Passing bull 191 – The people and the crowd



When people come together to vote for parliament or to serve on a jury – rather similar exercises – we feel good about each other.  But if we see them come together as a lynch mob, we are revolted.  We are revolted because people following the herd instinct are behaving more like animals than human beings.  Most of us are very worried about the crowds behind the gillets jaunes in France.  People have there taken to the streets not just to protest against government but to try to bend the government to do its will.  That is a plain denial of parliamentary democracy.  That kind of government can only work if the overwhelming majority of people accept the decision of a majority.  But ever since 1789, the French have claimed the right to take to the streets to stop government taking a course they do not like.  The result is that France has not been able to push through unpopular reforms in the same way that Germany and England did.  And the result of this triumph of the people is that the people are a lot worse off.  That in turn leads to the gillets jaunes and to the President’s not being able to implement the reforms for which he was elected.  And so the cycle goes on – until one morning the French get up and see a scowling Madame LePen brandishing a stock whip on her new tricoleur dais.  She will have achieved the final vindication of the crowd – the acquisition of real power by real force.

The Bagehot column in The Economist this week is headed ‘The roar of the crowd.’  It begins: ‘The great achievement of parliamentary democracy is to take politics off the streets.’  Well, the English achieved that – but not the French.  The article goes on to refer to street protests being invoked to express ‘the will of the people.’  That bullshit phrase is or should be as alien to the English as it is to us.  It is dangerous nonsense advanced by people over the water like Rousseau – one of most poisonous men who ever lived – Robespierre, Stalin, Mussolini, Franco, and Hitler.

The article also refers to social media –the worst misnomer ever – as ‘virtual crowds online.’  It quotes an 1895 book The Crowd; A Study of the Popular Mind as saying of crowds that they show ‘impulsiveness, irritability, incapacity to reason, the absence of judgment of the critical spirit, the exaggeration of sentiments’ and says that the crowd debases the ordinary person – ‘isolated he may be a cultivated individual; in a crowd, he is a barbarian.’  That is because he has handed over the keys to his own humanity.  All this is just as spot-on for social media as it is to those whom Farage whipped up against Muslims, or those for whom Trump did the same, or those who marched last night in favour of Brexit and did so to a ghastly drum-beat that made them look so much like the English fascists from the 1930’s.

For our system to work, people have to show at least some restraint and toleration.  At least two forces are in my view at work in Australia working against us and in favour of the herd instinct of the crowd.  One is social media.  The other is the Murdoch press.  The first is obvious.  As to the second, a New Zealand observer said there were two reasons for the immoderate restraint and toleration of their government to a crisis of hate – the leadership and empathy of the leader of their government, and the absence of the Murdoch press.  In Australia, Sky News after dark regularly parades Pauline Hanson while Bolt and others defends her and while in The Australian columnists attack Muslims as jihadis in something like a frenzy.  And it was just a matter of time before they spitefully turned on the New Zealand Prime Minister and the ‘Muslimist Aljazeera’ – and of course those middle class pinkos at Fairfax and the ABC.

The people behind social media and the Murdoch press are wont to preach about freedom of speech.  The sad truth is that they go to the gutter for the same reason – for profit.

Two more points.  The current disaster in England started when they went and tested ‘the will of the people’ and got an equivocal answer – yes, leave, but on what terms? – with a majority too slim to permit a simple solution to a difficult problem to be found and implemented.  Now we have the awful and degrading spectacle of parliament behaving worse than the crowd.  And people who got where they are on a vote from the people are with a straight face saying that it would be wrong to ask the people again now that everyone knows what lies were told and who has been the worst behaved.  Indeed, their Prime Minister says a second vote would be a ‘betrayal of democracy.’  Some say an election would be better – when both major parties are hopelessly splintered and there is no reason at all to think that a reconfigured group of those responsible for the present mess might do better.

The real betrayal of democracy has taken place in America.  Trump appealed to the crowd to reject the ‘elites’ – people who know what they are doing.  Neither he nor almost everyone in his government has any idea about governing.  But his betrayal is more elemental.  A President is elected, as Lincoln said ‘of the people, by the people, for the people.’  Trump could not care less about the people.  He is only interested in that ghastly minority that is called his ‘base.’  And since he thinks his base wants him to abandon affordable health care, he will try to kill it.  And to hell with the people.

It’s not just that the policies of people like Farage, Hanson and Trump are revolting – it’s the people they get to work with them that are also revolting.

It looks like the hour of the crowd is with us again and it may never have looked worse.


But Trump bends history to his will.  May simply bends under the will of others.

The Weekend Australian, 30-31 March, 2019.  Mr G Sheridan

It is an interesting view of the strong man.  Amazingly, the editorial was even sillier.

Passing bull 190 – Activists


Some people in business have had the temerity to express views on moral issues – or, which is often pretty much the same thing, political issues.  They have attracted condemnation from luminaries like Peter Dutton and the Minister for Thongs.  Some have gone even further, and put their money where their morals are.  So some businesses have withdrawn advertising from Fox News in protest at its views about Islam or immigration.  And some threatened to retaliate against Mr Andrew Bolt for championing the cause of a convicted paedophile against the twelve jurors who had agonised over and delivered their verdict.  Mr Bolt summoned up all his considerable self-respect and with a curled lip mentioned the word activist. 

An activist is a person who actively seeks to change the moral or political views of others.  That’s precisely what Mr Bolt does.  But he has the excuse that he just does it for money.  If however you do it for its own sake, then you are liable to suffer his judgment.  And all this from a man who subscribes to the mantra of freedom of speech – even hate speech.

It is to this vacuity that we have come.  If it matters, I am a very happy shareholder of BHP, in part because I respect the fact that Mr Andrew Mackenzie, the CEO, is prepared to take a public position on issues seen by some to be sensitive.  Such as same sex marriage, or climate change.  Given their own signal failures on such issues, it is hardly surprising if people like Mr Mackenzie give our politicians the willies.  The attempt by some in government to lock others out of public life is just another sign of how far they have lost the plot and deserve a very long holiday.


Given the horror across the water, I will just mention to happy quotes – something of a modern miracle – good tweets.

Dear Eggboy.  I am a philosophy tutor in Turkey.  We really appreciate what you did.

Yesterday, Australia got the villain it created.  Today it got the hero it deserved.

The Age, 18 March 2019.

Here and there – Rupert and Jennifer on the road to Christchurch


Set out below are citations from columns of Jennifer Oriel published in The Australian in and after 2017, with some of my commentary.  They are all taken from Passing Bull Volumes 2 and 3 published on Amazon.

The remarks attributed to Jennifer Oriel in my opinion show the following attributes:

  • A high level of ideological indoctrination and dogma – to the point of apparent brainwashing.
  • Fatuous, adolescent phrasing that has a tribal or conspiratorial air about it.
  • A sustained sense of being threatened or persecuted – in tribal terms, these people feel existentially threatened, so that their core values are in peril.
  • The world is full of demons and bogeymen and Western patriots are being vilified.
  • There is an absence of restraint, or the tolerance that that word implies. It is what the American historian Richard Hofstadter called the ‘paranoid style’ – ‘heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy.’
  • There is a felt need to strike back, to find a scapegoat.
  • Pluralism is a sign of weakness – what is needed is a muscular response to the threats to civilisation as we know it.
  • It’s OK to play rough.
  • People need to be fed propaganda on Eurocentricity – that is presumably where the Ramsay Centre comes into play.
  • There is a concentration on a largely imaginary past and a wholly imaginary future.
  • There is a childlike faith in the capacity of right minded people – if you prefer, the Strong Man – to prevail over the forces of evil.
  • We must identify with Western civilisation because that is what made us and what defines as being different from those who do not share our heritage. Heritage is all.
  • That civilisation is inseparable from Christianity – the Jews apparently don’t get a look-in.
  • We can confidently assert that Islam is incompatible with Western civilisation.
  • The final judgment is therefore irrefutable – Islam is the enemy of Western civilisation.
  • Muslim migrants are therefore suspect and must be closely watched – if indeed we continue to admit them.
  • If there is a difference between a Muslim and a jihadi, it is not one that has been identified by the columnist.
  • We can therefore associate with the new right which has come back to take back our civilisation.
  • People like Wilders, Orban and Trump have been sadly misunderstood if not vilified. Each is in his own way a patriot.
  • Nationalism is a good.
  • We can therefore properly discriminate against Muslims on the ground of their faith and we can incite conflict against them.

Now, it is a matter for you to see which if any of those attitudes is revealed by the evident history and beliefs of the man charged with murder after the massacre at Christchurch – or of Fraser Anning.

Some clever person may have an ingenious or nuanced argument that the enshrinement of Western civilisation is not the same as advocating white supremacy – I have not seen one – but I find it impossible to avoid the conclusion from those remarks that Muslims are by their faith precluded from being good citizens of our Commonwealth.  If it matters, that looks to be very like the offence committed by a Trump acolyte on Fox News and for which even that outfit has taken action against her.

May I add one personal comment?  I am not a card carrying member of any church, but the life and teaching of Jesus of Nazareth runs very deeply inside me.  Words cannot express my revulsion that anyone putting out this kind of vile tripe could invoke in their aid the life or teaching of the man who preached the Sermon on the Mount.

Extracts from Passing Bull Volumes 2 and3

In the place of enlightenment, Hillary Clinton champions emotionalism, unreason and the barbarian fetish for supernatural rule over the sovereignty of liberal democratic people.  Donald Trump rises on a reactionary platform typified by an oppositional stance to anything establishment.  Neither champions reason.  Neither champions the form of freedom.  Neither promises the redemption that America so desperately needs.…

Rather, Trump’s America is a counter-revolution in waiting.  We know what has preceded it: the neo-Marxist march against Western civilisation whose gross dilation finds form in state-sanctified minority supremacy and the political correctness that sustains it.  But no one knows what might proceed from a Trump presidency except a counter-revolution against P C Left culture by the progressive dismantling of its government agencies, the media, the activist judiciary and universities…

Neither Trump nor Clinton augurs the restoration of American greatness.  But Trump is brash and arrogant enough to lead a counter-revolution on the premise of American exceptionalism.  The brutal lesson of Trump’s ascendancy is that to battle the philistines, sometimes you have to act like one.[Emphasis added.]


The term ‘political correctness’ or P C has in truth become abused and debased.  People of a reactionary cast of thought claim that their freedom of speech is imperilled by exponents of political correctness.  Commentators in The Australian pepper their pieces with this complaint tirelessly.  In the gibberish of Jennifer Oriel, it is a machine-gunned cliché that rat-tat-tats with the same ghastly monotony as ‘sovereignty’, ‘free speech’, ‘free thinkers’, ‘elitism’, ‘populism’, ‘activism’, ‘systemic political bias’ (from The Australian!),  ‘draining the swamp’,  ‘identity politics’, ‘sovereign borders’, ‘open border activists’, ‘pride in Western culture’, and ‘fundamental Western values’.  (Those last two are black-shirt Dutton sinister – so much for the East!)  Here is a simple example:

The P C left can smear us with false accusations of racism and we have no recourse to action under the RDA.

(As Lenin asked, who are ‘we’?)

Here is another sample:

The restive public is leaning towards political figures who oppose the P C establishment’s open border lunacy, its intemperate approach to channelling public funds into the activist class in the media, academe and non—government organisations, and its censorship of politically incorrect speech.

In that piece, the author used the word ‘sovereign’ or ‘sovereignty’ on nine occasions.  I wonder what that word meant on any of them.  This is transcendental bullshit.


Jennifer Oriel is a keen student of ideological terms.  In a piece in today’s Australian she says that the emergence of what she calls ‘the new Right’ means that we have to define conservatism.  ‘The task of definition is urgent. Unless a well-defined, muscular conservatism emerges, the best of Western civilisation will not survive the 21st century.’ Goodness, gracious me – well, we won’t be here for the grand exit or Armageddon.


Ms Oriel says the following.

The Conservative Mind sparked the post-war conservative intellectual movement in America. In it, Kirk provides a definition of conservatism that comprises four substantive doctrines. The first conservative doctrine, “an affirmation of the moral nature of society”, rests on the belief that virtue is the essence of true happiness. The matter of virtue is family piety and public honour. Their consequence is a life of dignity and order.

Kirk’s second doctrine of conservatism is the defence of property. He defines it as “property in the form of homes and pensions and corporate rights and private enterprises; strict surveillance of the leviathan business and the leviathan union”.

The third conservative doctrine is the preservation of liberty, traditional private rights and the division of power. The absence of this doctrine facilitates the rise of Rousseau’s “general will”, made manifest in the totalitarian state.

The final doctrine of Kirk’s conservatism is “national humility”. Here, Kirk defines the nation state as vital to the preservation of Western civilisation. Politicians are urged to humble themselves in the light of the Western tradition instead of indulging in cheap egoism by promoting policies that buy them votes, but weaken the West.

English philosopher Roger Scruton identifies the political, pre-political and civil components of Western civilisation that sustain the free world. They are rooted in the uniquely Western idea of citizenship, which is influenced by Christianity. The core components of Western citizenship are: the secular democratic state, secular and universal law, and a single culture cohered by territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty. Like Huntington, Scruton analyses the core foundations and animating principles of Western civilisation in contrast to Islamic civilisation.

Conservatism stands in contrast to both small “l” liberal and socialist ideas of culture, society and state. Its central tenets are: moral virtue as the path to happiness, supporting the natural family, promoting public order and honour, private enterprise, political liberty, the secular state and universal law. The central tenets of conservatism are sustained by a single culture of citizenship that enables the flourishing of Western civilisational values.

Conservatism remains the only mainstream political tendency whose core objective is the defence and flourishing of Western civilisation. In its federal platform, the Liberal Party defines its liberal philosophy as: “A set of democratic values based upon … the rights, freedoms and responsibilities of all people as individuals.” There is no discussion of Western civilisation or Western values. However, it shares with conservatives the principles of limited government, respect for private property, political liberty and the division of power. And conservative prime ministers from Menzies to Howard and Abbott have led the defence of Western civilisation in Australia against its greatest enemies: socialists, communists and Islamists.

It is on the questions of immigration, transnational trade and supranational governance that the primary distinction between conservatives and the new Right is drawn. For example, there is growing tension fuelled by the belief that mass immigration, especially of Muslims, constitutes a demographic revolution that threatens Western values. Mainstream conservatives, including Cory Bernardi, reject the idea of a ban on Muslim immigration. But it is clear that policy resonates with many…..[Emphasis added.]…….

That leaves opposition to socialism and Islamists or Islamic civilisation.  As to socialism, I’m not sure what that means, partly for the reason I have given above, and partly because the word is hardly used now in Australia.  Is there anyone left who claims to be a socialist?  As to the second enemy of the West, I object to what Ms Oriel says on three grounds – it is wrong to discriminate against people on the ground of faith; it is wrong to brand whole peoples or nations because of the actions of a few; and if Islamists are a threat to us, I don’t think it promotes our security to brand or discriminate against all Muslims.  As Macaulay said of the Elizabethan persecution of the Puritans in England:

Persecution produced its natural effects.  It found them a sect: it made them a faction. To their hatred of the Church was now added their hatred of the Crown.  The two sentiments were intermingled; and each embittered the other.

Whatever else ‘virtue’ might mean, it doesn’t mean looking down on people just because they have a different faith – especially when so many people have no faith at all.

So, I am afraid that it is bullshit as usual for Ms Oriel.


I have referred before to the gibberish of Jennifer Oriel.  This morning’s instalment shows the fineness of the line between inanity and insanity.  It includes the following.

We stand at a pivotal historical moment. In just over a week, we will learn whether the new-right movement resurrected by Brexit and Trump is going global. The looming Dutch election is a bellwether. It is the first European election of 2017 featuring a pro-Western nationalist party vying for the popular vote. Locally, the West Australian election next weekend will test whether Hanson’s One Nation will extend significant influence beyond Queensland.

If The Netherlands’ Party for Freedom (PVV) wins, its leader Geert Wilders will become the most strident pro-Western prime minister in Europe. The Trump effect will translate into a transatlantic phenomenon. Either way, the third reckoning of new-right rhetoric with political reality is nigh.


The leaders of the new-right movement differ on some policy matters, but share a set of values that are cohering into an international program for action. Their shared political aims are to: restore the primacy of Western civilisation by defending sovereign democracy and the nation-state system of allied free-world countries against the supranational left. New-right politicians give greater emphasis to the national interest than centrist-left and right parties by prioritising debt reduction via secure borders and rational immigration programs. Some claim that protectionism is co-essential to prosperity, but the claim is substantially weakened by the lack of systematic evidence. Far better is the shared goal to resurrect Western culture by battling the economically and socially corrosive PC culture that dominates the activist media, academia, NGO and public sectors. All new-right parties are gearing up to drain the swamp.

Wilders has been called the Dutch Donald Trump, but he preceded Trump’s ascendancy by several years. His European allies include Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who dubbed 2017 the year of rebellion. In 2015, Wilders said to Agence France-Presse: ‘The only way to deal with (the immigration crisis) is to regain our national sovereignty and close our national borders … I am asking that our government close its doors as Hungary did.’

The year 2016 ushered in a Western renaissance led by Britons and Americans. Brexit represented a triumph of self-determination over supranational governance as Britons renewed their faith in liberal democracy by voting to leave the EU. More than 60 million Americans chose Donald Trump as President to restore American primacy by fortifying the foundations of the free world laid down in the Declaration of Independence and the US constitution.

The supranational left is working overtime to prevent Trump’s ideas developing into a coherent international program for Western civilisational renewal championed by a right avant-garde. The right is gaining ground in the war for by reminding centrist parties Western values matter and turning the weapons used by neo-Marxists and Islamists to attack the free world order against them. ……

The foundational thesis of the 21st-century left is Orwellian doublethink. Codified inequality that promotes minority supremacy through affirmative action law is rebranded equality. The systemic censorship of conservative thought is called free speech. Consistent with its neo-Marxist creed, the modern left suppresses the silent Western majority; punishes politically incorrect thought; undermines the free world by weakening the nation-state system and vilifying Western patriots; purges conservatives from publicly funded institutions; and imposes punitive taxes on wealth creators and hard workers to fatten the parasite class.

The new right is a counter-revolution whose seeds were sown in the 1970s, the decade neo-Marxism took root within the West. As Roger Kimball wrote in The Long March, the new left’s method of gradualism meant ‘working against the established institutions while working in them’.

By almost destroying the liberal in liberal democracy, the left has prepared the ground for totalitarian politics. But it didn’t see the new right coming, whose members hail from both left and right united by the fight for the West. The new right has come to take our civilisation back.  [Emphasis added.]

Orwell would not have believed this.  Western civilisation championed by Trump, Wilders, Orban, Farage, and Hanson?  Would you let any of them into your home?  Here is the moral and intellectual emptiness of what shamefully passes for our conservative press – the Lone Ranger on steroids of dyslexic paranoia.


Some in The Australian ranted themselves to new depths.  …..

Australian painter, cartoonist and avantgarde freethinker Bill Leak died of a suspected heart attack. He was 61 years old.

In the two years before his death, jihadists and the political establishment inflicted horrific stress on him because he refused to surrender his creative genius and free mind to the colourless, artless overlords of political correctness.

In 2015, Leak was forced to flee into a safe house with his family after jihadists threatened to kill him. His thought crime was drawing a cartoon of Mohammed in the wake of militant Islamists slaughtering cartoonists at the Charlie Hebdo offices in Paris.

In 2016, Leak was accused under the PC censors’ favourite weapon, section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, for offending someone somewhere.

Members of a state-protected minority chose to take offence at a cartoon……..

The suggestion is, apparently, that Leak died from the stress inflicted on him.  He is, we will be told, a martyr.

Even by the standards of Rupert Murdoch, it is beneath contempt for him use the death of an employee to pursue a tawdry political objective that will make it easier for the surviving employees to offend and insult others because of their race.

What Oriel and the paper refuse to mention about the cartoon that said that aboriginal fathers were drunks who could not remember their children’s names is the following.  That cartoon was grossly offensive to a large number of white people and almost all aboriginal people.  Nevertheless, the legislation complained gave Leak a sound answer to any complaint at law.  (There is my view no answer in decency.)  At all times he had the backing of the Murdoch press and the best and most expensive lawyers in the land – as had his mate, Andrew Bolt.  He was never charged or even sued.

Are we, then, seriously to believe Leak’s whimpering about stress?  If we are, the answer during his life would have been simple.  If you don’t like the heat, don’t go near the bloody kitchen.  If you want to hand out coat-hangers, stand by for at least a comeback.  And this is in the context of a cartoon demonizing blackfellas in order to take the heat off complaints of crimes against humanity perpetrated by white people in the Northern Territory.  Leak put in what NRL thugs call a cheap shot.  ‘Don’t worry about what we whites do to black kids.  Look at what their piss-pot fathers do to them to land them in our care.’

This truly was disgraceful behaviour by an agent of the Australian press.

But the whole campaign of Murdoch and his shrill, whining minions has set a new low in Australian bullshit.  There is a daily unloading of bullshit about hate speech, the flat earth (climate change), and the ecclesiastical rejection of gay marriage by cloistered churchy men who just refuse to grow up.  They stand for the forces of funded reaction that hold back the Liberal Party and the whole nation.  They’re now terrified by the thought of a vote on gay marriage.  Who would ever trust a democrat? They should all be deeply ashamed of themselves.

And so should the Prime Minister be ashamed of himself for publicly attending their ghastly Gotterdammerung.  I did not vote for him so that he could hobnob with people who want him to cede to them the right to beat up on blackfellas and Muslims.


The fix is in. Queer activists will use fear of sharia to create a moral panic about freedom of religion. Suddenly laissez-faire liberals have developed a distaste for pluralism. They claim that codifying freedom of religion will result in sharia. They fail to comprehend fundamental freedoms in context.

In the context of Western culture, religious freedom is anathema to political Islam. The best guarantee against sharia is Eurocentricity: a cultural agenda that comprises secure borders, the legal protection of fundamental freedoms, and education on the Christian foundations of Western civilisation……

Much concern about sharia in respect of the religious freedom review is artificial. It’s a beat up to prevent dissenters from queer ideology enjoying reasonable protections from militant activists……

One would expect the Ruddock review not to recommend sharia as a model of religious freedom. In the Western context, religious freedom has a particular meaning rooted in Christian scripture that supports the secular state, free will and forgiveness.

Christian religious freedom empowers the secular state. It also embodies a limited state according to Christ’s instruction: ‘Render therefore to Caesar the things that are Caesar’s; and unto God the things that are God’s’ (Matthew 22:21). By contrast, much of the Islamic world is theocratic.

One of the more potent examples of the difference between religious freedom in the Christian and Islamic traditions is their comparative tolerance for it. While Christ exhorts people to come to God and issues numerous warnings to those who turn away from Him, free will is permitted and sin is forgiven. In the Koran, Muslims are taught that non-Muslims are evil and enemies. Muslims are instructed not to ‘seek the friendship of the infidels’. Jews and Christians are considered abominable.

People often assume that the 21st century jihad against America and Israel is a consequence of colonialism or interventionist foreign policy. But hatred of Christians and Jews is rooted in the Koran…..The Western conception of religious freedom incorporates pluralism. In its most basic form, pluralism is tolerance for diverse beliefs limited by the principle of no harm. A historical benefit of the Christian scriptural belief in limited state authority is that it removes the state’s incentive to monopolise religion. As such, it empowers the flourishing of diverse faiths. Consequently, violent monotheism is fundamentally incompatible with the modern West. Yet the Koran prescribes it……

Freedom of religion is not possible where that freedom is singular. Nor is the Western conception of religious freedom possible where individual liberty, including the freedom to exercise religious belief, is subjected to state control…..

The legalisation of same-sex marriage has created an unintended consequence of potentially widening the scope for state interference in personal faith matters. Australia has some of the weakest protections for religious freedom in the free world while international precedent demonstrates the use of lawfare against Christians is becoming something of a blood sport…..

Australia’s approach to religious freedom should reflect the best of the Western tradition. We believe in free will. We believe in the secular state. We believe in the inherent worth of each and every individual. We want a future where freedom of religion can animate the soul of the free world. Neither militant atheism nor hardline Islamism will light the way to liberty.

Well, there you are.  Queer or militant activists have put the fix in to use fear of Islam to suggest that some people may fear Christianity – and so stand in the way of religious freedom.  How this relates to the ‘21st century jihad against America and Israel’ is not explained.  Nor for that matter is religious freedom explained.  Israel Folau is legally free to express his religious opinion that gay people are doomed to burn in eternal flames.  What more freedom does he need?

The contention underlying this seamless rant appears to be that while we can tolerate ‘extreme’ or ‘hardline’ views in Christianity, whatever those terms may mean, we should not do so for Islam.  This apparently follows from the role of Christianity in western civilisation.  So much for pluralism.  And as to theocratic states that favour one religion over another, how does Israel shape up?  In fact, how do we shape up when our head of state has to be in communion with the Church of England?

And as for parts of scripture that are on the nose, the bible is shot through with endorsements of ethnic cleansing.  That God did after all choose one people over others.  It is sufficient to refer to Deuteronomy 20:16, Joshua 1:1-9, 6:17-25; and 8:24-30.  For that matter, Genesis 3 has not done much for women in western civilisation.  Or men.

Ms Oriel has at least two things in common with Donald Trump.  She is pursued by demons – in her case, political correctness and jihadis; in Trump’s case, the deep state and witch-hunters – and moderation is not her go.  She and Trump exemplify the extremism and fantasy of our time.

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 20


[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.]



Herman Melville (1924)

Two Tales by Herman Melville, Limited Editions Club, New York, 1965; bound in stone cloth in stone and sage slip-case, with paintings by Robert Shore.

The hull deliberately recovering from the periodic roll to leeward was just regaining on an even keel, when the last signal, a preconcerted dumb one, was given.  At the same moment it chanced that the vapory fleece, hanging low in the East, was shot thro’ with a soft glory as of the fleece of the Lamb of God seen in mystical vision, and simultaneously therewith, watched by the wedged mass of upturned faces, Billy ascended; and, ascending, took the full rose of the dawn.

This beautiful little book is a retelling of the redemption story – and, judging from that citation, an unblushing one.  If you put aside Measure for Measure, Billy Budd may be the foremost statement in our literature of the agony of the law.  Must an innocent man suffer – in this case, die – for the sake of the law?  If you say that the law must be able to run over individual men, women and children, you are stating the basic premise of those totalitarian regimes that we most despise.  But if you say that the interests of one person may require you to break, or even just put to one side, the law, then you are undermining the rule of law, and that is all that stands between us and those regimes.  The law has therefore an ancient saying – hard cases make bad law.

During the Napoleonic War, a handsome young sailor, Billy Budd, was impressed into service on a British warship.  Billy is as innocent as he is handsome, and he is fortunate that his new captain is Captain ‘Starry’ Vere.  Vere is a civilised product of the Enlightenment with a refined sense of justice.  But Billy comes under the notice of the Master-at-Arms, John Claggart.  Claggart is in effect the Chief of Police on the ship.  He is morally bereft.  He cannot stand being in the presence of beauty and goodness like that of Billy ‘Baby’ Budd.  He falsely accuses Billy of mutiny before Captain Vere.  Billy is horrified and incredulous.  When stressed, Billy’s voice falters.  When he is pressed for an answer, he strikes out at Claggart, and strikes him dead.

So, during a time of war, Captain Vere has witnessed a sailor strike and kill an officer.  He summons a drumhead court martial.  Billy is plainly guilty of the legal offence charged but the officers are reluctant to give a verdict that will see Billy hanged.  They agonise over Billy, but Captain Vere persuades them to do their legal duty.  Billy is hanged.  The threat of mutiny passes.  Captain Vere carries the responsibility for the death of Billy to his own death.

A morally innocent man has been killed to preserve the integrity of the law.  There is of course more to it than that.  If it may be said of Moby Dick that it badly needed an editor, that is not the case with Billy Budd.  Melville revised and revised the text for many years.  It was a great bundle of add-ons and scribbled marginal comments, and it was not published until after his death.  To most readers now, there is hardly a word out of place.  It covers about 70 pages in a Penguin, but it is spotted with digressions that contribute to its avuncular yet reflective story-telling character.

Melville begins his little novella by commenting on how sailors ashore would congregate around a ‘handsome sailor’.  It sounds like the phase some young schoolgirls go through in grouping around ‘queens’.  The ‘welkin-eyed’ Billy, or ‘Baby’ Budd, was one such sailor, cut out by his looks to be the favourite of his shipmates.  ‘He was young; and despite his all but fully developed frame, in aspect looked even younger than he really was, owing to a lingering adolescent expression in the as yet smooth face, all but feminine in purity and natural complexion, but where, thanks to seagoing, the lily was quite suppressed and the rose had some ado visibly to flush through the tan.’

You see, Billy did not know where he came from.  He knew that he was a foundling and ‘noble descent was as evident in him as in a blood horse’.  He had no self-consciousness, but a simple innocence that was reflected in his looks.  He had a singular musical voice ‘as if expressive of the harmony within’.  He was a kind of ‘upright barbarian, much such perhaps as Adam presumably might have been ‘ere the urbane Serpent wriggled himself into his company’.  He was doted on by the crew in the merchant ship from which the Royal Navy seized him – ironically, the Rights of Man – and her Captain bitterly lamented his loss.  Billy was his ‘peacemaker, like a Catholic priest striking peace in an Irish shindy’.

Captain Vere was a bookish, decent, conservative bachelor.  Other officers of his rank thought that there was a ‘queer streak of the pedantic’ running through Captain Vere.  He may not have been as addicted to the hemp – for the lash or for the noose – as others of his rank, but his learning and civility covered no weakness on discipline or the need to observe the rigour of the law.  He was no softy.

Claggart was about 35.  He was much more intelligent than others of his level and ‘his hand was too small and shapely to have been accustomed to hard toil’.  The gossip on the gun decks was that he was ‘a chevalier who had volunteered into the King’s Navy by way of compounding for some mysterious swindle whereof he had been arraigned at the King’s Bench’.

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

… if Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly.

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

… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

While they behold a greater than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

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

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

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

And then there is this:

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

One thing is clear from the available sources about the difference in the case of the Jewish hasid executed on account of his apparent goodness.  Captain Vere and his officers felt the full agony of the law, and they did their duty, in full measure.  Pontius Pilate did neither.  Rather than washing his hands, Pilate may just as well have thrown them up in the air – and there are some who say that he was joking as he left the place of judgment.

The stories of the sailor and the holy man have about them an aura of innocence being drowned and of the law being applied mechanically to hurt innocent people.  And, depending on your outlook on the world – of the law being applied to help the Establishment run over those too weak to look after themselves.

Pound for pound, or word for word, this book is as rewarding as any other on the shelf, and it works wonderfully in both the opera and the film.

Here and there – The Forsyte Saga


The Man of Property, volume 1 of The Forsyte Saga, begins as follows.

Those privileged to be present at a family festival of the Forsytes have seen that charming and instructive sight – an upper middle class family in its full plumage.  But whosoever of those favoured persons has possessed the gift of psychological analysis (a talent without monetary value and properly ignored by the Forsytes) has witnessed a spectacle, not only delightful in itself, but illustrative of an obscure human problem.  In plainer words, he has gleaned from a gathering of this family – no branch of which had a liking for the other, between no three members of whom existed anything worthy of the name of sympathy – evidence of that mysterious concrete tenacity which renders a family so formidable a unit of society, so clear a reproduction of society in miniature.

For a little while you might think that this book is just a brilliant satire about the English bourgeoisie.  Well it is, but it is a lot more – what you get is ‘so clear a reproduction of society in miniature.’

The author, John Galsworthy, who had been a barrister, made his name in theatre.  That shows here, too, but what he have is a most beautiful wordsmith who can pull off a rare double – he writes about his characters incisively but with compassion.  The result is both engrossing and moving.

And he puts the story together without apparent effort.  Some reading this will remember how in about 1966, the whole of Melbourne went quiet for fifty minutes at 7.30 pm on Sunday nights for, I think twenty six weeks, when the ABC aired the BBC series The Forsyte Saga.  Eric Porter burned into our heads his image as Soames Forsyte, the man of property, and Susan Hampshire launched what would be called a stellar career on TV as Fleur.  Possibly the only shows to come close were Brideshead Revisited and Downton Abbey. 

There is usually a sparkler on about every page.  Old Jolyon is the patriarch.

His dinner tasted flat.  His pint of champagne was dry and bitter stuff, not like the Veuve Cliquots of old days.

Over his cup of coffee, he bethought him that he would go to the opera.  In The Times, therefore – he had a distrust of other papers – he read the announcement for the evening.  It was Fidelio.

Mercifully not one of those new-fangled German pantomimes by that fellow Wagner.

That is word perfect.

There was trouble between Soames and Irene – a loveless marriage.  Irene was drop dead gorgeous.  Was that all?

She was not a flirt, not even a coquette – words dear to the heart of his generation, which loved to define things by a good, broad, inadequate word – but she was dangerous.  He could not say why.  Tell him of a quality innate in some women – a seductive power beyond their own control.  He would but answer ‘Humbug!’  She was dangerous, and there was an end of it.

Some of them went into law.  Others were condemned to ‘trade’ – and being knocked back by the better clubs for that reason.  But they were all into money.

Nothing for nothing, and really remarkably little for sixpence.

The first book concludes with what is called an Interlude but which is a form of epilogue to this volume.  Here great writers can chance their arm, and let a mood of reflection and a stream of consciousness flow like a Chopin nocturne on a warm summer evening.  The health of Old Jolyon is failing but his decline has softened him.  Irene, estranged from Soames after what we would now call an act of rape, has enriched his life – and he, hers.   She has written to him saying she will not be able to visit him any longer.  He writes to express his anguish.  She immediately sends a telegram saying she will be there by 4.30 pm.  He is overjoyed.  He gets up out of his sickbed, dresses and goes to wait for Irene in the garden.  This is how the book ends.

And settling back in his chair he closed his eyes.  Some thistledown came on what little air there was, and pitched on his moustache more white than itself.  He did not know but his breathing stirred it, caught there.  A ray of sunlight struck through and lodged on his boot.  A bumblebee alighted and strolled on the crown of his Panama hat.  And the delicious surge of slumber reached the brain beneath that hat, and the head swayed forward and rested on his breast.  Summer – summer!  So went the hum.

The stable clock struck the quarter past [four].  The dog Balthasar stretched and looked up at his master.  The thistledown no longer moved.  The dog placed his chin over the sunlit foot.  It did not stir.  The dog withdrew his chin quickly, rose, and leaped on Old Jolyon’s lap, looked in his face, whined; then, leaping down, sat on his haunches, gazing up.  And suddenly he uttered a long, long howl.

But the thistledown was still as death, and the face of his old master.

Summer – summer – summer!  The soundless footsteps on the grass.

That is the work of a master of the art.  It is like the poetry in prose with which Joyce closes The Dead.  It’s enough to make you wonder about God.

Here and there – The Cardinal’s Gambit


The controversy about the conviction of a priest for child abuse has revealed a lack of understanding of some aspects of our law.

The trial process

For us, a criminal trial is not an inquiry into truth by any means.  Unlike French or German courts, we do not engage in an inquiry after truth.  We inherited the adversarial system.  A trial involves putting some issue to the test.  In a civil action, the question is not what in truth happened, but whether the version of one side is more probable than that of the other.  The person complaining has the onus, and the standard of proof is the balance of probabilities.  In a criminal trial, the issue is not what in truth happened – we leave that to God – but whether the prosecution has proved beyond reasonable doubt that the accused committed the crimes alleged against him.  The great legal historian F W Maitland put it this way.

We are often reminded of the cricket match.  The judges sit in court, not in order that they may discover the truth, but in order that they may answer the question ‘How’s that?’….But even in a criminal case, even when the King is prosecuting, the English judge will, if he can, play the umpire rather than the inquisitor.

In our High Court, Justice Dawson said this about a criminal trial:

A trial does not involve the pursuit of truth by any means.  The adversary system is the means adopted, and the judge’s role in that system is to hold the balance between the contending parties without himself taking part in their disputations.  It is not an inquisitorial role in which he seeks to remedy the deficiencies in the case on either side.  When a party’s case is deficient, the ordinary consequence is that it does not succeed.


We will revisit the cricket umpire, because the analogy helps on a critical issue in this discussion.

The role of the jury

The jury is for our criminal law what our parliament is to our legislature and executive.  It is the way that we the people get to make the really big decisions that govern our lives and very freedom.  The jury is fundamental not only to our doctrine of the rule of law but to our democracy.  People who are not dewy-eyed say that the jury is a central pillar of our freedom, and the reason why we have not succumbed to revolution or dictatorship.  It follows that anyone seeking to undermine this part of our constitution should be closely watched.

Members of the jury are summoned and sworn to give a verdict on the evidence (veredictum or ‘truly said’).  This process goes back to Magna Carta in 1215.   Magna Carta provides that the Crown (the government) shall ‘not go after or send for’ any free man except by ‘the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land’.  Scholars may argue about whether we are talking of legal process, or brute force, but we all know what it feels like to have government – the Crown – come after us or send for us.  And if the Crown really goes for us and wants to put us in jail, we have this right to take our stand upon our country.  We will not go to jail on the mere say-so of some bureaucrat, or even a judgment of one of Her Majesty’s justices, unless twelve of our neighbours have found that we are guilty of having committed a crime.  In the gorgeous language of old, the Crier would tell the jury that by pleading Not Guilty the prisoner ‘has put himself upon God and the country, which country you are.’

So, if you are chosen to go on a jury in Victorian court, you stand for and represent the people of the State of Victoria just as surely as does its parliament.  That right must be as precious to you as it is to the accused, since one day you might be the accused.  If you are chosen for jury duty, then, lap it up, because in that office, you are as high and mighty as any minister, justice, or prelate in the land.

We need to bear all this firmly in mind when we come to the role of judges in dealing with the verdict of us the people sitting as a jury.

The right to silence

If you are charged with having committed a crime, you do not have to say anything to the police, and you are not obliged to give evidence in court.  If you don’t, you can’t be cross-examined, or make a public fool of yourself.  There is a lot of law on what might be said in court about the exercise of that right – generally very little.  Nor would an appeal court comment on the election of the accused not to give evidence.

What is the jury to make of an accused who chooses to say nothing in court?  You know as much about this as I do.  We are not allowed to quiz jurors about what they do.

Take a hypothetical.  You are on a criminal jury.  A youngish housewife claims that she was indecently assaulted by a surgeon, a big strong man in his forties.  She gives her evidence calmly and persuasively, although she is very distressed at having to go through this.  She is cross-examined and called a liar – for hours that turn into days.  You can’t believe it, and you are looking forward to see how the surgeon goes when it’s his turn.

But he doesn’t front!  He is asking you to reject her testimony, but he won’t let you get you get even near him.  What do you think of that?  How does this sit with your notions of fairness – or fair play, even?  Why should you not accept the sworn evidence of a witness who has been tested and not broken, and which no other witness has contradicted?  He’s a big strong man, better educated than most of us, used to high office and public responsibility – why couldn’t he go in against the little house-wife who makes this complaint against him?  Have the surgeon and his expensive lawyers been just too big for their boots?

What we can say is that if the surgeon had sought to pursue that course before a disciplinary tribunal in his profession, he would have had the door slammed in his face.  With extreme prejudice.

The appeal court

If the last point was tricky, the next is downright murky.

The law says that a court of criminal appeal rehears the case, but it does not rehear the case in a way that you would understand that term.  Crucially, it does not get to see and hear the witnesses as they give their evidence.  It operates on written transcripts.  It has access to video recordings of the evidence, but they are not the same as being in the courtroom when the evidence was given.  In a case that turns on the credit of witnesses – which this case is – that is a real handicap.

Any trial lawyer or judge knows that the whole mood of a case can turn around in a moment with one pause or gesture of a witness – that does not show up on transcript and which may only be partially caught on video replay.  The movie was not entirely silly when it referred to the ‘vibe’.  Trial judges get very annoyed when they get castigated by appellate judges – some of whom have never conducted a jury trial – who say that the trial judge got it wrong when those appeal judges were not there in court at the time to catch the vibe.

A convicted person can appeal if the judge gets the law wrong in directing the jury.  But the law also permits an appeal court to allow an appeal if it concludes that the verdict of a jury is unreasonable or cannot be supported on all the evidence – even though there was, as a matter of law, evidence upon which the accused could have been convicted.

The statute that confers jurisdiction on the Court of Appeal says that court must set aside a verdict if ‘the verdict of the jury is unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence’ or if ‘for any other reason there has been a substantial miscarriage of justice’ or if ‘as the result of an error or an irregularity in, or in relation to, the trial there has been a substantial miscarriage of justice’.

There are reams of law about the powers of the appellate court in dealing with a submission that a verdict is unreasonable or cannot be supported by the evidence.  It is all made by judges and it is about as easy for you – or, for that matter me – to follow as Kant’s refutation of the ontological argument for the existence of God.  But I hope that I have said enough to allow you to see the two problems in this kind of appeal that were referred to by Justice Brennan in the High Court (in a case involving a dingo):

If Ratten [a preceding case] were to be taken as requiring a Court of Criminal Appeal to set aside a conviction whenever the evidence given at the trial leaves that court with a reasonable doubt about the appellant’s guilt, the function of returning the effective verdict would be transferred from the jury to the court – a course which would at once erode public confidence in the administration of criminal justice and impose upon the court the impossible burden of retrying every appeal case on the papers.

The law is clear that the judges cannot overturn a jury verdict just because they don’t agree with it, but how bad the verdict must look before they can overturn it is about as clear as the doctrine of the real presence.

But fundamental to the case of the cardinal is that the appeal judges will not have seen the witness or heard the evidence as it was given on which the whole case turned.   They will have heard the case ‘on the papers’ with access to video replays,  but it will be difficult for appeal judges substitute their judgment for that of the people the law says must give that judgment and who are the only relevant officers of the court who have heard the critical evidence as it was given.

If you think that we are like Medieval Schoolmen asking how many angels are dancing on the point of a needle, it gets worse.  I am given to understand that by agreement between the parties, the jury in the second trial watched a replay of the complainant’s evidence in the first. That will surely lead to an argument that Court of Appeal is in the same position on the critical issue as the jury.  Only God knows what the answer may be.

May I go back to the cricket umpire?  His decisions are now subject to review by video replays and other technical aids.  The third umpire is then in a much better position than the umpire on the ground to review and test a wide range of evidence and to take his time to analyse the original decision.  In a criminal trial that turns on credit, the position is very different.  The appeal court is in a  weaker position than the jury to evaluate the evidence.  (Subject of course to what I have said about the course of this case, and I may add that many people think that TV replays in sport inflame more arguments than they settle – and you may well see a similar reaction here if this appeal were to succeed.)

It follows that in a case like this, a convicted person seeking to persuade an appeal court that the verdict of a jury was unreasonable or unsafe is standing at the foot of a  large mountain.

And that’s before you start to count the various ways that turmoil might reign if judges were seen to overturn this verdict of the people – and release a prisoner convicted of vicious crimes.

The critics of the verdict

You may then see why I and other lawyers do not accept criticism of this verdict from people who have not seen or heard the evidence on which this jury acted – after very long deliberation.

Of course, the Crown carries the burden of proof from the outset, but when the evidence is in, and a case fit to go the jury is made out, the picture shows a different complexion.  You don’t have to look far before you find in works of authority propositions like  ‘Presumptions may be looked on as the bats of the law, flitting in the twilight but disappearing in the sunshine of actual facts’ and ‘That presumptions have no place in the presence of the actual facts disclosed to the jury…is held in many cases.’

Some critics expressed surprise that a person could be convicted on uncorroborated evidence.  How many traitors, murderers, rapists, drug dealers or thieves go out of their way to ensure that a third party is present to witness their crime?

The critics appear to come in three platoons.  One is from members of the same faith who look like they are victims of a schism that the rest of us hoped had died away with the Split and the DLP.  Another is from people in high places who have associated with the prisoner and who for reasons that are beyond me are willing to give their public support to another person who was in a high place, but who  is now in jail, having been found by those representing the rest of us to be a vicious criminal.  The third platoon is that part of the media that lives off the earnings of conflict and controversy.  They are just base tarts.  Predictably enough, most come from the Murdoch stable, which is about as rational and honest on this issue as it is on climate change; and worse, that paper fairly throbs with sectarian bias.

You might also notice two things that these critics have in common.  One is that they are all infected by prejudice of one kind or another.  The other is that while the jury acted on evidence, its critics are happy to level accusations at the jury without any evidence at all.

In The Weekend Australian, Mr Gerard Henderson had a piece headed ‘Pell’s ordeal reinforces the case for judge-only trials.’  Fine, a jury convicts a priest, and Mr Henderson says that is enough to reverse 800 years of history and get rid of juries – at least for powerful and well publicised accused persons.  Big hitters should have their own law.

It must follow that Mr Henderson must think that no one in the U S can ever get a fair trial, because over there the press are not subject to the restraints imposed on them here.  There is also the lordly disdain for the intelligence of the ordinary Australians who make up our juries.  Mr Henderson says that ‘the coverage of such an event could only further harm Pell’s reputation, already damaged by years of hostile allegations…’ and he begins his conclusion with these words ‘The media’s intervention in the legal system should be a matter of real concern…..’  And that’s from a man writing in a paper which is leading the charge to get the conviction of this priest overturned.

The prejudice of Mr Henderson shows not just a lack of compassion.  It looks downright cruel.  As far as I can see, there is not one word about the ordeal of the victims.  Rather, Mr Henderson is concerned about the damage to the reputation of the prisoner.  Yes, it is frightful – but Pell has brought almost all that damage upon his own head.  What about the damage to the lives of the victims?  One boy went to find Christ and met rape, heroin, and death.  OK, let’s focus on the reputation of the man found to have been the cause of the ruin and the end of that life.

It’s as if those in the Church have learned nothing.  In the last generation or so, there has been a sea change across the western world in our attitude to crimes committed by people in power against those in their charge.  We now encourage them to come forward and we seek to support and protect them when they have the courage to do so.  We are seeking to prevent people in power ducking for cover under cover of legalism, sophistry, or, heaven help us, a power pack demonstration in place of sworn evidence.

Mr Henderson wants none of it.  He doubtless thinks that Becket was properly made a saint for keeping his priests immune from royal justice.  Indeed, on a bad day, some of the supporters of the prisoner George Pell might remind us of Donald Trump launching into Robert Mueller for conducting a witch hunt.  It could be straight out of Kafka.  The Castle has a line: ‘One of the operating principles of the authorities is that the possibility of error is simply not taken into account.’

I am sorry that this note is so long, but the issues are serious and difficult.  I have tried to stay objective, but I fear that the anger that you will have detected has got the better of me.  The phrase ‘speaking truth to power’ has become a cliché.  But now we have to accept that power speaking to falsehood has become a tawdry fact of life.

If you want to know my view, it is this.  The cardinal played his hand and lost.  Call the next case in the list.  We have spent far too much time on this case already.

Geoffrey Gibson

5 March, 2018.

Passing bull 189 – Virtue signalling



It was saddening to see The Economist use the phrase ‘virtue signalling’.  It’s like ‘identity politics’.  It is favoured as a substitute for thought by too many people who write for The Weekend Australian.  The Wikipedia definition is:

Virtue signalling is a pejorative term that refers to the conspicuous expression of moral values.  Academically, the phrase relates to signalling theory to describe a subset of social behaviors that could be used to signal virtue—especially piety among the religious.  In recent years, the term has become more commonly used as a pejorative by commentators to criticize what they regard as empty or superficial support of certain political views and also used within groups to criticize their own members for valuing appearance over action.

Presumably, that is what clergymen do when they reverse their collar, or doctors do when they wear a stethoscope, or barristers do when they don a wig.  But it is not apparently what a Murdoch commentator does when he or she mocks climate change, bewails socialism, or sledges the ABC – all ad nauseam. It all depends on whom you put down and whether you get a Masonic handshake from your correspondent in return.  Donald Trump does it by hugging the flag while acting the part of a baboon.

You can see the likeness to the term ‘identity politics.’  They are both tribal; they are deployed by people who hunt in packs; they are at best intellectually fuzzy and morally slippery; and they are quintessential cases of the vice of labelling.


‘Human trafficking is evil in our midst,’ Mr. Aronberg said. ‘It is fuelled on the demand side.’

New York Times, 25 February, 2018.

This was a case about a well-known figure charged with soliciting.  Prostitution is hardly novel, and the context hardly bears a word that has been mutilated in both economics and political philosophy.



[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.]



John Waller Hills (1921)

Allan and Co, London, 1921; republished by Freshet Press, New York, 1971; quarter bound in green leather, gold embossed with covered cloth boards; facsimile of original edition.

Then you see your fly too.  Nothing is hid.  When the fly comes over him, you see him prepare to take it – or treat it with stolid indifference.  You see him rise and take.  The whole drama is played out before your eyes.

The followers of some past-times can be a real pain – wine buffs, film buffs, public schoolboys who never leave school, followers of Wagner’s Ring – the very princes of pains in the arse – and bowlers at the RSL are examples.  Golfers are notorious for leaving their wives or evading their husbands.  In this country, shooters are either too low or too high on the social scale.  Cricket has become irredeemably vulgar and tennis is as mentionable as a grunt over dinner.

When it comes to fishing, a curious dichotomy has spawned itself in this part of the colonies.  Salt-water fishing – bait fishing, Old Boy – tends to be seen as the go for the common sort of people who follow Rugby League – western suburbs Micks, blue-collared, black trackies and tats.  Fly fishing is seen as the go for the better sought of people who follow Rugger – people from School.  This image is the kind of bullshit that you have to put up with in a country whose communal neurosis compels it to continue to import its Head of State from the Old Country.  As I tried to learn about fly fishing, I had the benefit of being a member of a country fly fishing club that contains as decent a bunch of bastards as you might want to meet – including, if it matters, women – and is as serenely bereft of class as it is possible to get in this duckpond.  They were also devoted conservationists.

But, there is no doubt that fly fishing has an air about it – a mystique.  This is partly because it combines physical skill and grace in dealing with nature – or, as we might prefer to say, the bush – perhaps in a way not entirely different to what happens in wine-making or cheese-making.  The other reason is that people know that the art or craft of fly fishing is a very subtle one that has a long and distinguished history – longer than that of other sports except horse-racing, hunting, and possibly royal tennis.  Fly fishing has been served by men of letters, keepers of the flame, at least as well as cricket and golf, and it continues to hold a place in the public imagination even though it is not subject to mass coverage – perhaps because it is not subject to mass coverage.  And it is not at risk of seeing its technique cheapened or degraded by technology – which is now frighteningly the case with golf.

The mystique of the art of fly fishing is nowhere better shown than in this beautiful little gem of a book by John Waller Hills.  I do not know if the author is the man of the same name who served as a Major in the Great War and became a Conservative MP – this book is most gracefully written, perhaps partly as a result of the influence of Eton and Balliol.

The thesis of the book – if that is the term – is that there was not much difference in fly fishing between the time that America was discovered and the Great war – although dry fly fishing – keeping the fly afloat – did not arrive until the nineteenth century.  The author surveys the beginnings of sporting literature – all French – and his survey of the fly literature begins with ‘Treatise of Fishing with an Angle’ by Dame Julyan Barnes in 1496, and Izaak Walton’s ‘The Compleat Angler’ in 1653.  No facet of the sport or its literature is omitted.  This book is at once a work of scholarship and enthusiasm and grace, from gear, to stalking, to upstream or downstream, to the tying and casting of flies.

Here is Mr Hills’ advice for the March Brown: ‘I rather like Chetham’s pattern, for black sheep’s wool is brown when held up to the light, and if spun on red silk might give the reddish brown of the body which is so hard to copy.  And then a partridge quill feather is good.  The perfect fly is still to come, but meantime it is worth noticing how little it has changed in what is nearly two centuries and a half.’  Here he is on the Iron Blue: ‘Chetham is the first to mention this also, and he made it ‘of the Down of a Mouse for body and head, dubbed with sad Ash-coloured Silk, wings of the sad coloured feather of a Shepstare quill.’’  If you have ever tied a fly, you will see how apt and engaging these words are.

But the book is really alive when talking about other books, or engaging with nature through the sport.

The casting too has its fascination.  On your day – and such days come to all of us, to make up for the many when we are either maddened or drugged and stupefied by our incurable ineptitude – how delicately and how surely you could throw.  You mean your fly to fall four inches above the fish, and sure enough it does, not an inch more or less.  Nothing is too difficult; drag has no terrors; head wind is a friend not an enemy, for does it not enable you to put a curve on your gut which brings your fly over the fish first?  You know exactly what to do, and you do it.  Wherever the fish may be rising, your fly sails over him, hardly touching the water, wings up, floating like a cork, following every crinkle of the slow current.  You gain an extraordinary sense of power.  Your rod and line, right down to the fly, are part of yourself, moved by your nerves and answering to your brain.

Well, I am yet to know that feeling with a fly rod or a rifle or a sand-wedge, but, transposing continents and seasons, I know how the author felt the following (possibly about the valley of the Test River).

As April runs into May, the valley changes greatly.  It becomes green everywhere; so of course do other landscapes, but its special character is that it shows so many different shades of green, and shows them all together.  The yellow green of the young willows, the bright green of the reeds, the blue green of the iris, the vivid green of some water weeds – these are seen simultaneously.  But perhaps the chief cause of the valley’s beauty is reflected light.  Light is reflected at all angles off the glancing water, and gives the leaves an airy and translucent appearance, which you do not get elsewhere.  May, too, is the month of the hawthorn, and thorn trees flourish particularly well on the chalk.  Then also the birds come, and sedge and reed warblers make the banks musical.  Opinions will differ as to whether May or June is the better month.  May has the charm of novelty not yet worn off, but June has that of perfect fulfilment.  And to the chalk-stream fisherman June is the best month of all, for who would not if he could choose a windless day in June?  It is the month of the meadow flowers, and though the different shades of green are less marked and are merging into their summer sameness, the yellow iris makes the banks a garden, the wild rose stars the hedges, and the guilder rose hangs its cream-coloured lamps over the carriers.

Few people can write so well.  Nevill Cardus could about cricket or a concert; Kenneth Clark could write about light; Whitney Bailliett could write about jazz – but there are not many.  And what these passages bring home is that these fishermen – for some reason few women stick with it – are passionate about the natural world around them.  They are real conservationists, and they go quietly, and not like militant, didactic martinets in the big smoke who look like they would never get their feet wet.

Perhaps one reason why more women do not take up fly fishing – where there are no social or physical barriers to their entry – is the reason that they do not hunt – they are not hard-wired as hunter–gatherers.  Who knows?  There is another myth about the two sports of fly fishing and hunting with rifle or shot-gun.  They are all forms of hunting aimed at killing animal life (including birds and fish) for food or trophy, although very many fly fishers do not now detain their catch, but put it back.  Hunting in Australia is seen as down market –precisely the reverse is so in Europe.  It is also seen as more cruel than fishing.  It is hard to see why.  Pain and animals are an emotive mix, but what would you rather be – a bunny knocked stone dead by a .22 bullet, or a rainbow trout drifting along its path in God’s domain until some devious bastard contrives to drop an anchor down your gob and then haul you out and either toss you back or deliver the coup de grace and eat you up?

Well, nearly a hundred years ago, Mr Hills, for better or for worse, was not confronted by any metaphysical doubts in his quest for peace in nature.  He did however leave this enduring testament to our enjoyment of our natural world, and he deserves to be read and remembered and thanked for doing so.