Religious Violence – Not in God’s Name

Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks is a man of astounding learning and, at last count, sixteen honorary degrees.  When he writes a book with the above title, and the sub-title Confronting Religious Violence, we really should take note.  Not least because his conclusions will frighten you out of your wits.

…the world will be more religious a generation from now, not less…It has to do with demography.  The more religious people are, the more children they have.  The indigenous populations of Europe, the most secular continent on earth are committing long slow suicide…..Within religion, the most extreme, anti-modern or anti-Western movements will prevail.  This is happening in Judaism, Christianity and Islam.  The old marriage of religion and culture has ended in divorce.  Today the secular West has largely lost the values that used to be called the Judeo-Christian heritage….Losing its religious faith, the west is beginning to lose the ideals that once made it inspiring to the altruistic…..The moral relativism that prevails today in the secular West is no defence of freedom…..In a world of relativism, what talks is power….So there will be more terror, more bloodshed….The West, indeed the world, has never faced a challenge quite like this.

As it happens, although I am as unreligious as you can decently get, I agree with every word.  As I think the author says elsewhere, the threat is not so much between the religions as within them – or at least the three that we most focus on.

The book looks at the origins of violence among humans, develops a theory of sibling rivalry, and offers explanations for some unsavoury parts of the bible.  I offer a few comments.

First, in looking at history, theology, philosophy, sociology and psychoanalysis – Freud is prominent – not to mention the huge literature of Judaism, it is not surprising if we get spread a bit thin.  For example, the author finds that we are subject to ‘two sets of instincts, honed and refined by many centuries of evolutionary history’ – the readiness to co-operate within our own group and to fight those in another group.  Darwin’s theory of evolution supplies the answer.

Let us put to one side that some people – a substantial part of the US Congress – do not accept that theory, what part does God have to play in our propensity for violence, whether we started in the Garden of Eden or in the backblocks of Africa?  It is a little disconcerting that when the author comes to Nazi ideology, he says it was pagan and propped up by ideas thought at the time to be scientific – including ‘social Darwinism’ the theory that the same processes operating in nature operate in society also.  The strong survive by eliminating the weak.’

It is not surprising that the process, whatever it is, continues in us, since we are its current end product, but it is a little worrying that the author’s starting point on human violence is the same theory.  Similarly, the author flirts with the suggestion that violence does not come from religion – religion comes out of violence.  That is a dangerous place to go for a man of God.

Secondly, Muslims are not the only ones with long memories when it comes to the Crusades.  The author dates the massacres of Jews before the first crusade as the time when Jews became a scapegoat leading, for example, to the Black Death.  ‘That period added to the vocabulary of the West such ideas as public disputation, book burning, forced conversion, Inquisition, auto-da fe, expulsion, ghetto and pogrom.’

Thirdly, Freud figures largely in the theory about sibling rivalry being at the core of the problem of violence.  Any parent of more than one child knows about this.  When she was about three and her sister about twelve months, our number one, a propos of nothing, picked up a handful of sand and pushed it firmly into the face of number two on Green Island, and number two let the mainland know.  A few years later, on Christmas Day, I heard number one pick up a broken toy ukulele and say ‘that one’s buggered – it can be Amy’s.’  But how do you verify the theory that this rivalry is at the core of violence between groups?  And where does it lead you?  Well, one thing it tells you is that it is madness, moral madness, for a parent to treat one child differently to others without good reason

That leads to the next point.  To deal with the complaint that God plays favourites by doing special deals with people he likes, Lord Sacks develops a distinction between the universality of God as Creator and Sovereign, and the particularity of the covenant with Abraham, Moses and the Israelites.  There are two covenants – one with Noah and the rest of us, and the other with Abraham and one particular people.  One represents universality and justice; the other particularity and love.  There is a dualism – a spectre elsewhere for the Rabbi – in Hebrew spirituality.  ‘It accepts the inevitability of the here-and- now.  We are not all the same.  There is an Us and Them.  But God is universal as well as particular, which means he can be found among Them as well as Us.  God transcends our particularities.’

Why in heaven’s name does He bother?  I had thought that excessive, sense-defying intellectualism was a virus peculiar to Christianity.  If it is silly for me to second-guess Einstein, why should I try it on with God?  Does the ordinary member of the congregation understand or accept any of this?

If they do, where does it take us?  God still does a special deal to single out one child from others and that is what inflames sibling rivalry – which the author says is the fount of all our problems.  And if you want to see sibling rivalry in action here it is in the author’s own words:

For all the natural pride we feel in being part of our group – the people of the covenant, a holy nation we are brought face to face with the fact that others may respond to the word of God better than we do.

If I may say so without offence, that remark gives a whole new meaning to the word ‘patronising’.

It seemed to me that a chicken-and–egg issue runs through a lot of this.  You shift the problem back one stage, but the problem or question remains.  Take the wars of conquest.  The author has to confront the problem lawyers know so well: ‘Whatever else a verse means, it means what it says.’  The Promised Land was taken by people like Joshua with appalling slaughter of men, women, and children, what today we call ethnic cleansing, ordained by God.

As I understand Lord Sacks, he says two things.  First, the victims were offered peace but refused it.  Secondly, the nation of the sword became the people of the book.  It is not hard to envisage a Palestinian response to either suggestion; indeed, as to the nation of the sword becoming the people of the book, I can imagine the reaction of most of Tel Aviv – most of them have to work for a living and help to defend the same nation; neither is within the contemplation of the people of the book.

So, we need some good news, and the author has it.  He refers to the changed relationship between Jews and Christians after the Holocaust.  He might have referred to the remark of Angela Merkel that the state of Israel is part of Germany’s raison d’etre, but he does quote the present pope: ‘God’s fidelity to the close covenant with Israel never failed, and… through the terrible trials of these centuries, the Jews have kept their faith in God.  And for this we shall never be sufficiently grateful to them as Church but also as humanity.’  The author says that ‘this may be the first time that a pope has publicly recognised that in staying true to their faith, Jews were being loyal to God, not faithless to him.  That is a statement capable of changing the world.’

People outside the religious circle may not be so optimistic.  The author elsewhere describes the exodus of Jews from across Europe – largely, as it seems to me, in response to Muslim migration, to put it softly, and the inevitable demographic consequences.  It is not a world that I will be sorry to leave.

May I conclude with perhaps just another example of Us versus Them?  I could hardly claim that Immanuel Kant is a mate of mine, but I will certainly look up if he is attacked.  Having referred to a throwaway line by Voltaire about the Jews (‘Still, we ought not to burn them’), Lord Sacks says that Kant ‘spoke of the Jews as ‘the vampires of society’ and called for ‘the euthanasia of Judaism.’

Kant is revered as a leader of the European Enlightenment, and is widely seen as the best placed to fill the ethical void left by the decline of religion.  We know that Konigsberg, where Kant lived, was the home of a large and successful Jewish community, and that Kant was very proud of the width of his friendships across the city.  (His best friend was an idiosyncratic English merchant.)  We know that Kant had almost a life-long and amicable correspondence with Moses Mendelssohn, a prominent Jewish philosopher and theologian, and the father of the composer.  We know that Kant conducted this correspondence and publicly defended Mendelsshon in a major controversy out of a deep intellectual respect – Mendelssohn had beaten Kant for a big prize.  We know that Kant backed Jewish students to overcome their disability with the establishment, and that he expressed his admiration for the achievements of Jewish students.  We know that Kant was warned off by the Prussian Establishment for his dangerous views on the state religion.  We know that Kant said that both sides would seek to make something out of the preservation of the Jewish people and religion.

One man sees in the continuation of the people to which he belongs, and in his ancient faith which remained unmixed despite the dispersion among such diverse nations, the proof of a special beneficent Providence saving this people for a future kingdom on earth; the other sees nothing but the warning ruins of a disrupted state which set itself against the coming of the kingdom of heaven – ruins, however, which a special Providence still sustains, partly to preserve in memory the ancient prophecy of a Messiah arising from this people, partly to offer, in this people, an example of punitive justice visited upon it because it stiff-neckedly sought to create a political and moral concept of the Messiah.

Kant was a supreme moral and intellectual heavyweight, and is not to be reduced by some gnat straining at a camel.  It is therefore disappointing that Lord Sacks does not give any context at all for the words alleged against Kant, and this in a book which labours the obvious point that context is indispensable in looking at statements that are controversial, and it is more than disappointing that when we go to the notes at the end, it appears that the author is not relying on the primary German source, but a citation by someone in Princeton in 1990 in a book about revolutionary antisemitism.  Really, my lord, third party sledging is not smiled upon in the universities that we most admire.  This might fairly be said to be a sample of the loose thinking and casual smearing that lie at the heart of the whole bloody problem.


My footy team lost on the weekend.  I was neither surprised nor upset.  (I might same the same about Ferrari.)  We had a good season and I got my money’s worth.  It was going to be hard without Billy Slater, notwithstanding the great show by his replacement.  And we were beaten by a clearly better side on the night led by Jonathon Thurston.

I have spoken of this player here before.  He is clearly one of the best and most attractive sportsmen going around in this country, one of those it is a shame that we do not get to see on the world stage.  In the course of the game, he gave one my boys a spray that Mr Will Swanton in The Australian said could serve as his motto – words to the effect, omitting colour, that there was no need to act like a half-wit.  Mr Swanton says, and most would agree with him, that that is very good advice for a whole of people in and about sport in this country.

Having orchestrated a high octane win over the Melbourne Storm on Saturday night, a human pinball setting up tries with deft passes and one boomerang kick that ensured the Storm would not come back, Thurston returned to Townsville yesterday as the free-spirited, free-wheeling face and co-captain of a power-house club.  More than 1000 cheering fans greeted the team’s return at the airport.

Good grief – this might take us back to when footy was a game.

Mr Swanton commends the spray about half-wits ‘to any athlete or alleged fan who reckons they have the right to behave atrociously before blaming the heat of the moment as an excuse’.

Thurston is the poster-boy for commitment without the cringe factor.  Thurston shows you can be passionate.  You can give it your all.  And you can still be dressed in the cloak of human decency.

I commend Mr Swanton for his words.  And on Sunday evening you may want to have a look at a real champion in action.  Last night he won his fourth League Medal, so passing Andrew Johns, who I put up there with Ablett Senior.  He is the blackfella in the headgear who somehow does not get killed and, unless I am putting the kiss of death on him, passes the ball in a way you have not seen.  And you should get behind the Cowboys – they are yet to win a flag.  They are like Hawthorn in 1961.

You might also give thought to the other rugby.  There was a show last night on when South Africa won the World Cup, when Mandela went into the rooms before and presented the Cup later – a supreme moral genius of our time.  I can offer you an unsurpassable incentive for this weekend.  Australia plays England – and can knock them out.  The only advice I offer is that when we are kicking for goal, you might want to go to the dunny.  I feel better watching Jason Day with a twenty footer.

From journalist to Tory PM – Part II – Does the Sermon on the Mount apply to governments?

Eton was not good for Robert Gascoyne-Cecil (Lord Salisbury).  He was brutally bullied and his father would not take him away from the school.  According to Andrew Roberts, Eton fed his ‘pessimism about human nature’, and his assumptions about the ‘cowardice of the silent majority, the cruelty of the mob and the vulnerability of the rights of the individual’ – not so bad in themselves, but worrying when the speaker puts himself above the majority – as he surely will.  ‘I think the human heart naturally so bad that if not checked by true religion, the bad will generally prevail over the good’.  That is far less healthy.  And Salisbury sent his own sons to Eton – because he thought it had improved.  That was a rare welcome of change from a man who was instinctively against it.

At one time, Cecil, while a journalist, said that ‘we are to be governed by a set of weathercocks, delicately poised, warranted to indicate with unnerving accuracy every variation in public feeling.’  Well, we have seen that gutlessness triumphant.  But then he went on to speak of Realpolitik, and to put the teaching of Christ in its place.

No one dreams of conducting national affairs with the principles which are prescribed to individuals.  The meek and poor spirited among nations are not to be blessed, and the common sense of Christendom has always prescribed for national policy principles which are diametrically opposed to those that are laid down in the  Sermon on the Mount.’

This is most important.  We suspect that governments proceed on this basis, but we rarely see it spelt out this way.  The dispensation is said to come from ‘common sense’, not scripture.  Jesus did not say that his teachings did not apply to Caesar.  You will find no support in Scripture for the notion that government is as no-fly zone for the Sermon on the Mount.  And how and when do you draw the line?

Later Salisbury ‘treated scruples….with marked contempt….if our ancestors had cared for the rights of other people, the British Empire would not have been made.’  How many hundred millions, including the Irish, would have said – so much the better?  This is an imperial rejection of the Sermon on the Mount.

On another occasion, Salisbury said that ‘The vast multitude of Indians I thoroughly believe are well contented with our rule…they have changed masters so often that there is nothing humiliating to them in having gained a new one.’  But he later said that they would ‘certainly cut every English throat they can lay their hands on whenever they can do it safely’.

Christianity forced its way up from being the religion of slaves and outcasts, to become the religion of the powerful and rich; but somehow it seems to have lost the power of forcing its way down again.

You will find no warrant for that transition in Scripture.  If it is a fair comment, it explains the near terminal position of the Church today.

Accordingly, rebellious subjects could easily be put down.  When some Australian colonists got frisky, Cecil said that ‘four sloops of war could at any time bring the four colonies to their knees.’

This imperial Christian’s views on the Civil War were quite odd – to the point of madness.  He supported the Confederacy because ‘the best chance for the alleviation of the slave’s condition lies in the increased wealth and prosperity of the South.’  Of the Red Indians, he had said that the Americans ‘sought to Christianise the country by the simple expedient of slaughtering all who were not Christians.’  John Wilkes Booth had shown ‘not only courage but the hardihood of desperation.’  And, you, too, Judas?

He was of course brutally racist with the Irish.  ‘A sound whipping – stinging but not injurious – administered once a week for six months is the prescription and the world will have heard the last of Fenianism.’  A whipping that is ‘stinging but not injurious’ – was one taught that at Eton or Oxford?  Like Cromwell, he wanted ‘a strong and merciless hand’ in Ireland.  When people said the Irish should get their freedom like Canada and Australia, Salisbury said that Ireland was only four hours away and ‘a large proportion of the Irish people hated us.’  In one famous faux pas, he compared the Irish to the Hottentots – who were beneath the Orientals governed in India.

As Roberts remarked in another context, ‘Salisbury believed implicitly in the politics of prestige and vengeance.’  So do most politicians – but not many get to live up to it.  If Britain could not rule Ireland, ‘what right have we to go lecturing the Sultan as to the state of things in Armenia or Macedonia?’  In the Transvaal, he said, ‘to put it in a terse Oriental phrase, they have eaten dirt in vain.’  This book really should be compulsory reading for the whole State Department.

Because of his birth, and connections, Salisbury did not have to ask for votes.  He was spared

….days and weeks of screwed-up smiles and laboured courtesy, the mock geniality, the hearty shake of the filthy hand, the chuckling reply that has to be made to the coarse joke, the loathsome choking compliment that must be paid to the grimy wife and sluttish daughter, the indispensable flattery of the vilest religious prejudices, the wholesale deglutition of hypocritical pledges.

Well, at least the ruling class then did not have to mix with shock jocks.

Salisbury did have some journalistic flair.  ‘Matters seem very critical….a woman on the Throne and a Jew adventurer who had found out the secret of getting around her.’  He was spot on there and he overcame his dislike of Disraeli to form a strong combination with him – and to learn from him.  (He learned never to respond to the press unless they were dead wrong.)  He spoke of politicians ‘whose courage overboils in Opposition and only simmers in office.’  There are plenty of those around.

He diagnosed the condition of Greece:

The Greeks have magnificent dreams and splendid recollections but after seventy years of independence, their exchequer is nearly bankrupt, their public men and their tribunals are corrupt, and their punishment of crime is so uncertain by political favouritism and brigandage is beginning to rear its head again.

Yes, we can see that; but later he said ‘the Greeks are a contemptible race.’

He of course savaged Rousseau and Voltaire: ‘By their writings – their infidelity and their rant about the rights of man that the gloomy enthusiasts were inspired.’  He also bucketed moderates like Lafayette, Necker and Sieyes.

They believed intensely in amiable theories, they loved the sympathy and applause of their fellow men, they were kind-hearted and charitably fancied everybody as well-meaning as themselves, and therefore…they were the proximate causes of a civil convulsion which, for the horror of its calamities, stands alone in the history of the world.

There is a lot to be said for that view.

He had the heart of a conservative.  ‘With us the feebleness of our government is our security – and the only one we have against revolutionary changes in the law.’  Is government in the U S and here crippled now by that attitude?

We have so to conduct our legislation that we shall give some satisfaction to both classes and masses.  This is specially different with the classes – because all legislation is rather unwelcome to them as tending to disturb a state of things with which they are satisfied.

This is a true conservative – but not a zealot.  He wanted to legislate about housing for the poor, compensation for workers, and pensions for the aged – for each of which he could be damned as a socialist in the U S today.

When property is in question, I am guilty of erecting individual liberty as an idol, but when you pass from liberty to life, in no well-governed state, in no state governed according to the principles of common humanity, are the claims of mere liberty to endanger the lives of the citizens.

This was the British political genius – never let theory run over the facts.  Which they did in the Boer War when 20,000 Boer women and children died in concentration camps.  Still, Salisbury would not be the last conservative PM who professed to follow the teaching of the Sermon on the Mount who would be content to lock up unwanted foreigners in concentration camps.

And Salisbury also saw exactly how bad politics could get.

Nobody argues now.  They give you an opinion neatly expressed in a single sentence, and that does the work of argument.  My belief is that a fallacy in two lines will carry you further than a mathematical demonstration in two pages.

Bull’s eye!

Well, Salisbury was a real conservative in an imperial age.  He was a man of his time, and what we now call a conviction politician – but it does not look like politics ever change much.  Plus ca change, plus c’est la meme chose.  Although that is not a proposition that would have commended itself to his lordship.

But to come back to the question posed at the head of this note – I am very confident that the present pope would be horrified at merely the suggestion that the question might be asked, and it is impossible to duck that question when looking at our moral obligation to refugees.  What does the Sermon on the Mount say about detention camps for people who claim to be refugees?

Here truly is an issue ripe for discussion.

Up Your North – Parts 6 and 7


There is a saying, I am not sure if it is Jewish, that whatever does not kill you makes you stronger.  I have always been sceptical of the validity of that proposition – with, say, rape or torture – but it did seem be handy for my arrival at the Bungles.  The events of the day might even change my attitude to Saturdays at large.

I resolved to leave it until the morning to decide whether I would on the morrow go back to the Park.  But when I got up and realised it was a full 80ks to get to where I wanted, which meant about four hours there and back before setting off on the highway, I decided to defer the issue until I was ensconced in comfort in Kununurra.

Breakfast was at 7am – sharp!  And you may not want to play games with Storm number 8.

Any chance of some weeties?

This is a cooked breakfast!

This is what logicians call a non sequitur.  The result does not follow from the premises.  I have had cooked breakfasts all over the world – you even get offered a boiled egg in Paris – but I have never been denied weeties – even as a slushy for the army.  It could send a man’s bowels berserk.  But the South African lady was soft behind her firm exterior.  We compared the Bungles to Table Mountain, where she had come from.  There were big cast iron cooking urns around the campfire outside that reminded me of those used for breakfast on safari in Zimbabwe – one of which held curried potatoes as part of the best breakfast ever – which of course started with weeties.

It was a good breakfast, and I was keen to shake the dust from this wadi off my feet, until a friendly looking dude about my age strolled in to inquire about breakfast.  I said I thought you had to have a token from the night before, but he might try his luck at HQ.  He came back with a big relieved smile and a token that he gave to number 8 before waddling off saying that he could not face breakfast without a newspaper.  He came back with a three day old Australian.

Trevor, for that was his name, was most interesting.  He said that he had been visiting his sister who was doing community work at Warmun (Turkey Creek) about 40ks up the road.  He was sympathetic to the condition of the indigenous people.  He had been shown over the school and he thought it was first rate.  ‘If we have done the wrong thing by these people, and we have, this is a good start in the repayment.’  He told me that he had visited a memorial to murdered aboriginals at Misery Creek – where a stockman had shot and burned aboriginals eating meat because he thought, wrongly, that they had taken his stock.  I told Trevor of my own small part in the repayment, my own little Calvary, the day before, and we laughed.  (I need not I think apologise for the religious reference, because I had firmly in mind that the first miracle was turning water into wine – which could cause bloody mayhem in this part of the world.)

Then Trevor said something that told me he might be a lawyer.  He said that with mandatory sentencing, the bureaucrats had taken over the job of the judges – meaning that government rather than the judiciary was responsible for the sentencing of those convicted of breaking the law.  Up there, you go inside for your third offence.  A young man had just gone in for stealing loaf of bread – because this was his third offence – it would have been insane to do that for any other reason.  We reflected that we like to think that this is how the white men came here to take this land from the blackfellas – by sentencing people to transportation to here for stealing a loaf of bread.  It is a remarkable example not so much of history repeating itself as of our obdurately refusing to learn and being too scared to bend.

Trevor and I swapped cards – I had to go and get mine marked ‘Writer’ – and we had a good laugh about two Victorian lawyers meeting over breakfast in a caravan park at the back of nowhere.  It was a helpful reminder of just how lucky we were – so, I left the Bungles area in as good a mood as I had entered it, and a little better informed, if not wiser.

The 240ks to Kununurra was more scenic.  There was fire damage all along the road and a lot of dead livestock as well as wild life.  I even saw wild horses.  You have to be careful in passing very long road trains.  I thought that the Nissan lacked grunt in overtaking, and its height did not make me confident on the bends on bitumen.  You also have to be careful on one lane bridges – that is something we have in common with the Scots, although the scenery is rather different.

When I got to Kununurra, I breasted the bar of the Visitors’ Centre and politely inquired after the flashiest boozer in town, having even more politely informed them that Florence and I had had a little misunderstanding about the quality of the accommodation booked for me down the road.  They took the news with the quiet equanimity that you expect in those parts.


When I first went to see The Sistine Madonna of Raphael at the Zwinger in Dresden, I was horrified to find, after about thirty hours travel, that the gallery was shut for the duration of my stay there – which I had scheduled mainly to see that painting.  When I finally got to see it a couple of years later, it left me a bit flat – it just did not come up so well in the flesh.  It is famous not just for the Madonna holding the baby, and looking uncertainly into the future, but for the two putti at the bottom, with their credulous or quizzical gazes at a sacramental moment in western art.  There is another painting, I think by Pontormo [I now think after checking that it is by Rosso Fiorentino], of two putti – winged cherubim that looked like innocent toddlers – where the two are seated and one of them is leaning across to whisper something confidential about something that they are reading to the other.

It is a phase of life that every parent remembers with comfort and fondness.  The children are innocent – they are yet to be corrupted by the world.  They are yet to be burdened with the failures of their parents.  They are yet to be taught that people can be distinguished by the colour of their skin or by what they believe or by what their parents are.  They are yet to be formed by an upbringing that teaches them that there is only one God who chose only one people.  Toddlers are not conscious of such differences, whether they are discerned by man or imposed by God.  They are still as innocent as the day that they were born.  If the terms were not so charged, you might say that they are still in a state of grace undefiled by any notion of original sin.

I thought of the putti at the time I saw the most memorable image of the whole trip.  It was at Derby outside a rather battered IGA store.  Two young children about four years old were seated on the footpath.  One was as black as you can get; the other was as white as me.  They were just gabbling on without a care in the world.  It is the only example I recall of a completely easy mixing of colour and culture.  These kids did not even know what the word race means.  We do get conscious of these differences in time, but we rely on our upbringing to control how we express and react to those differences.  We rely on upbringing for courtesy and manners.

I thought about upbringing at the Sports Bar at the Kimberley Grand on that Sunday.  This is the swish upmarket hotel whose elegant luxury I embraced – and it was not over-priced.  The Sports Bar was not in Melbourne Club style, with giant TVs showing about six sports, with pride of place going to the AFL – I watched the start of the Belgian GP there later that evening.  Upbringing came to mind when a young white couple, about 25 but already well spread out, came in for lunch with three kids – aged about five, three, and a baby.  Both parents were drinking what we call pots of beer while taking it in turns to show the oldest kid the rudiments of pool – which required them temporarily to deposit their pots.  The older kids watched the TVs in a desultory fashion, but this was a mother who may choose not to hear a child crying for attention.

I wondered what kind of upbringing this might represent – Sunday lunch at the local boozer.  It was different to what the black kids were getting in the barren Halls Creek – but how different?

What about a white kid who was brought up to think that Sunday lunch was time to spend with grandma over the Sunday roast, although World of Sport was allowed into the family and as part of the family when sport was sport, and the whole world was not in your face, and you had to wait a long time after the event to see the Kennedy assassination on TV?  What about a kid who went to state school and was sent to Sunday School, and then went on to a public school where he got a scholarship and where the day started with religion, and where he was exposed to literature, the national team sports, and to the army and to dancing class, and he was exposed to an education that equipped him to go into a learned profession, and then go on to sample the best that western civilisation can offer all over the world, and colour in that learning at his leisure in stints at Oxford, Cambridge and Harvard for kicks?  Was not that kid immensely blessed?  Is he doing enough to pay others back for the benefit of so fine and privileged an upbringing?  Noblesse is no good unless it is oblige, very oblige.

Passing bull 14 – The Canberra Disease

On the second day after the fall of a Prime Minister, an article commencing on page one of a national daly was published.  That article contained the following.

The inside story of the knighthood has not been revealed before and this information does not come from Abbott.  But Abbott gave Philip a knighthood because he learned the Queen wanted her husband to have one.  The Queen’s son, Prince Charles, had a number of Australian honours, but Philip had not been so richly rewarded by Australia.

The Queen is immensely well regarded in Australia, and rightly so.  Prince Philip, like Prince Charles, is much less popular.

Abbott is a constitutional monarchist, the position a majority of Australians endorsed when the republic was put to a referendum in 1999.  But most Australians are at best small-m monarchists like John Howard.  They don’t want Australia to march backwards to old-style titles and regal pomp and circumstance.

That Abbott unilaterally restored knighthoods at all is an example of how poor his tactical judgment on political management was as a prime minister.

But for the Queen to make a request of Abbott meant that all that was honourable and generous in Abbott – loyalty, chivalry, romance – was lined up against the pragmatic political judgment that should have guided him.

Not only did Abbott endure enormous political damage because of his loyalty to the Queen, he never leaked the exculpatory explanation, which does not excuse his error of judgment, but gives it context, humanises it and may have made it a less toxic political issue.

Abbott’s government fell mainly because of questions of image and style and political management.  His successor, Malcolm Turnbull, in a sense acknowledged that the substance of the Abbott government was good by essentially endorsing all the Abbott positions when he took over as Prime Minister this week.

Abbott’s greatest achievement lies in stopping the boats…..

Generally in foreign policy, Abbott’s record is outstanding….

No one was prepared for the spending cuts in the first budget, or that is to say the electorate was not prepared for them.  In truth, it was a mild enough budget, with most of the notional savings occurring several years down the track.  But Labor, in an act of deliberate national economic sabotage, had baked spending increases into the budget just beyond its own forward estimates in its last year of government…….

Abbott was again partly the victim of wickedly unhelpful external circumstances.  The weird business of needing to rerun the West Australian half-senate election meant that for its first six months the government could not really prepare the electorate for a tough budget, because it was scared of losing at least one senator…..

Abbott was astonishingly successful as opposition leader…..

He has been vilified by the Left for many years and could never expect a fair shake from much of the media…..

Because his Catholicism was so relentlessly and unreasonably attacked, he learnt to shut down about the personal side of his identity…..

He had the potential to be the Liberals’ Bob Hawke.  He had the same easy presence in a bar or at a community barbecue, the same mainstream Aussie bloke manner, along with a powerful intellect.  I thought he would be a hit with Howard’s battlers, labelled only far too late, and unsuccessfully, in his prime ministership, as ‘Tony’s tradies’……

Abbott is without question a fine person.  The basic human ingredients are of the highest order.  But so often his virtues got him into trouble.  And to the end [as] at the beginning, never more was this the case than on the question of loyalty.  Joe Hockey failed as Treasurer, but Abbott would not consider moving him when he was still strong enough to do so.  Yet Abbott has known Hockey for so long…..

There is tragedy in all this but there is also, as Howard remarked, great achievement.  The Abbott prime ministership leaves more pluses than minuses.

Passing bull 13 – Which loyalty?

The change of PM has brought a lot of hysteria about loyalty, treachery and coups.

Personal loyalties are good and should if possible be honoured.  I did not like Mr Hawke as PM, but he stood up for a mate, Eddie Kornhauser, when it did not suit him to do so politically, and I admired him for it.  It was a good case of personal loyalty in politics.

But members of a government or of a governing party also owe duties to the nation.  Sometimes the duty to the nation will be in conflict with a duty of personal loyalty.  Which should prevail?  There is no one answer.  But it is wrong to say that a person who resolves such a conflict in favour of the duty to the nation has been guilty of treachery by not allowing the personal loyalty to be paramount.  It is not just wrong to say that – it is an abuse of logic and language of the kind that shock jocks live on.  If anyone is to be charged with treachery, it is more likely to be the person who puts personal obligations over those owed to the nation – E M Forster notwithstanding.

It is also wrong to describe a party meeting to vote on the leadership as a coup.  People vote for members of that party knowing that its rules enable just such a change to be made – just as people follow F1 drivers knowing that the rules (‘team orders’) allow teams to require one driver to give way to another.  In February of this year, one such meeting effectively put the PM on probation for six months.  If the party by a majority concluded that the PM had not improved enough in that time, the end was inevitable.

If you want a model of personal loyalty to a political leader being paramount over obligations to the nation, just look at the relationship between the SS and their Fuhrer.  Even our shock jocks might draw the line there.

But in a week that was bound to offer tawdriness, Bronwyn Bishop, if the allegation levelled at her is true, gave new meaning to the term dishonour by voting against the man who in part signed his own death warrant by putting her on probation – simply out of personal loyalty, and when it did not suit him to do so politically.

A little aloofness, please

When I watched Jean-Claude Juncker address the European Parliament on refugees the other night, I was looking at a room full of people who were almost visibly looking for leadership.  Making allowances for differences in style, I thought that they got some.

That body itself reflects the crisis affecting representative democracy across the West, and in two-party democracies in particular.  People everywhere are sick of place-fillers and time-servers and parties that stand for nothing except themselves.  Voters are repudiating all of them and looking for a way out – so making way for crooks and weirdoes.

As a result, one major party in each of the UK and the US is looking at blowing itself up to kingdom come.  In Australia, the disenchantment has meant that parties have become forced to sack leaders who fall out with the voters.  This show of party power does nothing for faith in the party system.  What is to be done?

The answer is for governments to stop doing the bad things that have put their people offside.  They need the sense to formulate policies and the nerve to implement them – even if they are in the short term unpopular.  Mr Abbott did not have enough sense or nerve.

I think that Mr Turnbull does.  Most of his parliamentary party agree.  The dissidents are the mediocrity that got us into this trouble in the first place.  If you want to see the prescription set out above in action, just have a look at Mr Baird in New South Wales.  He is not just popular because he has shown sense and nerve – he is even respected, something that we have not seen here for a generation.

I doubt that Mr Turnbull presently has much to worry about.  Mr Shorten looks to be a shifty little piece of work.  He has now lost his main prop.  A friend of mine, an artist from a country that knows despair, and who has the gift of getting to the heart of the matter, said: ‘I think Shorten has some character fault.  Really dislike him.  He said he wanted to get into politics, because he wants to be the Prime Minister.  I want to be the Queen of Sheba.’

Mr Shorten looks like Hillary Clinton to me – raw ambition uninspired by any need to serve others.  Every single thing that he does is calculated for its effect.  I wonder if he ever did one sincere thing in all his life.  If this were the season to mow down mediocrities, this talking head should be next.  If he is not, it is only because his party has no alternative.

The other party did have one, and the necessary change was made.  But whatever else may be said of Mr Abbott, he was not in the same mindless blank paper class as Mr Shorten.  If nothing else, Mr Abbott has done more hands on and shown more commitment for our indigenous people than any other Australian politician that I can recall.  There is no basis for saying that this politician was there only for himself.

Mr Abbott’s background was journalism, and it showed.  The press are a large part of the cancer in Canberra.  They see themselves as part of the game, and the results have been awful for government in general, and Mr Abbott in particular.  He was held up by and got in hock to cheer squads on Sky News and The Australian – and two of the more loathsome shock jocks.  Many people felt that this was conduct desperately unbecoming a Prime Minister.  The shock jocks live off the earnings of those who pander to the deprived and depraved just as surely as do pimps for tarts in white boots.  They, however, see themselves as the tribunes of the people.  If you want to know just how sanctimonious tribunes can be, have another look at Coriolanus.

If you want to see the teams that play these blood sports in action, tune into Sky News and watch them spit the dummy if their favourite takes a hit – as happened on Monday night.  Or look at some of the vaporising in today’s Australian (that includes a verbal of Her Majesty)Most of these players in the press make no effort to hide their revulsion at the other side.  If you want to come to grips with the word sordid, tune into a show called Richo + Jones. 

It was, frankly, silly of the outgoing PM to lecture the press on their role in his fall, or to disclaim ever having played the game himself.  But it was not at all surprising that a member of ‘the team’ should have advised Mr Turnbull to make peace with a shock jock.

That is the last thing we want of our PM.  Any leader has to be aloof at times.  If you look up that word, which has now sadly got a bad feel to it, you will see that it had a nautical origin, of the order to keep the ship’s head to the wind.  It came to mean generally standing at or keeping to a distance.  Any captain or coach of a footy team, much less the captain of a ship, will tell you that a lot of the time, you have to do just that.

One of the reasons that I think that Mr Turnbull is up to the job is that some time ago, he shirtfronted – yes, shirtfronted is the word – that awful twerp they call the Parrot.  If I could offer our new PM some advice, it would be to tell the Parrot and all his ilk to stand behind him, and to banish themselves to that wilderness that overlooks the old town of Jericho.  There is a good precedent for this.

And do not be surprised if there is an election before year’s end, and some surgery at the top of the other party shortly before or after that election.  The roundabout may have one more turn to come, but then I think things will settle down, and then we can all go back to sleep.

New Book

I have just put on Amazon a new book.  Its title is:

Summers in Oxford and Cambridge and Elsewhere

A traveller’s reflections on history and philosophy – and place

The Foreword says:

This book is a collection of memoires or essays that were written in the course of travels to Oxford or Cambridge or both to attend summer schools.  There is a note on the philosophy of religion and a note on Cromwell, but otherwise the notes consist of anecdotes and reflections more on the places visited and the people I met there than on the subjects that were taught.

I am fortunate to have been able to make these excursions, and I hope that others may be encouraged to do the same.

The contents are:










The first essay starts this way:

There is something Italianate about the Prague Symphony of Mozart.  There is a lyrical throwaway line at the end of the second theme in the first movement; it is one of those wanton indulgences that remind you of Shakespeare.  Then there is an exuberant trilling in the last movement, the kind of village band feeling that you get with Verdi.  We are looking at Mitteleuropa, but with an Italian edge.  You might call it ‘Praguish’.

Well, Prague, like St Petersburg, does have an Italian feel.  The architects dressed each in lush Mediterranean colours.  Both cities love yellow.  I was standing on the hill under the castle – where they shot a lot of that great film on Mozart, Amadeus – staring at a yellow church and trying to pretend not to be listening to a guide informing her squad.  I was listening – she was very good – and it took a while for it to sink in that I was reading a tablet on the church that said: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc saxum, meam ecclesiam aedificandam.  (I do not vouch for the Latin.  ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I shall build my church.’)  The beginning of the Catholic Hour that I listened to on 3AW every Sunday Night!  At 9pm – to hear the Trumpet Voluntary.   Except, as I recall, those modernist revisionists used English, not Latin. (That would not do for Madingley Hall, Cambridge.)

Prague came back to me recently at Oxford.  There was a thirty – something German lady there whom I had met before.  I shall call her Charlotte.  She has what might fairly be called firm views.  She is not what you might call Praguish.  She was struck dumb by my ‘Smash the Monarchy’ T-shirt – how preposterously non-Lutheran!

I said to Charlotte that Berlin was my favourite city in the world.  She replied that Berlin has good points and bad points.  This was an unusually catholic and embracing response from Charlotte.   I therefore thought that I would honour it with an anecdote.  ‘When I left Prague, I hired a car to…’  Half-way into the sentence, I realized that I was committed to a faux pas of John Cleese proportions.  ‘…take me to Lidice, the little town wiped out by the German SS as a reprisal for the killing of Reinhardt Heydrich.’  It was one of those in for a shilling, in for a pound moments.  You just keep going and focus on keeping a straight face.  Charlotte did not blanch, but for a split second gave me one of her trade mark steely, glassy stares, above her tailored slacks and French shoes, and off the shoulder cashmere.

Later that week, I was in a discussion with Charlotte and others about the dangers or uselessness of philosophy.  Some death wish led me to say that an English writer named Grayling had said that the Allied bombing of German cities was wrong – and that some pilots should have refused to fly.  I regard that proposition to be as insane as it is offensive.  Charlotte thought it to be self-evidently true.  She said one English pilot had refused to fly over Dresden.  I doubt whether that is so – he could have been shot – but I bailed out.

It would have been idle to ask how many German pilots refused to fly over London or Coventry; it would have been insane to ask how many of the Schutzpolitzei at Lidice refused to take part in the murder of the men, the rape or enslavement of the women, or the enforced adoption of Aryan looking Czech children.  The one thing that I am sure of is that no one in occupied Europe was complaining that the British or American air forces were being too hard on the Germans.  You only hear that nonsense from unemployable philosophers who have never held down a real job, much less have been in a real war, but who have been breast fed on pure bullshit.

The point of my Lidice anecdote about good and bad in a city was a good one.  I had both a driver and a guide – it was just after the Wall had come down.  As we were driving out, I said to my most charming female guide that ‘You have a beautiful city here in Prague – a real chocolate box city.’ She looked at me wanly and said: ‘You can say that because you have not been to the industrial estates where the skin-heads kill the gypsies.’  She said it almost philosophically; she was evidently far more intelligent than A C Grayling.  But she was worried about the tensions developing – again – between Czechs and Germans, and by the time we got out at Lidice, she was, I thought, a little stressed. 

From Lidice, we went to the airport, from where I flew to Budapest.  I have three abiding memories of that old city.  I saw a great performance of a ballet of Anna Karenin to the music of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and sixth symphonies in the opera house.  I went to the baths and did not know whether to worry more about my wallet or my person.  On the morning I left, I felt intimations of the trots – of which I have a holy terror when flying.  At the head of a reasonable queue in my hotel, I told a smart middle aged female Hungarian concierge of my problem and then sought her assurance that the tablet that she smartly produced was of the stop, not the go variety.  I told her I was in the hands of her and God, and I swallowed it.  As the bus neared the airport, I felt that comforting, settling feeling.

It was a beautiful sunny day as we flew up low along the Thames and up to the west end. I could just about point out the Cavalry and Guards Club over Piccadilly from Green Park.  You feel like tapping the pilot on the shoulder: ‘If you could put me down here, Sportsman, it would save a lot of buggerizing around on the ground.’

When I got to the Cavalry and Guards Club, about three hours later, Peter, the porter, was on his own, shirt open, braces, and toast on.  You can fire cannon through these places on the weekend.   I had known Peter for years and I was very fond of him.  He was at peace this day. David Gower was in, and batting beautifully.  I got my key and lugged   the bag up to the single quarters on the third floor.  Window on to Piccadilly; dunny 10 yards one way; bath – no shower – 10 yards the other way. 

After a decent interval, I went back to see if there was a room free in the married quarters – where there are showers.  But the mood was very different. The toast has burnt, and Gower was out, the weak bastard!  I asked Peter about the married quarters.  He gave me a very pained look and said ‘You don’t want to change rooms already, do you?’  Well, shit, of course not.  The very idea was ridiculous. I sloped off to the RAF Club just up the road for a couple of heart starters and a meal in the Buttery.

Some few visits later, I made a different faux pas. I went down to the front desk. There was a figure in the gloom.  I said I was looking for Peter, but as he came into the light, I saw that it was he.  He was dying.  It was very sad.  As I left, he shook my hand firmly, for the last time, as we both knew.

The last note commences:

At breakfast on Saturday at Cambridge, an elderly German lady from my class gave me a big smile and asked me if I had ‘settled down yet’.  A very urbane English man also gave me a big smile, but when I asked if we should go easy on the bastards, he said that I would be betraying our birthright.  The plural was not royal.

The course was on how to settle wars, but the title was worryingly verbose.  I was having a drink before dinner with the Post-Modernist Post-Colonial Lit In Crowd of Studies in Advanced Victimhood With Honours and I was happy to be rescued by someone saying that he was there for war and peace.  (I read in my notebook that someone said that modernism was like playing tennis with the net down.)  This rather mournful soul was one of the two advertised tutors.  He looked like a Shropshire vicar, but he would have to do. 

Then I met his mate.  Fat, bearded, and wild eyed.  The Naval Buddha.  With a naval emblem on a navy jacket.  Dead set dangerous at any rate of knots.  Not the least troubling part of a very wordy c. v. were the words ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’ sliding in and out with no mention of any primary degree – they hang people, or shoot them, for that in Germany.  I doubt whether either of our heroes had worn a uniform, but they had taught those who do.  That is not an enticing recipe – in Oz, it has been an outright disaster.

Wait – the Naval Buddha was a petrol head.  There might be hope.  But no – when I mentioned my admiration for Michael Schumacher, the Naval Buddha permitted himself one of those vesuvial effusions for which he would become justly infamous in the upcoming bunfight.  ‘Michael Schumacher never won a race unless he cheated.’  This remark is a silly as it is false, but the N B, like the Famous Bluebottle, paused for applause.  But what if he had been addressing someone who admires Schumacher – and he was – what would that say for his taste and judgment?  In the appalling argot of our time, what might that do for the brand of his then employer?

So, I took a stiff pull of my Spanish red, and thought I might mention the course.  I said how much I admired Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace for both intellect and courage.  The tutors exchanged long, sad, knowing looks, and said that it had caused ‘endless trouble.’  Why?  Because it had helped the Germans say that they had been hardly done by.  Oh my God – might this just have been the case? 

Not palely loitering, I trudged alone to dinner and the Latin grace, firmly grasping my bottle of Spanish red, with a sickening awareness that this would be a course like those in Peace studies, or African studies, or Feminism – or any bloody ‘ism’ – pure, pure bullshit, something close to intellectual fraud.  Opening up universities that we are pleased to call iconic to the unwashed is bonzer.  Retailing bullshit is not.

There were only five in the class.  There was the very worldly and bright Englishman.  There was the German lady who had lived through the war and knew more about the subject than any library.  Her companion was not far behind her.  And then there was the English lady in her nineties.  In my very fond experience, they do not say much, but they can be deadly. 

You can make many mistakes teaching adults.  The worst is to underestimate and then insult your class.  The Naval Buddha did both, in spades, and what followed was what John Milton coined Pandemonium.  The subject was the change in the character of warfare in the nineteenth century (without any reference to the Grande Armee, which to me is a bit like discussing the Fall without mentioning Eden).  If you are suspicious of large claims, you are not relieved to hear them introduced by references to ‘socialization’.  If you were about to be slaughtered at Balaclava, would it have helped to reflect that you were being socialized? 

I did not ask what the word meant for fear of being landed on the rim of an infinite regress, but my English colleague did ask, and he persisted.  Within five minutes, it was a free for all shitfight on the very sensitive political subjects of Iraq and Afghanistan – and open season on one former English PM (who is almost as unpopular as Mrs T.).  It was not edifying.  I enjoy a good shitfight but I object to paying for one.  At one stage the polite aging German lady said to the N B ‘If you believe that, you are living in Wonderland.’  My astute English colleague was most enlightening – he had friends who had flown combat missions in these appalling wars, and he spoke with evident feeling commanding intellectual respect on these issues.

The two tutors looked very bruised the next morning.  They changed their route of campaign.  The N B would read a paper.  There would be no questions or comment until he was finished and then only through the chair.  We had been gagged.  Still we bore up with it manfully, and politely. 

Out tutors told us we should be grateful for opinion polls.  Saying this to an Australian is like asking the Holy Father to hand out condoms during Mass.  Elections have become a boring sideshow.  What counts are polls taken by clever, rich, unattractive parasites on the basis of which a junta of Mafia dons posing as factional leaders and newspaper editors choreograph political assassinations which lead to the promotion of even worse bastards than we had before.  Then one tutor said that at least they – polls – were better indicators than cab drivers.  If we speak of London or Berlin cab drivers, this remark is a sad reflection on the dangers of faux science.

Then Keynes came up.  I know nothing of the Black Magic that we call Economics, but my admiration for Keynes as a man is almost unlimited, and as a mind I would mention him with Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.  I may of course be wrong, whatever that means, but I have deeply considered convictions about Keynes and Versailles.  Keynes had at least two things in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer – he was part of the noblesse oblige by birth and instinct; he lent honour to that awful word patriot. 

The Shropshire vicar then ventured the private view that Keynes had been a ‘bit of a clot.’  This was at a university that Keynes had served with utter fidelity for his entire adult life, as he had his school and his nation.  I have a nightmare vision of the N B saying that the main problem with the Treaty of Versailles was that it was not hard enough on the Germans.

In the book that I have mentioned, Keynes shirtfronted his own government with infinite courage, and he said two things.  Versailles would break and bankrupt Germany.  Their revenge would make the first war look like a cakewalk.  Each prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, and more than forty million dead witnesses would offer mute testimony to our inability to see it.  And there is a cemetery of eerie beauty to American airmen just around the corner from Madingley Hall. 

I try not to get offended – it is in truth a weasel word – unless I should be, and this was one of those times.  I was deeply offended.  In some rootless, obscure way, I was offended in my sense of scholarship, and I am revolted by personal disloyalty.

Still, we kept our calm.  The N B referred to his next posting and said that as part of the deal he had donated his library to the institution.  And then our nonagenarian colleague spake, I think for the second time.  It was like a blue-tongued lizard on a smouldering hot rock at Onkaparinga:  ‘Do you mean a bribe?’  Zap!  You’re dead, Sport.  Bliss.  The rest of us crossed ourselves movelessly, as I contemplated my white-lied escape to Oxford at lunchtime, and my happy deflowering at the hands of British rail tellers.

Throughout all this madness, two lines kept coming back to me out of nowhere.  One was the remark of an Australian at Gallipoli: ‘Tonight we lost our amateur status.’  The other was a remark by an American journalist to lawyers at a Washington lunch in 1984: ‘Welcome to Washington, where you and the cab driver are seeing the city for the first time.’


I commend the book.

Up your north Part 5


There is bugger-all at Fitzroy Crossing, and even less at Halls Creek, about 280 ks away.  The River Lodge does however offer good bar and dining service under the stars.  I had been waited on by two very attractive young women, one from Brittany, and one from Montpellier.  (If you were into French more than me, you could brush up on it on a trip like this.)  After dinner, I had sat behind a number of blackfellas sitting in a semi-circle in the bar watching Port Adelaide beat Hawthorn.  They obviously barracked for the former, but I could not understand what they were saying.  I do not recall seeing any drinking between the races.

The road to Halls Creek is dead flat and boring.  Halls Creek itself is a very, very depressing place.  The only alcohol you can get there is light beer.  Asians were running the servo – very well; one rushed to get a Band-Aid when she saw I was bleeding – but the black people look very down and out, and the white people do not look much livelier.  It is the kind of place you just want to get out of.  I would meet others who had the same sad impression.

It is a further 120 ks to the Bungle Bungles turn off and then a notorious 53 ks of bone shaking and water hazard before you get to the Park Information Office, and then about a further 27ks to the famous beehive domes.  The day might only cover 453ks, but it was always going to be a lot harder than just that.  My booking agent at the Kununurra Visitors’ Centre, Florence (a fictitious name), had warned me that the last 53ks might take almost as long as the previous 400.  That was an overstatement – one of a number from that source, I was to find – but this was clearly going to be my longest day.  You bloody bet it was.  In bloody spades, mate.

There is gate across the road just off the highway and before you get to the caravan park there.  A guy was coming out.  As he got to me, he wound down his windows and said: ‘Do you see that guy behind me in the read cap?’  ‘Yep.’  ‘It will cost you $5 just for him to shut the gate.’  We laughed, but I still asked the man in the cap where I checked in.

How would I bloody well know?

Ask your mate behind the wheel – if he waits for you.

So, I entered the Bungles in high spirits, the highlight of my quest, the grail if you like.  After about ninety minutes of punishment I let out a shout of triumph when I passed the National Park Gate and arrived at the Information Office at about noon on the Saturday.

Office shut.  Unmanned.  Complex instructions on how to calculate fees.  No credit card facility for payment.  No change.  Just calculate the fee – I thought it was $50 for my two nights but I may have been wrong – and I put $50 in the envelope, and sought to display the evidence as instructed.  The complex instructions were only in English.  Put to one side the pay as you go issue.  This is supposed to be a World Heritage site and here we are behaving like hicks to tourists that we seek to attract.  You would not this inane rudeness at Iguazzu or the Grand Canyon.

Then I started to get a sullen premonition.  Why was there no sign for the soft accommodation that Florence had booked for me inside the National Park?  My paper spoke of ‘a tourist park.’  It may have been under canvas but it was en suite and with meals and a bar.  I drove about 7ks to the nearest camp ground and found a bloke in a tent who had been living there for some time.  He said that there was such accommodation about 30ks down the road but that there was no caravan park in the National Park itself.

Does that mean that my place is back near the highway.

Looks like it, cobber.

And I have just done those 53ks plus for nothing?

Looks like it.

And now I have to go back.

They’ll be booked out down the road.

Well, well, well.

Or Anglo-Saxon terms to that effect, with unchristian thoughts about Florence.  This was a major bugger-up, not perhaps without some contribution from me for not checking that the accommodation procured came within my written instructions. But at least I would get a beer when I made it back to join the people I may have looked down upon on my way in.

I retraced the 53ks and five water hazards, dangerously more quickly.  There was one notorious stretch of corrugation where I found it was better to boost the engine a little to achieve a kind of skating effect, but I was told later that this damages the vehicle, and you have to be very careful to cut back as soon as the surface changes.  I noticed a few drivers coming in looking like grim death.

I got back to the caravan park just before 2 pm, and, yes, I was booked in there.  So the South African lady who could have worn number 8 for the Storm told me.  She and a French guy with a beard from Brittany – I have forgotten his name, but a very nice guy – were attending to my needs as I informed them of a little misunderstanding  – un petit faux pas – with Florence.  The conversation went something like this.

Am I too late for lunch?

We don’t do lunch.

Well, it will be a slap-up dinner.  With a bloody good red.  It has been a bad day.

You will have to bring your own.

Why’s that?

We have no licence.

[After another reference to Florence] Where’s the next bottle shop?

180ks up the road mate.

[I remember that nice French guy saying that with just a hint of a glint in his eye.]

Well, well, well.

Unless you want beer.  That’s only 120ks south.  But I suppose that you have just come up from there.

And they only sell light beer.

Dinner’s at 6pm.  Do you have any allergies?

No, why?

There is only one meal – pea soup and beef stew.


Here is the combination to the lock on the zip on your tent.  There is no power, but there is a light.

I take it that means there is no air-con.

Silly me.  It was in danger of becoming a killing field of great expectations, and I started to giggle.  But it took me about ten minutes to unlock the zip, and when I got inside it was about five degrees warmer than outside, which was north of 30.  I had half a bottle of red, but can you imagine what it was like after about three hours on that road in that heat.

The first thing to do was to cancel the second night.  When I went back to the HQ to deal with the South African lady about a refund for the second night and also to inquire about a helicopter flight, I met a guy called Bernard.  Hearing my helicopter inquiry, he offered me his wife’s seat on a flight at 3pm.  It was an hour’s flight, and I said I only needed 30 minutes (which should be true for everyone – you can see a lot in 30 minutes).  I gather that Bernard’s wife, whom I later met, had gone off flying in helicopters, which is understandable, and that unless a third passenger could be found, the price for the other two would be excessive.  I said to the South African Storm number 8 that if she assured me that I would get a refund of my second night – I had paid up front for this deluxe accommodation in the middle of nowhere – I would take the 3pm flight.  The deal was struck.  Everyone seemed happy.  I could salvage something from the day – apart from experience, and some lines to dine out on.   The Storm number 8 even made a little joke.

A little later an Italian lady from north of Milan weighed me in for the changed manifest that I was to give to the pilot, Ben.  Bernie and I allowed Deirdre to sit in the front and Ben strapped us in the back.

We all had a wow of a time.  Ben’s commentary was to the point, and we could ask questions over the intercom.  We went over a lot of cattle country where they muster by helicopter.  These flights, which I have taken at some of the world’s great sights, are expensive but worth every cent.  Apart from the wow, you get to grips with scale and history.

Bernie thought my day had been hilarious – so did I – and thought that I would be carrying all of the white man’s burden for a full twenty-four hours.  In sympathy, he invited me back to his base for a beer.  He was travelling in a 4WD bus group of ten with two driver/guides and sleeping under canvass at each stop.  I met a few of the group who said that the guides were terrific.  They all looked very content around the evening fire, although I may have blanched at the 5.30 start the next morning.  Here was an option for people who do not mind sleeping under canvas and sharing communal facilities.  I have done some of that up there, but, as I made clear to Florence, those days are behind me.

At dinner – 6 pm sharp! – I spoke to a few caravaners and picked up some of their lore.  They clearly have a sense of community and purpose, and I suspect that they get a better social life than people who travel like me – or in a big bus.  A guy at dinner, who came from England, shared a bottle of red at the table, and when I got back to my still hot tent to finish off the shattered remains of my red stock, I could not find a glass.  Perhaps this was because there was a sign saying that I should not drink the water unless I boiled it – but there was nothing to boil it with.  Nor was there power.  I went to the vans and borrowed a glass and had a couple with a convivial group there – who thought it was rich that I had not even been given a glass.

Good news at last!

At lunch with a journalist yesterday, we discussed aboriginal art and footballers.  I recalled being at an exhibition looking at an aboriginal painting that seemed to change before my eyes.  The curator asked what I thought.  I said I was reminded of the Krakouer brothers.  She did not know them, so I explained that they were aboriginal footballers who just saw things and did things that were beyond us white people.

We discussed the paintings of Minnie Pwerle.  I have a fine one here.  They are collections of rows of semi-circles in about five different colours.  I said that I look at it a lot, and that I suspect that instinctively the artist may have arranged the colours very much after the Golden Rule or Ratio (sometimes called Fibonacci), which was applied by Jeffrey Smart.  A tutor at Oxford had explained how Verdi had apparently arrived at the same result in the last act of Othello, around the kisses that come before and after the death of DesdemonaThe class was of the view that this effect was probably instinctive rather than mathematical design.  So it was with the Krakouers.

By chance, when I turned the TV on last night, it was on The Winners from the past.  North Melbourne played South Melbourne in the second round in 1982.  What got to me were the ludicrous hot pants on the boys.  But the Krakouers put on a show kicking seven between them.  And the best part is that they were both in the studio to watch it.  I was aware that one had got into some trouble, but both were there looking fit and well, and not in any trouble, more than thirty years on.

I found it the show very uplifting.  They slowed down one clip.  The ball was free in a pack.  One brother could see that the other could get to it, and set off briskly to offer him a lead.  The other got to the ball, and instead of grabbing it and passing it, he just bunted the ball with a closed fist about twenty-five yards so that it just came in front of his brother on the lead.  He then just gathered it in and after three or four steps slotted a goal on an acute angle.  It was pure magic or consummate artistry – a joy to watch.  They could do things, in footy and in art, that we whites just cannot do.

The other good news is that Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I are moving solidly in our book on writing and thinking – the title and a few other things are yet to be settled, but more on this later.