New Book

I have just put on Amazon a new book.  Its title is:

Summers in Oxford and Cambridge and Elsewhere

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

The Foreword says:

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.

The contents are:










The first essay starts this way:

There is something Italianate about the Prague Symphony of Mozart.  There is a lyrical throwaway line at the end of the second theme in the first movement; it is one of those wanton indulgences that remind you of Shakespeare.  Then there is an exuberant trilling in the last movement, the kind of village band feeling that you get with Verdi.  We are looking at Mitteleuropa, but with an Italian edge.  You might call it ‘Praguish’.

Well, Prague, like St Petersburg, does have an Italian feel.  The architects dressed each in lush Mediterranean colours.  Both cities love yellow.  I was standing on the hill under the castle – where they shot a lot of that great film on Mozart, Amadeus – staring at a yellow church and trying to pretend not to be listening to a guide informing her squad.  I was listening – she was very good – and it took a while for it to sink in that I was reading a tablet on the church that said: Tu es Petrus, et super hanc saxum, meam ecclesiam aedificandam.  (I do not vouch for the Latin.  ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock, I shall build my church.’)  The beginning of the Catholic Hour that I listened to on 3AW every Sunday Night!  At 9pm – to hear the Trumpet Voluntary.   Except, as I recall, those modernist revisionists used English, not Latin. (That would not do for Madingley Hall, Cambridge.)

Prague came back to me recently at Oxford.  There was a thirty – something German lady there whom I had met before.  I shall call her Charlotte.  She has what might fairly be called firm views.  She is not what you might call Praguish.  She was struck dumb by my ‘Smash the Monarchy’ T-shirt – how preposterously non-Lutheran!

I said to Charlotte that Berlin was my favourite city in the world.  She replied that Berlin has good points and bad points.  This was an unusually catholic and embracing response from Charlotte.   I therefore thought that I would honour it with an anecdote.  ‘When I left Prague, I hired a car to…’  Half-way into the sentence, I realized that I was committed to a faux pas of John Cleese proportions.  ‘…take me to Lidice, the little town wiped out by the German SS as a reprisal for the killing of Reinhardt Heydrich.’  It was one of those in for a shilling, in for a pound moments.  You just keep going and focus on keeping a straight face.  Charlotte did not blanch, but for a split second gave me one of her trade mark steely, glassy stares, above her tailored slacks and French shoes, and off the shoulder cashmere.

Later that week, I was in a discussion with Charlotte and others about the dangers or uselessness of philosophy.  Some death wish led me to say that an English writer named Grayling had said that the Allied bombing of German cities was wrong – and that some pilots should have refused to fly.  I regard that proposition to be as insane as it is offensive.  Charlotte thought it to be self-evidently true.  She said one English pilot had refused to fly over Dresden.  I doubt whether that is so – he could have been shot – but I bailed out.

It would have been idle to ask how many German pilots refused to fly over London or Coventry; it would have been insane to ask how many of the Schutzpolitzei at Lidice refused to take part in the murder of the men, the rape or enslavement of the women, or the enforced adoption of Aryan looking Czech children.  The one thing that I am sure of is that no one in occupied Europe was complaining that the British or American air forces were being too hard on the Germans.  You only hear that nonsense from unemployable philosophers who have never held down a real job, much less have been in a real war, but who have been breast fed on pure bullshit.

The point of my Lidice anecdote about good and bad in a city was a good one.  I had both a driver and a guide – it was just after the Wall had come down.  As we were driving out, I said to my most charming female guide that ‘You have a beautiful city here in Prague – a real chocolate box city.’ She looked at me wanly and said: ‘You can say that because you have not been to the industrial estates where the skin-heads kill the gypsies.’  She said it almost philosophically; she was evidently far more intelligent than A C Grayling.  But she was worried about the tensions developing – again – between Czechs and Germans, and by the time we got out at Lidice, she was, I thought, a little stressed. 

From Lidice, we went to the airport, from where I flew to Budapest.  I have three abiding memories of that old city.  I saw a great performance of a ballet of Anna Karenin to the music of Tchaikovsky’s fifth and sixth symphonies in the opera house.  I went to the baths and did not know whether to worry more about my wallet or my person.  On the morning I left, I felt intimations of the trots – of which I have a holy terror when flying.  At the head of a reasonable queue in my hotel, I told a smart middle aged female Hungarian concierge of my problem and then sought her assurance that the tablet that she smartly produced was of the stop, not the go variety.  I told her I was in the hands of her and God, and I swallowed it.  As the bus neared the airport, I felt that comforting, settling feeling.

It was a beautiful sunny day as we flew up low along the Thames and up to the west end. I could just about point out the Cavalry and Guards Club over Piccadilly from Green Park.  You feel like tapping the pilot on the shoulder: ‘If you could put me down here, Sportsman, it would save a lot of buggerizing around on the ground.’

When I got to the Cavalry and Guards Club, about three hours later, Peter, the porter, was on his own, shirt open, braces, and toast on.  You can fire cannon through these places on the weekend.   I had known Peter for years and I was very fond of him.  He was at peace this day. David Gower was in, and batting beautifully.  I got my key and lugged   the bag up to the single quarters on the third floor.  Window on to Piccadilly; dunny 10 yards one way; bath – no shower – 10 yards the other way. 

After a decent interval, I went back to see if there was a room free in the married quarters – where there are showers.  But the mood was very different. The toast has burnt, and Gower was out, the weak bastard!  I asked Peter about the married quarters.  He gave me a very pained look and said ‘You don’t want to change rooms already, do you?’  Well, shit, of course not.  The very idea was ridiculous. I sloped off to the RAF Club just up the road for a couple of heart starters and a meal in the Buttery.

Some few visits later, I made a different faux pas. I went down to the front desk. There was a figure in the gloom.  I said I was looking for Peter, but as he came into the light, I saw that it was he.  He was dying.  It was very sad.  As I left, he shook my hand firmly, for the last time, as we both knew.

The last note commences:

At breakfast on Saturday at Cambridge, an elderly German lady from my class gave me a big smile and asked me if I had ‘settled down yet’.  A very urbane English man also gave me a big smile, but when I asked if we should go easy on the bastards, he said that I would be betraying our birthright.  The plural was not royal.

The course was on how to settle wars, but the title was worryingly verbose.  I was having a drink before dinner with the Post-Modernist Post-Colonial Lit In Crowd of Studies in Advanced Victimhood With Honours and I was happy to be rescued by someone saying that he was there for war and peace.  (I read in my notebook that someone said that modernism was like playing tennis with the net down.)  This rather mournful soul was one of the two advertised tutors.  He looked like a Shropshire vicar, but he would have to do. 

Then I met his mate.  Fat, bearded, and wild eyed.  The Naval Buddha.  With a naval emblem on a navy jacket.  Dead set dangerous at any rate of knots.  Not the least troubling part of a very wordy c. v. were the words ‘Doctor’ and ‘Professor’ sliding in and out with no mention of any primary degree – they hang people, or shoot them, for that in Germany.  I doubt whether either of our heroes had worn a uniform, but they had taught those who do.  That is not an enticing recipe – in Oz, it has been an outright disaster.

Wait – the Naval Buddha was a petrol head.  There might be hope.  But no – when I mentioned my admiration for Michael Schumacher, the Naval Buddha permitted himself one of those vesuvial effusions for which he would become justly infamous in the upcoming bunfight.  ‘Michael Schumacher never won a race unless he cheated.’  This remark is a silly as it is false, but the N B, like the Famous Bluebottle, paused for applause.  But what if he had been addressing someone who admires Schumacher – and he was – what would that say for his taste and judgment?  In the appalling argot of our time, what might that do for the brand of his then employer?

So, I took a stiff pull of my Spanish red, and thought I might mention the course.  I said how much I admired Keynes’ The Economic Consequences of the Peace for both intellect and courage.  The tutors exchanged long, sad, knowing looks, and said that it had caused ‘endless trouble.’  Why?  Because it had helped the Germans say that they had been hardly done by.  Oh my God – might this just have been the case? 

Not palely loitering, I trudged alone to dinner and the Latin grace, firmly grasping my bottle of Spanish red, with a sickening awareness that this would be a course like those in Peace studies, or African studies, or Feminism – or any bloody ‘ism’ – pure, pure bullshit, something close to intellectual fraud.  Opening up universities that we are pleased to call iconic to the unwashed is bonzer.  Retailing bullshit is not.

There were only five in the class.  There was the very worldly and bright Englishman.  There was the German lady who had lived through the war and knew more about the subject than any library.  Her companion was not far behind her.  And then there was the English lady in her nineties.  In my very fond experience, they do not say much, but they can be deadly. 

You can make many mistakes teaching adults.  The worst is to underestimate and then insult your class.  The Naval Buddha did both, in spades, and what followed was what John Milton coined Pandemonium.  The subject was the change in the character of warfare in the nineteenth century (without any reference to the Grande Armee, which to me is a bit like discussing the Fall without mentioning Eden).  If you are suspicious of large claims, you are not relieved to hear them introduced by references to ‘socialization’.  If you were about to be slaughtered at Balaclava, would it have helped to reflect that you were being socialized? 

I did not ask what the word meant for fear of being landed on the rim of an infinite regress, but my English colleague did ask, and he persisted.  Within five minutes, it was a free for all shitfight on the very sensitive political subjects of Iraq and Afghanistan – and open season on one former English PM (who is almost as unpopular as Mrs T.).  It was not edifying.  I enjoy a good shitfight but I object to paying for one.  At one stage the polite aging German lady said to the N B ‘If you believe that, you are living in Wonderland.’  My astute English colleague was most enlightening – he had friends who had flown combat missions in these appalling wars, and he spoke with evident feeling commanding intellectual respect on these issues.

The two tutors looked very bruised the next morning.  They changed their route of campaign.  The N B would read a paper.  There would be no questions or comment until he was finished and then only through the chair.  We had been gagged.  Still we bore up with it manfully, and politely. 

Out tutors told us we should be grateful for opinion polls.  Saying this to an Australian is like asking the Holy Father to hand out condoms during Mass.  Elections have become a boring sideshow.  What counts are polls taken by clever, rich, unattractive parasites on the basis of which a junta of Mafia dons posing as factional leaders and newspaper editors choreograph political assassinations which lead to the promotion of even worse bastards than we had before.  Then one tutor said that at least they – polls – were better indicators than cab drivers.  If we speak of London or Berlin cab drivers, this remark is a sad reflection on the dangers of faux science.

Then Keynes came up.  I know nothing of the Black Magic that we call Economics, but my admiration for Keynes as a man is almost unlimited, and as a mind I would mention him with Newton, Darwin, and Einstein.  I may of course be wrong, whatever that means, but I have deeply considered convictions about Keynes and Versailles.  Keynes had at least two things in common with Dietrich Bonhoeffer – he was part of the noblesse oblige by birth and instinct; he lent honour to that awful word patriot. 

The Shropshire vicar then ventured the private view that Keynes had been a ‘bit of a clot.’  This was at a university that Keynes had served with utter fidelity for his entire adult life, as he had his school and his nation.  I have a nightmare vision of the N B saying that the main problem with the Treaty of Versailles was that it was not hard enough on the Germans.

In the book that I have mentioned, Keynes shirtfronted his own government with infinite courage, and he said two things.  Versailles would break and bankrupt Germany.  Their revenge would make the first war look like a cakewalk.  Each prophecy was fulfilled to the letter, and more than forty million dead witnesses would offer mute testimony to our inability to see it.  And there is a cemetery of eerie beauty to American airmen just around the corner from Madingley Hall. 

I try not to get offended – it is in truth a weasel word – unless I should be, and this was one of those times.  I was deeply offended.  In some rootless, obscure way, I was offended in my sense of scholarship, and I am revolted by personal disloyalty.

Still, we kept our calm.  The N B referred to his next posting and said that as part of the deal he had donated his library to the institution.  And then our nonagenarian colleague spake, I think for the second time.  It was like a blue-tongued lizard on a smouldering hot rock at Onkaparinga:  ‘Do you mean a bribe?’  Zap!  You’re dead, Sport.  Bliss.  The rest of us crossed ourselves movelessly, as I contemplated my white-lied escape to Oxford at lunchtime, and my happy deflowering at the hands of British rail tellers.

Throughout all this madness, two lines kept coming back to me out of nowhere.  One was the remark of an Australian at Gallipoli: ‘Tonight we lost our amateur status.’  The other was a remark by an American journalist to lawyers at a Washington lunch in 1984: ‘Welcome to Washington, where you and the cab driver are seeing the city for the first time.’


I commend the book.