Here and there – Beethoven in Berlin

Because of recent events in footy, I am subject to an addiction to YouTube.  Before the Grand Final, I warmed up with documentaries on the Battle of Britain.  To ease the stress, I turned the commentary off the TV and flooded the room with Beethoven (until the last quarter.) 

I had recently seen and been greatly moved by a performance of the Ninth, or Choral, symphony in Berlin.  The orchestra was the Youth Orchestra of Europe conducted by Petrenko.  The performance was at the main old concert hall and beamed outside the crowd – of all ages.  The theatre came with the camera studies of the reaction of the crowd, and the performers, especially in the last movement.  The orchestra sported the colours of the European Union and at the end Petrenko conducted everyone with a version of the European Anthem, based on the Ode to Joy.  If you have a dry eye then, you have big problems.

You can also get Barenboim conducting another scratch orchestra in the new concert hall.  This features younger people not in white ties.  The comparison in styles is fascinating.  The last movement here is full of the drama of the score.  In both versions, the shots of the choir are terrific.

These are certainly productions to be seen as well as heard.  I recommend both – absolutely.  He is after all one of theirs, and it is wonderful to see them playing and enjoying him.

Here and there – Strategy in Sport

The AFL Grand Final holds lessons for followers of other footy codes, and those engaged in litigation, and other blood sports like politics.

It is trite to say that a champion team will generally beat a team of champions.  But all teams want champions.  Tina Turner was wrong.  We need all the heroes we can get. 

The Grand Final came in three surges – first by Melbourne, then by the Western Bulldogs, and finally by Melbourne.  The first two surges took the attackers to a match threatening lead.  The third won the match.  The two Melbourne surges were led by two of their champions, Petracca and Oliver.  The Bulldogs’ surge was led by their champion, Bontempelli.  During each surge, those champions seriously challenged the morale of the other side, and they looked like they might take out the match and the medal for best on ground.  But the morale of the side under attack held up during the first two and then collapsed in the face of the deadly ferocity of the third.

Champions by their nature threaten the morale of the other side and lift the morale of their own side.  Someone said that when Warne played for Australia, they always thought they could win.  That’s how Melbourne regards Petracca and Oliver and it’s how the Dogs regard Bontempelli. 

And it was the way that these champions kicked their goals that really frightened the other side – especially the second of Petracca, a dribbled goal at 75 degrees drilled through with alarming purpose and conviction.  The effect of that goal on the Dogs may have been like the effect of Warne on the English dressing room when he bowled yet one another around his legs.  I was watching on TV and could not see heads drop or hands on hips, but the desolation was unconcealable when Oliver slammed one through on the run.  With hindsight, we know that that was the death blow.

Another truism is that footy is a game of momentum.  This is especially so with the AFL as there are many more scoring chances and what is called ‘scoreboard pressure’ becomes as obvious as it is escalated.  The Melbourne surge well into the third quarter came bang, bang, bang – and then bang, bang, bang, bang.  Seven goals – just like that.  The momentum, like the crowd, became crushing.  It would be tart to say that the crowd there, and the millions around the nation, were electrified.  This is about the highest form of drama you can see on a sporting field.  You cannot get anything like it in any other footy code.  That is why most people brought up on AFL cannot see anything of interest in any other code.  Their scoring barometers look just awful.

The damage to the Dogs’ capacity to fight on was terminal.  That momentum in AFL could I think only have been broken by a serious injury requiring a stretcher.  In rugby, that momentum could have been broken, and the whole history of the game changed, by the intervention of the TMO, the off-field referee. 

There were two incidents in the Grand Final that in rugby could have led to such intervention – contact to the head and a sling tackle on to a hard surface when the ball was dead – and where the tackle was inherently dangerous.  On my experience following rugby this year, a red card – losing one player for the rest of the match – would have been far more likely than not for the second incident.  I have no idea of how the game may have panned out if that had happened, but it is now clear to me that the AFL will not and should not let that ever happen.  It is in my view a serious threat to rugby and I gather a source of grief in the round ball game.

We go the opera and the footy to see character on show and tested.  Test matches are well named.  Football matches are tests of strength and character, as is most litigation.  It surprises me that more people involved in those contests do not take more notice of Clausewitz On War.  He makes the obvious point that while you can count casualties, you cannot measure morale.  It is evanescent. 

Melbourne this year has shown a level of composure under fire that they had not shown since 1964.

An army that maintains its cohesion under the most murderous fire; that cannot be shaken by imaginary fears and resists well-founded ones with all its might; that, proud of its victories, will not lose the strength to obey orders and its respect and trust for its officers even in defeat; whose physical power, like the muscles of an athlete, has been steeled by training in privation and effort…. such an army is imbued with the true military spirit.

That seems as obvious as it is relevant.

Melbourne has built on the foundations of its defence. 

We have already stated what defence is – simply the more effective form of war: a means to win a victory that enables one to take the offensive after superiority has been gained ….the transition to the counter-attack must be accepted as a tendency inherent in defence….a sudden powerful transition to the offensive – the flashing sword of vengeance – is the greatest moment for the defence.

And for the crowd behind the fence.  It is this which makes the All Blacks so fearsome. 

‘The lower the defender’s morale, the more daring the attacker should be.’  That was Melbourne at the end of the third quarter.  ‘Everyone rates the enemy’s bravery lower once his back is turned.’  That sadly for them was the condition of the Bulldogs in the last quarter. 

We Melbourne supporters have seen it all before – at the wrong end.   It is all so very human.  That’s what gets us in.  You can probably find it all in Homer’s Iliad – although if someone sought to inflict Achilles on any footy team of mine, I would wish to sue them for what Roman law called the wrong of outrage.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


A Philosopher’s Guide to Wine

Roger Scruton

Bloomsbury Continuum, 2009.

Roger Scruton is an English philosopher who enjoys, among other things, fox hunting and wine.  He is conservative – more than that, he is a sane and articulate conservative who can speak in terms that the rest of us can follow.  That makes him a rarity among philosophers, if not conservatives.  When Australians who regard themselves as conservatives – often falsely in my view – invoke Scruton, they conveniently forget that he is firmly committed to conserving the planet.  He wrote a book about how to be a green conservative.

This book begins as follows.

This book is not a guide to drinking wine, but a guide to thinking it.  It is a tribute to pleasure, by a devotee of happiness, and a defence of virtue by an escapee from vice.  Its argument is addressed to theists and atheists, to Christians, Jews, Hindus and Muslims, to every thinking person to whom the joy of meditation has not extinguished the pleasures of embodiment.  I have harsh words to say about the health fanatics, about the mad mullahs, who prefer taking offence to seeing another’s viewpoint.  But my purpose is to defend the opinion once attributed to Plato that ‘nothing more excellent or valuable than wine was ever granted by the gods to man’, and I am confident that all those who are offended by this innocent endeavour thereby give proof of their irrelevance.

Scruton quotes Jefferson as saying ‘wine is the only antidote to whiskey.’  He is an old fashioned purist: ‘To assign points to a claret is like assigning points to symphonies – as though Beethoven’s 7th, Tchaikovsky’s 6th, Mozart’s 39th and Bruckner’s 8th all hovered between 90 and 95’.  Robert Parker did us no favour with this system – it reminds me of judging divers – but Australian critics have loyally gone along with it.

This book is that of a learned man that will not suit all palates.  Scruton does cover a lot of ground – mainly in the European context.

Ancient philosophy, Christian religion and Western art all see wine as a channel of communication between god and man, between the rational soul and the animal, between the animal and the vegetable kingdoms.

Scruton then explores that statement with an analysis of Wagner’s Tristan and Isolde and a critical argument of Kant (who had guests for lunch every day and gave each guest a pint of red wine).

Scruton has trouble with our selling wine by reference to grape variety rather than place.  He says that the Wirra Wirra, in McLaren Vale, is one of ‘the oldest and most beautiful wineries in Australia and that its Grenache and Shiraz is a wine that tastes of Australia – so strong that it resembles a fortified wine, combining the guilty excesses of port with the playfulness of the Australian outback.’  ‘Playful’ is not a term I would use for the outback.  It is a gorgeous killer.  But I am very familiar with the reaction of Europeans to the strength of Australian wines.

And to force Syrah up to 14 per cent or more, tricking it into early maturation, so as to put the result on the market with all its liquorice flavours unsubdued, puffing out its dragon breath like an old lecher leaning sideways to put a hairy hand on your knee, is to slander a grape that, properly treated, as it is on the hill of Hermitage or on the Côte Rôtie, is the most slow and civilised of seducers.

There was a time when we may have sniffed some condescension, if not snobbery, from an Englishman there, but since this book is on the shelf to celebrate the role of wine in my life, and since most of that is Australian, I will say something about our wines.

Doctor Christopher Rawson Penfold was a medical practitioner near Brighton in England.  He emigrated to Australia, to the area around what we now call Adelaide, with his wife Mary.  In 1844, just eight years after this convict free colony started, they purchased 500 acres of ‘the choicest land’ for the sum of £1200.  It was from the estate of Sir Maitland Mackgill.  Mary Penfold farmed the land while her husband developed his medical practice.  She looked after the early wine-making on the new estate.  The first wines made from Grenache were prescribed as tonic wines for anaemic patients.  In the early years, the Penfolds also grew barley which was made into beer and sold at a place where wagon trains ended with an appropriate name – World’s End Pub. 

That is how the wine-making business we know as Penfolds started.  Its slogan was ‘1844 to evermore’ and one of its premium wines was and is Magill Estate.  Penfolds is one of the world’s biggest and best wine-making businesses.  It is at least as good as the French at the bottom end of the market, and it has one label that can match it with the French at the very top.  It is a business that Australians can be proud of and it makes wines that they – including me – can enjoy.  If doctors get dirty about your consumption of Penfolds, remind them of the subject of the first miracle.

A couple of months before the ANZACS landed at Gallipoli, Max Schubert was born to Lutheran parents in a German community at the edge of the Barossa Valley in South Australian.  This was not an easy time for Australians of German descent, and there were lots of such people in the wine-making areas of South Australia.  The Barossa Valley was then the most significant wine-making area in Australia.  Its specialty was and still is the variety known as Shiraz or, sometimes, Hermitage.  Young Max joined Penfolds as a messenger boy.  By 1948, he had become the chief wine-maker, a position he held until 1975.  Max spent his whole working life at Penfolds.  The exception was his war service.  He volunteered against the express wishes of Penfolds to fight the Germans.  He did so in North Africa, Crete, and the Middle East before fighting the Japanese in New Guinea – where he contracted malaria.  That is an extraordinary record of service – to his country as well as to Penfolds.  It is also an extraordinary story of survival.

In 1949, Max was sent to France and Spain to learn more about fortified wines.  They were then the mainstay of production – and the first port of call for serious drunks.  He of course went to Bordeaux.  He visited wine-makers with names to conjure with – Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Chateau Latour and Chateau Margaux.   He there tasted very aged wines.  When he got back, he wanted to try to make a wine that would age as well as these great Bordeaux wines.  He did so, and he succeeded.  When he died in 1994 at the age of 79, The New York Times said that his wine known as the Grange had won more wine show prizes than any other Australian wine and was regarded as the flagship of the Australian wine-making industry.  It is in truth a household name –even if most of us cannot afford the $700 or so one bottle costs on release.  Max Schubert spoke of the beginning of this great wine.

It was during my initial visit to the major wine-growing areas of Europe in 1950 that the idea of producing an Australian red wine capable of staying alive for a minimum of twenty years and comparable with those produced in Bordeaux first entered my mind.  I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of Monsieur Christian Cruise, one of the most respected and highly qualified of the old school of France at that time and he afforded me, among other things, the rare opportunity of tasting and evaluating wines between 40 and 50 years old, which were still sound and possessed magnificent bouquet and flavour.  They were of tremendous value from an educational point of view and imbued in me a desire to do something to lift the rather mediocre standard of Australian red wine in general at that time…..

The grape material used in Bordeaux consisted of our basic varieties…..Only cabernet sauvignon and malbec were available in South Australia at the time, but  survey showed that they were in such short supply as to make them impracticable commercially….I elected to use hermitage or shiraz only (which was in plentiful supply) knowing full well that if I was careful enough in the choice of area and vineyard and coupled that with the correct production procedure, I would be able to make the type and style of wine I wanted…..

 So began an Australian success story.  Penfolds has produced labels including Grange, St Henri, Bin 389 and the ultimate fall-back of the author, Koonunga Hill, which, at about $10 a bottle, is as good a value for wine as you can find anywhere in the world. 

Someone once said that Max Schubert smoked Gauloise cigarettes.  If he did, that would have supplied a real motive for making one very big wine because they could kill a brown dog at thirty yards.  But whether Max smoked those cigarettes or not, he made an enduring contribution to the Australian story.  He helped us to shed that ghastly failing called ‘the cringe’.  On a good day, we can play cricket and footy well.  But we can also make a bloody good wine – and without any evident help from on high.

Passing Bull 287 – The death of English

In a massive Time/Life set of Churchill at war, I found this memo boxed:

A hot discussion is raging in the ATS (women in the army) about whether members who marry should, if they wish, be allowed to quit.  Nearly everyone is in favour of this.  It seems futile to forbid them, and if they desert, there is no means of punishing them.  Only the most honourable are therefore impeded.  Pray let me have, on one sheet of paper, a note on this showing the pros and cons.

If you substitute ‘please’ for the archaic ‘pray’, could the message be simpler?  And could you imagine any of our prime ministers being so direct?

This is not just a matter of style or syntax.  The note shows a state of mind – of someone who can make a decision and give orders appropriately.  That is leadership.  We do not see much of it in our politicians now.

Passing Bull 286 – Why the Bendigo Bank is Bent

This post is written in anger. 

This afternoon, I needed access to my accounts online with the Bendigo Bank.  I could not get on their site on this laptop.  I therefore screwed up my courage to ring them.  No one likes ringing a bank or Telstra.  After the usual noughts and crosses games, the computer gave me a quote of a delay time of eight to twelve minutes.  Not good – but bearable.  I then got subjected to that banal repeated propaganda that tells you so much about the mentality of those running these outfits – both banal and grasping.  That lasted thirty minutes before I hung up in disgust.  THIRTY MINUTES – out of my life because a bloody bank can’t get its act together – decently, or at all.

The original quote of delay time was wantonly reckless if not downright fraudulent.  I was not given the option of taking a call back if I wanted it.  And the propaganda kept repeating the same dreadful lie – ‘Your call shall be answered shortly.’ 

The directors of the Bendigo Bank should be deeply and personally ashamed of the way that they manage their bank.  They obviously chase profit so that they mistreat their customers.  That is not good business.  As it happens, I hold shares in that bank.  And I am now deeply offended as a shareholder – because I personally do not want to be a part of a business that is so rude to people and that treats you and me as just means to their ends.  The conduct of these directors sadly reflects the collapse of courtesy and common decency in our public life.  What kind of person would now trust what a bank said?

I repeat – the directors of the Bendigo Bank should be deeply and personally ashamed of the way that they manage their bank.  

And it did not take those bastards long to wash Ken Hayne right out of their hair.


Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf


Mark Twain, 1884

The Library of America, 1982; composite volume ‘Mississippi Writings’; bound in cloth boards, and slip case; the volume includes three other works, including The Adventures of Tom Sawyer.

You don’t know about me, without you have read a book by the name of ‘The Adventures of Tom Sawyer’, but that ain’t no matter.  That book was made by Mr Mark Twain, and he told the truth mainly.  There was things which he stretched, but mainly he told the truth.  That is nothing.  I never seen anybody but lied, one time or another, without it was Aunt Polly, or the widow, or maybe Mary Aunt Polly – tom’s Aunt Polly, she is – and Mary, and the Widow Douglas, is all told about in that book – which is mostly a true book; with some stretchers, as I said before.

That’s how this novel starts.  Huck then has supper with the widow.

After the supper she got out her book and learned me about Moses and the Bulrushers; and I was in sweat to find out all about him; but by-and-by she let it out that Moses had been dead a considerable time; so then I didn’t care no more about him; because I don’t take no stock in dead people.

This book is about the friendship between two people, Huck and Jim, who are both fugitives – Huck is fleeing from one beastly white man, his father; Jim is a Negro who is fleeing from all white men.  They are both, if you like, refugees – but Jim’s condition is pitiful and illegal, while Huck is troubled that he is assisting to escape – it is like aiding a thief. 

The hypocrisy shocks us now.  One lady, quite possibly one of an ‘evangelical’ disposition, feels sorry for and takes pity for someone she believes to be a runaway apprentice – Huck – but boasts about unleashing the dogs on a runaway slave – Jim.  Twain said that ‘a sound heart is a surer guide than an ill-trained conscience,’ and he certainly got that right.

Three things will trike you quickly about this book – it is a ripper of a yarn; it is written in a graphic vernacular; and it tells home truths about America as it was – and, sadly, still is. 

On each of those grounds, it is a wonder that T S Eliot was a fan.  And he was more than just a fan.

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn is the only one of Mark Twain’s various books which can be called a masterpiece….Huck Finn is alone: there is no more solitary character in fiction.  The fact that he has a father only emphasizes his loneliness; and he views his father with a terrifying detachment.  So we come to see Huck himself in the end as one of the permanent symbolic figures of fiction; not unworthy to take a place with Ulysses, Faust, Don Quixote, Don Juan, Hamlet and other great discoveries that man has made about himself.

Well, there you go – none of those five characters – or ‘permanent symbolic features of fiction’ – is a bottom-feeder.  Each is, apparently, a great discovery that man has made about himself.

Some of the most hilarious passages in the book concern two grifters known as the King and the Duke – David Garrick the Younger and Edmund Kean the Elder – who scam hillbilly towns by posing as actors.  They have a killer merchandising card: ‘LADIES AND CHILDREN NOT ADMITTED.’  That really winds up the locals.  (Before the election of Trump, you may have thought that kind of mockery was over the top.)

But how could they leave Jim on his own on the raft on the Mississippi when any number of people would rush to seize him for the reward?

He was uncommon bright, the duke was, and he soon struck it.  He dressed Jim up in King Lear’s outfit – it was a long curtain calico gown, and white horse-hair wig and whiskers; and then he took his theatre paint and painted Jim’ s face and hands and ears and neck all over a dead dull solid blue, like a man that’s been drownded nine days.  Blamed if he warn’t the horriblest looking outrage I ever see.  Then the duke took and wrote a sign on a shingle so –

Sick Arab – but harmless when not out of his head.

And he nailed that shingle to a lath, and stood the lath up four or five foot in front of the wigwam.  Jim was satisfied.

Heartless or malicious people can’t write like that.  It is therefore sad – if perhaps not surprising – that some members of the American academic establishment think this book is ‘racist’ and that it should be banned from schools or the like. 

Some get exercised over the repeat use of the word ‘nigger’.  It is not a good idea to try to resolve issues of moment by recourse to labels.  It is as hard for me to think that the author of Huckleberry Finn was loaded against black Americans as it is hard for me to think that the author of Kim was loaded against the peoples of India.  The whole of the book in each case refutes the allegation.  Rather, in my view, the charge reflects a prejudice in the mind of the person making it. 

The two novels have a lot in common.  The hero of each is a boy.  He falls in with a man who is older than him and who is of a different race and a different world.  They embark on a journey, physically and morally.  The novel is about their coming together – like Don Quixote and Sancho Panza.  If we were a little less Anglo-Saxon about all this, we might even say that this was a love story. 

However that may be, Huckleberry Finn, like the other two novels just mentioned, is a testament to humanity that can stand however many readings you need for a decent fix.  So, read it say once a year – as Faulkner said that he did with Don Quixote – and leave those dreary drongos to strain like gnats at a camel.

Here then is T S Eliot again, a man not given to sweeping praise.

What is obvious … is the pathos and dignity of Jim, and this is moving enough; but what I find still more disturbing, and still more unusual in literature, is the pathos and dignity of the boy, when reminded so humbly and humiliatingly, that his position in the world is not that of other boys, entitled from time to time to a practical joke; but that he must bear, and bear alone, the responsibility of a man.  It is Huck who gives the book style. The River gives the book its form.….

And it is as impossible for Huck as for the River to have a beginning or end — a career. So the book has the right, the only possible concluding sentence. I do not think that any book ever written ends more certainly with the right words:

‘But I reckon I got to light out for the Territory ahead of the rest, because Aunt Sally she’s going to adopt me and civilize me, and I can’t stand it. I been there before’.

I wonder if Ken Kesey had that ending in mind when he ended One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with the words: ‘I been away a long time.’

Passing Bull 285 – Romancing Anzacs

The government made some bizarre remarks about Anzac Day – after the Prime Minister had said that no Australian soldier had died in vain in wars   The Age today has two wonderful letters. 

Barbara Wertheim of Brunswick begins:

I am the daughter of an Anzac.  My father fought at Lone Pine and died when I was seven from injuries sustained  at Gallipoli.  I grew up in Victory Square, the Prahran War Memorial – 16 houses rented for a shilling a week to war widows.

Maggie Morgan of Northcote came from a father and grandfather who fought in several wars and lost all their friends – yes, all of them.  She grew up in NATO bases in Germany where people were told the truth.

Clearly, neither Mr Tudge nor his colleagues have the moral courage and integrity to accommodate wider perspectives on Australia’s history, whether it be war, colonisation or the genocide of our First Peoples.

These ladies know the truth and are qualified to tell it.

Here and there – No nurses for poor John Keats

During a small hiccup in my departure from hospital this morning, I penned the following note on the back of a most priceless package – my discharge papers.  I penned it twice – a doctor’s quote on time is worth as much as a lawyer’s.

I had taken with me my beautiful Baynton-Riviera binding of the poems of John Keats – olive green leather with gold leaf and a burgundy label.  I saw, I think for the first time, that Keats was born on the same day as me – 31 October (the day that Luther unleashed his thunderbolts).  This poor little Cockney – reviled for being just that – did not make it to 26.  Yet I in my quietude look set to cheat the Reaper to reach 76.  How does God square that?  A young man who could happily walk twenty miles in Scotland before breakfast succumbed to a disease of the lungs more lethal to him that the cancer and emphysema that afflict mine – and which a very short while ago would certainly have killed me. 

Shelley thought that the critics killed Keats with their sneers and snobbery.  That’s as may be, but the end of Keats in Rome was sad and cruel.  It took the poor little bugger twenty-eight days to clear the Channel.  He had no nurses – his good friend Severn nursed him.  In his rotten end, Keats felt worse than unnoticed – he felt despised and rejected.  ‘Here lies one whose name is writ on water.’  That is on the headstone of a grave dug at night for Protestants in Catholic Rome.  (And what does God have to say about that?)

At home, I have a drawing of Keats by a distinguished English cartoonist.  It is in black and white – except for the eyes – which are pale blue.  Eyes beguiled the young poet.  ‘And her eyes were wild’.  ‘Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes/ He stared at the Pacific – and all his men/Look’d at each other with a wild surmise –./Silent upon a peak in Darien.’  And that singular prescription for a coquette: ‘Nymph of the downward smile and sidelong glance.’  

This gentle young man, this bright star, was too young to have acquired malice, but he even found time for a sketch of what passes now for politics.

And where we think that the truth least understood,

Oft may be found in a ‘singleness of aim’,

That ought to frighten into hooded shame

A money-mong’ring pitiable brood.  (Sonnet addressed to Haydon.)

Well, those people have no time for Keats.  But his poetry taught us the rich fullness of life, while his own life showed us its raw brutality.