Passing Bull 40 – Bullshit in footy


When I was a kid, I tried to play Australian rules footy.  It is too hard a game for kids – either form of rugby or soccer is much easier for kids to play.  If you look at kids trying to play our footy, you will see about three of them who know where the ball is, and the others just make up the numbers.  I was one of the ‘others’.

But I could follow an instruction that people would move up one position from the forward pocket or the back pocket to the half forward flank or halfback flank who would then move to the wing depending on whether the ball had gone into attack or defence.  I could follow that; it seemed a good and simple plan; but it was probably academic for me because of what I have just mentioned about only three boys getting near where the action really was.

Is it pure arrogance on my part to think that other people may have difficulty in implementing more involved plans?  I don’t think so.  I wouldn’t try something more clever on with lawyers.  It has long seemed to me that commentators try to read far too much into games of our footy.  I have long suspected that all this talk about structures and game-plans and the like is mainly bullshit.  As are the convoluted stats.  They are as reliable as economists.

Although I spend at least as much time watching two of the other codes as I do watching the AFL, my suspicion about the role of bullshit in AFL footy has firmed up with the sharp decline of three or four sides in the games played so far this year.  I refer in particular to the collapse – because that is what it has been – of Fremantle and Port Adelaide, and particularly Fremantle.  I find it hard to understand what the Fremantle coach is saying at the best of times, but it did appear to me the other night that he was saying that he has devised a game-plan that his players are not capable of implementing.  I think that may well be true.

In my view, playing footy comes down to other things that we try in life, like being a chef, writing a book, or running a murder case.  You take a certain amount of ability for granted, and the rest is character.  When you look at a bunch of players that form a footy team, what matters is the way in which that given ability is brought out in each player and then encouraged as part of that team.  Students of war tell us that people don’t die for the flag or the nation but for those near them.  It is the same, I think, with footy players.  The object of those running the team is therefore to get the players to develop a warranted faith in each other and an assured endeavour to trust and look after each other.

You see that happen in clubs that have the right character or fibre in themselves.  For the last decade or so, those AFL clubs have been Hawthorn, Geelong, and Sydney.  You can just about see that character or fibre in the way their players come out on the field – and certainly in the way they carry themselves in the heat of battle.  The fibre is transmitted on field by established leaders who command both respect and subscription.  Our politicians have something to wonder at.  And the good clubs have a ruthless policy of ‘no dickheads’.  Something else for our politicians to consider.

What I suspect has happened at sides like Fremantle and Port Adelaide is that the clubs have forgotten the need to develop character in the players and in the club as a whole.  Instead of locking in the basics, they and their coaches have got carried away with stratagems.  They have lost the plot.  They have whipped the cream before baking the cake.  Footy was after all supposed to be a bloody game.

Of the three Melbourne teams I take an interest in, Melbourne Storm has shown fibre for years, and has the best leaders on the field in the competition; there is for the first time in about thirty years a chance that the Demons might find a warranted faith in each other, and that their club may recover some fibre; the Rebels do not look like it doing it yet.

As to the coaches, the main ingredient in character that is required is honesty.

If you want to know what fibre means in footy teams, compare a New Zealand rugby team to one of ours.

Poet of the month: Auden


Trying to understand the words

Uttered on all sides by birds,

I recognize in what I hear

Noises that betoken fear.


Though some of them, I’m certain, must

Stand for rage, bravado, lust,

All other notes that birds employ

Sound like synonyms for joy.

Australians at war

Anzac Day may be subject to as much abuse as Christmas Day or Good Friday, especially in that part of the entertainment industry called football.  What follows is the Australian part of the chapter on war from a comparative history of Australia and the U S.  The book is called A Tale of Two Nations, Uncle Sam from Down Under.


There has been a certain naivety, or innocence perhaps, about Australians at war.

The Australian war experience got off to a bad start.  The colonies jointly – this war started just before federation – went off to the aid of the leading world power in a fight that had little or no intrinsic merit or interest to Australia.  The Australian participation in the war was deeply divisive at home, with consequences that are at best disputed, and for no discernible benefit to Australia, apart from paying some kind of respect or dues to the world’s leading power.  Very much the same damning assessment would later be made of Australia’s tagging along behind America in Vietnam, Afghanistan, and Iraq.  One difference is that in the case of both Vietnam and Iraq, the government of Australia told its people untruths, to put it softly, when that government determined to send off its young men to be killed in foreign conflict.

‘Plain George’ Turner had done the articled clerks’ law course, become an honorary officer of a number of friendly societies, and a senior chief warden in the Masons before becoming the first Australian-born premier of Victoria and then the first Treasurer of the Commonwealth of Australia as the Right Honourable Sir George Turner, P C., K C M G.  Truly, it could only happen in Australia.  He achieved his own kind of immortality in joining the decision to send colonial troops to help the British War on the Dutch settlers in South Africa (the Boers): ‘If ever the old country were really menaced, we would spend our last man and our last shilling in her cause.’  When the Vietnam War got very bad under President Lyndon B Johnson, an Australian Prime Minister called Harold Holt, who later disappeared while snorkelling in waters known to be dangerous, alarmed even his own supporters by declaiming ‘All the way, with LBJ.’  Some Australians have grovelled better than others.

The Australians were just showing solidarity, or fraternity, with Britons everywhere.  They were after all Australian Britons, Mr Deakin said.  They were ‘For the Empire, right or wrong.’  The troops were mainly bush men and the officers tended to be squatters.  These were the sort of men that Kitchener for the British wanted to use against the Bushveldt Carbineers to put the fear of God into those diamond-hard Boers.  But the Boers were fighting for their own land, and an Australian called ‘Breaker’ Morant – he was a gifted horse-breaker – was adjudged to have gone too far in shooting prisoners, and he was executed.  In his last ballad he said he was ‘Butchered to make a Dutchman’s holiday.’  There are still Australians who want him as a hero.

The early confidence turned sour, as happens.  It was a very dirty guerilla war, and the British use of concentration camps appalled many.  Billy Hughes said that the English were cowards and bullies.  Cardinal Moran gave intimations of martyrdom; Mr Barton offered the troops one of those peculiarly useless bromides that Australian troops would come to expect from their politicians.  He said that Australia stood for ‘truth and justice, not militarism’.  (When the then Prime Minister in 2013 reviewed Australia’s role in the Afghan War, Mr Abbott said that that that war had ‘ended not with victory, not with defeat, but with, we hope, an Afghanistan that is better for our presence here…..Australian troops do not fight wars of conquest; we fight wars of freedom’.)  The new nation was overjoyed at the return of its troops, but what had it got for the 518 of the 16, 175 men who did not come back?

Australia would lose more than 60,000 killed in World War I, and about half that in World War II.  It was only in the latter war that Australia was directly threatened, and it was Australian troops under their own commanders who halted the Japanese advance into New Guinea.  The appalling war crimes committed by Japanese troops serving under Emperor Hirohito on Australian troops and prisoners of war etched very deep in the Australian consciousness.  The frightful games that the Japanese play with their own brutal history have, to put it softly, not helped.  When Australians look back on their history during the two world wars, Japan is in a place all of its own.

Yet, when Australians commemorate their war dead, they tend to focus on the charnel house of the Great War, which posed no direct threat to them, and where the weight of their contribution to the Allied victory might depend on whom you are talking to.  This concentration on the First World War reflects the mystique, for the want of a better word, of Gallipoli.  The major commemoration day for the Australians is not 11 November, but 25 April, the anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli in 1915.

The scheme, largely that of Winston Churchill, and it cost him his job in Cabinet and saw him in the trenches, was part of a grand strategic vision to shorten the war by a dramatic intervention on the bridge between Asia and Europe.  This is how a middle-aged Australian described the landing to the English writer Compton Mackenzie.

He reported that all he knew was that he had jumped out of a bloody boat in the dark and before he had walked five bloody yards he had copped a bloody bullet in his foot and had been pushed back to bloody Alexandria before he bloody well knew he had left it.

He was a bloody lucky Australian.  Mr Mackenzie was there for the second, Suvla landing, and he left this wonderful remark: ‘An absurd phrase went singing through my head.  We have lost our amateur status tonight.’  Mr Mackenzie was one of those Englishmen who marveled at the musculature of those young Australians – and their cocky irreverence.

The trouble was that there were too many on high that had not lost enough of their amateur status.  On two occasions, the infidel invaders were within touching distance of achieving their objective, but on each occasion they were caught in time.  The whole expedition was botched from on high from the start.  The invaders were facing Turks defending their own soil, and with Allah on their side, and they ran into a man of military and political genius called Mustafa Kemal, who was more the Father of Turkey than George Washington was the Father of the United States.  There were months of stagnant fighting in trenches, the very type of war that the planners had sought to avoid, before the Allies slunk out under cover of night, defeated and demoralized.  The casualties on both sides had been horrendous, and all for nothing – except for the creation of modern Turkey.

Gallipoli was memorable for the Australians and New Zealanders (Anzacs) because this was a form of debut, and their casualty lists loomed larger in their smaller country towns.  Very few country towns in Australia do not have a memorial to those lost in this war, frequently with additions for later wars.  But this was a complete military failure, what Churchill would describe in another context as ‘a colossal military disaster’.  The British suffered far more casualties than Australia; the French lost as many as Australia; and the Turks lost as many as Britain, France, and Australia combined.

The glow that Australians now see this disaster in comes from the need for a sustaining myth that found a little more to latch on to in the U S with the man who could not tell a lie.  So, each year around 25 April, young Australians make what is in truth a pilgrimage from Asia to Europe to sit huddled under a flag that is hardly their own and reflect on an heroic miss just across the water from the ruins of Troy.  If you go there on a clear quiet day, you can feel a marvelous peace near the water where men had torn at each other hand to hand most barbarously for nothing.  There is a moving monument on which Kemal assures the foreign mothers of the fallen that their sons are resting in peace.

The charge at Beersheba by the Light Horse was one of the last of its kind, but the men had to put the horses down before they came back.  More killingly, they were part of the sausage factory on the Western Front, the last gasp of ruling monarchies and a cruel and effete ruling class.  They produced a general of the first order in Monash, but he too had to serve under a butcher.

It was the Western Front that killed so many and broke so many who were left nominally alive.  It also strained the Imperial bond.  The Australian troops were volunteers.  The English were conscripted.  As we shall see, two referenda in Australia were defeated when the government of Billy Hughes sought to introduce conscription, but the civil stress at home was great.

The diggers were divided on conscription.  Some did not want others forced into this hell and some did not want to fight beside men who were there against their will.  One thing they did agree on.  They were revolted by the English practice of shooting deserters.  The Australians had a higher desertion rate and many generals wanted them to follow the British model.  The government refused.  They thought it was not right to put the death penalty on men who had volunteered to fight in a cause that was not immediately their own.

Another issue for the Australians, and a throbbing cause of tension, was that until late in the war they were fighting under British officers.  Americans and Canadians had their own command.  Why not Australia?  Monash said that the drive to a kind of military independence ‘was founded upon a sense of Nationhood.’  They did not get their wish until November 1917.

As debuts go, this was a hell of a deflowering, and they lost their amateur status the hard way.  Except when they got pissed on Anzac Day playing two-up, under the gracious licence for the day of the Establishment, the returned men of Australia did not want to talk about it.  As if to rub salt into the wounds, some were offered ‘selection’ lots, and that operation was also botched.

There would be lingering resentment about the way that the Poms’ earls, lords and knights had shoveled colonials into the cannon and then got lousy with the medals.  This resentment really flowered when the Poms cheated at cricket in an effort to defeat a boy wonder called Bradman during the Depression.  The Poms were bad winners and worse losers.

In the Second War, the Japs got very close.  Darwin was bombed.  There was real tension with the mother country about Australian troops being kept to face Rommel in the desert rather than defending their own homes against the Japs coming down in the jungle.  The fall of Singapore to the Japs – the guns pointed the wrong way – and the loss of English capital ships led Australians to turn their gaze to across the Pacific and look to Uncle Sam as their new protector and Godfather.  That still position holds.  It was by and large American troops that pushed the japs back at the most frightful cost, on the islands and on the oceans.  The American admirals were preeminent, and Australia has nothing like that monument to the US Marines at Iwo Jima.

Australia was well served by Prime Minister Curtin, but it produced no one of the standing of Roosevelt, or that paradigm of clean and simple leadership – yes, leadership – President Harry Truman, the great president who said that ‘The buck stops here’, the man who took two heavy decisions of equal import, to bomb the Japs and to fire Macarthur, for which his troops and nation should be forever grateful.

Not many people in Australia or America want to talk about later wars.  Australia committed to each of them as part of its alliance with the U S, like an act of homage or a payment of insurance.  If you are looking wholly at the white community, possibly the most disgraceful phase of Australia’s history came with the refusal of most Australians to acknowledge the return of soldiers from Vietnam.  It would have been unthinkable to have rejected the troops defeated at Gallipoli, but Australia did it to those defeated in Vietnam, and then their government got lousy about compensating them, and looking after them.  This was very, very ugly, and on a national scale.  It put a big dint in the national myth of ‘mateship’ – Australians were kicking their own troops in the guts.

Well, didn’t Turkish or German soldiers have mates?  Studies done by the military show that in life or death, soldiers do not see themselves as part of an organized machine, but as equals within a tiny group – another term is ‘mates’.  A decent footy coach would tell you the same.  People do not play for a jumper, and only a real mug dies for a bloody flag.

After the Great War, and the horror of the Western Front, soldiers felt that it was impossible to come to terms with a world ripped apart.  One of them later wrote about the horror, and it became a best seller and it is now a classic.  He then wrote books about the problems that the men had in rejoining civilized life.  The writer was Erich Maria Remarque.  The classic is All Quiet on the Western Front.  The later books include The Way Back and Three Comrades.  These books are a sustained and enduring paean to mateship.  The notion that Australians might have some primacy in a basic part of humanity is at best rather sad.  We are yet to found a myth.

Four centuries on – Shakespeare

Tomorrow, 23 April 2016, is a big anniversary.  I wrote the following in a book called The West Awakes.

William Shakespeare (1564 – 1616)

William Shakespeare was born in Stratford, England and he died there.  He had a good, solid education, and then he settled down to provide for his wife and children.  His business was to write plays, mainly in verse, and to manage drama in production at theatres like the Globe, and occasionally to act in them.  He prospered in that business and he appears to have died at peace with himself.  We know little about his life.  It looks quite unremarkable – except that his thirty-eight plays and his sonnets are thought to contain literature and drama as good as anything else in the world.  He is widely seen as the greatest genius in history.  His work continues to affect people in their lives all around the world.

You will not see the work of any dramatist set out in poetry in anything like what you get with Shakespeare.  Another distinction is the range of the work.  Shakespeare appears to have been as much at home with comedy as he was with tragedy, with English history plays as with Roman history plays, or with Romances.  Neither Ibsen nor Chekhov ever wrote a comedy, and you will probably get more laughs from a tragedy of Shakespeare than you will get from most of the plays of these great two playwrights.

We are talking about different categories of drama.  There is another way in which Shakespeare covered a greater range – it is the range of subject matter, the range of humanity.  Ibsen and Chekhov tended to focus on educated people of their country and their own time.  Shakespeare ranged from the Bronze Age (Troilus and Cressida) to his equivalent of a contemporary Neighbours (The Merry Wives of Windsor), from Vienna (Measure for Measure), to Athens (Timon), Elsinore (Hamlet) and Scone (Macbeth), but most importantly, from a great king (Henry V) to the drunken, cheating, womanising insult to chivalry (Falstaff); to the dregs of Eastcheap (Bardolph and Peto), and the drunken porter (Macbeth), and the whores and madams of Vienna (Measure for Measure).  Until the great king closes a loop by hanging Bardolph after repudiating Falstaff, and even afterwards, there is no way of saying where this writer was more at home, at the top of the social pile or at the bottom.  Has any other writer ever shown so much penetration and understanding of so many facets of the human condition?

But to Shakespeare the question was whether people were entertained by his plays.  They were and they still are.  To most people what comes first is the skill of the writer as a dramatist – the way he puts his story of characters on the stage and holds our interest – the way he entertains us for the duration of the play.  Poetry is for many a bonus, for some a distraction, and for others just a nuisance.

Two themes recur in the plays of this writer: the superiority of women to men; and the inferiority of the better people to the lesser people, the anti-establishment streak.  You do not find so much of these challenges to orthodoxy or these brushes with modernity in the works of Homer, Dante or Goethe.  What we have is a persistent streak of raw rebellion.  Ibsen wanted to put a torpedo under the ark of Scandinavian society, and his two most famous plays now, A Doll’s House and Hedda Gabler, gave voice to women in that bleak, tawdry Northern world, but does the voice of protest ring as loudly there as it did with Shakespeare?

To an uncommitted observer who comes to review these plays as a whole in performance, these two characteristics – the feeling for women and the feeling against the Establishment – are both obvious and striking.  Why are they so little remarked upon?  Part of the reason is, perhaps, that professional critics have tended to be ageing middle class academics who live off the public purse, but who do not go to the theatre enough – like Cassius in Julius Caesar, Act 1, Scene 2, they read a lot and think too much – and who have a cloistered unawareness of the rough edges of humanity, being more at home with their iambic pentameters and people who speak softly and politely.

There are at least three reasons why the plays of Shakespeare still enthral audiences and enlighten readers all around the world.

The first is their intrinsic excellence as dramas and as poetry.  Shakespeare may or may not have been equalled as a poet, but he was never equalled as a dramatist.

The second is the range of his material, not just geographically or historically, or across the various genres of the plays, but across the whole range of the human experience for all kinds and levels of humanity.  It is these two factors that give the sense of timelessness and universality possessed by great art.  When you add the ways that many of the plays challenged the status quo at the time the plays were written, in ways that can still seem at least relevant if not positively modern, you can see why each generation keeps coming back to the plays and keeps taking something different from them.

The third factor follows from what Nietzsche called ‘the death of God’.  Shakespeare wrote of a medieval world dominated by God and the Church.  That dominance had greatly been shaken by the time of Elizabeth I, not least because of the split in the church.  Now in England and in many of its former colonies, except the United States, God and the Church are minority interests, and the hunger for ritual and myth of the rest can be pathetic to observe.  There is only so far that Elvis Presley, the Princess of Wales, the Lions or Wallabies, or the All Blacks, or a couple of bottles of red, can go to fill the vacuum.  There are times when you can almost taste the void that is close to the heart of our communal life.

Shakespeare is part of our language, and part of the fabric of our history and intellectual life.  He is for us at least what Homer was to the Greeks.  Going to the theatre – to see Shakespeare or the opera – and drawing on our cultural history is as close as many can now get to the myth and ritual it seems that most humans crave.

The director Deborah Warner referred to the observation of Laurence Olivier that with Shakespeare we touch ‘the face of God’ and said:  ‘What Shakespeare does – whoever he was – he makes you proud to be human.’  Richard Burton said:

I wondered through the book for a long time, but no other writer hit me with quite the impact of William S.  What a stupendous God he was, he is.  What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

It was the mission of this poet to put us at ease with our humanity.  There is not much else to say, except that my favourite remark about Shakespeare was made by Ralph Waldo Emerson: ‘When I read Shakespeare, I actually shade my eyes.’

Passing Bull 39 – Corporations and churches


A church has been heavying business about gay marriage.  The Business Manager of the Archdiocese of Sydney wrote to various corporations on the subject of ‘marriage equality’.  The church is politically opposed to changes in the law favoured by those who seek to promote what they call marriage equality.

The letter says that the Archdiocese is ‘a significant user of goods and services from many corporations.’  It refers to a ‘Catholic population of 600,000 within the Archdiocese accounting for 26.7% of the total population’.  The author says: ‘I only mention this to indicate the diverse and expansive demographic we serve’.  Really?

It would be interesting to know the definition of ‘Catholic’ that gets the writer over 25%.  But why is the writer so coy about saying that the church is in a position to punish people commercially unless they toe the church line on this political issue?  Does the author deny that the church is seeking to use its market power to bring political pressure to bear on people?  Does the writer believe that the rest of us just came down with the last shower?

The author wonders if it is ‘the role of a corporation such as yours’ – the letter I have was not addressed to a corporation –‘to be participating in such an important matter that impacts all of Australian society now and in the future.’  The author thinks that the conduct of this corporation on behalf of stakeholders ‘is indeed over stepping their purpose and is to be strongly resisted.’

The language is glutinous, but why does a corporation not have as much right as a church to speak on a political issue such as this?  And was the writer expressing the views of more than a quarter of the population?

Then there is a curious remark.  ‘Many people who support the traditional definition of marriage have loved ones with same-sex attraction and of course strongly object to them being discriminated against.’  Do those standing behind the author only have loved ones who are gay?  Are not some of the communicant members of the church themselves gay?  Or is that a consummation devoutly to be avoided?

The author takes objection to redefining marriage to fit ‘an ideological agenda’ that is against beliefs and faiths that have been held for ages.  Popes said much the same to Galileo, and Anglican divines said much the same to Darwin, although their menaces were not commercial.  The church’s Business Manager refers to a ‘cashed-up activist-driven media campaign.’

You wonder why a church would engage in name-calling about applying pressure when it is seeking to do precisely that.  And what’s wrong with cash?

For that matter, you wonder why the writer thought it was a good idea to make these threats – and I concede that the author would not concede that he is uttering threats – to someone like the Chairman of Partners of Maurice Blackburn.

For that matter, you wonder why if you are losing a war you do not just seek to go out with some dignity rather than stooping to the perceived vulgarity of your enemy.

But what really elevates this letter into bullshit par excellence is its unstated premise – that the Catholic Archdiocese of Sydney is a discrete legal entity, a significant consumer, and a body that can and does engage commercially and politically – and, presumably, one that could sue and be sued.

Unless of course someone wanted to sue it for a breach of trust committed by one of its priests.


Poet of the Month W H Auden


Lullaby – extract


Lay your sleeping head, my love,

Human on my faithless arm;

Time and fevers burn away

Individual beauty from

Thoughtful children, and the grave

Proves the child ephemeral:

But in my arms till break of day

Let the living creature lie,

Mortal, guilty, but to me

The entirely beautiful.


Soul and body have no bounds:

To lovers as they lie upon

Her tolerant enchanted slope

In their ordinary swoon,

Grave the vision Venus sends

Of supernatural sympathy,

Universal love and hope;

While an abstract insight wakes

Among the glaciers and the rocks

The hermit’s carnal ecstasy.

Turgenev on Hamlet and Don Quixote


On 10 January 1860, Ivan Turgenev gave a speech to the Society for the Aid of Needy Writers and Scholars.  He began by observing that the first edition of Hamlet and the first part of Don Quixote appeared in the same year.  (Later he remarked that people then thought that both authors died on 26 April 1616 – so that Anzac Day this year would be the eve of a big anniversary – if you accepted those dates.)  The substance of Turgenev’s views was as follows.

Don Quixote is entirely committed to ideals for which he will give anything, including his life.  He opposes himself to ‘the forces ranged against humanity – magicians and giants – which is to say oppressors.’  These ideals may come from what we call madness, but there is no self-interest.  There is only a ‘benign resignation’ that does not constrain him.  ‘He knows little – but then, he does not need to know much.’  This is because he knows what he is here for.  Half measures are not for him.  He is an enthusiast.  And Turgenev offers a startling insight in parenthesis – ‘notice that this mad wondering knight is the most moral element in his universe.’

Hamlet is consumed by his analysis of himself.  He is centred on himself.  He worries about himself and not his obligations.  ‘He is a sceptic – and he eternally struggles with himself….Doubting everything, Hamlet understandably does not spare even himself; his mind is too well developed to be satisfied with what he finds within himself.’

Don Quixote is ridiculous; Hamlet has an attractive appearance.  But while it is hard to like Hamlet – he does not like himself – it is harder to dislike the Don.  We sympathise with Hamlet – the bond we share with the Don is of a different order.

We can assess their reaction to the people – ‘the masses’ – by looking at Polonius and Sancho Panza.  Hamlets do nothing for the people – they are removed from the common people.  ‘They are vulgar and dirty; Hamlet by contrast is an aristocrat, and not by birth alone.’  But Don Quixote is a true hidalgo.  His simplicity comes from his want of self-regard.  ‘Don Quixote is not self-absorbed, and yet he has respect for himself and others.’  He does not show off, but Hamlet has the airs of a parvenu.  His feel for refinement is almost as strong as the feel for duty in Don Quixote.

Putting to one side the fox and the tortoise, the two characters reflect different types – the force that considers itself the centre of creation and sees everything else as relating to it; and the contrasting view under which all things exist in order to benefit something else.  There is the spirit of the north – ‘a spirit of reflection and analysis, a ponderous gloomy spirit, one deficient in harmony and bright colours.’  The spirit of the south is bright, cheerful, naïve, and receptive, one not plumbing the depths of life, but brightly reflecting all its aspects.

Don Quixote respects all institutions while ‘Hamlet scorns kings and courtiers – and is in essence oppressive and intolerant.’

Now, these large views or types may appeal to some more than others, but they offer a kind of prism to reflect on probably the two most famous characters in our letters.  I offer a couple of observations.

The madness of Don Quixote is real and essential to his role; the madness of Hamlet is not real, and I find it hard to come to terms with this pose.

The Don is madly in love with Dulcinea, and is ready to die for her.  There is no Dulcinea.  How do things stand between Hamlet and Ophelia?  The great Russian novelist says that we have Shakespeare’s word that Hamlet only pretended to love Ophelia.  That is what you take from the Hamlet feigning madness in the third act.  But what, then, are we to take from the histrionics of the forty thousand brothers of the fifth act?  Was this all show too, and if so, for whose benefit?  Either way the hero’s treatment of ‘an innocent creature, pure to the point of saintliness’ is very hard for us to take.  Is this uncertainty part of the charm of the show on the stage?

The people of Spain look on Don Quixote with an almost religious devotion that we rarely see with Shakespeare.  The madness is a real part of this.  I wonder if Don Quixote is our champion against those forces that oppress all of mankind.  I wonder if the Don is a celebration of freedom, and the right of each of us to be different.  I wonder if this mad knight stands for the dignity that each of us claims just because we are human.

These thoughts are prompted by these beautiful lines of Turgenev.

But here [where the Don is trampled on by pigs], Cervantes was ruled by the instinct of genius – and beneath the very ugliness of this adventure lies a profound truth.  In the lives of Don Quixotes, swine trample their legs all the time – especially just before those lives end.  This is the final tribute such individuals must pay to coarse randomness, to indifferent, insolent incomprehension.  This is the scorn of the Pharisee.  Then Don Quixotes can die.  They have passed through all the fires of the crucible.  They have won immortality for themselves – and it opens up before them….

There may be an allusion to the holy man who entered Jerusalem on a donkey, but the one word that you would hardly apply to Hamlet is humility.


Freud said this about Don Quixote.

Don’t you find it very touching to read how a great person, himself an idealist, makes fun of his ideals?  Before we were so fortunate as to apprehend the deep truths in our love, we were all noble knights passing through the world caught in a dream, misinterpreting the simplest things, magnifying commonplaces into something noble and rare, and thereby cutting a sad figure.  Therefore we men always read with respect about what we once were and in part still remain….

Passing bull 38 – Contrite capitalists



A good moment in the film The Big Short comes at the end.  Who goes to jail for all the fraud that was so cruel to so many people in the GFC?  Sweet F A.  The audience is terse and not amused.  Grievances are building.

The other day Goldman Sachs handed over a bribe – that is what it was – to settle a lot of claims.  About five billion dollars.  Eight years on, no one has been named, much less charged, much less jailed.  Just some computer entries – everything nice and quiet, an agreement between lawyers and other suits; people who can be relied on.

Reuters reported:

Goldman also acknowledged a Justice Department statement of facts describing how the firm misled investors.

For example, Goldman’s due diligence for one issue of 2006 mortgage-backed securities showed that some of the loan pools reflected an ‘unusually high’ percentage of loans with credit and compliance programs, the Department said.

‘How do we know that we caught everything?’ asked a Goldman committee tasked with reviewing and approving mortgage-backed securities, according to the Justice Department. ‘We don’t,’ a Goldman manager said.

‘Depends on what you mean by everything? Because of the limited sampling… we don’t catch everything,’ another Goldman manager said.

Still, the committee approved the securities without requiring additional due diligence, said the Justice Department, which did not identify those involved.

How did the not guilty party, Goldman Sachs, show its contrition for its ruinous lies?

‘We are pleased to put these legacy matters behind us,’ a Goldman spokesman said in a statement. ‘Since the financial crisis, we have taken significant steps to strengthen our culture, reinforce our commitment to our clients, and ensure our governance processes are robust,’ he said.

These people are so bent that they would probably charge a fee for bullshit as gross as that.

Here again there is one law for the rich and one for you and me.  That is why the Panama Papers are so inflammatory and that it is why the knives will be out for Palmer.  He has looked after his family and mates, and welched on his workers.

The Australian showed his wife in a Hermès shirt and said that we told you so; the ABC and Fairfax were conned; and it is all the fault of the cops.  You can take that or leave it – either way, our press is complicit in the collapse of confidence in business and government.

Poet of the month: W H Auden

Epitaph on a tyrant

Perfection, of a kind, was what he was after,

And the poetry he invented was easy to understand;

He knew human folly like the back of his hand,

And was greatly interested in armies and fleets;

When he laughed, respectable senators burst with laughter,

And when he cried the little children died in the streets.

Passing bull 37 – Corporate culture


People have been talking about corporate ‘culture’ and the extent to which directors get involved in managing the business of a company.  By ‘culture’, I understand the attitude of employees that affects the way that they and therefore the company do business.  If employees have an attitude that does not affect the way that they and the company do business – such as a distaste for people of a different sex, faith, or race – that attitude may not be of any interest to those who run the company.  But if an attitude does affect the way that they and the company do business, then it must be of interest to those who run the company.

The following propositions are basic.

First, the business of the company is to be managed by or under the direction of the directors.  (That statutory provision may be replaceable, but its effect can hardly be displaced.)

Second, the directors and employees of a company are bound to serve it in good faith, and to act in the best interests of the company, and they should avoid personal interests or other duties that conflict with their duty to act in the best interests of the company.

Third, if the company is advising a customer, or is otherwise in a position of trust with a customer, it will generally be subject to the same duties to its customer as its directors and employees owe to it – it must act in good faith and in the best interests of the customer and avoid interests or other duties that conflict with their duty to act in the best interests of the customer.

Those rules are clear.  Let us then take an example which is hardly hypothetical.  A company in the business of giving advice pays its employees at a rate that increases with the volume of advice that they give to customers of the company.  The employees do not disclose this to customers.  The personal interests of those employees then put the company in a position of conflict with its duty to act in the best interests of the customer.  This then is an issue in managing the business of the company that the directors must resolve.

It is absurd to question the role of directors in managing a company.  They are legally responsible for the management of that business.

Poet of the Month: W H Auden

In Memory of W B Yeats – Part II (February, 1939)

Earth, receive an honoured guest:

William Yeats is laid to rest.

Let the Irish vessel lie

Emptied of its poetry.

In the nightmare of the dark

All the dogs of Europe bark,

And the living nations wait,

Each sequestered in its hate;

Intellectual disgrace

Stares from every human face,

And the seas of pity lie

Locked and frozen in each eye.

Follow, poet, follow right

To the bottom of the night,

With your unconstrained voice

Still persuade us to rejoice;

With the farming of a verse

Make a vineyard of the curse,

Sing of human unsuccess

In a rapture of distress;

In the deserts of the heart

Let the healing fountain start,

In the prison of his days

Teach the free man how to praise.

Crime Fiction – Donna Leon again

A third try.

Crime Fiction – Donna Leon again

Last year, I wrote a note about Donna Leon that began as follows.

If you read only the hard stuff, you might get ratty.  About three years ago, I asked a friend to recommend a good crime or thriller writer.  He said that a woman called Donna Leon had a following for detective stories set in Venice, starting with a plot centred at the opera house La Fenice.  I read one and Donna and I are getting just fine.  I have just read about my tenth, which is also centred on La Fenice, and the stalking of the prima donna in Tosca being performed there.  This is a real bonus for fans of opera or Venice.

Donna Leon is or was an American academic who taught literature and music.  She has lived in Venice for 25 years, which is about the number of the novels in the series.  Like most crime novels they are written after a model. 

Commissario Guido Brunetti is a very astute detective who studied law and who occasionally reads Greek tragedy for uplift.  (How many wallopers do that?)  His wife Paola lectures in English, specializing in Henry James.  She is also the daughter of a count and countess.  She can also cook, and we get full descriptions of her offerings.  They have two children who must now be of university age. 

I have just read the first novel called Death at La Fenice.  It is about the death of a maestro who dies of cyanide poisoning during the second interval of La Traviata.  He is German and a jerk who thought he was God and who bears a strong resemblance to Herbert von Karajan.  According to her website, Leon wrote this novel as a joke, but went on with it when she won a prize.  There are now 25 Brunetti novels.  Most of the recurring characters are here from the beginning, but many fans follow this author because of the part played by Venice or opera, and because of the Mickey she takes out of the Italians – often quite firmly.  There is also the good food and wine, and the bad politics, and hardly any sex or violence.  They are very easy reads.  If you want to read to relax, Donna is the go.

Here she introduces her hero for the first time.

He was a surprisingly neat man: Tie carefully knotted, hair shorter than was the fashion; even his ears lay close to his head, as if reluctant to call attention to themselves.  His clothing marked him as Italian.  The cadence of his speech announced that he was Venetian.  His eyes were all policeman.

In the course of his investigation he interviews a theatre director called Santore.

Santore was a man of average height and build, but he had the face of a boxer at the end of an unlucky career.  His nose was squashed, its skin large-pored.  His mouth was broad, his lips thick and moist.  He asked Brunetti if he would like a drink, and from that mouth came words spoken in the purest of Florentine accents, pronounced with the clarity and grace of an actor.  Brunetti thought Dante must have sounded like this.

Here we are introduced to the boss of the hero, a politically well-connected idiot called Cavaliere Giuseppe Patta.  (You utter the word ‘political’ with great care in Venice.)

Cavaliere Giuseppe Patta had been sent to Venice three years before in an attempt to introduce new blood into the criminal justice system.  In this case, the blood had been Sicilian and had proved to be incompatible with that of Venice.  Patta used an onyx cigarette holder and had been known, upon occasion, to carry a silver-headed walking stick.  Though the first had made Brunetti stare and the second laugh, he tried to reserve judgement until he had worked long enough with the man to decide if he had a right to these affectations.  It had taken Brunetti less than a month to decide that though the affectations did suit the man, he had little right to them.  The vice-questore’s work schedule included a long coffee each summer morning on the terrace of the Gritti, and, in the winter, at Florian’s.  Lunch was usually taken at the Cipriani pool or Harry’s Bar, and he usually decided at about four to ‘call it a day’.  Few others would so name it.

Toward the end of this first novel, we get a suggestion of the only fault of the wife, Paola.  She cheats compulsively at Monopoly when playing with the family.

By general consent, Paola was forbidden to be banker, as she had been caught too many times, over the course of the years, with her hand in the till……Brunetti noticed Paola calmly sliding a small pile of ten-thousand-lire notes from the banker’s pile to her own.  She glanced up, noticed that her husband had seen her stealing from her own children, and gave him a dazzling smile.  A policeman, married to a thief, with a computer monster and an anarchist for children.

Brunetti, who reads Aeschylus for relaxation, has a guarded relationship with his father-in-law, the Count.

Brunetti, for his part, earns slightly more than three million lire a month as a commissario, a sum he calculated to be only a bit more than what his father-in-law paid each month for the right to dock his boat in front of the palazzo.  A decade ago, the Count had attempted to persuade Brunetti to leave the police and join him in a career in banking.  He continually pointed out that Brunetti ought not to spend his life in the company of tax invaders, wife-beaters, pimps, thieves, and perverts.  The offers had come to a sudden halt one Christmas when, goaded beyond patients, Brunetti had pointed out that although he and the Count seem to work among the same people, he at least had the consolation of being able to arrest them, whereas the Count was constrained to invite them to dinner.

It is hard to imagine a better kind of read for a long-haul flight.  The Famous Five for would-be Venetians.

Movies – Trumbo and Goya


So far as I know, no people or culture has welcomed informers.  Betrayal is a very black act, and it is worse when the people betrayed have put their trust in the informer.  Denunciation was an evil encouraged by regimes like the Spanish Inquisition, or the reigns of terror of Robespierre, Stalin and Hitler.  Few people deserve denunciation, and a regime that not just encouraged denunciation but enforced it would be Un-American.  It is therefore odd that the body that did just that in the U S in the 1950’s lives in infamy as the House of Un-American Activities Committee.

During one of those communal nervous breakdowns that the U S undergoes now and then, people got scared of communists, and a black list was prepared to deny work to suspected communists in the film industry.  People would then be compelled by subpoena to attend this form of inquisition conducted by McCarthy at the HUAC and be required to inform on people, including mates.  If they refused, they could be jailed for contempt of Congress.  They had committed no previous crime.  They were not even suspected of committing a crime.  They were suspected of holding political views that the majority did not favour.  If ever the word Un-American could be used decently, it would be to describe this despoliation of due process.

Yet it went on, and some prospered under it.  One upcoming politician made his name as one of the witch-hunting ferrets.  Another prominent union official ratted on his members and was a stool pigeon for the FBI.  The first was Richard Nixon.  The second was Ronald Reagan.  Both became two term presidents, and the second is still held in some regard even though he was a rat.  American politics are, after all, very different.  As I remarked elsewhere about Arthur Miller, who wrote The Crucible:

The failure of due process before the HUAC takes your breath away, but it got worse before the courts.  When people were charged with contempt for refusing to answer, the trials did not take long.  The prosecution called expert evidence. They called an ‘expert on Communism’ to testify that the accused had been under ‘communist discipline’.  When Miller’s counsel announced he was going to call his expert to say that Miller had not been under discipline of the Communist Party, Miller noticed ‘that from then on a negative electricity began flowing toward me from the bench and the government table.’  Miller thought his expert was good, ‘but obviously the tracks were laid and the train was going to its appointed station no matter what.’  The nation that would have been entitled to see itself as having the most advanced constitutional protection of civil rights on earth had been scared out of its senses by a big bad bear that existed mostly in the minds of the tormented.

All this is looked at in the film Trumbo, about a prominent writer on the black list.  The film was too much of the black hats v white hats and too hammed up for my taste, and it is too long, but it is an important story.

And the film touches on another weakness of the American legal system that we have been reminded of recently.  Their Supreme Court is appallingly political, and death can change the numbers and the legal climate.  Trumbo and others were advised that they would succeed in the Supreme Court.  But a judge on their side died, so they had to go to jail.  That form of lottery is not how the justice system should work.  And you wonder why a nation that wears its Christianity on its sleeve wanted to jail people for refusing to commit the crime of Judas.

The film Goya is one of those events that make you wonder why we didn’t think of it before.  You take a great painter, and put him up on the big screen, so that we can get up face to face with genius and see the brushwork in action.  The results are wonderful.  The film follows the documentary style of movies on Mozart and Beethoven, but the show is about the paintings.  You get close to the mystery.  For example, the painting of the Duke of Wellington is not a portrait of an imperious general – it is a portrait of a man who knows what apprehension, if not fear, is.  It is so different to portraits of Napoleon.  They were very different.  Wellington was not prodigal with the lives of his men.  Nor was he bent on wars of expansion.

According to the movie, Goya taught himself how to paint.  That is humbling.

I have just reread Orwell’s Down and Out in Paris and London.  I read a fair chunk of it while undergoing the ritual humiliation of delay in a doctor’s waiting room.  One phrase caught my eye.  He refers to an ‘embittered atheist’ – ‘the sort of atheist who does not so much disbelieve in God as personally dislike Him.’  I’ve seen a few of those – and you get them now politically with people who loathe what they call ‘liberalism’.  The Tory Party in the UK and the Republican Party in the U S are disintegrating because they cover too wide a field.  There are rumblings about that here from some Looney Tunes, but we don’t take ideology seriously – and thank God for that.