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



Emily Brontë (1847)

Folio, 1991, bound in boards covered in green moiré, with slip-case; wood engravings by Peter Forster.

… and the angels were so angry that they flung me out, into the middle of the heath on top of Wuthering Heights; where I woke sobbing for joy.  It would degrade me to marry Heathcliff, now; so he shall never know how I love him; and that, not because he’s handsome, Nelly, but because he’s more myself than I am.  Whatever our souls are made of, his and mine are the same….

Wuthering Heights has passages like this that some English ladies – and I do mean ladies – that you might meet at Oxford know by heart.  It has become part of the English psyche.  It was the first and only novel of a young woman from Yorkshire who had probably scarcely been kissed by a man, and it fairly raises the question: just what did they put on the porridge of those young girls up there back then?

Emily Brontë was brought up in Yorkshire with a Celtic ancestry of an Irish father and a Cornish mother.  Her father was an Anglican minister and the parsonage was the centre of the life of the family which included a sister, Charlotte.  The girls went to a harsh Curates’ Daughters’ School but they had the run of their father’s library so that their education in literature was so much better than what modern children get – the Old Testament, Virgil, Shakespeare, Milton, and the rest.  The children’s mother died young, as was common in that time, and their aunt had a fiercely Calvinist view of the world.  The children began creating their own tales and legends and creating their own worlds for those legends.  They spent some time in Europe but they were unhappy away from the parsonage.  The novel Jane Eyre by Charlotte came out two months before Wuthering Heights.  They are very, very different books.

When you think of Wuthering Heights, think not of a novel.  Think of Shakespeare – the passionate young Hamlet jumping into the grave in defiance of convention to embrace the dead body of a woman who went mad and then killed herself when Hamlet so coldly and cruelly rejected her; think of King Lear, plunged into madness by his sustained rage at being rejected by the one woman he loved; think of Othello, tipped over the brink of madness by the thought that the young, white woman he loved was not true to him; think of Macbeth, who allows the woman he loves to push him so that his ambition sends him and her to their respective hells; think of Malvolio, who is cruelly tricked into believing that his lady loves him and then is even more cruelly accused of being mad; think of Prospero, who uses his powers of magic to bring together those who had wronged him and then brings them undone – and then buries his magic.

Think of opera.  Think of The Flying Dutchman, and the thumping romantic drive of the music of the sea by Wagner, and the story of a rejected loner doomed to roam alone until he finds redemption.  Think of painting.  Think above all of La Tempesta by Giorgione.  Against a nocturnal European landscape, with sawn off pillars and odd buildings, and lightning in the sky, a young man in contemporary costume stands calmly watching over a nude woman suckling a child.  Have you ever seen anything so enigmatic?  What on earth can it mean?  Or are we simply impertinent to seek to put into words what this great artist put on canvas?  Well, then, why not just enjoy it?

Wuthering Heights is the story of a man despised and rejected of men, who is then rejected by the woman he loves, and who sets out to and does get revenge upon the whole pack of them, but who then, in the emptiness of his achievement, is reconciled to the memory of the woman he loved.

Catherine and Heathcliff get close roaming the wild moors, exulting in nature and their momentary freedom.  One day they raced down to look in on the Grange.  Heathcliff won the race.  Catherine went barefoot.  It is four miles each way.  Heathcliff says that they peeked through a window and ‘we laughed outright at the petted things’.  Were they really wild ones?

Cathy tells Nelly of her love for Heathcliff in the passage set out above.  When Heathcliff overhears her saying she will marry Edgar Linton he quits the house.  Cathy then goes on, speaking to Nelly in what might be the crux of the novel:  ‘Who is to separate us, pray?  They’ll meet the fate of Milo!….  Nelly, I see now, you think me a selfish wretch, but did it never strike you that if Heathcliff and I married we should be beggars?  Whereas, if I marry Linton, I can aid Heathcliff to rise and place him out of my brother’s power.’

Heathcliff returns after many years, rich and powerful.  Edgar Linton has very good reasons to fear Heathcliff.  Cathy is desperate for Edgar to receive Heathcliff, and we have one of the few funny moments in the book.  Edgar thinks it will be appropriate for the servant (Heathcliff) to be seen in the kitchen.  Cathy says she cannot sit in the kitchen but Nelly could set two tables, one for Edgar and Miss Isabella, ‘being gentry’, and the other for Heathcliff and herself, being ‘the lower orders’.

The scenes between Cathy and Heathcliff on his return are the most blazing.  ‘I meditated this plan just to have one glimpse of your face – and a stare of surprise, perhaps, and pretended pleasure; afterwards settle my score with Hindley; and then prevent the law by doing execution on myself.’

In their final argument Heathcliff looks to Nelly like a mad dog foaming at the mouth.  There is a level of sustained hysteria not seen outside Dostoyevsky.  Heathcliff and Cathy flay and lacerate each other like mad monks.  It is like crossing Medea and Now, Voyager.

Has any other English writer unleashed emotional power – passion – like this?  The fury that Heathcliff unloads on those who should have been close to him – for example his wife and his son – must unsettle any reader.  Heathcliff twice refers to Cathy as a ‘slut’.  Nelly got it right when she said they were ‘living among clowns and misanthropes’.  But the more revenge and power that Heathcliff gets, the more empty becomes the shell of his life, and then we see that the second Cathy is looking to change things by being civilized.

For Heathcliff, God and Satan are one, and equally irrelevant, but somehow he manages to induce his own death, so that he can be at one in the ground with his Cathy.  The novel ends in this way: ‘I sought, and soon discovered, the three headstones on the slope next to the moor –…I lingered around them, under that benign sky; watched the moths fluttering among the heath, and the harebells; listened to the soft wind breathing through the grass; and wondered how anyone could ever imagine unquiet slumbers for the sleepers in that quiet earth’.  It is so English, and so wild.

This book comes up at us like a novel of Christina Stead – like a rough uncut diamond.  It is all rawness, and it is found in Yorkshire, of all places.  Antony and Cleopatra, Abelard and Heloise, Tristan and Isolde, and Romeo and Juliet come at us from the mists of the past.  (Charlotte found her male lead in Rochester in Jane Eyre – those Brontë girls sure liked their men strong and tough.)   Our novel is altogether more modern.  Heathcliff is the original angry young man who comes undone because his girl is not ready for him – Cathy prefers the discreet charms of the bourgeoisie, with a little bit of bovver on the side.

Well, who could blame her?  Heathcliff was a gypsy and he had all the makings of a real bastard.  And yet we know that neither was ever going to find peace above the ground.  How come, then, that Geoffrey Boycott was so boring?

Here and there – How guilty was Brutus?


Consider this plot – or, as one says in France, ce scénario. 

Bill and Bob are two very seasoned political operatives.  They are also close friends.  Bill is the more successful, and therefore the more respected, and powerful, of the two.  Until now, Bob has been content to play the second part.  That contentment derives from both friendship and rank – always strong components in a world of men.

But Bill’s success arouses envy and disquiet among his less successful followers.  They fear – or they say they fear – that Bill’s success has gone to his head.  They fear, or they claim to fear, that Bill’s ambition is a threat to all that they stand for – what is called the Establishment, or status quo.  They plot – ‘conspire’ is another word – to bring Bill down.  They are very keen to recruit Bob to their cause.  He has something they don’t – the respect of outsiders and a good chance of being able to resist the inevitable charge of self-interest.  They approach Bob.  Seduction is their aim.

Bob is in two minds.  He owes allegiance and friendship to Bill.  But does Bill’s ambition represent a threat to the Establishment such that Bob should put his allegiance to it above his obligations to his friend?  In a wistful moment, Bob asks whether he loves the Establishment more than he loves Bill.  Bob is finally won over.

Because Bob was in two minds, he has had to show two faces.  Right to the end, he shows friendship and respect for Bill.  Bob positively fawns on Bill.  When the end finally comes and Bill sees Bob among the terminators, he despairs.  ‘You, too, Bob?’  Bob’s motives were not those of the other conspirators.  His hands may not have been so dirty – but they certainly ended by being just as bloody.

Well, Australians will recognise this plot immediately.  It forms the basis of a tawdry combination of Passion play and bedroom farce that their disgraceful politicians put on about once a year.

So, how guilty was Bob – or Brutus?  The short answer of Dante was that Brutus was as guilty as hell.  Dante put Brutus in with Judas and Cassius in the lowest pit of hell.  What do we think may have been Shakespeare’s view?

Let us deal with Dante first.  This medieval Catholic had his own views on Rome, and his own experience of grievous civil strife, but many would think that it is silly to compare Brutus to Judas.  Putting to one side that Judas did not kill his victim – he killed himself – the crime of murder focuses on intent, not the underling motivation.  If you intend to kill someone, it matters not that your motive was noble, or whatever.  But the motive will surely bear on the moral gravity of the offence.

Let us take Brutus at his word (in the play, not, perhaps, in Plutarch).  He was not moved by envy or self-interest, but by a felt need to save the Roman Republic from an ambitious man who, it was reasonably feared, would make himself king – and by so doing, end the Roman Republic.  On that view, Brutus would argue that at a time of national emergency, he acted reasonably and in the public interest to save the State.

It might still be murder, but the case is very different to that of Judas.  One answer is that no moral code, much less a legal code, can allow exemptions from or defences to offences or crimes of this magnitude that are based on an assessment by the offender of what may be happening in the community in fact; an assessment of whether those occurrences constitute a threat to established order; and a determination that the proposed antidote is reasonable.  It would be very hard to argue against that position.

But what about Dietrich Bonhoeffer?  He apprehended that Hitler was a threat to Germany and mankind, and that that threat justified Bonhoeffer in plotting to kill Hitler.  Even if that would not have made Bonhoeffer a common garden murderer, why is he any better off morally than Brutus?

We can, I think, put to one side that Bonhoeffer was a man of God, and a very real and decent one, and that most people would think that Hitler was a greater menace to his own state and the world than Julius Caesar.  There are still two critical distinctions between the moral standing of Brutus and of Bonhoeffer.  Bonhoeffer certainly owed Hitler no personal allegiance that he could betray; and he did not falsely pretend that he did and that he was remaining faithful.  You can see the same issue between Judas and Cassius – who owed Caesar nothing.  And Judas had no grand ideological plan.  He just took the money.  They are some of the reasons why the judgment of Dante repels so many modern readers.  Many people would agree with E M Forster that personal betrayal is very different to betrayal of the nation.

So, how did Shakespeare show Brutus – perhaps we might ask how did he ‘fashion’ Brutus?  It is tempting to say that two thousand years before the term ‘spin merchant’ was coined for Tony Blair and others, Shakespeare delivered the prototype in Brutus.

It was clear to Cassius and the wife of Brutus that Brutus had been brooding about Caesar.  Cassius thinks he can work Brutus to join the conspiracy.

Well, Brutus, thou art noble; yet I see

Thy honourable metal may be wrought

From that it is disposed; therefore it is mete

That noble minds keep ever with their likes;

For who so firm that cannot be seduced?  (1.2.308-312)

Was Cassius really bent on neutralizing the nobility of Brutus?  Was Brutus not just ‘the noblest Roman of them all’, but the last Roman noble?  For that matter, what did it mean to be ‘noble’?

Tony Tanner says that Brutus is a murderer from the start. In his first soliloquy, Brutus says:

It must be by his death; and for my part,

I know no personal cause to spurn at him,

But for the general.  He would be crowned.

How that might change his nature, there’s the question.  (2.1.10-14)

So, Brutus somehow thinks that Caesar has to go, but what will be the ground that is offered for what is plainly murder?

… And, since the quarrel

Will bear no colour for the thing he is,

Fashion it thus: that what he is augmented,

Would run to these and these extremities

And therefore think him as a serpent’s egg

Which hatched, would as his kind grow mischievous,

And kill him in the shell.  (2.1.28-34)

We will tell the mob – indeed I will tell them myself – that we had to kill the snake before it got venomous.  We will ‘fashion it thus’, we spin doctors will. Then Brutus says that he has not been able to sleep, and in three lines he gives us the whole theme of Hamlet:

Between the acting of a dreadful thing

And the first motion, all the interim is

Like a phantasma, or a hideous dream.  (2.1.62-65)

Although Cassius is the organiser, the nobles need Brutus as the front man.  He will offer a veneer of respectability.  An ideological faction wants to kill Caesar because they fear one-man rule, but they cannot do it without subjecting themselves to the one-man rule of Brutus.

And they pay very dearly for handing over to him.  He makes three mistakes that doom them all.  He says an oath is beneath them.  He declines to take out Antony – ‘our course will seem too bloody’ (2.1.162).  Brutus talks down to Cassius all the time. ‘Let’s be sacrificers, but not butchers’ (the word Antony uses against them immediately after the act):

Let’s kill him boldly, but not wrathfully

Let’s carve him as a dish fit for the Gods.  (2.1.171-2)

Even a noble Roman must have known that this was pure moonshine. This noble Roman cannot come to terms with his becoming a murderer, and a murderer of a friend.  (We lose count of the times that we are told that Brutus loved Caesar, and vice versa.)  He does not want to get his hands dirty.  (Some of us are old enough to share a frisson of pleasure at the memory of the reaction of a former PM when the late Richard Carlton asked the question: ‘Well, Mr Hawke, what does it feel like to have blood on your hands?’)

The final mistake of Brutus is to allow Antony to take the stage.  Then, in our terms, it’s a spin merchant against a shit-stirrer; Tony Blair against Donald Trump.  Game over.

There is another and related aspect of the guilt of Brutus that bears on contemporary politics here and in the U K and the U S.  The conspirators said that they were acting to save the State – that is, the Republic.  The better view – on the evidence of Plutarch* as well as Shakespeare – is that this was code or camouflage for the fact that they were looking after themselves, the patricians, against the plebs.  This was just another of the class wars that had disfigured Rome for many centuries.  This was caste against caste, and for that purpose, either side was prepared to invoke the mob.  All the conspirators’ cries of ‘liberty’ and ‘freedom’ after the event was so much claptrap.  In our language, either side was prepared to play the ‘populist’.  You can’t get much more up to date than that.

But our playwright had not done with Brutus.  The final ceremonial act of Caesar and Brutus together was to share a cup of wine.  The final gesture of Brutus to Caesar before he stabbed him was to kiss the hand of Caesar.  The Judas kiss.  You may recall that Caesar refused the crown three times.  Even for a Godless age, Shakespeare’s view of Brutus may have been much closer to that of Dante than we have thought.

And whatever else you may find in Australian politicians, a noble will not be one of them.  As to that lot, we might finish on another line of Dante (Inferno, Canto XXXII, 107): ‘What the Hell’s wrong?’

*This appears to be the verdict of history.  In The Roman Revolution, Chapter 5, Sir Ronald Syme said:

The Liberators knew what they were about.  Honourable men grasped the assassin’s dagger to slay a Roman aristocrat, a friend and a benefactor for better reasons than that [saving Libertas for Rome].  They stood, not merely for the traditions and institutions of the Free State, but very precisely for the dignity and interests of their own order.  Liberty and the laws are high-sounding words.  They will often be rendered, on a cool estimate, as privilege and vested interests.

Syme’s work was once considered revolutionary, but it is no surprise that this playwright had come to the same view some centuries beforehand.

Passing Bull 163 –The Conservative delusion


We unfortunate Australians have just lived through another ugly farce orchestrated by people who like to call themselves ‘conservatives.’  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Alternatively, if this is what conservatives can do to us, the less we see of them, the better.  They are venomous and destructive.  And the masters of denial have no program for the future.  Building up is far harder than tearing down.

A while ago, I said:

The word ‘conservative’ has had its political ups and downs, but of late it has been debauched if not hijacked.  Conservatism found its most classical expression in Edmund Burke’s Reflections on the Revolution in France.  The English preferred evolution to revolution.  They relished their history and traditions; they reveled in their own mystique.  They suspected change.  Burke said that their ‘opposed and conflicting interests…interpose a salutary check to all precipitate resolutions; they render deliberation a matter not of choice, but of necessity; they make all change a subject of compromise, which naturally begets moderation; they produce temperaments, preventing the sore evil of harsh, crude, unqualified reformations.’….

An American legal scholar W D Guthrie expressed Burk’s thought on the 700th anniversary of Magna Carta….Guthrie later spoke of ‘the rare and difficult sentiment’ of ‘constitutional morality.’  Its essence is ‘self -imposed restraint’.  Its antithesis is ‘the most fallacious and dangerous doctrine that has ever appeared among men, that the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  A ‘populist’ and a ‘conservative’ are two clean different things.

Speaking of eighteenth century England, Sir Lewis Namier said:

Restraint, coupled with the tolerance which it implies and with plain human kindness, is much more valuable in politics than ideas which are ahead of their time; but restraint was a quality in which the eighteenth-century Englishman was as deficient as most other nations are even now.

The fundamental terms are as boring as they are inevitable – compromise, moderation, restraint, and tolerance.  Yet none of those terms could in any way be applied to those in the Murdoch press and Sky News who wanted Turnbull out and Dutton in.  On the contrary, these people favour the direct opposite – the view that ‘the people are infallible and can do no wrong.’  I would happily eschew both labels ‘conservative’ and ‘populist,’ but if either has any use, it is to allow us to conclude that a ‘conservative’ cannot by definition be a ‘populist’.  (And anyone who can look at Peter Dutton and think of ‘plain human kindness’ is in serious need of medical attention.)

When Tony Abbott lost office as P M, it was by a vote of the party.  He and his followers did not like that truth.  They said he was the victim of a coup.  A coup involves the use of force to change leaders.  (A revolution involves the use of force to change the whole regime.)  Turnbull has now lost office by the same process.  Whether this could be described as a coup or not, the behaviour of Abbott and his media supporters was a direct repudiation of moderation or restraint.

To make it worse, the ignition point came after the party as a whole approved a policy that offended the plotters; just as it happened in England after the governing party there adopted the ‘Checkers policy’.  And in a world crying out for political leadership, the dissidents in each case complained that their Prime Minister had been able to get majority approval for a policy.

Last week’s farce was as predictable as Blue Hills.  But two strands seem clear.  One is that neither party stands for anything.  Labour v Capital went out years ago.  So did Left v Right.  In the last ten years, big business has become as unpopular as trade unions – and churches, government agencies, and sports administrators.  On the two moral issues – refugees and foreign wars – the two big parties both gave up and are now rock solid in a way that the community is not.  Those parties therefore seem driven to argue about things that should not rationally be arguable.  We then get a real problem like climate change being reduced to a shopping item of electricity prices.  The inanity is brazen.  What you then end up with is a crippling triumph of ideology over evidence.  Can you imagine a more complete rejection of the ‘conservative’ mind?

The second strand is that this is yet another big win for mediocrity.  We had a Prime Minister with intelligence and flair.  We now have a talking head that has got God.  That is such a sad Australian story.

We are left to console ourselves at the chagrin of the lynch mob.  Andrew Bolt was beside himself with rage.  You could taste his loathing of Turnbull through the television screen.  God only knows who shall feel the gall of his frustrated envy next.  He was like a taipan uncurled.  Credlin is frankly vicious.  But unlike Bolt, there is a chance that she believes some of her own product.  If Abbott were a dog, they would put him down.

Finally, most of these fake conservatives are overt or covert admirers of the most unconservative man ever born, the current President of the United States.  This may be just another instance of some mountebanks saying whatever comes into their heads provided it sells.  To that extent I agree with those who see our most recent debacle as just another instance of the world-wide descent of democracy into the gutter.

This is the second time that Malcolm Turnbull has been put down by jealous boobies for being both successful and rational.  On each occasion his successor was a surprise.  We shall have to see if this surprise is as nasty as the first.  Well, whatever else, it will at best be mind-numbingly ordinary.  The people of Australia are fairly wondering what we have done to deserve this.

I now see that some years ago, I wrote:

Australia is struggling under too much government and too much law, and a disinterest and distrust of politics that was once a charm, but which now sustains groups of inept and mediocre politicians who have never held down a real job and who are determined to put their own interests above those of the people.  The nation has next to nothing to look back on politically except a kind of enduring noiseless torpor…. By and large, the politicians and the press have succeeded in either anaesthetizing or repelling the people.  Each of the two main parties is prepared to execute a leader who is insufficiently bland and to replace them with an antiseptic model that the people trust even less: and then the people in disgust or despair vote for authentic layabouts, charlatans, urgers, bludgers and downright thieves….

The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics.  The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians.  How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful? 

Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country.  The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic.  Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:

‘Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations’……

At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’


For reasons that will be apparent, I have yet again cancelled a subscription to The Australian.  They make it as hard as they can.  After two emails and a delay, I got back a machined response.  It contained the eternal lie: ‘We appreciate your feedback.’  It was marked ‘No-Reply.’

Passing Bull 161 – Omnipotence; or God Revisited


Allow me some Latin.  Rex fons iustitiae est.  The King is the fountain of justice.  That was the medieval view – the court of the King had many uses and phases, as did the High Court of Parliament.  Of the course the court of the king was the ultimate source of both justice and law.  A ‘doom’ might be like a ‘decree’ – a decision in a particular case or a ruling for future cases.

Nemo iudex debet in propria causa sua.  You cannot judge yourself: literally, no one should be a judge in his own cause.

Audi alteram partem.  ‘Hear the other side’ – a judge must listen to both sides dispassionately.

These principles are fundamental.  They underlie our notion of due process, and the principles that are called administrative law.

Only someone morally unhinged could query either principle.

Donald Trump is such a person.  Speaking of what is called the Russian investigation, Trump said:

I’ve decided to stay out….I don’t have to stay out, as you know.  I can go in and I could…do whatever.  I could run it if I want.

He could inquire into himself – and decide the inquiry.

Neither Nero nor Nebuchadnezzar could have made such a claim.  Even God might draw the line.

It is a sad reflection of the inability of a slow spoiled child to accept that other people also live on this planet earth.  When this nightmare ends, some people will have a lot of work to do explaining their silence when it mattered.


And although an integrity officer is also no panacea, it can act as an antidote.  But as mentioned, for this to happen, the role must be properly instituted.

Among other things, this requires that the person occupying the role is truly independent and doesn’t feel a need to curry favour with people within the organisation.  It requires that the integrity officer is provided with unfettered access to the organisation so that they can identify where issues exist and whether people are reluctant to shine a light on them.  And it requires that they are provided with the requisite platform and can speak truth to power.

Australian Financial Review 20 August 2018

Where is bloody George Orwell when we need him?



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


An Australian movie called The Castle told the story of a man defending his home – that was his castle.  The movie had its own fingerprints of authenticity.  For example, the hero, Daryl, loved to ask what price someone was asking for second-hand goods, and when told, he would say, ‘Tell ‘im ‘e’s dreamin.’’  Or, if someone gave Daryl something special, he would say, and with proper reverence, ‘This is goin’ straight to the pool room’.  Toffs do not play pool – it is not on the curriculum at Eton.

My top shelf is like Daryl’s pool room.  It is where I can enjoy the company of books that matter to me, and I can show them off.  I used to collect do-dads on my travels for the mantel-piece over the fire.  Then I thought I might collect books of the writers that have been good for me. Accordingly, I put up a new shelf for the do-dads, and started to arrange a collection of my favourite books for the second top shelf.  When the little collection of favourites expanded in a new home, I put two shelves up around the fire-place for my top books.

There are two criteria of selection for the top shelf: I have read and enjoyed the book at least once: and the book or its author has enhanced my prospects of dying happy in my own skin.  I have read all the novels at least twice, the bigger of them, and the histories, more often (Carlyle six times).  Each book or author has been a sustaining source of comfort to me.

All the volumes selected for this shelf are at least part bound in leather or are slip-cased.  Many have been acquired or rebound for this purpose, leaving other editions elsewhere.  Some have been chosen for the shelf to represent the writer in a slimmer form – Gibbon’s Decline and Fall would take up a quarter of the shelf.  This is so for Bloch, Euripides, Gibbon, Keats, Maitland and Shakespeare.  The order of the books on the shelf is set by the array of shapes and colours that pleases my eye and that adds to the life of the room.  The idea is to have these books and writers there as companions close at hand – like the pictures on the walls and the music on the shelves.

For those arithmetically inclined, a rough classification of the 50 books might be as follows: novels, 13; history, 9; poetry, 8; drama, 3; philosophy, 4; music, 3, sport, 2, statesmen, 2; economics, 1; art 1, movies 1, science, 1, cooking 1, and religion, 1. Thirty three of the books are at least partly bound in leather, and seventeen are in slip cases.

The novels, plays and poems speak for themselves.  With the thinkers, I am at least as much interested in the thinker as the thinking.  Each of the three philosophers here left us at peace with themselves and the world, and that fact says as much to me as all that they said.  I read the histories for literature, and not so much to see whether lesser writers might sanction these historians’ view of the evidence – I believe that light can be imparted by good writing, as it may be by good painting or by good music.  That at any rate was the premise of people like Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, Milton and Goethe.  I believe that drama throws more light on the human condition than any other art form or any purely intellectual argument.

This is not a learned or scholarly book. There are no notes or references.  I have written about most of these subjects before.  Now, I am just saying why these books are on this shelf and in my life in the hope that others may take some comfort from them.  Even Don Giovanni knew that he should not keep it all to himself.

Science got beyond us amateurs with Einstein, and philosophy has not mattered since well before then.  (They like throwing stones at priests but what have they got to show for themselves?)  The only book on the shelf that is above the pay level of the average reader – including me – is Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason, and that book is beyond most philosophy under-graduates.  Unless you are interested in fly fishing or golf, or opera, the most accessible books are Billy Budd and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, but the only difference between them and War and Peace and Ulysses is that the latter are much longer and have long been doomed to fearful ‘greatness’ by the literati in command of the intellectual heights, even though two of our greatest novels are two of our funniest.

For each book, you will have the date of first publication, the details of the publication referred to here, and a description of the binding.  The citation in bold at the beginning of each chapter is from the author but not necessarily from the book on the shelf.

For the removal of doubt, I am not suggesting that my taste might reflect some universal or Platonic form of what is best in the literature of the West.  It is not a Top Forty.  There is no such thing.  My criteria will show why I am not interested in taking part in the parlour game of talking about what’s in and what’s out.  If one had been written, a history of the Melbourne Storm would be up there between Gibbon and Macaulay, and gorgeously apparelled in leather of an imperial or Mount Langi Ghiran purple.  This book is a record of personal infatuation, not a dictated or insincere tableau of correct books to inform wannabe proper minds.

Some of you may be interested to see how accessible these writers can be when we have brushed aside the ghosts of the past, or some dreary intellectual establishment of the present, and also by how we may be enriched by the story of the lives of some of the people who are up there.  As often as not, I am at least as interested in the author as in the book.  You will get good writing and thinking, and you will also be exposed to raw moral, artistic, intellectual, and spiritual courage from some of our real heroes.  I do not believe in saints but if I did, Spinoza, Lincoln, and Bonhoeffer would be jointly on pole, with Kant, Darwin, Maitland, Bloch, and Keynes, not far behind.  The following pages tell why.


Geoffrey Gibson




Here and there – Problems with politics


When Aristotle said that man is a political animal, he meant, we are told, that man is at best when he is living in a polis – a town, or a city, or small state.  Putting to one side a Greek bias, people are better off when they live together.  (If you are a hermit, you have a better chance of doing what you want, but who would want even to visit a land of hermits?)

In order to be able to live together in a community, we have to be able to get on with other people.  Everyone is different and people want different things.  It follows, as night the day, that I will not be able to have everything I want.  If, therefore, some people in a group are determined to get their own way, regardless of others, we have a problem.  They might put a spoke in our wheel.

England and Australia are governed by an elected party that is said to stand for something, but which does not appear to stand for anything.  The same goes for each of their leaders.  Both the party and the leader appear to have lost purpose and direction.  Sadly, much the same can be said of the leader of the opposition in each country; each is, at best, a disappointment.  All this fuels the loss of faith in government, and assists the downward spiral.

America is different.  Its governing party has lost its nerve and any commitment to principle.  It just refuses to do its duty to control the executive.  Its leader owes allegiance to nothing but himself.  As for the opposition, if such it may be called, it has no leader at all.  The system doesn’t allow it.

The American problem therefore looks worse than that of England or Australia.  But in each case, there is simmering discontent, a loss of faith in government if not the nation, and a readiness to confront enemies at home, either real or imagined.  We are seeing hostility, or just plain anger, and an unwillingness or inability to restrain it.  We are losing the lubricant that oils our political machine and allows it to tick over and absorb any shocks caused by faulty parts or cogs in the gears.

As I understand it, economies and reserve banks are still adjusting to the Great Financial Crisis – that started ten years ago.  (History may show that crisis to have been more consequential than the Great Depression.)  The appalling inequality of wealth and income that that crisis revealed is part of the problem.  Another is that our wealth as a nation depends on international trade that each nation has only a very limited capacity to control.

What you then get is a feeling of powerlessness or helplessness among those who have lost out.  You also get a sense of affront and outrage at the apparent inequality of treatment.  The people so offended hardly need persuasion that their case is both plain and just.  They look for politicians who will give them the plain answer they need.  When the fishwives of Les Halles got to Versailles, their demand was simple: Du pain; pas tant de long discours.  Anything resembling sophistication is of course the defence mechanism of the enemy of the chosen.

Well, the plain answer is obvious.  The people of the nation – the real people, that is – need to go back to its true self, what it was before those awful bad guys took over.  (It is of no concern that this past is almost wholly imaginary.)

And the other part of the answer is equally obvious.  You identify and go after the causes of your maltreatment.  These are obviously those who are foreign to the real people, either abroad or at home.  You go after them with gusto, especially if they are sitting ducks.  How sweet it is to be able to dish out elbows for people whose lives have been dedicated to copping them.  The historical label for these people on the receiving end is ‘scapegoats’, but our latterday avengers are not keen on that term; it too closely resembles their own condition while they were disempowered.

From that dreadful cocktail, you get misfits like Hanson, Farage, Johnson and Trump.  It does not matter that this model has been duplicitously flogged from Peisistratus to Duterte for 2500 years.  There is one born every minute.  Nor does it matter that history hardly reveals any successful people’s or peasants’ revolt or any scapegoat who has been decently pursued.  The relevant history is one of misery and injustice.  Neither the oppressed nor their champions go in for length, width or depth in their view of the world.  Their commitment is short-term, personal, and angry.  Like that between the advocate from Arras and the sans-culottes, it is a marriage entered into on the altar of social justice.  (They hardly spoke a word in common, but they developed a communal taste for an exposed neck.)  If you had to choose one word for such a union, the most polite might be ‘irrational.’

We have seen all this before.  What is worrying now is the readiness of people to throw sand in the gear box.  In the end, our political system depends on people restraining themselves and co-operating with others.  ‘Co-operating’ with others there means little more than living or working with them.  It comes back to living in a group.  If we do want to rate ourselves above the apes, we have to control our impulse to selfishness.  If you go to legal historians, they will speak of customs; lawyers talk of precedents; constitutional lawyers speak of conventions; our commitment to the rule of law comes down to little more than a state of mind.  You will immediately see that the short-termed champion of the oppressed can so easily drive an excavator clean over the foundations of our world.  It may not take all that much to seize up our machine.

And when you think about it, people who should also have known better have been eating away at conventions that stood in their electoral path – for immediate if transient advantage, they were prepared to risk long term damage.  And, as it seems to me, the soi disant conservatives have always been the first to go out of bounds.  Just look at the determination of the Republican Congress to block an elected president, even to the point of denying him the right to appoint to the Supreme Court.  Their determination to block Obama has only been matched by their steely resolution to do nothing to stand in the way of President Trump.

On the need for cooperation, take an example from the law.  A man agreed to buy a very expensive machine.  The contract was subject to testing by the buyer.  The buyer refused to pay.  He said that he had not tested the machine.  But the court held against him.  The court found that the buyer was at fault in not inspecting the machine and that he could not rely on his own fault to defeat the claim of the buyer for payment.  The court ruled that:

…where in a … contract it appears that both parties have agreed that something shall be done, which cannot effectually be done unless both concur in doing it, the construction [legal effect] of the contract is that each agrees to do all that is necessary to be done on his part for the carrying out of that thing, though there may be no express words to that effect.

The court therefore found that where people agree to act together for a common purpose, their agreement may be subject to an implied condition of cooperation.  That ruling to my mind does little more than reflect a necessary truth of communal life.

Why are so many now ignoring this obvious fact of life?  Part of the problem comes from the self-righteousness of those who see themselves victims as the victims of injustice.  (As Gandalf remarked in The Fellowship of the Ring, ‘There is such a thing as malice and revenge!’  And every revolution known to man nearly drowned in them.)  The other part of the problem comes from the selfishness and deceit of the chosen champions of the dispossessed.  They have, after all, only come along for the ride.

Now, a lot of this is large, too large.  But none of it is novel.  Indeed, it is just the lack of novelty that is most unsettling.  Of course they love their country; of course they value their citizenship; what else have they got?  So, we will reclaim our sovereignty, whatever that means; we will glorify the Fatherland, and if necessary go to war for it, and our values; and we shall confine citizenship to those born to deserve it.  That old script is so tawdry, but it does prompt some reflections.

From any point in that compass, Trump is a vicious threat.  He is a stupid spoiled child who has never been taught any better, but what troubles us as much as the credulity of what is called his ‘base’ is the failure of an established party to do its job and check him.

They may however be part of a grand irony.  If the GFC paved Trump’s wave to power, he may be rewarding those wealthy smart Alecs responsible by policies, if such they may be called, that favour the rich over the rest.

But Australians need not feel smug about the inanity of American government.  Its main allegedly conservative party is once again tearing itself apart over a proposition as contestable as that which says that the earth is round.  Those responsible are helped by lay preachers, failed political hacks, think tank stooges, and tarts for the crowd who somehow get some attention from the downtrodden on the outlets of Rupert Murdoch.  The tribalism and bitchiness transcends anything offered in the past by the Labor Party – and that is no small statement.

There is another worry for us. Three of the most unloved people in Australia are Rudd, Latham, and Abbot.  They are now being joined by a fourth – Joyce.  The rats come from all sides; each led his party; two were Prime Minister; all four failed at their top; all four have turned on their own party with all the grace of a Taipan hit and missed by a piece of angle iron.  There is a well-founded worry about the stability of all of them.  But what they have in common is that they are bad losers whose blame on others is writ large and whose hunger for revenge is as ugly as it is unwarranted.

But we may have seen a touch of spring.  When a member of the Guards ratted on a princess, The Times said that the system had ‘flushed out an absolute shit’.  So have we.  Fraser Anning looks to be as nasty as he is inane.  I will not rehearse the terms of his maiden speech – that’s your and my taxes at work – but Mr Anning did not seek to hide his contempt for people of a different creed or colour; nor did he seek to hide his longing for the White Australia Policy.  He just stood there looking like a toddler who had just soiled his nappy in public.

In doing so, Mr Anning immediately outed all those members of parliament and the Murdoch press who have for years been transmitting signals about those very sentiments under code names like border protection, sovereignty, national values, freedom of speech, and that most glorious chestnut of them all – Western civilisation, or, if you prefer, Judaeo-Christian civilisation.  We need not pause for an historical analogy for the role Muslims in Australia in 2018 as scapegoats; if you have a problem, ask another Australian who subscribes to a faith coming out of Asia – apart from Judaism and Christianity.

Mr Anning’s embrace of those whole wavelengths of scapegoats was so brazen that both houses of parliament came together and denounced the rogue ratbag on the spot.  How dare a new boy queer the nest of the old boys?

Everyone felt better.  But do you know what?  Even the decent press called this a victory for democracy.

And about ten years after the good fishwives of Paris got their bread and killed their king, they got a little Corsican emperor with his own aristocracy and a secret police that the Bourbons could never have dreamed of.

Us and the U S – Chapter 14

[The extracts that follow under this gravely ungrammatical title précis a book published in 2014 called ‘A Tale of Two Nations; Uncle Sam from Down Under’.  That book sought to compare the key phases of history of the two nations under fourteen headings.  That format will be followed in the précis.  The chapter headings are Foreword;1 Motherland; 2 Conception;3 Birth; 4 Natives; 5 Frontiers; 6 Laws; 7 Revolution; 8 Migration; 9 Government; 10 Wars; 11 Patriotism; 12 Wealth; 13 God; 14 Findings.  Each chapter is about 1400 words.]



We might state some conclusions from what we have looked at as follows.


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


Next, it would be surprising if there were no differences in the outlooks on life of the two peoples looking at the very different ways that their settlers and migrants arrived.  For the most part the Americans did it on their own, while the Australians did so at the cost of or with the help of government.  People in America, and their politicians, are not as quick as Australians are to look to government for help in life.  Put differently, Australians seem to depend on government more for welfare than Americans do.  The razzmatazz heart of capitalism can put a value on frugality and see a virtue in simplicity that would dismay southern Europe – and Australians.

Australians do not see this as a minus – anymore than England, France, and Germany do.  How many Americans see their side as a plus is an interesting question, but is this also one ground for suggesting that people in Australia, as opposed to the people of Australia, may be less independent than their American counterparts?  The Americans seem to have been primed to seek independence from Britain by their earlier acceptance of settlers and migrants who were not British, and by their greater spread of wealth among the landed gentry and the middle classes in the cities – and by their greater and longer accumulation of wealth.

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

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


The impact of the frontier is much, much more evident and extensive in America than in Australia.  There was a kind of battle or series of wars going on for territory for hundreds of years.  If this led to some rough and tough sense of independence, as it did with the Boers in South Africa, it also has led to an appalling tolerance of guns and violence that so disturbs friends of America.

The macho man is on the wane, and men at large can no longer pretend that women just do not exist.  The whole idea of a man’s world is now just bullshit, although the grosser aspects of American football and ice hockey are some fairly stern reminders of the deep love of violence in the American psyche.

There is something of a contradiction close to the heart of American politics.  For all the popular participation in or celebration of the American system, there is a deep streak of aversion to or suspicion of government or the state in America, as some kind of bogey man whose only function is to rob real people of their purpose – and their money.  Australians do not like or trust politicians.  That is not a prejudice, but a reasoned conclusion from evidence that is all too obvious and painful.  But do you see there the same kind of suspicion of the very basis of government?  Australians have been wrapped up in government from their beginning, and have not been as exposed as the Americans to the isolating effects of the frontier.  The North Queensland separatism is not of the Texan order.  There may well be a big distinction in basic attitudes to government in the two countries.  A seizing up of the American machine, even if self-induced, may amplify any difference.


What most Australians and other outsiders see as the continuing murderous triumph of the gun lobby in the States is partly down to money – which does seem to carry more weight in America than in other parts of the West – and partly down to what might be called a doctrinaire streak in American public life.  The English Constitution derives from the common law and is set out in many old acts and texts.  Ultimately, it is a state of mind.  Its empirical methods are utterly different to those of a rationalist interpreting and applying a code.  The common law discourages large pronouncements on doctrine.  A constitutional court applies a much more rationalist approach from a large and irrefutable predicate, the constitution, and it produces a lot more doctrine and dogma as a result.

This is where the great power – liberal or conservative – arises with the Bill of Rights and the Supreme Court.  The right to bear arms in the 1689 Bill of Rights is still part of the law in England and the Australian states, but not as part of an unalterable tablet of the law.  The difference is immense – only a very loose cannon in England or Australia would suggest that it might have the consequences presently contended for by a majority of the U S Supreme Court.

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

As against that, the Americans do have a commitment to their ‘rights’ as an article of faith which is admirable.  If that leads to a kind of legalism, and readiness to resort to law that most in Europe or Asia would find vulgar, or something that only Americans could afford, so be it.


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

An independent judiciary is available to and essential for both nations.  They have inherited this facility from the English, but it is a major difference between these nations and others from the common law tradition and just about the rest of the world.  Lawyers had a formative role in building the constitution in both England and America, and in fighting for that constitution and for people’s rights.  The judges and juries and lawyers have provided a check on power and a release for dissent that have been indispensable to continuity in government and freeing the nation from the violent political friction that is seen almost everywhere else in the world.  Lawyers, or at least legally qualified statesmen, like Jefferson, Hamilton, Madison (the Father of the Constitution and Bill of Rights), Marshall (the first Chief Justice), Adams, and Lincoln were true political giants and not just for Americans.  We see there concentrations of intellectual firepower that might make the Florentine Renaissance look knock-kneed and which might also give their successors reason to pause.

The party system, and with it the parliamentary system, are stressed, for different reasons in each country, but to an equally worrying degree.  Money is huge in American politics, and that fact is not good for the image of America.  It resembles a capitalist feudal structure, a hierarchy of power and patronage built on capital rather than land.  It looks to outsiders as if too many people are in the pockets of too few other people and as if money has too much clout.  The world looks on nervously to see when Wall Street might invite us to look into a black hole of its own devising.

God only knows what Jefferson or Hamilton might have made of our deathless embrace of the dollar.  The conservative columnist George Will wrote that there was ‘an elegant memorial in Washington to Jefferson, but none to Hamilton.  However, if you seek Hamilton’s monument, look around.  You are living in it.  We honour Jefferson, but live in Hamilton’s country.’  At the end of his recent work, Jefferson and Hamilton, Professor John Ferling of the University of West Georgia said:

Today’s America is more Hamilton’s America.  Jefferson may never have fully understood Hamilton’s funding and banking systems, but better than most he gleaned the potential dangers that awaited the future generations living in the nation state that Hamilton wished to bring into being.  Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

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

Here is just one example of the differences in government between the two countries, and one that is very characteristic.  Americans do not have compulsory voting; Australia does.  Each side thinks that the other is mad.  The Americans rely on doctrine about liberty; the Australians rely on results.  They think that their system works and that the American does not.  This is another example of doctrine or dogma triumphing over experience in America – at least that is how it appears to Australians.


Religion got off to a strong start in America.  It got off to a bad start in Australia – the Reverend Marsden was a flogging parson, and the Anglican Church was and is as establishment as you can get – the monarch of the nation, its Head of State, has to be a member of it; its bishops were lords of the realm, and members of the House of Lords.  It does seem clear that religion is a more live force in America, and that Australians tend to count their comparative relaxation if not liberation as an unqualified plus.

The churches in Australia played a far greater role in the development of independent schools.  The churches now have very little part to play in these schools, but the failure of governments in Australia to see that its schools keep up with the private schools – called, after the English model, ‘public schools’ – is a part of the biggest failure of government in Australia – and a failure for which the church is not to blame.  There is a frightful inequality among Australian schools, a kind of educational apartheid.  Many parents who can afford to reject the schools offered for their children by their government.  This may be Australia’s biggest failure.

Although education is not a Commonwealth function under the Constitution, it is in fact their responsibility.  Generations of ineptitude and buck-passing at all levels had led to a disgraceful failure to provide an equal opportunity for the young people of Australia to get the kind of good education that they deserve and that the nation needs.  We now see a parliament composed in large part of those who had a free university education legislating to deny that right to others.  The products of the age of entitlement are kicking away the ladder.  This tragic failure of national fibre may never be corrected.  It would require deep foresight and a cool nerve.  Australia’s politicians have neither.


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


Each nation got to where it by means that many would prefer to forget.  Both relied at the start on the free labour of imported convicts – they were Australia’s raison d’être – but before they could do that, they had to wrest the land from its native occupiers.  They did so in a way that caused immeasurable misery and loss and by means that most people cannot now square with the tenets of religion of the invaders.

There is not much to be gained from getting hung up on labels, as the Turks want to do with the Armenians.  The label of ‘genocide’ may or may not be contentious.  What matters are not labels, but the evidence of what happened, and the moral or political conclusions that can be drawn from that evidence.

These are issues as much for Britain as they are for America and Australia, and that may not be a bad thing, because the British may not get so skittish about a subject that they may know a lot about because of their shame in Ireland and because of their experience in the rest of their Empire.

In reviewing a book by Tom Lawson, The Last Man: A British Genocide in Tasmania, Professor Bernard Porter said:

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

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


The main difference between the two nations lies in their standing in the world.  America is the biggest economy and the leader of what used to be called the free world.  America’s leading role was achieved by industry and invention working on its resources, and intellectual property laws have helped to secure its world primacy.

Australia is a client state of the U S.  It is not as troublesome as Israel, but not as close either.  Australia loyally followed its patron and protector into Vietnam, Iraq, and Afghanistan in order to honour and secure the alliance, but not one Australian government has felt able to acknowledge that fact.  There is what is now called ‘a disconnect’ between the governors and the governed in Australia on the subject of honouring the U S alliance in much the same way that there is a disconnect in America on the subject of tax – they are, if you like, the elephants in the room.  While Australians were objecting that all their politicians were the same, those politicians stood firm in favour of the Afghan War when most Australians wanted to get out of it.

But against that is the tendency to hubris that we saw, and the brittleness of Americans noticed by de Tocqueville – and now their obvious lack of appetite for any ventures overseas, for which they receive no offer of help beforehand or vote of thanks afterwards, and which is predicated on a failure of the U N for which the U S is not responsible.


Finally, and for whatever reason, there is a deep streak of orthodoxy and conservatism, or, if you prefer, an aversion to risk and scepticism of novelty or adventure, in both countries.  At least in the case of America, that comes as a surprise.

More than one hundred years ago, the English nation elected as their Prime Minister a grandson of an Italian Jew, who went on to become the closest confidante of the most powerful monarch in history.  More than eighty years ago, the English elected as their Prime Minister a man of Scottish descent who represented the labouring class.  More than thirty years ago, they elected their first woman Prime Minister.  Americans now have had their first black President, but it took them nearly two hundred years to elect a Catholic as President, and they are yet to elect to that office a woman, a working man, or a Jew.  All three of those omissions are extraordinary – to speak softly – in light of the contribution to American life made by those who have not made it.

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

Hardly any of the criminals behind the 2008 crash ever looked like going behind bars; the great citadels of business look to be beyond, or immune to, the criminal law that otherwise maintains an ever growing prison population that is massively black; the big corporates just do cosy deals in private with the lawyers and civil servants called regulators; an agreed amount of boodle goes to the state as a bribe; the company adjusts its books in an accounting exercise; the shareholders get a reduced dividend; the real crooks keep their jobs and their unimaginable bonuses; and your average Joe winds up in the slammer for much lower levels of crime.

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

In truth, if you look at the giant steps that the English took leading up to the settlement of 1689, and the explosion in France in 1789, most of the work of laying down the fabric of government in America and Australia was done for them by more purposeful people elsewhere, and they have proceeded quite doggedly to hold the line and preserve the status quo.  The day of the indigenous peoples has long since passed; the day of people of colour may or may not be at hand; only God knows if women will ever win anything like equality.


The suggestion that America and Australia are both innately conservative might come as a surprise to those in either country who like to see each as progressive if not radical.  It will not come as a surprise to those at the bottom of the pile in either America or Australia.  Those poor people will see their country as anything but progressive, or open to people of all types.

This conservatism might show itself in different ways.  We saw that Benjamin Franklin said that America was a land ‘where a general happy mediocrity prevails.’  That condition has not been sustained in a way that has produced any real kind of social equality in America – at the very least, American society does not look nearly as egalitarian as Australia’s.  Trump got elected on inequality.

The downside for Australia is the frightening mediocrity of its politics.  The land dubbed as ‘the quarry with a view’ is now revolted by its politicians.  How is it that the nation appears to be so economically successful?

Nearly fifty years ago, a writer called Donald Horne published a book called The Lucky Country.  The book immediately resonated with Australians and became a best seller, and is now something of a classic.  Its essential conclusion looks more true now than in 1964:

Australia is a lucky country run by second-rate people who share its luck….Many of the nation’s affairs are conducted by racketeers of the mediocre who have risen to authority in a non-competitive community where they are protected in their adaptations of other people’s ideas….Much of its public life is stunningly bad, but its ordinary people are fulfilling their aspirations.

Robin Boyd’s book The Australian Ugliness was just as insightful, but it did not have the same measure of success.  In touching on the shallowness of Australian public life, Boyd said of the Australian that ‘He has a high assurance in anything he does combined with a gnawing lack of assurance in anything he thinks.’

At the end of his book The Rise and Fall of Australia, Nick Bryant referred to remarks made by Bertrand Russell to Australians in 1950 as he was leaving their shores after the intellectuals’ version of a royal tour: ‘Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble.  Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not.  I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.’

A similar observation might have been made to Americans at the time.  Were Americans or Australians too comfortable to take so much trouble?  Has each of them settled for a general happy mediocrity?

[That is the final extract from Us and the U S.  Nest week, we will begin instalments, unaltered, from ‘Top Shelf – Or What Used to be called a Liberal Education’ – a review of great books or books that reflect how we live.]

Here and there – Huckleberry Finn

[This is an extract from a follow up on great books in ‘Top Shelf’ which is currently being put together.]

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary Aunt Polly – tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book – which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.

That’s how this novel starts.  Huck then has supper with the widow.

After the supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

This book is about the friendship between two people, Huck and Jim, who are both fugitives – Huck is fleeing from one beastly white man, his father; Jim is a Negro who is fleeing from all white men.  They are both, if you like, refugees – but Jim’s condition is pitiful and illegal, while Huck is troubled that he is assisting to escape – it is like aiding a thief.

The hypocrisy shocks us now.  One lady, quite possibly one of an ‘evangelical’ disposition, feels sorry for and takes pity for someone she believes to be a runaway apprentice – Huck – but boasts about unleashing the dogs on a runaway slave – Jim.  Twain said that ‘a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,’ and he certainly got that right.

Three things will trike you quickly about this book – it is a ripper of a yarn; it is written in a graphic vernacular; and it tells home truths about America as it was – and, sadly, still is.

On each of those grounds, it is a wonder that T S Eliot was a fan.  And he was more than just a fan.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece….Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction.  The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment.  So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.

Well, there you go – none of those five characters – or ‘permanent symbolic features of fiction’ – is a bottom-feeder.  Each is, apparently, a great discovery that man has made about himself.

Some of the most hilarious passages in the book concern two grifters known as the King and the Duke – David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder – who scam hillbilly towns by posing as actors.  They have a killer merchandising card: ‘LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.’  That really winds up the locals.  (Before the election of Trump, you may have thought that kind of mockery was over the top.)

But how could they leave Jim on his own on the raft on the Mississippi when any number of people would rush to seize him for the reward?

He was uncommon bright, the duke was, and he soon struck it.  He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit – it was a long curtain calico gown, and white horse-hair wig and whiskers; and then he took his theatre paint and painted Jim’ s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded nine days.  Blamed if he warn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see.  Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle so –

Sick Arab – but harmless when not out of his head.

And he nailed that shingle to a lath, and stood the lath up four or five foot in front of the wigwam.  Jim was satisfied.

Heartless or malicious people can’t write like that.  It is therefore sad – if perhaps not surprising – that some members of the American academic establishment think this book is ‘racist’ and that it should be banned from schools or the like.

Some get exercised over the repeat use of the word ‘nigger’.  It is not a good idea to try to resolve issues of moment by recourse to labels.  It is as hard for me to think that the author of Huckleberry Finn was loaded against black Americans as it is hard for me to think that the author of Kim was loaded against the peoples of India.  The whole of the book in each case refutes the allegation.  Rather, in my view, the charge reflects a prejudice in the mind of the person making it.

The two novels have a lot in common.  The hero of each is a boy.  He falls in with a man who is older than him and who is of a different race and a different world.  They embark on a journey, physically and morally.  The novel is about their coming together – like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If we were a little less Anglo-Saxon about all this, we might even say that this was a love story.

However that may be, Huckleberry Finn, like the other two novels just mentioned, is a testament to humanity that can stand however many readings you need for a decent fix.  So, read it say once a year – as Faulkner said that he did with Don Quixote – and leave those dreary drongos to strain like gnats at a camel.

Here then is T S Eliot again, a man not given to sweeping praise.

What is obvious … is the pathos and dignity of Jim, and this is moving enough; but what I find still more disturbing, and still more unusual in literature, is the pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man.  It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form.….

And it is as impossible for Huck as for the River to have a beginning or end — a career. So the book has the right, the only possible concluding sentence. I do not think that any book ever written ends more certainly with the right words:

‘But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.

I wonder if Ken Kesey had that ending in mind when he ended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the words: ‘I been away a long time.’

Passing bull 160 – Sense and nonsense


According to something I wrote, the ‘genius of Einstein gave us the insight that people who cannot explain an idea to a six year old can probably not understand it themselves’.  I am not sure where that leaves the theory of relativity, but it is a good talking point.

Hannah Arendt revealed two competing views in her lectures on Kant’s political philosophy.  Kant said that ‘every philosophical work must be susceptible of popularity; if not it probably conceals nonsense beneath a fog of seeming sophistication.’  Now, we lawyers have been copping that raspberry for centuries – as often as not in all fairness – together with priests and doctors.  (Economists are just out of this world.)

Elsewhere Kant said:

Do you really require that a kind of knowledge which concerns all men should transcend the common understanding and should only be revealed to you by philosophers?….In matters which concern all men without distinction, nature is not guilty of any partial distribution of her gifts, and in regard to the essential ends of human nature, the highest philosophy cannot advance further than is possible under the guidance which nature has bestowed even upon the most ordinary understanding.

Well, very few of us can penetrate The Critique of Pure Reason, but at least Kant’s heart was in the right place – and, since he was speaking before Einstein, Kant was speaking of a reachable objective.

Very few people read Hegel now.  The following shows why.

Philosophy by its very nature is something esoteric, which is not made for the mob, nor is it capable of being prepared for the mob; philosophy is philosophy only to the extent that is the very opposite of the intellect and even more the opposite of common sense, by which we understand the local and temporary limitations of generations; in its relation to this common sense, the world of philosophy as such is a world turned up-side down.

This is a direct contradiction, almost word for word, of Kant; it oozes with snobbery right down its front; and in truth it envisages a kind of intellectual apartheid.

When therefore we meet people who reveal or claim a level of learning that entitles them to talk down to us, let us tell them, among other things, that they are careering towards oblivion – and that we wish them God speed in their career.


‘The harms essentially are bad outcomes to financial consumers,’ he says.

‘A harm is, for instance, a financial consumer paying for a product that they don’t need, or paying for a product that is just completely inappropriate for them, or paying for a product which was faulted from its very inception.

‘It’s really important, and this is the influence of thinkers like Professor Sparrow, a regulatory agency needs to identify the harms that we want to prevent. It’s not so much about risks. Risks will always be there. There will always be the risks of the probability of the harm occurring.

‘Then you have drivers for harms. For instance, everyone talks about technological change. Technological change is not a risk, it’s not a harm but it’s a driver.’

Shipton says that when he first arrived in Australia for pre-meetings before taking over as ASIC chairman he met with APRA chairman Wayne Byres to discuss collaboration and co-operation.

‘I remember going to his office and saying to him in no uncertain terms I am absolutely firmly committed that ASIC as an organisation I work with is going to redouble, triple its efforts in ensuring that we work collaboratively, co-operate and we co-ordinate as and when necessary depending on the different regulatory settings,’ he says.

The Australian Financial Review, 8 August, 2018.

Hamlet said that there was a special providence in the fall of a sparrow.  That may be just as well, because otherwise we are all doomed.

I wonder if Hegel may have contemplated that the one phenomenon may have been – at the time – a risk, a harm, and a driver.

Passing bull 159 – Yours sincerely


One of the problems of saying something ‘sincerely’ is like that which you may experience in saying something ‘honestly’ – what inference might your correspondent draw if you choose to omit the modifier?  If you say that you are being sincere or honest, what happens if you do not say so?  Depending on whether there is a relationship of trust and confidence, might the problem be worse if you say that you are speaking ‘candidly’?  ‘What am I to think if you choose your words to suggest that you are not being candid with me?’  Might you be entering that moral zone that allows some people to commit not the original but the ultimate sin – cheating at golf?  Or are you one of those people who think that tampering with a cricket ball, which is a breach of the rules with a defined penalty, is worse than bowling underarm (or bodyline), which is not a breach of the rules, except that which refers to ‘the spirit of the game’, but which certainly brings the game into contempt and may create an international incident?

The Oxford English Dictionary has for ‘sincere’ – ‘Not falsified or perverted in any way; genuine, pure; veracious; exact.’  When you say that you are being sincere, you are saying that ‘I (really or truly) believe this’. You are in fact, as the OED suggests, denying that you are lying.  That is why it is usually at best dangerous and at worst wrong for a disciplinary tribunal to order someone to apologise for what they have done.  If you order John or Betty to say ‘I am sorry I did that’, you may be ordering them to lie.

But the notion of sincerity has a role to play in public life.  Some politicians come across as insincere and that is very bad for them.  Let’s put to one side the leading Australian contender for that role and look at Hillary Clinton.  Too many people believed that she did not really stand for anything except Hillary Clinton, and that was a significant reason why she lost.  The fact that the man who beat her was and always will be so much guiltier of that failing is one of those sad accidents of history to which the lottery of democracy is unfortunately prone.  (And we might add that the failings of democracy are best advertised by those who claim to represent the ‘people’ – which is about the most lethal form of insincerity that you could imagine.)

CNN’s Christiane Amanpour, who should know better, has a related problem.  With as much front as Myers, she solemnly and sincerely affirms to the camera: ‘I insist on being truthful, not neutral’.  This is not just a false dichotomy – as a journalist she not only can but should aspire to being both truthful and neutral.   But if she sincerely believes this promo, CNN has a problem.  It is endorsing loaded reporting – how does this distinguish them from Fox News?  You may argue that being passionate is consistent with being professional – I think you would lose; but you certainly cannot be both professional and partisan. 

Sincerity is always likely to be out of place where objectivity is required – particularly in a professional relationship.  If your doctor says to you ‘I sincerely believe that surgery is your best way forward,’ you would surely wonder why a professional person would feel the need to give some form of personal warranty.  You want your doctor to be professional not personal.  It’s the same if your lawyer says ‘I sincerely believe that you should take this offer.’  And it’s a total disaster if the lawyer tells the judge or jury that he or she sincerely believes anything.  The process involves an objective review of the evidence according to law, not a subjective exposé of the state of mind of one of the participants.

It may be part of the job of the professional adviser to assist the punter – the patient, or client, or parishioner, say – to reach a sensible conclusion while believing that they have reached that position with complete freedom.  (Some professionals have a conception of ‘guided democracy’ that is not far short of that of Messrs Erdogan or Putin, but that is a matter for another day.)  But if the professional offers some form of personal assurance in that process, they are not just defying logic – they are being unprofessional.

And that proposition – which I regard as assured – illustrates the main problem in our public life now.  Sensible discussion proceeds by a sensible (or, you prefer reasonable or objective) review of the evidence and arguments, and not by succumbing to some personal invocation to ‘Follow me.’  We should leave that to people who are content, for whatever reason, to follow the injunctions of the man called Christ or the man called the Prophet or the man called the Führer.   But, tragically, too many people are happy to check their brains in at the door and follow, like a herd of cattle, the personal call of people like Farage, Hanson, or Trump.

For the second time in two years, I am dealing with an illness that will kill me unless it is dealt with.  To deal with it, I am immensely fortunate to have access to the best science and professional practice in the world.  I place full trust in my professional advisers.  I act on their advice.  I am not a religious fanatic whose faith may limit my options, but I suppose that at least in theory, there were at least two options open to me (excluding sticking my head in the sand).  One was to follow science as expounded by my professional advisers.  Another was to follow the tribal customs of, say, the Hottentots or Esquimaux or the Murdoch press – and commit the teaching of science to the flames.

How else do you express the mess that we have got into on our environment than by expressing the view that too many people have been seduced into the second course?  And that is before you ask whether these snake-oil salesmen believe their nostrums – ‘sincerely believe’ them – or just lay them out because this is how they make a living.  The latter would of course involve another form of unprofessional conduct, but that, too, is a matter for another day.

In his book, On Bullshit, Professor Frankfurt says:

It is just this lack of a connection to a concern with truth – this indifference to how things really are – that I regard as of the essence of bullshit … Bullshit is unavoidable wherever circumstances require someone to talk without knowing what he is talking about.  The essence of bullshit is not that it is false, but that it is phony.

Of more relevance to this note, the Professor ended his book with these words:

Our natures are, indeed, elusively insubstantial – notoriously less stable and less inherent than the natures of other things.  And insofar as this is the case, sincerity itself is bullshit.


Asked if it was standard practice for the federal government to hand $400m to an organisation without any tender process or transparency, Frydenberg said the process had ‘a lot of transparency.

 ‘I really think that this is being raised as a distraction from the government’s achievement in investing in the reef, as opposed to anything else’ he said.

The Guardian, 3 August, 2018.

‘A lot of transparency’ is up there with ‘a little bit pregnant’ or ‘I really think’ – bullshit.  Do these people sincerely believe that we came down in the last bloody shower?