Here and there – Two sanctimonious politicians

 

Medieval kings had to rule as well as reign.  They had to be much more like our politicians than our modern kings.  Shakespeare’s Henry IV and Henry V, father and son, provide studies in the dark arts and crafts of politics that throw light on the behaviour of our politicians of today.  They also provide a contrast in sanctimony, that is, a pretended or affected decency.  These rulers smack of hypocrisy, and being other than what they seem.  It’s this two-facedness that gets on our quince with our politicians, and the sanctimony here extends over two generations and four plays.

The character of Bolingbroke (the future Henry IV) in Richard II is opaque.  He never soliloquizes, and we do not get a window into his mind.  Was he a born schemer before the time of Machiavelli, so that the Crown came to him –

But as an honour snatched with a boisterous hand.  (2 Henry IV, 4.5.191)

Or did Bolingbroke just go with the flow so –

That I and greatness were compelled to kiss.  (2 Henry IV, 3.1.74)

The question is open, and we are left with the impression that Bolingbroke is somehow hollow.  And with an author like this, you don’t treat that result as an accident.

But when he attains the crown, King Henry IV gets to upbraid his son for his ways, and we get a clear insight into the politics of this man.  This is a man-to-man chat and we have no reason to doubt the sincerity of the speaker.  The father tells the son how Richard II lost his crown.  He did so because he debased its currency by taking up with low life.

The skipping King, he ambled up and down

With shallow jesters and rash bavin wits,

Soon kindled and soon burnt; carded his state,

Mingled his royalty with capering fools…

Enfeoffed himself to popularity,

That, being daily swallowed by men’s eyes,

They surfeited with honey and began

To loathe the taste of sweetness…..(I Henry IV, 3.2.60-72)

 

How apt do those last four lines seem for Donald Trump?  The first line – ‘Enfeoffed himself to popularity’ – might be translated ‘Hocked his soul to Fox News.’  But this description of Richard II, which is fair, applies equally to the conduct of Prince Hal, the heir to the throne.

What then is the sage advice of this seasoned politician who is the father of the miscreant prince?  Make yourself scarce and then put on a front.

By being seldom seen, I could not stir

But like a comet I was wondered at…..

And then I stole all courtesy from heaven,

And dressed myself in such humility

That I did pluck allegiance from men’s hearts…..

Thus did I keep my person fresh and new,

My presence, like a robe pontifical,

Ne’er seen but wondered at; and so my state,

Seldom but sumptuous, showed like a feast

And won by rareness such solemnity.  (I Henry IV, 3.2.46-59)

As Bolingbroke, he may not have followed this policy to the letter.  The king he deposed had observed ‘his [Bolingbroke’s] courtship to the common people’ – even to the point of doffing his bonnet to an oyster-wench.  (Richard II, 1.4.24-31)

But we know that young Hal has already worked out a similar trick for himself.

I know you all, and will awhile uphold

The unyoked humour of your idleness.

Yet herein will I imitate the sun,

Who doth permit the base contagious clouds

To smother up his beauty from the world,

That when he please again to be himself,

Being wanted he may be more wondered at….

So when this loose behaviour I throw off

And pay the debt I never promised,

By how much better than my word I am

By so much shall I falsify men’s hopes.  (I Henry IV, 1.2.182 – 205)

 

Hal parades as one of the boys, one of the people, but it’s all a game, and a game for his benefit only.  This spoiled royal brat is just a user. ‘When I am King of England, I shall command all the good lads in Eastcheap … I can drink with any tinker in his own language.’ (I Henry IV, 2.4.10-20)  But when the game has served its purpose, these human toys, of whom the prince had spoken with such disgust, may be discarded.  The young prince takes people under him into his trust and confidence, knowing that he will then break that trust – because as king he will have to let Falstaff and the rest of the motley go.  It’s one thing to meet the people; it’s another to sow wild oats before becoming weighed down by care – as we are reminded by some reluctant younger members of the royal family now; but it is altogether a different thing to take up and discard your future subjects when it suits you.

Young Hal is a rat and he knows it.  There is something revoltingly clever about a young man wanting to be seen to be paying a debt he never promised.  You may not want a guy like that standing behind you at a grouse shoot.  When they are play-acting, Falstaff says: ‘Banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.’  Hal says, quietly: ‘I do, I will.’  (Part I, 2.4.480-1)  When his father accuses Hal of being ‘common’, Hal says: ‘I shall hereafter … Be more myself.’ (Part I, 3.2.92)  When he casts off Falstaff and the whole Eastcheap crowd – the common people – King Henry V does so with one of the coldest lines of this author, a passage that so upset A C Bradley.  The new king went on to say:

Presume not that I am the thing I was

For God doth know, so shall the world perceive,

That I have turned away my former self

So will I those that kept me company

When thou dost hear that I am as I have been

Approach me, and thou shalt be as thou wast

The tutor and the feeder of my riots.  (Part II, 5.57-64)

 

So, the new king is saying that he has changed from his former self. But that was not true. As a prince, Hal had only pretended to engage in the gutter – until he allowed his sun to dissipate the clouds.  He had not changed – he had merely dropped the front.

That story might pass in the Court, but it could not do in Eastcheap.  There they said that ‘the King has killed his heart’, the heart of Falstaff (Henry V, 2.1.91) and the King has ‘run bad humors on the knight’ whose heart was broken. (Henry V, 2.1.125-127)

Even if Eastcheap merely thought that the king killed the heart of Falstaff, it knew that he had endorsed the execution of Bardolph.  Bardolph was hanged for blasphemy – stealing plate from a church.  The pious King says that he will not have ‘the French upbraided or abused in disdainful language.’  (Henry V, 3.6.115-116).  And another sometime mate, or pretended mate, goes under, in order that this king can prove his chivalry to his enemy.

There is something both cold and calculating about each these two politicians, father and son.  They are both two faced, but there is something very chilling about the duplicitous cold-bloodedness of the son.  How do you warm to a man who treats his confidants with less heart than he would show to a stray Tom?  Someone compared the prince to a clever shopkeeper who ‘knows how to display the merchandise of his behavior.’  And in the next play, we will see that that this duplicity runs in the family – the brother Prince John will unload an act of bastardry that may have fazed Hitler.

Hotspur, that soul of chivalry, saw in Bolingbroke ‘this subtle king’ and a ‘vile politician’ (Henry IV, 1.3.169 and 239).  The Oxford Edition gives for ‘politician’ a ‘shrewd schemer, deceitful opportunist’ and refers us to King Lear 4.6.172-174 where the mad old king is talking to a man whose eyes have been put out:

…..Get thee glass eyes

And like a scurvy politician seem

To see the things thou dost not.

For ‘scurvy politician’ the Everyman gives ‘vile politic man,’ while the Oxford goes in harder: ‘worthless, contemptible intriguer.’  If all this means that you regard the man who became Henry V as ‘frankly vicious’, then that was precisely the phrase that Sir Anthony Quayle applied to Falstaff – and Quayle was best placed to know the character of Falstaff.  And do I not think that such an equivalence would for one moment have troubled the playwright.

The three plays where Bolingbroke is in the lead are for many the three best plays of this author in the theatre.  The two great scenes for father and son are two of the glories of our stage, and the failings of these two characters are part of the magic of those scenes.  If you see them better done than by Roger Allam and Jamie Parker in the 2012 Globe production, the gods of theatre have truly smiled on you.  There is a lot more than mere politics here.  When you have buried your parents and raised your children, you will find it hard to go through these scenes with a dry eye.

Here and there – Herman Melville on Evil

 

In Melville’s final work, Billy Budd, Billy personifies innocence and beauty.  John Claggart personifies evil.  He cannot stand the sight of Billy.

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

In Moby-Dick, Captain Ahab represents another kind of evil.  Ahab is mad to get revenge on the murderous whale that ‘dismasted’ him.  W H Auden said that Ahab ‘is a representation, perhaps the greatest in literature of defiant despair.’  Ahab is wilfully beyond comfort because ‘comfort would be the destruction of him’ (a phrase that Auden takes from Kierkegaard).

Captain Ahab personifies the fanatic, and he appeals to the gutter.  It was only on reading the novel for the third time – in which serious self-editing is permitted – and on looking again at the luminous book Melville, His World and Work (2005) by Andrew Delbanco – that I realised how relevant this curious novel is to us now.  It is a frightening portrait of a manic demagogue.  There is another frightful example in the White House as we speak.

Captain Ahab believes that we are all prisoners of our ignorance about the meaning of our suffering.  He asks his Chief Mate ‘how can the prisoner reach outside except by thrusting through the wall?’

To me, the white whale [Moby-Dick] is that wall, shoved near to me.  Sometimes I think there’s nought beyond.  But ‘tis enough.  He tasks me; he heaps me; I see in him outrageous strength, with an inscrutable malice sinewing it.  That inscrutable thing is chiefly what I hate; and be the white male agent, or be the white male principal, I will wreak that hate upon him.  Talk not to me of blasphemy man; I’d strike the sun if it insulted me.

This is the kind of apocalyptic stuff we get with Carlyle.  Delbanco says that with Captain Ahab, ‘Melville struck a note that would resound through modern history in ways he could never have anticipated’:

All that maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified and made practically assailable in Moby Dick.

The usual term is scapegoat.  Delbanco refers to another writer who says that ‘every sufferer instinctively seeks a cause for his suffering….a ‘guilty’ agent who is susceptible to pain’ upon whom he can vent his rage and ‘dull by means of some violent emotion his secret tormenting pain.’

For this purpose, Ahab gees up his troops, who are at best an indifferent motley.  They happily surrender to the mood of the moment, and to the instinct of the herd.  The zeal of each takes on the colour of the rest.  Delbanco refers to a critic who called Moby-Dick a ‘prophecy of the essence of fascism’, and to a French critic who in 1928 saw the drift into reactionary nationalism and xenophobia and who said that ‘hatred becomes stronger by becoming more precise.’   He refers to another comment about the ‘intense subjectivism’ with which Hitler ‘repeatedly over-rode the opinions of trained diplomats and the German General Staff, committing blunder after blunder’ that led to the final disaster.

The relevance of all this to the manic demagogues we have now, and their pliant acolytes is obvious.  Delbanco concludes:

In Captain Ahab, Melville had invented a suicidal charismatic who denounces as a blasphemer anyone who would deflect him from his purpose – an invention that shows no sign of becoming obsolete any time soon.

Amen.  But, at least the whale won that one.  And the phrase ‘truth with malice in it’ belongs to the ages.

Here and there – The Third Man and Shakespeare

 

A few weeks ago, on a desultory whim, I watched The Third Man for the nth time.  I realised I had never read the book, so I ordered a copy.  Graham Greene wrote the screenplay too, but there are some differences in the two versions.  The cuckoo clock didn’t get a look-in in the book, but the book’s account of the lecture given to the British reading group in Vienna is different and hilarious – and loaded.

You will recall that Rollo Martins (Joseph Cotton) is a bashed up American writer of cheap westerns.  He is in Vienna to check up on his mate Harry Lime (Orson Welles).  A member of the British Council named Crabbin thinks that Martins is the distinguished novelist named B Dexter.  Crabbin invites Martins to address a meeting of the local British literati.  When Martins is more under the weather than usual, he gets picked up and delivered to the meeting.  He is very sore and terse.  But after a while, he realises that he is making ‘an enormous impression’, least of all when he said that he had never heard of James Joyce.  Graham Greene was having a lot of fun, and settling some old scores.

A kind-faced woman in a hand-knitted jumper said wistfully, ‘Don’t you agree, Mr Dexter, that no one, no one has written about feelings so poetically as Virginia Woolf?  In prose, I mean.’

Crabbin whispered, ‘You might say something about the stream of consciousness.’

‘Stream of what?’

\A note of despair came into Crabbin’s voice……

Martins ends up signing books by Dexter ‘From B Dexter, author of The Lone Rider of Santa Fe.’  He is trying to make his escape via the dunny when Sergeant Paine patiently collects him to have a word with Colonel Calloway (Trevor Howard).

As condescension goes, Mr Crabbin is a direct descendant of Mr Collins and Lady Catherine de Bourgh.  For many, the highlight of the night, which was not in the film, had come as follows.

‘Mr Dexter, could you tell us what author has chiefly influenced you?’

Martins, without thinking, said, ‘Grey.’  He meant of course the author of ‘Riders of the Purple Sage’, and he was pleased to find his reply gave general satisfaction – to all save an elderly Austrian who asked ‘Grey.  What Grey?  I do not know the name.’

Martins felt he was safe now and said, ‘Zane Grey – I don’t know any other,’ and was mystified at the low subservient laughter from the English colony.

Crabbin interposed quickly for the sake of the Austrians, ‘That is a little joke of Mr Dexter’s.  He meant the poet Gray – a gentle, mild, subtle genius – one can see the affinity.’

‘And is he called Zane Grey?’

‘That was Mr Dexter’s joke.  Zane Grey wrote what we call Westerns – cheap popular novelettes about bandits and cowboys.’

‘He is not a great writer?’

‘No, no.  Far from it,’ Mr Crabbin said.  ‘In the strict sense I would not call him a writer at all.’  Martins told me that he felt the first stirrings of revolt at that statement.  He had never regarded himself before as a writer, but Crabbin’s self-confidence irritated him – even the way the light flashed back from Crabbin’s spectacles was another cause of vexation.  Crabbin said, ‘He was just a popular entertainer.’

‘Why the hell not?’ Martins said fiercely.

‘Oh, well, I merely meant – ’

‘What was Shakespeare?’

Somebody said with great daring ‘A poet.’

Now, all this is hilarious and beyond price.  It is a Falstaffian swipe at the snobs of the literary establishment who want to turn the popular entertainer called Shakespeare into a god, who helped to propel poor John Keats into the Protestant Cemetery in Rome, and who still so meanly and sadly turns up their noses at the wonderful writing of Graham Greene.  Off the top of your head, what writer wrote novels that people enjoy reading more than those of Graham Greene?

It’s as if Greene foresaw his doom.  The establishment wouldn’t give him a Nobel Prize – but they would give one to Bob Dylan.  Well, at least there’s no bloody doubt about his being a popular entertainer.

It’s idle to compare artists, and it is arrogant to purport to rank them, but this extract from The Third Man suggests to me that Greene may have had one thing in common with Shakespeare – just, say, in the wistful remark of the kind-faced woman in the hand-knitted jumper.  You get the impression that it’s just a matter of waiting for some bastard to pull the plug out – and down it all comes.  It’s as if, somehow, God gets in on the act.  Either way, we have been blessed.

Dickens on crowd pullers

 

The rise of demagogues like Farage and Trump has greatly discomforted people like me who are scared of demagogues and the forces that empower them – or, perhaps I should say, the forces that unleash them.  People who succumb to seduction that contains its own contradictions and evidences its own falsity are at best gullible – which means ‘ready to be gulled’ or, if you prefer, conned.

The phenomenon is critically analysed by Charles Dickens in his novel Barnaby Rudge, A Tale of the Riots of ‘Eighty.  The second part of the book is largely taken up by accounts of what are known as the Gordon Riots in London in 1780.

An unbalanced Scottish lord named Lord George Gordon claimed to belong to ‘the party of the people’.  He whipped up mass hysteria in the London mob against Catholics.  The problem was not just antagonism between sects, although that had been explosive enough under both the Tudors and the Stuarts.  Many of the London poor resented Irish immigrants.  Why?  Not because they were Catholic, but because they accepted lower wages and put the locals out of work.  Or so it was felt or alleged.  Some things don’t change.

The mind and character of Gordon and his abettors are looked at in detail by Dickens, as is the terrifying progress of the riots.  They were as bad as any experienced in Paris in and after 1789, with the exception of the September Massacres. The violence was not limited to action against Catholics. These riots conditioned the English against popular intervention, and they stalled the movement for reform for about two generations.  

The hero of the novel is an idiot.  He is therefore inherently gullible.  Although there is not an ounce of evil in Barnaby, he is gulled into taking part in the carnage at London. Barnaby gets apprehended and he is convicted.  There is only one penalty.  Is it right that an idiot should hang for taking part in a riot?

It is hard to dissect what moves people to follow demagogues like Gordon or Farage or Trump.  It is hard enough to see what might go through the mind of you or me – to attempt to guess what may have gone through tens of millions of minds is absurd.  It doesn’t help much to talk about elites or insiders or the better educated or the well off.  But here is a description of the Tory squire in Georgian England given by Dickens in full flight.

Now, this gentleman had various endearing appellations among his intimate friends.  By some he was called ‘country gentlemen of the true school’, by some ‘a fine old country gentlemen’, by some ‘a sporting gentleman’, by some ‘a thorough–bred gentleman,’ 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, and 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 horse flesh, 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 joined his own) for possessing those accomplishments in a greater degree than himself.  In short, Barnaby being an idiot, and Grip [a pet raven] a creature of mere brute instinct, it would be very hard to say what this gentleman was.

An agent of Lord Gordon, Gashford, puts a charm on Barnaby to get him to join the movement.  His widowed mother is horrified.  When she tries to restrain Barnaby, we get this:

‘Leave the young man to his choice; he’s old enough to make it, and snap your apron-strings.  He knows, without your telling, whether he wears the sign of a loyal Englishman or not’.

There’s that rotten notion of patriotism again. (Since Trump refused both military service and the payment of tax, it would be impossible, even by his mad standards, for him to claim that he was a patriot.)

Then comes a passage that brings us straight to the USA in December 2016 with Trump’s denial of the intervention in the election of his friend and admirer Vladimir Putin.  (It would be idle for Trump to deny, again even by his own mad standards, the lethal intervention of the FBI.)

‘My good woman’, said Gashford, ‘how can you!  –Dear me!  – What do you mean by tempting, and by danger?  Do you think his lordship is a roaring lion, going about and seeking whom he may devour?  God bless me!’

‘No, no, my Lord, forgive me,’ implored the widow, lying both her hands upon his breast, and scarcely knowing what she said, or did, in the earnestness of her supplication, ‘but there are reasons why you should hear my earnest, mother’s prayer, and leave my son with me.  Oh do.  He is not in his right senses, he is not, indeed.’

‘It is a bad sign of the wickedness of these times’ said Lord George, evading her touch and colouring deeply, ‘that those who cling to the truth and support the right cause, are set down as mad.  Have you the heart to say this of your own son, unnatural mother!’

‘I am astonished at you!’  said Gashford, with a kind of meek severity.  ‘This is a very sad picture of female depravity.’

‘He has surely no appearance,’ said Lord George, glancing at Barnaby, and whispering in his secretary’s ear, ‘of being deranged?  And even if he had, we must not construe any trifling peculiarity into madness.  Which of us’ – and here he turned red again – ‘would be safe if that were made the law!

Dickens leaves us in no doubt about his view of the mob in action, ‘composed for the most part of the very scum and refuse of London’, just as Carlyle leaves us in no doubt about the September Massacres in Paris.  Dickens says:

A mob is usually a creature of very mysterious existence, particularly in a large city.  Where it comes from, or whither it goes, few men can tell.  Assembling and dispersing with equal suddenness, it is as difficult to follow to its various sources as the sea itself; nor does the parallel stop here, for the ocean is not more fickle and uncertain, more terrible when roused, more unreasonable, or more cruel.

And members of the mob tend to lock themselves in.  ‘Indeed, the sense of having gone too far to be forgiven, held the timid together no less than the bold.’  And the ultimate analogy is again made:

The more the fire crackled and raged, the wilder and more cruel the men grew; as though moving in that element, they became fiends, and change their earthly nature for the qualities that give delight in hell.

It is not hard to see the affinity between Dickens and Carlyle, but then comes the banality of the retribution.

Two cripples – both mere boys – one with a leg of wood, one who dragged his twisted limbs along by the help of a crutch, were hanged in this same Bloomsbury Square.  As the cart was about to glide from under them, it was observed that they stood with their faces from, not to, the house they had assisted to despoil; and their misery was protracted that this omission might be remedied.  Another boy was hanged in Bow Street; other young lads in various quarters of the town.  For wretched women, too, were put to death.  In a word, those who suffered as rioters were, for the most part, the weakest, meanest, and most miserable among them.  It was a most exquisite satire upon the false religious cry which had led to so much misery, that some of these people owned themselves to be Catholics, and begged to be attended by their own priests.

The irony was that those who witnessed the executions were as unattractive as those who had taken part in the riots.  Dickens had been against capital punishment, and he was certainly against public executions.  In 1860, he described the spectators coming from the execution of a murderer as ‘such a tide of ruffians as never could have flowed from any point but the Gallows.  Without any figure of speech, it turned one white and sick to behold them.’  After another hanging, Dickens regarded the conduct of the people as so ‘indescribably frightful, that I felt for some time afterwards almost as if I were living in a city of devils.’  That was the analogy that he made in Barnaby Rudge.

In his enlightening book Carlyle and Dickens, Michael Goldberg says:

Lord George, the mad visionary, and Gashford, the cunning mercenary, provide the spark which ignites the incendiary mob.  Barnaby, the imbecile, is an implicit comment on Gordon, the political fool, and Dickens originally planned to have the riot led by three escaped lunatics from Bedlam.  Thus the Gordon riots are seen as an ‘explosion of madness and nothing more’…

There was of course a good deal more involved in the events we know as the French Revolution and the analogy with the US today has ended by now on other grounds.  Trump may well be a political fool, but Farage is not.  And in a representative democracy, the mob finds expression in the ballot box rather than behind the barricades – although the French from time to time like to take to the streets for old times’ sake.

Whether you now see other analogies in the novel will depend on how you read it, and how you see the world now.  If Dickens had sought to characterise people like Malcolm Roberts or Rod Culleton in this novel, I dare say some of us may have thought that he had taken his penchant for caricature and coincidence right over the top.

Someone – I forget who – said that we go to great writers for the truth, and for my part, I think we get a fair bit of it in Barnaby Rudge.

And what of Lord Gordon?  He beat the rap for the riots in a trial presided over by the great Lord Mansfield. Mansfield’s house was burned down in the riots.   The mob was incensed against him because they thought he had given too fair a trial to a priest charged with celebrating mass.  He had directed the jury that they ‘must not infer that he is a priest because he said mass, and that he said mass because he was a priest.’   Lord George would also get a fair trial.

They conducted trials more expeditiously then, and no judge has ever been more expeditious than Mansfield.  The charge was high treason, the most serious in the book.  The penalty was death.  More than thirty witnesses were called.  Erskine made what was called ‘a very long speech’ for the defence.  The court convened at eight on Monday morning.  The jury retired at quarter to five on Tuesday morning.  They gave their verdict half an hour later.  As I said, they were more expeditious then.  At the end of the first week, we would still be listening to the opening.

Before Gordon died, the man who had instigated what we would call a pogrom against Catholics converted to Judaism.  It might make you feel for the members of the synagogue who had to live with that conversion.  But he was later convicted of defaming Marie Antoinette, and he died of typhoid fever in Newgate prison.

Lord George had befriended a con man named Cagliostro (who did a nice line in ‘an elixir of immortal youth’). This crook got tied up in the infamous Diamond Necklace Affair in France and he made an enemy of Marie Antoinette.  Lord Gordon had been appalled by the inequality he saw in France and he charged the French queen with persecuting his mate.  He was then charged with libelling her and British judges.  Erskine was not available, and Lord George conducted his own defence.  He did so with what one commentator called ‘a display of disarming ineptitude.’  When the Attorney spoke of a ‘wise and illustrious princess’, Lord George said in a stage-whisper fashion: ‘Everybody knows she is a very convenient lady.’  That might fairly be described as a high risk gambit.

His lordship was nothing if not different.  Horace Walpole said of the family: ‘They were, and are, all mad.’  A fellow MP said: ‘The noble lord has got a twist in his head, a certain whirligig which runs away with him if anything relative to religion is mentioned.’  Well, his lordship was not alone there, and it could be very dangerous to say that such a whirligig might be evidence of insanity.

Except for the disease that killed him, Lord George lived in comfort at Newgate.  He regularly gave dinners, and he gave balls once a fortnight.  After about 1791, the balls always ended with the Marseillaise.  Lord George had been circumcised and he allowed his hair to grow.  He was well liked at Newgate, even loved, but Lord George Gordon may be the only orthodox Jew in all history to have annoyed other cellmates in his slammer by the playing of the bagpipes.

Lord George passed away on 1 November 1793 after giving a final, faltering rendition of the revolutionary refrain so often described by Carlyle, ça ira.  The romance of the Scots for the French was very strong back then – and it may come back as the English turn their backs on the Continent.

Pure Evil

 

We have to accept that people can do things that look to us to be pure evil.  Take the Terror in France in 1793, the Terror in Germany from 1933 to 1945, or the Terror now being inflicted by IS in the Middle East and elsewhere.  It is the kind of pure evil drawn by Shakespeare in Othello in Iago and by Herman Melville in John Claggart in Billy Budd.

Most of us cannot comprehend how previously decent people could bring themselves to do such evil, but we know that it is wrong to dismiss the examples as problems that were inherently French, German, or Islamic.  That would be to slip into the kind of labelling that underlies those evil ideologies and take us back to where we started.

Pure evil is all about in the book News of a kidnapping by Gabriel Garcia Marquez.  It is a factual account of a series of abductions of prominent figures in Colombia in an attempt by a drug lord, Pablo Escobar, to do a deal with the government to prevent their being extradited to the U S – which was handing out sentences of life plus more.  Eighteen prominent people were abducted and held in appalling deprivation while negotiations went on.  We know from the blurb and the author’s introduction that two hostages will die – both women.  That disclosure leads to some urgency in the read.

The criminals who so cruelly hold these hostages have been leached of all humanity.  They appear to attach no value at all to human life.  It is as if the Ten Commandments and the Sermon on the Mount had never been uttered.  They are at least as mindlessly cold as Himmler and Heydrich.  They commonly stand over the hostages with a cocked machine gun saying that at the first hint of rescue the hostages will be shot.  It is apparent that the guards do not put much value on their own life – they know it is short.

Hannah Arendt wrote a book called Eichmann in Jerusalem, A Report on the Banality of Evil.  She explained the sub-title as follows:

When I speak of the banality of evil, I do so only on the strictly factual level, pointing to the phenomenon which stared one in the face at the trial.  Eichmann was not Iago and not Macbeth, and nothing could have been further from his mind than to determine with Richard III ‘to prove a villain’.  Except for an extraordinary diligence in looking out for his personal advancement, he had no motives at all.  And this diligence in itself was in no way criminal; he certainly would never have murdered his superior in order to inherit his post.  He merely, to put the matter colloquially, never realised what he was doing……He was not stupid.  It was sheer thoughtlessness – something by no means identical with stupidity – that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.  And if this is ‘banal’, and even funny, if with the best will in the world one cannot extract any diabolical or demonic profundity from Eichmann, that is still far from calling it commonplace.

These observations caused lot of concern, but they derive from a firm intellectual integrity.  Arendt had previously said to the same effect: ‘The trouble with Eichmann was precisely that so many were like him, and that the many were neither perverted nor sadistic, that they were and still are terribly and terrifyingly normal.’  Eichmann was no devil or demon; he was just human, and the trouble for us is that he was ‘terribly and terrifyingly normal’.

Those who do not accept that Eichmann was just human, and that there is a little of Eichmann in all of us, are seeking to impose some kind of grid or cattle pen over humanity and are at risk of falling into the error that fed the derangement of people like Stalin and Hitler.

We might here note the matter-of- fact assessment of the American historian R R Palmer on Carrier, the man who drowned priests by the boat load in the Vendée during the Revolution, and after being at first applauded, was later guillotined for what we would now describe as war crimes.

Carrier, it may safely be said, was a normal man with average sensibilities, with no unusual intelligence or strength of character, driven wild by opposition, turning ruthless because ruthlessness seemed to be the easiest way of solving a difficult problem.

As Arendt said, ‘it was sheer thoughtlessness…that predisposed him to become one of the greatest criminals of that period.’

Fouché despatched groups of prisoners at Lyons with cannonades of grapeshot fired at close range against people who had been asked to dig their own graves.  The merely wounded were finished off with sabres.  The killers could loot the bodies.  When the tide turned, Fouché lay low for a while, but then he was a key player in bringing down Robespierre, and Napoleon would make him chief of police.  Fouché was a serial survivor, a former seminarian who had no conscience at all.

We see a lot of banality in News of Kidnapping.  One hostage is taken with horrifying violence and many attempts to cover the tracks of the criminals – he then becomes aware that his captors are in a hurry because they want to go downstairs to watch the big local footy derby on TV.  This they do leaving him with a bottle of grog to listen to the game on the radio (which he then does).

While holding cocked weapons on their hostages, the guards have parties on saints’ days and birthdays and they are full of devotion for the Marian cult and ritual and superstition that pervades Latin America.  But when it comes time for a hostage to be executed, a sixty year old former beauty queen, someone fires six shots into her head at close range.  There are twelve entry and exit wounds.  Someone steals her shoes before the police arrive.  What kind of human being borne of a woman could do that to another human being?  How deranged and conscienceless can our human psyche get?  Was the killer jealous of her looks and finery?

Elsewhere, I said the following about Claggart (and Captain Vere and Billy Budd):

Since Claggart is the strongest character in the triangle, he has attracted the strongest writing in the book, the opera and the film.  He is in the tradition of Iago:

… if Cassio do remain,

He hath a daily beauty in his life

That makes me ugly.

That could be word for word Claggart on Billy.  Shakespeare defined a similar envy in one of the assassins of Caesar.

… Yond Cassius has a lean and hungry look

He thinks too much. Such men are dangerous.

He is a great observer and he looks

Quite through the deeds of men.

Seldom he smiles, and smiles in such a sort

As if he mocked himself, and scorned his spirit.

That could be moved to smile at anything.

Such men as he be never at heart’s ease

While they behold a greater than themselves,

And therefore are they very dangerous.

Again, Claggart, chapter and verse.  If you hand those lines around in a large office and ask people whom they are reminded of, they will invariably indicate the resident smiling assassin.

In a narrative manner, but with a matter-of-fact investigative tone, Melville devotes lines of a very high order to Claggart.  The following words might have been applied to Heinrich Himmler:

… The Master-at-Arms was perhaps the only man in the ship intellectually capable of adequately appreciating the moral phenomenon presented in Billy Budd.  And the insight but intensified his passion, which assuming various secret forms within him, at times assumed that cynic disdain – disdain of innocence.  To be nothing more than innocent! … A nature like Claggart’s surcharged with energy as such natures almost invariably are, what recourse is left to it but to recoil upon itself and like the scorpion for which the Creator alone is responsible act out to the end the part allotted to it. 

And then there is this:

The Pharisee is the Guy Fawkes prowling in the hid chambers underlying the Claggarts.

We are left with the mystery of Hannah Arendt or what Carlyle referred to near the end of The French Revolution as ‘the madness that lies in the hearts of men.’  There may not be all that much between us and the primeval slime.

New books

Having achieved the biblical age, at which all judges must be younger than me, I have decided to release a book a day over the last three days – partly to keep the house in order, and partly in case God takes a different view about departure times.  The three books just released are, like the recent one on Summers in Oxford and Cambridge, collections of notes and essays previously released.  I would hope that they might all suit the general reader.  The collection on legal history might be reserved for lawyers, but it should be mandatory for all of them.

There is plenty of choice for Christmas shopping.

There is a mighty footy match tonight – may peace be upon the Wallabies.  They have nearly restored my faith in sport.

***

Summers in Oxford and Cambridge and Elsewhere

A traveller’s reflections on history and philosophy – and place

Geoffrey Gibson

2015

CONTENTS

PRAGUISH 2005

Reflections on Prague, Oxford, and the Cavalry and Guards Club

PHILOSOPHY OF RELIGION (OXFORD) 2007

The philosophy of religion at Oxford

OF BERLIN, OXFORD AND ELSEWHERE 2007

Berlin, Dresden, Paris, Oxford (Great Opera Singers), London, Cavalry and Guards and RAF Clubs

A WEEK AT OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE 2009

Oxford (Hume and Kant) and Cambridge (Post-Modernism – playing tennis with the net down)

BERLIN NOW – A MOLESKIN DIARY 2010

Berlin and the World Cup

OXFORD AND CAMBRIDGE 2010

Wittgenstein at Oxford and Bach at Cambridge

CROMWELL (CAMBRIDGE) 2011

Course taught by Dr David Smith

SOJOURN IN SCOTLAND 2011

Touring the Highlands

CAMBRIDGE AND OXFORD 2013

Not keeping the peace at Cambridge and Chaucer at Oxford

FOREWORD

This book is a collection of memoires or essays that were written in the course of travels to Oxford or Cambridge or both to attend summer schools.  There is a note on the philosophy of religion and a note on Cromwell, but otherwise the notes consist of anecdotes and reflections more on the places visited and the people I met there than on the subjects that were taught.

I am fortunate to have been able to make these excursions, and I hope that others may be encouraged to do the same.

Geoffrey Gibson

Melbourne

September 2015

41,000 words

SOME LITERARY PAPERS

Tilting at windmills

Geoffrey Gibson

2015

CONTENTS

Foreword

1

Adolph and Richard

Meditating upon evil – Richard III (Shakespeare) and Adolf Hitler

2

Anna and Penny

A note on Anna Karenin and Penelope Cruz – mainly the former

3

Big Four of Shakespeare

My problems

A personal miscellany on Hamlet, Othello, King Lear, and Macbeth

4

Chaucer and hierarchy

The medieval hierarchy of Chaucer

5

Courtliness and Courtesy

The role of courtliness and courtesy in Shakespeare

6

Covert acts in Hamlet

Mystery within mystery in Hamlet

7

Crime and Punishment

A note on the Dostoevsky novel

8

Crime Fiction

A note on the novels of Donna Leon

9

Dead Proud Heroes

The argument, as Milton used to call it, is that the heroes of our two great epics, The Iliad and Paradise Lost, fell through pride.  We have grown out of heroes who seek honour through valour and we have grown out of the myth that a woman was the author of our original sin.  We look to our epics for heroes for our times.  The hero of The Iliad is Priam.  He declares that he is human by breaking free of the cycle of revenge.  The hero of Paradise Lost is Satan.  He has the courage to defy authority and to break the ties that stopped our becoming human.  Our epics still show us what we are.

10

Doctor Zhivago

The great novel of Boris Pasternak

11

Falstaff, Tchaikovsky, and Gatsby

Serendipity, theatre, concert hall and the Storm

12

Four pilgrims in Chaucer

Four pilgrims in the Prologue for Oxford Summer School

13

Henry IV at the Globe

A great play in a great theatre

14

Imagination, snobbery, and enlightenment

The place of snobbery and meaning in literature

15

Kangaroo

A note on the novel by D H Lawrence

16

Pasternak on Shakespeare

Thoughts of Pasternak on Shakespeare from two works

17

Poets in prose; and the First Fleet

Tony and Betty! Rope and Pulley!

Whimsy

18

Provincial Cooking

The art of prose of Elizabeth David

19

Rich and Will

Richard Burton on William Shakespeare

20

Riders in the Chariot

A great novel pf Patrick White

21

The novel as opera: dramatic truth

Thoughts on literary and historical meaning

22

Two big novels

Middlemarch and Les Miserables

23

Two novelists on Shakespeare

Tolstoy and Flaubert

24 Shakespeare’s Fan

John Keats idolised Shakespeare

25

Sons and Lovers – A Little Touch of Hamlet in the Night

D H Lawrence and Hamlet

26

Throwaways

The lines in Shakespeare that come from nowhere out of nothing

27

Who is that can tell me who I am?

The bottomless depth of King Lear

Foreword

These essays and notes come from the last five years or so.  They come from a lawyer and they do not claim to be works of scholarship.  I have written elsewhere about Shakespeare, great writing in history, and our great novels.  About half of the present pieces relate to Shakespeare, some in an anecdotal manner, although the grip of the Big Four goes on.  Most of these have been published by the Melbourne Shakespeare Society.  The other pieces relate to other kinds of writing, from cooking to crime, but with a few on novels.  The two substantive essays deal with great peaks in our literature – the role of Achilles and Satan in our two greatest epics, and our two greatest characters, Falstaff and Don Quixote.  If you said that the whole book was Quixotic, I would he happy.

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

Reformation Day (Martin Luther Day)

2015

The 70th birthday of the author.

80,000 words

LOOKING DOWN THE WELL

Papers on legal history

Geoffrey Gibson

2015

CONTENTS

Foreword

1

1689 and 1789

Aide Memoire on Terminology

Different phases of constitutional change in England, France, and Russia

2

God Save Our Anglican Queen

Our Constitution is religiously biased in a way that is beyond us

3

Blackstone’s Magna Carta

A view of Magna Carta from the author of the American legal bible

4

The Role of Contract in the English Constitution

Why are English historians so coy about contract in their constitution?

5

The Dragon in the Cave

How America lost the War of Independence

As America continues to deal with the lesion of slavery and the separateness of black and white, its continuing fascination with God and guns means that it has not lived up to its revolutionary promise. The Americans do not understand the history of the English Constitution.  The decision of the Supreme Court in Heller is a throwback that puts into relief the failure of the nation to grow up.

6

English Serfs

What did serfdom mean in England?

7

Free Speech: Am I Free to Insult or Offend You?

The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely.

A look at some of the nonsense about ‘freedom of speech.’

8

Hampden: A Note

A first look at Ship Money

9

How Moses v Macferlan Enriched Our Law –

 Lord Mansfield’s Heresy

The origin of our law of Unjust Enrichment

10

Jury and Parliament

From adviser to the Crown to the protector of the people.  We have not done enough to recognise how the jury and the parliament are there to protect us.

11

Penalties

How Do Public Servants Punish Us?

12

Positions of Trust: A Duty of Integrity

That we should know and respect our history does not entail that we should stay locked in jails built for other purposes.  The word ‘fiduciary’ causes people to go round in circles.

13

Sir Paul

The juristic work of Vinogradoff

14

The Ship Money Case

The case that stopped a nation: the biggest case ever?

15

The Trial of the Seven Bishops

Another case that stopped the nation – litigation as sport.

16

The Tyrannicide Brief

A review of The Tyrannicide Brief, Geoffrey Robertson, Vintage, 2006, PB $35.00 (429 pages).  (Written in 2006)

17

Three slippery words – liberty, freedom and prerogative

The ancients too were seduced by labels

18

800 Years On

Outlawry was a form of process, or unprocess, developed by Anglo-Saxons in the Dark Age when the notion of a judiciary was not known and when the only choice above this world was between God and Satan.  In the year of Our Lord 2015, the closest Australian advisers of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II – still the Supreme Governor of the Church of England but not the Empress of India – are conducting an audible debate about reintroducing a form of outlawry by depriving people of their rights as citizens of the Commonwealth without any judgment of their peers.  If they persuade the parliament and Her Majesty to make a law to that effect, they will risk going back more than 800 years and breaking a promise made by the English Crown that it would not go or send against any free man except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.

It took the English about seven centuries to build the rule of law and the Westminster system, with a little help from the Americans at the end.  It will take only a fraction of that time to lose both.  We have already given up two essential parts: that the executive should be run by an apolitical civil service with secure tenure, and that ministers should be responsible to the parliament for the failings of that civil service.  There has been an obvious and sustained decline in the quality of people attracted to the parliament or the executive.  That decline has not yet substantially damaged the judiciary, but there is little ground to hope that the decline will be reversed, or that the judiciary will remain untainted.

In a real sense, a lot of our legal process goes back to Magna Carta, given, it is thought, on 15 June 2015.  English philosophers have ignored it.  English legal historians and too many judges have just got it wrong, including some who should have known better.  Curiously, it is better known and better understood in places like the U S and Australia that are used to working under a written compact that separates powers and that has the force of binding and supreme law.

Magna Carta is one of the title deeds of Western civilisation, and the most significant tablet of the law in our history.  It is worth celebrating its 800th birthday.

Appendix

Some tips for young advocates

Foreword

A great English judge, Lord Devlin, said that the ‘English jury is not what it is because some lawgiver so decreed, but because that is the way it has grown up’.  That is so true of almost every part of our law.  Our law is its history.

This is why anyone claiming to be a real lawyer, and not just a bean-counter or meter-watcher, needs to get hand to hand with our legal history.  It is a rollicking story going for more than a thousand years of a people with a genius for law-making while pretending that they were doing no such thing.  It is the story of how the world got its only workable way of protecting people against bullies and each other – whether in the form of government or at large.

That which took a millennium to construct could be washed down the drain in a generation.  We have already trashed two vital parts of our governance – responsible government, and an independent civil service – and we have been scandalously weak in standing up for juries.  These failings come in large part because we have chosen to forget and then betray our heritage.  Sadly, I see no prospect of that decline being reversed.

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

Australia

31 October 2015

70 years to the day from his birth.

95,000 words

SOME HISTORY PAPERS

Essays on Modern History in England and Europe

Geoffrey Gibson

Melbourne, Australia, 2

 

CONTENTS

Foreword

1 A Remarkable Politician- Joseph Fouché

The life of Fouché, terrorist in the Revolution, who survived Robespierre and then Napoleon – a cold blooded killer who became the ultimate survivor.

2 A Secular State

A look at the impact of the Reformation on the rule of law and the secular state in England and France compared to Spain under Franco.

3 A C Grayling

The Philosophy of a Man and the Atom Bomb

A detailed study of the arguments about bombing cities and civilians.

4 Cromwell

A short analysis of Cromwell as dictator following a Summer School at Cambridge taught by Dr David Smith.

5 Foretelling Armageddon

The Two Books that Predicted the Rise and Fall of the Third Reich

(With note on the Rise and Fall as they happened)

An essay on how Keynes and Hitler wrote books that predicted in detail the Second World War plus a summary of events as they unfolded.

6 La patrie violente

A detailed view of the century of unrest and violence that followed the outset of the French Revolution and reflections on the notion of historical truth.

7.Money and Politics

American gridlock and the refusal of supply – a failure in governance.

8 Napoleon and Hitler

Meditating upon Evil

A detailed comparison of the lives of Napoleon and Hitler and of the deaths they caused.

9 Oxford Essays on the Stuarts

The Anti-Catholic Tradition in late Stuart Society

Two essays about the Stuarts and the Constitution for an Oxford Summer School.

10 Some historians

An essay about great British and European historians, and Pieter Geyl.

11 The Have-nots are Going Down

A brief note on the rising problem of inequality.

12 The Last Two Samurai

An essay on how Lloyd George and Winston Churchill led a social revolution and brought in the Welfare State.

13 Faust and Perfidy in Albion

The Treaty of Dover 1670

How a King Sold his Soul – Or Did He?

An essay about a king selling out a country for God and gold.

14 Why the French Revolution was not English

An essay on the differences in revolutions in France and England.

15 Witchhunts, Holy Wars, and Failures of the Mind

An essay on witchhunts and holy wars from Salem to McCarthy; consideration of relations between Church and State.

Foreword

These papers were written between 2008 and 2015.  They relate to what we call the modern history of Europe and Britain.  Some were written in or as a result of Summer Schools at Cambridge and Oxford.  For example, the two pieces headed Foretelling Armageddon were first written as course notes at Clare College Cambridge, and now can be found in the fifth volume of A History of the West.

Five of the essays deal with the two big questions that have followed me for fifty years – how did France and Germany, two of the most civilised nations on earth, succumb to their total moral collapses, and with such frightful consequences for the rest of the world?  If you are being raped or killed by a soldier, do you care about the motives of those who sent him.

Three of the pieces deal with issues in Stuart England, and all come from Summer Schools.  My notes on Cromwell come from a remarkable weekender at Cambridge taught by Dr David Smith; those on the Stuart parliaments come from a week at Oxford taught by Dr Andrew Lacey.  The story of the Treaty of Dover should be told in a play or film.

There is a long look at the very flawed views on the bomb of A C Grayling, who might just be too busy to be able to indulge in scholarship, and a piece on the great story of Lloyd George and Winston Churchill on the People’s Budget – at a time when politics had real leaders.  The piece on witchhunts is the oldest, but the bullying of the majority is still just as threatening.

These are contributions by a lawyer and a legal historian whose professional training teaches him to proceed by example, and to look at what goes on elsewhere.  I hope that you enjoy them.

Geoffrey Gibson

Malmsbury

Victoria

Melbourne Cup Day, 2015.

128,000 words.

Crime Fiction

If you read only the hard stuff, you might get ratty.  About three years ago, I asked a friend to recommend a good crime or thriller writer.  He said that a woman called Donna Leon had a following for detective stories set in Venice, starting with a plot centred at the opera house La Fenice.  I read one and Donna and I are getting just fine.  I have just read about my tenth, which is also centred on La Fenice, and the stalking of the prima donna in Tosca being performed there.  This is a real bonus for fans of opera or Venice.

Donna Leon is or was an American academic who taught literature and music.  She has lived in Venice for 25 years, which is about the number of the novels in the series.  Like most crime novels they are written after a model.

Commissario Guido Brunetti is a very astute detective who studied law and who occasionally reads Greek tragedy for uplift.  (How many wallopers do that?)  His wife Paola lectures in English, specializing in Henry James.  She is also the daughter of a count and countess.  She can also cook, and we get full descriptions of her offerings.  They have two children who must now be of university age.

There is a support cast that reminds me of Perry Mason.  The bad guys are Brunetti’s superiors, who are from out of town, thick, and right wing.  The good guys include plain honest cops who have no guile or political ambition, and Signorina Elettra who is a whiz on computers and bending the law.  Anything to do with government, bureaucracy, the south, or the church is open season.  Indeed, for me the crime plot is just an excuse to hang up the clothes on which to examine Italian customs, foibles, and culinary and artistic traditions.  They are I would guess the main reasons that Leon has such a following.  She is translated into many languages, except Italian, and the Germans have made TV series about her stories.

Leon is an acute observer of her adopted country – or, I should say, city, since we are often told that Venice is different – and spoiled by tourists and cruise ships.  Many of her books look at current issues, such as child abuse, child slavery, or stalking.  But it is the descriptions of city life and eating and drinking, and the social customs that get me in.

Brunetti dined with his wife at her parents – ‘he was surprised by how casually his parents-in-law were dressed until he realised this meant that the Conte’s tie was wool and not silk, while the Contessa was wearing black silk slacks and not a dress.’  They discuss the grand-son’s love life.  The grand-daughter is not showing much interest.  ‘It won’t last much longer’, Paola said, voicing the eternal pessimism of the mothers of young girls.  ‘Some day she’ll show up at breakfast in a tight sweater and twice as much make-up as Sophia Loren.’  It is not just mums who know that.  The corruption is worse down south.  Some of the barbs are laugh out loud.  After some spectacular act of deviance, Signorina Elettra, who may have raised the pulse rate of a younger or single man, swaps stories with the dottore.  She knew of a guy who was a stage hand at the opera in Naples.  He never actually worked there.  He just clocked on and off five days a week and drove his cab seven days a week.  He had to.  He had many mouths to feed.  How long did this go on?  A mere quarter of a century.

These books are seriously entertaining and you get a slice of life of the people who gave us Verdi and Ferrari, two of mankind’s essential blessings.  The 2015 model, Falling in Love, is up to form.

Riders in the Chariot

In the late 1950’s, the late Arthur Boyd painted a number of luminous and searing paintings about blackfellas.  They are called the Bride series or the like.  I used to have a print of one – striking images of a black man and a white bride in the Australian bush, they appeared to me then and now to show a phase in our national awakening.

I was looking at them again the other day in a book about Boyd.  Two things stood out.  One was the wide white eyes of the blackfellas, hunted or haunted and shifty (probably for the same reason, as in The Inquisitor of El Greco).  The other was the use of colour in the blackfellas.  Boyd had, I think, a thing about blue, especially that cobalt blue above the Shoalhaven, but in these paintings he uses shades of blue for the colour of the blackfella, and in the most confrontational painting, the blue becomes almost purple.

The late 1950’s was not an easy time for an artist in this country to broach the subject of race by looking at blackfellas and half-castes with white brides.  It must have taken some courage for this artist, who was as soft and gentle a man as you could find, to jolt his nation in this way.  It is the sort of thing that could easily lead to bloodshed in many parts of the world.  The author of the book referred to the character Alf Dubbo in the novel Riders in the Chariot by Patrick White that was published in 1961.  I do not know whether those paintings had any effect on White – if they did, his biographer did not appear to know of them – but the mention of Alf Dubbo led me to go back and read that novel, my favourite by that author, for the third time.  It is a truly astonishing work of art.

There are four riders in a spiritual chariot, people who have received some kind of light, people like seers or prophets, like spirits that may ride in chariots of fire.  They are for the most part also outcasts or misfits.

Miss (Mary) Hare is the child of a wealthy but loveless family that has a great mansion in the bush called Xanadu.  Plain and unsettling, the bourgeois life of the pastoralists passes her by, and as time goes, she merges into the mansion that merges into the landscape.  Dirty, wizened, and unkempt, she is at best a subject of pity to others in the small country town, who think that she is mad.  She may be, but she has a feeling for the earth that is denied to them – although not to the blackfellas, who are always called, and looked down on as, abos.

Mordecai Himmelfarb is a very intellectual German Jew who has literally seen the doors of the gas chambers.  His father had been baptised – he had sold out – to the mortification of his mother, and Mordecai has a load on his mind from the death of his wife.  He comes to Australia and renounces any position that he could have got as a distinguished man of letters.  The reason is simple.  ‘The intellect has failed us.’  He gets the most menial position in a factory in one of those country towns where reffos and misfits feel the full brunt of colonial small-mindedness.  Was this a place where this outcast of the world might look for redemption or even security?  Or would this escapee from the Final Solution find himself at risk in a land infected with the same Original Sin?

Ruth Joyner was born and brought up in England as an Evangelical Christian, a faith that moulded and sustained her all her life.  She loves her hymns, like the one about the ‘King in his royal State Riding in the clouds His chariot.’  She determined on her own to migrate here, and became a trusted servant to people as moneyed and unloving as the parents of Miss Hare.  For reasons that only God knows, she falls for and marries the iceman, Tom Godbold.  He is one of those no-good bastards who gets full, beats his wife, and then breeds.  Mrs Godbold, as she is called, bears all this and raises her children while taking in laundry in what is little more than a shed.  Tom finally buggers off on the night that Mrs Godbold puts on her hat and goes to get him back from the local knock-shop, Mrs Khalil’s.  Mrs Godbold is selfless, and wants to help both Miss Hare and the Jew, as he is called.  She is not an outcast as the others are, but she has the compassion of an elemental humanity, and we are not surprised at all when she is called ‘a kind of saint’.  Mrs Godbold is a solid as a rock, one of those broad-beamed women who survive, the only one of the four riders to do so.

Alf Dubbo is the half cast product of a grizzly meth-driven tryst on the river bank between a gin and an unknown white.  As a half cast outside any tribe, he is lost to the world – and as the author asks, why should we attribute his difference to the black bit rather than some Irish part?  Alf is brought up by an Anglican vicar who teaches him Latin verbs and buggers him.  Being set adrift, Alf stays for a while with a slut on a rubbish tip before taking up with a hooker who lives with a queen.  She and another queen then violate Alf in a worse way than the vicar.  They steal his art.  You see Alf, the blackfella, could see things that white men could not, and he had a gift to express his vision – a very spiritual vision – in art.  Poor Alf could never find someone to trust, but when he goes to work at the same factory as the Jew, the two feel an affinity between outcasts.  He is so down and out that one night, when he has been on the grog, he takes himself to Mrs Kahlil’s.  When he falls over, pissed, he experiences the native kindness of Mrs Godbold.

Each of the four riders speaks of the chariot, but it is very far from being a leitmotif.  White said:

What I want to emphasise through my four ‘Riders’ – an orthodox refugee intellectual Jew, a mad Erdgeist of an Australian spinster, an evangelical laundress, and a half-caste Aboriginal painter – is that all faiths, whether religious, humanistic, instinctive, or the creative artist’s act of praise, are in fact one.

And he might have added something to the effect that about that which we cannot follow, we must be silent – or give in to the creative artist’s act of praise.  Somehow the novel prefigures the work of Manning Clark who was haunted, as the riders may have been, by the wish of Dostoevsky to be there when they find out what it is all about.  Each of these misfits has something that those of us who are whole do not.

There are the moneyed people that offer some of the light relief of the kind shown in The Eye of the Storm.  There are two old widows, Mrs Jolley, who becomes a housekeeper for Miss Hare, a truly disastrous mismatch, and Mrs Flack.  They both, we find, have their secrets, and they are the blackest possible version of Edna Everage.  They are one embodiment of anti-Semitism and hypocrisy, but the amount of bile invested in them by a man who carried a lot of bile may now seem heavy handed.

But Harry Rosetree, who runs the factory, and his wife Shirl are real characters in an appalling tragedy.  That is not their real name, but they are desperate to assimilate.  Their kids have learned to crave ice cream and potato chips and to shoot tomato sauce out of the bottle ‘even when the old black sauce was blocking the hole’.

So the admiration oozed out of Harry Rosetree, and for Mrs Rosetree too, who had learnt more than anyone.  With greater authority, Mrs Rosetree could say: That is not Australian.  She had a kind of gift for assimilation.  Better than anyone, she had learned the language.  She spoke it with a copper edge; the words fell out of her like old pennies.  Of course it was really Shirl Rosetree who owned the texture brick home, the stream-lined glass car, the advanced shrubs, the grandfather clock with the Westminster chimes, the walnut-veneer radiogram, the washing-machine and the mix-master.

That is the world that our Edna would inherit, but Harry and Shirl had changed more than their names.  They had gone the way of Moshe, the father of the Jew.  They had not done so for lucre, but might they end up like Judas?  How would the arrival of the Jew sit with the conscience of Harry Rosetree?

The climax of this grand opera comes at the time of Passover and Easter at the end of the war.

When the white man’s war ended, several of the whites bought Dubbo drinks to celebrate the peace, and together they spewed up in the streets, out of stomachs that were, for the occasion, of the same colour.  At Rosetree’s factory, though, where he began to work shortly after, Dubbo was always the abo.  Nor would he have wished it otherwise, for that way he could travel quicker, deeper, into the hunting grounds of his imagination.

The white men had never appeared pursier, hairier, or glassier, or so confidently superior as they became at the excuse of the peace.  As they sat at their benches at Rosetree’s, or went up and down between the machines, they threatened to burst right out of their singlets, and assault a far too passive future.  Not to say the suspected envoys of another world.

There was a bloke, it was learnt, at one of the drills down the lower end, some kind of bloody foreigner.  Whom the abo could watch with interest.  But the man seldom raised his eyes.  And the abo did not expect.

Until certain signs were exchanged, without gesture or direct glance.  How they began to communicate, the blackfellow could not have explained.  But a state of trust became established by subtler than any human means, so that he resented it when the Jew finally addressed him in the washroom, as if their code of silence might thus have been compromised.  Later, he realised, he was comforted to know that the Chariot did exist outside the prophet’s vision and his own mind.

It must have taken enormous courage for Patrick White to take on a story about a German Jew who lives most of his life in Germany, where a lot of this book is set, and a half-caste blackfella who is abandoned to an underworld that the author could never have experienced.  It is not hard to imagine a lesser writer coming a big gutser on such an undertaking.  What we get instead is a triumph of the imagination.

I do not want to reveal the end, which is shocking more ways than one, but this is how our four riders finally come together near the end of novel.

Then Dubbo looked inside, and saw as well as remembered that this was the shed in which lived Mrs Godbold, whom he had at first encountered at Mrs Khalil’s, and who had bent down and wiped his mouth as nobody had ever done.  Consequently, as she had already testified her love, it did not surprise him now to find the same woman caring for the Jew.  There in the bosom of her light the latter lay, amongst the heaps of sleeping children, and the drowsy ones, who still clung to whatever was upright, watching what had never happened before.  And the fox-coloured woman from Xanadu lay across the Jew’s feet, warming them by methods which her instincts taught her.

As Dubbo watched, his picture nagged at him, increasing in miraculous detail, as he had always hoped, and known it must.  In fact, the Jew was protesting at something – it could have been the weight of the bedclothes – and the women were preparing to raise him up.  The solid white woman had supported him against her breasts, and the young girl her daughter, of such a delicate greenish white, had bent to take part, with the result that some of her hair had been paddling in the Jew’s cheek, and the young fellow, his back moulded by the strain, was raising the body of the sick man, most by his own strength, from out of the sheets, higher on the stacked pillows.

The act itself was insignificant, but became, as the watcher saw it, the supreme act of love.

So, in his mind, he loaded with panegyric blue the tree from which the women, and the young man His disciple, were lowering their Lord.  And the flowers of the tree lay at its roots in pools of deepening blue.  And the blue was reflected in the skins of the women and the young girl.  As they lowered their Lord with that utmost breathless love, the first Mary received him with her whitest linen, and the second Mary, who had appointed herself the guardian of his feet, kissed the bones which were showing through the cold, yellow skin.

Dubbo, taking part at the window, did not think he could survive this Deposition, which, finally, he had conceived.  There he stood, sweating, and at last threatened with coughing.  So he went away as he had come.  He would have been discovered if he had stayed, and could not have explained his vision, any more than declared his secret love.

Alf Dubbo had never seen The Deposition by Pontormo at the Santa Felicita in Florence, but he may have seen a picture of it on one of his trips to the public library to investigate whitefella art.  He would surely have marvelled wide-eyed at the softness of the Mediterranean pastel colours, so unlike his own flash dabbings, and the fluid innocence and majesty of the scene.  What was it about Boyd and White that led them to express their compassion for our outcasts in the colour blue at about the same time in our drab national journey?

This is writing of sacramental and humbling power – like the paintings of Boyd.  These works of art are acts of both courage and faith, and they remind us that above the tawdry records of the world, there is the insight into our own humanity that we get from our great artists like Arthur Boyd and Patrick White, who teach us that art is the lyrical reflection of the human condition.

Two Big Books I Middlemarch

Early on (page 3) in Middlemarch by George Eliot (Mary Ann Evans) we get this for the heroine Dorothea Brooke:

A young lady of some birth and fortune, who knelt suddenly down on a brick floor by the side of a sick labourer and prayed fervidly as if she thought herself living in the time of the Apostles – who had strange whims of fasting like a papist, and of stirring up at night to read old theological books!  Such a wife might awaken you some fine morning with a new scheme for the application of her income which would interfere with political economy and the keeping of saddle-horses: a man would naturally think twice before he risked himself in such fellowship.  Women were expected to have weak opinions; but the great safeguard of society and domestic life was that opinions were not acted upon.  Sane people did what their neighbours did, so that if any lunatics were at large, one might know and avoid them.

Well now – here is a crisp statement of the dilemna of Christianity ever since its founder took to the money dealers in the Temple; and Jane Austen, too, had humour – but as mordant or dry as this humour?

Dorothea sounds a lot like Greer Garson in the movie Pride and Prejudice.  Her naïve idealism leads her into marriage with a frightful pedant, Mr Edward Casaubon, who eventually does the right thing and drops dead in time for Dorothea to reignite a flame with a young man named Will – who really does need a steadying hand.

The other main lead is Tertius Lydgate a doctor at that stage of his career where he can still afford idealism.

Plain women he regarded as he did other severe facts of life, to be faced with philosophy and investigated by science. 

(Gibbon may not have disowned that.)  Lydgate marries the mayor’s daughter, Rosey Vincy.  Her dad was in trade, and her flightiness leads to her being unable to cut her cloth as her husband faces the economic facts of life.  The resulting strain on Lydgate and the marriage is painfully etched in a way that seems a lot closer to home than we get with Jane Austen.  It has a nasty modern quotidian tang.

Another couple sees a strong woman take hold of a young man who prefigures our adult children now who refuse to grow up or move out.

Among the supporting characters is a banker named Bulstrode who has a past that comes back, as they tend to do in French novels, and who brings out the terminal judgmentalism of the small town.  The novel is subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, and it does look right across the range of that kind of life in a way that recalls Balzac rather than Austen.  There is no doubting the art of Jane Austen, but do those stylized comedies of manners offer the kickers you get with George Eliot?

I mentioned the following in a previous note – the frightful cleric, Mr Casaubon, marries the belle of the village, to the disgust of at least one admirer (Will, the ultimate husband).

But the idea of this dried up pedant, this elaborator of small explanations about as important as the surplus stock of false antiquities kept in a vendor’s back chamber, having first got this adorable young creature to marry him, and then passing his honeymoon away from her, groping after his mouldy futilities….this sudden picture stirred him with a sort of comic disgust: he was divided between the impulse to laugh aloud and the equally unseasonable impulse to burst into scornful invective.

Here are some other examples of why this book, although very long, can be sustained in a way that you do not get with Proust.

Indeed, she [Mrs Waule] herself was accustomed to think that entire freedom from the necessity of behaving agreeably was included in the almighty’s intentions about families.

For my part [the author’s] I have some fellow feeling with Dr. Sprague: one’s self-satisfaction is an untaxed kind of property which it is very unpleasant to find depreciated.

‘Yes’, said Mr Casaubon, with that peculiar pitch of voice which makes half the world seem a negative.

Flirtation, after all, was not necessarily a singeing process.

As to Captain Lydgate [the brother of the doctor] himself, his low brow, his aquiline nose bent on one side, and his rather heavy utterance, might have been disadvantageous in any young gentleman who had not a military bearing and moustache to give him what is doated by some flower-like blond heads as ‘style’.

Yes, that is alarmingly modern and might prompt a note from the Sisters.  But our author  makes amends.

Will Ladislaw [the real beau of Dorothea] was in one of those tangled crises which are commoner in experience than one might imagine, from the shallow absoluteness of men’s judgments.

This beautifully composed novel ends this way:

But the effect of her [Dorothea’s] being on those around her was incalculably diffusive; for the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts; and that things are not so ill with you and me as they might have been, is half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs.

That breadth of mind and warmth of vision used to be called humanist.

Doctor Zhivago

Some writers make it feel easy – Grahame Greene.  Some let you know that you might have to dig in and hope – Hermann Melville.  Some come up at you like nuggets from out of rocks – Christina Stead.  Some are brilliant but prone to flash outside the off stump – Balzac.  Some just let you know that they are big hitters – Tolstoy.  Some just end up over the top – Joyce.  Some are all class but leave you wondering what the fuss is about – Flaubert.  Some leave you wondering where in Hell that came from – Emily Bronte.  And every now and then you come across one who very soon lets you know, and makes you confident, that they have real strength and power.  That was certainly the case with Boris Pasternak in Doctor Zhivago – which, to my shame, I had not read before.  I find it hard to recall a novel that is so strong and powerful.

A young boy born into Imperial Russia is abandoned by his father and when his mother dies, he is taken in by a kindly uncle.   The boy, Yuri Zhivago, who is bright and sensitive, grows up to be a poet and a doctor.  (You might think that is an odd coupling, until you recall Keats.)  He marries Tonya, who was also a medical student, and they go out to live in the provinces as the war comes.

Lara is a daughter of a Russian woman married to a Belgian.  When the husband goes, the mother has an affair with a friend of his, a ruthless man of business and politics – the precursor of the oligarch – who proceeds to defile Lara while she is seventeen and still at school.  The mother tries to kill herself, and then Lara tries to kill her lover.  The businessman hushes up the affair and Lara marries Pasha who is deeply engaged politically.  They too go the provinces.  Pasha is thought to have died in the war but he becomes a ruthless killer and a Commissar for the Bolsheviks after the 1917 revolution under the name Strelnikov.

The paths of Lara and Yuri cross, and they eventually fall deeply in love, even after they find that Pasha is still alive as Strelnikov.  But it is hard to see how they or their love can survive.  It is not just that they are both married – their whole world has been turned upside down by a revolution and a civil war far more barbarous than what France faced after 1789, and which took the French at least a hundred years to get over.  Both Lara and Yuri have what we call baggage that the new regime will reject.  The times are utterly beyond compassion.  If a child goes missing in the country, the parents will fear cannibalism.  The icy egoism of Lenin will give way to the murderous paranoia of Stalin.  Lara and Yuri strive to keep and treasure what humanity is left to them before they get washed away in the maelstrom.  They were not born in the right time or place.

That is a bare outline of a hugely complex story.  The number of characters and the variations in the names make the book very hard to read.  It is at times like separating the threads of Jackson Pollock’s Blue Poles.  But the effect is nearly overwhelming because you get this magical blend of sordid reality set against a feeling of remorseless fate.  Even accidents seem inevitable, and the effect is heightened by sudden changes in tempo or revelation.  The result is to make the two lovers ‘star-crossed’ in a manner that was perfected in Romeo and Juliet.  They are helpless victims and they are no less appealing for that.  They are in truth pathetic, and the backdrop for this pathos is the world being turned upside down in the most gruesome way possible.

Here is the author on the new men after the 1917 Revolution.  ‘Commissars with unlimited power were appointed everywhere, people of iron will, in black leather jackets, armed with means of intimidation and with revolvers, who rarely shaved and still more rarely slept.  They were well acquainted with the petty bourgeois breed, the average holder of small government bonds, the grovelling conformist, and never spared him, talking to him with a Mephistophelian smirk, as with a pilferer caught in the act.’  There were a lot of sans-culottes just like that in Paris in 1793.

Here is the apotheosis of the Commissar: ‘For some unknown reason it became clear at once that this man represented the consummate manifestation of will.  He was to such a degree what he wanted to be that everything on him and in him inevitably seemed exemplary; his proportionately constructed and handsomely placed head, and the impetuousness of his stride, and his long legs in high boots, which may have been dirty but seemed polished, and his grey flannel tunic, which may have been wrinkled but gave the impression of ironed linen.  Thus acted the presence of giftedness, natural, knowing no strain, feeling itself in the saddle in any situation of earthly existence.  This man must have possessed some gift, not necessarily an original one.’  This could be Reinhard Heydrich, a brutal Nazi killer, one of the most evil men ever born.  Strelnikov as the Commissar was a brutal killer– but was the husband of Lara evil like Heydrich?  Or Stalin?  How do ordinary people become cold-blooded killers?

The picture of Strelnikov could also derive from Robespierre.  When the pure are corrupted by power, their killing is indeed merciless.  Puritanical killers like Cromwell and Robespierre may or may not have been as brutal as, say, Stalin, but their dead are just as dead.  Lenin would take after Robespierre, and Stalin was Lenin gone rotten.  The book contains slashing insights into the jealous cruelty that is unleashed after centuries of cruel oppression.

There are passages of poetic insight.  ‘The cannon-fire behind his back died down.  That direction was the east.  There in the haze of the mist the sun rose and peeped dimly between the scraps of floating murk, the way naked people in a bathhouse flash through clouds of soapy steam.’  Snow is a recurring image.   The hero gets a letter from his distant wife, Tonya.  She says of Lara: ‘I was born into this world to simplify life and seek the right way through, and she in order to complicate it and confuse it.’  As it happens, that is fair – but did it have to happen?  The letter concludes with Tonya believing that they have come for her execution.

Yuri Andreevich [Zhivago] looked up from the letter with an absent, tearless gaze, not directed anywhere, dry from grief, devastated by suffering.  He saw nothing around him.  He was conscious of nothing.  Outside the window it began to snow.  Wind carried the snow obliquely, ever faster and ever denser, as if trying all the while to make up for something and Yuri Andreevich stared ahead of him and through the window as if it were not snow falling but the continued reading of Tonya’s letter, and not dry starlike flakes that raced and flashed, but small spaces of white paper between small black letters, white, white, endless, endless.

Even in translation, that writing has a kind of grace and power that can only come from a writer who is justifiably confident of his own strength.  It is a passage that might remind some of a well-known passage by James Joyce in his story called The Dead.*  This is the kind of writing that annihilates the boundary between prose and poetry.

The book is shot through with writing that could only come from a writer who is happy to back his judgment.  This is how the narrative part of the book ends.

One day Larissa Fyodorovna [Lara] left the house and did not come back again.  Evidently she was arrested on the street in those days and died or vanished no one knew where, forgotten under some nameless number on subsequently lost lists, in one of those countless general or women’s concentration camps in the north.

The author was deeply spiritual in the Russian tradition.  There is an epistle of Paul that said something to the effect that ‘There is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, male or female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.’  Pasternak translates that ‘in that new way of existence and new form of communion known as the Kingdom of God, there are no peoples, there are persons.’  This is a proposition that might unsettle a whole lot of people, and it was not well received in some parts of the world.  It is hugely liberating for some – including me.  (What kind of God, anyway, would want to play favourites?)  So is the ethical consequence.  ‘To belong to a type is the end of a man, his condemnation.’  That too is so true.  .The author goes on: ‘If he doesn’t fall into any category, if he’s not representative, half of what’s demanded of him is there.  He’s free of himself, he’s achieved a grain of immortality.’

The author is super-bright, but he knows the dangers of intellectuals finding the answer.  He has Yuri saying this: ‘I think philosophy should be used sparingly as a seasoning for art and life.  To be occupied with it alone is the same as eating horse-radish by itself.’  He got that right.  And he also gets right the fearful impact of the revolution on the lives of persons, and not just peoples.  Lara says this to Yuri.

Is it for me a weak woman to explain to you who are so intelligent what is now happening with life in general and why families fall apart, yours and mine between them?….All that’s productive, settled, all that’s connected with habitual life, with the human nest and its order, all of it went to wrack and ruin along with the upheaval of the whole of society and its reorganisation.  All everyday things were overturned and destroyed.  What remained was the un-everyday, unapplied force of the naked soul, stripped of the last shred, for which nothing has changed, because in all times it was cold and trembling and drawing towards the one nearest to it, which is just as naked and lonely.  You and I are like Adam and Eve, the first human beings, who had nothing to cover themselves with when the world began, and we are now just as unclothed and homeless at its end.  And you and I are the last reminder of all those countless great things that have been done in the world in the many thousands of years between them and us, and in memory of those vanished wonders, we breathe and love and weep, and hold each other, and cling to each other.

This is a novel of immense strength, beauty, and humanity.

Nor had I seen the movie, which is very famous, and, apparently, the eighth most seen movie ever made.  It was a great effort by David Lean to get this complex book on to the screen, and it had to be uncomfortably long.  The stars, Omar Sharif and Julie Christie, shine very brightly, but they have to stand against two of the best screen actors ever, Alec Guinness and Rod Steiger (as the loathsome seducer.)  Steiger is viciously seductive in the power he maintains over Lara throughout the film, and you wonder if she is a kind of allegory for Russia, that just continues to swap real bastards as its rulers.  I might say that for both the book and the movie, Lara was for me the moving force.  It is one thing to be seduced by your mother’s lover while you are still at school – it is another thing to call on a society function on Christmas Eve and try to shoot the bastard.  In some curious way, Lara seemed to me to have a fair bit of Heathcliff in her, but this is not easy to put on screen.  Tom Courtenay is the bespectacled and antiseptic Strelnikov who has the signature line: ‘The personal life is dead in Russia.’  You can see that sad truth now every day in Russia in the ugly face of Vladimir Putin.

*Here is the final paragraph of The Dead, which occurs after the wife of the narrator has just told him in bed that a young man called Michael Fury had in her youth had a crush on her and had died for it.

A few light taps upon the pane made him turn to the window.  It had begun to snow again.  He watched sleepily the flakes, silver and dark, falling obliquely against the lamplight.  The time had come for him to set out on his journey westward.  Yes, the newspapers were right; snow was general all over Ireland.  It was falling on every part of the dark central plain, on the treeless hills, falling softly upon the Bog of Allen and, farther westward, softly falling into the dark mutinous Shannon waves.  It was falling, too, upon every part of the lonely churchyard on the hill where Michael Fury lay buried.  It lay thickly drifted on the crooked crosses and headstones, on the spears of the little gate, on the barren thorns.  His soul swooned slowly as he heard the snow falling faintly through the universe and faintly falling, like the descent of their last end, upon all the living and the dead.