Yet I still ride the little horse

I always made an awkward bow.

My fascination with the life and death of poor John Keats might fairly be described as morbid.  There is a lot more to it than the poetry.  There is the voluptuous little green and gold leather volume of his poetry bound by Baynton-Riviere that I got from a London antique dealer – with the title plate in scarlet; so pretty to look at; so fine to hold – and to read.  There is the portrait framed above me – a one-off drawing by an English cartoonist based on a Severn painting – all black and white; except for the eyes, which are innocent and inquiring – and pale blue.  (Which may not have been the colour of the eyes of the man.)  There is also on the wall the mounted blue and white ashtray of Number 26 Piazza di Spagna, now known as Keats Shelley House purchased in situ.  And there is the gorgeous Grolier Club edition of his letters from Scotland, now slip-cased, on paper specially made by the Czechs, and with tipped-in facsimiles of his letters and maps. 

It’s as if the real presence were here now in Yarraville in my home.

Keats was born on 31 October.  So was I.  We have nothing else in common – except for three things.  Our native tongue is English.  We think that Shakespeare is as close to God as we will ever get.  And to the extent that you could put a label on the standing of our parents, ‘born to the purple’ was not one of them. 

This little guy – he was only a tick over five feet, but he had a presence that strangers noticed and recalled – said a lot of things that have stayed with me.  Two of them stand out, and they came back to me with a blast on reading Robert Gittings’ wonderful biography again – after a gap of about a quarter of a century.

People of high art surprise us all the time.  You might never know when you will come across something – even for the twentieth time – that takes your breath away, and you just gulp or sigh.  It is a kind of soft shock, but it is a thing of wonder – just the kind of stuff we live for.

The best example for me in painted art is one whole painting – the Deposition of Pontormo in the Church of Santa Felicita.  Where on earth did that come from?  In music, it could be the trio near the end of Act I of Don Giovanni.  An inconsequential phase of the drama – and possibly the most beautiful music I have ever heard.  (That was, I think, the view of Mendelsohn – and he was a walking book on soft shocks – the Dream overture is littered with them.)

They are of course all over the place in Shakespeare – but he and Mozart are rather Alpine company.

The one that gets me every time with Keats comes when Cortez and his all his men catch sight of the Pacific and look at each other ‘with a wild surmise.’  That is, and it was meant to be, out of this world.

Which is the feeling you get watching anyone of high technique – like an expert fly cast or a cover drive – or one of the few who can cross-examine.  It looks both real and unreal, both natural and supernatural – but made to look so natural as to be easy, and with time and effort to spare; gorgeous, but so frustrating.

As it happens, that reference to high technique looks to accord with the views of Keats on poetry.  Some have it; most don’t.  He had three axioms. 

Poetry should surprise by a fine excess….it should strike the Reader as almost a Remembrance…. the rise, the progress, the setting of imagery should like the Sun come natural to him…; if Poetry comes not naturally as the Leaves to a tree, it had better not come at all.

Mr Gittings describes the background to the writing of the poem I refer to.  Keats had been to a dinner where the cognoscenti were talking about Chapman’s Homer – a translation of Homer in the high poetic style of the era.  Then he went to a dinner in Clerkenwell where the text was read at length. 

Leigh Hunt had described Chapman as ‘a fine rough old wine.’  They went all night ‘and a memorable night it was in my life’s career.’  One passage caused Keats to give ‘the reward of one of his delighted stares.’  It was the phrase ‘the sea had soaked his heart through.’  No wonder our little guy grabbed at that.  Parts of the Iliad stirred Keats so much that ‘he sometimes shouted.’  ‘And words that flew about our eares, like drifts of winter snow.’  Leigh Hunt ‘found the young poet’s heart as warm as his imagination.’  (It sounds like Keats was as high as I get watching a replay of the 2021 Grand Final.  And it’s not quiet.)

Keats left the function, in the words of Mr Gittings, ‘with the long fourteen syllable lines of Chapman’s verse of the Iliad, the rough rhyming Odyssey pentameters, still rolling in his head like breakers on a beach.’  (Yes, Mr Gittings wrote poetry.)

Keats left the function at six in the morning.  He wrote his famous poem about Chapman’s Homer, and caught the first postal messenger, so that when his host from the night before got to breakfast at ten o’clock, he found the sonnet on his table.  There was only one after-thought of correction.

Two things.  I did say that the hot shots make their own time.  And they don’t make them like that anymore.  It reminded me of the movie Amadeus, and the look of bleak horror on the face of Salieri as he leafed through the manuscripts of Mozart looking in vain for a correction. 

Keats was not yet twenty-one.  Although he could practise as an apothecary, he was about to give up his advanced studies and practice in medicine.  He would not make it to see twenty-six. 

God or Providence leaves us wondering, then, how might we compare him to Shakespeare, who lived more than twice as long, or Mozart, another short man (5 foot 4 inches), but one who made it to thirty-five.  For example, we marvel at the speed with which Mozart composed the last three symphonies.  Mt Gittings tells us that Keats composed his four great odes – Indolence, Melancholy, Nightingale and Grecian Urn – in a few weeks, possibly a few days in May 1819.

Keats mined Dante and Milton for all they were worth.  But he more than idolized Shakespeare.  The plays were his bible, his refuge, and his source of strength.  Lear was the favourite; ‘poor Tom’, his favourite line.  He even went back a lot to Troilus and Cressida, which for me gives Cymbeline a close run as being the most unwatchable play of the lot.

Mr Gittings, the poet, is excellent on La belle dame sans merci.  It is of course beyond other mere words.  It’s like Giorgione’s La Tempesta.  ‘What on earth is going on here?’  It’s as if Brahms gave us Stravinsky or Coleridge gave us T S Eliot.  (Mr Gittings refers to ‘the nightmare atmosphere of The Ancient Mariner, with its incantatory power’- which is apt for our present discussion.)

Keats was still getting over the death of his younger brother, ‘poor Tom’.  And whether he knew it or not, John Keats foresaw his own death – or at least he saw the implacable lottery that times it. ‘Send not to know for whom the bell tolls….’ 

Perhaps the nearest we get to the tone of La Belle Dame goes back a lot further – to the untranslatable lines of Virgil:

Sunt lachrymae rerum

Et mentem mortalia tangunt.

A very free translation could be ‘We see tears all around us, and mortality gets us right where we live.’  A judge for whom I worked fifty years ago was as close to the epitome of wisdom as I will ever get.  His Honour said ‘There is something permanent about death.’  ‘And no birds sing.’ 

That water is pretty deep.

The year that preceded the year which resulted in the death of Keats is described by Mr Gittings, who was not prone to gushing, as ‘the greatest year of living growth of any English poet.’  Just, what then, has been denied us?

At the end of that year, Keats went back home one night ‘travelling outside on the stage-coach for cheapness.’  He staggered home in a fever, as if drunk.  As he was slipping into bed, he coughed blood and he called for a candle.  ‘I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood…That drop of blood is my death warrant.  I must die.’

That kind of roll of the dice is enough for many people to banish any notion of God.  And it was not the lot of poor John Keats to cease upon the midnight with no pain.

We do know of course that Keats went to Rome for the air, and that he died there, and that he was buried at night in the Protestant Cemetery.  His death was slow, cruel and gruesome. 

We grizzle now at the time it takes us to get to London – say, thirty hours door to door.  Keats and his friend Severn boarded a small ship – a brigantine of 127 tons – at Tower Dock on 17 September, 1820 and they arrived at Naples on his birthday – 31 October, 1820.  Say, six weeks. 

They were given a small cabin ‘with six beds and at first sight every inconvenience.’  They had to share this cluttered and unchanged space and their constant sea-sickness with two women on the other side of the sheet – a mother and her daughter, who was also dying from a disease of the lungs.  The phrase ‘personal hygiene’ dies on our lips. 

Keats and his friend – and what a friend – made their way to Rome and took lodgings on the second floor of the building overlooking what are now called the Spanish Steps – the first floor was occupied by an elderly Englishman, Thomas Gibson, and his French valet.  One room overlooked the Piazza – the other, the Steps.

In the last letter he wrote – at least in this world – Keats said ‘Yet I still ride the little horse.’  He referred there to the vocation of his life – composing poetry.  He concluded that letter this way:

Write to George [the brother in trouble in the U S] as soon as you receive this, and tell him how I am, as far as you can guess; – and also a note to my sister – who walks about my imagination as a ghost – she is so like Tom.  I can scarcely bid you good bye even in a letter.  I always made an awkward bow.

God bless you!

John Keats.

Mr Gittings is plainly right that the snobbery and malice – yes, malice – of the critics did not kill Keats.  They just made his end unbearably bitter.  What could be a worse way to go than to be someone of these immense gifts being cut off so early – and apparently with no recognition from the world of his genius – or of his contribution to our never-ending betterment? 

The remorseless critics were like those mean small people here who fear and begrudge excellence, and who respond by leering, sneering and jeering.  You can catch them every night after dark on TV.  They are vicious because they make nothing, and they are left to comment on the work of others.

An apothecary, old boy, is not a gentleman.  Shame on you, ‘Pestleman Jack.’  ‘It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet.’  It was as bad as that.

(He had also been attacked for being an atheist.  He was not.  He just couldn’t cop what the priests preached.  That is the fourth thing we have in common.)

We see just so much of that venom all about us.  It is like the ‘daily beauty’ in Cassio that turned Iago wild, and the Furies against Keats were the men like Cassius that Caesar feared as being dangerous because they think too much.  And this poor little blighter had actually come out of the East End.

Well, the better people like Byron and Shelley took their own sweet time to come to the aid of the little Cockney, who was by then dead.  Shelley, who had surely done so much more than Keats to provoke God, as had Byron, referred to camels and gnats and said: ‘Nor shall it be your excuse, that murderer as you are, you have spoken daggers but used none.’  (Mozart faced similar problems.  After a run-in with a count, he wrote to his father: ‘I may mot be a count, but I have more honour within myself than many a count.’  He would probably have said of Byron at least what he and Beaumarchais said of all aristocrats, that their sole contribution to the world was taking the trouble to be born.)

The other phrase of Keats that sticks in my mind is that which Keats directed to be inscribed on his tombstone (which I have visited in Rome): ‘Here lies one whose name was writ on water.’  That really is unbearably sad.  And it all comes from the taipan within every one of us.

When commenting on Visconti’s great film The Leopard, Martin Scorsese said ‘This is one of the things I live for.’ 

Here is one of mine.

Much have I travell’d in the realms of gold,

And many goodly states and kingdoms seen;

Round many western islands have I been

Which bards in fealty to Apollo hold.

Oft of one wide expanse had I been told

That deep-brow’d Homer ruled as his demesne;

Yet did I never breathe its pure serene

Till I heard Chapman speak out loud and bold:

Then felt I like some watcher of the skies

When a new planet swims into his ken;

Or like stout Cortez when with eagle eyes

He star’d at the Pacific—and all his men

Look’d at each other with a wild surmise—

Silent, upon a peak in Darien.

Poetry – Keats – Shakespeare – snobbery.


If I see a family being attacked – the father killed, the mother raped and the children kidnapped – and I do not come to their aid, because I may get hurt or killed,  I am a coward.

I may seek to defend myself by saying that I am old and weak, or that the odds are against me, or that I may not make any difference, but possibly make everything worse. I will then be saying that I am acting prudently – or with discretion.  But any such argument from prudence is manifestly self-interested , and can hardly rise any higher than ‘The better part of valour is discretion.’

And Falstaff was cowardice made flesh.

That looks to me to be what I and others in the West are doing about the Russian war on the Ukraine – and I am revolted and ashamed at our failure to perform what I see as a positive moral obligation to come to the aid of someone who is attacked.

We just sit in front of our televisions watching these crimes being committed before our eyes every night, and we do nothing out of fear of what an evil man and an uncivilised people might do to us if we do the right thing.  We just sit and cheer on the victims and make faces at the war criminals.  We just let the dictator dictate to us.

Put to one side the lessons of 1938, and the abandonment of the Czechs, and the encouragement of China now.  What does  it say about us? We are defenceless against a major power.  And if one of them attacks us, we will not be able to rely on the U S or anyone else to do the right thing.  They will act in their own interests – as we do.

And we will not be able to complain that others are looking after themselves and not us.

We should all be ashamed of ourselves.

Ukraine – Russia – War – Hitler – Appeasement

The Story of English Law: Part 8

Reform and decline

The 19th century is seen as the Age of Reform, but before we come to that, we need to say something of the previous century.

The supremacy of parliament was settled by the Bill of Rights.  That left the independence of the judges to be guaranteed.  This came with the Act of Settlement  which secured the Protestant succession and provided that judges would hold office while of good behaviour and not subject to the decision of the crown. To this day, only an Anglican can be head of state.

Politics ran on what they called patronage and we call corruption.  Men expected to be rewarded for serving the public.  Walpole was a political survivor who would be recognised as the first prime minister.  He was followed by Pitt, father and son, and star turns like Burke, Fox, Sheridan and Wilberforce – super stars of oratory. 

The notions of a cabinet and ministerial responsibility – that had been hinted at in the previous century – were beginning to take hold.  It would come to be accepted that ministers of the crown only held office while they enjoyed the support of the House of Commons.  This notion was being developed – again piece-meal and over time – as ‘parties’ known as Tories and Whigs slowly crystallized into Conservatives, or Tories, and Liberals – to be joined later by the Labour Party.

But although the parliament attracted super stars, it was badly in need of reform, and this did not happen until 1832 – and then only after the nation just escaped having another revolution.

The other matter of interest to us was the colossal impact of Lord Mansfield over the common law.  He was a towering giant of a judge.  Burke said of Mansfield at the bar: ‘He had some superiors in force, some equals in persuasion; but in insinuation he was without a rival. He excelled in the statement of a case. This of itself, was worth the argument of any other man.’  Those people put the fear of God into government on the bench.  People can understand them and such judges are often seen as friends of the people.

Mansfield went on to become the Lord Chief Justice of England for thirty-two years.  He became deeply unpopular and his house was burnt down during the Gordon Riots.  (He later presided over the trial of Gordon.  He concluded his charge to the jury at 4.30 of the second morning of the trial.)

He left a lasting impression on almost every aspect of English law.  He was, like Lord Denning, personally conservative, but radical on the bench. 

He knew how to get through the business.  He decided about 700 cases a year.  He made a point of clearing his list at once each term and he often rose at one or two o’clock in the afternoon.  He knew that delay is the fault of the lawyers, not the litigants.  He outlawed adjournments even by consent.  He is said to have originated the English practice of giving judgment on the spot, and our loss of that facility shows how we are now going backwards.  He understood that business flows into the court of a good judge.

He said that the law generally, especially commercial law, had to be contained in rules easily learnt and retained because they are the dictates of common sense.  He empanelled special juries of people in business to help with the law.  The case of Moses v Macferlan was a great case on the basis of which a huge amount of learning on the law of restitution has developed.  The manuscript note of Mansfield of the case takes about a page in contemporary text.

We have not seen his like since.

Most of the old formulaic issues were scrapped by the legislature.  Most of the barbarity was taken from the criminal law and the great achievement of the Age of Reform was to cut back on the public cruelty that had blighted all parts of English life – including slavery.

It remained to increase the franchise.  The grandson of an Italian Jew became Prime Minister.  It was this great Conservative who brought in legislation to spread the vote so much more widely.  He made his queen the Empress of India and bought her the Suez Canal after a call on the Rothschilds.

At the start of the 20th century, the son of a Welsh cobbler and the son of a very active American mother effectively declared war on the aristocracy by bringing in the People’s Budget.  They said it was the business of the state to look after the sick – which would be close to heresy in a lot of the U S still now.  It was touch and go – as brittle as the time before parliamentary reform a century ago.  On each occasion, the king intervened to break the deadlock by threatening to create peers.  People speak of ‘checks and balances.’  These worked.

Women got the vote.  They had to because they had supplied the labour to make the armaments that won the war.

England survived one world war, the depression, and another world war.  But it was spent.  It shed empire, but its standing in the world hardly recovered from the Suez fiasco.  Serious industrial torpor got a hard cure from their first woman PM (and you don’t bring her name up at Oxbridge), but it left bad scarring.  The same could be said for the smooth talking man who made the Left softly populous and whom no one now speaks well of.  Among other things, he is filthy rich.  The present mob from Eton hardly bear mention.  Like the US, the UK has been morally crippled by a lazy, greedy, spoiled child – but the Tories have not suffered the moral or intellectual bankruptcy of the Republicans.

The civil service has been shredded.  The parliament is no longer the envy of the world, and Europe is justly bitter that the English welched.  The legal system by comparison does not look so bad.

The Botany Bay slammer has its own sunburnt and climate threatened somnolence.  Government at all levels is generally on the nose.  Behaviour in the parliament is appalling.  The system depends on two parties who stand for nothing and are wickedly mismanaged by small cliques of self-seeking zealots who know not what they do.  We have trashed the civil service.  The legal system is buckling under far too much law, both from parliaments and judges, and the judges are no longer willing or able to do their job and clear their lists.  We still have a head of state who is foreign, and who must be in communion with the Church of England.  We have the most banal anthem on the planet, and a foreign flag on our own that represents those who stole the land of the First Nations.

So, nothing in the garden is rosy.  But if you are lucky, on a good day, you might look up and find a gum tree – with a smiley koala.



Victor Hugo, 1862

Collins, no date; in two volumes, bound in faux leather, in white slip case; illustrated by A A Dixon.

An English critic, V S Pritchett, once remarked that the narrator of Les Misérables sometimes seems to mistake himself for God.  That may or may not have been a swipe at Victor Hugo – we will see that there was bitchiness on each side of the Channel – but there is little doubt that the ego of Hugo was as large as his sexual appetite, and the weapon he was given to satisfy it.  And this novel may have been the largest monument left by this larger than life poet and man of affairs.  It came out not long after A Tale of Two Cities, On the Eve, Great Expectations and Fathers and Children and was shortly followed by War and Peace, Our Mutual Friend, and Crime and Punishment. 

This was the heyday of the nineteenth century novel – incisive social commentary; overdrawn characters; lachrymose family and love scenes; fantastic and wilfully unbelievable coincidences; and a capacity to bang on that may derive either from serial publication, or an ego as large as that of Wagner that allows the author to test the faith and staying power of the reader.  For all that, this massive novel – the Everyman version runs to 1432 pages – holds a special place for the people of France, and there and elsewhere, people tackle this great book for the same reason that some tackle Everest – because it’s there.

The novel is about the wretched or dispossessed – the miserable ones.  In it, the author says:

The book which the reader has before him at this moment is, from one end to the other, in its entirety and details … a progress from evil to good, from injustice to justice, from falsehood to truth, from night to day, from appetite to conscience, from corruption to life; from bestiality to duty, from hell to heaven, from nothingness to God. The starting point: matter, destination: the soul. The hydra at the beginning, the angel at the end.

Those objectives are not in the minor key.  The central character is Jean Valjean, a man driven to crime by poverty who is redeemed by the Christian charity of a prelate.  He achieves success in another life, but his past keeps coming back – in the form of the pitiless Inspector Javert – one of the truly great characters in literature.  Their story meshes with those of Fantine, who is abandoned pregnant by one of the better people, and her daughter Cosette and her man Marius. 

This is how the action of the novel ends after the dying hero has told Cosette and Marius that he dies happy and asks them to allow him to put his hands upon their dearly beloved heads.

Cosette and Marius fell on their knees, overwhelmed, choked with tears, each grasping one of Jean Valjean’s hands.  Those august hands moved no more.

He had fallen backwards, the light from the candlesticks fell upon him; his white face looked up towards heaven, he let Cosette and Marius cover his hands with kisses; he was dead.

The night was starless and very dark.  Without doubt, in the gloom some mighty angel was standing, with outstretched arms awaiting the soul.

Here then is a writer for whom neither writing nor composition holds any fears whatsoever. 

We can shorten this note because in the Everyman edition, Peter Washington has offered an invaluable insight.

In European literature up to the late eighteenth century, coincidence is a synonym for the workings of Divine Grace in the world.  By Hugo’s time, few writers subscribed to this view….For most nineteenth century novelists and librettists, coincidence is simply a lazy way of jazzing up the plot or moving things forward, but in Hugo it seems to take on a genuine dramatic and philosophic value.  Like Dickens at his best, he uses coincidence to articulate a sense of order and inevitability amid the terrifying flux of modern life.  Even as we recognise how unlikely it is that Valjean would encounter Javert, or that Marius and the Thénardiers [the couple who exploited Cosette, two of the most revolting people in our letters] would settle in the same house, we accept the dramatic truth of events which are superficially unrealistic.  This is the essence of great opera, the deployment of preposterous artifice to express unavoidable reality.

That is put so well.  We do not go to great art for a snapshot of the physical world.  We are sick of it.  We go to get some insight into life, and some relief from the ordinariness and pain of so much of it.  And some of us at least get the greatest of such insight or relief from high theatre – in tragedy, opera, or however.  To be put off by some departure from surface reality in a novel or opera is like rejecting the Pieta of Michelangelo because the Madonna is obviously too young to be the mother of the executed Christ, or to reject El Greco’s painting of Christ’s Cleansing of the Temple because his legs are too long, the background is medieval Italy, and young tearaways do not look so rhythmically serene when they are signing their own death warrant.  Or, if you prefer, the coyote perpetually eluded by the Road Runner has unbelievable recuperative powers.

Not surprisingly, the flamboyance of Carlyle had evoked similar reactions as Les Misérables.  Carlyle interacted with his friend Charles Dickens over the French Revolution.  Tale of Two Cities was built on Carlyle.  Before Carlyle started it, he told John Stuart Mill that he saw ‘a great result in these so intensely interesting Narratives’.  For him history is ‘the only possible Poem, that hovers for me in every seen reality.’  We now see the place of the seer or the prophet in poetry.  When the work was completed, Mill returned the serve:

This is not so much a history as an epic poem; and notwithstanding this, or even inconsequence of this, the truest of histories.

The historiographer who passed on those comments said of Carlyle’s history:

 The ring of truth that brought it success was partly due to the choice of the narrative form.  A story will be listened to.  Carlyle knew only the dramatic narrative form for history writing….In the English historiography of the Revolution, nothing was more wanted.  Tired of being told what to think about the Revolution, people were glad to glimpse a painting of it.

These truths are not sufficiently understood.  We are imprisoned by demarcation issues.  All kinds of artists and historians have at least something in common.  They are reflecting on their felt experience and seeking to pass it on to others as best they can.  Who wrote a better account of the French Revolution than Charles Dickens?  Who wrote a more riveting narrative than Thomas Carlyle?  Who wrote a more effective polemic than Keynes?  Who wrote a more moving protest against war than Goya?

Les Misérables has something in common with War and Peace and Moby Dick.  For many, if not most, it is marred by the extravagant and unnecessary diversions.  They are like little boys showing off on a bike: ‘Look Mum – no hands!’  Tolstoy was fixated on Napoleon.  So, in a very different way, was Hugo.

Waterloo is a battle of the first rank won by a captain of the second.

‘Un moment, Monsieur.’  Wellington beat your boy – if he was yours.  Wellington was never allowed to turn his artillery on his own citizens.  He was never allowed to be so reckless with the lives of his own soldiers.  He was not responsible for leaving five million dead on the battlefields of Europe.  He did not leave his nation a smoking rubble.  And most of all, he did not desert his army not once but twice.  It may be better, Monsieur, if you stick with fiction.

There are worse parts in this novel.

But this great England will be offended at what we say here.  She has still after 1688 and our 1789 the feudal illusion.  She believed in hereditary right, and in the hierarchy…..France exists to arouse the souls of the peoples, not to stifle it.  Since 1792, all the revolutions of Europe have been but the French Revolution: liberty radiates on every side from France.  That is a fact as clear as noonday.  Blind is he who does not see it!  Bonaparte has said it.

This is obnoxious claptrap.  The English constitutional development was smoother and happier because, among other things, they had started dismantling feudalism five hundred years before the French.  As a result, they were not exposed to the horrors of the Revolution or those revolutions that followed it – one of which is dealt with in the novel.  People were slaughtered in France in 1830, 1848 and 1870.  The Terror is glossed over.

‘1793. I was expecting that.  A cloud had been forming for fifteen hundred years; at the end of fifteen centuries it burst.  You condemn the thunderbolt’.

And if nothing else, Les Misérables is a sustained denunciation of the lie or mirage that after 1789 all men in France were equal – except in the most vague juristic sense.

Well, a great work of art does not warrant the greatness of its creator.  This novel is a great work of art.  If someone said they could give you a prime viewing of Mount Everest for $20 – provided you were prepared to a long walk with some annoying detours, you would grab it with both hands.  So you should with Les Misérables.

Passing bull 307 and 308

Passing Bull 307 Somersaults at The Australian

It takes a lot to get The Australian to criticise the Prime Minister. 

On the weekend of 5 and 6 March, the paper had comments on a speech by the P M about Russia and China by Paul Kelly and Greg Sheridan. 

The former said:

The speech was a resolute and balanced effort to elevate national security in the election context.  Its focus was strategy, not politics.  It was realistic and steadfast.

This is the fallacy of treating two qualities as mutually exclusive when they are not.  Why could not a discussion of strategy involve politics?  How could it not in a democracy?  Especially ‘in the election context.’  Can this politician discuss anything without politics? 

Mr Kelly answers these questions at the end of his note.

He said the government was the ‘proven choice’ when it came to national security.

Labor, by constantly falling behind the government, seems to offer credence for this view.

Mr Sheridan had a different view.

Scott Morrison’s speech on announcing a committee to look at a location for a possible east coast submarine base came in what is one of the most profoundly disappointing prime ministerial speeches in modern times…. his words on our national defence are simply unreal.

Well, at least Mr Kelly pursued his policy of saying nothing at all, while Mr Sheridan pursued his policy of going clean over the top, but it all looks a bit odd coming from the front office of the Liberal Party.

Passing bull 308 – Random Bull

On almost any day, you can pick up a paper and be met with bullshit.  Take the AFR today.

The CEO of a big accounting firm – Deloitte – saw the need to see ‘integrity’ as a ‘core value’ and that the firm would show ‘zero tolerance’ to any breach of that core value.  Those phrases are pure bullshit.  What was the occasion?  One of the firm’s directors had stolen $3 million from it.  Why do you need to refer to a ‘core value’ when someone steals from you?

The CEO of a bank, BoQ, got a public serve from his chairman.  One of the issues was ‘the perceived extravagance of expenses.’  Sounds like Deloitte.  The CEO said the board backed him.  ‘The board and I are totally aligned with what’s really important and that’s what we’re focussed on.’  Sounds like the bullshit in Canberra.  ‘What you should look at is the facts.  …when you look at the numbers, where the facts are, it points to a culture that’s improving.’

Then there is John Roskam.  He refers to ‘the perceived misogyny’ and ‘the supposed need’ for a federal integrity commission.  Those problems don’t exist for him.  One never has.  As a matter of faith.

Australian – AFR – IPA – Sheridan- Kelly – Deloitte – BoQ

Passing Bull 306 –The public interest and the press

About fifty years ago, the ALP was in government federally and in real trouble.  Jim Cairns as Treasurer was vulnerable to the press at the best of times.  He was even more vulnerable for having an affair with a person of influence – Junie Morosi.  It was open season to a voracious press most of whom were against the ALP.  Was this reportage in ‘the public interest’?  Or was the press being salacious as a tool for revenge – or for money?  Or some of all three?

The status of the public interest was aired in court back then.  Its standing in law is still unsettled – and not just in the law.  It is a very broad term.  At one end it might sound dangerously like the national interest of Hitler or Stalin – or the raison d’état of Louis XIV.  At the other end it may sound dangerously like pandering to the voyeur or those who like the boobs on page three.

There is a first-class discussion of this by Martin McKenzie-Murray in The Saturday Paper. 

Luke Beveridge is a respected AFL coach who looks after his players.  He recently dropped his guard at a press conference and he later apologised.  The journalist then got fired for offensive behaviour to a colleague.  The press were all on his side before that came to light.  It is well known that some players have trouble with mental health.  We have also seen a sea change in coaching – from the dictatorial to the paternalist.  Beveridge has been in the forefront of this change.  He was acting to protect the players, but the press thought he was wrong and some thought he had problems of his own.

Where was the public interest?  The press corps looks to be about four times what it could be.  That will produce hunger and slippage.  Morris looked to me to smirk at his own view of himself. 

Mr McKenzie-Murray does not hold back.

Morris was a shallow and self-regarding scavenger of bins – more an ibis with private schoolboy connections than Bob Woodward.  He was – like many footy reporters – a simple gossip-monger, more enthralled by their status than the game ….

I often smell the same desperate appeals to exceptionalism from journalists.  And maybe some believe it – that because they’re a journalist, they can do and write whatever and believe that it’s all valuable by definition.  The self-regard of a Tom Morris is both too great and too fragile to broker self-reflection – why act or think in such a way that might puncture your sense of exceptionalism?

I congratulate the paper and the journalist.

Neil McPhee QC knew more about all this than most.  About forty years ago, I asked Neil why libel verdicts were going through the roof.  ‘Geoff, it’s hard to tell the jury that you are there for freedom of speech when you are being paid – handsomely – by Kerry Packer, Rupert Murdoch, Christopher Skase or Alan Bond.’  Or Kerry Stokes. 

Hands up all those who think that any of those guys was not in it for the dollar, but for a disinterested commitment to the public interest.  And then ask the same question of those in this shockingly over-serviced press corps – who need to do something just to stay in the shark pool and get paid and put food on the table. 

Then ask the ordinary punter.  Do you support freedom of speech?  Why not?  How do you feel about Rupert or Auntie being able to roll over you and crush you at will?

But the press won again and persuaded state governments – most if not all ALP – to give them even more protection.  And yet they still grizzle.  Well, I have acted on either side for fifty years, and I have a settled view about where the balance of power and decency lies – and which is the only side I might lose sleep for.  And it’s not Rupert or Auntie.

AFL – press – freedom of speech – greed – public interest.