Here and there – Shakespeare and the mob – and Trump


When the Three Estates convened at Versailles in 1789, the Nobility and the Clergy played hard to get with the rest of France the Third Estate.  Its delegates then wished to constitute themselves as the body representing the nation of France.  What should it call itself?  Assemblée Nationale or Représentants du people?  But if the latter, who were the ‘people’?  Many feared that the King and the Court and the Clergy would regard the peuple as the plebs rather than the populus, or, as Michelet framed it, le peuple inférieur.  So, they went for the name Assemblée Nationale.

Similar questions arise when you ask who is in the populus that populists appeal to?  If you answer that they are the plebs or the ‘inferior people,’ you may get into trouble, if not a fight.  Even the terms ‘commoner’ or ‘common people’ are tricky in a nation that claims to prize equality.

For the purposes of this note, I will say that the ‘people’ that Donald Trump appeals to are those who welcome his pardoning of a government officer who boasted of running a concentration camp for people who he thought were ethnically inferior, who ran up a bill for the people of Arizona of $70 million in defending his racial profiling, and who was then sentenced to jail for defying a court order.  The ‘people’ that Farage appeals to were those who loved that photo of their leader grinning in front of a large poster with a long line of towel-heads threatening to inundate the Fatherland.  These folks didn’t think the poster was racist, and would turn more nastily against those whom they call ‘elite’ if anyone dares to say so.  With Pauline Hanson, you have a smorgasbord, but for Australia generally, you might say that the ‘people’ that someone like Cory Bernardi might appeal to are those who think that Peter Dutton is a good Minister of the Crown and a man worthy to be Prime Minister of this great nation.

What did our greatest playwright have to say about the ‘people’?  Quite a lot – and it is hard to find anything favourable either to the people or those who appeal to them.

In a book I wrote some years ago, I said:

When Banjo Paterson came to stigmatize mindless youth in the then equivalent of our outer suburbs, he referred to gilded youths who sat along the wall:

‘Their eyes were dull, their heads were flat, they had no brains at all’.

This is a recurrent nightmare for us now, made worse on our trains and buses by sullen looks coming from vacant spaces between iPod exit points.  It is not that education has failed them– they have rejected education. There is nothing going on at all there. What might happen if that lot got into government?  The nightmare would be made real.

You can make up your own mind whether you think that that nightmare has become real in the U S or elsewhere, but the figure of Jack Cade in Act 4 of Henry VI Part II does look frighteningly prescient.

Cade is a demagogue from Kent.  We see him first as a pawn of a faction leader in the Wars of the Roses.  Cade appeals to the mob, but he has ideas of his own.  He thinks he can be king.  (He is no democrat, but dictators rarely are.)  Although he says that he is waging a class war, he still wants to be king.  But like Hitler, the ascent of Cade is by carrot and stick: give the masses what they want and purify the rest by terror by killing anyone who gets in the way.  ‘Let’s kill all the lawyers.’ (4.2.75) and ‘make it a felony to drink small beer’ (4.2.66).

The descent into Fantasyland is immediate: ‘Strike off his head’ (4.7.112).  This was the short answer of Robespierre, but at least Robespierre, who was a lawyer, was not terrified of writing.  Jack Cade will kill those who can write: only one who has to apply his mark may be considered an ‘honest plain-dealing man’ (4.2.100).  The Nazis went further and burnt books, but by and large these did not exist at the time of Jack Cade.  How often do we see this victimhood on the part of the mindless, pretending that only they are pure?  It’s as if you have to be a victim to be good.  And Cade can link class vindication to ideological cant:

And you that love the commons, follow me.

Now show yourselves men; ‘tis for liberty.

We will not leave one lord, one gentleman,

Spare none but such as go in clouted shoon.  (4.2.180-184)

‘Clouted shoon’ means hobnailed boots.  This is Romper Stomper six centuries ago.  Our nightmare was alive back then.  The reference to ‘liberty’ is moonshine.  Cade is in this only for himself.  He even wants the droit de seigneur (4.7.120-125). But almost immediately, the fickle mob drops him and he is dispatched – unconvincingly – by another more orthodox son of Kentish soil.  ‘Was ever feather so lightly blown to and fro, as this multitude?’(4.8.56-59).

Cade loathes literacy.  That and his capacity to hide behind a joke if he gets caught is something else Trump has in common with Cade.  In the destruction of the Savoy and the Inns of Court, and the burning of the records of the realm, Cade prefigures the mob in Paris in and after 1789.

Jack Cade then is the template for the loud, stupid, selfish populism of the Trump brand.  We see the mob being seduced in Richard III; Richard II is worried about the appeal of Bolingbroke to the mob; Henry IV lectures his son on how to present to them; and Joan of Arc has a popular appeal that Henry VI could not even dream of; but I shall confine my remarks to the Roman plays.

The gross political naivety of Brutus and the duplicity of Antony enabled the latter to convert and then unleash the mob in possibly the most famous speech for the stage in Julius Caesar, Act I Scene 2Brutus was silly not to have taken out Antony with his patron.  He was sillier to allow a disciple of Caesar to open his mouth in public about the murder.  Then he was even sillier to accept Antony’s promise not to ‘blame us’ (3.1.245).  Within minutes, Antony is speaking of letting slip the dogs of war.  The speech plays on the words ‘honorable’ and ‘ambition’ – lethally.  Then this masterpiece of political deceit plays on the word ‘mutiny’ – three times.  Inciting mutiny was of course Antony’s sole purpose in making the speech, and Brutus and the other killers would pay with their lives for their political innocence.

Many of those who are familiar with this speech forget its aftermath.  In the next scene, the hysterical mob becomes a lynch mob, and then we are shown the big hitters sharing the spoils of revenge.  They calmly decide which of their families will have to die.  Act 4 Scene 1 commences with Antony saying ‘These many men shall die; their names are pricked.’  Octavius responds ‘Your brother too must die; consent you, Lepidus?’  The murderous cold-bloodedness of these power brokers might remind you of a passage in Antony and Cleopatra. When the world beaters are getting drunk doing their big deal to split up the world, the aide to Pompey asks him if he would be lord of the whole world.  He then offers this amazing but sober proposal:

These three world-sharers, these competitors,

Are in thy vessel.  Let me cut the cable;

And when we are put off, fall to their throats.

All there is thine.  (2.7.73-74)

These rulers not only play with the mob – they kill them as if for sport.

The action in Coriolanus takes place during the class wars that sickened ancient Rome for so long.  We still are inclined to label some people ‘patrician’ and some ‘plebeian’ after the Latin terms for the two classes who were at each other’s throats in Rome.  Neither now is a term of affection.

Coriolanus was as patrician as you could get.  He loathed the plebeians – and he could not help himself from revealing his loathing – indeed, reveling in it.  If you regard the ‘people’ with contempt, and if you are happy to show them that contempt, you can hardly expect to achieve political success if the constitution decrees that you must appear before the people and obtain their assent to your appointment to the office you seek.  Since that’s what the Roman constitution provided, the play Coriolanus is inevitably a tragedy.

A dramatic high point comes when our hero erupts astoundingly when a tribune says ‘shall’ – a plebeian being imperative to a noble! (3.1.87).  Coriolanus spits the word ‘shall’ back at them four times.  The man who takes Coriolanus in and then turns on him knows what the word ‘boy’ will do (5.6.101).  The representatives of the ‘people’ are the ‘tribunes.’  They get a shocking press in this play.  They are like union organizers – Jesuitical or communist, depending on your phobia or fancy.  The film reeks of 1789.  ‘What is the city but the people?’ and ‘The people are the city.’  (3.1.198-9).  That is pure Robespierre.  The tribunes are cold blooded, self-interested, manipulative cowards.  Here is how they go about their work in steering the populus.

To the’ Capitol come

We shall be there before the stream o’ th’ people;

And this shall seem, as partly ‘tis, their own,

Which we have goaded onward.  (2.3.267-271)

Coriolanus is a sustained hatchet job of the puppeteers of the populus.  And it is another reason why we regard this playwright so highly for his insight into our politics.  The main lesson from this play for us in seeking to understand Trump is that if a person comes into political office with a character that makes him unfit for that office, you are kidding yourself if you think he might change character on the job.  Indeed, the likelihood is that he will only get worse the longer he stays in the job.  Power rarely improves people it and never makes them humble.

Tony Tanner referred to Plutarch speaking of Coriolanus and saying how an education might lead a man who was ‘rude and rough of nature’ to be ‘civil and courteous.’  He went on:

During the Renaissance, there was much discussion concerning the proper education, duties, and responsibilities of the good prince or governor – what qualified a person to exercise ‘the speciality of rule’.  As Plutarch stresses, it is precisely these qualifications which Coriolanus so signally lacks: he is a prime example of what Renaissance thinkers regarded as the ill-educated prince, a man from the governing classes who is, by nature, temperament, and upbringing, unfitted and unfit to rule.

That is Donald Trump word for word.  From Rome to Washington, and from Plutarch to the New York Times, there is nothing new under the political sun.

Here and there – a philosopher on Shakespeare


Ludwig Wittgenstein was a German scientist and architect who became an English philosopher.  He was a client, in the Latin sense of that term, of Bertrand Russell.  When Wittgenstein wrote his Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, he thought he had solved the problems of philosophy.  Russell was far from convinced and wrote a cautious forward.  Wittgenstein later recanted, as age and experience begat modesty.  His published output was later fragmentary.

One such work is Culture and Value.  It is a collection of aphorisms jotted down over many years about logic, life, religion, music, and literature.  If Russell had trouble following Wittgenstein when he was writing for the learned, we may have trouble when Wittgenstein is thinking aloud about the world at large.

Some of the aphorisms relate to Shakespeare.  What might they say about the playwright or the philosopher?

Shakespeare displays the dance of human passions, one might say.  Hence he has to be objective; otherwise he would not so much display the dance of human passions – as talk about it.  But he displays it to us in dance, not naturalistically.  (I got this idea from Paul Engelman.)

I’m pretty sure that I follow that.  The first proposition contains a metaphor that I find enlightening.  The suggested requirement of ‘objectivity’ is thought provoking, even if I’m not sure that the point is carried.  But he returns to the idea of a dance.  If he had referred to a ‘symphony’ or ‘fugue’ or ‘canvas’ of human passions, would there have been any different meaning?

It is remarkable how hard we find it to believe something that we do not see the truth of for ourselves.  When, for instance, I hear the expression of admiration for Shakespeare in the course of several centuries, I can never rid myself of the suspicion that praising him has been the conventional thing to do; though I have to tell myself that this is how it is.  It takes the authority of a Milton really to convince me.  I take it for granted that he was incorruptible. – But I don’t of course mean that I don’t believe an enormous amount of praise to have been, and still to be, lavished on Shakespeare without understanding and for the wrong reasons by a thousand professors of literature.

I don’t follow that at all.  The first sentence looks silly.  If we do not see the truth of a statement for ourselves, of course we tend not to believe it.  There is nothing remarkable there.  If the author is saying that a lot people just toe the line on this part of high art, we could well agree.  But does the fact that there is bullshit elsewhere disqualify our opinions, or, perhaps I should say, reactions?  The reference to Milton appears to me to be at best adolescent, and at worst plainly rude.  We can return later to the issue of ‘understanding’ Shakespeare.

It may be that the essential thing with Shakespeare is his ease and authority, and that you just have to accept him as he is if you are going to be able to admire him properly, in the same way you accept nature, a piece of scenery for example, just as it is.

If I am right about this, that would mean that the style of his whole work, I mean of all his works taken together, is the essential thing and what provides his justification.

My failure to understand him could then be explained by my inability to read him easily.  That is, as one views a splendid piece of scenery.

These comments make you wonder how often the philosopher had seen plays by this playwright on the stage – or if he had ever gone to the theatre at all.  The author wrote the plays for profit – obtained by people willing to be entertained by seeing these plays performed on the stage.  The repeated references to Shakespeare, and the reference to ‘the style of his whole work’ and ‘all his works taken together,’ suggest, to my mind, that the philosopher is proceeding at a level of abstraction that is almost metaphysical – and for him, that is anathema.

But if the first proposition entails that we should be careful in trying to analyse any part of this artist’s work, I agree with it.

But what does it mean to say that the style of the work provides its justification?  Why did Shakespeare have to justify King Lear – or any other part or the whole of his output?

And what does he mean by understanding Shakespeare?  When we talk of understanding something, we talk of getting its meaning or significance.  If I go to St Peter’s and see the Pieta of Michelangelo, or if I had gone to hear Miles Davis in the Vanguard in the 1950’s, or if I had gone to see Blue Poles chez nous, and someone had asked me if I had understood what I had seen or heard, I would have been at best confused.  ‘Listen, Mate, I have come all this way, and at real expense, to experience a work of art, one of the title deeds of Western civilisation.  Don’t ask me to relegate these masterpieces to the dustbin of the prosaic by trying to give what I think may the meaning of that art.’  To what extent is, say, Hamlet different to other works of art when it comes to understanding art?

There is, I think, a real problem here.  I have hugely enjoyed reading commentaries on Shakespeare by people like A C Bradley and Tony Tanner, and they have greatly added to my enjoyment of experiencing the plays.  (I have also come across truckloads of tripe.)  In some loose sense those authors may have added to my understanding of the plays, but I very much fear that that sense is far too loose for a philosophical inquiry.

If you think that sounds woolly, I would plead guilty – but that is what I feel driven to.  I would refer back to what I said about the need for care in trying to analyse any part of the work of this artist, or any other artist.  Indeed, any one of us might be accused of tiptoeing around the volcano if hubris if we claimed to have found the ‘meaning’ of any play or poem of this playwright and poet.

Shakespeare and dreams.  A dream is all wrong, absurd, composite, and yet at the same time, it is completely right: put together in this strange way, it makes an impression.  Why? I don’t know.  And if Shakespeare is great, as he is said to be, then it must be possible to say of him: it’s all wrong, things aren’t like that – and yet it’s quite right according to a law of its own.

It could be put like this too: if Shakespeare is great, his greatness is displayed only in the whole corpus of his plays, which create their own language and world.  In other words he is completely unrealistic.  (Like a dream.)

All of that goes clean over my head.  Even Freud may have had trouble with it.  It is worryingly symptomatic of a tortured ambivalence about Shakespeare.  It calls to mind a summer school at Oxford about Wittgenstein.  A very charming Indian lady was evidently finding it hard to come to grips with the subject.  She was not alone.  At the end she had a question for the tutor.  ‘You have told us that Wittgenstein set out to cure our language of illness – could you be so good as to give us an instance where the cure worked?’  She also told the class that ‘in India, we don’t even have a word for God.’  I took her to be saying that for her, some things – like God – were out of reach of words.  At least at one point, Wittgenstein would have agreed with her.

I do not believe Shakespeare can be set alongside any other poet.  Was he perhaps a creator of language rather than a poet?

The short answer is that he was both.  The long answer is that labels are at best dangerous and at worst presumptuous.

I could only stare in wonder at Shakespeare; never do anything with him.

There is a whole lot in the works of Goethe that I don’t ‘get’ (in part, because I am not receiving it as it was written – in German); it seems clear that Wittgenstein had the same problems with Shakespeare.  We are nowhere near analysis or criticism.  (When I use the term ‘get’ here, I am I think invoking a loose form of ‘understanding’ of the order I referred to earlier.)

It is not as though Shakespeare portrayed human types well and were in that respect true to life.  He is not true to life.  But he has such a supple hand and his brush strokes are so individual, that each one of his characters looks significant, is worth looking at.

Art is a lyrical reflection on the human condition.  We know art is good if people keep wanting more of it.  It is hard to think of an artist who has done this anywhere near as well as Shakespeare.  He shows us as we are.  To the extent that you can give meaning to the phrase ‘true to life’ in this context, it is dead wrong.

‘Beethoven’s great heart’ – nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart.’  ‘The supple hand that created new linguistic forms’ would seem to be nearer the mark.

A poet cannot really say of himself ‘I sing as the birds sing’ – but perhaps Shakespeare could have said this of himself.

The last proposition means nothing to me.  The first is of the same intellectual calibre – zero – as a public bar discussion of whether Bradman was better than Trumper or Ronaldo is better than Messi.

May I go back to what I said about the need for care in claiming to analyse art and the danger of hubris?  I’m afraid that the philosopher may be guilty on both counts.  And the statement that ‘nobody could speak of ‘Shakespeare’s great heart’ looks suspiciously like a statement of fact.  Richard Burton knew a good deal more about Shakespeare than Wittgenstein.  Burton saw ‘staggering compassion’.  The context is:

What chance combination of genes went to the making of that towering imagination, that brilliant gift of words, that staggering compassion, that understanding of all human frailty, that total absence of pomposity, that wit, that pun, that joy in words and the later agony.  It seems that he wrote everything worth writing and the rest of his fraternity have merely fugued on his million themes…..

Well, if a man as bright as Wittgenstein sees fit to go into print on an issue that gives him such trouble, you may wonder what modern philosophy has done for us.  Nor will you be alone there.  At a later tutorial at the summer school I mentioned, the Indian lady – to whom I had taken quite a shine – said to the tutor, in the course of the class: ‘Thank you for being so kind as not to notice that I was falling asleep.’

But we should end on a softer, kinder note.  I wrote elsewhere –

After a short visit to the United States in 1949, he [Wittgenstein] learned that he had cancer.  He lived with various friends in Oxford or Cambridge until he died in 1951.  He was, in common with our other heroes, at peace with himself when he left us.  It says a lot for his character that the lodging in which he stayed at the time that he died was looked after by a landlady.  Wittgenstein was in the habit of walking to the pub with her each night.  Wittgenstein would be about the most un-pub sort of person that God ever put on this earth, but he went out with his landlady for the walk and, moreover, he would order two sherries.  He would give one to her and, since he did not drink, he would pour his over the flowers.  That is not the conduct of a man bereft of humanity.  He had a most extraordinary intellect in a constricted character that made it nearly impossible to pass on to us the benefits of that intellect.  His success in doing so is due to his extraordinary moral courage.  Intellect alone is never enough.

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




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


The philosophy of religion at Oxford


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


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


Berlin and the World Cup


Wittgenstein at Oxford and Bach at Cambridge


Course taught by Dr David Smith


Touring the Highlands


Not keeping the peace at Cambridge and Chaucer at Oxford


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


September 2015

41,000 words


Tilting at windmills

Geoffrey Gibson





Adolph and Richard

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


Anna and Penny

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


Big Four of Shakespeare

My problems

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


Chaucer and hierarchy

The medieval hierarchy of Chaucer


Courtliness and Courtesy

The role of courtliness and courtesy in Shakespeare


Covert acts in Hamlet

Mystery within mystery in Hamlet


Crime and Punishment

A note on the Dostoevsky novel


Crime Fiction

A note on the novels of Donna Leon


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.


Doctor Zhivago

The great novel of Boris Pasternak


Falstaff, Tchaikovsky, and Gatsby

Serendipity, theatre, concert hall and the Storm


Four pilgrims in Chaucer

Four pilgrims in the Prologue for Oxford Summer School


Henry IV at the Globe

A great play in a great theatre


Imagination, snobbery, and enlightenment

The place of snobbery and meaning in literature



A note on the novel by D H Lawrence


Pasternak on Shakespeare

Thoughts of Pasternak on Shakespeare from two works


Poets in prose; and the First Fleet

Tony and Betty! Rope and Pulley!



Provincial Cooking

The art of prose of Elizabeth David


Rich and Will

Richard Burton on William Shakespeare


Riders in the Chariot

A great novel pf Patrick White


The novel as opera: dramatic truth

Thoughts on literary and historical meaning


Two big novels

Middlemarch and Les Miserables


Two novelists on Shakespeare

Tolstoy and Flaubert

24 Shakespeare’s Fan

John Keats idolised Shakespeare


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

D H Lawrence and Hamlet



The lines in Shakespeare that come from nowhere out of nothing


Who is that can tell me who I am?

The bottomless depth of King Lear


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



Reformation Day (Martin Luther Day)


The 70th birthday of the author.

80,000 words


Papers on legal history

Geoffrey Gibson





1689 and 1789

Aide Memoire on Terminology

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


God Save Our Anglican Queen

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


Blackstone’s Magna Carta

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


The Role of Contract in the English Constitution

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


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.


English Serfs

What did serfdom mean in England?


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.’


Hampden: A Note

A first look at Ship Money


How Moses v Macferlan Enriched Our Law –

 Lord Mansfield’s Heresy

The origin of our law of Unjust Enrichment


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.



How Do Public Servants Punish Us?


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.


Sir Paul

The juristic work of Vinogradoff


The Ship Money Case

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


The Trial of the Seven Bishops

Another case that stopped the nation – litigation as sport.


The Tyrannicide Brief

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


Three slippery words – liberty, freedom and prerogative

The ancients too were seduced by labels


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.


Some tips for young advocates


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




31 October 2015

70 years to the day from his birth.

95,000 words


Essays on Modern History in England and Europe

Geoffrey Gibson

Melbourne, Australia, 2




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.


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



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.