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.

Passing bull 207 – The Common Enemy


Technology now permits and encourages anonymous lies and attacks.  It is a bonus for cowards, fools, and crooks.  Just witness its role in the rise of people like Farage, Trump, and Johnson.  It has exposed the soft underbelly of democracy – enough people may be credulous enough to get you a very bad result.  Are we only as strong as our weakest link?  The democratic process is vulnerable because of its very openness.

Many lies were told during the last election.  That is about par for the course.  But it has been made much worse by corporations like Facebook.  It participated in lie that said that one party intended to introduce a death tax.  When challenged on this, Facebook responded:

I understand that your preference would be for Facebook to remove all content that you believe constitutes misinformation – which in this instance mean all content that discussed whether or not Labor intends to introduce a death tax – rather than demote it; however Facebook only removes content that violates our community standards.

Calling a lie ‘misinformation’ is enough to expose the credibility of the author.  We are talking about a straight lie, and if the original author was Clive Palmer, it could hardly be anything else.  We are in the distressingly familiar area of a contempt for truth.

Then there is that weasel term ‘community standards.’  But it is here qualified by ‘our’.  Who are we?  Not bloody me mate.  And if your community standards allow for barefaced lies – and they do – you have a problem and you are a problem.


The Hungarian government denies it is trying to shape the way that history is written. In a blog post, government spokesman Zoltan Kovacs characterised the 1956 Institute’s absorption by Veritas as ‘a minor administrative change to make research more efficient by integrating related fields into the same structure’.

Financial Times, 26 July, 2019


Greg Sheridan visited Hungary as a guest of the MCC Hungarian think tank.

The Weekend Australian, July, 20-21, 2019

And, he delivered on that investment.  MCC acolytes did not mention Orban’s name.

Yet according to the high organs of international liberalism, Orban is a fascist.  Surely fascist leaders promote a cult of personality?  Yet there are no statues of him in Budapest, no great memorials, and supporters of his government seem to be just like supporters of any other government.

Becoming a paid propagandist is does not look good for a journalist.