MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 15


[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.]




Ben Hogan (1957)

Golf Digest Classics, 1985; foreword by Nick Seitz; drawings by Anthony Ravielli; rebound in quarter beige leather with sage label embossed in gold ‘Ben Hogan’ with stone canvass boards.

They tend to think of it as something unique in itself, something almost inspired you might say, since the shot [a two iron of 200 yards to an elusive well-trapped plateau green] was just what the occasion called for.  I don’t see it that way at all.  I didn’t hit that shot then – that late afternoon at Merion.  I had been practising that shot since I was 12 years old.  After all, the point of tournament golf is to get command of a swing which, the more pressure you put on it, the better it works.

Paratroopers are endlessly drilled on procedures to follow when jumping from a plane.  The idea is that any fear that they may have will not overcome their training.  This is just a variant of the basic military idea of drilling and disciplining men so that they will do as they have been trained to no matter how stressful the occasion might be.  This was the idea that Ben Hogan brought to golf.  He became its most successful player because he was its most practised and disciplined.  Over countless hours, days, weeks and months, he planed his swing and machined himself like a tool.

Peter Thompson, five times winner of the British Open, once saw Hogan hit the flag-stick with shots to the 13th and 14th greens at the Masters.  Thompson marvelled that Hogan ‘really played a different brand of golf.  There’s never been anybody like him, and I don’t think there ever will be….He was our unreachable ideal.’  That ideal has at least been reached by Jack Nicklaus, but that is all.

All games are difficult to teach.  Golf certainly is.  You cannot do it with a book, but drowning desperadoes will seek solace anywhere, much like a terminally ill patient will turn to voodoo.  What keeps drawing golfers of all levels back to this book are the wonderful drawings of Anthony Ravielli.  Like great art and inspired thought, they immediately look to be obviously correct and simple and within the reach of any one – and so it is until you put the ball down and you can feel people hold their breath as you drive from the tee or watch the ball take a wobble that you did not expect in a simple four foot putt.

Some person claiming to be wise once said that that which does not kill us leaves us stronger.  Where does that leave the rape of a golf shot or of a golf course?  Ben Hogan does not succeed in communicating the incommunicable, but at least the drawings offer hope, if not solace.

Passing bull 182 – Political cant gone tropo


But away from the Beltway, mainstream Australians might be less interested in internal politicking, insider sneering and partisan point-scoring, and more interested that a dynamic and high profile indigenous advocate has thrown his lot in with the Prime Minister’s government and offered himself for election.

The Australian, 24 January, 2018

The poor fellow does not understand that the whole article, and his whole oeuvre, comes from the Beltway, and is about ‘internal politicking, insider sneering and partisan point-scoring.’


Australia Day is a significant national day for our country.  People come to our country to flee violence, to have their kids educated, to grow up in a civil society and we shouldn’t be afraid to celebrate it.

The Australian, 25 January, 2018

Herr Dutton did not pause to enlighten us about how he welcomes people who come to our country to flee violence.  This is the new World Land Speed Record for bullshit and chutzpah.

Here and there -Political Instability – And the Sad Passing of Conservatism – Then and Now


Political stability is a consummation devoutly to be desired.  How quickly may we lose it?

Professor J H (later, Sir Jack) Plumb delivered the Ford Lectures at Oxford in 1965.  They were published in 1967 as The Growth of Political Stability in England 1675-1725.  In them, Plumb said that lasting political stability was not common until recently and that ‘it is certainly far rarer than revolution.’  He defined political stability as –

…the acceptance by society of its political institutions, and of those classes of men who control them.

Instability comes from ‘conspiracy, plot, revolution and civil war’.  Plumb thought that political instability came in England because of three things –

….single party government; the legislature firmly under executive control; and a sense of common identity in those who wielded economic, social, and political power.

Since we now see political instability in England, America and Australia, especially in those parties that brand themselves ‘conservative’, we might learn from Plumb’s account of the arrival of stability.

There is one warning.  Anyone who thinks that the Whig v Tory divide might resemble the split between the two major parties in any of the three nations now is dead wrong.  The old concept is as simple as that of the Holy Trinity.  (Upon the arrival in England of the Germans (Hanoverians) in the person of George I, Sir Lewis Namier said that the ‘Tory gentlemen worshipped the Throne and loathed the Court, believed in authority and disliked Government…..expressing these contradictory feelings in harmless fancies about the ‘King over the water’, a royalty uncontaminated by administration.’  Try threading that needle with a knight of the shire after a few snifters in front of the fire after the hunt – while remembering the terminal penalty for treason.)


Migrant nations have become familiar with the resentment of migrants, especially among those who have missed out on the glittering prizes in their new home.  They see newcomers as trespassers on their property, as threats to what they have achieved.  (Our common law started with arguments over the forms of writs, and the earliest, and most fruitful form of writ was the writ of trespass, the word that figures in the King James Version of the Lord’s Prayer.)  Those protesting against migrants sense that the migrants are debasing or diluting the currency of their citizenship – which might be their most valuable asset in their nation – and threatening to deprive them of a livelihood that is already precarious.  What you get is the syndrome ‘kick away the ladder.’

This issue often figures in what is called ‘nationalism’ – like America First – and is often a front for something worse.  People who want to puff out their chests about their nation often puff out their chests about themselves.  In their grosser form, you get megalomaniacs like Mussolini and Trump.

For some people – again those who are not among life’s winners – the colour of their skin is an asset that that allows them to fulfil a need to put some people beneath them on the social ladder.  These crude and nasty instincts are fanned – for profit – by those parts of the press that we least admire.

The Tory party would eventually lead to the Conservative party.  The ancestors of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage did not like foreigners.  (For a while England had a Naturalization Act.)  The dislike of outsiders, Plumb instructs us, was rife among country Tories.  ‘Xenophobia was a very strong concomitant of Toryism.’  If you wanted to find a closet Tory, you just had to mention the Dutch.  Of course, the French later became the bête noire of the Englishand General de Gaulle did all in his power to keep them there – to the extent that de Gaulle may be honoured as the spiritual founder of Brexit.  His rank ingratitude has come back to bite Europe on the bum.


The tags Whig and Tory did not so much stand for differences on policy, but different attitudes about how to get and handle the levers of power.  In the time we speak of, England ran on what they called patronage and what we call corruption.  ‘The vote was the basic coin for traffic in influence.’  But, then as now, if political parties stand for too little or too much, they splinter.  The death word is faction.  Without a strong, rooted balance of power, a party is exposed to the cancer of faction.  The result is, almost by definition, incoherence.  The party has to confront the proposition that if it cannot govern itself, it cannot govern the nation.  That is precisely the problem faced by the soi disant conservative parties in our three nations.  The plots and conspiracies in Australia have acquired an aura of vaudeville.

Walpole is seen now as England’s first prime minister.  He had a genius for managing the business of government.  Someone called him the greatest bomb-disposal expert in history.  ‘Walpole created a centre of gravity at the heart of the administration.’  Previous monarchs had not achieved that and ‘every Cabinet from 1689 to 1714 rapidly disintegrated into faction; their composition rarely remained stable for more than a year.’

We have seen that in the U K and here, and it looks very likely that the political pressure that is about to be applied to the Republicans will see them go the same way.  They have so far shown an appalling lack of moral fibre in allowing a political brute to trash almost every part of their political dispensation.

What is different in Australia is that two generations ago all the factions, cranks and crooks were on the other side of politics.  Now they are on the so called conservative side, and you can watch their inanity being aerated every night on Sky News or each morning with The Australian as Rupert Murdoch inflicts on the land of his birth the lesions he has so sadly inflicted on the land of his choice.


It follows a fortiori that a government that cannot control its parliament or congress is by definition unstable.  Trump now finds himself in a position similar to that of the prime minister of the U K and Australia.  Both got where they are faute de mieux after a squalid faction fight and each looks both transient and wobbly – the antithesis of the required centre of gravity.

Plumb tells us that after 1601, the Commons were ‘fundamentally out of hand – difficult to screw money from and a hotbed of criticism; no one could manage them for long, neither James I, Charles I, Cromwell, nor Charles II.’  They were in truth king-baiters from hell.  (In another work, Plumb memorably said of the arrival of George I: ‘He was not in any way enamoured of his new subjects.  They had an evil reputation amongst monarchs for shiftiness. He was aware that most of the noblemen who fawned on him at his arrival had dabbled in treason.’)

All three nations have taken the benefit of the English settling their constitution in dealing with the caprices of the Stuarts, but blood and pain had to be drawn to achieve that settlement.  Seventeenth century England is a terrible lesson of a parliament out of control.  And that’s without looking at the mayhem in the outliers.


Failures in the political system have a snowball effect.  People lose respect for institutions that have caused or at least allowed these fissures to open up.  People then tend to align themselves by interest in distinct groups rather than as a citizen of the nation or a member or supporter of a party.

Plumb spoke of ‘a sense of common identity’ by those who wield power and the acceptance of the institutions and those who control them.  All that has gone clean out the window in Australia – and it does not look healthy elsewhere.  There is scarcely a political, religious, business or sporting body that does not have a dark cloud hanging over it.

An outsider might be forgiven for thinking that only the planet is worth conserving – but it is precisely on this issue that self-proclaimed ‘conservatives’ have betrayed us and themselves – morally, intellectually, and politically.  England’s dull, imported Hanoverian kings were better with logic and science than our native born dunces.  It’s OK for the shock jocks – they are just there for the lucre and their vanity.  But have our would-be statesmen no care for the rest of us?  Nor does it help that their most voluble stooge, the IPA, covertly gets its gelt from Madam Coalminer Extraordinaire.


Scare tactics have been known since Pisistratus, but Walpole brought them to a form of squalid perfection.  There is an appeal – overt or covert – to that bad actor called patriotism.  Plumb says:

Patriotism, almost xenophobic in its intensity, had long been regarded by the Tories as one of their own sacred principles; it was an emotion, they half believed, that no one could feel so intensely as themselves.  Hence, if Walpole could reveal, not once but time and again, that leading Tories were involved in treason, he knew the effect would baffle many a country squire proud of his Englishry, and draw him to support the Crown.

The bogeyman then was called Jacobitism – the prince across the water, the threatened return of the Stuarts and the Church of Rome, and a return to the hell of the previous century.

And of course, accusations of Jacobitism were extremely useful at elections….Like McCarthyism in our own time [they] generated public fear and sapped the will to oppose.

The bogeyman now is Islam and it is a sitting duck for brutal bullies because it is even less coherent than its pursuers – and given the unhinged hysteria of Trump about a migrant caravan, that is no small suggestion.  Ruling by fear itself leads to instability, because it demeans the institutions that permit or require it.


Now for the bad news for those who call themselves conservatives.

But, first, what is there left in the name ‘conservative’?  How may that word be usefully applied in a welfare state facing the slow death of churches and the fading of once grand institutions?  Plumb was after all speaking of a time more than two centuries before the evolution of the welfare state in England.  Some ‘conservatives’ say they want small government.  Well, the role of government was very much smaller in England before they set up their jails down here.  This was a time of which Lord Shelburne could say, offhandedly enough: ‘Providence has so organised the world that very little government is necessary.’  England then was just like a well-run cricket club, and you were OK as long as you played cricket.

To return to the bad news:

It is necessary to stress this moral collapse….. the Tory party was destroyed, destroyed by its incompetent leadership, by the cupidity of many of its supporters, by its own internal contradictions; weakened by its virtues and lashed by events, it proved no match for Walpole…..It failed to provide an effective barrier to Walpole’s steady progress towards a single-party state.

Walpole, Plumb says, made ‘the world so safe for the Whigs that they stayed in power for a hundred years.’

Only a very robust and blithe member of the Conservative, Republican or Liberal Party could now suppress a heart tremor on this recall of history.  Can they divorce themselves from one word of the above citation?  In stressing the ‘moral collapse’, Plumb was warning us of the weakness of character and failure of nerve that is destroying political parties in our time.  It’s a shame that more historians don’t bite that bullet – au fond, political issues involve moral issues.


Now for some worse news.  So far we have sought to find guidance from Sir Jack Plumb in looking at our current instability here and elsewhere.  But Plumb did not have to confront what some see as our biggest problem.  The English were and are beset by caste as well as class.  We do not have the first problem as a matter of law: and for the most part, we do not have much of the second problem as a matter of fact.

But we have a huge worry with inequality of wealth and income – that looks to keep getting worse.  A bank teller may be paid one hundredth of what her boss gets paid – and that pay is likely to go up by his firing more people like her.

Any social group must rest on an implied and shared assumption of fairness, decency, and tolerance.  The bank teller cannot retain any faith that that assumption still holds good.  If that is right, our ship of state is in very dangerous waters.  Since at least 1789, people espousing what some are pleased to call Western civilisation have been committed to some form of equality.  If our want of it is too great or painful, the result is not just instability, but revolution.

‘Identity politics’ is a vogue but shifty phrase.  (What else underpins trade unions, churches, cricket clubs, towns, party politics, or nations?)  But if you want to see how all hell breaks loose when a group of people come together out of interest at the unfairness of their lot in life, have a look at the sans-culottes – roughly, blue collar ‘tradies’ – in France after 1789.  Just look at how they doted on Robespierre, then they rejected him, then they slew him, and then they forgot him.  Bored with mere lynchings, they had turned to the guillotine, then the Committee of Public Safety, and then the Terror.  They were plainly not our first terrorists, but they did terrify people by killing others.  They killed to avoid being killed.  And they did so in the name of equality – or what some call justice.

Too many people in political parties that were once truly conservative are now flirting with the mob – or, if you prefer, the gutter.  My dad didn’t have much truck with politicians, but he said to me more than once: ‘Son, if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas.’

And if there is one thing that is transcendentally clear about the nature of conservatism, it is that people who claim to be under that umbrella while indulging the mob – while looking warmly at Hanson, Abbott, Farage, Johnson or Trump – are not just deluding themselves, they are spitting in the face of the history of mankind – if not of God.

In truth, the crowds that cheer on Farage and Trump have a lot in common with the crowds that cheered on Jack Cade and Barabbas.

Here and there – The vendetta before Hamlet


We can see the dawn of our laws not in Eden but in our felt need to control the vendetta – unless the law intervenes, a blood feud may have no end.  If the law helped to contain the vendetta, then a failure of the law to deliver justice to the family of the victim may well see a revival of self-help.  We can see that word for word in the beginning of The Godfather.

Homer saw the vicious the cycle.  Helen, the wife of King Menelaus of Sparta, elopes to Troy.  The Greeks, led by King Agamemnon, the brother of Menelaus, want to go after her.  This is the Trojan War, the subject of the Iliad.  The gods hold them up.  Agamemnon is persuaded to sacrifice his daughter Iphigenia so that his boats can sail for Troy.  After the war, his wife, Clytemnestra, who has taken Aegisthus as a lover, kills Agamemnon to avenge the death of a daughter.  Then her son, Orestes, with another daughter, Electra, kills Clytemnestra to avenge his father.  And so the vendetta goes on.  This theme is treated by the three great tragedians of ancient Greece – Aeschylus, Euripides, and Sophocles.

Beowulf is replete with the blood feud – that is one reason we refer to that time as the Dark Age.

In Hamlet, the king is murdered by his brother who then speedily marries the widow.  The child of the marriage, Hamlet, is revolted by the conduct of both his uncle and his mother.  Her descent into those ‘incestuous sheets’ makes him ill.  Then the ghost of Hamlet’s father tells the young prince that his brother killed him and that Hamlet must avenge his death.

Was Hamlet morally obliged or entitled to kill the king to avenge his father? A C Bradley apparently thought so.  A Mafia don may feel it now.  But this was not the Dark Ages.  There are exchanges of students to fine German universities.  The royal family is firmly Christian.  Would they still be wedded to the vendetta?

Surely, no.  The answer is given by Tony Tanner.  (I know I have referred often to this before, but the point is worth it.)  Tanner described how western tragedy began two thousand five hundred years ago.  A play, the first in a trilogy, begins with a troubled guard on a battlement on a castle where the people live in disquiet.  A member of a ruling family has to avenge a murder.  Shortly before he executes his mother, Orestes pauses.  But not for long.

The play Hamlet is at the birth of modern drama nearly two thousand years later. It opens in the same way with a guard on a battlement over an unquiet people.  The hero again pauses before taking revenge.  But this time the pause lasts for nearly the whole play. Why?  ‘Because between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity and, more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

Tanner went on to say out that although the Greeks dwelt on guilt, they had no word for conscience (a word that occurs seven times in Hamlet).

How, then, did the Greeks handle the vendetta?

The first in time is the trilogy of Aeschylus called The Oresteia.  Agamemnon deals with the murder of the husband; The Libation Bearers deals with the murder of the father; and The Eumenidies seeks to offer a solution – a court of law.  The difference to Hamlet is almost absurd here.  Having butchered the lover, Aegisthus, Orestes turns to his mother, Clytemnestra.  She reminds Orestes that she suckled him as a child.  Orestes pauses and asks his friend what he should so.  Should he be ‘shamed to kill his mother’?  His friend reminds Orestes of the oracles and their oaths in three lines.  Orestes then says:

I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.

Orestes tells his mother:

You killed and it was wrong.  Now suffer wrong.

Now madness is at hand.  Orestes is pursued by the furies of his mother – ‘the bloodhounds of his mother’s hate.’  The play ends:

Where is the end?  Where shall the fury of fate

Be stilled to sleep, be done with?

The Orestes of Aeschylus was, then, a different cup of tea to Hamlet

It is not quite so with Euripides.  His Orestes opens after the murder.  Electra tells Helen that Orestes killed himself when he killed his mother.  Orestes explains his sickness:

I call it conscience.  The certain knowledge of wrong, the conviction of crime..I mean remorse.  I am sick with remorse.

(I am not qualified to warrant the validity of the word ‘conscience’ there in light of the remark of Tony Tanner, but we are reminded that in all translations we are asked to take a lot on trust.)  Orestes had already prefigured the injunction given to Hamlet when he told Electra:

I think now

If I had asked my dead father at the time

If I should kill her, he would have begged me,

Gone down on his knees before me and pleaded,

Implored me not to take my mothers life.

What had we to gain by murdering her?

Later he says he was ordered by a god, Apollo, to commit the murder.  This leads him to this question.  ‘Was he [the god] competent to command a murder, but now incompetent to purge the guilt?’  That is a very fair question for that god.

The father of Clytemnestra can recall when they did things better:

Where I want to know, can this chain

Of murder end?  Can it ever end in fact

Since the last to kill is doomed to stand

Under permanent sentence of death by revenge?

Their ancestors banished the murderers and bound them to silence.  ‘They purged their guilt by banishment, not death.  And by so doing, they stopped that endless vicious cycle of murder and revenge.’  After that, the play takes a dive in tone.  Orestes says ‘I can never have my fill of killing whores’, and in trying to escape judgment for their crime, they plot to murder Helen and take her daughter Hermione hostage,

Euripides also had an Electra , but you get the Full Monty of the vendetta with Sophocles.  Electra is waiting for the return of Orestes to avenge her father’s death.

Come, how when the dead are in question,

Can it ever be honourable to forget?….

What sort of days do you imagine

I spend, watching Aegisthus sitting

On my father’s throne, watching him wear

My father’s self-same robes, watching him

At the hearth where he killed him, pouring libations?….

She [Clytemnestra] is so daring that she paramours

This foul polluted creature and fears no fury…..

But I am waiting for Orestes’ coming,

Waiting forever for the one who will stop

All our wrongs.  I wait and wait and die.

For his eternal going-to-do-something

Destroys my hopes, possible and impossible.

Now, there is a whole lot of Hamlet there – not least the sexual jealousy.  And while Hamlet feigned madness to give himself cover, Orestes put it out that he was dead – and sent an urn with his remains to his sister.  So, our heroes were cruel to those they loved – they were cruelled by their mission.  (The other phrase you see is pathei pathos or ‘suffering brutalises’.)

When Electra realises that she is in truth talking to a very much alive brother, we have one of the great set pieces of our stage.  It is wonderfully handled here by this great playwright.  Electra then taunts her mother before her death with the deadly steel that Queen Margaret applied to the Duke of York.  The Chorus says:

The courses are being fulfilled

Those under the earth are alive;

Men long dead draw from their killers

Blood to answer blood.

Electra asks Orestes ‘Is the wretch dead?’  There is then more icy dramatic irony – or the blackest humour – when Orestes leads Aegisthus, who is next to die, to believe that the corpse in the shroud is that of himself rather than that of Clytemnestra.  Orestes endorses justice on all who act above the law – ‘justice by killing.’

In Euripides’ version, Orestes does pause before the horror of killing his own mother.  Then he said he covered his eyes before sinking the steel in her neck.  Electra also put her hand to the sword.  Then Orestes is horrified by his deed.  ‘My god, how, how she bent to earth the legs which I was born through?’  But Orestes has a line that is straight Hamlet: ‘What must I do to punish the murderer and purify my mother from adultery?’  (And, yes, when there is adultery, it is always Mum who needs purifying; a quiet word is usually enough for Dad.)

When first rereading the two relevant plays of Euripides for this note, I thought that he had got too close to Neighbours and The Untouchables.  If sympathy for the hero is essential in tragedy, these plays have problems.  But two translators in the Folio edition have changed my mind.  As we saw, these plays are set after the law had provided a remedy.  Orestes and Electra now look petty or vicious – Germaine Greer saw ‘a shared craziness.’

This Orestes is aptly compared with another difficult play, Troilus and Cressida –‘tragedy utterly without affirmation, an image of heroic action seen as botched, disfigured and sick, carried along by the machinery and slogans of heroic action in a steady crescendo of biting irony and the rage of exposure.’  That is spot on for Troilus. Unloveliness pervades both plays, but when Orestes is set in what we would call modern times, we can see the characters for what they are.  Both children look more worried about lifestyle than morality.  Orestes, like Hamlet, has a grudge that his dynastic leanings have been crushed, and the plays raise an alternative motive – if the children don’t get Aegisthus, he will get them.  (And Claudius did go after Hamlet.)

But you get this sense of bourgeois tawdriness that roused one critic to say ‘Electra is a self-pitying slattern, Orestes a timid ruffian, Clytemnestra a suburban clubwoman, Aegisthus a courteous and popular ruler, the murders as dastardly as conceivable.’  The neighbours at Elsinore don’t look so bad now.

That, then, is in part how the Greek tragedians looked at the vendetta.  Two things.  First, none of these three great playwrights seeks to excuse the vendetta – Electra does not see that she is committing precisely the crime for which she seeks to punish her mother, and Orestes is at best cloudy on that point.  Secondly, we will never know if Hamlet would ever have obeyed the ghost.  When he returns to Denmark, he has enough evidence to slot the king, but Hamlet kills him because in seeking to kill Hamlet, the king had just killed Hamlet’s mother.

The two worlds were very different.  The Sophocles Electra is very high theatre; it is great theatre.  Little wonder that Strauss built an opera on it.  We hardly see either version.  One reason may be that this Electra at times makes The Godfather look like Snow White.  Sometimes we may just want to steer clear of those dark lakes lying in all of us.  And we must recall that the Greeks got into trouble with a human sacrifice to start a pointless war when they got the vapours about the fall of a Greek wife to a man of an inferior race.

The heroic code and chivalric ideal take heavy hits in these Greek plays and Troilus.  They may then be plays for our times when truth has gone clean out the window and people smirk at plain human kindness.  In his note on Troilus, Tony Tanner spoke of the ‘great meltdown of distinctions and values.’  It was chivalry versus barbarism.  Troilus is a ‘sour and abrasive’ play in which ‘rampant appetite is allowed free rein’.  That goes for these Greek plays.  And in Troilus, it is the Greeks in the black hats.  How stands it with us?



[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.]



Sir Lewis Namier (1930)

Second Edition, Macmillan, 1961; rebound in quarter red Morocco with gold embossed label and stone cloth boards.

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.

When Ved Mehta wrote a book about English intellectuals, he went to see a star pupil of the late Sir Lewis Namier, and a keeper of the flame, John Brooke.  A woman showed Mehta to Brooke’s room and said: ‘Mr Brooke is a very eccentric man.  When it gets cold, he wears an electric waistcoat plugged into the light socket, and reads aloud to himself.’  Such conduct would come within my understanding of the word ‘eccentric.’

Brooke said that Namier looked on history as bundles of biographies; his interest was in the small men rather than the big; he believed that psychology was as important to history as mathematics was to astronomy; he looked at how men and women responded to the pressure of circumstances; his east European Jewish background enabled him to see his adopted and idolized nation in perspective; unlike liberals, he had no faith in progress – it was not that he did not wish to reform institutions that were decrepit – he just hated seeing them go; he would hammer out the first draft of a work with two-finger typing, and not be able to revise it until his secretary had finished the first draft – a process that might be repeated ten or more times.  He would go back and forth between his research boxes and indexes and his typewriter.  ‘It would be a constant process of writing and rewriting, shaping and reshaping, agony and more agony – and the biography was not more than a seven-thousand word job.’

There were other sources of pain.  He never relished acceptance by the English intellectual establishment; his deeply withdrawn nature led him to psychoanalysis; he suffered a cramp in the arm that got worse with the ill treatment of the Jews in the thirties – he was so terrified by the thought of a German occupation that he got a bottle of poison from a doctor friend and carried it in his waistcoat so that he could kill himself if the Germans came.

But his work, beginning with The Structure of Politics at the Accession of George III in 1929, hit English literature like an earthquake in much the same way as F R Leavis did with literary criticism – and people who shake up the Establishment like that can expect a backlash.

Namier was, I am told, not an easy person to be with.  He was not respected as a teacher, and in good English universities that is a real minus.  John Kenyon referred to his ‘granitic seriousness, and the monomaniacal way in which he would impose his thoughts on others’  Sir Jack Plumb referred to the vulgar name-calling: ‘Constipation Namier – the big shit we can’t get rid of.’

Rejection was not new to Namier – his father cut him off for his espousal of Zionism – but exclusion breeds resentment and more exclusion – Namier became a frightful snob and name-dropper, and he fell for the English aristocracy.  He would never be offered a chair at Oxford, Cambridge or London – according to Kenyon, his commitment to Zionism ‘increased the coolness of an Arab-orientated upper class.’  A more rewarded historian – a man named Butterfield – had what might be called the Establishment view that ‘the point of teaching history to undergraduates is to turn them into public servants and statesmen…but I happen to think history is a school of wisdom and statesmanship.’  Butterfield thought that Namier’s factual inquiry was cutting the ground from under the feet of would-be philosopher-kings.

Why not just try to open their minds?  Things have changed.  The advocacy of the ideas or ideals of a dying empire now looks to us like a prospectus for a School for Bullshit.  But Butterfield and others went after Namier like gnats straining at a camel, and Namier became a kind of celebrity.

To those who have had to make findings of fact on inadequate and conflicting evidence, the Namier revolution seems to be the unsurprising suggestion that history should be based on evidence rather than romance.  From this book on the shelf, we have the following.

The basic elements of the Imperial Problem during the American Revolution must be sought not so much in conscious opinions and professed views bearing directly on it, as in the very structure and life of the Empire; and in doing that, the words of Danton should be remembered – on ne fait pas le proces aux revolutions.  Those who are out to apportion guilt in history have to keep to views and opinions, judge the collisions of planets by the rules of road traffic, make history into something like a column of motoring accidents, and discuss it in the atmosphere of a police court.

No wonder the idealists and the Glory Boys were crestfallen, but on Namier’s death, an undergraduate wrote to Lady Namier saying that ‘he was probably the only truly great man that I have known personally.’  It is not hard to see how Namier could have had precisely that effect.  He was like a great artist who has taken the trouble to learn how to draw.  After Namier had done the hard work of amassing and sifting the evidence, he could allow himself a go with the broad brush.

‘Characteristic of English social groups is the degree of freedom which they leave to the individual and the basic equality of their members, the voluntary submission to the rules of ‘the game’ and the curious mixture of elasticity and rigidity in these rules; most of all, the moral standards which these groups enforce or to which they aspire.  Characteristic of the German social group is the utter, conscious subordination of the individual, the iron discipline which they enforce, the high degree of organisation and efficiency which they attain, and their resultant inhumanity.  The State is an aim in itself….The English national pattern raises individuals above their average moral level, the German suppresses their human sides.’  (Conflicts, 1941)

‘And it was again on the masses that Hitler drew: what was worst in the Germans, their hatreds and resentments, their envy and cruelty, their brutality and adoration of force, he focused and radiated back on them.  A master in the realm of psyche but debarred from that of the spirit, he was the Prophet of the Possessed; and interchange there was between him and them, unknown between any other political leader and his followers.  This is the outstanding fact about Hitler and the Third Reich.’ (Personalities and Powers, 1955.)

‘But revolutions are not made; they occur…..The year 1848 proved in Germany that union could not be achieved through discussion and by agreement; that it could be achieved only by force; that there were not sufficient revolutionary forces in Germany to impose from below; and that, therefore, if it was to be, it had to be imposed by the Prussian army.’  (Vanished Supremacies, 1957)

‘The proper attitude for right-minded Members was one of considered support to the Government in the due performance of its task…But if it was proper for the well-affected Member to co-operate with the Government, so long as his conscience permitted, attendance on the business of the nation was work worthy of its hire, and the unavoidable expenditure in securing a seat deserved sympathetic consideration.’  (Structure, etc., 2nd Ed, 1957.  ‘Bribery, to be really effective, has to be widespread and open…’)

‘Trade was not despised in eighteenth-century England – it was acknowledged to be the great concern of the nation; and money was honoured, the mystic common denominator of all values, the universal repository of as yet undetermined possibilities….A man’s status in English society has always depended primarily on his own consciousness; for the English are not a methodical or logical nation – they perceive and accept facts without anxiously inquiring into their reasons or meaning.’  (England in the Age, etc., 2nd Ed, 1961; ‘….Fox would probably have found it easier to account for his fears than for the money…’).

On Charles Townshend: ‘He did not change or mellow; nor did he learn by experience; there was something ageless about him; never young, he remained immature to the end…Conscious superiority over other men freely flaunted, a capacity for seeing things from every angle displayed with vanity, and the absence of any deeper feelings of attachment left Townshend, as Chase Price put it, “entirely unhinged.”’  (Crossroads of Power, 1962).

The English aristocracy survived, almost alone in Europe.  They had been able to reach an accommodation with the Commons in shaping the English constitution, and they reached an accommodation with business and money in shaping British trade.  This triumph of the English aristocracy is unique in all Europe, and the failure of English historians to notice it, let alone celebrate it, is a sad reflection upon the provincialism and specialization of too much of English historical writing.  Namier saw it plainly, but he was from out of town.  Maitland frequently stressed the need for a comparative outlook, and was deeply interested in German history.  French historians such as Marc Bloch and Georges Lefebvre laced their analyses of the history of France and Europe with comparisons with what was happening across the Channel, and their work was so much more illuminating as a result.  But English historians do not often return that serve.  How often do you read in English history how the French law of derogation precluded the French lords from engaging in trade?  For example, under the heading La Noblesse et L’Argent, (The Nobility and Money), Georges Lefebvre remarked that the French lords envied the English lords who became rich on mixing with the bourgeoisie and who, thanks to their Parliament, formed the ministry and government of the nation.

The English lack of interest in Europe has borne fruit, and is currently celebrating a kind of mordant vindication, but the mind-set may also be at risk of being described as insular – definitively insular – with all the darkening and proud exclusion that that state of mind entails.

They are the kind of sparks you come across when reading Namier.  I can imagine he was difficult, a stranger to his new people, and possibly disloyal to his old people, and he was denied the acceptance that he craved and that he had so plainly earned.  My copy of The Structure, etc., has a letter signed by Namier on faded blue paper Shepherds Bush 2445, 60 The Grampians W 6, 14 December 1950.  The tone is antiseptic, but the signature is defiantly formal and straight.

When I read Namier, it is like being overtaken by a Bentley or listening to Joan Sutherland – you just know that there is plenty left in the tank.  Just as I think that Maitland’s intellect was far stronger than that of Pollock’, so I think that Namier was stronger than Berlin – it is just that the other two were better at the game.

Sir Geoffrey Elton was another import with a name-change who changed the way people saw his part of the history of England.  Elton said this about the reaction to Namier: ‘….the violence provoked by Namier owed much to the astonishment felt in conventional circles at the uncalled-for appearance of a historian with tory predilections who clearly outranked the liberals intellectually.’  We all recognize that syndrome immediately – the refuge of the tepid, the mediocre, the smug, and the fellow-travellers.  I have been a fan of Namier since 1963, and I will stay loyal to him.  I am not aware of anyone writing history now who comes even close.  He had a most formidable and penetrating intellect.  And how many historians now would have the courage to refer to ‘plain human kindness’?

Passing bull 181 – The vice of silence, when silence is a lie


The Spanish Civil War was full of horror.  It was also full of bullshit.  Priests exhorted the faithful not to consort with Jews or Freemasons.  The fascists – Falangists – were on a Crusade.  They had a kind of evangelical medievalism and they sought a return to ‘chivalrous Christianity’ – unless of course the Crusaders were butchering Jews or Muslims.  In his wonderful history of the conflict, Hugh Thomas sees conservatism, fascism and ‘reactionary nostalgia’.  What a great phrase for our time!  We are everywhere surrounded by a reactionary nostalgia that is rooted not in history but in dreams – or nightmares.  The Falangists had their own inane version of ‘Make Spain Great Again.’

What we need is someone to take a stand against nonsense.

One person did so, heroically, in Spain.  The writer and philosopher Miguel de Unamuno was the rector of the University of Salamanca.  That city was the base for Franco.  Miguel had originally favoured the nationalist (fascist) cause, but he became ‘terrified by the character that this civil war was taking, due to a collective mental illness, an epidemic of madness, with a pathological substratum.’  He thought that Franco’s Catholicism was not Christian.  At a fascist meeting at the University under a portrait of Franco, a bishop and others gave hot tempered speeches in the presence of a mutilated war hero (General Astray).  Vows were given to exterminate Basques (of whom Unamuno was one) and Catalans.  The cry went up: ‘Viva la Muerte!  Long live death.’  Something in the philosopher snapped.

All of you are hanging on my words.  You all know me and are aware that I am unable to remain silent.  At times to be silent is to lie.  For silence can be interpreted as acquiescence.  I want to comment on the speech [of a professor] – to give it that name.  Let us waive the personal affront implied in the sudden burst of vituperation against the Basques and Catalans.  I was myself born in Bilbao.  The bishop here is, whether he likes it or not, a Catalan from Barcelona.

There was a silence pregnant with fear.  No one spoke like this in fascist Spain.

Just now, I heard a necrophilistic and senseless cry ‘Long Live Death.’  And I, who have spent my life shaping paradoxes which have aroused the uncomprehending anger of others, I must tell you as an expert authority, that this outlandish paradox is repellent.  General Astray is a cripple.  Let it be said without any slighting undertone.  He is a war invalid.  So was Cervantes.  Sadly, there are all too many cripples in Spain now.  And soon there will be even more of them if God does not come to our aid.  It pains me to think that General Astray should dictate the pattern of mass psychology.  A cripple who lacks the spiritual greatness of a Cervantes is wont to seek ominous relief in causing mutilation around him.

General Astray shouted ‘Death to Intellectuals.’  Terror and pandemonium filled the air.  ‘Long Live Death.’  The philosopher went on.

This is the temple of the intellect.  And I am its high priest.  It is you who profane its sacred precincts.  You will win because you have more than enough brute force.  But you will not convince.  For to convince, you need to persuade.  And in order to persuade you would need what you lack: reason and right in the struggle.  I consider it futile to exhort you to think of Spain.  I have done.

I will not insult the memory of this very great man by adding any comment of my own.  The fascists did not murder Unamuno, but he died shortly after this of a broken heart while under house arrest.  The fascists then named a concentration camp after him.

There was of course great evil on both sides.  The republicans put on a show trial of the one-time leader of the Falangists, José Antonio.  I expect that the charge was treason, since it was the fascists who had rebelled against the lawful government.  (That did not stop the fascists killing out of hand those who resisted the resistance.)  Antonio conducted his own defence with great dignity and courage, but the preordained sentence of death was given and then unlawfully carried because of a well justified fear that the government would commute the sentence.  But Antonio, ‘with the chivalry that his enemies never denied him’, had successfully argued that his brother and his brother’s wife should not be shot too.  In the course of that plea, he made an observation that was simply beyond the horizon of people like Stalin and Franco.  ‘Life is not a firework that you let off at the end of a garden party.’

In his Oxford Dictionary of Philosophy, Professor Simon Blackburn says that Unamuno ‘developed an existentialist Christian theology, premised on a tragic view of life and mortality.’  He was an intensely spiritual man.  He said: ‘Those who believe they believe in God, but without passion in the heart, without uncertainty, without doubt, and even at times without despair, believe only in the idea of God, and not in God himself.’  This Spanish man of God therefore had more than one thing in common with a German man of God, Dietrich Bonhoeffer.


Weak borders, divisive identity politics, the attack on core freedoms and undemocratic rule by PC elites are hallmarks of government by green-left MPs.  Elect them at your peril.

The Australian, 10 December, 2018

What might it be like to live in a blinkered but labelled world beyond rational thought where some sad souls have nightmares at the mere thought of the other side having a look in?

I need not name the authoress, whose soul suffers dire torment that the IPA has not been able to staunch.

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 13


[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.]



Aeschylus (410 BC)

Limited Editions Club, 1965; stone and blue cloth with gold embossing and labels, in slip-case of same colour; illustrated by John Farleigh; copy number 353 of limited edition by Joh. Enschede en Zonen of Haarlem, Holland; with Prometheus Unbound of Shelley.

Victory and power proceeded from intelligence.

They do not get more elemental than this.  Big epics tend to start with feuds in heaven – The Iliad, Paradise Lost, Mahabharata, and Wagner’s Ring Cycle.  There was a power struggle between the Greek gods that would have warmed the heart of a local apparatchik.  Prometheus – ‘forethought’ – stole fire from heaven to ease the lot of mankind.  Zeus, who makes the O T God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus.  We do not have the balance of the trilogy, and what we have is not a ripping night out at the theatre.

Zeus is a real bastard.  As the hero says, ‘I know that Zeus measures what is just by his interest.’  That is not a bad definition of a dictator, and Prometheus also says: ‘This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.’  There are other mordantly modern touches.  When Prometheus exclaims ‘Alas!’ Hermes says ‘That is a word Zeus does not understand.’  ‘Now, first, when the gods entered upon their anger/ when they split into parties, and strife rose among them’, Zeus gets it into his head to make the whole human race extinct, and to form another race instead.’  When Prometheus applies the power of his mind to ease mankind, he has to face the wrath of a very personal God.

People in the west are now brought up with a very Platonic idea of God as eternal and changeless, and one thing that immediately strikes us as curious is that Zeus, the God of Aeschylus, is capable of changing.  It looks like these Greeks held that things must either grow or decay.  Well, for all the strife in heaven – that is scandalously on show in Milton – this tale is indeed elemental.  Rex Warner, the translator, referred to a Harvard scholar, J H Finley, who compares Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov, and King Lear as works having the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  That is a powerful remark.

Aeschylus is better known now for the trilogy of Orestes, sometimes called Orestheia.  When Paris takes off for Troy with Helen, the Greeks go after them.  ‘She took to Ilium her dowry death…alas, for the bed sighed for their love together.’  Cassandra, who was not created for a cheery night out, says:

But I; when you marshalled this armament

For Helen’s sake, I will not hide it,

In ugly style you were written in my heart

For steering aslant the mind’s course

To bring home by blood

Sacrifice and dead men that wild spirit.

But the wind will not rise for the fleet, and to appease the gods, King Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter.  The gods relent and the Greeks go to war for a slight to pride caused by a randy tart.

The god of war, money changer of dead bodies,

Held the balance of the spear in the fighting,

And from the corpse-fires at Ilium

Sent to their dearest the dust

Heavy and bitter with tears shed

Packing smooth the urns with

Ashes that once were men


And all for some strange woman

The young men in their beauty keep

Graves deep in the alien soil

They hated and they conquered.

The Greeks win a kind of revenge, but at hideous cost.  What of Clytemnestra, the wife of Agamemnon and mother of the sacrificed daughter, must she avenge her daughter and kill her husband?  Yes.  That is the first play.  What of Orestes?  Must he avenge his father and kill his mother?  Yes.  That is the second play.  Will the cycle ever be broken by a law?  Yes.  That is the third play.

The late Tony Tanner wrote wonderful introductions to all of Shakespeare’s plays.  When he came to introduce the great tragedies, he made this most remarkable contribution to scholarly criticism.

‘Western tragedy opens with a troubled and apprehensive watchman or guard on the roof of the palace of King Agamemnon, watching and waiting for news and signals concerning the outcome of the Greek war against Troy.  He conveys a sense of unease and disquiet.  Something, which he dare not, or will not, articulate is wrong within the palace or ‘house’ for which he is the watchman.  It is night-time and the atmosphere is ominous, full of dubiety and an incipient sense of festering secrets.  The long drama of the Oresteia has begun.  Some two thousand years later, Hamlet, the first indisputably great European tragedy since the time of the Greeks, will open in very much the same way – on ‘A guard platform of the castle’ (of Elsinore), at midnight, with a nervous jittery guardsman – Barnado – asking apprehensive questions in the darkness, and revealing that, for unspecified reasons, he is ‘sick at heart.’  The similarity betokens no indebtedness of Shakespeare to Aeschylus (whose work he could not have known), but rather a profound similarity of apprehension as to what might constitute a source for tragic drama.  Shakespeare does not start where Aeschylus left off: he starts where Aeschylus started.  And the subject, which is to say the problem, which is to say the potentially – and actually – catastrophic issue which they both set out to explore in their plays – the drama they dramatized – centres on revenge.’

How was mankind to move from the vendetta to the rule of law where the state is said to have a monopoly of violence?  People who do not see why Hamlet pauses forget that his father’s ghost wants Hamlet to take European civilization back two thousand years.  Orestes did pause to ask if it was right for him to kill his mother.  His mate gives a brief rallying call to a Dorothy Dixer, and Orestes says: ‘I judge that you win.  Your advice is good.’  As lines go, it is about as valid as Mama, quel vino es generoso, except there it was the son who was about to make the final exit.

Tanner remarks that although the Greeks had a lot to say about guilt, they had no word for conscience.  This is how Tony Tanner sees the difference between the two plays. ‘We could say that, what for Orestes is a very short ‘pause’ and a very brief ‘scan’, becomes in Hamlet almost the whole of the play.  Because, between Aeschylus and Shakespeare, something has taken place which has permanently changed the western mind – namely, Christianity, and more particularly for the Elizabethans, the Reformation.’

These are searing insights.  Those who cling to the preposterous Oxbridge dream that ancient Greece and Rome were civilized presumably take the view that the Sermon on the Mount meant nothing.  But there is no doubting that the tragedies of Aeschylus record in dramatic form and poetry myths that still run very deeply in our consciousness.  They are discernible stepping stones on our ascent from the primeval slime.

Passing bull 180 – Being dogmatic in politics


As a party grounded in democratic principles, we believe in equality of opportunity.  Conversely, quotas, which are designed to engineer equality of outcome, are a fundamentally socialist concept, and an anathema to Liberal values.

The Australian, 2 January, 2018.  Senator Linda Reynolds

Is the other party not grounded in democratic principles?  What does ‘socialist’ there mean?  Is it any law designed to engineer an outcome?  Is Medicare socialist?  Are Liberals so attached to their dogma that deviance is anathema?  How long would a coalition government last if it refused to allow quotas in primary industry?

The Senator is good evidence of the swing of puritan dogmatism from one side of politics to the other.  Fifty years ago people on the Labor side were wont to say ‘It does not matter if we keep losing as long as we stay pure.’  Now we get this from the Liberals.  And ‘anathema’ comes from religion – of a very intolerant kind.

And if the Liberal policy of selecting people on merit gave them people like Tony Abbott, God save us all.


That’s right, so averse was Bradley to a listed company being expected to act ‘‘in a socially responsible manner’’ (on the basis that such a requirement ‘‘is fraught with subjectivity [so] should be removed’’), he penned a 13-page submission to the Australian Securities Exchange’s Corporate Governance Council. In July. As in less than five months ago.

‘‘I have the same concern about the use of the phrase ‘social licence to operate’,’’ he establishes on page 9, faulting ‘‘the slipperiness of this concept’’.

‘‘It is at best a metaphor for a company’s brand or reputation in the community. It would, therefore, be better to frame this commentary in terms of ‘the importance of culture to the preservation and enhancement of a company’s brand and reputation which are important sources of value and competitive advantage’. This would avoid the open ended, vague and controversial notion that companies have a ‘social licence’ as distinct from legal licences to operate.’’

Australian Financial Review, 11 December, 2018

The terms culture, brand and value are, it is apparently said, not open ended or vague.

Here and there – Frontier Justice


Like a lot of people busy in the birth of the United States, John Marshall came from Virginia – Fauquier County between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers.  (It’s hard to get more American than that.)  Mary Marshall was eighteen when John was born.  She would later have fourteen more children.  John’s dad was a surveyor, as was another local called George Washington.

John Marshall fought the English beside his father.  It was in truth a brutal form of civil war.  ‘Liberty or Death’ was inscribed on their jacket, and they were armed with a tomahawk and scalping knife.  When it came to this kind of fight, the white people were content to ape people they described as savages.

John would later qualify as a lawyer.  He too would have a large family whom he provided for by giving them land and slaves.  He was intensely political, but he is remembered for serving as Chief Justice of the Supreme Court for thirty five years, a record that still stands.  Even Australian lawyers know of Marshall, C J, as the judge who affirmed that the Supreme Court could tell politicians where to get off by striking down laws of Congress that the Court found to be against the Constitution.

This story is crisply told by Richard Brookhiser in John Marshall, The Man who made the Supreme Court.  The author is a writer, not a historian or lawyer.  Given contemporary scholarship in either field, that is a huge plus.  Just tell the story and let us chase up the evidence or the law if we want to.  I am sick of acting as unpaid editor for bookish workaholics who feel the need to lay out the results of years of trawling that just obscure all that we need to know about the subject.  This book comes in at under 300 well-spaced pages, and the subject turns twenty before the book does (an achievement of Roy Jenkins on Churchill).  And the fact that the author is not a lawyer might serve to revive that wonderful old fairy tale that we should all be able to understand the law.  (That reminds me of a remark by an English judge that justice was open to all – just like the Ritz Hotel.)

The book justifies its subtitle.  Marshall brought to this new constitutional organ dignity as well as power.  He understood and acted upon the wisdom of our English ancestors that people don’t like or trust division in government.  A split in the highest court in the land is as welcome, or suspect, as a split in cabinet, or even in a political party.  Our ancestors forbade the publishing of any dissent within the Privy Council sitting in either its executive or its judicial capacity.  We preserve that doctrine for cabinet.  ‘As much as possible, Marshall made them [the justices] not six or seven men but one body.’

Marshall did so by juristic leadership, intellectual humility, and personal charm – in which Madeira played its part.  Not for him, or the people, the prima donna, or prima ballerina, or prima donna assoluta.  God only knows what the founding justices would have thought of the massive footnoted encyclopaedias scatter-gunned over the land by hugely over-resourced untouchables sealed away from the masses in a barren federal fastness.

For better or worse, the highest courts in common law countries now spend a lot time legislating.  The need for one voice then becomes imperative.  Our parliaments inflict misery and indignity on us, but not to the extent that they offer alternative, and not consistent, versions of a new law.  Yet our judicial law-makers do just that to us all the time.

There is another problem, one that is at least as bad.  You do not have to subscribe to the radical fringe of one political party to complain that we have too much law – and too much that is incomprehensible as well as suffocating.  Our judicial law-makers need to understand one simple truth.  Your decision may add to the law or it may not.  If not, you don’t need to say anything, except perhaps to apologise to the parties for putting them to an expense that has no point.  But if you are adding to the law, the odds are long that you will make it worse – either ipso facto just by adding to the volume, or because that’s just the way it is unless you are one of the All Time All Stars – and they come along about once each century.  On this point, the lawyers need to get their act together in parliament, the executive, and the judiciary.  You only have to look across the Pacific to see the awful fate that waits us if we don’t.

That I think is the point of the book, and it is a big one.  But the book gets there with lots of anecdotes that are the main reason we turn to biography.  (Why do we turn our noses up at ‘anecdotal evidence’?  Does not all evidence rest on a report of what has been perceived, just as all history resolves into parts of biographies?)

After Marshall had been on the court some time, he was joined by Joseph Story.  I have on many occasions consulted Story on equity.  He is up there juristically with Holmes, Ames and Pound – and on Kanchenjunga, the atmosphere is lofty.  Story and Marshall were very close.  Story helped Marshall bind the court.  Marshall could not have had a better man riding shotgun.  They also did comic routines.  The judges dined in a boarding house.  It was their custom to take wine only if it was raining.  Marshall would ask ‘Brother Story’ to look out the window and check the weather.  If he reported that it was sunny, Marshall would reply that ‘our territory is so large it must be raining somewhere’.  Grown men in high places who can act with that sense are doing something right.

Americans were then and are now much more attracted to oratory.  It was an art form and you got in for free.  Society came to hear the big guns.  When Dolly Madison arrived at the court with a party of ladies, counsel stopped and recapped the argument for their benefit.  Daniel Webster was a very big hitter.  In terms that only he could have found, Carlyle compared his eyes to ‘anthracite furnaces needing only to be blown…I have not traced so much of silent berserker rage in any other man.’  (I felt a bit like that with Tom Hughes in a case more than thirty years ago – and I was on his side!).  In one massive case about Dartmouth College, Webster at the conclusion of his argument, looked directly at the Chief Justice and said: ‘Sir, you may destroy this little institution; it is weak; it is in your hands….It is, sir, a small college.  And yet there are those who love it.’  In our terms, that is not something you try on at home, but two people who were there said that the room was deadly silent or in tears.

Another hotshot was Pinkney who was ‘acerbic, arrogant, and vain. He bullied opposing counsel, laced himself into corsets, and used cosmetics on his face.’  If you out to one side the underwear and make-up, we all know these people.  They commonly have a chip on their shoulder, often about their status before they rose up in the world.  Pinkney’s dad was a Tory who lost all in the Revolution.  The son started by sweeping out law offices.  When he was on the rise, he went to London to settle war claims.  He met Pitt and Fox and other greats.  He felt humiliated when these ‘Oxbridge-educated aristos’ were discussing Euripides.  He could add nothing.  ‘I resolved to study the classics’ – in other words, he would not be shamed again.

Marshall was able to champion the Constitution as the supreme voice of the people.  The high romance of its history helped him, even if much of it was invented.  (It’s harder for us.  Our founding document is in the schedule to an act of the British Parliament and Queen Victoria.)  In one case, he held that the power to tax was the power to destroy, and since the power of Congress to charter a bank was supreme, no state could claim a power that might destroy it.  States’ rights were and are much more lively there than here.  The author refers to one loaded states’ rights judge as a man of ‘strong passions and morose manners …who could not endure a superior.’  Well, we too know all about those judges, but Robert E Lee would lead his fellow Americans to pay a hideous price for his putting his state before the union.  (It is not surprising that some in the north later wanted to hang Lee and Davis.)

Marshall hated Jefferson with heat all his life and Jefferson responded in kind all his life.  (For some reason, I am not surprised that Jefferson got up some people’s noses.  The Declaration of Independence is for me full of that self-serving humbug that so troubled de Tocqueville about the American character.  The Convention did Jefferson and us a big favour by striking out the most purple passages.)  Marshall called Jefferson ‘the great Lama of the mountains.’  He had told Hamilton that Jefferson was a demagogue.

His great power is chiefly acquired by professions of democracy.  Every check on the wild impulse of the moment is therefore a check on his own power, and he is unfriendly to the source from which it flows.  He looks, of course, with an ill will at an independent judiciary.

God only knows what wan thoughts those words might arouse in a Chief Justice who every day might be called to check ‘the wild impulse of the moment’ of a president who makes Jefferson look like a Trappist monk on industrial strength sedatives.

Nor was Jefferson found wanting.  ‘Marshall makes history descend from its dignity, and the ermine from its sanctity’.  Jefferson spoke of the ‘slipperiness of the eels of the law’ and decisions ‘hanging inference on inference, from heaven to earth, like Jacob’s ladder.’  And we lawyers need to remember which side in this fight will get the popular vote – even putting to one side what is softly called ‘the base.’

Some of the stories look apocryphal, but they throw light nevertheless.  James Kent was a very learned judge in New York.  He had idolized Hamilton.  Aaron Burr was another figure larger than life.  He had killed Hamilton in a duel and would go on to dabble in treason.  When Kent saw Burr in the street, his Honour permitted himself the loud observation that Burr was a scoundrel.  Burr, the author tells us, ‘answered suavely’ that his Honour’s opinions were ‘always entitled to the highest consideration.’

And so it went on.  Jefferson died on the fiftieth anniversary of his Declaration.  Marshall kept going, although some prima donnas made a splash in the pool.

Every February, the same justices came to Washington, roomed at the same hotel, drank the same wine rain or shine, and followed Marshall’s lead regardless of their own party affiliation.

It was a colossal achievement.  Marshall would be followed by Taney.  The Dred Scott decision would sanctify the Original Sin of the Republic.  Marshall had wrestled with the ugly notion that ‘conquest gives a title which the courts of the conqueror cannot deny’.  It would take the genius, and the murder, of Abraham Lincoln and the blood of 600,000 Americans to begin to erase the infamy of slavery.  Lincoln referred to Dred Scott in his first inaugural.  Taney sat behind him looking like a ‘galvanized corpse.’

When Marshall died, he had been on the court for nearly two generations.  From 1812 to 1823, the personnel on the court had not changed.  The only comparable period would come in 1994 to 2005.

Eight years after the death of Marshall, his friend Justice Story said that such men ‘are found only when our need is the greatest.’  History suggests that his Honour then uttered a great truth.  But the author is surely right to refer to another tribute.  Marshall had been a life-long member of the Richmond Quoits Club.  (I gather that they threw horse shoes.)  This was a very sensible and convivial body for a very sensible and convivial man to belong to.  There was a flat ban on any talk about religion or politics, but the members did not mind a drink.  When Marshall died the members resolved that he was irreplaceable and that the club should always have one less member.  I don’t know whether this gesture founded the tradition of retiring the number of a great player – like Babe Ruth – but it was a charming gesture on behalf of America to a very great American.

Passing bull 179– Timid denial


Have you noticed that those people who used to deny climate change now merely say we are over reacting?  The same people now do the same with Donald Trump.  They don’t say that he is evil – they just say that we are over reacting by disliking him so intensely.  On each count they deride experts and elites.  Now, these people are not experts but they certainly see themselves as elite.  Their championing of the common man or common sense is hilarious.

David Flint, the celebrated monarchist, broke the world land speed record for this kind of bullshit in a piece about Trump’s withdrawal from Syria in The Australian on New Year’s Eve.  It began.

Whatever Donald Trump does, we can be sure of two consequences.  Even if they once argued for what he is trying to do, such as diminishing excessive overseas military involvements – ‘imperial overreach’ – this will be vigorously and even hysterically opposed by the Democrats, the U S mainstream media and elites everywhere.  This is because their detestation of Trump is so irrational that they predictably react against anything he does as if they were programmed automatons.

Mr Flint then proceeded to ignore all the reasons why the Secretary of Defence resigned in protest, and leading Republicans denounced the decision – and why they have persuaded Trump to ‘walk back’ the decision, as they say.  Mr Flint rejects the experts.  He relies on Churchill who said that military strategy and tactics are a matter of common sense.  He then concluded:

The fact is that, in this policy, as in so many others, Trump demonstrates a wisdom his enemies refuse to contemplate.

You may have thought facts and opinions are different, but not in the new order.  It takes your breath away.  It is the best evidence that in the space of about one generation, the cranks and ideologues have moved from one side of politics to the other.  What is revolting is that these people style themselves conservatives.  They, like Trump, are pimps for the gutter.

George Orwell thought that he might be a ‘Tory Anarchist’.  What a noble calling!  He said that ‘what I saw in Spain and what I have seen of in the inner workings of left-wing politics has given me a horror of politics.’  He also said: ‘What sickens me about left-wing people, especially the intellectuals, is their utter ignorance of the way things actually happen.’  They are my views exactly – except the cranks have changed sides.  When a man who claims to be conservative blesses Trump for his wisdom, we have become like ostriches, looking at the world a posteriori.

And just watch their hostility to the expert evaporate when they are charged with murder or diagnosed with terminal cancer.


The fact that Trump did this [pull out of Syria] against the wishes of his national security establishment can be seen either as legitimate presidential leadership or irresponsibility.  Take your pick.

The Australian, 21 December, 2018, Greg Sheridan

After that it gets worse.

Truth is optional.

The facing article is headed ‘Stunned advisers say job is not done.’