The Cordelia Syndrome – Unaccommodated Man and the High Price of Rigidity

The mad scenes in King Lear may be the most elemental in our literature after Prometheus Bound.  (They frightened Verdi off any opera based on the play.)  The king loses his mind as one by one all the props of civilisation are taken from him and he is left looking up to a gibbering, naked beggar.  He is left alone – like the Marshal in High Noon, to the power of ten.  (There is a similarly affecting moment in Titus Andronicus – another hero left alone on a rock.)  The storm outside in the heath matches that inside Lear’s head.  We get this elemental question: ‘Is man no more than this?….Thou art the thing itself, unaccommodated man…’(3.6.105-109).

Meanwhile, two of his daughters are completing their descent into evil.  The descent is so complete and so mutually annihilating that it represents a different kind of denial of humanity.  How far removed are we from the primeval slime from which we emerged at the beginning?  The question posed by the daughters is this: ‘Is there any cause in nature that makes these hard hearts?’ (3.6.75-77).

The two questions are simple enough.  What is it to be human?  What is it to be evil?  If you put to one side magic and the supernatural, it is hard to think of a more basic question.

How did this come about?   Cordelia was too inflexible – too rigid – to accommodate (that word again) her father’s wishes.  This was one of those ticklish family crises where you just needed some sense and sensibility to navigate your way through.  It happens in most families at Christmas lunch.  (In the U S, Thanksgiving poses similar threats – who could forget Al Pacino in Scent of a Woman going after the rest of the family like a blind, gored bull?)  These are moments of truth that call for anything but the truth.  Most of us wriggle through with the blank insincerity that inevitably underlies any statement beginning ‘I am delighted…’But even that was too much for the good Cordelia.

I remarked elsewhere:

Cordelia has come out of this exercise with a remarkably good press.  For the want of just a touch of politesse, a kingdom was lost, and she and her father are both lost in the maelstrom.  But Cordelia is ‘ensainted’.  This process may reflect the prejudices of Victorian and Edwardian English dons.  Nowadays, Isabella (Measure for Measure) gets a dreadful press, at least from some quarters, for preferring her name and virtue to her brother’s life.  People who are prepared to sacrifice – that is the word, ‘sacrifice’ – real people for abstract ideas make us very nervous.

We know that sparks can fly between a father and daughter infected with the same pride, prejudice, or narrowness, but what we here see is that the uncalculating moral purity of a daughter may be just as wounding to an aging volatile proud father as the calculated immoral conduct of his older daughters.

The certainty of youth has an inherently incendiary character.  It is a certainty that is unimpressed by doubt and uninfected with defeat, and it is commonly dead wrong.  Here, the father is all or nothing, black and white; the daughter is incapable of the compromise that communal life depends on; conflict is therefore inevitable, and disaster is probable.  In truth, the conflict of this father and daughter may remind you of a remark made by Kant before the white people settled here: ‘Enlightenment is man’s emergence from his self-incurred immaturity.’

The Edwardian sensibility I had in mind may have been that of A C Bradley.  Bradley ‘refuses to admit…..any kind of imperfection, and is outraged when any share in her father’s sufferings is attributed to the part she plays in the opening scene.’  I don’t know whether the professor survived bringing up two or more daughters – it is, among other things, instructive – but the great man faltered when he sought to justify his suggestion that Cordelia could not ‘have made the unreasonable old King feel that he was fondly loved.  Cordelia cannot, because she is Cordelia’.  That circular proposition is about as helpful as saying that had she pacified her father, we would not have had the play.

Well, we all make mistakes – and on the previous page, Bradley had given us my favourite bell-ringer in all criticism.  ‘She grew up with Goneril and Regan for sisters.’  That is a very sobering statement that entitles Cordelia to be cut some slack – as they say Stateside.  (And that is the kind of thing Bradley is criticised for by some who have come later and are not so learned – he treats the characters as if they were real people.  No one has ever been able to make the alternative clear to me.)

This inability of Cordelia to adjust herself to accommodate others is the kind personal failing that underlies so much failure and friction in our public life.  There is a lack of tolerance and restraint that goes beyond a mere want of courtesy.  We see a ruthless assertion or promotion of self that takes its stand on the standard of our time – the selfy.  It is the denial of community and assertion of self you see when two tradies go to a café for a pie and immediately retire into their own pones and zones.  The ceremony of courtesy is drowned.  Is it little more than pure selfishness that reaches its apotheosis in people like Donald Trump and Boris Johnson?  Do you notice that some people get ill at ease if you turn the discussion away from them?  It’s as if you are talking to a brick wall.  They have no interest in any world without them.  When we see that syndrome in action, we may reflect on the observation of Blaise Pascal that ‘all of humanity’s problems stem from man’s inability to sit quietly in a room alone.’

Language itself becomes unaccommodated at the end of this play.  It is pared down to the elements, strangled monosyllabic utterances.  The speech in 5.3 beginning ‘And my poor fool is hanged: no, no, no life’ led Bradley to say:

The imagination that produced Lear’s curse or his defiance of the storm may be paralleled in its kind, but where else are we to seek the imagination that would venture to that cry of ‘Never’ with such a phrase as ‘undo this button’, and yet could leave us on the topmost peaks of poetry.

That is why King Lear is our Everest.  Did this author, or any other, ever get a better fusion of drama and poetry than in these lines?

No, no, no, no! Come, let’s away to prison:
We two alone will sing like birds i’ the cage:
When thou dost ask me blessing, I’ll kneel down,
And ask of thee forgiveness: so we’ll live,
And pray, and sing, and tell old tales, and laugh
At gilded butterflies, and hear poor rogues
Talk of court news; and we’ll talk with them too,
Who loses and who wins; who’s in, who’s out;
And take upon’s the mystery of things,
As if we were God’s spies: and we’ll wear out,
In a wall’d prison, packs and sects of great ones,
That ebb and flow by the moon.

Lear and Cordelia share a problem of Donald Trump and Boris Johnson.  They lack discretion.  They are low on judgement.  (The quality you look for in a trustee is prudence and the want of that quality in people like Trump or Johnson shows how unfit they are for public office.)

Prometheus had the same problem – big time.  I remarked elsewhere:

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 Old Testament God look like a maiden aunt, takes exception and binds Prometheus to a rock during the pleasure of Zeus. 

Lear loses all the props of mankind.  Prometheus had sought to restore them.  The last epithet you would apply to stealing fire from heaven is discretion.  It’s not surprising then that Hermes lays into him.  ‘But you have not yet learned a wise discretion.’  ‘Bring your proud heart to know a true discretion.’  Hermes then gives Prometheus a real spray:

You are a colt new broken, with the bit

Clenched in its teeth, fighting against the reins,

And bolting.  You are far too strong and confident

In your weak cleverness.  For obstinacy

Standing alone is the weakest of all things

In one whose mind is not possessed by wisdom.

‘Weak cleverness is a massive put-down, that bears upon others referred to here, and might sum up politics now in general, but in fairness to Prometheus, he had learned enough to pass on advice to others who might also be after sole power.

This is a sickness, it seems, that goes along with

Dictatorship – inability to trust one’s friends.

Put differently, loyalty is a one-way affair for those who lust after and are corrupted by power.  (That translation is by Rex Warner in Limited Editions, 1965 from Bodley Head; the other citations were translated by David Grene for Folio, 2011).

Prometheus was chained upon a rock.  King Lear was bound upon a wheel of fire.  One took on God.  The other tried to convert a crown to the trinity – something beyond even Newton.  Each came to see the writing on the wall – which was just as well, because each had done most of the writing.

These plays are part of the title deeds of our civilisation.  It is therefore not surprising that in his introduction to his translation of Prometheus, Rex Warner referred to a Harvard scholar who ‘well compares the Prometheus with The Brothers Karamazov and King Lear, all works which have the quality of ‘touching final doubts.’  Here, then, we are truly among the very big hitters.

MY TOP SHELF: 33 – Keynes


[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 Maynard Keynes (1919)

Reprint Macmillan and Co., 1920; rebound in quarter vellum with cloth boards, and red label with gold letters.

The glory of the nation you love is a desirable end, – but generally to be obtained at your neighbour’s expense.

Even those who do not believe that economics is no more than voodoo with figures complain that economists are much longer on explanation after the event than they were on prediction before the event.  These complaints were very loud in the Great Financial Crisis.  But you could not sustain that charge against John Maynard Keynes.

Keynes was educated at Eton and King’s College Cambridge.  He was very, very bright.  He went through the apparently required gay phase while he was a member of that frightfully precious crowd called ‘The Apostles.’  Later he settled down completely and for life with a distinguished Russian ballerina.  She could divert the dons with her views on homosexuality.  She said it was okay with boys – they have something to hang on to; but how could you have an affair between two insides?

Keynes was coming toward his prime at the age of 35 when he went to Paris as part of the British delegation to negotiate the peace to end the Great War.  He was revolted by the meanness and short-sightedness of France and Britain, and the weakness and ineptness of President Wilson. He left the delegation and went home to write The Economic Consequences of the Peace in something like white heat.  It is a beautifully composed polemic that was an instant smash hit.  But those in charge – not one of whom had the intellectual horsepower of Keynes – did not want to listen, and we are still paying the price.

Keynes set out to show that the Treaty was aimed at the ‘systematic destruction of all three’ pillars of the German economy and that this would lead to hyper-inflation, German bankruptcy, and German revenge.  He was dead right, and about 20 million would die.  France wanted to go back to 1870, but this ‘Carthaginian peace’ was neither ‘right nor possible’.

Keynes gives brief portraits of the main players.  Clemenceau, ‘dry of soul and empty of hope, very old and tired’ just sat there on his brocade chair with his grey suede gloves.  ‘He had one illusion – France; and one disillusion – mankind, including Frenchmen, and his colleagues not least…’His guiding star was that Germans only understood intimidation.  You must not negotiate with a German – you just dictate to him.

Lloyd George had ‘an unerring, almost medium-like, sensibility’ to everyone around him; he had ‘six or seven senses not available to ordinary men.’  He was the best of ‘the subtle and dangerous spellbinders’.  What chance had the aging Presbyterian Wilson against him?  When Lloyd George was speaking, he would go over to nobble the President while it was being translated.  Wilson lacked ‘that dominating intellectual equipment’ and his collapse was ‘one of the most decisive moral events of history.’

The point of the book is to demonstrate that the Treaty was economically misconceived, but Keynes does not withhold moral judgment.  ‘The policy of reducing Germany to servitude for a generation, of degrading the lives of millions of human beings, and of depriving a whole nation of happiness, should be abhorrent and detestable – abhorrent and detestable even if it were possible, even if it enriched ourselves, even if it did not sow the decay of the whole civilized life of Europe.  Some preach it in the name of justice.  In the great events of man’s history, in the unwinding of the complex fates of nations, Justice is not so simple.  And if it were, nations are not authorized, by religion or by natural morals, to visit on the children of their enemies the misdoings of parents or of rulers.’  These are not small notions.

Keynes said that the leaders in Paris knew that they could not deliver and had lied to their own peoples back home about their capacity to extract money from a bankrupt Germany in the future.  He says that the want of sincerity was palpable.  ‘Then began the weaving of that web of sophistry and Jesuitical exegesis that was finally to clothe with insincerity the language and substance of the whole treaty.’  It was worse than that – the Treaty was negotiated in bad faith and outside the terms on which Germany had laid down its arms.  ‘There are few episodes in history which posterity will have less reason to condone – a war ostensibly waged in defence of the sanctity of international engagements ending in a definite breach of one of the most sacred possible of such engagements on the part of the victorious champions of these ideals.’  Elsewhere, Keynes brands the Treaty ‘one of the most outrageous acts of a cruel victor in civilized history.’

The hottest invective is reserved for his own Prime Minister.  On no grounds of public interest, the ‘popular victor’ allowed ‘the claims of private ambition’ to have him call an election.  This cranked up the rhetoric against Germany and made a decent peace even harder to get.  The diagnosis of Keynes is alarmingly recognizable to those governed by no principle past the last opinion poll.  ‘The progress of the General Election of 1918 affords a sad, dramatic history of the essential weakness of one who draws his chief inspiration not from his own true impulses, but from the grosser effluxions of the atmosphere which momentarily surrounds him.’  The book is worth reading just for that one line.

Did the victors really think that they could screw the Germans for the sweat of their brow for a generation?  How did they answer this proposition?  ‘The entrepreneur and the inventor will not contrive, the trader and shopkeeper will not save, the labourer will not toil, if the fruits of their industry are set aside, not for the benefit of their children, their old age, their pride, or their position, but for the enjoyment of a foreign conqueror.’

Why, asks Keynes, ‘has the world been so credulous of the unveracities of politicians’?  The French would acknowledge his logic but they would always come back to the position:  ‘But Germany must pay; otherwise, what is to happen to France?’  It was not a convenient time for the truth.

Lenin said that the best way to destroy capitalism was by debauching the currency.  He was right.  Inflation involves a secret confiscation of wealth.  ‘Perhaps it is historically true that no order of society ever perishes save by its own hand.’

Where would it all end?  ‘If we aim deliberately at the impoverishment of Central Europe, vengeance, I dare predict, will not limp.  Nothing can then delay for very long that final civil war between the forces of Reaction and the despairing convulsions of Revolution, before which the horrors of the late German war will fade into nothing, and which will destroy, whoever is victor, the civilization and progress of our generation.’

The fulfilment of that prophecy would be a ghastly tragedy.  Because a few small-minded power crazed men in Paris wanted to punish the children of the vanquished, they paved the way for a worse war to punish their own children.

This book holds many lessons about not putting your trust in princes, and about not understanding that if you drive too hard on a deal, you may wind up with worse than nothing.  Agreements are only as good as the wishes of their parties.  The attack in this book was brought home by a 35 year-old economist from King’s College, Cambridge against his own government and the other victors in Europe.  It is a remarkable testament not just to the intellect but to the courage of one man.

Keynes would later go on to serve his country further by helping it to finance the war he foresaw, and then work out how to make repayment.  The effort was finally two much for him.  It is because of what Keynes did rather than what he said that this book is on this shelf.  It is not too much to say that John Maynard Keynes, like Dietrich Bonhoeffer, gave his life for his country.

Passing Bull 210 – Angry church goers


According to the press, people of the church of the religion, if not the denomination, espoused by our head of state have opposed the proposed legislative provisions relating to murder in New South Wales by making provision for abortion.  A reasonable provision to that effect would I think be supported by a comfortable majority of people in that state.  But some people of faith take the view that they have no room to move on the moral issue of murder.   It is in my view sad when debate on a political issue of some nicety is shut down for some by religious dogma.  If people of another faith sought to produce that result, the outrage would be deafening.  That is something to be borne in mind by people of one faith – perhaps of one denomination of one faith – seeking to flex their muscles on the political stage.  But it is preposterous to argue, as some reportedly do, that the relevant laws should be left alone because they are not enforced.  People who embrace that form of inanity may wish to revisit Measure for Measure.

There is a similar flight from reality on requiring priests to report confessions of paedophiles.  My Catholic friends say that this is a non-issue because guilty priests do not confess.  They will be even less likely to confess if that confession must be reported to the police.  So, what is the problem?  Gerard Henderson says this is ‘symbolic politics’:

The Victorian government is giving comfort to the anti-Catholic sectarians in our midst without bringing about a situation where a paedophile is likely to be identified or a child protected.

Sworn evidence that a priest had reportedly confessed to these crimes over many years is dismissed on the footing that the ‘claim was not taken seriously.’  If there is some feeling against that denomination, it can be put down to the horror of the crimes committed in its name and this cold, blind refusal to accept responsibility for those crimes by doing all they can to ensure they will stop.

The notion that a church should or could be above the law is not on.  At this time in our history, the suggestion is revolting.  We need a secular society to monitor the claims, privileges and standing of bodies claiming to be religious.


They [the views of Tim Costello on refugees and ‘our hostility to boat people] matter, in part, because of the policy debate and the constant risk that this nation might again think, as it did in 2008, that it can relax its policies, and therefore, inadvertently, trigger resurgence in human drama.

But they matter also, and perhaps more importantly, because I think they misunderstand and slander mainstream Australians.

Chris Kenny, The Weekend Australian, 3-4 August, 2019.

Does anyone really believe that to comment on our hostility to boat people defames Australians?  To defame someone is to say something about them that causes ordinary people to think less of them.  Is that what a comment about our hostility to boat people does?  Is it possible that the policy of both major parties defames God?


When asked about the observation by Banking Royal Commissioner Kenneth Hayne that the use of slogans is undermining institutions in the place of policy debate, the PM said: ‘Well, I did stop the boats and people who do have a go get a go under my policies, so I think that’s a pretty good plan.  Cheers.’

Australian Financial Review, 10-11 August, 2019 (Laura Tingle).

Quod erat demonstrandum.



[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.]



F Gray Griswold (1930)

Privately printed, 1930; edition of 300 copies; signed by the author; quarter bound in vellum with gold title, and year of publication;;rough cut pages with sepia toned plates covered with tissue; rebound in quarter black morocco with gold title, and lemon cloth boards.

I hold the imitation of colour to be the greatest difficulty of art.

As with any kind of artist, it is not possible to describe the genius of El Greco in words.  You can only see it in the paintings.  Since I have not been to Toledo, and it is more than forty years since I visited the Prado in Madrid, I will confine myself in the first instance to those paintings I have seen on a number of occasions elsewhere.

The Metropolitan in New York has four paintings of El Greco, a man born in Crete who trained in Venice and Rome, and who did most of his painting in Spain, a servant of the Counter-Reformation, and a man about whose life we know as much as we do about that of Cervantes – practically nothing.

The painting of the Cardinal-Inquisitor is, aptly enough, about the most arresting portrait ever painted.  The Inquisitor, in all his red finery, is seated but he looks like he may take off.  His right side is secure, but the left is not, and it grips the chair.  But look at the face – behind those glasses – and all that you see are tension, anxiety, hesitancy, and suspicion.  Is this what the artist really wanted us to see?  The Catalogue for the 2003-2004 Exhibition at the Met and the National Gallery London contains these observations:

This celebrated picture – a landmark in the history of European portraiture –has become synonymous not only with El Greco but with Spain and the Spanish Inquisition.  His finely wrought features framed by a manicured greying beard and crimson biretta, the sitter is perched like some magnificent bird of prey in a gold-fringed chair, his dazzling watered-silk robes, mozzetta and lace-trimmed rochet flaring out like exotic plumage.  The round-rimmed glasses confer on his gaze a frightening hawkish intensity, as he examines the viewer with an air of implacable, even cruel detachment, his right hand impatiently – almost convulsively – grasping the arm rest.  (That should be left arm, as it was in the Titian preview.)

There has been some debate about whether the subject was the Inquisitor, but one conclusion is inescapable – this subject did not terrorize this artist.  In a very bland Greek film about El Greco, the movie starts with the Inquisitor visiting a dying El Greco to tell him that he would like him to do it again.  That part of the film had verismo.  This portrait is endlessly intriguing.

What is thought to be an older self-portrait is more orthodox, but it is a picture of a tired frail old man whose eyes are not straight.  The oval head is characteristically accented.  Elongation of form would become a hallmark.  The Adoration of the Shepherds has the light and colour and movement of later work, but the well-known view of Toledo has spooky kind of coloured life of its own as well as a sense of torment.  It also prefigures Cezanne, as does a lot of the work.

The National Gallery in London has three.  Christ on the Mount of Olives has a kind of exuberant freedom within measured geometric forms.  The figures of El Greco seem to have their own internal source of light.  The portrait of St Jerome is not one of a man seeking power – his hesitancy has a different origin to that of the Inquisitor.

But it is the other painting in London that is my favourite El Greco – and there is another in the Frick in New York.  It is the Cleansing of the Temple, the time when the young holy man and rebel from Nazareth took to the money dealers in the temple with a lash, and so probably sealed his own death warrant.  Almost all the figures are distorted in the way that became the trade mark of this great artist.  The Christ figure is a man on a mission and flowing with energy to that end.  The whole thing has the movement of Mozart, and behind the head of Christ is an Italian Renaissance background.  This is what one scholar says.  ‘The money-changers, panic-stricken more by the sudden revelation of power in the suave Christ than by the punishment itself, try to escape, but they cannot.   Brilliant is the planned confusion of the detail.  The upward-catapulted figures…make a frantic explosive series, away from the Christ and diagonally back into the picture space.’  It is very rare for a picture to be charged with so much energy and movement and rhythm.

As best we can tell, El Greco had a similar effect on his contemporaries as the Impressionists would have on theirs.  They had trouble just seeing the picture, much less accepting the style.  He was on any view ahead of his time, and he appears to have seen the artist as hero, having what Fry described as ‘a complete indifference to what effect the right expression might have on the public.’  A German scholar would maintain that there was a greater difference between Titian and El Greco than between him and Cezanne, and we can readily see how that is put.

The connection with the Church of Rome must have had issues.  Scholars think that El Greco was raised in the Orthodox Church in Greece.  The firm and clear teaching of the Counter-Reformation was that content was to be paramount over style, and this painter would have been about the last to kneel to that proposition.  Tact may not have been his strong suit – he is said to have observed that Michelangelo was a good person but could not paint, before he offered to paint over the Sistine Chapel.  We do not know if he married Jeronima de las Cuevas, the mother of his son, but one very attractive model appears to feature in a number of the paintings.  And it is a little hard to envisage the Cardinal Inquisitor being any more thrilled by his portrait than Winston Churchill was of the portrait that his widow burnt after his death.

Why, then, is this book on this shelf?  I greatly admire the work and what I may call attitude of El Greco.  He seems to me to come plainly within that remark of Henrik Ibsen about having the courage to commit a little madness now and then.  The book Report to Greco by Kazantzakis carries a real message.  This is a beautifully presented book that comes to me from Berlin, my favourite city, and carries these reminders of New York and London, two other favourite cities.  And then there is Mozart in the painting of the rebel taking to the money men – swinging Mozart in colour.

I cannot vouch for the scholasticity of the text.  Mr Griswold begins by saying: ‘I am not an art critic nor do I pretend to be a connoisseur of art.  This book is simply an appreciation of my friend, El Greco.’  A bit later we get: ‘Christianity is emotional, paganism was intellectual.’  To mix sporting metaphors, that is straight out of left field, and we can let it go straight through to the keeper.


Here and there – George Will: The Conservative Sensibility


You get some idea of the tone and gist of this book from the following extracts from the Introduction.

Although it distresses some American conservatives to be told this, American conservatism has little in common with European conservatism, which is descended from, and often is still tainted by, throne-and-altar, blood-and–soil nostalgia, irrationality and tribalism.  American conservatism has a clear mission: It is to conserve, by articulating and demonstrating the continuing pertinence of, the Founders’ thinking….The label ‘liberal’ was minted to identify those whose primary concern was not the protection of community solidarity or traditional hierarchies, but rather was the expansion and protection of individual liberty.  Liberals were then those who considered the state the primary threat to this…..In Europe today, the too few people who think the way American conservatives do are commonly called liberals, and people who think as American progressives do are called social democrats….Progressivism represents the overthrow of the Founders’ classical liberalism.

Later on, we get this – those who believe, as the Founders did, that first come the rights and then comes government, are adherents of the Republican Constitution; while those who believe, as progressives do, that first comes government and then come rights are the Democratic Constitution.  The difference comes down to whether ‘We the people’ is a collective entity or ‘We the people as individuals.’

A number of things follow.  First, this book is about theories and labels.  (I agree with the late G H W Bush – labels belong on soup cans.)  Secondly, it will offer little to the rest of the world because this conservatism is uniquely American and different to that of the rest of the West.  Thirdly, the book will be completely foreign to Anglo-Australians because we prefer experience to theory, results to ideology.  Finally some of the discussion will be as penetrable as the doctrine of the Trinity or the Real Presence, and provoke the question: What contemporary political issue might be enlightened by the application of these theories or labels?

But let us take the mission of this book on its terms.  We are to seek the Founders’ thinking by going back to what they said.  Lawyers are familiar with this process (and avoiding dogmatism in this context will be very tricky).

Let us put to one side that the Founders knew division – between, say, the focus of Jefferson on you and me, and the focus of Hamilton on Uncle Sam.  The Founders had some things in common.  They owned and traded in slaves.  They might fairly be labelled patrician and they were horrified at the thought of what we call democracy.  Alexander Hamilton spoke of the ‘unthinking populace’ and John Adams referred to ‘the common herd of mankind’.  George Washington referred to the common people as ‘the grazing multitude’.  He had the High Tory view that ‘the discerning part of the community’ must govern and ‘the ignorant and designing’ must follow.  His successors now practise the reverse.

As a result, the Declaration contained two outright lies.  The one about all men being equal is well known.  Perhaps I may then refer to what I said in a book about the comparative history of Australia and the U S.

Well, this evasion, if that is the term, on the subject of slavery might be expected from a slave-owner from the largest slave-owning state.  But what was not to be expected was the lack of candour on the causes of the revolt.

The American Declaration of Independence follows the form of the English Declaration of Rights.  It records the conduct complained of to justify the termination of the relationship.  (This is what lawyers call ‘accepting a repudiation’ of a contract.)  The English did so in short, crisp allegations that were for the most part devoid of oratorical colour in the Declaration of Rights.  The allegations are expressed in simple enough terms and were not phrased so as to encourage an evasive form of denial. 

How does the American Declaration of Independence go about this process?  Before it gets to an allegation that the king maintains standing armies, which is a relatively specific charge, it made ten allegations of misconduct that were so general that they would not be permitted to stand today as an allegation of a breach of the law on a conviction for which a person might lose their liberty.  The fourteenth allegation, which is hopeless, but which appears to be an attempt to invoke the English precedent, is that:  ‘He [King George III] has abdicated government here.’  Then there is the fifteenth allegation:  ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’  If that allegation of plunder and murder – the old word was ‘rapine’ – had been seriously put, you might have expected to see it before an allegation of abdication – and before every other allegation.  The eighteenth allegation relates to the Indians. The nineteenth was the allegation relating to slavery and which was struck out.  Those drafting the Declaration were not evidently keen to get down to the subject of people of another race.  Or tax.

Let us put to one side that all these allegations are made against the Crown, and not the government, and that none of these allegations refers to any statute of the British government.  There is no history of the American Revolution that has been written that says that the American colonies revolted from their subjection to the British crown for any of the reasons that are set out in the eighteen clauses of the Declaration of Independence.  The primary reason that history gives for the revolt of the colonists was the imposition, or purported imposition, of taxes upon them by the British parliament – when those being taxed had no direct representation in the parliament levying the tax.  Most divorces are about money, and this one was no different. 

But British taxation is only mentioned once in the Declaration of Independence.  That reference is fallacious.  It is against the King.  The Glorious Revolution made it plain that he could not impose a tax.  The only reference to the English legislature comes when those drafting the documents scold the English for ‘attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us’.  Given that the 1688 revolution secured the supremacy of the English parliament over the English Crown and made it transcendentally clear that only the English parliament could levy a tax on its subjects, it may have seemed a little odd for Jefferson to be suggesting that the American colonies were somehow subject to the English Crown, but not to the English parliament.  ‘Jurisdiction’ is a word that has come to bedevil American jurisprudence, and it looks like the problem may have started very early.

‘For imposing Taxes upon us without our Consent’ comes in near the end of charges against England.  This Declaration is then a very dicey basis for any political theory or catechism.  It’s not much of a rock to build a church on.  And the descendants of the colonists are still skittish about tax.  They are better at spending than paying.  An endorsement of deceit, racial superiority and fiscal irresponsibility may be okay for the current president, but surely not for a Republican, much less a bona fide conservative.

The rest of the West think that the U S has been driven to at least two disastrous political failures by the application of the kind of theories discussed in this book by Mr Will  – free universal health care and gun control.

If you think an ounce of evidence is worth a ton of theory, try this.  In June 1908, David Lloyd George told the House of Commons:

‘These problems of the sick, the infirm, of the men who cannot find a means of earning a livelihood … are problems with which it is the business of the State to deal.  They are problems which the State has neglected for too long.’

That proposition is still heresy for those to whom Mr Will appeals. For them, the State has no business in dealing with such problems.  But Lloyd George and Churchill drove through this reform – as they called it – which would be the foundation of what we know as the Welfare State, and the start of the provision of a system of affordable health care that is taken for granted in every country in the West – except America.  England was following the example set by Bismarck in Germany.  Well over a hundred years later, Americans were still mouthing silly labels like ‘Socialist’.

What do Americans get for their primitive and puritanical purity?  Not just the worst health system in the Western world, but the most expensive.  And they get something from between pity and contempt from the rest of us who regard free universal health care as non-negotiable in a society that likes to call itself civilised.  You can quote Plato and Hegel till the cows come home – decent health care provided by government is for us an inescapable part of our social fabric.

The same goes for gun control.  Americans pay a frightful sacrifice in human life in obedience to what we see as a hideously loaded ideological reading of a clause in their Bill of Rights that had nothing to do with the cruel aspirations of the NRA. .  The same Bill of Rights is part of our legal dispensation, but only a lunatic would assert that it has the same lethal consequences for us.

You get some idea of the depth of the gulf separating us when you read ‘So, constitutional lawyers are America’s practitioners of political philosophy.’  That is not our way here.  English and Australian jurists would be horrified at the notion that they should engage in political philosophy while on the job.  And we worry about Mr Will’s grip on reality when we read: ‘most Americans want altars kept apart from the state’s business.’  Is all that stuff we read about Evangelicals just fake news?

The Index to the book makes no mention of Trump, or, in a book riddled with –isms, populism.  As best I can see, the book contains no discussion of the current status of ‘conservatism’ for Republicans in America.  If they are the two main issues facing America today, then tossing intellectual playthings about like shuttlecocks makes Nero’s fiddling look while Rome burned positively sane.  If this book correctly reflects a ‘conservative’ spectrum in America today, then we may better understand what many see as the moral and intellectual collapse of the Republican Party and any reasonable application of ‘conservatism’ to the U S in 2019.

By contrast, near the end of Jefferson and Hamilton, John Ferling said:

Presciently, and with foreboding, Jefferson saw that Hamiltonianism would concentrate power in the hands of the business leaders and financiers that it primarily served, leading inevitably to an American plutocracy every bit as dominant as monarchs and titled aristocrats had once been.  Jefferson’s fears were not misplaced.  In modern America, concentrated wealth controls politics and government, leading even the extremely conservative Senator John McCain to remark that ‘both parties conspire to stay in office by selling the country to the highest bidder.’  The American nation, with its incredibly powerful chief executive, gargantuan military, repeated intervention in the affairs of foreign states, and political system in the thrall of great wealth, is the very world that Jefferson abhorred.

Well, that was way back in 2103, and since then the abhorrence of Jefferson has got so much worse as the United States has fallen flat on its face in the gutter.  And, yes, Hamilton was killed in a duel.  And the rest of the world looks on in sadness as the United States increasingly looks more like its current president – the spoiled child who never grew up.

None of this would have surprised Alexis de Tocqueville.

… America the people regard this prosperity as the result of its own exertions; the citizen looks upon the fortune of the public as his private interest, and he co-operates in its success, not so much from a sense of pride or duty, as from, what I shall venture to term, cupidity…As the American participates in all that is done in his country, he thinks himself obliged to defend whatever may be censured; for it is not only his country which is attacked upon these occasions, but it is himself…Nothing is more embarrassing in the ordinary intercourse of life than this irritable patriotism of the Americans.’

And ‘irritable patriot’ is a reasonable title for the current incumbent at the White House.

Passing Bull 209 – Alarmists


In one tribunal where I sat, the internal loo had a sign on the door: ‘This door is alarmed.’  I had to stop asking myself who had done what to alarm it.  Have you noticed that people who accuse others of being ‘activists’ are also prone to accuse others of being ‘alarmists’?  I say ‘accuse’ because the word is used as one of denigration.  Well, for much of the 1930’s Winston Churchill was alarmed about the rise of Nazi Germany, and he was widely dismissed as being ‘alarmist.’  The consequences of that dismissal could well have been fatal – because there was something to be alarmed about.

The problem came in the sixties when people invoked that history to shrug off suggestions that they were being ‘alarmists’ when the warned of the Yellow Peril and the ‘domino effect’ and we got locked into a losing war.  So ‘alarmist’ is like ‘activist’ – it all depends on the object of the alarm or activity.  ‘Alarmist’ is now used by those who lost the argument on climate change and are now seeking to cover their retreat with such dignity as they may command.  It will continue to be invoked as a banal label by those who accuse others of ‘groupthink’ and who give every appearance of being incapable of any other kind of thought.


The woman I went to hear confirmed that personal desks had indeed disappeared at her firm after an office move, as is so often the case. A small alarm went off in my head as she began to list the alleged benefits of ditching dedicated desks: employees could ‘work fast and more agilely’ to give a ‘better experience to customers’.  The alarm grew louder when she revealed the phoney slogan her company had used to describe the new system. ‘We didn’t call it agile working, we called it ‘fresh working’.’  Most regrettable of all, though, were signs of a mentality I can only describe as correctional.  Hot-desking apparently goes cold when workers try to cling on to a desk by sticking a family photo on it or draping a coat over a chair, moves she described as ‘signs of encampment’.

Financial Times, 29 July, 2019

The writer showed uncommon kindness in describing the mentality as ‘correctional’.  To describe an employee as showing ‘signs of encampment’ summons up images of the S S.

Here and there – A different kind of president

Here and there – A different kind of president

Harry S Truman was substantially raised in a farm in Missouri.  His family were simple decent people who shared in the life of their community.  His mother would live to see him become President.  He was educated at the local school in an undistinguished way, except that very poor eyesight meant that he wore glasses, and the he was taught to play the piano.

Then, when Harry was about seventeen, his father went broke after risky trading.  (Young Harry won on a horse at 25 to 1 and did not bet on a horse again for 25 years.)  Harry had to go to work to support the family.  One job was in construction on the railroad – ten hours a day, six days a week, $30 a month plus board.  He learned about all kinds of profanity from altogether a different class of person.  ‘A very-down-to earth education.’  He learned how to get on with the men, and they responded in kind.  ‘He’s all right from his asshole out in every direction.’  He learned to keep it simple.  One night groping in the dark he ran right into a pump.  The next day, he painted the pump white.

When the U S got into the Great War, Harry was medically unfit and his family relied on him.  He was about to marry.  He memorised the sight test and joined up.  His troops elected him as an officer.  He told Bess she would wait for him to come back to marry in case he did not.  Harry put duty above personal interest.  Always.  This was ‘a job somebody had to do.’

In four months on the Somme, the Germans lost more than both sides in the entire U S civil war.  Harry received intense training which he had to pass on.  He was terrified when he first had to address his troops.  But he was the boss.  ‘I didn’t come here to get along with you.  You’ve got to get along with me.’  For their first engagement, they arrived in pitch dark at 3 am, the rain pouring down, and men and horses exhausted.  Harry lost twenty pounds when learning how to lead and look after men in the horror of war.

When he got back home, Harry went into business selling high end men’s wear, and he became heavily involved with the Masons.  That business went broke, and he had to pay off its debts.  The local Missouri Democrat machine was run by the Prendergasts – like English lords of the 18th century.  With their patronage, Harry went into politics and got into the Senate.  His personal loyalty meant that he felt obliged to stand by his patrons even when that did not suit him politically –as when their chief drew heavy jail time. Then Harry felt that his career was over – but he hung on and recovered.  Harry had not ducked for cover.  (His opponent took a hit when it was learned that his chauffeur was required to give him a military salute.)

Harry made his name in the Senate inquiring into corrupt practices.  He attacked Wall Street and the larger danger of money worship.  He told Bess: ‘It will probably catalogue me as a radical, but it will be what I think.’  He was repelled by ‘wild greed’ and showed the traditional Missouri suspicion of concentrated power and the East.

How these gentlemen, the highest of the high hats in the legal profession resort to tricks that would make an ambulance chaser in a coroner’s court blush with shame?…..We worship money instead of honour.  A billionaire, in our estimation, is much greater in these days in the eyes of the people than the public servant who works for public interest.  It makes no difference if the billionaire rode to the wealth on the sweat of little children and the blood of underpaid labour.  No one ever considered Carnegie libraries steeped in the blood of the Homestead steel-workers, but they are.  We do not remember that the Rockefeller is founded on the dead miners of Colorado Fuel & Iron….People can only stand so much, and one of these days there will be a settlement….

Had the world heard anything like this since Lloyd George in 1909?  We hear nothing like it now.  Even if you could find someone who had those beliefs, they would be too scared to voice them.

When World War II came to the U S, Harry wanted to volunteer.  Marshall told him he was too old.  Harry admired Marshall above all others.

Truman hated McCarthy – as did Ike – but he refused to play dirty.

You must not ask the President of the United  States to get down in the gutter with a guttersnipe.  Nobody, not even the President of the United States, can approach too close to a skunk, in skunk territory, and expect to get anything out of it except a bad smell.

When Roosevelt died, Churchill was saddened, but he soon came to appreciate Truman.  ‘He takes no notice of delicate ground, he just plants his foot down firmly upon it.’  He had no trouble dropping the bomb – to save American lives.  He surrounded himself with men of the highest calibre – Marshall, Acheson and implementing the Marshall Plan, this veteran of the First World War reversed the two deadliest mistakes of the Allies at the end of the First.  He repudiated nationalism, embraced and saved Europe, and helped secure three generations of comparative peace under a rules based order anchored on the stability and integrity of the United States.

By applying immense concentration and diligence, Truman made decisions such as those, and on Israel, Korea and Macarthur that others may have ducked.  He did not seek personal praise.  David McCullough said that more ‘than once in his presidency, Truman would be remembered saying it was remarkable how much could be accomplished if you didn’t care who received the credit.’

In January 1952, when I was six years of age, Churchill dined with Truman and leading members of his government.

The last time you and I sat across the conference table was at Potsdam, Mr President.  I must confess, sir, I held you in very low regard then.  I loathed your taking the place of Franklin Roosevelt.  I misjudged you badly.  Since that time, you more than any other man have saved Western civilisation.

Well, if you are a bona fide big hitter – and these two plainly were – you are entitled to make statements as large as that one.

Two of the biggest decisions this great man took were the decision to drop the atomic bomb on Japan and the decision to fire Macarthur.  The two may be related.  Macarthur had wanted to drop thirty to fifty atomic bombs on Manchuria and the mainland cities of China.  If Truman had not prevailed, we might not be here.

But the comparison with the present White House is enough to make a man cry.

MY TOP SHELF – Chapter 31


[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.]



Whitney Bailliett (1986)

Oxford University Press, New York, 1986; rebound in half-calf in vibrant and confrontational pink, with grey cloth, and grey label embossed in gold.

Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.

When the late Whitney Bailliett reviewed a novel by Michael Ondaatje (The English Patient), he said that the novelist wrote like an angel.  The reviewer was well qualified to make such a judgment.  Philip Larkin described Bailliett as a ‘master of language.’  Here is an example from this book of his contributions to the New Yorker on jazz between 1962 and 1986.  (He was at the magazine a lot longer.)

Coleman Hawkins and Lester Young – the emperors of the tenor saxophone and the inventors of so much regal, original music – were opposites.  Hawkins was a vertical improviser, who ran the chord changes and kept the melody in his rear view mirror.  Young was a horizontal improviser, who kept the melody beside him and cooled the chord changes.  Hawkins had a voluminous enveloping tone.  Young had an oblique, flyaway sound.  Hawkins played so many notes in each chorus that he blotted out the sun.  Young hand-picked his notes, letting the light and air burnish them.  Hawkins played with a ferocious on-the-beat intensity.  Young seemed to be towed by the beat.  Hawkins was handsome, sturdy and businesslike.  Young was slender, fey, and oracular……But the two were not totally dissimilar.  Hawkins eventually destroyed himself with alcohol, and so did Young, although he did the job quicker.

Many of these giants destroyed themselves on drugs.  It was not just the burden of genius – they would be applauded by whites and then calmly told to go and sit, eat, or sleep elsewhere.  They were prophets rejected in their own country.

Each of the fifty-six portraits in this book is beautifully written and composed – of anecdote, biography, word pictures of the music, and those who made it, and the celebration of an art form, the only one to come from a sterile century.  Taken together they are the best picture that you can get of jazz outside of music.

The triumph of Mary Lou Williams’ style is that she has no style.  She is not an eclectic or an anthologist or a copyist; she is a gifted and delicate appreciator who distils what affects her in the work of other pianists into cool, highly individual synopses.  The grapes are others’, the wine is her own.  In the late twenties and early thirties, echoes of Jelly Roll Morton and Fats Waller and Earl Hines hurried through her work.  The mountainous shadow of Art Tatum passed over around 1940, and by 1945 she had become an expert bebop pianist.  Since jazz piano – the other-worldly convolutions of Cecil Taylor aside – has not moved very far since then, she is now a post-bebop performer, her chords and single-note melodic lines applauding such juniors as Bill Evans and Red Garland.

This is not idle academic chatter, but historical analysis of a high order.  Bailliett was, doubtless unconsciously, trying to do for modern jazz what Maitland did for old law.  He was trying to make it available to the untrained and the profane.  For example, he said that Lester Young – called ‘Pres’ by Billie Holiday – ‘had an airy lissom tone and an elusive lyrical way of phrasing that had never been heard before.’  When the singer, Sylvia Sims, complained to Young about talkative audiences, Pres replied: ‘Lady Sims, if there is one guy in the whole house who is listening – and maybe he’s in the bathroom – you’ve got an audience.’  Bailliett had played drums when he was younger, and he idolized Big Sid Catlett, and loved writing about his rim-shots and general playing.  Roy Eldridge – ‘Little Jazz’ – said of Big Sid: ‘Sid was a big cat, a fun-loving cat….What was so amazing about him, for all his size, was he was so smooth.  He was smooth as greased lightning.’

It is nearly impossible to write about music in performance.  Nevill Cardus could: so could Whitney Bailliett.  Here he is on the great Fats Waller.

Whichever, or whatever, Waller was a funny man, even when he played the piano and kept his mouth shut.  He was the last of the great stride pianists, and he perfected the style.  Stride piano had grown out of the oompah bass and filigreed right hand ragtime.  Its main concerns were rhythmic and melodic: keep that rocking two-beat motion going, no matter how slow, and keep the melody uppermost, no matter how strong the urge to embellish.  It was a chordal way of piano playing, both in the left hand, where tenths alternated with seesawing chord-and –single-note figures (Waller’s huge hands spanned more than a tenth), and in the right, where chords, often played staccato or against the beat, were spelled out by pearly Lisztian runs.

The piece on Erroll Garner is headed Being a Genius, which Garner certainly was.  Bailliett records Sylvia Sims offering the following anecdotes.  ‘Tatum told me that he adored Erroll, and that was strange because they were so different.  Tatum was something of a stuffed shirt, while Erroll was so articulate in his street-smart way.  Erroll loved chubby ladies….He was a very generous man. I remember walking to Jilly’s with him in the sixties and I don’t know how many times he stopped to say, ‘Hey, baby’, and reach into his pocket and lay something on whoever it was.’

Bailliett said that recording tends to ‘stymie’ jazz musicians, but Garner loved them – in a 1953 session, Erroll ‘rattled off thirteen numbers, averaging over six minutes each with no rehearsals and no retakes.’  Erroll liked ‘to have his base player sit on his left, so that the bass player could see his left hand.’

Here Garner describes how he wrote ‘Misty’ – Garner never learned how to read music.

I wrote ‘Misty’ from a beautiful rainbow I saw when I was flying from San Francisco to Chicago.  At that time, they didn’t have jets and we had to stop off in Denver.  When we were coming down, there was a beautiful rainbow.  The rainbow was fascinating because it wasn’t long but very wide and in every colour you can imagine.  With the dew drops and the windows being misty, that fine rain, that’s how I named it ‘Misty’.  I was playing on my knees like I had a piano, with my eyes shut.  There was a little old lady sitting next to me and she thought I was sick because I was humming.  She called the hostess, who came over, to find out I was writing ‘Misty’ in my head.  By the time I got off the plain, I had it.  We were going to make a record date, so I put it right on that date.  I always say that wherever she is today that old lady was the first one in on ‘Misty.’

Another pianist said that ‘when Erroll walked into a room, a light went on.  He was an imp. He could make poor bass players and poor drummers play like champions.  When he played, he’d sit down and drop his hands on the keyboard and start.  He didn’t care what key he was in or anything.  He was a full orchestra, and I used to call him ‘Ork’.  Another pianist said that what distinguished him ‘was his rich and profound quality of time…He was his magnificent pianistic engine.’

‘Who chi coo’ stood for magnificent obsession.  ‘People who don’t really know me call me Erroll.  But Sarah Vaughan, Peggy Lee, and Carmen McRae all know me as ‘Who chi coo’ and that means they love me as much as I love them.’

Bailliett ended the piece by recording the reaction of Garner when someone mentioned that he could not read music.  ‘Hell, man, nobody can hear you read.’

Bailliett said: ‘Jazz, after all, is a highly personal lightweight form – like poetry, it is an art of surprise – that shaken down, amounts to the blues, some unique vocal and instrumental sounds, and the limited elusive genius of improvisation.’  How do you write about that art?  It is a testament to the high art of Whitney Bailliett that he could do so with so much conviction and so much charm.

Well, if any one book on this shelf was going to be dressed in pink leather, this was it – this most beautiful book is just full of magic and treasure.  Indeed, pound for pound, there is for me as much magic and treasure in this book as in any other on this shelf.  This is not just a desert island book – it is a book of last resort when you think to yourself, again:  We are surrounded by savages – in the name of God, is there nothing left in the whole world with any form or grace?  And who knows?  If they found someone who could talk about music, perhaps we might find someone who can talk about God.

Passing Bull 208 – Decrying decency


It is highly entertaining to watch parts of the commentariat – the loudest voices in which call itself ‘the political class’ – decrying expressions of decency in big business – especially BHP and its CEO, Andrew Mackenzie.  Some people think that people in business should steer clear of moral and political issues.  They are just not clear about why this should be so.

We may put to one side the fact that those taking this position have a very shrill ideological commitment to a claimed ‘freedom’ of religious fundamentalists to condemn one in ten of us to Hell, but we can comfortably spot four reasons for them to be very jealous of Andrew Mackenzie.  He is much smarter than them.  He is much better educated than them – primary degree at St Andrews (geology); doctorate at Bristol (organic chemistry); Humboldt Research Fellow in Germany (nuclear science); the publisher of 50 research papers who speaks five languages (according to Wikipedia).  Finally, Mr Mackenzie does not just comment on others, which is the function of his critics – he creates jobs and wealth.  (There are not many of those about.  The BHP website refers to 62,000 employees and contractors.)  And, finally, he has leadership written all over him.

BHP has been outspoken on issues like indigenous recognition and relations with the First Nation generally; same sex marriage; climate change and coal; and diversity.  There are obvious reasons why a company engaged in mining in Australia or the Americas must have and profess strong policies on dealing with indigenous people.  Putting that to one side, there are at least three reasons why a company like BHP might be vocal on some moral and political issues.

One is the appalling failure of government to show anything resembling leadership on issues like same sex marriage and climate change.  Business has no alternative but to seek to fill the vacuum.  (The U S army decided years ago that it could not afford to wait until its Commander in Chief saw sense on climate change.  Insurers are now forcing others to act in the same way.)

Next, many shareholders expect this of their business; some demand it.  To describe such people as ‘activists’, as if you were articulating some truth, merely shifts the arguments down a rung.  In a society that calls itself capitalist, why should not the owners of capital deploy that fact to achieve social or political objectives?  Why should the owners of the business be precluded from expressing views about the position that the business adopts in the community?  As for the employees, is it not fundamental that a business goes better when its employees are happy in their jobs and proud of their work?

Finally, and perhaps as a result of the first two grounds, BHP should adopt the position it does because it is the right thing to do.  BHP has succeeded, and in my view all social groups depend upon those who have succeeded giving back to the community to those coming after them.  It is called noblesse oblige, and it is as essential for a company as it is for a family, a cricket club, a law firm, a small town, a political party, or a nation.  Mr Mackenzie looks to me to be the embodiment of this ideal.

May I relate this to my shareholdings in my super fund?   I hold shares in only eleven companies – four banks, three mining and exploration companies, two safe licensed investment companies, and CSL and Westfarmers.  I expect the businesses that I invest in to take care about their standing in the community generally.  I am broadly familiar with the management of all of those companies and, with one exception, I am content with that management.  The exception is three of the banks.  I am not happy with their management, or their standing in the community generally.  But – I am confident that they will change their ways; and in the meantime I have little option but to stay with them because the smallness of my fund and my reliance on it for income mean that I need to look for a safe yield above 6%.

Two anecdotes will show the value I put on good community relations.  When that dam that BHP had an interest in flooded a village in Brazil, Mr Mackenzie was over there within days and personally assuring villagers that the company would look after them.  It was very, very impressive.  I have acted for many large corporates, including BHP, and I can well imagine those in well-cut suits and under furrowed brows telling him such a course was risky and downright unwise.  This was leadership made visible.

When flying to the Bungle Bungles, I flew over the Rio diamond mine – a vast inverted ziggurat some distance from its lifeline airstrip – and I felt the thrill of ownership.  More importantly, at Broome I was told what a good job Woodside was doing in the local community.  I was also told a story that sounds like it has grown in the retelling.  A Woodside employee was making a pest of himself with a young woman at one of those fly-in, fly-out strips.  A Woodside executive told the miscreant of his lofty standing in the company, and that unless that man apologised to that young woman, he would be on the next plane back to Perth –and probably unemployable in that industry.

As a result of those incidents, I increased my holdings in BHP and Woodside (and, for that matter, Rio).  You may think that is a zany way to invest – well, it is my capital.  BHP is by far my biggest holding and I am very content with it – not least because it and Mr Mackenzie are acting in a way to attract criticism from those whom I least admire.

And when that criticism comes from those publicly associated with the IPA, which was, until recently, less publicly associated with coal and Gina Rinehart, then I know that our capacity for pure bullshit is unlimited.  And that’s also before we recall that those advising BHP how to run their business have never got with a bull’s roar of running any business.  Never mind – they don’t even draw the line at offering gratuitous but quite useless legal advice.


Asked earlier if Johnson’s team had sought any talks with Brussels, a Downing Street spokesman said: ‘What we’ve done is set out our position and say that we are very ready and will be energetic in beginning talking, but we’re also clear-eyed about what needs to happen if we are going to be able to secure a deal which parliament can support.

‘As I say, we are ready to begin talking, but we are clear what the basis for those discussions needs to be.’

The Guardian, 27 July, 2019

One problem with that is that it suggests that this government accepts that any deal must be supported by parliament.



[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.]



Henrik Ibsen (1890)

Oxford University Press, The Franklin library, 1983; translated by Eva Le Gallienne; illustrated by Tony Eubanks; fully bound in black leather, worked and embossed in gold, with humped spine moiré pearl endpapers and ribbon; gold edged pages.

Play-time is over now.

Henrik Ibsen left Norway because he was stifled by it.  He said he wanted to put a torpedo under the ark.  He went to Rome and was captivated by Michelangelo and Bernini because, he said, ‘they had the courage to commit a little madness now and then.’  That is a very revealing remark.  He was a member of the Scandinavian Club, that was doubtless as conservative as ex-pat groups tend to be.  The torpedo launched in Rome was a proposal to give women at the Club the vote.  This was 1879.  The motion was narrowly lost.  Members were uneasy about how Ibsen might react.

No one would have guessed it – but Ibsen came.  He looked magnificent, in full panoply, with medals to boot.  He ran his hand ceaselessly through his rich, grizzled hair, greeting no one in particular, but everyone in general.  There was a deep peace in his face, but his eyes were watchful, so watchful.  He sat alone.  We all thought that he had forgiven his fellow mortals, and some even supposed him penitent…Then he began, softly, but with a terrifying earnestness.  He had recently wished to do the Club a service, he might almost say a great favour, by bringing its members abreast with contemporary ideas.  No one could escape these mighty developments.  Not even here – in this community – in this duckpond!….Now he was no longer speaking calmly, no longer thoughtfully stroking his hair.  He shook his head with its grey mane.  He folded his arms across his chest.  His eyes shone.  His voice shook, his mouth trembled…He resembled a lion; nay, more – he resembled that future enemy of the people, Dr Stockmann….He repeated, and repeated: what kind of women are these….?

Thump!  A lady, Countess B, fell to the floor.  She, like the rest of us, flinched from the unspeakable.  So she took time by the forelock and swooned.  She was carried out.  Ibsen continued.  Perhaps slightly more calmly.  But eloquently and lucidly, never searching for a word.  …He looked remote and ecstatic….And when he was done, he went out unto the hall, took his overcoat and walked home.  Calm and silent.

(Could all Scandinavian people write like that back then?)

This volume has four of the plays – A Doll’s House, Ghosts, The Wild Duck, and Hedda Gabler.  With The Master Builder, they are the plays most put on now.  After these, the going gets tough.  For example, Romersholm ends on a double suicide and in Little Eyeolf a child is crippled while his parents are making love and becomes subject to the whiles of the Rat-woman leaving his parents to make Who’s Afraid of Virginia Wolf sound like a nursery rhyme.

It is hard for us now to recapture just how shocking A Doll’s House was.  Nora is treated like a doll by her husband until she can take it no longer and she just walks out.  The last words before the curtain are: From below is heard the reverberation of a heavy door closing.  That sound must have echoed round Stockholm and Berlin like a rifle shot.  Women just did not do that – walking out was not an option.

Helmer, the husband, is insufferably patronising.  ‘When a man forgives his wife wholeheartedly – as I have you – it fills him with such tenderness, such peace.  She seems to belong to him in a double sense.’  But it is not long before he is staring into the abyss.

It doesn’t occur to you, does it, that though we’ve been married for eight years, this is the first time that we two, man and wife, have sat down for a serious talk…..You never loved me.  You just thought it was fun to be in love with me….I’ve been your doll wife, just as at home I was Papa’s doll-child.  And the children in turn have been my dolls.  I thought it fun when you played games with me….I have another duty just as sacred…my duty toward myself…..But don’t you see – I don’t really know what religion is.

Then the husband says that he could not sacrifice honor for the sake of love, and he walks straight into this bell-ringer.

Millions of women do it every day.

This would have been all Mandarin in the south, but it electrified the nations of the north.  People sent dinner invitations endorsed ‘We will not discuss THAT play.’  One traditionalist complained that ‘one does not leave this play in the mood of exaltation which, ever since the days of the Greeks, has been regarded as the sine qua non for every work of art and literature.’  You can therefore see Ibsen’s contribution to modernism.  As with King Lear, some demanded a happy ending.  But as Michael Meyer observes in his wonderful biography: ‘So explosive was the message of A Doll’s House –that a marriage was not sacrosanct, that a man’s authority in his home should not go unchallenged, and that the prime duty of every person was to find out who he or she really was and become that person – that the technical originality of the play is often forgotten.  It achieved the most powerful and moving effect by the highly untraditional methods of extreme simplicity and economy of language….’

Hedda Gabler is another snap of heathens living in a world that calls itself Christian.  It must be the most lacerating role known to the stage.  The ‘trolls’ have stalked mankind right into civilized society.  Hedda is caught between a twerp of a husband and a sleazy judicial pants man.  She is left to face the roles of mother and mistress and she rejects both of them.  She is like a caged animal, and she becomes both vicious and lethal.  She is revolted by any kind of intimacy and cannot bring herself to use ‘du’ with her husband’s aunt.  Her only release is in inflicting pain.

I sometimes think there’s only one thing in this world I’m really fitted for….Boring myself to death…..I say there is beauty in this.  [Suicide of a former lover.]  Ejlert Lovborg has made up his own account with life.  He had the courage to do – the one right thing…..It gives me a sense of freedom to know that an act of deliberate courage is still possible in this world – an act of spontaneous beauty.

We are near the realm of Ayn Rand or something worse.  This play could just be a study in fascism.

For once in my life I want the power to shape a human destiny.

There is something demonic about Hedda.  Ibsen said ‘She really wants to live the whole life of a man.’  In the result her exit comes with a different sort of bang, and she might just be the most terrifying creature ever put on the stage.  The last way anyone would want to go to God would be with Hedda’s vine leaves in their hair.  Fascists are empty incomplete people who live on front and insignia.  They see their heroes – themselves – as champions wreathed in laurels.  They are also fascinated by guns.  Guns are a source of power to shape human destiny.  The external insignia of fascists betoken their internal emptiness.  They are an uncomely husk of humanity, a sad, pale mockery.  Hedda Gabler is indeed a very dark and evil invention.  This is a chick who kills for kicks.

On film, you can choose between Juliet Stephenson and Claire Bloom for Nora and between Ingrid Bergman and Diana Rigg for Hedda.  If the plays have a structural problem, it is that the men are door-mats.  Michael Redgrave is as wet a wimp as you could find for Hedda’s husband and Ralph Richardson is just nauseating as the revolting Judge Brack – he reminds you of the whining, insinuating Iago of Cyril Cusack.

Ibsen may be the only playwright who can hold a candle to Shakespeare.  One difference is that there is hardly any comedy.  But they both have one important thing in common.  They were both devoted to theatre and they both spent their professional lives writing plays for profit with the view to giving the public a good night out at the theatre.  The rest, I suspect, may be little more than moonshine.