Some people of influence

(A random list of people who have influenced me.  It is neither complete nor exclusive – so don’t ask me why I put Robbie Flower and Billy Slater in – and left out Jane Austen and Dante.

This clipped memoire reminds me of how fortunate I have been to be born when and where I was and to find tables laid out for me with so much treasure.)

Ali

Simply the greatest.  Confronted the contempt for black people, but had to join the Nation of Islam to avoid the Mob.  A strident commentary on the ugly flaws in the American psyche and a reminder of the dignity that should come with our humanity.

Arendt

Serious moral courage and blinding insights.  The ‘banality of evil’ is up there with ‘darkness visible’ and ‘Satan felt how awful goodness is.’

Balzac

Effortless dissection of the emptiness of the bourgeoisie.  He wrote as easily as we breathe.  Rodin was dead right.

Barassi

The crucial role of character in sport – and elsewhere.  A child-hood hero who stuck.  An essential part of my fabric from boyhood on.  And of the city of Melbourne.

Baryshnikov

Ascended at the Palais and half of St Kilda heard the gasp.

Beethoven

A titanic Prometheus who gave thunder back to the gods.

Benaud

A true all-rounder.  Best captain since Waugh.  Captained Australia in the best series ever and was a real part in the famous tied test (the end of which I heard live.)  Later made commentary an art form.

Bjorling

A voice from God that was too much for him to bear.

Bloch

An Alsatian Jew who fought in uniform in the First World War and was executed by the Germans as a member of the Resistance in the Second.  A truly great historian, he reminds me of Maitland and Namier – his digging gives him the right to be heard.  His Feudal Society is a masterpiece that fills a massive hole in my understanding of history.

Bonhoeffer

Matchless courage.  ‘This heritage, for which we are grateful, puts us under obligation.’  The essence of communion.

Burton

The voice that brought me to Shakespeare.

Callas

Pure alchemy that will long out-live her tragic end.  As commanding a figure as Ali.  An affirmation of being human.

Carlyle

Blazing insights of a ravaged mind; not history, but tone poems beyond words.  Read The French Revolution eight times, and counting.  Sustained magic.

Cervantes

Our first novel – a masterpiece about a sainted madman and his rough mate.  The soul of Spain.  Faulkner saidhe read it once a year.  The dialogues are high theatre.

Churchill

Made history by force of character – and saved the world.  Cried easily and he still has that effect on me.

Clark

A biblical account of our disconsolate past.  Trashed and abused by people who should have known better.  Read the six volumes and the short version twice.

Coke

As tough as old boots with a sting like a Taipan who batted for England and who became the champion of the common law – England’s great gift to the world.

Darwin

People in the business of persuasion should study and savour The Origin of Species.  Darwin writes clearly and simply – and without pretence.  He is candid and patient.  He is courteous throughout.  He shows no vanity, mockery, scorn, or contempt.  He shows his respect for and thanks to other professionals.  And he knew the atheists were more dogmatic than the believers.

Davis

One of the few drivers of real change in art in the 20th century – and he kept going – against the white tide.

Denning

A hugely powerful mind in a man who changed the way we write law – and who remembered my name.  By chance or design, we did not often see the dark side.

Disraeli

The grandson of an Italian Jew who made his queen the Empress of India.  Style and grace matter – not least in a Tory.  Nothing like it since.

Dixon

Our greatest jurist – by far.  A model for aspiration who helped to destroy the cringe.  Some of his stuff on the constitution  would have made Kant sit up.

Dostoevsky

No small ego, but the Russian genius for high drama.  The Brothers Karamazov is as strong a novel as I have read.  The scene with the Inquisitor makes me hold my breath – breathtaking power and courage.

Einstein

Outrageous insights that reduced the universe to issues of faith – with a very sane view of the world – and of God.  (Not so good to his wife.)

El Greco

So ahead of his time.  Blinding novelty despite his subscription to the Vatican.  Heralds our emancipation from magic.

Faulkner

Fitzgerald and Hemingway wrote prettily, but what did they have to say?  Faulkner also had problems with skirt and the bottle, but his novels come with a breathtaking wallop.  For raw power, Absalom! Absalom ! is for me matched only by Dostoyevsky. 

Flower

Baryshnikov on the wing in a number two jersey.  The pride of Melbourne.  Helped with the misery of the curse.  Pure bliss for Victoria when he had good players around him for a change.

Freeman

Redeemed the nation in about one minute.  Turned up for the funeral of a mate of mine just because he had done some work for her people.  Quite a lady.

Gibbon

Majesty.

Gibson

Raw courage and devotion – with and without Nigger.  Harris said he would be in Walhalla – above the salt.

Holmes

A Boston Brahmin who stopped three bullets in the Civil War.  As strong a mind as any here.  The Common Law is my bible.

Ibsen

He was the subject of my first weekender at Cambridge.  It opened my eyes.  Ibsen was a difficult man who set out to put a torpedo under the middle class ark.  The Dolls’ House was explosive.  Hedda Gabler is as gripping as Hamlet. 

Jesus

A saintly man whose life and teaching have been so badly let down.  Signed his death warrant by taking to the money people.  Not a rock on which an Establishment might be built.

Joyce

Yes, Ulysses is up there with Don Quixote and War and Peace, but Portrait of an Artist is not so in your face, and The Dead contains what in my view is the most beautiful writing in English prose.

Kant

A mind so fine it nearly undid him, but he showed that mankind has an innate dignity without God – the absolute champion of what we call the Enlightenment.  Fundamental to my view of the world.  Fills the boots of God.

Keating

As tough a political warrior as you could find, who put it all on the line for our First Nations when there was nothing in it for him or his party.  Good grief – areal leader.  Then came the pygmies.

Keats

A gorgeous young songster slain so young by brutal snobbery.  Innocence defined and smashed.  ‘Here lies one whose name is writ on water.’

Keynes

A genius who called out his own government as part of the cause of the next war and then helped that nation pay for the war and repay difficult Americans.  In him ‘patriot’ is not a dirty word.

Landy

Not the first to break four minutes, but a world beater in that wonderful time when we believed, and then knew, that we could be the world’s best.  And a word you don’t hear much now – a gentleman.

Lawrence

The hero in action, Lawrence of Arabia had a massive influence on me when young – especially after the film.  This tortured soul still intrigues me with his gorgeous writing and blistering insights.  One of a kind, duped into betraying a people; the final flicker of Empire.

Laver

Our best tennis player and a great Australian champion.

Lillee

The object of Australian cricket is to beat England.  With prejudice.  Thommo may have been more terrifying, but Lillee got the wickets.  Watching him before a big MCG crowd is what living in Melbourne is all about.  As when he trapped Knott in front effectively to win the Centenary Test.

Lincoln

Sits on the right hand of God.  No one else gets close.

Macaulay

Wrote like Mozart.

Maine

A graceful scholar of the old school with a world view wide enough to underlie all my understanding of the history of the law.  The movement from status to contract is as fundamental as our being loosed from the grip of the supernatural.

Maitland

As luminous a lawyer and historian as I know.  The father of legal and constitutional history.  The best teller of the biggest story in the world.  A source of inspiration to the mind.

Mansfield

The greatest trial judge.  The god of expedition – Magna Carta made flesh.

Melville

Moby Dick is hard going, but Billy Budd is a flawless redemption story that I read or listen to so often – with the movie and the Britten opera.  Another study of pure evil.  (Claggart is mesmerising in both the movie (Robert Ryan) and the opera.)

Merkel

So far above the rest it is embarrassing.  Raised on the wrong side, she knows how lucky we all are.  The only person in public life to follow the Sermon on the Mount – and she got ridiculed for it.  And she stared them all down.

Miller

Nearly past his prime when I saw him, but he could win matches on his own with bat or ball.  A bronzed Anzac that fed a doubtful Australian myth – the likeable larrikin.  Laughed at pressure – that was having a Messerschmitt up your arse.

Milligan

The Goons with the Demons were the highlights of my boyhood.  Can more light enter a mind that is cracked than one that is whole?  The irrefutable logic of Bluebottle and Eccles.  Raw genius.  Lost innocence.

Milton

The first champion of the Rights of Man cheated the executioner and was blind when he wrote the greatest poem ever.

Mozart

As ineffable as Shakespeare – and as unbelievable.  The best evidence yet of the existence of God.

Namier

Revolutionised history by going deep to the best evidence and writing beautifully.  Offside with the Establishment – his widow says because he was Jewish, but probably because he was so good.  Diagnosed what we have lost – ‘restraint, coupled with the tolerance it implies, and plain human kindness.’  I am in awe of this man and his raw intellectual horse power.

Newcombe

A true Australian champion of the world.  And possibly the last decent one we have produced in tennis.

Nicklaus

The most imposing presence on any sporting arena – including Ali (who hung on too long).

Pacino

There is something about the way this guy breathes his lines and shows the whites of his extended eyes that gets to me – and holds my attention – from Scarface on  (with the incomparable Michelle Pfeiffer).  Not bluffed by Shakespeare either.  De Niro is up there with him.  (They were paired in Heat and The Irishman.)

Pontormo

Painted the most arresting painting I have seen – Mozart in jockey’s silks at Santa Felicita over the bridge in Florence.

Pound

Fought hard cases before cow punching juries in Nebraska, and published a paper attacking the decline he saw in court control before becoming the sage of Harvard.  Invested the common law with an almost spiritual urge, but kept his feet on the prairie.  The Spirit of the Common Law is second only to Holmes.  Another juristic godfather.

Rigg

On many Wednesdays in the 60’s, the conversation of four love sick law students in a Zephyr on the way to University turned on what Emma Peel wore the night before in The Avengers.  Sex with style – both so far above us.  Years later, I saw her in Medea in the West End.  Lethal ugly sister in Lear. 

Rowe

Long legs and dimples.  Drop dead gorgeous.  Incandescent as Juliet.  Those tall arabesques.  I wrote a fan letter about which her husband was at best cool.

Shakespeare

The face of God.  Towers above all the rest.  Burton spoke of his ‘towering compassion.’  A very learned person said that when he read Shakespeare, he actually shaded his eyes. 

Slater

A strapper from Queensland, number 1 for the Melbourne Storm, Queensland and Australia, may be the most exciting sportsman I have seen – with the possible exception of Thommo.  Shouting for a champion with the whole crowd at your back was a precious novelty for Demons supporters.

Smart

A fine artist who did for our view of the city what Fred Williams did for the bush.  Another cringe killer.

Smith

The Rolls Royce of judges.  Underlies so much of my understanding of the law – a proper subject of reverence.

Spinoza

A genius and a saint who was excommunicated.  Fundamental to my understanding of the threat posed to humanity by those claiming to have God.  As is Kant.

Sutherland

Lit up Covent Garden – a twelve minute ovation for the Mad Scene – and every other opera house, but was coolly received back here.  The New York Times said her voice was ‘flawless’.  Our Joan was a great Australian.

Tanner

Although I read Bradley on Shakespeare at school and later, and still admire him, I am sceptical of the value of critics.  Not so with Tony Tanner.  He mixes close reading with slashing insight, measured respect, and cordial sense and courtesy.  A real pleasure to read someone up to the job.

Thatcher

Bedevilledby the Establishment and the boys, she wiped the floor with the lot of them.  Like Keating, she was prepared to say what she stood for.  (I learned a long time ago not to express these views at Oxbridge – the best result is defenestration.)

Thompson

As compact a golf swing as I have seen.  Unassuming winner of British Opens during our salad days in the fifties.  The money then was not corrupting – we were shocked when the Davis Cup went professional.  And Melbourne has some of the best golf courses in the world.

Tolstoy

An unpleasant Russian genius who created two of the title deeds of western civilisation.  Capable of shocking power.

Truman

One of the very few not corrupted by power.  A model education for his office.  Second only to Lincoln.  Dropped the bomb and fired MacArthur – and did not lose any sleep.

Turner

So far ahead of his time – shock treatment for suburbia.  (There’s one in the old Tait that prefigures Boyd and Nolan.)

Verdi

So Italian but so universal.  A true lifelong companion.

Waugh

A model of a Captain – and an Australian who made me proud of my colours.  The twin could play too.

Welles

The word ‘genius’ has been abused, but this guy had it.  Citizen Kane does little for me, but Falstaff is great and The Third Man is the most artistic movie ever made. You could stop the film almost anywhere and frame the still.  Magic.

White

Blistering insights from a man with some poison in his soul who became our leading intellectual champion.

Whitlam

A man of immense grace and charm – another tragedy for us – brought down by people who kept their hate going for generations. Ended one party rule and king hit the cringe.   Meeting Gough was up there with meeting Denning and Barassi.

Williams

A great painter who finally showed us our great land as it is.

Williams

The label ‘R M Williams’ holds an assured place in my life and that of my country.  And we export it to the world and are bringing its production back home.  De rigeur for chaps in the City, old boy.

Williamson

Our mirror of the people next door, our version of Alan Bennett, and in a more permanent form than Barry Humphries.  His arrival coincided with our Renaissance in the 70’s.  The Coming of Stork and Don’s Party gave me two of the best nights at the theatre and the movies in my life.  And they have stayed with me.  The author got our zeitgeist.

Wittgenstein

A lightning-strike mind from a family given to suicide, he amazed his colleagues and had nothing to say for the rest of us.  He stands for the death of philosophy.  ‘Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent.’  ‘During the war, the trains carried a sign: ‘Is this journey really necessary?’’  



MY SECOND TOP SHELF 3

Extracts from Volume II of My Top Shelf

I, MAYA PLISETSKAYA

Maya Plisetskaya

Yale University Press, 2001.

It happened on April 30, 1937.  At dawn, a few hours before May 1, early in the morning.  Around five, the stairs creaked beneath the leaden weight of sudden steps.  They had come to arrest Father.  These predawn arrests have been described often in literature, shown in films and on stage.  But believe me, living through one is very frightening.  Strangers.  Roughness.  The search.  The whole house upside down.  My mother, unkempt, pregnant with a big belly, weeping and clutching.  My little brother screaming, rudely awakened.  My father, white as snow, dressing with trembling hands.  He was embarrassed.  The neighbours’ faces were remote.  And I – eleven years old, skinny, scared, not understanding what was going on, my childish head filled with arabesques and attitudes.

The father would be shot.  His crime?  Being a friend of a friend of Trotsky.Then the mother was taken way.  She was given eight years.  Her crime?  For not denouncing, her husband she was an ‘enemy of the people.’  She was sent by cattle car to the gulag in Kazakhstan.  There she lived in a chicken coup.  After eighteen months, her daughter was allowed to visit her mother.  In the meantime the eleven year old had had to deal with stooges.

Much later, I realised that the repulsive short-haired women (who stank so terribly that we had to open all the windows after their visits) who interrogated me so closely and suspiciously about mother and Mita [an aunt] were from the orphanage, where they were planning to send me, the hopeless orphan, daughter of an enemy of the people…..Just think how many deceits were perpetrated then in our miserable, god-forsaken, blood-covered Russia.

After three weeks, the daughter had to return to Moscow.  And do what?  Put on a concert for the NKVD, the people who had shot her father and taken away her mother.  This was in a nation that had bad form for using young ballerinas as ‘kept women.’

This was all part of the Terror, the Great Purge of Stalin.  The regime may be the cruellest the world has known.  The daughter would survive to be a dancer of a beauty that few have seen surpassed.  Truly, Providence works in ways that are hard to fathom.  And to make it harder for Maya later, she was of Lithuanian Jewish descent.

The author starts by saying: ‘I wrote this book myself.’  I believe her.  It is a remarkable testament to a remarkable woman.  She trained with the Bolshoi and soon became a star.  But her strength and intelligence made her suspect.  Three KGB men tracked her in a car – permanently.  They had their own nonsense.

We recommend that you not go.  But you decide on your own.  But I wouldn’t go.  In any case, we’ve already let them know that you’re not free.  But decide for yourself.

You see immediately that she was fiercely bright and had a wicked sense of humour.  Naturally, the wives in the Party could not stand her.

The Party wives were angry, envious, enraged.  Everything they did was bovine and rhinolike.  After every reception, I sensed the number of my enemies – male, and most important, female – increase.

If you have been to Soviet Russia you will understand her revulsion at the hotels, meals, and aircraft.  Plisetskaya was too feisty to be allowed to dance at Covent Garden.  She put on a special Swan Lake in Moscow in 1956 as a form of protest.  The theatre was overflowing.  She saw a KGB hood (Serov) in the audience.

I looked at the colourless, bedbug face of a eunuch, thinning pale hair neatly parted.  A flash – a horrible association.  He looked so much like Stalin’s Commissar of Death Yezhov….Is it the executioners’ profession or nature that makes them resemble one another?  I have never had a greater success in Swan Lake in my life…..From the very beginning…the theatre burst out in ecstatic welcoming applause….It was time to do the glissade, my legs were going to stiffen.  But I couldn’t hear the music for the thunder.  And I wanted to let the authorities have it.  Let Serov and his wifie burst their gall bladders.  Bastards!….Just what the authorities had feared.  A demonstration!

This is how one observer saw it.

We can feel the steely contempt and defiance taking hold of her dancing.  When the curtain came down on the first act, the crowd exploded.  KGB toughs muffled the audience’s applauding hands and dragged people out of the theatre kicking, screaming, and scratching. By the end of the evening the government thugs had retreated, unable (or unwilling) to contain the public enthusiasm.  Plisetskaya had won.

She found that she had a taste for style.  ‘I sensed intuitively that fashion was an art form.’  If you have been to GUM, you will know that you will not find fashion there.  But she teamed with Pierre Cardin who adored her.  ‘Pierre created ten costumes for Karenina.  Each more beautiful than the others.  Real masterpieces.  They should be on display in museums….The colour range of the costumes is divinely radiant.’  Pierre Cardin said that he travelled to Moscow more than thirty times just to see her dance.

She fell in love with the composer Rodion Schedrin.  At their first meeting, she asked Schedrin if he could transcribe the musical theme of Charlie Chaplin’s film Limelight just by listening to a record.  (That is the tune I request from bar pianists around the world.)  They were a strikingly good looking couple.  But until they were married, they could not share the same hotel room.  When they got to sleep together, they could hear the KGB start the car engine every now and then to try to get warm.  The marriage, when it came, was rock solid.

When Ingrid Bergman met her, Bergman had tears in her eyes after seeing her Swan Lake.  ‘You told about love without a single word.  You have divine arms.  I lost all sense of time….Would you like to play Anna Karenina?  Could you tell her drama without words?’  When the author first met Jacqueline Kennedy she got ‘You’re just like Anna Karenina.’

She hailed a cab in Paris.  It was a long ride in traffic.  She was sorting her money.  ‘And suddenly in pure Russian, with prerevolutionary pronunciation (I could almost hear the old orthography) ‘I won’t take your money Miss Plisetskaya.  This ride is in lieu of a bouquet.’  That was a fine gesture, but not as costly as that of an Australian chiropractor who flew at his own expense from Melbourne to the other end of the world to attend to one of her many injuries.

One critic wrote of her debut in the U S:

She burst like a flame on the American scene in 1959.  Instantly she became a darling to the public and a miracle to the critics. She was compared to Maria Callas, Theda Bara and Greta Garbo.

After one performance at the Met, she got a thirty minute standing ovation.  Nureyev saw her debut in Don Quixote and said ‘I sobbed from happiness.  You set the stage on fire.’  Sol Hurok said that she was the only ballerina after Pavlova to give him a ‘shock of electricity’ when she came on stage. 

Jack and Jacqueline Kennedy came on stage after she first performed before them.  She and Bobby became close.  ‘With me Robert Kennedy was romantic, elevated, noble, and completely pure.  No seduction, no passes.’  Bobby died the day after he was shot.  She was scheduled to do the pas de deux from Sleeping Beauty at the new Met.  She was distraught.  ‘My heart was breaking.  I had to do something.  Scream!….let my pain out somehow.’  The house announced she would dance The Dying Swan as a tribute to the memory of Bobby.

The curtain rose slowly.  The audience stood up.  Quietly.  But I could hear them rise from where I was on the stage.  They all got up.  Icy stillness.  The harp’s four introductory arpeggios.  The solo cello began singing the melody.  I lost myself in the dance.  The spotlight pulled my hands, arms, and neck out of the darkness.  People were frozen still.  No one moved.  Stifled sobs joined the music.  From all sides.  Like streams of tears.  The dance was over.  The spotlight held my final, fatal pose for a long time.  And then faded…..There was no applause.  Just a sorrowful silence.  The people stood there wordlessly.  The curtain covered the darkness of the stage ever so slowly.  ‘Silence, you are the best of what I have heard,’ Boris Pasternak said.  And the most horrible, I thought that evening.

She had met Nureyev with Margot Fonteyn in London. 

We had gone to each other’s performances more than a few times, and we participated in the same concerts in Japan and Australia.  I was always impressed, no matter what we were doing, by her impeccable manners, and the perfection of her breeding.  I had never met a better brought up person, and not only in our rather vulgar ballet world – in our entire life.  How I envied her ability to get on with people.

We can leave technique to the experts, but mention two things:

The Frenchman [a partner] had strong and smart hands.  I like that expression for the hands of my partners: smart hands.  You can’t dance with dumb hands.  They’re bound to drop you, hold you too long, or rush you….For ballet folk, beer is better than any medicine.  It relaxes the muscles and gives them rest.

The book finishes in 1993.  Russia was in chaos and Maya and her husband were living in Munich – where she would leave us.  The order and cleanliness and sense of purpose must have dazzled them.  Why had she not defected like Nureyev and others?  One of her reasons was a fear that the KGB would arrange an accident and break her legs.  Mother Russia has produced its share of giants of art – and has been uniformly cruel to most of them.

The Financial Times said in 2005 (her eightieth birthday):

She was, and still is, a star, ballet’s monstre sacré, the final statement about theatrical glamour, a flaring, flaming beacon in a world of dimly twinkling talents, a beauty in the world of prettiness.

If as a father you have endured taking daughters to ballet classes on the weekends at the other end of town, sitting in a car for hours writing legal opinions while footy crowds drift noisily by, and sitting through endless concerts for children, your ardour for this art form might cool.  It did for me, but I have been fortunate to see Plisetskaya, Fonteyn, and Baryshnikov in the flesh.  Two of my top ten nights at the theatre were ballets – Anna Karenin in Budapest in about 1998 and The Hunchback of Notre Dame in Paris in about 1993.  The Karenin was done to music from Tchaikovsky’s fifth and sixth centuries.  It was a gem.  A favourite DVD is the Plisetskaya version to the music of Schedrin recorded in 1975.  Nothing could be more Russian – or more universal and timeless.  The production is near perfect and it conveys the artistry of this great prima ballerina assoluta. If this book were not here, I would have included one on Callas.  The comparison is often made, and it is fair.  Each had a commanding mystique or magic on the stage that could change the way you think about the world.  That is why this book is here

Passing Bull 289 – Lawyers and moral advice

A reader of The Age said some people had invested in Crown in good faith.  That led to the obvious response that the only ‘faith’ investors had was that suckers would keep giving their money away and that such faith was not ‘good.’ 

In the AFR yesterday, there was a column on whether lawyers should give moral advice.  According to the paper, the Royal Commission said ‘the lawyer should have some obligation, perhaps best characterised as a moral obligation, to see that their client obeys the law.…To give moral advice is not to impose it…If the lawyers who were involved in Crown Melbourne’s misconduct had adopted this attitude, much of what has happened, and most of the dishonourable conduct would not have occurred.’

The journalist sensibly queried that last leap of faith.  Some might think that the most natural consequence of the lawyers’ adopting the attitude referred to would have been that they would have been fired – for good reason.  They are not priests or policemen.  The days are long gone when a senior trusted adviser of long standing might say to the Chairman ‘Do you really want to sail this close to the wind – it could get ugly – and so might the press and the shareholders.’ 

One of the problems with saying that lawyers should engage in discussing moral issues with clients is that it tends to assume that there is a corpus of established doctrine on how people engaged in deriving profit from others in a capitalist world might best apply the Sermon on the Mount.  Or the sharia law on making money out of money.  Nothing could be further from the truth.

A lot people think that the whole business of Crown is immoral.  Some law firms will not act for such people – or, for example, tobacco companies.  (I have been a party to such discussions.)  But if lawyers choose to act, then they might spare their client their views on what is moral, honourable or proper.  They would be told to mind their own business – and then they may be asked whether they are personally acquainted with lawyers lately on their way to jail for theft.

One question commercial lawyers are often asked is – ‘Has the other party to this contract done enough to allow me to walk away.’  They do not look for an answer: ‘Yes – but you should not welsh on your word.’

There is one exception – which was not referred to in the paper – that may arise if under the law the proposed conduct may put in jeopardy a licence or directorship.  Those issues can be tricky, but at least they start and finish with the law.

Charles Dickens on the Mob in England’s Story

The thing to remember about the English story is that it is English.  We are not talking about the story of France, Egypt, China or Mexico.  It is like the story of a cricket club – except that the people having given power to a king, the story is how that power trickles back down to the people as in a pyramid of champagne glasses. 

The barons took back power off the king – and by some chance or miracle they did so expressly on behalf of all free men.  The landed gentry, especially the Puritan lawyers, fixed up the Stuarts, and left Parliament in power by giving it control of the money and the army.  Then it was the turn of business and the middle class until last century when voting became universal – and the cycle looked to be complete.

That picture of the devolution of power overlooks the fact that most people in England only came in touch with the power of government at the local level.  Since very few ever got to London, their lives were ruled by the local gentry, the squires or lords of the manor from feudal times who presided as justices of the peace – who dispensed their version royal justice. 

Here is the picture of one by Charles Dickens in the novel Barnaby Rudge.

….Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends.  By some he was called ‘a country gentleman of the true school,’ by some ‘a fine old country gentleman,’ by some ‘a sporting gentleman,’ by some ‘a thorough-bred Englishman,’ by some ‘a genuine John Bull;’ but they all agreed in one respect, and that was, that it was a pity there were not more like him, and that because there were not, the country was going to rack and ruin every day.  He was in the commission of the peace, and could write his name almost legibly; but his greatest qualifications were, that he was more severe with poachers, was a better shot, a harder rider, had better horses, kept better dogs, could eat more solid food, drink more strong wine, go to bed every night more drunk and get up every morning more sober, than any man in the county.  In knowledge of horseflesh he was almost equal to a farrier, in stable learning he surpassed his own head groom, and in gluttony not a pig on his estate was a match for him.  He had no seat in Parliament himself, but he was extremely patriotic, and usually drove his voters up to the poll with his own hands.  He was warmly attached to church and state, and never appointed to the living in his gift any but a three-bottle man and a first-rate fox-hunter.  He mistrusted the honesty of all poor people who could read and write, and had a secret jealousy of his own wife (a young lady whom he had married for what his friends called ‘the good old English reason,’ that her father’s property adjoined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself…..

Well, we can come back to the ruling class, but what about those they ruled – when their blood was up and they were rioting against their government? 

The English saw this in 1780 in what were known as the Gordon Riots.  The riots were led by Lord Gordon ostensibly against laws in favour of Catholics, but they were taken over by maddened deprived people who were out of control for nights and who burned down parts of London, including the house of Lord Mansfield.

….Through this vast throng, sprinkled doubtless here and there with honest zealots, but composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London, whose growth was fostered by bad criminal laws, bad prison regulations, and the worst conceivable police, such of the members of both Houses of Parliament as had not taken the precaution to be already at their posts, were compelled to fight and force their way….  The air was filled with execrations, hoots, and howlings.  The mob raged and roared, like a mad monster as it was, unceasingly, and each new outrage served to swell its fury.

You might then say that honours were about even.  We saw much of it recently on the television in the insurrection at the Capitol at Washington. 

But it is not hard to picture those referred to by Dickens as ‘honest zealots’ – like those who attended MAGA rallies in the U S.  They are not among life’s winners, but it is very bad taste to say that they are losers.  They nurse the injustice done to them.  They crave revenge.  They want identity and recognised status.  They look for a leader who can banish the anxiety that comes from uncertainty.  They are not conditioned to handle doubt.  But, curiously, they revel in conspiracy theories – perhaps because at heart they are themselves conspirators.  They want to belong and to surf the power of the people.  This time it’s their turn.  They are in that sense the elect, the chosen ones, although the ‘elites’ are their first target.  Implacable history is on their side.  Who can withstand the power of the people?  They will take part in any action that suits their need and the fracture of power lets those below rise up.  In any revolution, the dregs come quickly to the surface.  Just look at that grotesque Jean-Paul Marat – preferably in his bath.

Dickens of course saw all this, and like his friend Carlyle, he was revolted by it.  The hero of Barnaby Rudge was an idiot.  Lord Gordon was a political fool.  (Erskine got him off – he was found to have had no ‘treasonable intent.’)  The comparison with the Capitol insurrection gets closer.  Dickens originally planned to have the riot led by three escaped lunatics from Bedlam.

The mob fed on rumour well before the Internet.

But when vague rumours got abroad, that in this Protestant association a secret power was mustering against the government for undefined and mighty purposes, when the air was filled with whispers of a confederacy among the Popish powers to degrade and enslave England, establish an inquisition in London, and turn the pens of Smithfield market into stakes and cauldrons, when terrors and alarms which no man understood were perpetually broached, both in and out of Parliament, by one enthusiast who did not understand himself, and bygone bugbears which had lain quietly in their graves for centuries, were raised again to haunt the ignorant and credulous, when all this was done, as it were, in the dark …. ‘Let’s have revenges and injuries …’ Without the slightest preparation, saving that they carried clubs and wore the blue cockade, they sallied out into the streets, and, with no more settled design than that of doing as much mischief as they could, paraded them at random …… There was not the least disguise or concealment ­indeed, on this night, very little excitement or hurry …   Fifty resolute men might have turned them at any moment, a single company of soldiers could have scattered them like dust, but no man interposed, no authority restrained them, and, except by the terrified persons who fled from their approach, they were as little heeded as if they were pursuing their lawful occupations with the utmost sobriety and good conduct …. Indeed, the sense of having gone too far to be forgiven, held the timid together no less than the bold … some had been seen by their employers active in the tumult, others knew they must be suspected and that they would be discharged if they returned; others had been desperate from the beginning, and comforted themselves with the homely proverb, that, being hanged at all, they might as well be hanged for a sheep as a lamb. The least sanguine among them reasoned with himself that, at the worst, they were too many to be all punished, and that he had as good a chance of escape as any other man … The great mass never reasoned or thought at all, but were stimulated by their own headlong passions, by poverty, by ignorance, by the love of mischief, and the hope of plunder.

The next time we see the mob in a feral condition, they are feverishly compacted to watch the hangings of the rioters.

Well, Dickens saw the insurrection at the Capitol as clearly as those who saw the mob shout for Barabbas.  There is nothing new under the sun.

But let us go back to the part played not just by the squire but by those higher up, the aristocracy.  The caricature of Dickens is very entertaining.  Both Alan Bennett and Barry Humphries would have applauded.  But the English aristocracy survived while that of France did not.  All through the long history of England, the aristocracy was integral not just to governing the realm, but to the devolution of power within government. 

That was not so in France.  By 1789, the French nobility was useless and intolerably precious and not conditioned to negotiate any devolution of power.  Part of the reason was the prohibition of going into business (dérogation).  The English nobility lapped up making money in the City and later marrying rich American heiresses to keep the bloodlines and credit accounts fluid.  Carlyle said of the French nobility that ‘close viewed, their industry and function is that of dressing gracefully and eating sumptuously.’  Their flocks were not tended, ‘only regularly shorn.’

The English aristocracy also provided an escape valve at times when the devolution of power was stalled and a revolution was at hand – as with the Reform Bill in 1832 and the People’s Budget after 1909 – when revolution was avoided when the Crown threatened to create enough peers to see the popular will respected.

Where, then, did the sympathies of Dickens lie?  We don’t know – but he did say: ‘My faith in the people governing is on the whole infinitesimal; my faith in the people governed is, on the whole, illimitable.’

The last revolution the English had ended in 1689, when Dutch troops patrolled the streets of London.  The Gordon Riots in 1780 were the closest the English would get to further armed revolt.  There is, then, a lot to be said for that suggestion of Trevelyan that ‘if the French nobility had been capable of playing cricket with their peasants, their chateaux would never have been burnt.’  Cricket had to come into it somehow.  The whole shebang has been very English – except that when the barons turned up at Runnymede under arms, they were not carrying cricket bats.

Passing Bull 288 – The Goons and Logic

If growing up is a form of awakening, then it came in two forms to me when I was about seven.  One was the novels about the Saint by Leslie Charteris.  Simon Templar was my instant urbane hero.  He could dazzle Claude Eustace Teale (the police) and charm Patricia Holmes – without any of that yucky stuff.  For the first time, I wondered what might be entailed by being an adult.  The Saint was much smoother than Hop Harrigan, Biggles or Batman.  The other source was the Goons at 7.30 on ABC radio – the electric wireless – every Sunday at 7.30 pm.  I could not understand why I listened to it alone.  It was instantly a source of wonder – and enlightenment – and it has remained so.  Spike Milligan, Harry Seccombe and Peter Sellers put on this display of madness – hilarious, nearly hysterical madness – once a week from the BBC in London.  They displayed characters like Major Bloodknock, Bluebottle and Eccles before an enraptured live post war audience.  The Goons continually erupted as they sailed along on the stream of Spike Milligan’s consciousness. 

Since the Grand Final, I have haunted YouTube.  Then I stumbled on some recorded vision of the Goons caught live on camera (not necessarily from the first performances).  What relics!  Many of the gags are plays on words.  ‘I was at Eton.’  ‘How long were you there?’ ‘Five foot four.’  But some go very deep into logic.  The director Jonathan Miller loved a sequence about money as merely a token.  ‘I will pay you with this photo of a five pound note.’  ‘Very well. I will give you change with a drawing of 3/6.’  Dennis Nordern thought that the funniest writing forever came in a sequence – that you can find on the net – between Bluebottle and Eccles headed ‘What time is it Eccles?’  I would dearly like to know what Wittgenstein thought of these games. 

Hearing this now is like getting an infusion of sanity.  We are at risk of drowning in bullshit and we need every lifeline we can get.   Milligan shows by how little genius is separated from madness.  Certainly, more light can enter a mind that is cracked than one that is whole.  Think of our great novels about madness – like Don Quixote, Catch 22, and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest.  Some of the nonsense about vaccination reminds me of a gag Chris Wallace-Crabbe and I have in our book about how to write and how to think.  A girlfriend of Charlie Chaplin told a story of a cop talking to a bum who was tearing up bits of paper and throwing them to the wind on the corner of Seventh Avenue and Broadway.

Cop:        What are you doing that for?

Bum:       I am frightening away the elephants.

Cop:        There are no elephants here.

Bum:       That just shows that my system works.

Well, a lot of humour plays with words and logic, and often it arrives at a kind of truth.