A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot
Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn
‘Shifty’ may just be the best word for it. The Cardinal has the power of the Inquisition, but the exercise of that power haunts him. What happens if that power gets to be used against him? He is both suspicious and suspect. Every revolution brings the risk of a counter-revolution. In the result, El Greco brings you face to face with the magic of art – there is something there that commands our attention, but which we cannot adequately spell out in words. What, if any, is the difference between this inquisitor and a Communist commissar? Has this sometime holy man sold out to Mephistopheles? El Greco is one of my favourite painters. He comes down to me like Turner – just so far ahead of his time. His shimmering images reflect the edginess of faith. But if he was a champion of the Counter-Reformation, what was he doing by investing a prince of the Church with a pained countenance of doubt, if not downright guilt? I have seen and I am moved by the paintings by El Greco of Christ dealing with the money lenders at the National Gallery in London and the Met in New York. For me, they are like Mozart in oils on canvass. (And did El Greco really use his mistress as a model for the Madonna?) Well, shifty is the word comes to mind whenever I see Vladimir Putin. It is just as well that he never set out his stall as a used car dealer.
Princess Park, the home of Carlton, was, I thought, different as a footy ground for being reputed to be larger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground. I have a reasonable recollection of John Lord, a solid six footer who wore number 4 for the Demons (the Melbourne Football Club), kicking a goal from a set shot from inside what would now be the centre square through the goal at the east end – with a drop kick! Unbelievable. I think this was in 1965. (About a generation later, Malcolm Blight would become famous for kicking a goal after the bell at the other end of the ground – from a point not far from the centre of the ground. Like a certain paint product, it just kept on keeping on.) The significance of 1965 is that this was the first time Melbourne had met Carlton since Barassi switched from Melbourne to Carlton. They had won six premierships under Norm Smith before the old brigade at the MCC decided to sack him. The Demons have not won a flag since then – it is like the curse that descended on the Red Sox – the Demons are the Redlegs –when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees. For people of my generation, the move of Barassi to another club entailed a frightful loss of innocence – and an end to the simple loyalty of boyhood and youth. God only know what we may have done had he gone to Collingwood. We had had to endure a similar challenge to faith when national heroes of tennis – like Hoad and Rosewall after Sedgman and McGregor– turned pro. The Davis Cup was tarnished. We felt diminished – sold out. We would feel a worse sense of national betrayal when we learned that our government had taken us to war under false pretences. Twice.
My cooking can, I think, fairly be described as Socratic. That is, I have a profound grasp of my own limitations and failings. I therefore stick with the tried and the simple. A friend told me that the first time he tried a béarnaise sauce was the night a well-known cooking identity came to her place for dinner. That could not happen to me. For the most part, I only serve meals for guests that I have prepared a day or so beforehand. Like lamb shanks or ox-tail slow cooked in a low oven in the French blue Le Creuset pot that is an essential part of my life and not just its furniture. There is somethinguplifting about taking the pot from the oven and lifting the lid and savouring the effect of the heat, the herbs and the wine on the meat on the bone. Do vegetarians really want to go without this? The trickiest thing I do is a cassoulet. Depending on the season, you may find it hard to get one nowadays in Paris. It was I think Julian Burnside who said that mine was the best he had had south of Lyons. Well, from a given point in the evening dinner, barristers are prone to a certain level of romance.
Wittgenstein said: ‘If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.’ What if he was right? Well, as I suspect Wittgenstein may have said: In order to consider that question, you would have to ask what was meant by the terms ‘Christianity’ and ‘the truth’. Neither question is small.
We got to Tel Aviv at dusk and took a car to Jerusalem so that we arrived at the King David Hotel in darkness. We got up the next morning, took breakfast with the big Jewish mommas and some revolting milk, and asked the cab driver to take us to Gethsemane. (Can you blaspheme by giving directions to a cab driver?) I looked out the window and saw the parapets of what looked like a castle wall. I immediately thought: ‘Look – there is King David’s city.’ The recognition was instantaneous, but it came from nowhere. It was an unnerving case of déjà vu. It is curious that I get the same feeling at St James’ Park in London, the Tiergarten in Berlin and Central Park in New York. They are all names to conjure with, but I get an odd sense of belonging to each when I go into it. Each is like a beating heart to what is deservedly known as one of the great cities of the world. For some reason, I do not get the same reaction at the Tuileries in Paris, although my reading probably takes me more often to them than the others. But to return to the cab driver in Jerusalem, at least when I was there those cabbies were reputed to be rapacious – as some that I found in Rio or Prague. Which reminds me of the time when Gavin Forrest, a partner of mine, and I took a client to lunch at the Melbourne Club. He was a charming man – a German lawyer working for a very big Japanese company. Naturally, we joked about not mentioning the war. We were later joined by a partner, Charles Brett, who was not a party to that preparation in etiquette. Something came up about foreign cabbies and I mentioned the trouble I had had at Prague, Rio and Jerusalem. Charles said: ‘Do you know that there is a hotel in Paris that some cabbies will not go to?’ ‘No – why is that, Charles?’ ‘The Lutetia. It was the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war.’ Well, there you go. Your whole life until then flashes before your eyes, and you hope that your frozen wide-eyed immobility masks the fearful din within. Eat your heart out, John Cleese.