The dreamtime of a ghost-seer

Reflections on the law and other things by a lawyer in autumn

(Serial form)

There’s more to history than ‘accidental judgments and casual slaughters.’  It is the story of life and my life at least would be useless without it.  There are two things to remember.  First, history is a collection of biographies.  Secondly, the better the story is told, the better we can follow it.  Let me give examples from two new biographies that I am currently (October, 2020) reading – Haldane, by John Campbell, and Hitler, Downfall by Volker Ullrich.  When in second year law, I decided to concentrate on French and Russian biographies and legal history, I think the first book I read was a biography of Lord Haldane – who was a lot more than a lawyer and Lord Chancellor.  He was – wait for it – a philosopher.  He had studied in Gottingen as well as Edinburgh.  He claimed to understand Hegel – and very few people – let alone an English lawyer – have tried that one on.  (Kant must have seemed a breeze after that.)  In The Philosophy of Humanism, he said ‘It is in the quality of the struggle to attain it, and not in any finality we suppose ourselves to have reached and to be entitled to rest on, that truth consists for human beings.’  English lawyers don’t talk like that – neither do English philosophers.  Haldane said about Adam Smith that he ‘had a perception that abstract propositions, however carefully stated, can express only one aspect or side of things, and are therefore wanting in truth, a quality that belongs to what is concrete alone.’  That statement might be said to represent the upshot of English philosophy for that century.  The author refers to Haldane’s ‘ability to hold a range of opinions in harmony’ – the hoped for benefit of a liberal education.  Haldane was in government with giants – Asquith, Lloyd George, and Churchill – that now leave us feeling glumly small.  He was of course on first name terms with Einstein, Keynes, Laski, and Russell.  And Natty.  Nathaniel Rothschild.  Disraeli may have advised him that if you want to run an empire, it helps to have an in with the Rothschilds.  You never know when the Crown might need fast cash in steep amounts.  Like when the Empress of India picked up the Suez Canal.  Haldane was instrumental in arming England for the Great War and he laid foundation stones for MI5, MI6, the LSE, Imperial College, and the ‘redbrick’ universities.  And with Asquith, Lloyd George and Churchill, he launched the Welfare State in England.

*

Now, from the second book comes hubris touching on madness.

‘It will be a mass attack in the grandest style,’ Hitler and Goebbels agreed.  ‘No doubt the most enormous that history has ever seen.  The example of Napoleon will not be repeated.’  The dictator and his propaganda minister did not find it at all ominous that the start of Operation Barbarossa fell on the same day that the French emperor had crossed the river Neman with the Grande Armée 129 years earlier.

That was on 24 June 1941.

‘Our situation bears a horrible resemblance to that of Napoleon in 1812’, the tank group commander Colonel-General wrote on 12 December.  ‘The Russians were right that the winter put a halt to us.’

Hitler was infatuated with Wagner’s Gotterdammerung, The Twilight of the Gods, but he was the sole author of his own demise.  The Russian resistance was demonic because the master race was engaged in a war of annihilation.  Then after Pearl Harbour, Hitler declared war on the United States.  He told Goebbels the U S posed ‘no acute threat.’

They cannot change anything about the situation on the Continent.  We are sitting secure in Europe, and we are not going to let the reins be taken from our hands.

For the second time in history, the Russian peasant soaked up the evil coming from Europe with their blood.  This whole chapter is almost unbearably brutal.  About twenty million Russians would die in the conflict – about seven million of them were civilians.  Slavs were as disposable as Jews.  ‘This gigantic expanse must of course be pacified as quickly as possible, and this can best be achieved by shooting everyone who even looks at us the wrong way.’  The Nazis subjugation of the Russians would make the Spartans treatment of the helots look benevolent.  Only God could assess the degrees of evil.  The next chapter is ‘The Road to the Holocaust.’  In my view, anyone claiming to be civilised needs to come to terms with evil.  To understand humanity, you need to try to understand inhumanity.

*

In 1985, the Victorian government briefed me to draw up a bill for an act of parliament.  It was, I think, the first time that the government had gone outside for the work ordinarily done by parliamentary counsel.  The subject might fairly be said to have been tricky.  This was a Labor government led by a prominent Labor lawyer, John Cain, that was proposing to legislate to bring under the control of government all fees charged by lawyers.  For obvious reasons, some care would need to be taken in framing this law.  People had to be free to contract out of the law – as you would expect – and it would be scrutinised by some of the best legal minds to see how the law might be complied with – or avoided.  This was at the time when ‘plain English’ drafting was in vogue – and gender neutrality was politically mandatory.  It was not easy trying to comply with the various wishes of government.  On one occasion I told them that they might have a choice – did they want something that might look pretty – or something that didn’t look so good but had a sporting chance of working?  I found the whole exercise to be very enlightening.  It meant that I had to be very careful that any preconceptions I had – and it would be odd if I had had none – did not interfere with my work.  I was there to give effect to the wishes of the client – no matter what I personally thought of those wishes.  In other words, I had to be intellectually honest.  This was a good experience to have for drafting generally.  The work was a bit harder then – before computers made drafts so malleable – and it taxed my then secretary mightily.  I was just about to sign off when the government lost interest and called the project off.  I gather that what was called ‘the big end of town’ – quite possibly in the form of Alan Cornell, the man about to be become the senior partner of Blake & Riggall – had persuaded Mr Cain and others that this kind of government imposition might be bad for business – and not just the business of lawyers.

*

In 1985, the year I turned forty, some kind of mid-point, I suppose, I took two decisions that changed the whole shape of my career and life.  One was to accept appointment on a sessional basis to run the division of the tribunal that the Victorian government was setting up to hear and determine state tax cases.  The other decision was to leave the bar and go back to Blake & Riggall, which I was aware was likely to merge with Dawson Waldron in Sydney.  Things change.  Before I went back to Blakes, I insisted on meeting all the partners – then about eighteen, I think.  When I left the merged firm of Blake Dawson in 2002, it had about four hundred lawyers all round Australia and in England.  That was about the number of lawyers at the Victorian bar when I first signed on in 1971.  Now (October, 2020) there are about 2400 at the bar – subject to the ravaging by the Covid virus.  The two moves were related, and I have been very fortunate with that relation.  I had decided that I did not want to go the bench – which at that time was the ultimate object of most barristers of merit.  (That is no longer the case.)  But being appointed to a tribunal, to hear and determine cases that involve seriously fine legal issues, meant that I could in my own time, more or less, experience just how that kind of forensic inquiry works.  It throws great light not just on how advocacy from the bar table leads to adjudication from the bench, but on your whole understanding of the law.  And going back to the other side of the profession also completely alters your outlook on the legal world.  From spending so much of your time resolving conflict, you can use your knowledge of the law and people to help them come together – with a view to avoiding conflict.  It’s like going from negative to positive.  And the two changes blended so well to change my outlook and life.  I was very fortunate.  Each move led to a change of aspect that any trial lawyer would derive great learning from.  If travel broadens the mind, so does a simple change of course – especially a change of hemisphere.

*

The new Tax Division of the AAT inherited a back-log from its predecessor in 1985.  It took about six months to clean that up.  From then on, I could manage the list as I wished.  State tax cases are not like federal cases- which often involve shockingly complex legislation and equally complex schemes to get around it.  State tax cases often involve easy looking questions that can be very hard.  What is a debenture?  What is a covenant?  What is a charity? What is a contract of employment?  When does a contract for the sale of land become binding?  What kind of breach of contract enables the other side to walk away?  There were two issues in getting the new tribunal working in this area.  One was that the legislation setting up this new role for the AAT was part of a whole new package of reform of administrative law that greatly improved the rights of people in dealing with their government.  But there were old cases, some in the High Court, that gave revenue officers the chance to argue that the new dispensation did not apply to tax.  The results appalled a common lawyer like me, but it took three or four years of very hard grind to pull them around.  On some occasions, the atmosphere got very tense.  More than one tax commissioner sent a heavyweight silk down to say that I had not understood their practices and that I had said things that had sadly offended them.  On one occasion I had to get the Solicitor-General, Hartog Berkeley, QC, to tell them to pull their heads in.  They gradually came around, and this was I think a reform that worked.  The other problem came from the prevailing attitude to the conduct of litigation.  This was in the era (1985 plus) where the new regime of the court control of litigation was coming to new heights.  I thought this practice was making the process a lot more complicated and expensive, and using up so much time of both judges and lawyers.  Instead of judges doing so much to orchestrate a process, I thought they should get the parties into the ring for trial as soon as possible, and then control the hearing very firmly.  After a year or two we got the following model.  The Crown would refer its disallowance of an objection to an assessment to us.  I would say that we would resolve it within six weeks.  I would fix a hearing date in about four weeks’ time.  There would be no prior hearing or directions or witness statements.  We would usually finish the hearing before lunch.  If necessary, I would fix times for the examination of witnesses and submissions.  I would try to give my decision on the next working day.  We applied that model to most cases for about fifteen years.  A lot of lawyers grizzled, groaned, protested, and appealed.  I never heard a complaint from a litigant.  The Crown appealed as of course and as of right almost every case they lost.  They had a legitimate interest in getting a ruling from the Supreme Court.  In the end, three of mine were dealt with by the High Court.  I have never understood why decent judges get so uptight about what happens on appeal from them.  It never troubled me.  As often as not, I did not even get to hear to hear about it.  I was intent on expedition – fairness, of course, but at a properly controlled speed.  Lord Mansfield knew the truth.  Most delay in litigation comes from the lawyers.  No litigant with a good case wants delay.  Delay suits those with power and wealth.  In 1215, the English Crown acknowledged that justice delayed is justice denied.  In my, view the fall from grace of our trial lawyers and systems has come from our failure to deal with delay.  It is partly a failure of nerve and partly a sustained flirtation with the inquisitorial – which as a matter of simple but long history is not the way we practise the law.  Well, all that in me sounds like a broken record – but it does hurt other people more than me.

The dreamtime of a ghost-seer

Reflections on the law and other things by a lawyer in autumn

(Serial form)

When I read with Daryl Dawson, he was a subscriber to the Mary Martin Book Club.  It was a good source of books based in Adelaide.  This would become part of a kind of disease, from which I still suffer, of becoming an insatiable book buyer.  I would go on to amass a huge law library in the faith that it might be a good basis of investment.  I had a collection that was marvelled at and which gave me great assurance and pleasure.  But the computers would end all that – and create endless hazards of minefields of precedents and inducements to very average lawyers to lay out their ambitions on the World Wide Web – just one of many ill effects of that revolution.  About the first book I got from Mary Martin was one by Somerset Maugham, Ten Famous Novels and their Authors – big hitters like Tolstoy, Balzac, Dickens and Melville.  I was horrified to see that I had not read one of the ten novels.  I used to collect the great classics to read on vacations.  I was usually working at least six and a half days a week and most nights, so the great novels and histories were laid up for vacation.  I insisted on five weeks in summer and two in winter – at a time when I could and did put all work out of my reach.  I made it my business to read the great novels – the big ones at least two or three times.  The big three are Don Quixote, War and Peace, and Ulysses.  I have read those three times – as with the big ones of Dostoevsky, Balzac, Dickens and Flaubert.  They all become old friends – like favourite movies or operas.  I also tried to stay in touch with our writers – I have a hard-back of each novel of Patrick White, and I have read Riders in the Chariot three times.  The great novels for me are like the theatre, opera, philosophy and history – utterly indispensable.  I do not entirely jest when I say that I read history for entertainment and the great novels to see what makes the world tick.  It saddens me greatly that so many go through life without sharing treasure that is way beyond measure and without which I would be so much worse off.

*

We may try to steer clear of Australians when abroad, but now and then the sound of home may come as a comfort.  When we got to Moscow from Athens – the sloppiest airport via the sloppiest airline – we were held up for three hours in customs.  Then I was told that our night at the Bolshoi had been cancelled.  That was a major reason for our being there.  I was very dirty on the world.  When we got to our hotel, a faded and drab monolith, there was another queue and another delay.  I heard some Australian accents behind me.  Two guys from the back blocks of New South Wales.  ‘I just got in from Athens.’  ‘So did we.’ ‘I was at a law conference.’  ‘So were we.’  ‘I did not see you there.’  ‘We were not big attenders.’  (I am prepared to swear to the accuracy of this report.)  ‘I hear they have cancelled the Bolshoi.’  ‘Yeah.  We thought we would go to the trots instead.’  Bliss.  The day after we got to Rio, I was standing under the famous statue of Christ on a glorious spring morning in the sun with that familiar haze of jet lag when I heard this unmistakeable accent.  ‘I don’t know how many hundred thousand cruzeroes this bloody beer cost, but it is worth every bloody one of them.’  More bliss.  The conference in Moscow was on international trade – which I did not think would loom large on the other side of Dubbo.  But who was I to talk?  The conference in Athens was on medicine in the law.

*

Doubtless I am not alone, but I have long had a love – hate relationship with Wagner and the Ring Cycle.  I went to both Adelaide versions and had booked the one scheduled for Brisbane 2020 – before the virus hit.  By chance one day another boxed set of the Ring (about my fifth)n – one of the Furtwangler versions –arrived at the Post Office at the same time as a book containing the full text as written by Wagner – including all the narrative and stage directions.  I played the short first of the four operas, Das Rheingold – just over two hours – with the text in front of me – not just the liner notes.  It put the whole show in a very different light for me.  This is real musical theatre – as if the stage was right there in front of me.  Only a fanatic would say that the poetry has unique value as such, but listening to the music – especially in the dialogues – with the text really gives you very high theatre.  I shall repeat the dose on the other three operas – on which my views are evolving, and will then watch the full set as done by Chéreau at Bayreuth – that is in my view the best available on DVD.  But no power on earth will get me to front up for Tristan or Parsifal again.  Simone Young gave a talk about Tristan and said we might get the long version.  We evidently did, and it could have killed me.  Two of the three acts of Parsifal take place on Good Friday, and if you still have any appetite for it, look up what Mark Twain said about it at Bayreuth.  As balloon punctures go, he is one of the best.

*

Going back to my visit to Moscow, I met my partner John Beaven at the airport.  This was about 1988 – glasnost, but we still had a guide with us on the bus into the city from the airport.  John and I were swapping stories about the dead hand of communism – I wore red pants for the occasion – when we got to a point at about the distance of Moonee Ponds from the city centre (the Kremlin) when we came upon one of those vast heroic military monuments that such régimes long for.  We shut right up when the guide said ‘This is where we stopped the fascists in the Great Patriotic War.’  We really have had a cosseted life down here.  John was English and a banking lawyer, a very proper man and lawyer with a deep sense of humour.  But I was aware that he was fighting demons within and that he had become fascinated by Russia.  The therapy of this visit did not work for him.  His condition got steadily worse, until one day when he was missing, another partner, Gavin Forrest, and I drove down to his holiday house at Rye and found him dead in the car with the engine still running.  It was a fearful shock, but I was very taken with the warm way people across the whole office, including Sydney, responded.  I can recall that in his eulogy, Gavin Forrest said that ‘I am immensely proud that I was a friend of John Beaven.’  That may, I suppose, be one difference between life at the bar and as a partner in a law firm.  The word ‘partner’ has a resonance that you do not find at the bar.  Many years later, a barrister with whom I shared chambers took his own life.  I had known John was in danger, but the dead barrister had not given any indication of that level of risk.  Younger barristers around us were very upset.  I wrote a note for them about stress at the bar in which I mentioned John’s fate.  Some time later, the Bar News asked if they could publish it and I agreed.  A lot of people told me how glad they were that I had uttered some truths that had been hidden, but I had referred to the problems with alcohol of two heroes of the bar, and I was sent to Coventry by people I had been close to.  Truth, evidently, was not a defence.  I was very hurt, and I can still feel the wound.  Collegiate life may be fraught if you agitate the prima donnas that inevitably strut up.

The dreamtime of a ghost-seer – III

A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot

Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn

III

So much in all our lives depends on chance.  You might stumble over something that leads you to see the world through different eyes.  In about, I suppose, 1960, I watched an interview on the ABC with Professor Andrew Boyce Gibson.  Gibson was the Dean of the Arts Faculty at Melbourne University.  He would lecture me in philosophy at Melbourne University in 1964.  He just looked to me to be wise and kind.  .  He said he had learned to speak French so that he could read Descartes in its original form.  He said that this had given him a new window on the world.  That made me wonder how much our view of the world is shaped by our language.  Later, I would ask if that was not the main question facing philosophy.  Gibson was a Christian apologist.  (As were my other philosophy lecturers in each of the next two years.)  A rather preppy young interviewer got into high flown language about the role of the Church in modern industrial society.  With great calm, this very wise man said: ‘The problem is that the whole thing began in a carpenter’s shop and has just got a bit out of hand since.’  That seemed to me then, and it still does now, to sound like true wisdom.  Kant said that some things had a ‘fancy price,’ but that each of us has a worth or dignity above price merely because we are human.  Wittgenstein said that about some things we must be silent.  He also said that during the war, trains carried a sign: ‘Is this journey really necessary?’  A Greek philosopher said that we do not live to see our own death.  For some reason, that struck a very comforting note for me.  (I am not sure whether it was he who said that you never step into the same river twice.)  In War and Peace, Prince Bolkonsky said that when we die, we either get all the answers or we stop asking the questions.  Sir Lewis Namier referred to a need of plain human kindness, and ‘restraint and the tolerance that it implies.’  Hannah Arendt said ‘Every government assumes political responsibility for the deeds and misdeeds of its predecessor…every generation, by virtue of being born into a historical continuum is burdened by the sins of the fathers as it is blessed with the deeds of the ancestors.’  Finally, in burying his grandmother, Dietrich Bonhoeffer said: ‘She came out of a different time, out of a different spiritual world, and this world will not shrink into the grave with her.  This heritage, for which we are grateful to her, puts us under obligation.’  If I was asked what proposition in our past best expresses my hope for the world, that one would take a lot of beating.  There is about it an aura of nobility.

*

Books can furnish the house as well as furnish the mind.  I collected fifty of what for me were the great books or writers either in literature or affairs that were either part at least bound in leather or fitted with a slip case.  About half of them have been rebound by Helen Williams, a local bookbinder. ( Well, that is at least some contribution to the economy.)  There are books published by the Folio Society or those sumptuous American products from people like the Franklin Library or Easton Press.  I have added three more volumes about great books, so that there are now two hundred books that stand for something that counts in my life – apart from the novels, histories, plays and poems, there are books about fly fishing, wine, Barassi, cooking, Jussi Bjorling or Maria Callas, cricket, Ferrari or golf – and so on.  They are gorgeous to look at and they almost demand to be taken out and fondled.  For better or worse, they are the evidence of my journey here, and a source of real comfort – especially since we put the Wolf to sleep.

*

It is curious that Benjamin Britten and Tim Storrier had a fascination about water.  Britten brought it to life musically in two of his operas, Peter Grimes and Billy Budd.  You can just about taste the salt water in each.  A dealer at Australian Galleries told me that Storrier dealt with the fundamental.  He did a series of paintings of the sea with ladies’ hats.  He was also fascinated with fire.  I have one of his that is a blazing pyramid.  Would that I could afford one with a television box standing before a blaze in the bush – with a picture of the sea on the screen.  I have one of his firelines and a drawing of a saddle.  He could obviously draw –as could Jeffrey Smart and Fred Williams and others whose works I have – just works on paper, but theirs.  Storrier looks to me to have a patrician streak.  I went to hear him speak at the opening of a swish new gallery in High Street, Armadale.  He said that asking an artist to open a gallery was a bit like asking a cow to open an abattoir.  The owners did their best to put on masks of affability.  I was the art partner at Blakes, and I enjoyed it immensely.  It allowed me buy stuff I could never afford – and defend the acquisition for the occasional Presbyterian Philistine.  It also gave me the chance to have some fun.  I could go into a gallery on my way to or from gym looking like a bum.  And being looked down upon.  Until I responded to their query ‘Can we help?’  ‘Perhaps.  I am the art partner of an international law firm that is leasing six floors of a landmark building in Collins Street, and I have been instructed to acquire appropriate works of Australian art.’  The response was like that described by Banjo Paterson.  ‘There was movement at the station for the word had got around…..’(Did you know that Banjo was a lawyer?  And a good looking one, to boot.)

*

When I started at the Bar in 1971, I was almost completely dependent on my clerk, Ken Spurr, for briefs.  Most of them were in the Magistrates’ Courts.  There were three main categories of briefs – crash and bash (civil claims for motor car accidents); police prosecutions – mainly traffic; and maintenance cases between husband and wife.  We are speaking of a time about half a century ago – and I suspect that nearly all of that kind of brief has now gone by the wayside.  Most magistrates then had been clerks of courts, and were firmly on the side of the police – some of whom congregated in the clerk’s office before court.  It was almost impossible to get a magistrate to make a finding against a copper.  Some of them liked to have a drink with counsel over lunch at a bar.  One of them was addicted to Autumn Brown.  The grog did not soften them up after lunch.  It made sense to me to start at the bottom, and over time I noticed a kind of aloof distraction in those barristers who had the connections or front to avoid that kind of stuff.  Those briefs were marked at about $20 each.  And I thought that if I could get, say, three of those in a week, I could keep my head above water.  You used to drive out to a suburban court, and meet the punter there at about 9.30 am.  And then you would spend your time praying that you would get on.  There was nothing worse than waiting round all day at, say, Ferntree Gully and not getting on.  There was then the dispiriting drive back to the city – without a cracker to show for all that time out of your life.  You were not helped by bromides about cab ranks or swings and roundabouts, but this was a priceless way to learn about both the lottery and the pain of litigation.  You may not have wanted to say this to the punter, but the best way to learn was to lose – and lose both hard and often.  No sane person wants to embark on this kind of public raffle, and you realise that that your real role is to get the punter out of the clutches of the process as quickly and decently as possible.  As time goes on, you could get consulted before the proceeding was issued – and you could help deal with the hurt by pointing out that the cure was likely to be a lot worse than the disease.  It appals me now to go to mediations where counsel has been involved from the beginning – and you and they are seeing the punter for the first time.  I cannot understand how counsel can say that the course the client is pursuing was only embarked on after counsel took into account all relevant considerations.  What do you do if when you meet the punter, you think either that they will not be able to bear the stress of litigation – or be believed?  Perhaps that is why I wonder why of all the libel actions I have mediated over say the last five tears, I can hardly recall one that I would have recommended –  but I can recall a lot that were obviously too dicey to chance your arm in what Sir Owen Dixon called the temple of justice.

The dreamtime of a ghost-seer – I

A stream of consciousness of an ageing white male – and a member of an elite, to boot

Reminiscences of a barrister in autumn

I

‘Shifty’ may just be the best word for it.  The Cardinal has the power of the Inquisition, but the exercise of that power haunts him.  What happens if that power gets to be used against him?  He is both suspicious and suspect.  Every revolution brings the risk of a counter-revolution.  In the result, El Greco brings you face to face with the magic of art – there is something there that commands our attention, but which we cannot adequately spell out in words.  What, if any, is the difference between this inquisitor and a Communist commissar?  Has this sometime holy man sold out to Mephistopheles?  El Greco is one of my favourite painters.  He comes down to me like Turner – just so far ahead of his time.  His shimmering images reflect the edginess of faith.  But if he was a champion of the Counter-Reformation, what was he doing by investing a prince of the Church with a pained countenance of doubt, if not downright guilt?  I have seen and I am moved by the paintings by El Greco of Christ dealing with the money lenders at the National Gallery in London and the Met in New York.  For me, they are like Mozart in oils on canvass.  (And did El Greco really use his mistress as a model for the Madonna?)  Well, shifty is the word comes to mind whenever I see Vladimir Putin.  It is just as well that he never set out his stall as a used car dealer.

*

Princess Park, the home of Carlton, was, I thought, different as a footy ground for being reputed to be larger than the Melbourne Cricket Ground.  I have a reasonable recollection of John Lord, a solid six footer who wore number 4 for the Demons (the Melbourne Football Club), kicking a goal from a set shot from inside what would now be the centre square through the goal at the east end – with a drop kick!  Unbelievable.  I think this was in 1965.  (About a generation later, Malcolm Blight would become famous for kicking a goal after the bell at the other end of the ground – from a point not far from the centre of the ground.  Like a certain paint product, it just kept on keeping on.)  The significance of 1965 is that this was the first time Melbourne had met Carlton since Barassi switched from Melbourne to Carlton.  They had won six premierships under Norm Smith before the old brigade at the MCC decided to sack him.  The Demons have not won a flag since then – it is like the curse that descended on the Red Sox – the Demons are the Redlegs –when they sold Babe Ruth to the Yankees.  For people of my generation, the move of Barassi to another club entailed a frightful loss of innocence – and an end to the simple loyalty of boyhood and youth.  God only know what we may have done had he gone to Collingwood.  We had had to endure a similar challenge to faith when national heroes of tennis – like Hoad and Rosewall after Sedgman and McGregor– turned pro.  The Davis Cup was tarnished.  We felt diminished – sold out.  We would feel a worse sense of national betrayal when we learned that our government had taken us to war under false pretences.  Twice.

*

My cooking can, I think, fairly be described as Socratic.  That is, I have a profound grasp of my own limitations and failings.  I therefore stick with the tried and the simple.  A friend told me that the first time he tried a béarnaise sauce was the night a well-known cooking identity came to her place for dinner.  That could not happen to me.  For the most part, I only serve meals for guests that I have prepared a day or so beforehand.  Like lamb shanks or ox-tail slow cooked in a low oven in the French blue Le Creuset pot that is an essential part of my life and not just its furniture.  There is somethinguplifting about taking the pot from the oven and lifting the lid and savouring the effect of the heat, the herbs and the wine on the meat on the bone.  Do vegetarians really want to go without this?  The trickiest thing I do is a cassoulet.  Depending on the season, you may find it hard to get one nowadays in Paris.  It was I think Julian Burnside who said that mine was the best he had had south of Lyons.  Well, from a given point in the evening dinner, barristers are prone to a certain level of romance.

*

Wittgenstein said: ‘If Christianity is the truth, then all the philosophy that is written about it is false.’  What if he was right?  Well, as I suspect Wittgenstein may have said: In order to consider that question, you would have to ask what was meant by the terms ‘Christianity’ and ‘the truth’.  Neither question is small.

*

We got to Tel Aviv at dusk and took a car to Jerusalem so that we arrived at the King David Hotel in darkness.  We got up the next morning, took breakfast with the big Jewish mommas and some revolting milk, and asked the cab driver to take us to Gethsemane.  (Can you blaspheme by giving directions to a cab driver?)  I looked out the window and saw the parapets of what looked like a castle wall.  I immediately thought: ‘Look – there is King David’s city.’  The recognition was instantaneous, but it came from nowhere.  It was an unnerving case of déjà vu.  It is curious that I get the same feeling at St James’ Park in London, the Tiergarten in Berlin and Central Park in New York.  They are all names to conjure with, but I get an odd sense of belonging to each when I go into it.  Each is like a beating heart to what is deservedly known as one of the great cities of the world.  For some reason, I do not get the same reaction at the Tuileries in Paris, although my reading probably takes me more often to them than the others.  But to return to the cab driver in Jerusalem, at least when I was there those cabbies were reputed to be rapacious – as some that I found in Rio or Prague.  Which reminds me of the time when Gavin Forrest, a partner of mine, and I took a client to lunch at the Melbourne Club.  He was a charming man – a German lawyer working for a very big Japanese company.  Naturally, we joked about not mentioning the war.  We were later joined by a partner, Charles Brett, who was not a party to that preparation in etiquette.  Something came up about foreign cabbies and I mentioned the trouble I had had at Prague, Rio and Jerusalem.  Charles said: ‘Do you know that there is a hotel in Paris that some cabbies will not go to?’  ‘No – why is that, Charles?’  ‘The Lutetia.  It was the headquarters of the Gestapo during the war.’  Well, there you go.  Your whole life until then flashes before your eyes, and you hope that your frozen wide-eyed immobility masks the fearful din within.  Eat your heart out, John Cleese.

Up your north Part 5

V

There is bugger-all at Fitzroy Crossing, and even less at Halls Creek, about 280 ks away.  The River Lodge does however offer good bar and dining service under the stars.  I had been waited on by two very attractive young women, one from Brittany, and one from Montpellier.  (If you were into French more than me, you could brush up on it on a trip like this.)  After dinner, I had sat behind a number of blackfellas sitting in a semi-circle in the bar watching Port Adelaide beat Hawthorn.  They obviously barracked for the former, but I could not understand what they were saying.  I do not recall seeing any drinking between the races.

The road to Halls Creek is dead flat and boring.  Halls Creek itself is a very, very depressing place.  The only alcohol you can get there is light beer.  Asians were running the servo – very well; one rushed to get a Band-Aid when she saw I was bleeding – but the black people look very down and out, and the white people do not look much livelier.  It is the kind of place you just want to get out of.  I would meet others who had the same sad impression.

It is a further 120 ks to the Bungle Bungles turn off and then a notorious 53 ks of bone shaking and water hazard before you get to the Park Information Office, and then about a further 27ks to the famous beehive domes.  The day might only cover 453ks, but it was always going to be a lot harder than just that.  My booking agent at the Kununurra Visitors’ Centre, Florence (a fictitious name), had warned me that the last 53ks might take almost as long as the previous 400.  That was an overstatement – one of a number from that source, I was to find – but this was clearly going to be my longest day.  You bloody bet it was.  In bloody spades, mate.

There is gate across the road just off the highway and before you get to the caravan park there.  A guy was coming out.  As he got to me, he wound down his windows and said: ‘Do you see that guy behind me in the read cap?’  ‘Yep.’  ‘It will cost you $5 just for him to shut the gate.’  We laughed, but I still asked the man in the cap where I checked in.

How would I bloody well know?

Ask your mate behind the wheel – if he waits for you.

So, I entered the Bungles in high spirits, the highlight of my quest, the grail if you like.  After about ninety minutes of punishment I let out a shout of triumph when I passed the National Park Gate and arrived at the Information Office at about noon on the Saturday.

Office shut.  Unmanned.  Complex instructions on how to calculate fees.  No credit card facility for payment.  No change.  Just calculate the fee – I thought it was $50 for my two nights but I may have been wrong – and I put $50 in the envelope, and sought to display the evidence as instructed.  The complex instructions were only in English.  Put to one side the pay as you go issue.  This is supposed to be a World Heritage site and here we are behaving like hicks to tourists that we seek to attract.  You would not this inane rudeness at Iguazzu or the Grand Canyon.

Then I started to get a sullen premonition.  Why was there no sign for the soft accommodation that Florence had booked for me inside the National Park?  My paper spoke of ‘a tourist park.’  It may have been under canvas but it was en suite and with meals and a bar.  I drove about 7ks to the nearest camp ground and found a bloke in a tent who had been living there for some time.  He said that there was such accommodation about 30ks down the road but that there was no caravan park in the National Park itself.

Does that mean that my place is back near the highway.

Looks like it, cobber.

And I have just done those 53ks plus for nothing?

Looks like it.

And now I have to go back.

They’ll be booked out down the road.

Well, well, well.

Or Anglo-Saxon terms to that effect, with unchristian thoughts about Florence.  This was a major bugger-up, not perhaps without some contribution from me for not checking that the accommodation procured came within my written instructions. But at least I would get a beer when I made it back to join the people I may have looked down upon on my way in.

I retraced the 53ks and five water hazards, dangerously more quickly.  There was one notorious stretch of corrugation where I found it was better to boost the engine a little to achieve a kind of skating effect, but I was told later that this damages the vehicle, and you have to be very careful to cut back as soon as the surface changes.  I noticed a few drivers coming in looking like grim death.

I got back to the caravan park just before 2 pm, and, yes, I was booked in there.  So the South African lady who could have worn number 8 for the Storm told me.  She and a French guy with a beard from Brittany – I have forgotten his name, but a very nice guy – were attending to my needs as I informed them of a little misunderstanding  – un petit faux pas – with Florence.  The conversation went something like this.

Am I too late for lunch?

We don’t do lunch.

Well, it will be a slap-up dinner.  With a bloody good red.  It has been a bad day.

You will have to bring your own.

Why’s that?

We have no licence.

[After another reference to Florence] Where’s the next bottle shop?

180ks up the road mate.

[I remember that nice French guy saying that with just a hint of a glint in his eye.]

Well, well, well.

Unless you want beer.  That’s only 120ks south.  But I suppose that you have just come up from there.

And they only sell light beer.

Dinner’s at 6pm.  Do you have any allergies?

No, why?

There is only one meal – pea soup and beef stew.

Bonzer.

Here is the combination to the lock on the zip on your tent.  There is no power, but there is a light.

I take it that means there is no air-con.

Silly me.  It was in danger of becoming a killing field of great expectations, and I started to giggle.  But it took me about ten minutes to unlock the zip, and when I got inside it was about five degrees warmer than outside, which was north of 30.  I had half a bottle of red, but can you imagine what it was like after about three hours on that road in that heat.

The first thing to do was to cancel the second night.  When I went back to the HQ to deal with the South African lady about a refund for the second night and also to inquire about a helicopter flight, I met a guy called Bernard.  Hearing my helicopter inquiry, he offered me his wife’s seat on a flight at 3pm.  It was an hour’s flight, and I said I only needed 30 minutes (which should be true for everyone – you can see a lot in 30 minutes).  I gather that Bernard’s wife, whom I later met, had gone off flying in helicopters, which is understandable, and that unless a third passenger could be found, the price for the other two would be excessive.  I said to the South African Storm number 8 that if she assured me that I would get a refund of my second night – I had paid up front for this deluxe accommodation in the middle of nowhere – I would take the 3pm flight.  The deal was struck.  Everyone seemed happy.  I could salvage something from the day – apart from experience, and some lines to dine out on.   The Storm number 8 even made a little joke.

A little later an Italian lady from north of Milan weighed me in for the changed manifest that I was to give to the pilot, Ben.  Bernie and I allowed Deirdre to sit in the front and Ben strapped us in the back.

We all had a wow of a time.  Ben’s commentary was to the point, and we could ask questions over the intercom.  We went over a lot of cattle country where they muster by helicopter.  These flights, which I have taken at some of the world’s great sights, are expensive but worth every cent.  Apart from the wow, you get to grips with scale and history.

Bernie thought my day had been hilarious – so did I – and thought that I would be carrying all of the white man’s burden for a full twenty-four hours.  In sympathy, he invited me back to his base for a beer.  He was travelling in a 4WD bus group of ten with two driver/guides and sleeping under canvass at each stop.  I met a few of the group who said that the guides were terrific.  They all looked very content around the evening fire, although I may have blanched at the 5.30 start the next morning.  Here was an option for people who do not mind sleeping under canvas and sharing communal facilities.  I have done some of that up there, but, as I made clear to Florence, those days are behind me.

At dinner – 6 pm sharp! – I spoke to a few caravaners and picked up some of their lore.  They clearly have a sense of community and purpose, and I suspect that they get a better social life than people who travel like me – or in a big bus.  A guy at dinner, who came from England, shared a bottle of red at the table, and when I got back to my still hot tent to finish off the shattered remains of my red stock, I could not find a glass.  Perhaps this was because there was a sign saying that I should not drink the water unless I boiled it – but there was nothing to boil it with.  Nor was there power.  I went to the vans and borrowed a glass and had a couple with a convivial group there – who thought it was rich that I had not even been given a glass.