Pure Evil


We have to accept that people can do things that look to us to be pure evil.  Take the Terror in France in 1793, the Terror in Germany from 1933 to 1945, or the Terror now being inflicted by IS in the Middle East and elsewhere.  It is the kind of pure evil drawn by Shakespeare in Othello in Iago and by Herman Melville in John Claggart in Billy Budd.

Most of us cannot comprehend how previously decent people could bring themselves to do such evil, but we know that it is wrong to dismiss the examples as problems that were inherently French, German, or Islamic.  That would be to slip into the kind of labelling that underlies those evil ideologies and take us back to where we started.

Pure evil is all about in the book News of a kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is a factual account of a series of abductions of prominent figures in Colombia in an attempt by a drug lord, Pablo Escobar, to do a deal with the government to prevent their being extradited to the U S – which was handing out sentences of life plus more.  Eighteen prominent people were abducted and held in appalling deprivation while negotiations went on.  We know from the blurb and the author’s introduction that two hostages will die – both women.  That disclosure leads to some urgency in the read.

The criminals who so cruelly hold these hostages have been leached of all humanity.  They appear to attach no value at all to human life.  It is as if the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount had never been uttered.  They are at least as mindlessly cold as Himmler and Heydrich.  They commonly stand over the hostages with a cocked machine gun saying that at the first hint of rescue the hostages will be shot.  It is apparent that the guards do not put much value on their own life – they know it is short.

Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil.  She explained the sub-title as follows:

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

These observations caused lot of concern, but they derive from a firm intellectual integrity.  Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose some kind of grid or cattle pen over humanity and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.

We might here note the matter-of- fact assessment of the American historian R R Palmer on Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat load in the Vendée during the Revolution, and after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

Fouché despatched groups of prisoners at Lyons with cannonades of grapeshot fired at close range against people who had been asked to dig their own graves.  The merely wounded were finished off with sabres.  The killers could loot the bodies.  When the tide turned, Fouché lay low for a while, but then he was a key player in bringing down Robespierre, and Napoleon would make him chief of police.  Fouché was a serial survivor, a former seminarian who had no conscience at all.

We see a lot of banality in News of Kidnapping.  One hostage is taken with horrifying violence and many attempts to cover the tracks of the criminals – he then becomes aware that his captors are in a hurry because they want to go downstairs to watch the big local footy derby on TV.  This they do leaving him with a bottle of grog to listen to the game on the radio (which he then does).

While holding cocked weapons on their hostages, the guards have parties on saints’ days and birthdays and they are full of devotion for the Marian cult and ritual and superstition that pervades Latin America.  But when it comes time for a hostage to be executed, a sixty year old former beauty queen, someone fires six shots into her head at close range.  There are twelve entry and exit wounds.  Someone steals her shoes before the police arrive.  What kind of human being borne of a woman could do that to another human being?  How deranged and conscienceless can our human psyche get?  Was the killer jealous of her looks and finery?

Elsewhere, I said the following about Claggart (and Captain Vere and Billy Budd):

Since Claggart is the strongest character in the triangle, he has attracted the strongest writing in the book, the opera and the film.  He is in the tradition of Iago:

… if Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly.

That could be word for word Claggart on Billy.  Shakespeare defined a similar envy in one of the assassins of Caesar.

… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

While they behold a greater than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

Again, Claggart, chapter and verse.  If you hand those lines around in a large office and ask people whom they are reminded of, they will invariably indicate the resident smiling assassin.

In a narrative manner, but with a matter-of-fact investigative tone, Melville devotes lines of a very high order to Claggart.  The following words might have been applied to Heinrich Himmler:

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

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

We are left with the mystery of Hannah Arendt or what Carlyle referred to near the end of The French Revolution as ‘the madness that lies in the hearts of men.’  There may not be all that much between us and the primeval slime.

Passing Bull 57 Bullshit about sport and money


Australians do not like sports administrators.  That is putting it softly.  They were revolted by what the Panama Hat Brigade did to our Dawn and at Kevan Gosper’s spoiling Kathie’s night by presenting her medal.  Now we have to put up with John Coates.  Is there anyone in this wide land who likes or respects this man?  He is a lawyer from Sydney with tenure with the IOC and AOC longer than that of most African dictators and he pulls down north of $700,000 a year so that he can schlep about the planet in the right part of the aircraft and then point the bone at everyone but himself for any perceived failure.  If the Australians have ‘failed’, whatever that means, at the Olympics, who could be more responsible than John Coates?

For reasons given by David Crawford and others in The Australian today, I think that our athletes did incredibly well at Rio.  The problem was that people had created unrealistic expectations that put an unfair burden on our chosen few.  Another problem was that the games should never have been held there.  Another problem was that the Russians should never have been let in, and the athletes were left to repudiate their minders.  This combination of ineptitude and corruption blights and typifies the IOC and taints anyone inside their shadow.

Yet this Sydney lawyer waffles on – before the games have ended – about Australians not getting an adequate return on their capital investment.  Not in my bloody name, Sport.  I don’t pay taxes to swell the egos of professional entertainers or to gratify couch-dwellers with an unabashed nationalism that would make Kipling look like a shy novice.  I don’t sponsor spoiled brats with no brains and less manners to pose as tennis players or any other over-paid service-provider.

Does any sane person think more of the Poms or the Japs now that they are in the business of buying Gold and puffing their chests through the medium of the IOC?  Do the English not see that they have destroyed their national identity in football through that moral and intellectual trainwreck called the English Premier League?  Is that not sufficient warning of the dangerous futility of spending treasure on circuses and colosseums for the masses?  Why don’t we apply our capital for sports facilities for kids at the bottom rather than adults at the top?  Do these people not see an almost universal revolt against what people call inequality and elitism and entrenched hierarchies – all qualities made flesh in John Coates?

After the women’s sevens, the unsurpassable highlight at Rio for me was Chloe Esposito.  (The women may yet save rugby in Australia – God knows that the Wallabies need all the help that they can get.)  Chloe’s was a colossal achievement in areas where European nations are so much stronger.  It was an achievement to match that of Michelle Payne – and Chloe, God bless her, has the same sunny, Australian plainness of outlook and speech.  We can all be mightily proud of Chloe and her family – and it would be so much worse than vulgar even to mention money in the same breath.  I may just add that her brother finished seventh – the place filled by Chloe in London.  This could be the start of a dynasty!

Mr Coates was also quoted as saying that the issue of crime was not addressed in Rio’s submission to stage the games.  I went there in about 1989.  Most parts were no-go and we were advised not to wear watches.  A few years later urchins spewed out of the sewers and overran the beaches.  Criminality in Rio is notorious around the world.

It is time for Mr Coates to move on.   One of those ghastly gaming companies that blight sport on TV would give you long odds against his doing that sans dynamite.

Poet of the Month: Kenneth Slessor

Adventure Bay

Sophie’s my world… my arm must sooner or later

Like Francis Drake turn circumnavigator,

Stem the dark tides, take by the throat strange gales

And toss their spume to stars unknown, as kings

Rain diamonds to the mob… then arch my sails

By waterspouts of lace and bubbling rings

Gulfed in deep satin, conquer those warmer waves

Where none but mermaids ride, and the still caves

Untrod by sailors…aye, and with needle set,

Rounding Cape Turnagain, and take up my way,

And so to the Ivory Coast…and further yet,

Port of all drownéd lovers, Adventure Bay!



But why now, Jim?  I know I have been less than regular at the Big Table recently, but did it have to come to this?  Well, I suppose that having a logical mind, you will say ‘why any other time?’  And the truth is – the one great truth is – that it must happen some time.

We could have further recalled that day – that wonderful day for me about a quarter of a century ago – when I was hearing tax cases at a tribunal that then sat in an insalubrious part of King Street.  I used to hear cases on Friday so I could write a decision on the weekend.  I had given the papers a cursory look – Lord Denning, whom you disapproved of, was very firmly of the view that people hearing cases should not go into the material in depth before the start of the hearing, but leave it up to counsel to say what the case was about.  I saw that it was a stamp duty case and that it raised a very simple issue.  Should duty on a transfer of land be assessed on the value of the legal estate or on the value of the equitable estate?  The taxpayer was AMP (I think) and was represented by Mallesons – this is what’s called the big end of town.  The amount of money involved was very large.  This could obviously be a big case.

Well, in the name of God, there must be truckloads of law on this.  But I was to find out that this was one of those unnerving lacunae in our law.  I asked my clerk to find out who was appearing.  She told me that Mr J D Merralls QC was appearing with Mr David Batt for the taxpayer and that Mr Richard Boaden was appearing for the Crown.  I think I may say that my heart felt like it skipped a beat with something like a mixture of apprehension and pride.  I was to be addressed on a very fine point of equity by the undisputed leader of the equity bar.

As I recall, we ran until about 1:35 PM.  I like to finish before lunch.  If you allow some counsel time to get second wind, you might be there forever.  I recall having to ask Richard Boaden whether he thought he might make some passing reference to the decision of the Crown that he had been briefed to defend – the case had opened up a worryingly wide issue.  People who have to decide cases like to know what is the question that they have to answer.

I took off to the other end of town to begin writing a decision.  I had no idea what the result might be – I was in truth having some difficulty working out what the process to reach any result might be.  I formed the view that this task would relieve me of going to the partners’ conference in Canberra.  I was overruled on that.  I flew up to Canberra, put a folder with my name on it outside the front door of the main meeting room and returned to my room in the Hyatt to spend the whole weekend on room service writing the decision.  I suppose it took about twenty hours.  (The pay, as you know, Jim, was ludicrous.)

I think I put the decision out on Monday.  You lost.  And you took it like the sportsman that you are.  I was lucky never to be worried about what might happen to anything I did on appeal, but in this case I did not want to let you down.  In truth, I did not want to make a fool of myself before you.  We had to drill down, as they say on Bloomberg TV, beyond Snell, beyond Ashburner, and even beyond Maitland, my hero – and perhaps go in search of what your hero, Sir Owen Dixon, was pleased to call ‘basal principle’.  I might say that I found the whole thing both draining and exhilarating.  That is I think the great prize in any professional life – but these prizes come with a price tag.

Or we could have further recalled that time in, I think, 1971, when I was sitting as the Associate to the late Tom Smith.  You fought a little will case against Stephen Charles and, I think, some other member of counsel.  The argument passed clean over my head.  I was able to produce my Associate’s notebook of the case – and of course you were able to produce your numbered volume of your court book showing the outline of the argument of the case – which you could recall.  I forgot who won, but I can remember not being able to handle the pronunciation of some of the nominate reports.

Or we could have further recalled that time when your horse won that big race and you were introduced to the Queen and the Duke, and His Royal Highness, as is his wont, made some droll remarks of a faintly anti-establishment kind.  Or we could have further discussed those hilarious meetings between you and Gough, which Gough was able to recall in all their details – I wondered whether you got the irony of the fact that you also were able to recall every part of those meetings so many years after the event.

Or we could have recall the time when our email correspondence got underway.  I recall your asking me whether I really had a daughter who was married to the Captain of the Melbourne Storm – I used to refer to Cameron Smith as my son-in-law.  That correspondence from time to time threatened to become voluminous and to affect our outputs, as they say.

It started when I got into some strife.  I was grateful for your support.  It was of course not unqualified.  When I first saw your name appear on my computer screen, I felt a certain frisson.  I would never lose it, Jim.  Your notes were always to the point, and might sometimes fairly be said to have been terse.  Your emphatic decency could sometimes be unsettling.  You and I differed on a lot of things – such as Lord Denning, Melbourne Storm, and Panto outfits – but deep down there was not I think a lot between us.  But if I ever did take any wounds from you, Jim, they were only glancing, and, more importantly, I took them down the front – and God knows that is very rare for us – or anywhere else.

In what I think may have been your last email to me, you gave as usual sensible advice.  You said that if I were to be diagnosed with cancer, I could not do so in a better place than Melbourne.  After two visits to Peter Mac, I understand just what you mean.  And I think I have embarked on what might prove to be a series of waltzes or foxtrots that will go on until it comes my turn to shuffle off.  As a German lady friend who has been through the mill said to me in an email that arrived overnight: ‘There is nothing to be done but to keep the dates of the regular examinations and to enjoy the time in between’.


My relationship with that quaint construct called the Victorian Bar has been on and off, love and hate.  You were not so equivocal, but neither were you blinded.  You stood for all that is good in this part of the profession.  You are one of the few people I know from whom the word ‘honourable’ does not sound ridiculous.  (The late Sir John Young was another.)  You remind me of the boot-studder at the Collingwood Football Club – you are one of the solid, devoted, and utterly irreplaceable pillars of the place.  Without people like you, Jim, our lives are so much poorer.

Now that you have gone, Jim, I have lost part of the furniture of my mind – part of my juristic as well as my forensic furniture.  You have been a large part of my education and inspiration.  But I can and will take my comfort from what I know that you also thought to be some of the most telling lines ever written.  When Dietrich Bonhoeffer spoke at his Grandma Julie’s burial, he used words of surpassing beauty that keep coming back to us.  ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her.  This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’  Bonhoeffer, too, understood and lived as a member of the noblesse oblige.

And for you, Jim, and only for you, I will award a Latin tag.  You were sui generis – by the length of the bloody strait at Flemington.

But, bugger it Jim, there is now one less Old Melbourne Grammarian for me to annoy.  And there will be one less person in the world to ask me if I really wore a pink cap to school.



Having just read Anna Karenina for the third time, I will set out what I said about it a few years ago after reading it for the second time, and then add a few observations.  The book is a great work of art, and it may cast its spell in different ways on different viewings.


So, how did the most famous affaire of western literature start?

Her bright grey eyes which seemed dark because of their black lashes rested for a moment on his face as if recognizing him, and then turned to the passing crowd evidently in search of someone.  In that short look, Vronsky had time to notice the subdued animation that enlivened her face and seemed to flutter between her bright eyes and a scarcely perceptible smile which curved her rosy lips.  It was as if an excess of vitality so filled her whole being that it betrayed itself against her will, now in her smile, now in the light of her eyes.  She deliberately tried to extinguish that light in her eyes, but it shone in spite of her in her faint smile.

You cannot put that on the screen.  It is the pure magic of genius.  How might lover-boy, Count Vronsky, react?

Marriage had never presented itself to him as a possibility.  Not only did he dislike family life, but in accordance with the views generally held in the bachelor world in which he lived [ as an aristocratic officer in the army], he regarded the family, and especially a husband, as something alien, hostile, and above all ridiculous.

Lover-boy gets worse.  He knows his attentions to her at the opera will be obvious and commented upon.

He knew very well that he ran no risk of appearing ridiculous….in the eyes of Society people generally.  He knew very well that in their eyes, the role of the disappointed lover of a maiden or of any single woman might be ridiculous; but the role of a man who was pursuing a married woman, and who made it the purpose of his life at all cost to draw her into adultery, was one which had in it something beautiful and dignified and could never be ridiculous……

How does the beautiful Anna Karenina fall for such a cheap and hollow devotee of human blood sports?  She had married an older man, a dry, didactic civil servant who spoke to her superciliously, a devoted civil servant and father, a man of God, who had no soul at all.  He was not really a man.  Anna muses to herself.

They do not know how for eight years he has been smothering my life, smothering everything that was alive in me, that he never once thought I was a live woman in need of love.  They do not know how at every step he hurt me and remained self-satisfied.  Have I not tried, tried with all my might, to find a purpose in my life?   Have I not tried to love him, tried to love my son when I could no longer love my husband?  But the time came when I understood that I could no longer deceive myself, that I am alive, and cannot be blamed because God made me so, that I want to love and live.

This is a primal cry for release.  We already know that Vronsky may not be the man to carry the load, but now we know that Karenina will be a cold implacable enemy who will not even seek a duel, but will seek to rein in and humiliate an errant wife with all the power at his male disposal – including his power over his son.  How would Vronsky’s code rule his conduct toward Karenina?

The code categorically determined that though the card-sharper must be paid, the tailor need not be; that one might not lie to a man, but might to a woman; that one must not deceive anyone except a husband; that one must not forgive an insult but may insult others, and so on.  These rules might be irrational and bad but they were absolute, and in complying with them, Vronsky felt at ease and could carry his head high.  Only quite lately, in reference to his relations to Anna, had he begun to feel that his code did not quite meet all circumstances, and that the future presented doubts and difficulties for which he had no guiding principle.

One such doubt or difficulty might be Anna’s becoming pregnant.  What did the code of the military nobles say about pregnancy?

The novel starts with the well-known line: ‘All happy families resemble one another, each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.’  Prince Oblonsky thinks that his wife is passed it – at thirty-four after a few kids – and he has been caught playing around.  Ironically, it is Anna, his sister, who persuades his wife, Dolly, to forgive him his lapse.  Does Oblonsky learn his lesson?  Not a bit of it.  Nothing like a tumble in the hay with the staff to get out the cobwebs.  We get this 600 pages later:

‘Why not, it’s amusing?  Ca ne tire pas a consequence.  My wife won’t be the worse for it, and I shall have a spree.  The important part is to guard the sanctity of the home!  Nothing of that kind at home; but you needn’t tie your hands.

It reminds you of the defence of prostitution by Saints Augustine and Aquinas as the shield of marriage.  A bit on the side may be good for you.  It is almost like the defence of necessity.

The Russian nobility was useless and doomed.  God and his Orthodox Church were corrupt and dying.  The bourgeoisie were no better – and they were about to show that they could not pick up the political baton.  Men were exploring the difference between immorality and amorality.  Women were just left to rot.  The whole rotten edifice would expire under the seething ego of Lenin and the lust for power of that sadist, Stalin.

It was the tragedy of Anna Karenina that having married a cold man, she then fell in love with an empty man.  Vronsky was not fit to tie her laces either as a character or as a person.  But they have to be condemned by Society.  They knew that.  They are like Adam and Eve cast out of Eden.  The sex is hot and guilty and they have no future.  After they go to bed together for the first time, we get this:

Then, as the murderer desperately throws himself on the body, as though with passion, and drags it and hacks it, so Vronsky covered her face and shoulders with kisses.

She held his hand and did not move.  Yes!  These kisses were what had been bought by their shame! ‘Yes, and this hand, which will always be mine, is the hand of my accomplice.’  She lifted his hand and kissed it.  He knelt down and tried to see her face, but she hid it and did not speak.  At last, as though mastering herself, she sat up and pushed him away.  Her face was as beautiful as ever, but all the more piteous.

‘It’s all over,’ she said.  ‘I have nothing but you left.  Remember that.’

‘I cannot help remembering what is life itself to me!  For one moment of that bliss….’

‘What bliss?’ she said with disgust and horror, and the horror was involuntarily communicated to him.  ‘For heaven’s sake, not another word!’

This is high-voltage writing, indeed.  Vronsky is not up to looking after Anna as the gates of a duplicitous society are shut in their faces.  This is how Dolly laments the raw injustice of it all.

‘And they are all so down on Anna!  What for?  Am I better than she?  I at least have a husband whom I love.  Not as I wished to love, but I still do love him; but Anna did not love hers.  In what was she to blame?  She wishes to live.  God has implanted that need in ourselves.  It is quite possible I might have done the same.  I don’t even know whether I did well to listen to her at that terrible time when she came to me in Moscow.  I ought then to have left my husband and begun life anew.  I might have loved and been loved, the real way.  And is it better now?  I don’t respect him.  I need him,’ she thought of her husband,’ and I put up with him.  Is that any better?  I was still attractive then, still had my good looks,’ she went on, feeling that she wanted to see herself in a glass.

Another primal lament.

The disintegration of the union – the end of the affair: anything except that weasel word, ‘relationship’ – is etched in acid.  As happens when lovers fall out, the degradation is mutual.

‘I don’t want to know!’ she almost screamed.  ‘I don’t!  Do I repent of what I have done?  No!  No!  No!  If I had to begin again from the beginning I should do just the same.  For us, for you and for me, only one thing is important: whether we love each other.  No other considerations exist.  Why do we live here, separated and not seeing one another?  Why can’t I go?  I love you, and it’s all the same to me,’ she said, changing from French to Russian, while her eyes as she looked at him glittered with a light he could not understand, ‘so long as you have not changed toward me!  Why don’t you look at me?’

He looked at her.  He saw all the beauty of her face and of her dress, which suited her as her dresses always did.  But now it was just this beauty and elegance that irritated him.’

What was that argument about?  Whether they should be seen together at the theatre.  She goes – and she gets cut – brutally.  She is the fallen woman – Eve – incarnate.

The other story is about Levin and Kitty who strongly resemble Pierre and Natasha in War and Peace.  It is comparatively prosaic and for our tastes now, too preoccupied with the emancipation of the peasants, Russian agriculture and the death of God.  And their story is up and down.  It may remind you of T S Eliot on Hamlet ‘Emotion is in excess of the facts as they appear.’  You can edit a lot of the politics out – as in War and Peace.

There are pieces of bravura writing, as in the ball scene, the steeple chase, and the duck shooting.  We get realism from minute detail.  Here are snippets from the wedding of Levin and Kitty – you have heard it all before.

‘Why is Marie in lilac?  It’s almost as unsuitable at a wedding as black.’

‘With her complexion, it’s her only salvation,’ replied Princess D.  ‘I wonder why they are having the wedding in the evening, like tradespeople.’

‘It is more showy.  I was married in the evening too’, answered Mrs K and sighed as she remembered how sweet she had looked that day, how funnily enamoured her husband then was, and how different things were now.

A count is chatting to a princess ‘who had designs on him.’

She answered only with a smile.  She was looking at Kitty and thinking of the time when she would be standing there beside the count, just as Kitty now stood, and how she would then remind him of his joke…….

All the details of the ceremony were followed not only by the two sisters, the friends and relatives, but also by women onlookers who were quite strangers, and who – breathless with excitement and afraid of missing anything, even a single movement, and annoyed by the indifference of the men – did not answer and often did not hear the latter when they jested or made irrelevant remarks…..

‘Now hear how the deacon will roar” Wives obey your husbands.”’

It was ever thus.  The girls swoon and the boys turn green.  Have you never seen a secretary parade the ring, then the album, and then the baby – and the rest go gaga?  Someday all will this be mine!  It is just the look that ensainted barristers get on their face at a judicial welcome.

The quarrels get worse.  Anna is on drugs.  The end comes like a kaleidoscope.  The final descent into what now seems the only possible outcome for this star-crossed lover is written – it is composed – with murderous power.  They first met on a railway station and it will end at one.  Anna sets out on her last journey.  She looks outside her horse-drawn carriage.

‘They want that dirty ice cream, that they do know for certain’, she thought, looking at two boys stopping at an ice cream seller…  ’We all want what is sweet and tasty.  If not sweetmeats, then dirty ice cream.  And Kitty’s the same – if not Vronsky, then Levin.  And she envies me, and hates me.  And we all hate each other.’

She gets to the station.  She is somehow drawn to a platform.  A goods train approaches.  This is how it all ends.

But she did not take her eyes off the wheels of the approaching second truck, and at the very moment when the midway point between the wheels drew level, she threw away her red bag, and drawing her head down between her shoulders threw herself forward on her hands under the truck, and with a light movement as if preparing to rise again, immediately dropped on her knees.  And at the same moment she was horror-struck at what she was doing.  ‘Where am I?  What am I doing?  Why?’  She wished to rise, to throw herself back, but something huge and relentless struck her on the head and dragged her down.  ‘God forgive me everything’, she said, feeling the impossibility of struggling….A little peasant muttering something was working at the rails.  The candle, by the light of which she had been reading that book filled with anxieties, deceptions, grief, and evil, flared up with a brighter light, lit up for her all that had been before dark, crackled, began to flicker, and went out forever.

I think that Tolstoy loved Anna.  I first read this book forty years ago when I was plainly too young.  This time, I was half in love with Anna myself, but she was never going toward an easeful death.  For me now, Anna Karenina is the largest female hero in all our literature (specifically including Shakespeare for this purpose).

Madame Bovary is very different.  The book is an exquisite indictment of the French bourgeoisie –as damning as Tolstoy’s indictment of the Russian nobility.  The book has no sympathetic characters, but for me at least, Emma has none of the heroic grandeur of Anna – even down to her tawdry, protracted, and melodramatic suicide.  Emma is just a bored housewife with a spending problem and an inept way of putting it about.

(Turgenev introduced Flaubert to Tolstoy.  ‘Sometimes he seems Shakespearean.  I cried aloud with admiration as I read….In any case, he has balls!’  Flaubert complained that Tolstoy repeats himself and philosophises.  Turgenev replied that Flaubert had put his finger on the spot – Tolstoy ‘has also conceived a philosophical system at once mystical, childish, and arrogant: this has doubly spoiled his second novel (Anna).’)

Anna Karenina is a stunning, colossal achievement of the human spirit.  As with Joyce, you are left wondering how a man could get into the head of a woman (unless you are one of those poor, blind, drab souls who think that men and women are the same.)  If you ask me whether Anna was a hero in Shakespeare’s mode – one whose end follows from some flaw in her character – my response is that you are begging the question posed by the whole bloody book.

That question is simple enough.  Could Anna have a life?


The analogy with the fall of Adam and Eve still holds good for me – the woman takes the hit, and the consequences of the original sin are inexorable.  But rather than look to Madame Bovary, which was written about twenty years before Anna Karenina, we might look rather at Ibsen’s A Doll’s House, which came out at about the same time and caused a sensation across Europe.  Nora has a hollow marriage like Anna – to a shallow man who looks upon her as a kind of doll.   In the end, Nora does the unthinkable – she repudiates the marriage, and walks out – slamming the door.  (Hedda Gabler’s repudiation is more extreme.)  Tolstoy tells us this of Vronsky:

For the first time he vividly pictured to himself her personal life, her thoughts, her wishes; but the idea that she might and should have her own independent life appeared to him so dreadful that he hastened to drive it away.

That is Nora’s husband, word for word.  Anna says of Karenin, ‘He does know what love is.’  Neither does Vronsky.  During one of their first tiffs, we are told that Vronsky ‘felt something rising in his throat, and for the first time in his life he felt ready to cry.’  Anna says of her husband ‘He is not a man but a machine, and a cruel machine when angry…..I am like a hungry man to whom food has been given.’  When Anna confesses to her husband, his only thought is of Society.  ‘The one thing that preoccupied him was the question of how he could best divest himself of the mud with which she in her fall had bespattered him….’  You can’t get meaner than that.  We saw a similar reaction from Nora’s husband.  When the affair disintegrates, Anna asks of Vronsky ‘What did he look for in me?  Not so much love as the satisfaction of his vanity.’  There is a lot of Vronsky in Donald Trump, the quintessence of self-centred shallowness.

Both of these works are fierce protests at the miserable standing of women and at the hypocrisy and emptiness of the responsible ‘Society’.  The author pulls no punches on the misery of women in child bearing and rearing.  Dolly Oblonsky is well and truly unattractive at 34, and Anna has to take steps to stop going the same way.

‘Altogether,’ she [Dolly] thought, looking back at the whole of her life during those fifteen years of wedlock, ‘pregnancy, sickness, dullness of mind, indifference to everything, and above all disfigurement.  Even Kitty – young pretty Kitty, – how much plainer she has become!  And I when I am pregnant become hideous, I know.  Travail, suffering, monstrous suffering, and that final moment – then nursing, sleepless nights, and that awful pain!’

The social debates at the other end – with Levin – can get wearing but you might strike gold.  There is a discussion about why Russia is in a Serbian war.  Someone says this was a case where ‘the whole people directly expresses its will.’

‘That word people is so indefinite,’ said Levin.  ‘Clerks in district offices, schoolmasters and one out of a thousand peasants may know what it is all about.  The rest of the eighty millions….not only don’t express their will, but have not the faintest idea what there is to express it about.  What right have we then to say it is the will of the people?’

So much for Rousseau and the ‘theory’ of the French Revolution.  Tolstoy says the problem here is ‘pride of intellect.’  He was dead right, and this is still a very great book.  It is as elemental and doom-laden as Greek tragedy.

It is not possible to do justice to this book on film; I have seen two good ballet productions; but in my view it is best taken as opera – straight off the page.

Passing bull 56 – Bullshit about manners, taste and identity: Part II



In his piece about identity politics, Mr Kelly wrote about the reaction to the Four Corners program about the abuse of young aboriginals in detention in the Northern Territory.   Mr Kelly said that the media had been reluctant

….to mention, let alone canvas, the underlying causes – the breakdown of the indigenous social and family order through a range of issues including family dislocation, neglect, violence, parental abuse and drunkenness.

Mr Kelly referred to a commentator who referred to ‘the politically correct ‘selective outrage’ and [who] told the ABC that ‘Blackfellas’ had ‘to take responsibility for their own children,’ and another indigenous commentator who told the newspaper that ‘this was primarily about children who had been failed by their families rather than race’.  Mr Kelly said that ‘then an honest debate had been sanctioned.’

Australia, once famous for its straight talking, seems a frightened country.

Why were the alleged failures of parents of black children relevant to a story about revealed cruelty and mistreatment by government of the products of those failures?  We are again talking at a very general level but how does the suggestion that children have been let down by their parents bear on the actual mistreatment shown in the program?  I don’t get the point.  Are we, God-like, apportioning some kind of universal blame?  I don’t know.

Perhaps the problem comes from the author’s reference to ‘the underlying causes’ – causes of what?  The mistreatment of aboriginals in detention, which was the subject of Four Corners, or the miserable condition of blackfellas at large?  If the latter, how do you avoid going back to 1788?

The cartoonist, Bill Leak, had a cartoon depicting three figures in the outback.  A Northern Territory copper holds a kid by the scruff of the neck before his father.  Both blackfellas are depicted as ugly – some would say Neanderthal – and in bare feet.  Dad holds a can of beer.   The copper says: ‘You’ll have to sit down and talk to your son about personal responsibility.’  Dad replies: ‘Yeah, right, what’s his name then?’


What that cartoon means to you will probably vary on where you come from.  It will mean some things to some white people and some other things to some coloured people.  What it suggests to me is that blackfellas are drop-out drunks incapable of being responsible for their children.  On that meaning, the cartoon is plainly racist, since it denigrates a people by reference to their race.  I find it hard to see how you could avoid saying the cartoon is tasteless and, yes, offensive.  How would you like it if someone said that about you?


Mr Kelly has a very different and very clear view.  He says that Mr Leak has made clear the purpose of the cartoon.

… If you think things are pretty crook for children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, you should have a look at the homes they came from.  It wasn’t hard to get.  But the fascinating thing about Leak’s piece was the feedback he got that people couldn’t understand his cartoon.

That’s right, they didn’t get it – surely a victory for a politically correct, dumbed down education system and the spread of identity politics culture where such images turn the brain into a non—functioning, non—computing defence mechanism.

Well, if that was Mr Leak’s purpose, he failed to make it clear to me.  And what does it add to the Four Corners story to say that the victims of the government were worse victims of their own upbringing.  How is that allegation relevant?  Well, it might be relevant if you are trying to spread responsibility for the unhappy fate of these people.  ‘Responsibility’ is the dominant word in the cartoon; Mr Leak omits it from his description of his purpose; Mr Kelly says that the cartoon depicts an ‘irresponsible indigenous father who couldn’t recall the name of his son.’

The real problem with the cartoon is that it can have no relevance to the news story unless the shoddy beer-can-bearing black father is said to be typical of blackfellas – and on no view is any such proposition attractive.  And the problem for Mr Kelly is that his inability to see how other people might react differently to the cartoon reveals that he is used to speaking to the true believers who are happy to share the same bubble.

Mr Kelly then offers himself some gratuitous legal advice, saying of s.18C that ‘on racial issues, the test is subjective – whether the individual is offended.’  Mr Kelly wants a reference to ‘community values’.  If it is the law that a person can succeed under this statute simply by saying that ‘I personally am offended – at being described as of Scottish descent when I’m really Irish – even though no reasonable member of the community in my place would be offended’, then I agree with Mr Kelly that the law needs some attention.  But I very much doubt whether that is the law.


As it seems to me, at the core of people’s worries about this statute, is the fear that ‘offensive’ is too plastic or personal or variable to be safely made the criterion of a law.  People think that the law should be made of sterner, clearer stuff.  They fear that it will be too hard to draw the line.  People might then be inhibited in what they say – the law may have ‘a chilling effect’.


The answer is that exactly these kinds of issues arise a lot of the time in all areas of our law without giving rise to the suggestion that as a result the relevant law should be abolished.  So much of our law is founded on moral questions of degree or issues of current standards or practice.  Was he honest?  Was she careful?  Did he break his word?  Did she intend to be legally bound?  Did he mislead her?  Did she lie to him?  Would what he said make others think less of her?  Did he mean to hurt her when he said that?  Was she offended by that remark?  What did he mean when he said that?  In that meaning, was it true?  Was it fair comment?  Will he get a fair hearing?  Will my renovation annoy my neighbour?  Will it be bad for the amenity of the area?  Was her purpose proper?  Was he acting with a good conscience?  On a bad day, a judge might ask you whether you have come to court with clean hands.  (That is the very wording of the law.)


Dealing with the issue of whether conduct is offensive in a legal sense is neither harder nor easier than any of those questions of degree that have either a moral base or that relate to conduct in the community at large – if you like, community values.


And of course there will be laws against offensive behaviour – such as a depraved professional man ogling or pawing schoolgirls on a tram; or a jilted suitor standing outside a church shouting that the bride is a slut and that her mum is worse; or a bystander abusing veterans in an Anzac Day march as war criminals; or a drunken blackfella bursting into the best pub in Kununurra and throwing up in front of a busload of Japanese senior citizens.  We have laws to allow police to intervene in such behaviour because in our opinion, it would be uncivilised for any of our citizens to be exposed to the hurt caused by that kind of offensiveness without protection from their government.


The other reason for these laws is related to the first – these kinds of offensiveness constitute a breach of the peace in themselves, and they are likely to lead to worse breaches of the peace if people ae left to help themselves.


And, yes, these laws could be abused, and they were abused by the police in the past before compliant magistrates, but the answer is to control the abuse, and not to abolish the law.  All this seems obvious.  Do those who want to abolish s 18C – Mr Kelly is not one of them – want to exclude behaviour that offends on the grounds of race – when that kind of offence is likely to be the most wounding and also the most likely to start a fight?


And, yes, laws against offensive language or behaviour do have an inhibiting effect – or, if you prefer, a chilling effect – on the way people behave.  Most laws are made for precisely that purpose.


Finally, where and when was the Golden Age of Mr Kelly’s ‘old Australian character’ when the nation was ‘famous for its straight talking’?  Assuming that Mr Kelly is not talking of the time of the White Australia Policy, when did we use to talk straight, and when did we stop?


If Mr Kelly is talking of times before laws were made against offensive language or behaviour, he will have to go back before the First Fleet to seek his Arcadia.


Poet of the month: Kenneth Slessor

Waters – Part I

This Water, like a sky that no one uses,

Air turned to stone, written by stars and birds

No longer, but with clouds of crystal swimming,

I’ll not forget, nor men can lose, though words

Dissolve with music, gradually dimming.

So let them die; whatever the mind loses,

Water remains, cables and bells remain,

Night comes, the sailors burn their riding-lamps,

And strangers, pitching on our graves their camps,

Will break through branches to the surf again.

A Bengal lancer in Paradise – My Debut at Peter Mac


When a few weeks ago I was provisionally diagnosed as suffering from cancer, a friend of mine, who is a distinguished equity silk, permitted himself a philosophical reflection.  It was to the effect that if I was going to get cancer, I was in or near the right city, because Melbourne was as good as anywhere else in the world with this form of illness.  Yesterday I got good evidence to support his view.  I went for the first time to the new Peter Mac on Grattan Street.  It is opposite the Royal Melbourne Hospital and diagonally opposite Melbourne University.  It is truly a thing of wonder.  I was told that it had only opened for business, if that is the term, on 23 June this year.  Being a public hospital, it may not be a joy forever, but it is bloody close to being a thing of beauty.

The design imposes on you as you drive up to it.  There is an indented arrival area outside a very soigné café that might call to mind an upmarket if not snooty hotel.  Inside it is all light and space and a sculptured atrium with a winding walkway that reminded me of the Guggenheim Museum on Fifth Avenue.  This place was set up and is now re-established to treat an ailment that gives most people the heebie-jeebies.  That is why we use terms like Bengal lancer and native dancer.  Those responsible for designing and building this facility obviously know this better than me, and they have sought by their work to neutralise the suspicion and fear of most of those who enter it.  I think that they have succeeded brilliantly.

I went to get a PET scan.  Imaging is on the fifth floor.  You use those lifts that require you to press a button for your destination and then a voice tells you which lift to take – an innovation that might unsettle some migrants, or some of the older pre-revolution citizens like me.  All members of staff have obviously been trained and disciplined in how to deal with visitors.  (I would put equal stress on each verb.)

For reasons I will come to, I had to wait some time before my turn came.  This is a public hospital and you certainly see the public here in all degrees – I may well have been the toffiest bastard in the waiting room.  (I even thought of hiding the label on my designer scarf.)  While I was waiting, I watched Fiji annihilate England in the Sevens.

Then a very nice young lady called Emily Hong took me to my room, and a chair that overlooked the whole of Elizabeth and Peel Streets, that huge flag, and the Turf Club Hotel.  The view was so good, I disdained the TV.  They inject you with a substance that glows in a scan under certain conditions.  You then rest for an hour on a reclining chair, and then go for the scan which takes about twenty minutes – and which may distress those who suffer from phobias.  (They might think of offering the eye-covers they give you on long haul aircraft.)  After what I thought was a decent interval, I made a serious tactical mistake.  I looked at my watch.  Only twenty minutes had elapsed, and from then on the watch got consulted at ever diminishing intervals.

When I thought that the hour had expired, I pressed the button Emily had left with me.  In came a man who looked remarkably like Peter Gordon, who gave me the good news that I was next up and, more importantly, that I was free to go the dunny.  Then another nice lady called Jo came and took me to ‘take the pictures.’  The scanner was not the kind of cocoon I had once experienced and was similar, I thought, to the one I had used at Kyneton.  When the pictures are taken, you wait until a doctor has seen them.  Then they take the device out of your arm – and you are free to go – and free to eat.  (This is one of those bloody fasting jobs.)  I had been there three hours, all the time marvelling at what was all around me.

Over the road I went then to the RMH to see the surgeon who has been asked to remove the offending item – assuming it is a cancer.  Well, any institution would look its age compared to the gleaming novelty I had just come from, and the RMH was somehow intimidating.   For some reason it reminded me of Gotham City sans Batman.  Well, I somehow found my way to where the surgeons consult, after a lift that was slower than those of the Waldorf Astoria and the Cavalry and Guards Club.  The surgeon had however left – for reasons I will relate.

I had proposed to drive down to town but the appointment was for 9.30 and I was afraid of the freeway at peak hour.  So I got the 7.11 from Kyneton which was due in at Southern Cross at 8.30 – plenty of time to enable me to get to the number 19 tram that I had used fifty years ago.  We got as far as Water Gardens – which is not a place most of you would like to stop at.  A Metro train in front of us had broken down.  The conductor was extremely helpful – but they were being misled by Metro.  We were told that the train would be removed.  I had told the conductor I was going to a medical appointment.  She asked what time it was, and I said I had plenty.

Events falsified that statement and I told her I would a get a cab from Footscray.  She took my name and said Vline would indemnify me.  After nearly an hour both networks tossed in the towel, and we abandoned train.  It was hopeless trying to get a cab, so I took a Vline bus to Southern Cross, and a cab from there to Peter Mac.  I got there at 10.00.  I was half an hour late.  I had managed to get through to them by phone to warn them.  My mistake was not to get them to do the same with RMH and the surgeon.  Hence he had left by the time I got there, and I was left starving and palely loitering, a victim of a schizophrenic train system.  I abstained from offering mordant comment on the irony of a doctor’s insistence on timekeeping.

So, I am currently left with the provisional diagnosis – the evidence for which came up quite by chance – that there probably is a cancer but that it can probably be dealt with by surgery.

I am putting this post out now to give people the gospel – the good news – about Peter Mac.

May I say that yesterday, even allowing for the train bugger-up, I was proud of my country and my city?  There is no doubt that Melbourne is the sporting capital of the world, but it is now very well served in music, theatre, opera and art, and it offers as diverse dining as you could find anywhere.  Although we complain about our public transport, Berlin is I think the only city that is obviously superior to it for transport.  Melbourne University is I think the most highly rated in Australia.  And now we have a landmark medical institution that is the best in the world.  But let us not cringe about world ranking – let us just rejoice that we have got this one absolutely right.  You only have to look across the Pacific to see how truly blessed we are with our medicine – and to see why any government that even hints at flirting with what we have will be sternly punished.

One of the great things about this city that you notice when you live outside it is its diversity.  You get it in the cabs.  The guy who took me to Peter Mac was from India – about 45 minutes from Delhi.  So, we talked about Darjeeling and the other Raj towns – he advised me not to bother going to Simla.  The guy who took me back to Southern Cross was from Egypt – about 45 minutes from Cairo.  He had a splendid pork pie hat, and when I said I was starving, he kindly offered me a banana.  The sad thing was that while the Indian man goes back home every year, the Egyptian has not been back in sixteen years, and does not intend to do so.  It must be terribly hard to forsake the land of your birth forever.

Finally, the other good news is that Melbourne Storm are on top, Melbourne City has signed our Timmy, and the Melbourne Football Club looks set to escape the half century curse of the late Norm Smith.  The Mighty Demons!

Passing Bull 55 Bullshit about manners, taste and identity


Do you know about identity politics?  Have you never heard the phrase?  Could you give a damn?

If I were to sit down to dinner with Paul Kelly of The Australian, I suspect we could agree on a lot of political issues.  But I don’t think that we could agree on how to write about them.  Most of what Mr Kelly writes sounds to me like waffle – or bullshit.

Here are extracts from a piece on Saturday under the heading Race, gender: the risk of identity politics; Political correctness is stifling debate and dissent.

Identity politics, pursued in the U S and on display within university campuses and at the recent Democratic National Convention, is about laws, norms and etiquette to protect and advance identity causes. 

A powerful movement with deep cultural roots, it testifies to the revolution within leftist and progressive politics since the failure of Soviet communism and the supplementation of class consciousness with identity based on race, sex, gender and ethnicity.  This is fused by historic grievance suffered by such identities and their contemporary demand for redress.

The rise of politics based on the question ‘who am I?’ poses further problems of voter fragmentation for both the Coalition and Labor, though Labor has proved astute in channelling some of this sentiment.

This movement proves the ideological creativity of the Left, the manipulative power of human rights law and the perversion of the idea of justice – seen in this country in section 18 C of the Racial Discrimination Act where individuals can initiate legal action because they are ‘offended’ by others.

The politics of identity speaks to deep human need.  Yet its application veers towards narcissism, censoring of public debate, vicious campaigns of intimidation and a diminished public square.  It is extraordinary to see how many institutions and prominent figures buckle before the campaigns of identity politics, too weak to stand on principle.

The author then refers to the Four Corners program on the shocking abuses of indigenous children in the Northern Territory and says that politicians and the media were reluctant…

….to mention, let alone canvas, the underlying causes – the breakdown of the indigenous social and family order through a range of issues including family dislocation, neglect, violence, parental abuse and drunkenness.

The author then refers to an aboriginal commentator who referred of ‘the politically correct ‘selective outrage’ and [who] told the ABC that ‘Blackfellas’ had ‘to take responsibility for their own children,’ and another indigenous commentator who told the newspaper that ‘this was primarily about children who had been failed by their families rather than race’.  After those disclosures, the author says that ‘then an honest debate had been sanctioned.’

Australia, once famous for its straight talking, seems a frightened country.

The author then referred to the cartoon by Bill Leak ‘depicting an irresponsible indigenous father who could not recall the name of his son.’  The author refers to the outrage this cartoon provoked, including that of one Minister who said that it was racist, and said that the cartoonist had pointed out the purpose of the cartoon:

… If you think things are pretty crook for children in the Don Dale Youth Detention Centre, you should have a look at the homes they came from.  It wasn’t hard to get.  But the fascinating thing about Leak’s piece was the feedback he got that people couldn’t understand his cartoon.

That’s right, they didn’t get it – surely a victory for a politically correct, dumbed down education system and the spread of identity politics culture where such images turn the brain into a non—functioning, non—computing defence mechanism.

Is this Australia’s future?  It is certainly the future the progressives want…

…The essence of identity politics runs as follows: because you haven’t shared my identity, you haven’t shared my own oppression and you cannot understand my pain and if you cannot understand my pain you have no right to tell my group how to behave.  Identity politics, therefore, is hostile to ideas and debate.  Indeed, it mobilises the argument of ‘offence’ as a disincentive to debate and to challenge the right of others to engage in vigorous or provocative public discussion.…  Yet it is driven by powerful idea whose essence is ‘respect my identity and don’t offend me.’

….The parallel mechanism is social media – used to brand institutions and people as racist and sexist as a means of destroying them by mass hysteria.  In this climate the spirit of Orwell and Voltaire face a slow but sure death.  Let’s hope there is still sufficient left of the old Australian character and courage to turn back the tide.

What is going on here?

  • There is hardly one assertion of verifiable fact in this piece.
  • What we get are general comments on the kinds of behaviour of kinds of people. There are two levels of abstraction – the kinds of groups of various people, and the different ways in which membership of such groups are said to affect their behaviour.  In effect, Mr Kelly is applying labels to groups of people and then more labels to their perceived behaviours.  There is no room for you or me as individuals – we only get verbal constructs – that represent phantasms from the fear zone of the author.
  • What are the criteria for the author’s groups? ‘Race, sex, gender, and ethnicity.’  The first and last look to be identical.  The author also mentions class.  For reasons we are not told of, any distinctions between groups of people based on caste, class, creed, wealth, sexuality, health, education or age do not qualify for creating issues of ‘identity politics’.  Why not?  Each of them has been or is poisonous in Australia as setting up barriers between people.  Each label has been invoked to deny the individual dignity of real people and not just that of pictured groups.
  • What is the alleged problem with the behaviour of these groups? People inside the group say that people outside it do not and cannot understand them and are therefore precluded from commenting on them.  This is the broadest generalization of all.  Many French historians get very close to this precipice when discussing ‘their’ revolution’, but any Chinese, Jewish, gay, Muslem, aged or poor person who made such a claim in Australia would be plain bloody silly.  Would they accept the apparent converse – that they might be incapable of understanding or commenting on their estranged critic?  Of course white people have trouble following what is happening with blackfellas in the Northern Territory.  Most white people in Australia don’t have the faintest idea of how blackfellas live – and most of them are desperately keen to keep it that way.  It is the same with refugees.  But is absurd to suggest that as a result, white people are not qualified to discuss either.  If you want to attach a label to that kind of silly suggestion, one would be ‘racist’.
  • Mr Kelly does not claim to be standing in the middle on all this. He has a position, or, if you prefer, an agenda.  He names his opponents – leftists, progressives, the Left, perverted views on human rights and justice, and the politically correct.  The reader is taken to understand what those terms connote.  My understanding of them, which is limited, is that these terms have no intellectual content at all, but are code for the labels applied to those who follow Fairfax or the ABC.  I gather that the label for the conflict as a whole is ‘culture wars.’  I find it hard to imagine anything more sterile or unbecoming.
  • May I say something for the term ‘politically correct’, the Antichrist of Mr Kelly? Most people are conscious of differences between themselves and people of a different race; very few think that their group is inferior; most proceed on the contrary basis; there is therefore the basis for conflict between people of different races.  We tend to describe such conflict as ‘racist’ or ‘racial’.  To take a religious example, it would seem safe to posit that very few Muslems think that their Islam is inferior to the religion of Judaism, Hinduism, Voodoo, or Christianity.  The best that we can hope is that people are brought up well enough to avoid showing their feelings to people of a different race in a way that will offend them.
  • Now, what good manners or courtesy may require are matters of degree in time and space. They are matters on which reasonable people may differ.  The phrase ‘politically correct’ is I think too often a label used to obscure if not smear the role of courtesy in discussing sensitive issues like differences in colour or creed or sexuality.  We might think that some people go too far and get too precious, but that is no reason to discard courtesy altogether.  Courtesy and cutlery are what separate us from the apes.  I can well remember a gentle Catholic man at Blackwood telling me he thought a black footballer had gone too far in complaining of being called a black cunt, and I nearly fell over when I read that a former federal minister (Amanda Vanstone) could not understand why Adam Goodes objected to being called an ape, because we are all descended from them!  (It is I suspect reactions like these, which I regard as absurd, that cause some blackfellas to say that you have to at least have lived like a blackfella before you can understand how wounding white people might be to them.)  But debates at the edge do not warrant the abolition of the centre.
  • Mr Kelly does not need to explain a lot of his terms because he is using language familiar to most of his readers – who are expected to share his assumptions and to adopt his values. We are then talking in club.  At a guess, could that group exceed one in twenty of the adult population?  Put differently, could say ninety-five per cent of adult Australians give a bugger about any of these plays on words?  What do these questions tell us about the relevance of the Australian press to our politics?  Is this a perfect example of the kind of intellectual elitism the wholesale rejection of which has led to the uncomely rise of people like Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Donald Trump, Marine le Pen, and Pauline Hanson?
  • Some of Mr Kelly’s judgment, and it does read a little like a judgment, is not without condescension. We get references to the failure of Soviet communism, the fusion of historic grievances, and the ideological creativity of the Left.  We are told ‘the politics of identity speaks to deep human need.’  Well, survivors of the holocaust, or any other genocide, would agree.  But would they then ‘veer towards narcissism’?  Is this sweep not a bit large?  If, as we are, told the question is ‘who am I?’, may not the enquirer face the question put by Snow White when she looked at their mirror?  And what is wrong with ‘respect my identity and don’t offend me’?  Is that not just to put as a prayer in the first person an injunction normally expressed in the second?  How many people walk about asserting the contrary – ‘just walk all over me and get right up my nose?’
  • And as for the invocation of Orwell and Voltaire, could we have done a bit better with the Enlightenment than Voltaire? What about Kant, who said that each of us has a dignity that derives solely from our humanity?  Or are human rights inexcusably suspect?  As for Orwell, he said this about political language.

Political language – and with variations this is true of all political parties, from Conservatives to Anarchists – is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.

And if you are looking for snobbery, we may put to one side ‘the mass hysteria’ of social media – of which I am blessedly ignorant – but it is hard to overlook ‘the politically correct dumbed down education system.’   Dear, dear, dear – a slogan and a cliché, and some of the poor buggers may have been exposed to government schools.

  • That is enough for this post. What we have so far is, I suggest, pompous drivel, or, in the style of Mr Kelly, a rant from the Right.  I will come back later to deal with the cartoon, the references to the alleged failures of parenthood within the indigenous community, the complaints about s 18C, and Mr Kelly’s invocation of a Golden Age.
  • May I just mention a piece in The Saturday Paper that made verifiable allegations of fact about aboriginals in the N T? We are told that the Territory has the population of Geelong but that they at Geelong don’t face the same problems – thirty per cent of the population are indigenous, not literate, speak another language, and suffer from various disadvantages.  It is then alleged that the government spends more on white people in Darwin than on black people in the sticks.  It then offers other critiques of government based on evidence that at least leave me better informed.
  • Finally, surely the big lesson from recent events in the U K and the U S is not that white people do not know enough about coloured people, but that they don’t understand enough about their own white people outside the current version of the Pale. In short, the complaint is the old one – people who live in Mr Kelly’s bubble don’t know how real people live.  They haven’t got the foggiest idea.

Since writing the above, I have watched the Four Corners program.  The brutality is horrifying.  Authorities gassed children held in close detention; two who thought they were being killed, huddled under a sheet and said good bye to each other; this was just one of the reminders of the hell of prisons described in For the Term of His Natural Life.  We have gone backwards since this country started as a barbarous jail.  We committed crimes against humanity against children.  We now stand further indicted of dismissing those crimes with the claptrap pf Mr Kelly and his colleagues about political correctness and identity politics.


Poet of the Month: Kenneth Slessor




Chafing on flags of ebony and pearl,

My paladins are waiting.  Loops of smoke

Stoop slowly from the coffey-cups, and curl

In this fantastic patterns down the room

By cabinets of chinaware, to whirl

With milky-blue tobacco-steam, and fume

Together past our pipes, outside the door.


Soon may we lounge in silence, O my friend?

Behind those carven men-at-arms of chess

Dyed coral-red with dragon’s blood, and spend

The night with noiseless warfare.  Queens and rooks

With chiselled ivory warriors must contend

And counter-plots from old Arabian books

Be conjured to the march of knights and pawns.

Passing Bull 53 Bullshit about banks


People go into business to make profits.  Banks are publicly listed companies in which shareholders subscribe capital and the directors manage the business to maximise the return of profit to those shareholders in the form of dividends.  If they run the business for another purpose, they break the law.

People running a general store in a country town do so to make profits.  But they also provide services that the community needs – bread and milk, newspapers, and postal facilities.  If they drop some of those services because they are not profitable enough, they will lose trust and goodwill.  In a bad case they may be driven out of business.

Any business has to pay some attention to its customers.  The banks certainly have to.  They occupy a privileged and protected position.  They are licenced by government, and de facto guaranteed by government.  A government body also controls the price of the basic commodity of banks – borrowed money.  That is a very unusual intervention into the market in what is said to be a capitalist economy.  It sounds like a kind of ‘dirty float.’

Banks are money lenders.  They borrow money at x% and lend it out at y%.  The difference between x and y is their profit (or loss).  The higher that y is over x, the more profit the bank makes, and the more dividends go to shareholders.

In principle, it would be quite wrong for the bank to prefer the interests of its customers – the borrowers – and take less back from them, because that way they would be putting the interests of bank borrowers ahead of their shareholders.  They bank directors are not allowed to do that.

Yet that is what we hear governments asking them to do by passing on the full fall of the cost of money to the banks to the borrowers rather than doing what they can to maintain profits for shareholders.  The bank directors have to make a business judgment about their standing in the community and its effects on the profitability of their bank, but otherwise government ministers howl for show.  Even our Treasurer might see that.

People don’t like moneylenders, and they have lost faith in Australian banks.  They stop us getting access to real people who know us and what they are doing.  They are offering incentives to their people to cheat and they are paying people more than five times what we pay our brain and heart surgeons.  They ruthlessly exploit silly people who borrow long on credit cards, and they in fact derive a lot of their capital from timid investors who think it is better to deposit their money in a bank rather than profit from investing in it.  Macquarie Bank makes people very ill because it makes big profits from dodgy deals like those that brought on by the GFC – while you and I stand behind it.  As a mate said during the GFC, if Macquarie falls over, it will have been worthwhile.

Yes, banks are ugly and untrustworthy, but they are not there to be ordered around by government.  Leave that to Mr Putin.  We are said to believe in competition.

Poet of the Month: Kenneth Slessor

William Street

The red globes of light, the liquor-green,

The pushing arrows and the running fire

Spilt on the tongues, go deeper than a stream;

You find this ugly, I find it lovely.

Ghosts’ trousers, like the dangle of hung men,

In pawn-shop windows, bumping knee by knee,

But none inside to suffer or condemn;

You find this ugly, I find it lovely.

Smells rich and rasping, smoke and fat and fish

And puffs of paraffin that crimp the nose,

Or grease that blesses onions with a hiss;

You find this ugly, I find it lovely.

The dips and molls, with flip and shiny gaze

(Death at their elbows, hunger at their heels)

Ranging the pavements of their pasturage;

You find this ugly, I find it lovely.

Scandinavian Summer

It was not until I got to the Bristol Hotel at Oslo that I worked out that the best way to deal with fatigue and nausea after nearly forty hours travel through the spheres is not to try to force the food down or to keep drinking until you break the ennui barrier – because then you would just be setting up a new kind of pain barrier.  The recipe I stumbled on was to have three stiff Scotches and soda – spaced by an easy walk, – and then knock off a giant profiterole with a jug – a jug – of hot chocolate with cream on the side. Get the management to ring you at 8 the next morning, polish off three eggs with the works on you are on your way.

The Bristol Hotel resembles a gentlemen’s clubs in many ways.  The main bar and diner are shut over summer, but the club bar is open. It features leathers, lamps, books, and clubbiness.  Aspects of the architecture variously remind you of St James, St Petersburg, and Cairo – the Raj, even.  And that is as it should be for a city on the edge of Europe.  This is certainly my kind of boozer.

Oslo tends to be bland and unimaginative, more like a Stan than, say, Bendigo.  It seems to lack confidence.  Ibsen said as much when he left Norway.  There is not the same street dining, or even as much street coffee consumption.  Food and drink are brutally expensive.  The open sandwich is of course an art form, but decent wine is hard to get.  You don’t see those bottle shops or little newsstands that you find in other European cities.  You find it hard to know what country you are in.  Only the sea-gulls tell you that you are by the sea.  You don’t get those Mediterranean pastels they go in for up north so much in town.  Current buildings define the word uninspiring

The town does have redemption.  The people are civilised and polite.  All the Scandinavians belie their Viking ancestry.  There are Gypsy beggars but very little traffic.  Unless you are careful, eating and drinking will cost you an arm and a leg.  There are attractions for tourists about Munch and the Vigeland Sculpture Park.  Curiously enough, what caught my attention at the Gallery were two Russian icons, which reminded me of some of our black artists, and a Manet – the author as playwright.

There is an Ibsen museum where a guided tour is mandatory – testament to the hazardous discipline of that remote genius.  It is worth doing, to get an idea of the sets of his plays.  For a man who wanted to put a torpedo under the ark, and to undress the upper class of their pretensions, he had a remarkably anal attraction to rank and status, and an inclination to much younger women that makes his biographers skittish.  There is no doubt that he was a master playwright, a genius at composing dramas.  So was Shakespeare, but the explosive force of his poetry sometimes makes us forget that he was the world’s supreme dramatist and entertainer.  Could anyone improve on the drama of Richard II and Henry IV Parts I and II?  Certainly The Dolls’ House and Hedda Gabler are great dramas that have made an important contribution to the conversation of mankind.  But they are mostly confined within one class of one nation at one time, and they are quite without humour.

Stockholm is very different.  The best way to get there from Oslo is by train – but watch the taxis at the other end.  This is a city that obviously saw itself as power in Europe centuries ago that it is not now.  It can be imperious, imperial even, in a way that demure Oslo is not.  At times it reminded me of Vienna.  And the scourge of summer tourism is even worse.  As you walk along tessellated pavements, you seem to hear the sounds of horses trotting – it is just people trailing their cases.  They are everywhere.

Some things hit you straight away.  You need to be very careful with cab drivers.  One crook wanted to charge me $50 for a distance I knew was within two k’s.  (I have just booked a fixed price cab for the airport 40 k’s away at $65.)  The old architecture is as grand as the new is deflating.  There is much more traffic here than in Oslo but nothing like that in major European capitals.  I am fascinated by the trouble people take in selecting their beers – women and men.  They go to far more trouble than we do with wine and the waiters and waitresses are used to being cross-examined.

I’m damned if I know how Hitler expected to improve on the Vikings genetically, because there are a lot of seriously good looking people here.  Yet for some reason, I keep coming across people of all ages with something odd about their gait – even just splayed feet.  Well, that may serve me right for descending to types.

The city is favoured by inlets and lakes, great green areas, rock faces, and those hideous monstrosities called cruise ships.  If I got herded on to one, I think I would be taking a header before we reached the Baltic.

There are parts that remind you of Berlin, Amsterdam, Melbourne, New York, Hong Kong, and Istanbul.  The hop-on hop-off bus here is a good deal because there is a wide are to cover.  You could walk around the main parts of Oslo in an hour or so.

I’m staying at Frey’s which is a very personable and quirky hotel, as centrally situated as the Bristol, and with a good bar and restaurant – a man behind the desk said that Oslo was twice the price for food.  Last night I bought a bottle of Koonunga Hill at a bottle shop for about what I would pay at the Malmsbury boozer.  At the Bristol, an indifferent French red was $20 a glass.

Well, these people are at peace with the world, in ways that would violate the conscience of Ted Cruz, and someone has to pay for it.  You can say that for all Scandinavians – they are very easy to deal with.

The highlight of my trip to Scandinavia was my visit to the statue of Jussi Bjorling behind the opera house at Stockholm.

As I waited for the cab to the airport, I spoke to the Night Manager at Frey’s.  He says that people in Sweden talk of little except migration and Islam.  It has become very clear to me recently that educated people have underestimated the anxiety of those who are not so well off on those subjects.  The man from Ghana who drove me from Heathrow to King’s Cross told me that he had voted for Brexit because those bloody migrants had taken his job.  He was presumably speaking of white migrants.

The following day, I moved to Cambridge where events led me to post the following.

Cambridge –a big night out

It was like a Breughel painting.  A graphic Hades. 

The last time I came to Cambridge for one of these summer schools, people were invited to arrive on the Sunday, since courses start at 9 am on Monday, and some bastard forgot to open the bar.  There was ill feeling.  There was serious ill feeling, and some very rude remarks about the English. 

Today, Sunday evening, I was assured by the porter at Selwyn College that the bar would be open at 6 pm.  A Presbyterian sense of determinism led me to the off licence to buy some insurance. 

Sure enough, as I got near the bar at the appointed time, the porter told me that the bar would not be open tonight.  She suggested that I show for dinner at half six.  I repaired to my room and consoled myself with the insurance of the bottle shop.  I was annoyed.  One of the reasons I have gone to Oxford and Cambridge – the choice of tense is not accidental – was to enjoy the company of people who know they have a lot to learn.  I have done about half of a dozen at each, and I know something of what is on offer.

So, at half six, I approached the appointed place at the college hall not expecting grace in Latin, or at all, as I used to get at Maddingley Hall, but a reasonable meal with reasonable wine in good company.  My heart miss-gave as I heard a racket emerging from the hall.  I could recall eating in the hall.  It is one of those stately halls garbed in timber, but it has some modern portraits of people who look frankly fascist, and a column embraced proscenium where you think some impeccably dressed white gentleman might do something unfortunate to a goat.  Tonight the hall could have hosted a pregame function for Man-U.

It was choc-full, like a footy crowd, with cafeteria service.  Start with the pudding, Dear, then choose between ravioli and roast chicken, and you can add chips, and one of those little bottles of sham red with little round glasses that you used to get on TAA in the fifties.  Which you pay extra for – remember, Ducky, the bar’s shut. 

I bore my tray to a spot where I spied some room for my plate, and wine, as unworthy as they both were, and I sat down.  When one of a group of aquiline matrons told me that there was no cutlery in my spot.  I recall now it was the end of the table.  I was – really – minded to ask whether she had adored Jefferson to utter such a self-evident truth, but I was morbidly preoccupied by wondering whether the excision under her bottom lip had been transposed to the top of the nose.  Before she moved away – not without ostentation – she told me that that since I had been to Cambridge before, she might tell me that people had previously been seated in the hall by reference to their standing, or words to that effect, but that that rule had been recently relaxed.  She just wanted me to know that I was in a state of grace.  But that I should know better.

I fled.

Now, this kind of balls-up happens.  And we chuckle about it after a few drinks, and we try to put the outrage to good use.  That which does not kill us makes us better, some say. 

The whole overturn now going on in the West refutes that silly saying.  As does the decline and fall of the Roman Empire – or anybody that whose time is up.

This balls-up at Selwyn College was an outrage – the insolence of office.  And it is a terrible symptom of our times.  People who should know better are just failing us – and the revenge of the losers looks frightful.  If this kind of insult can be put on us at Selwyn College, Cambridge, what hope have we? 

My late father – God bless him – told me that he was used to being insulted, but that he preferred to be insulted by experts.  Tonight I learned again what Mac meant.

The two courses taught at Oxford were first class – John Milton and the French Revolution by David Smith and The French Revolution by Dr Sean Lang.  These people really teach – a novelty for me at a university.  The plenary lectures were also good.

You can usually tell when you arrive at a command economy – you keep running into people, mainly men, who appear to hold some position but have nothing to do.  You see it in China, Turkey, the Metropolitan Fire Brigade, and now Vietnam.  (It is the direct opposite of what you get in the U S, and its most toxic form could be seen in the USSR.)

But there is something different about Saigon, or Ho Chi Min City.  This is more like the old smelly, squalid Asia of Singapore 60 years ago or Hong Kong 40 years ago or Bangkok twenty years ago.  Beijing, Shanghai and Tokyo are too big and shiny for us now, western footprints on the Asian littoral, and New Delhi and Calcutta are too in-your-face for us.  At least Saigon feels Asian, although I have not seen anything like a red light area.  Perhaps that is just as well, the local ladies are quite happy to look you straight in the eye.

You can also see the French influence, especially at my hotel, The Majestic.  This nation may be the one former French colony that is not a smoking ruin.  Its government is locked in a freezer, but the nation looks content.

Endless rivers of scooters wave trustfully up and down beside a yet wider river in a way that bespeaks trust.  The traffic is not nearly as loud or angry as that of Paris or Rome.  Every time you go on the road you experience the miracle of the parting of the Red Sea.  You can be drifting along in a line abreast at about 45 k’s when two or three will come at you at 45 degrees and no one bats an eyelid.

There are women of angular elegance who know how to show it; a lot of men appear to be employed by ‘security.’  Although you receive offers of lifts, there is little evidence of caste and not the poverty on the streets you get in Scandinavia.  Perhaps the government does some things right.

The Bristol and Frey’s were three to four star hotels with plenty of local personality.  You could say the same for the Majestic in Saigon.  It was French inspired; it is not as grand as the old Raffles in Singapore or the Peninsula at Hong Kong – it is more like the Imperial at Tokyo, and with a charm of its own as well.  The girls are determinedly pretty in their black and gold and the boys are determined to show savoir faire.  And there are plenty of both – although I saw nothing louche.

The roof top bar is a favourite – even if over the river might remind you of Coode Island on a bad day.  As I said, we are in old Asia – a land of Smiley’s people.  It is the kind of place where a solitary person like me can get lachrymose.  I did twice.  On the second night, a Japanese lady turned up with her eight year old son for dinner.  When they took cocktails, they reminded me of the Japanese ladies who took their kids to the Imperial for brunch – they touched glasses.

Courtesy is what separates us from guerillas – and people like Trump and Corbyn – and I still get stirred get stirred up when I see it somewhere I don’t know people.

I suspect that this might be my last big trip – God only knows my run has been good enough, but I feel now I’ve had enough.  Going over there from here is punishing, too punishing for me now.

But this notion of courtesy being passed on is a good way to finish.  When I called for my chit, and said that I would add the tip to the account for my room- as I had done the night before – the main waiter – who had allowed me to retire both the bottle and the glass to my room the night before – said that this was impossible.  I then wrestled with the absurd local currency (16000:1) to give to him – and the very nice man who had looked after me that night – a cash tip – and he said that I was offering far too much.

The people of Vietnam certainly look content enough.  They are convivial and communal; they share food on street corners, they play dice on stools or sit demurely in their skirts and flatties on their scooters, they look to be at peace in their own skins and with the world.  And then you come across an old lady in a coolie hat put-putting her way through the traffic on an absurdly overloaded Vespa.

I doubt if I have seen so many people so obviously content.  Is perhaps the only flaw a strain of obedience?  Is it, indeed, a flaw?