.’

The discussions of religious faith and political faith run deep.

‘We can’t always believe.  Just having faith, like you have, Sancho.  O, Sancho, Sancho, it’s an awful thing not to have doubts.  Suppose all Marx wrote was proved to be absolute truth and Lenin’s works too.’


‘And now you have a complete belief, don’t you?  In the prophet Marx.  You don’t have to think for yourself anymore.  Isaiah has spoken.  You are in the hands of future history.  How happy you must be with your complete belief.  There is only one thing you will ever lack – the dignity of despair.’

Father Quixote spoke with an unaccustomed anger – or was it, he wondered, envy?

The Mayor leaves the Monsignor in ignorance to settle into a brothel for the night:

‘It’s really very wrong of me to laugh.  But I just thought:  what would the Bishop say if he knew?  A Monsignor in a brothel.  Well, why not? Christ mixed with publicans and sinners.  All the same, I think I’d better go upstairs and lock my door.  But be prudent, dear Sancho, be prudent.’

‘Where are you going, Father?’

‘Off to read myself to sleep with your prophet Marx.  I wish I could say goodnight to you, Sancho, but I doubt whether yours will be what I would call a good night.’

They had encounters with the Guardia as well as the hierarchy of the Church.  The Bishop has to confront the Monsignor with his scandalous misdeeds, such as being seen at a house of blue movies.

‘Stay where you are Monsignor’, the Bishop said.  (He rolled out the title Monsignor with an obvious bitterness.)  He took from his sleeve a white silk handkerchief and dusted the chair beside the bed, looked carefully at the handkerchief to see how far it might have been soiled, lowered himself into the chair and put his hand on the sheet.  But as Father Quixote was not in a position in which he could genuflect he thought it was permissible to leave out the kiss and the Bishop, after a brief pause, withdrew his hand.  Then the Bishop pursed his lips and following a moment’s reflection blew out the monosyllable:  ‘Well.’

Father Herrera was standing in the doorway like a bodyguard ….’

The Bishop says that ‘the Church always struggles to keep above politics’ but confirms that the shop assistant in Madrid was with Opus Dei.  But when the Monsignor says that Marx had defended the Church, the Bishop leaves in disgust saying that ‘I cannot sit here any longer and listen to the ravings of a sick mind’.

There is another exchange between the Mayor and the Monsignor on faith and doubt.

‘We quoted Marx and Lenin to one another like passwords to prove we could be trusted.  And we never spoke of the doubts which came to us on sleepless nights.  I was drawn to you because I thought you were a man without doubts.  I was drawn to you, I suppose, in a way by envy.’

‘How wrong you were, Sancho.  I am riddled by doubts.  I am sure of nothing, not even the existence of God, but doubt is not treachery as you communists seem to think.  Doubt is human.’

Their last adventure involves Mexicans who are fleecing the flock.  They carry out a plaster cast of Our Lady for the poor people to pin money to.

Father Quixote gazed up at the crowned head and the glassy eyes which were like those of a woman dead and neglected – no one had bothered even to lower her lids.  He thought:  Was it for this she saw her son die in agony?  To collect money?  To make a priest rich?

The Monsignor does not doubt that this is blasphemy:

‘Put down Our Lady.  How dare you’, he told the priest, ‘clothe her like that in money?  It would be better to carry her through the streets naked’

He starts ripping notes off and there is a fight and then a riot such as may have followed when another holy agitator evicted the money men from the temple.  The Mayor says, rather unhelpfully, that ‘You can’t start a revolution without bloodshed’.  (Earlier he had said that the ‘Trappists are the Stalinists of the Church’.)

The Monsignor is hurt and they seek sanctuary with the Trappists.  At the small monastery there is a Professor Pilbeam who comes from Notre Dame University in the US.  The Professor specialises in Descartes, who said that the mind is very separate from the body.  This turning point in European thought comes up just as we are getting ready for the soul of the Monsignor to leave his body.  But the Professor is only a nominal Catholic for whom Cervantes is ‘too fanciful for my taste’.

As our Don Quixote moves towards his end, he calls for Mambrino’s helmet and he says to the Mayor:  ‘I don’t offer you a governorship, Sancho.  I offer you a kingdom – Come with me and you will find the Kingdom.’  He recalls saying, as if in a dream, ‘Bugger the Bishop’.  ‘Et introibo ad altare.’  The Monsignor raises an invisible Host and says to Sancho:  ‘Companero, you must kneel Companero.’

Suffused in benevolence, the novel ends this way:

The Mayor didn’t speak again before they reached Orense; an idea quite strange to him had lodged in his brain.  Why is it that the hate of a man – even of a man like Franco – dies with his death, and yet love, the love which he had begun to feel for Father Quixote, seemed now to live and grow in spite of the final separation and the final silence – for how long, he wondered with a kind of fear, was it possible for that love of his to continue?  And to what end?

This all comes down to us apparently effortlessly, the work of a very refined mind and of a very gifted writer, a lilting and humane meditation on the place of doubt and faith in politics and religion, but more importantly on the place of friendship here on earth.

The novel is also a salute by an English writer to the place that Don Quixote holds in the life of Spain.  No other novel – not even War and Peace or Ulysses – stands so high in shaping the life of the nation that gave birth to its author.  Only the Iliad and Ulysses of Homer have reached so high.  But like all of the great works, this little novel is universal in its appeal.  There are very few books that end with a tear and a smile vying for eminence on the face of the reader.

Passing Bull 224 – Dismissive labels


Some labels are so dangerously large that they risk begging the whole question.

Robert E Lee had sworn allegiance to the United States.  But he was also loyal to the Commonwealth of Virginia.  Was standing aside the proper thing to do?  No – Lee felt – felt, not thought – that he had to take sides.  He allowed his son to make up his own mind.  Lee was appalled at the thought of the North ‘invading’ – yes, invading – his home state.  Well, Abraham Lincoln had sworn to defend and preserve the Union.  That meant applying federal force to stop secession.  If police come with a warrant to arrest me at home, I do not speak of being ‘invaded’.  That would sound silly.  Did southern states have the right to secede?  That was what the whole bloody war was about.  About 600,000 good young men died in that war.  God only knows how much smaller that number may have been if Lee had followed his oath – or just stayed out of it.

The Polish government wants to legislate against its Supreme Court engaging in ‘political conduct.’  This may remind you of those who criticised the U K Supreme Court for doing just that.  What else is to be expected of the highest court in a nation that at least professes to follow the rule of law?  And who, pray, will decide the issue of whether the court has involved itself in such conduct, and whether the prohibition is lawful?  Hitler did not blush – but he was seeking to destroy Europe, not be part of it.

Much of this kind of scattergun appears to be the response of Republicans to the impeachment process.  Look stern, spit out a dirty word, and Bob’s your uncle.  They remind me of soldiers firing a mortar – but rather than looking away and holding their ears, they block their eyes, ears and nose.  They had lost their conscience when they sold out.


‘The overwhelming reaction from our team, for our customers and shareholders has been positive affirmation for the way the company has behaved.’  Woolworths CEO on short paying workers $300 million.

Australian Financial Review, 17 December, 2019

Bullshit for our time – for all time.  What are the colours of the jersey of this ‘team’?  When will see a major corporate confess to the ASX that it has overpaid its workers?  When next John the Baptist plays full back for Mecca and the Sultan plays full forward for Jerusalem.

Here and there -The Decline and Fall of Faith and Confidence


The Nurse does not know Romeo, but she says to him ‘If you be he, sir, I desire come confidence with you’.  She will confide in him – that is, she will place faith (fides), reliance, and trust in him.  She will trust him to keep what she says to himself, except to the extent that she may permit.  This is the kind of communication that passes between you and your lawyer, priest or doctor, and in varying degrees the law will back you up without your having to expressly stipulate that what you are saying is confidential.

If Romeo accepts the condition of the Nurse, she may have more or less confidence that he will respect her wishes.  She may be confident, to a greater or lesser degree since she does not know this youth at all, that her faith will be respected.  But, by definition, nothing about faith is ever certain.

When, in Othello, worried nobles are speculating on the designs of their Turkish enemy, the Duke says ‘Nay, in all confidence, he’s not for Rhodes’, he could be using the phrase in either of the meanings that we have just seen.  And you do not have to be a philosopher to know that you can hardly warrant any prediction about the future – let alone predict the conduct of any one of us.

The English have led the way in developing our basic model of democratic government.  At times – say, in about 1215, 1535, 1641, and 1689 – they have displayed what might fairly be called genius in shaping their constitution.  As with a lot of geniuses, you think that the answer is obvious once you have seen it – but it took them to unveil it.

At the height of their conflict with King Charles I, the Commons in 1641 passed what they called the Grand Remonstrance.  As slaps in the face go, this one was pretty loud.  Nor was it short.  In clause 197, they expressed the wish that the king should employ only such counsellors (ministers) as ‘the Parliament may have cause to confide in’ without which ‘we cannot give His Majesty such supplies for support of his own estate….’  Shortly after this, and after a stern tongue lashing from his Latin wife, Charles Stuart, as he would come to be called, lost his head, metaphorically, and sought in person to arrest his leading opponents, including the main author of the Remonstrance, in the Parliament itself – leading to a course of events where his stubborn blindness would lead to his physically losing his head at the edge of an axe.

Macaulay was always honest about what side he was on in this long battle that became a war.

In support of this opinion [the felt need of the Commons to tread softly with the King], many plausible arguments have been used.  But to all these arguments, there is one short answer.  The King could not be trusted.

The sentiment expressed in clause 197 is the keystone of responsible government that was settled by the Declaration of Rights in 1689.  It is typical of the English that what started its juristic life as a throwaway line in an instrument of dubious provenance soon became a pillar of ageless, hard law that only an inane anarchist could seek to fiddle with.  If you mention this to an English lawyer or historian, you will get a wry smile and something like: ‘Winners are grinners – the rest make their own arrangements’.

Well, they are no longer grinning – not even the winners.  Across too much of the western world, too many people have lost faith and confidence in their system of government in general, and those holding office from time to time.

Now in my eighth decade, I can sense that this has been going on slowly in Australia through most of that time, but the acceleration across the West since the Great Financial has been too hard to miss.  And the collapse of public decency in the U S and U K in the last few years has been shocking.  Have we then built our house on sand?

Those in government should not feel unfairly singled out.  Very few people have confidence in what Ibsen called the pillars of society.  Churches, trading corporations, charities, trade unions, employer groups, the professions, schools and universities (especially those lumbered with that weasel sobriquet ‘elite’), the press, sporting teams, the professions, the rich – yes, especially the filthy rich – and even the poor bloody poor and refugees are all on the nose with at least some people for one reason or another – with more reason in some cases than in others.

And as we draw further back from God and his Church, we search in vain for any kind of bedrock.  Instead we are left with a revoltingly insipid moral relativity and an even more revoltingly spineless absence of anything like leadership.  The picture is not pretty.

Even the law recognises and seeks to enforce obligations of confidence in some relations – such as partners, husband and wife, directors and shareholders, trustees, and holders of office of public trust – like Ministers of the Crown.

The President of the United States presently stands accused of breaching his office of public trust by seeking to abuse that office to obtain a personal benefit.  The essential evidence is not in dispute.  It is for the most part uncontradicted.  Nor is the allegation of breach of trust fairly answerable on that evidence.  The only question is whether that breach of trust warrants a finding that the President be removed from office.

But it looks like that process will miscarry because those charged with making that decision will commit one of the sins or failures that have brought us to this pass – they will put the interests of party over those of the nation.  And in doing so, they will not see that they are committing a wrong just like that of the man they are protecting.  And too many of them will do that because they are just plain scared of him.  Our brave ancestors who stood up to King Charles I, and who prevailed over him to our lasting benefit, would be worse than disgusted.  As would those in the American colonies who stood up to King George III and his Ministers, and who then fought and defeated his army.

As a result of the doctrine espoused in the Grand Remonstrance, our government must resign if it loses the confidence of parliament.  Can our system survive if so many people have lost confidence in it?  Before looking at what Lord Sumption says about this in his book on the Reith Lectures, we might notice some of the reasons for the fall of faith and confidence in government.

We have sat by for decades watching them let the Westminster system fail through neglect.  Government has been unable to check a shocking inequality in income and wealth that undermines faith in the only ideology in town – capitalism.  There is something inherently unreasonable and unfair going on.  There is a continuing and self-perpetuating decline in the character of people going into government – and people make money by talking with or about the worst of them.

‘Populists’ – a dreadful word – like Trump and Johnson were born to put themselves first, to discard custom and convention, to put party above the nation, and to betray all trust.  They also wallow in that tribalism that demeans all process, and all logic.  Each of them is obviously a charlatan; one is also a thug; both are bullies.  And we have apparently botched the education of a sufficient number of people to allow such people to get away with it.  And the longer they are there, the more that any trust just evaporates.

Trump and Johnson also are champions of the 100% vae victis rule.  (In Kenya, it is called: ‘It’s our turn at the table.’)  This is part of the collapse of moderation and the prevalence of tribalism.  All this is causing parties to forget their function, and is opening up the system to be gamed by minor parties, cranks and crooks.  The result is even more unattractive.

This is happening at a time when the internet is destroying minds, civility, security and privacy.  Its filthy rich drivers are seen as public enemies that our governments are too gutless or inept to control.  Just as they have failed to nail those crooks who fleece us and pay no tax.  Technology is also seen to destroy jobs.  The absurd bonuses of directors may be conditioned on sacking people.  Too few share in the wealth created by sending jobs overseas.  Too few went to jail for crimes committed in the GFC that nearly put the West on its knees.  The cries of envy and for revenge are matched by heightened credibility, and the spread of fake news and conspiracy theories are aided by people in the press who have no sense of decency, much less professional obligation.

The intellectual problem may be simply stated.  Too many people cannot tolerate uncertainty or doubt.  They crave the answer – which is both delusional and dangerous – and a sponsored response that they can hide behind.  This is how Edward Gibbon described the effect of a new faith on old beliefs.

The decline of ancient prejudice exposed a very numerous portion of human kind to the danger of a painful and comfortless situation.  A state of scepticism and suspense may amuse a few inquisitive minds. But the practice of superstition is so congenial to the multitude, that if they are forcibly awakened, they still regret the loss of their pleasing vision.  Their love of the marvellous and supernatural, their curiosity with regard to future events, and their strong propensity to extend their hopes and fears beyond the limits of the visible world, were the principal causes which favored the establishment of Polytheism.  So urgent on the vulgar is the necessity of believing, that the fall of any system of mythology will most probably be succeeded by the introduction of some other mode of superstition. 

You could get into serious trouble for saying any of that now – in part because this is a sin for which truth provides no defence.  But if you doubt it, just look at the crowd at a Trump rally or any advertisement put out by Farage.

Sectarian division has been replaced by generational schism.  Technology has made that worse too.  The young are jealous and frustrated, but we that are left worked hard and paid our taxes and we expect a return.  It’s not our fault that life was simpler and better in our flowering time – nor is it our fault that science means that we will live longer and so probably delay or wipe out any devolution.  Nor do we think that it’s our fault that people commit mayhem on the laws of language and logic.  But the sense of betrayal on climate and housing is palpable and warranted in whole generation that finds itself lost.

And our sense of family is almost travelling as badly as our feeling for religion.

Fifty years ago in this country, all the political nuts and crooks were on the side of labour.  They are all now on the side of capital.  This is in no small part due to our failure to develop a decent conservative press.  Instead, that ground is falsely claimed by unreformed Liberal Party hacks, deranged cadres from right wing think tanks, and regressive relics of a repressive sectarian faith.  And for good measure they forfeit any claim to professionalism by going after the ABC with malice fuelled by the lucre and envy of a vengeful feudal owner.  We have to face it – Murdoch is now doing to Australia what he has been doing to America.

The wilful inanity of soi disant conservatives in Australia about climate change makes it hard to resist the impression that they have been bought – which is certainly the case for at least one think tank.

Nationalism is a poll-booster that appeals to those who are jealous of their citizenship, because they think they have so little else – but it always comes with resentment and scapegoats; it is the seed of bad wars; and both get very ugly when it mixes with religion.

And people who abuse ‘elites’ because they – the members of the elite – think they know better, just fail to see that they – the critics – indulge in the same sin.  And their touchiness about inferiority and insecurity gets hilarious results with ‘experts’ – unless they themselves are on the line, in which case they will prostrate themselves before their superior.

We have rediscovered the simple truth of a democracy based on two parties – the standard of governance is only as good as the opposition.  In the U S, the U K, and Australia, dreadful people have succeeded only because the reluctant electorate could not stomach the alternative.  Each now has a leader that too many neither trust nor respect – and each has succumbed to the view that they are there on merit.

My arrival on this earth came just after the end of a war that we did not look for, but which we had to win.  We had fought bravely, and we as a nation walked tall.  We were entitled to do so.  The nation blossomed in my youth, even though its political process had been sterilised.  The whole world lay before us.

Now, as I slip back toward my ancestors and my dog, I will leave a nation whose government has at least twice led us into wars based on false premises.  As a result, we and the nations that we fought over were worse off.  There can be no more fundamental breach of trust by a government than to lead its people into war on the basis of a falsehood – and the breach is so much worse if the government knew or ought to have known that it was not telling the truth.

We at last worked up the courage and common courtesy to apologise to our first nations for the way we took over their land and for what we did to them.  I have not heard any apology from anyone in government for our bad wars.  Instead, the politician who most owes us an apology refused to join in the apology to the blackfellas.  How do you place any confidence in people who behave like that to you?

They are some of our present discontents.

In Trials of the State, Lord Sumption says:

Fundamentally, we obey the state because we respect the legitimacy of the political order on which it is founded.  Legitimacy is a vital but elusive concept in human affairs.  Legitimacy is less than law but more than opinion.  It is a collective instinct that we owe it to each other to accept the authority of our institutions, even when we do not like what they are doing.  This depends on an unspoken sense that we are [all] in it together…..legitimacy is still the basis of all consent.  For all its power the modern state depends on a large measure of tacit consent…..

The legitimacy of state action in a democracy depends on a general acceptance of its decision-making processes…..Democracies operate on the implicit basis that although the majority has authorised policies which the minority rejects, these differences are transcended by their common acceptance of the legitimacy of its decision-making processes….Majority rule is the basic principle of democracy.  But that only means that a majority is enough to authorise the state’s acts.  It is not enough to make them legitimate….Democracies cannot operate on the basis that a bare majority takes 100% of the political spoils.

The notions of legitimacy and tacit consent are hard to nail down, but our law was founded on custom and our politics depend on conventions.  My own view is that ultimately the rule of law depends on little more than a state of mind.  I wonder now whether the same does not hold for our whole system of government.

We are looking for an implied premise of reasonableness or moderation.  Our law says that the parties to an agreement are obliged to try to help each other get what they have promised.  At the very least, they must not take steps to abort the deal.  So, if I promise to do something if I get a permit, and I change my mind, and try to stop the issue of the permit, the law will deal with me.

Let us look at a political analogy.  The Republicans defied convention by blocking President Obama’s appointment of a Supreme Court justice, which is seen to be a huge political prize in the U S (especially by those puritans who avert their gaze and hold their nose to vote for Trump).  Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke of putting a spoke in the wheel.  But that was to stop Hitler.  The Republicans now put spokes in the wheel of the United States.  And now Trump is repeating the dose by shutting down the WTO by stopping new appointments.  This is another bad faith breach of convention for short term political gain.

Lord Sumption says that it is not enough for a law to be ‘good’ – the public must in some sense ‘own’ the law.  ‘Law must have the legitimacy which only some process of consent can confer.’  This gets hard when we look at the failure of the public to engage in the process.  This in his view is the problem.  It is the same here.  Few people now wish to join a political party, and not many members of parties are that keen to talk about it – except with insiders.  There is a sense of estrangement – and ‘wholesale rejection.’  Confidence is gone.

I entirely agree that formulating a new constitution or trying to get judges to fix the problem is not the answer.  I also agree that one reason the Americans are so tied up on abortion is that the law is judge made – so that they vote for people as president who will appoint judges to change that law.  It would be hard to conceive of a more twisted perversion of the separation of powers.

As to legislating in a binding constitutional manner for human rights and conventions, look at what a mess we have made of company law by overlaying the broad teaching of equity with vast volumes of black letter law.  And then recall that recently a government that calls itself conservative thought that the answer was to scrap equity for that purpose – and for the relief of their friends in business who had lobbied them so frenziedly (quite possibly with the well-endowed aid of a few former ministers of that party).  And that is the same party that goes into reverse cartwheels at the mere mention of investigating federal corruption.

The author says:

On critical issues, our political culture has lost the capacity to identify common premises, common bonds and common priorities that stand above our differences.

He quotes an American judge who said ‘a society so riven that the spirit of moderation has gone, no court can save.’  All that is as true for us as it is for England and America.  Disraeli – ‘perhaps the only true genius ever to rise to the top of British politics’ – said the problem with England was ‘the decline of its character as a community.’

That sense of community is vital.  Like ‘confidence’, the word ‘commune’ has a very long history – on both sides of the Channel.  In the enforcement clause in Magna Carta, the barons reserved a right to go against a defaulting king ‘with the whole commune’.  The great French historian Marc Bloch said:

….by substituting for the promise of obedience, paid for by protection, they contributed to the social life of Europe, profoundly alien to the feudal spirit properly so called.

The commune exploded in France in 1792 and 1869.  For better or worse, you can see its descendants today in gillets jaunes. 

When an Englishman was arraigned in court to be tried a jury, the jury would be told that the accused ‘has put himself upon his country, which country you are.’  That is a very stirring phrase.  The jury was originally brought over by the Normans as an inquiry made of neighbours – that is, the local community having an interest in the relevant inquiry.  The first medieval reports of cases might refer to the pleadings and then just say: ‘Issue to the country.’

Lord Sumption goes on:

…..experience counts for a great deal in human affairs: more than rationality, more even than beauty.  Ultimately, the habits, traditions and attitudes of human communities are more powerful than law.  Indeed they are the foundation of law.

Oliver Wendell Holmes might have said that.

These notions are large, but we must deal with them.  Lord Sumption fears that we will not recognise the end of democracy when it comes.    I wonder whether we will go down like the way Gibbon saw the Roman Empire go down.

….as soon as time or accident had removed the artificial supports, the stupendous fabric yielded to the pressure of its own weight.  The story of its ruin is simple and obvious; and instead of inquiring why the Roman Empire was destroyed, we should rather be surprised that it had subsisted so long.

You know things are sick when a fat, ugly seventy-three year old man, who happens to be the President of the United States, bullies a sixteen year old Swedish girl on the absurdly named ‘social media’ for giving voice to the sense of betrayal of her generation.

I’m not sorry that I will not be here to see the end of it all.


In Chapter 3 of his History of England, Macaulay experienced something like an epiphany on how we see our ups and downs.

It is now the fashion to place the golden age of England in times when noblemen were destitute of comforts the want of which would be intolerable to a modern footman, when farmers and shopkeepers breakfasted on loaves the very sight of which would raise a riot in a modern workhouse, when to have a clean shirt once a week was a privilege reserved for the higher class of gentry, when men died faster in the purest country air than they now die in the most pestilential lanes of our towns, and when men died faster in the lanes of our towns than they now die on the coast of Guiana. We too shall, in our turn, be outstripped, and in our turn be envied. It may well be, in the twentieth century, that the peasant of Dorsetshire may think himself miserably paid with twenty shillings a week; that the carpenter at Greenwich may receive ten shillings a day; that labouring men may be as little used to dine without meat as they now are to eat rye bread; that sanitary police and medical discoveries may have added several more years to the average length of human life; that numerous comforts and luxuries which are now unknown, or confined to a few, may be within the reach of every diligent and thrifty working man. And yet it may then be the mode to assert that the increase of wealth and the progress of science have benefited the few at the expense of the many, and to talk of the reign of Queen Victoria as the time when England was truly merry England, when all classes were bound together by brotherly sympathy, when the rich did not grind the faces of the poor, and when the poor did not envy the splendour of the rich.

Here and there – Fear and jealousy in Shakespeare


  1. Cassius

Cassius was a jealous, scheming, hypocritical jerk of a politician – and Caesar saw straight through him.  He gave the perfect portrait of the ratbag we describe as a ‘smiling assassin.’

Let me have men about me that are fat;
Sleek-headed men and such as sleep o’ nights:
Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look;
He thinks too much: such men are dangerous……

Would he were fatter! But I fear him not:
Yet if my name were liable to fear,
I do not know the man I should avoid
So soon as that spare Cassius. He reads much;
He is a great observer and he looks
Quite through the deeds of men: he loves no plays,
As thou dost, Antony; he hears no music;
Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort
As if he mock’d himself and scorn’d his spirit
That could be moved to smile at any thing.
Such men as he be never at heart’s ease
Whiles they behold a greater than themselves,
And therefore are they very dangerous.  (1.2.192 – 210)

That is word perfect.  Cassius envies Caesar for his successes and standing.  He only goes back to his youth to belittle and mock Caesar.  He works on the politically naïve Brutus by saying that Caesar makes the Roman nobility look small – ‘petty even.’

Why, man, he doth bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus, and we petty men
Walk under his huge legs and peep about
To find ourselves dishonourable graves.
Men at some time are masters of their fates:
The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars,
But in ourselves, that we are underlings.
Brutus and Caesar: what should be in that ‘Caesar’?
Why should that name be sounded more than yours?  (1.2. 135 – 142)

His envy of Caesar drives him to seek to plant jealousy in the breast of the ‘noble’ Brutus.  And he believes, with all crooked politicians, that every man has his price.  He thinks he can play Caesar like a violin.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet, I see,
Thy honourable metal may be wrought
From that it is disposed: therefore it is meet
That noble minds keep ever with their likes;
For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.307 – 312)

Cassius is one of the assassins and he makes the banal cry – the banality of evil – ‘Liberty, freedom, and enfranchisement!’  (Yes, and who bloody for, Mate?)

Antony said that Brutus was the noblest Roman of them all and that he was the only conspirator who did not kill ‘in envy of great Caesar.’  Well, Shakespeare did a number on chivalry with Falstaff and Troilus and Cressida, and in my view he did a number on nobility with Brutus and Cassius.  One was a hopeless political ingénue; the other was a dreadful political skunk.

  1. Othello

When Othello prefers Cassio to Iago for the office of being his lieutenant, Iago is jealous of Cassio and he envies and hates both Cassio and Othello because they are above him on the ladder – and, to boot, Othello is not even a white man!  It may be one thing for a commissioned officer from Sandhurst to prefer a man from Eton and the Guards over an NCO from a coal-mining family in Durham – but, in the name of God, how do you respond if the Sandhurst chap is black?  Iago plans revenge by inducing Othello to believe that Cassio is having an affair with Othello’s wife, Desdemona.  This promises a ‘Divinity of hell!’ (2.3.350)  The evil is Satanic.  An ancient theologian, Origen, said this of the AntiChrist –

…..since evil is specially characterised by its diffusion, and attains its greatest height when it simulates the appearance of the good, for that reason are signs, and marvels, and miracles found to accompany evil, through the co-operation of its father, the Devil.

That is Iago.  And for many reasons, Othello is a ripe target.  His tragic flaw is that he has not one iota of what Keats discerned in the author of this play as ‘Negative Capability’ – ‘when man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable seeking out of fact and reason’. In the space of about a hundred lines, and in the course of a discussion on the first day of his honeymoon, Othello has gone from threatening to kill his sergeant to getting his sergeant to kill his lieutenant while he works out the best way to kill his wife.  And all because he could not bear being left in doubt.

Othello therefore stands for the cancer in our public life now.  People crave a clear tribal response regardless of the evidence.  Othello is the kind of fodder that Fox and Sky News thrive on – a sucker for any conspiracy story, or any bloated fool who flogs them.

Iago is very much like Satan.  A C Bradley said of him:

..Iago is a being who hates good simply because it is good, and loves evil purely for itself.  His action is not prompted by any plain motive like revenge, jealousy or ambition.  It springs from a ‘motiveless malignity, or a disinterested delight in the pain of others….

Iago, then, stands for the other great cancer of our public life now – egoism unleashed.

  1. Conclusion

How does this stack up against the ‘banality of evil’ seen by Hannah Arendt?  Well, for a start, Eichmann was real.  Leontes and Iago are figments of imagination who played no part in the murder of six million people.  Arendt had the vital insight that Eichmann was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing would have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for his extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realized what he was doing.

Perhaps the most singular clash of good and evil comes with Billy Budd.  Billy is as handsome as he is simple and innocent.  But John Claggart, the Master-at Arms cannot tolerate this simple beauty or goodness.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it?  …The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

Like Polyxenes, Melville goes back to the very beginning to describe primal innocence.  We are told that the ‘Handsome Sailor…in the nude might have posed for a statue of young Adam before the Fall.’  The vicious leer of Robert Ryan as Claggart in the movie chills the blood.  But this kind of evil is best expressed in the libretto for the Britten opera written by E M Forster and another.

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
Would that I never encountered you!
Would that I lived in my own world always,
in that depravity to which I was born.
There I found peace of a sort, there I established
an order such as reigns in Hell…….
Having seen you, what choice remains to me?
None, none! I’m doomed to annihilate you,
I’m vowed to your destruction. ….
No, you cannot escape!
With hate and envy I’m stronger than love….

O beauty, o handsomeness, goodness!
You surely in my power tonight.
Nothing can defend you.
Nothing! So may it be!
For what hope remains if love can escape?
If love still lives and grows strong where I cannot enter,
what hope is there in my own dark world for me?
No! I cannot believe it! That were torment to keen.
I, John Claggart,
Master-at-Arms upon the ‘Indomitable’,
have you in my power, and I will destroy you.

‘With hate and envy I’m stronger than love’.  Even without Britten’s thumping score, this is elementally vicious.  Putting to one side the real world, including Auschwitz and Hiroshima, have you ever seen evil like this?



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]


Julius Epstein, Philip Epstein, Howard Koch

Special Hollywood Edition, 1992, rebound in half gold leather and purple boards.

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Everyone has their favourite movie.  Until recently, most film buffs named Citizen Kane, although you might go a long way until you found someone other than a film buff who really likes that movie.  In the last few years, Citizen Kane has been tipped off that perch by other movies that few people have ever heard of.  But everyone – or at least everyone born before the Vietnam War – knows Casablanca.  And those same people just know that Casablanca is the best film ever – beyond any argument.

Rick is a bruised American refugee from reality.  He runs a nightclub in neutral Casablanca which is a seedy hub of corruption for people fleeing the Germans and Vichy France.  A beautiful woman emerges from a lovelorn past that Rick thought he had buried, and he must decide between her and taking sides in the war.  ‘Honour’ is not in Rick’s lexicon.  Well, the film was made during the war, and that may tell you how Hollywood, and this as Hollywood as it gets, resolves Rick’s dilemma.

Hal Wallis bought the rights to an as yet unproduced play called Everyone Comes to Rick’s.  He paid $20,000, a huge amount in January 1942, a record for a play that had not yet been produced.  Filming started on 25 May and concluded on 3 August, just over two months.  The whole film was shot in the studio, with film of Paris and one airport shot.  The costs came in at just over a million dollars, a little over budget.  Wallis wrote the immortal last line a month after shooting was completed, and the lead had to be brought back to dub it.  The film premiered in New York before the end of 1942, and met with moderate critical and box office receptions.

This was Humphrey Bogart’s first truly romantic role.  One critic said of Ingrid Bergman and Bogart that ‘she paints his face with her eyes.’  The director was careful to film from her preferred left side – often with a softening gauze filter and with ‘catch lights’ set up to make her eyes sparkle; the whole effect was designed to make her face seem ‘ineffably sad and tender and nostalgic’.  Well, they certainly got that right.  Wallis got Bergman from Selznick by swapping Olivia de Havilland – Hollywood was then a very feudal place.  Paul Henreid did not want his part (for which he demanded equal billing) – the lethal New Yorker critic, Pauline Kael, said that ‘it set him as a stiff forever.’  Well, how many young men burnt their fingers and whatever else by spoiling an amorous moment by trying the two cigarette trick of Paul Henreid in Now, Voyager?

For many people, including me, the star of the show is Claude Rains, who gets the most outrageous lines and looks like the quintessence of the schmaltz that lies at the very heart of this film – although Sydney Greenstreet and Peter Lorre will always have their followers, as will S Z Sackall as Carl.  If you look at the extended cast list on the Web, you will see very many people from out of town living in exile while the outcome of the war, and the whole future of Europe, hung in the balance.  Someone who was there when they shot the scene of the two anthems saw many of the actors shedding real tears.  (Three sisters of Carl were killed in concentration camps.)  Patriotism may be the last refuge of the scoundrel, and it was anathema to Rick, but it is a large part of the fiber of the heart-strings of this film.

Casablanca regularly tops the polls of general audience favourites.  For nearly forty years, it has been the most frequently broadcast film on U S TV.  Many of the babyboomers keep going back like people go back to Hamlet and Tosca.  For them, the nostalgia only gets worse with time – it is like going back home to your mum and dad, when life seemed ever so less complicated.  But people who have only seen it on T V, and then, as often as not, in a lachrymose condition not uninduced by drink, have to see it on the big screen.  Even if you have seen it twenty times on the small screen, you will see it as if for the first time when you see it on the big screen.  There is, for example, the moment when Bogart looks around and sees that Bergman is coming back into his closed off life – and he has the look of white terror of a man staring into the void.  The only other time I have seen this on stage, or anywhere else, was when Luciano Pavarotti was performing in an open air concert in Central Park – as he steeled himself for his launch at a high C, he for one instant, showed this look of vacant white terror in his eyes.  You might wonder with this was, consciously or not, a set part of his stage performance.

Different people have different favourite lines.  Some of the most cited lines are:

Louis, I think this is the beginning of a beautiful friendship.

Play it, Sam. Play ‘As Time Goes By.’

Round up the usual suspects.

We’ll always have Paris.

Of all the gin joints in all the towns in all the world, she walks into mine.

A friend of mine, who is called the Phantom, cherishes this exchange between a Rick and a young ‘broad’ getting the brush off.


Where were you last night?


That’s so long ago, I don’t remember.


Will I see you tonight?



I never make plans that far ahead.

Bogart gets the most wounding lines.

ILSA How nice. You remembered. But of course, that was the day the Germans marched into Paris. RICK Not an easy day to forget. ILSA No. RICK I remember every detail. The Germans wore gray, you wore blue.


Tell me, who was it you left me for? Was it Laszlo, or were there others in between? Or aren’t you the kind that tells? My own favourites involve Claude Rains (Captain Renault), delivered with the consummate dead-pan timing of London’s West End theatre:RENAULT I have often speculated on why you don’t return to America. Did you abscond with the church funds? Did you run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think you killed a man. It’s the romantic in me. Rick still looks in the direction of the airport. RICK It was a combination of all three. RENAULT And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca? RICK My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters. RENAULT Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert . RICK I was misinformed.

And after the singing of the Marseillaise, the Germans tell Renault to shut down Rick’s.

RICK How can you close me up? On what grounds? RENAULT I am shocked, shocked to find that gambling is going on in here! This display of nerve leaves Rick at a loss. The croupier comes out of the gambling room and up to Renault. He hands him a roll of bills. CROUPIER Your winnings, sir. RENAULT Oh. Thank you very much. He turns to the crowd again. RENAULT Everybody out at once !

The business of Hollywood can be simply stated.  It is to make money by making a movie that people will pay to see because they will be entertained by it.  It is hard to envisage any movie that has or will entertain as many people as Casablanca.  It won three Academy Awards, including best picture, best screenplay, and best director, but those awards mean little now.  It matters not if you say that here is a film of Hollywood luxuriating in its own emotionalism, or that this film represents the crudest form of manipulation or kitsch.  The film works, and it is just about shot perfect and word perfect and mood perfect.  Forget critical or historical analysis – Casablanca, like Bradman or Black Caviar, just happened.  Here’s looking at you, kid.

And then there are those hats……


Passing Bull 223 – A weekend riot


The weekend press was alive with the sound of bullshit.

Simon Benson gave one of his paper’s encomiums on the Mayor of Box Hill (aka ScoMo) in the lead article on page 1.

On the same page, Dennis Shanahan reported, exclusively, that the drought boss wants to keep politics out of the discussion of drought.  Since that paper eschews discussion of science and drought, what is there left?  And what logic led a senior civil servant to conclude that giving a first page exclusive to the Murdoch press on the subject of drought was a good way to keep politics out of the discussion?

On the front page of the Inquirer, Simon Benson returned to his paean upon the Mayor.  He thinks it’s a good idea that the Ministers choose civil servants that they get on with.  Some unfortunate person actually used the term ‘drain the swamp.’

Paul Kelly ponders.  There is a word for that.

Chris Kenny goes into bat for the accident prone Angus Taylor – with all the set trimmings about the ‘green left’ and the ‘love media.’  ‘Childish’ would be unduly complimentary.  The opening is out of this world.

The impeachment circus plays out in Washington as the resistance tries yet again to tear down Donald Trump as he dismisses the charade as ‘bullshit.’

It is as if popularity is a complete defence for a populist.  For at least six years, Adolf Hitler must have been the darling of this kind of observer.

Janet Albrechtsen matches Kenny.  Her piece is headed ‘Woke hypocrites humiliated as Folaus bask in apology.’  While contemplating a life in exile, as more churches shut their doors.

Gerard Henderson is sniping at a colleague again.  No one on that paper understands what the word ‘professional’ entails.  They are driven from above to attack the ABC.  Mr Henderson starts by saying that what worries him about a Nine report ‘was the absence of doubt.’  Good grief!  Was someone being dogmatic?  Like the jury of a man named Pell?  Or his defenders?

And so it goes, as the man said.


… is core religious dogma of all progressives that radical action must be taken to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.  Activists never level with people that this must mean drastically reduced living standards.  So when inevitably climate action explicitly reduces living standards, the public rebels.

Greg Sheridan, The Weekend Australian, 7-8 December, 2019

Well, not many people like paying tax, but we have to if we want schools, hospitals and armed forces.  There is a process to resolve all that.  It is called government.  And as Sharan Burrow reminds Spanish coal miners in a BBC clip, there are no jobs on a dead planet.