Passing Bull 243 – Silliness about rights


You have the right walk down the street outside my house.  But you may be denied that right if you want to cross the road at a light controlled intersection and you are facing a red light.  We use traffic lights to reduce the risk of accidents between people using the same roads. But then we took a further step.  We made it compulsory for the driver of a motor car to wear seat belts.  This law was not made to reduce the risks of others being hurt.  It was made to reduce the risk of damage if the driver was involved in a collision.  Some people were offended.  They complained that this law invaded their rights by impairing their freedom.  One answer is that all laws affect the freedom of people since they will not be free – they will have to face consequences – if they break the law.  If you want to introduce economics into this discussion about compulsory wearing of seat-belts, it is that people injuring themselves badly because they are not wearing seat-belts may be injured badly enough to require hospitalisation – at our expense.

That is the argument for the compulsory wearing of face masks during a time of epidemic.  You do not hear that argument so much outside the U S, but to many of us, Americans have a fixation about ‘rights’ and ‘liberty.’  That fixation reached the level of madness when a state governor sued a city mayor for seeking to make the wearing of face masks compulsory.  It adds nothing to say that a law affects ‘freedom’ since all laws do just that.


We’ve been having a lively debate lately about what the sudden social-justice ascendancy in American institutions represents, and whether the new iconoclastic progressivism is just an organic development in liberalism or a post –liberal successor.

New York Times, 7 July, 2020

Deputy Chief Medical Officer Michael Kidd said later ‘the Commonwealth accepts the need for this action in response to containing spread of the virus’.

But, Kidd said, the Australian Health Protection Principal Committee — the federal-state health advisory body so often invoked by Morrison — ‘was not involved in that decision.

‘The AHPPC does not provide advice on border closures’, Kidd added.

ABC, 7 July, 2020

Here and there – Black Knight plays White Queen

The events known as the Dismissal of 1975 have come back to the front page of our press with the release of correspondence between the Palace in London (on behalf of the Queen) and the Governor-General (Sir John Kerr) in Australia.  Those who had the custody of those documents had resisted disclosing them.  The resistance was fierce and prolonged.  It is hard to think of a good reason why the people of Australia should have been prevented from getting access to documents that may throw light on one of the most contentious political episodes in our history.

At the heart of that dispute was the question of what is the proper role of the executive of the Commonwealth – the Queen and the Governor-General – in resolving a deadlock between the two houses of Parliament.

The dispute had arisen because one party had used its numbers in the Senate to block supply to the government with a view to forcing an early election and, as I recall, state governments had filled Senate vacancies with people they thought would be amenable to their views.  The government had been acting badly, but there were good grounds to suggest that the opposition parties had breached long standing political conventions in the way in which they were blocking supply.  The atmosphere was worse than tense.  It was venomous.

The answer about the proper role of the Queen and the Governor-General in our political affairs was not given by the Queen.  The answer was driven from London from advisers in the Palace and from the Governor-General and his staff in Canberra.  The Queen, we are told, had no part in the decision.  According to the correspondence now released, the decision reached by her advisers in the Palace and the Governor-General in Australia was that the Queen should have nothing to do with this crisis in Australia, and it should all be left to the Governor General – albeit with the benefit of advice to him from the staff of the Queen at the Palace.  The decision that the Queen should play no part extended to a decision that she should not be told in advance what action the Governor-General might take.

All that raises the question – if the Queen has no part to play in resolving an issue like this, what is the point of keeping the Queen as part of the government of the Commonwealth of Australia?

The Constitution in section 61 provides:

The executive power of the Commonwealth is vested in the Queen and is exercisable by the Governor-General as the Queen’s representative, and extends to the execution and maintenance of this Constitution, and of the laws of the Commonwealth.

In considering this provision, we should remember that the Constitution was contained in a schedule to an act of the British Parliament that was passed at the time when Great Britain was at the pinnacle of its power ruling over one of the greatest empires in the history of the world – if ‘great’ is an appropriate epithet for any empire.  When the mother country granted former colonies their independence, as it had done with Canada and as it would do with many other nations in Africa and Asia, it did so by setting up the constitutions of those nations so that they would follow what the British were reasonably entitled to believe was their greatest contribution to the world – the rule of law under the common law and the Westminster version of parliamentary democracy.  You can, if you wish, test the validity or worth of that faith by looking at the subsequent histories of, say, the former colonies of Belgium, France, Germany, Holland, or Italy.

The terms ‘power’ and ‘vesting’ that appear in s. 61 may at times be legally charged, as may be the notion of delegation implicit in the stipulation that the Governor-General may exercise those powers of the Queen, but the intention and effect of this law is plain enough.  The mother country is bequeathing its system of government to the fledging nation that it is giving birth to.  If you look at s. 61, you see that the powers that are exercisable by the Governor-General are the powers of the Queen.  The law says that the Governor-General acts as ‘the Queen’s representative.’  It is like the relation between principal and agent developed by the common law.

In the business of running the government, the Governor-General has the powers of the Queen.  And part of our overall constitutional framework is that the Governor-General, like the Queen, can only exercise those powers on advice from the Ministers of the Crown who are members of parliament and who have the confidence of a majority of that parliament.

There is therefore no need to ask what might happen if there was a dispute between the Queen and the Governor-General as to how those powers should be exercised – each of them can only act on the advice of the government of the day.  It follows of course that it would not be open to the Governor-General to act in a manner that is denied to the Queen – by, for example, acting not just without the consent of the government, but by acting against the express wishes of that government.  To put it more broadly, it is difficult under our law to envisage an agent having more power than the principal.  Perhaps we might consider the analogy of chess – the queen is much more powerful than a knight, but the knight moves in a way that the queen cannot; a player who sacrifices a queen for a knight is mad; and the king is untouchable.

The debate, if that is what it was, about the ‘reserve powers’ of the Governor-General calls to mind the issue of the ‘royal prerogative’ in the seventeenth century.  The Stuart kings could not shed the illusion that their powers – the prerogative of the Crown – came from God – and could only be taken from them by God.  That issue was resolved against the Crown in the events known as the Glorious Revolution of 1788-1789.  James II, the last of the Stuarts, decamped ingloriously, heaving the royal seals into the Thames as he went, possibly reflecting, as one mordant historian remarked, about that part of the neck that was severed when the English cut off his father’s head; Dutch troops patrolled the streets of London; and the parliament and the Queen, who was the daughter of James II, and William of Orange signed the Hanoverians up to supply a line of house trained kings from Germany to run things in England.  This is where we get the supremacy, or, if you prefer, the sovereignty of parliament.  Virtually all powers of the Crown were subject to the will of the people in parliament.  Looking back on it now, this does look like a pan European solution to a very English problem.  The efforts of the French to follow suit a century later met a much harder fate.

Lord Denning, am English jurist of last century, did not pussy-foot about the English solution.

Concede, if you wish, that, as an ideology, communism has much to be said for it: nevertheless, the danger in a totalitarian system is that those in control of the State will, sooner or later, come to identify their own interests, or the interests of their own party, with those of the State: and when that happens the freedom of the individual has to give way to the interests of the persons in power.  We have had all that out time and again in our long history: and we know the answer.  It is that the executive government must never be allowed more power than is absolutely necessary.  They must always be made subject to the law; and there must be judges in the land who are ‘no respecters of persons and stand between the subject and any encroachment on his liberty by the executive.’  We taught the kings that from Runnymede to the scaffold at Whitehall [the execution of Charles I]: and we have not had any serious trouble about it since.

It therefore came as quite a surprise to learn from the correspondence now released that the staff of the Queen at the Palace and the Governor-General in Australia went out of their way to ensure that the Queen had no notice at all of what would be the most significant step ever taken purportedly on behalf of the Queen in the history of the Commonwealth of Australia.  Of course in the day to day business of government, the Queen is never consulted.  But on what basis did those who advised Sir John Kerr about his powers decide that the Queen should be not be informed or in any way involved in the way that her powers should be exercised in a manner that had never been done before?

And although the Queen could only act on the advice of the government of the day, the Governor-General was acting in this case in a manner expressly contrary to that advice.  It has always seemed to many to be odd to say that the person entrusted with the powers of the Queen could exercise those powers in a manner expressly denied to the Queen – that in some ways his powers were more plenary than when exercised by Her Majesty.  What the Palace correspondence shows is a Governor-General acting in a manner that was contrary to an essential pillar of our inherited Westminster system of government.

The reason offered for that course is that if the Governor-General had warned the Prime Minister of his intention, the Prime Minister could have asked the Queen to remove the Governor-General and she would then have been obliged to do so.  Is that not a matter of the Governor-General acting peremptorily in order to preclude the possibility of the Queen acting appropriately?  And does that just leave us with Alice in Wonderland?

If after the Governor-General had acted as he did and he had informed the Queen, what may have been the case if the Queen had been of the opinion that she would have acted differently?  And how could Her Majesty have said otherwise when she was obliged to act, and only to act, on the advice of her Australian ministers?

It is not therefore surprising to read that a former member of the Palace bureaucracy says now:

I suspect that the advice that would have been given to him [Sir John Kerr] was that it would have been prudent to hold off a bit longer.  But obviously he felt the pressure of these two contingencies about the election and the financial situation were too pressing to ignore.  I think it was very proper of him not to ask and in ways which are now very evident, very sensible and satisfactory that he didn’t.  There was considerable discussion of a hypothetical nature about the existence of, and appropriateness of, applying to those reserve powers, but at no stage did the Governor-General ever ask the Queen to suggest that he should act in any particular way, and nor did she offer that advice through her private secretary…

The press reports that this gentleman and the author of the Palace letters thought that Australia was embroiled in a ‘political’ and not ‘constitutional’ crisis and concluded that the Governor- General had intervened ‘too precipitously’ to resolve the deadlock over supply.

All of us in London thought that if Kerr had been able to hold his nerve for just a day or two more, there probably would have been a political solution to the problem, which would have avoided a lot fuss.

And ‘a lot of fuss’ there was – that might have been avoided if the various officials in London and Canberra had not sought and managed to keep the Queen out of this dispute.

And one day someone in Whitehall may illuminate us about the distinction between a ‘political’ crisis and a ‘constitutional’ crisis.  It looks to be the kind of question that could have tantalised Aristotle or Plato or Augustine or Aquinas in different ways.  Some may be reminded that the medieval Schoolmen agonised over the question of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle.  This is not the kind of speculation that we need to see in the government of our nation.

Well, what are we now to make of all this?  Does it not just look like an episode of Yes, Minister that has gone horribly wrong?

Many Australians, including me, were infuriated by what happened in 1975.  Now many of those Australians, again including me, just feel personally insulted that the fate of their government in 1975 had been determined by the actions of Palace officials in London and a Governor-General here who thought that it was appropriate for him to act in the way that he did without notice either to the Queen of Australia or to the Prime Minister of Australia.

When you come to think about it, there was truly chutzpah to behold in civil servants in the onetime seat of a mighty empire involving themselves in the affairs of onetime colonies and helping to bring about a change of government – without any notice to its head of state or prime minister. The term coup d’état may be too strong, but I know how some people feel.  If there is one thing worse than a monarch wanting to intervene in our affairs, it may be a monarch who wants nothing to do with us, even though our constitution makes her the primary repository of the executive powers of the Commonwealth.

Now, forty-five years later, we may wonder if the reaction to the election of Gough Whitlam in Australia might now be seen in the reaction to the election of Barak Obama in the United States – ‘this aberration is not the way that we the better people are used to doing business,  and we may therefore just have to bend the rules a little in order to restore the status quo; democracy is at its best when it is duly guided, and sometimes the people just forget what’s best for them.’

It brings to mind an immortal cartoon of Ron Tandberg.  Just before he retired, Sir John put on a routine of another but much better known Sir John – Falstaff.  Sir John presented the Melbourne Cup when it was obvious to tout le monde that he was as full as a state school.  Tandberg showed him blotto with crosses for eyes under a silly, tilted top hat.  The caption was: ‘I love making presentations in November.  Like when I gave the nation back to its true owners.’

Gough Whitlam said Sir John was the last of the Bourbons.  He might as well have said Stuarts – they were very helpfully incorrigible.  But it is notorious that those in the diaspora cling to relics long after their time has passed.  Sir Lewis Namier said that the US is ‘in certain ways, a refrigerator in which British ideas and institutions are preferred long after they have been forgotten in this country’.

Well, two things are clear enough – indeed, two things are transcendentally clear.  First, very few people in Australia want to give any power to any government officials in London to settle their political disputes.  Secondly, no one in London wants to be involved in any such Australian disputes.  The time of this institution in Australia has passed from us long ago.  That being so, the presence of the monarchy in our body politic is as useful as the appendix in my body and it is time for us to achieve independence from Great Britain and proceed under our own head of state.



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Fyodor Dostoevsky, 1880

Folio Society, 1964; bound in illustrated boards with slipcase; drawings by Nigel Lambourne

Wagner and Dostoevsky had a lot in common.  Neither was ever at risk of underestimating his own genius, and the behaviour of neither improved as result.  Both were prone to go over the top.  You can find forests of exclamation marks in the writings of both.  And both could and did bang on for far too long for some of us.  They both badly needed an editor. But if you persist with either of these men of genius, you will come across art of a kind that you will not find elsewhere.  The Brothers Karamazov, is a case in point. In my view, it could be improved by being halved – but you would be at risk of abandoning diamonds.

The most famous part of the novel comes with a sustained conversation between two brothers, Alyosha, who is of a saintly and God-fearing disposition, and Ivan, who is of a questing and God-doubting outlook.  The conversation comes in Part 2, Book 5, chapters 4 and 5, Rebellion and The Grand Inquisitor.

Ivan gets under way with ‘I must make a confession to you.  I never could understand how one can love one’s neighbours.’  The author probably knew that Tolstoy had written a book that asserted that the failure of civilisation derived from our failure to take seriously the Sermon on the Mount.   We are familiar with Ivan’s biggest problem.

And, indeed, people sometimes speak of man’s ‘bestial’ cruelty, but this is very unfair and insulting to the beasts; a beast can never be so cruel as a man, so ingeniously, so artistically cruel.  A tiger merely gnaws and tears to pieces, that’s all he knows.  It would never occur to him to nail men’s ears to a fence and leave them like that overnight, even if he were able to do it ….The most direct and spontaneous pastime we have is the infliction of pain by beating.

Well, that attitude is not completely dead in Russia.  Ivan is objecting to the unfairness, and the random nature, of cruelty, and he comes up with a phrase that so moved Manning Clark.

Surely the reason for my suffering was not that I as well as my evil deeds and sufferings may serve as manure for some future harmony for someone else.  I want to see with my own eyes the lion lay down with the lamb and the murdered man rise up and embrace his murderer.  I want to be there when everyone suddenly finds out what it has all been for.  All religions on earth are based on this desire, and I am a believer…I don’t want any more suffering.  And if the sufferings of children go to make up the sum of sufferings which is necessary for the purchase of truth, then I say beforehand that the entire truth is not worth such a price….Too high a price has been placed on harmony.  We cannot afford to pay so much for admission.  And therefore I hasten to return my ticket….It’s not God that I do not accept, Alyosha.  I merely most respectfully return him the ticket.

That is very strong stuff.  There may be answers, but Alyosha doesn’t have them.

‘This is rebellion,’ Alyosha said softly, dropping his eyes.

‘Rebellion?  I’m sorry to hear you say that, said Ivan with feeling.  One cannot live by rebellion, and I want to live.  Tell me straight out, I call on you –imagine me: imagine that you yourself are building the edifice of human destiny with the object of making people happy in the finale, of giving them peace and rest at last, but for that you must inevitably and unavoidably torture just one tiny creature, that same child who was beating her chest with her little fist, and raise your edifice on the foundation of her unrequited tears – would you agree to be the architect on such conditions?  Tell me the truth.’

‘No I wouldn’t said Alyosha softly.

Nor would any other sane person.  So much for rebellion – now for the Grand Inquisitor.  Ivan said he wrote a long poem about this functionary.  He had set it in Spain during the Inquisition.

The Cardinal is very old, but in fine fettle.  He has just supervised the public execution by fire of nearly one hundred heretics.  But his peace is disturbed by the arrival of a holy man.  ‘In his infinite mercy he once more walked among men in the semblance of man as he had walked among men for thirty-three years fifteen centuries ago.’  The crowd loves him.  A mourning mother says ‘If it is you, raise my child from the dead.’  The only words he utters are in Aramaic, ‘Talitha cumi’ – ‘and the damsel arose’.  And she does, and looks round with ‘her smiling wide-open eyes.’  The crowd looks on in wonder, but the eyes of the Cardinal ‘flash with ominous fire.’

He knits his grey, beetling brows….and stretches forth his finger and commands the guards to seize HIM.  And so great is his power and so accustomed are the people to obey him, so humble and submissive are they to his will, that the crowd immediately makes way for the guards, and amid the death-like hush that descends upon the square, they lay hands upon HIM, and lead him away.

That sounds like the Saint Matthew Passion – doubtless, deliberately so.  The Cardinal visits the prisoner in the cells.  ‘It’s you, isn’t it?’

Do not answer, be silent.  And, indeed, what can you say?  I know too well what you would say.  Besides, you have no right to add anything to what you have already said in the days of old.  Why then did you come to meddle with us?  For you have come to meddle with us and you know it……Tomorrow, I shall condemn you and burn you at the stake as the vilest of heretics, and the same people who today kissed your feet will at the first sign from me rush to take up the coals at your stake tomorrow.

Ivan, brought up in Orthodoxy, explains that that in his view the fundamental feature of Roman Catholicism is that ‘Everything has been handed over by you to the Pope, and therefore everything now is in the Pope’s hands, and there’s no need for you to come at all now – at any rate, do not interfere for the time being’.  Ivan thinks this is the Jesuit view.  The Cardinal went on.

It is only now – during the Inquisition – that it has become possible for the first time to think of the happiness of men.  Man is born a rebel, and can rebels be happy?  You were warned.  There has been no lack of warnings, but you did not heed them.  You rejected the only way by which men might be made happy, but fortunately in departing, you handed on the work to us.

Then comes the bell-ringer.

You want to go into the world and you are going empty-handed, with some promise of freedom, which men in their simplicity and innate lawlessness cannot even comprehend – for nothing has ever been more unendurable to man and to human society than freedom!….Man, so long as he remains free has no more constant and agonising anxiety than to find as quickly as possible someone to worship.  But man seeks to worship only what is incontestable, so incontestable indeed, that all men at once agree to worship it all together….It is this need for universal worship that is the chief torment of every man individually and of mankind as a whole from the beginning of time…

Ivan comes again to the problem of freedom which is discussed in conjunction with the three temptations of Christ.  It’s as if the Church has succumbed to the third temptation and assumed all power over the world.

There is nothing more alluring to man than this freedom of conscience, but there is nothing more tormenting either.  And instead of firm foundations for appeasing man’s conscience once and for all, you chose everything that was exceptional, enigmatic, and vague, you chose everything that was beyond the strength of men, acting consequently, as though you did not love them at all…You wanted man’s free love so that he would follow you freely, fascinated and captivated by you…..But did it never occur to you that he would at last reject and call in question even your image and your truth, if he were weighed down by so fearful a burden as freedom of choice?….You did not know that as soon as man rejected miracles, he would at once reject God as well, for what man seeks is not so much God as miracles.  And since man is unable to carry on without a miracle, he will create new miracles for himself, miracles of his own, and will worship the miracle of the witch-doctor and the sorcery of the wise woman, rebel, heretic, and infidel though he is a hundred times over…

How will it end?

But the flock will be gathered together again and will submit once more, and this time it will be for good.  Then we shall give them quiet humble happiness, the happiness of weak creatures, such as they were created.  We shall at last persuade them not to be proud….We shall prove to them that they are weak, that they are mere pitiable children, but that the happiness of a child is the sweetest of all ….The most tormenting secrets of their conscience – everything, everything they shall bring to us, and we shall give them our decision, because it will relieve them of their great anxiety and of their present terrible torments of coming to a free decision themselves.  And they will all be happy, all the millions of creatures, except the hundred thousand who rule over them.  For we alone, we who guard the mystery, we alone shall be unhappy.

The Grand Inquisitor does not believe in God.

A swipe at one church by an adherent of another?  A reprise of the fascism latent in Plato’s Republic?  A bitter denunciation of the Russian hunger for dominance by a strong man like Putin?  A frightful preview of 1984?  It could be some of all of those things, but it is writing of shocking power that gives slashing insights into the human condition.  It is for just that reason that we go to the great writers.  They may not have the answer, but they ask the big questions.

Here and there – Dignity in Kant and Shakespeare

In any community, two questions always arise.  How should I treat my neighbour?  (Or, and this question may evoke the same answer, how would I like my neighbour to treat me?) And, are my neighbour and I equal in our rights?

The German philosopher Immanuel Kant wrote a great deal and most of it is beyond the understanding of most of the rest of us.  He did however have something to say about dignity or worth or value that we can follow.  For some people – including me – what he says can be taken as offering an axiom on which we might base our view of the moral world.

Here is part of the Groundwork of the Metaphysics of Morals.

….all rational beings stand under the law that each of them is to treat himself and all others never merely as means but always at the same time as ends in themselves….In the kingdom of ends, everything has a price or dignity.  What has a price can be replaced by something else as its equivalent; what on the other hand is raised above all price and therefore admits of no equivalent has a dignity.

What is related to general human inclinations and needs has a market price; that which, even without presupposing a need, conforms with a certain taste, that is with a delight in the mere purposeless play of our mental powers, has a fancy price; but that which constitutes the condition under which alone something can be an end in itself has not really a relative worth, that is, a price, but an inner worth, that is dignity.

Now morality is the condition under which alone a rational being can be an end in itself, since only through this is it possible to be a lawgiving member in the kingdom of ends.  Hence, morality, and humanity insofar as it is capable of humanity, is that alone which has dignity.  Skill and diligence in work have a market place; wit, lively imagination and humour have a fancy price; on the other hand, fidelity of promises and benevolence from basic principles (not from instinct) have an inner worth.

In another paper (On the Common Saying: That May be Correct in Theory), Kant said this about equality:

Whoever is subject to laws is subject within a state and is thus subjected to coercive right equally with all other members of the commonwealth…in terms of right…they are nevertheless equal to one another as subjects; for no one of them can coerce any other except through public law….From this idea of the equality of human beings as subjects within a commonwealth there also issues the following formula: Every member of a commonwealth  must be allowed  to attain any level of which his talent, industry or luck can take him….

(This was written after the fall of the Bastille, but before the Terror became known to the world.)

In another text (Critique of Judgment, par.60), Kant said that humanity signifies the universal feeling of sympathy – although we might feel a little more at home with a reference to a capacity for a kind of sympathy that may or may not be found in gorillas.

Shakespeare touched on the issue of dignity in one of his plays that I find very heavy going, Troilus and Cressida.  Paris the Trojan has eloped with Helen the Greek wife of a Greek king.  This affront to Greek honour leads them to declare war against Troy.  Not surprisingly, at least some Trojans ask whether this insult, if that is what it was, warrants men being killed in their thousands. 

Helen and Paris have not had a good press.  (You may fairly ask who of this motley warrants one?)  A Greek soldier says of Helen:

For every false drop in her bawdy veins

A Grecian’s life hath sunk; for every scruple

Of her contaminated carrion weight

A Trojan hath been slain.  (4.1.69-72)

Hector may be the only decent person on the stage – the rest are a parade of human frailty or nastiness – and Paris and Troilus are among the worst.  Hector lines Paris up with a shirt-front:

… ..or is your blood

So madly hot that no discourse of reason

Nor fear of bad success in a bad cause

Can qualify the same? (2.2.115 – 118)

(Fear of ‘bad success in a bad cause’ might be said of us in every war since 1945.) 

Ulysses is even more damning about Cressida.

…….Her wanton spirits look out

At every joint and motive of her body….

For sluttish spoils of opportunity

And daughters of the game.  (4.5.56-63)

(The last line has its modern reading.)

But the passage we are interested in is as follows.


Brother, she is not worth what she doth cost
The holding.


What is aught, but as ’tis valued?


But value dwells not in particular will;
It holds his estimate and dignity
As well wherein ’tis precious of itself
As in the prizer.   (2.2.51ff)

So, Troilus has the view that value, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder – ‘the prizer’ (the person making the appraisal).  Value is whatever the market will bear.  But Hector says that the dignity of a person ‘is precious of itself.’  Some might say that Troilus is on the side of relativism, the moral cancer of our time – there are no intrinsic values, only those that are attributed by others.  But for Hector human dignity is inherent in a human being – it comes with humanity.  This was the view of Kant.

Hector says that some truths are beyond matters of opinion.

There is a law in each well-order’d nation
To curb those raging appetites that are
Most disobedient and refractory.
If Helen then be wife to Sparta’s king,
As it is known she is, these moral laws
Of nature and of nations speak aloud
To have her back return’d: thus to persist
In doing wrong extenuates not wrong,
But makes it much more heavy. Hector’s opinion
Is this in way of truth….(2.2.180-186)

But then Hector flips and says that he will just go with the flow – and that is part of the reason this play is so hard to grapple with.

The notion of dignity inherent in humanity underlies the self-evident truths of Jefferson in the Declaration of Independence, and the first article of the Rights of Man: ‘Men are born and remain free and equal in rights’.  If you look at a random cross-section of world slayers like Julius Caesar, Charlemagne, Henry VIII, Calvin, Napoleon Bonaparte, Lenin, or Donald Trump, you see immediately how important are the views of Kant and Hector.  These people have no regard at all for the dignity of other people.  For them, other people exist only as means to an end, and in acting that way they reject out of hand the rationale of Kant for his primary rule.  And of course their celebration of their own egos leaves any conception of equality as illusory as a thing writ on water.  For any of them, you would be talking into air to offer them the plea that a Danish prince offered on behalf of travelling players – to ‘use them after your own honor and dignity’ (Hamlet, 2.2.54—542) – that is not what they were built for.

For others, this assertion of human dignity from two of our most famous minds is a real comforter in a time of need – especially at a time of epidemic when some people, who appear to me to be close to being morally insane, think that it might be a good idea to put a dollar value on my human life.

Here and there – The curious case of George Pell


Cardinal George Pell was sentenced to imprisonment for serious crimes against a young man in his charge.

Before that could happen, the Crown (the DPP or prosecution) had to clear three hurdles.  The DPP must have found that there was a ‘reasonable prospect of conviction.’  Then a magistrate had to consider all the evidence and conclude that the available evidence was ‘of sufficient weight to support a conviction of’ an indictable offence.  Thirdly, at the conclusion of the prosecution case, it is open to the accused to submit that a verdict of not guilty should be directed on the ground that ‘there is a defect in the evidence such that, taken at its highest, it will not sustain a verdict of guilty.’

The Crown satisfied the first two tests and as far as I know the accused did not submit that the case warranted a verdict of not guilty under the third heading above.  There were two further obstacles.  One of the protections afforded the accused is that the verdict of the jury must be unanimous. The first jury could not agree, and the verdict was only obtained on the re-trial.

The Crown case also survived on an appeal to the Court of Appeal by a majority decision.  All three justices reviewed all the evidence given by the accused, and the majority found the complainant to be a ‘compellingly credible witness’ and that the circumstantial evidence did not entail that the jury had been compelled to entertain a doubt about the guilt of the accused.

The accused then sought and obtained special leave to appeal from that decision to the High Court.  That court allowed the appeal and directed a verdict of acquittal. The seven justices unanimously concluded that there was ‘a significant possibility that an innocent person had been convicted because the evidence did not establish guilt to the requisite standard of proof.’

In R v Doney (1990) 171 CLR 207 (par.  11) the High Court said:

There is no doubt that it is a trial judge’s duty to direct such a verdict if the evidence cannot sustain a guilty verdict or, as is commonly said, if there is no evidence upon which a jury could convict.

In the case of Pell [2020] HCA 12 (par 39), the High Court said:

The function of the court of criminal appeal in determining a ground that contends that the verdict of the jury is unreasonable or cannot be supported having regard to the evidence.., in a case such as the present, proceeds upon the assumption that the evidence of the complainant was assessed by the jury to be credible and reliable. The court examines the record to see whether, notwithstanding that assessment – either by reason of inconsistencies, discrepancies, or other inadequacy; or in light of other evidence – the court is satisfied that the jury, acting rationally, ought nonetheless to have entertained a reasonable doubt as to proof of guilt.

My first reason for finding this case curious is that for a lawyer who does not practice in crime, I have great difficulty in following what if any is the substantive difference between the role of the trial judge in ruling against a submission of no case (as in Doney) and the role of the appellate court appellate court in determining whether the verdict of the jury can be found to be unreasonable.  The question then is this: if the verdict directed by the High Court is as plain as that court found, and only by reference to the evidence of the Crown, why was not the issue raised and dealt with in any of the procedures that led to the verdict in this trial?  It looks like I and others have had to foot the bill for the accommodation of the Cardinal on grounds that look to have been apparent from the start.

The second ground of curiosity relates to reviewing the video of the complainant’s evidence.  The accused argued against that course.  Not surprisingly, the Court of Appeal ruled against him.  But the High Court is at best very wary and a little terse about this practice.  Their Honours did not apparently view the videos.  In the result, a clear majority of those who saw the videos – part of the jury in the first trial, all of the jury in the second, and by a majority of justices on appeal – had no reasonable doubt about the guilt of the accused.  The verdict of acquittal was directed by those who did not see the tapes.

It may be that the High Court would have reached the same result after looking at the tapes, but logic is not an absolute master when it comes to observing due process in the administration of justice.  Among other things, it would be a shame if forensic ingenuity was thought to count for more than witness integrity.  Such a view would buttress a common prejudice of the type that was immediately on show when the High Court gave its judgment.  It was obvious that the views within the nation were split, among other things on sectarian grounds, and it was vital that any judgment should be determinative both in law and on the merits.  The results so far are not good – even if, as may have been predicted, the ignorance of some parts of the press was matched only by its arrogance.

It is a very strong thing for one appellate court to overturn the finding of another appellate court on the evidence as a whole without reviewing that evidence in the same form that the first court did.  In the fullness of time, we may learn how that process differs from a decision to ban a book taken without reading the book.  And some may prefer the simple and humane approach of the majority of the Court of Appeal to the Euclidian sterility of those who reached a different result.  The former is clearly more accessible to the community at large.

This then was not an ideal way to put to rest a fierce contest that is and will long remain in the public domain.  And it is out of tune with the felt need to give victims of sexual abuse a decent hearing.  What is the message that we are sending to victims of sexual abuse by those in power?  ‘Go ahead and complain.  Then give evidence.  And be cross –examined painfully and insultingly for days.  Then watch on as the accused refuses to submit himself to the same ordeal.  Then have your version – that has not been contradicted on oath by the man who attacked you – accepted by a jury and acted on by the court’s sentencing your assailant to prison.  Then have a majority of judges also accept your version on appeal.  And then watch the prisoner walk away because another group of judges takes a different view of the evidence to the first group.  Although they did not take the time to watch you giving your evidence.  When the effect of the evidence is under our law primarily a matter for the jury.  And when your version on oath has been accepted by the jury and the accused has never had to give his version in the same way.’

The so-called ‘best evidence rule’ may be dead as a dodo, but its rationale – common sense and ordinary decency – is not.  And our law knows a long history of preference for direct oral evidence over that which is ‘only circumstantial’.  (I refer to an observation of Holt, CJ in 1701 referred to in Thayer A Preliminary Treatise on Evidence at The Common Law, Little Brown, 1898, 489.)

We are of course here discussing only the criminal standard of proof.  If the Cardinal sued for libel on an allegation of sexual abuse, the onus would be on the defendant, but only the balance of probabilities.  And as a matter of fact, he would have to go into the witness box.

Similarly, if there was an issue about whether this man could be trusted in a position with access to young men in the future, then that issue would not be determined by saying that this man should retain the trust of his employer until a court found him guilty beyond doubt of a relevant offence.  This is not the first time this man has been the subject of a complainant by someone who was found to be an honest witness.  That as I recollect it was the result of a finding of Justice Southwell in a private hearing into complaints of sexual abuse against this priest.

There have therefore been two cases involving the Cardinal where people have found in favour of the honesty of the victim.  Just how an employer might assess the significance of such a history may require some judgment.  And no such issue would properly be resolved by giving the Cardinal the benefit of the doubt.  It is those who may be hurt that have to be looked after.  Putting the interests of the employer over those in possible harm’s way is precisely the cause of so many of our present discontents.

A lot of this is unclear to me.  But two things are clear enough.  First, we would not be having this discussion if the accused had given evidence.  As far as I know, we are yet to hear why he declined to face his accuser from the witness box – a course that it is very difficult to square with his loud assertions of innocence and desire to have his day in court and see justice done.

The second is that Lindy Chamberlain must be asking what star she was born under or what bus she was run over by if Cardinal Pell could get a verdict set aside but she could not.  For we now know that not only was Lindy not guilty – she was also actually innocent.  Only the keenest of the faithful would ever say that of the Cardinal.

Here and there – Worth


We get a charge out of seeing people at the top of their game professionally, or in a sport, or whatever.  Obvious excellence leads us to reflect on the worth of the person showing it – and the worth of what they do for us.  ‘Worth’ like ‘dignity’ is a word that is abused, but we resort to it to describe something that we think is good and to be valued – and not, of course, just in money.  If I see someone cast a fly or drive a golf ball as well as I can imagine it, I feel good – just as I feel good when hearing Jussi Bjorling sing Nessun Dorma, or when I look at one of the bridal series of Arthur Boyd.  If you are really lucky you can get a super charged sense of grateful elevation at the foot of the Iguazzu Falls, or on the rim of the Grand Canyon, or when Mount Kanchenjunga hauls into half the horizon.

A lot moonshine is spread about advocacy, and cross-examination in particular, but once about thirty five years ago, I sat bedside Neil McPhee, QC, as he cross-examined a hard-nosed manager from the Richmond Football Club – and the little Scot knew where some of their skeletons were buried – for about twenty minutes so as to elicit concessions that neither the witness nor his counsel seemed to notice.  Here was a technique that no one can teach.  I actually held my breath at times.  I was on the edge of my seat – I could have been in the front row of the circle at Covent Garden for Fonteyn and Nureyev.  There was a worth beyond my imagining.  I have never seen anything like it.

Some sports champions have a complete aura of their worth.  Muhammad Ali was a man like no other.  He changed other people’s lives (including some of our articled clerks who got close to him on the MCG and who came back with a barely subdued sense of wonder.  They had  been in his presence, and it showed.)  Jack Nicklaus walking down the eighteenth fairway to the adulation of the crowd looked to me to be not just regal, but imperial.  He just oozed calm authority.  And Viv Richards provoked in his opponents the kind of fear normally reserved for those facing fast bowlers.  In a world cup final, the game was stagnating until Richards backed away and flayed the ball to the fence from which it rocked back about half-way to the pitch.  As the crowd became frenzied, Richie Benaud said quietly, and nasally: ‘There was an element of contempt in that stroke.’  On his day, Virat Kohli can evoke up similar emotions.  These are the kinds of moments we celebrate in sports.

These notions came to me last night as I watched a replay of the Wednesday before the Masters at Augusta in, I gather, the last few years.  They get past champions to compete over the par three holes.  Gary Player (82), Jack Nicklaus (78) and Tom Watson (68) were matched.  Three titans – three world beaters – all with their own majestic aura and each of them way beyond any measured worth.  They were obviously not what they had been.  But none of them duffed one stroke, and you could still sense an underlying steel in the players in the carnival atmosphere of the adoring multitude.  Watson beat the whole field.  And I was getting it all for just about nothing – at a time when a virus is robbing us of the balm of sports and our weekends feel barren, if not desolate.  As sports events go, you would find it hard to beat this.  Here was worth that was indeed beyond all comparison.

Then something happened that event organisers and TV producers just dream of.  As happens in these pro-am type days, caddies were given a shot.  It came to the turn Nicklaus’ caddie.  He was I think sixteen.  His practice swings showed that he was a natural whose swing had been finely honed.  He showed no sign of nerves.  He hit his tee shot cleanly and beautifully.  Replays showed Gary Player vocally celebrating the shot from the moment it took flight until the time it came to rest.  It ran to the back of the green.  Then it started to roll back.  In the direction of the hole.  And it slowly became clear that something wonderful might happen.  Which it did!  In the hole!  Pandemonium.  Then it turns out that the caddy is the grandson of the man some say is the greatest golfer ever, Jack Nicklaus, who looked every bit of his age, and who was celebrating above all others.  He just radiated his exultation.

Well, we must just hope that that ‘miracle’ does not put a spanner in the life of that young man –as Neil Crompton’s match winning goal did for him (‘the Frog’s goal’) in the 1964 Grand Final.  (I was there with my mum – right behind the Frog, although at the other end of the ground.)  The whole crowd and commentariat were suffused with benevolence.  It led to a kind of uplift which is so much needed in a frightened world where we are hourly reminded that we are not what we were cracked up to be.  It is the kind of innocent elation that you can get from the best of sport or theatre or concert.  And what kind of ratbag would wish to put a price on that result?

This is kind of boost we need for what we might hope for that notion that each of us has a certain worth or dignity merely because of our humanity.  And, as it seems to me, these great golfers are as well placed as any one to remind us of that basic truth.

Well, I am reading War and Peace for the fourth time, so I may be allowed some mysticism in my solitary sequestration sans sport.  But I have to report that Natasha does not get any easier to cope with from one reading to the next, and she just keeps exploding more loudly in the 1972 BBC version until – well you know when until.  And I have just passed that bit where Pierre – I thought it was Prince Bolkonsky, to whom I have taken a shine – allowed himself a philosophical observation on the subject of death.  When we die, Pierre (Antony Hopkins) says, we either get all the answers – or we stop asking the questions.  That notion has always seemed to me to be both fair and comfortable.  Who could ask for anything more?



[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book as yet unpublished called ‘My Second Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’. The content of these may change before further publication.]


Ernest Hemingway, 1929

Franklin Library, 1929.  Bound in quarter leather, ridged spine, with embossed title and filigree; cloth boards patterned.  Illustrated by Bernard Fuchs.

During the Second World War, British trains carried a message (one that Wittgenstein cited): ‘Is this journey really necessary?’  Try as I might, I find it hard to put this question behind me when reading Hemingway.  He could certainly write; he was a natural; but did he have anything to say that was worth listening to?

A Farewell to Arms is set on the Italian Front during World War I.  An American volunteer ambulance officer falls in love with a British nurse.  In the meantime, we are exposed to the horror and futility of war.  But what does it matter if two outsiders have their ups and downs during war?  The novel draws on many experiences of Hemingway in the war, but we are spared that obsession with manliness that cost so many women so dearly in the course of Hemingway’s life.

The beginning of the novel is often quoted to show the spare style of the author.

In the late summer of that year we lived in a house in a village that looked across the river and the plain to the mountains.  In the bed of the river there were pebbles and boulders, dry and white in the sun, and the water was clear and swiftly moving and blue in the channels.  Troops went by the house and down the road and the dust they raised powdered the leaves of the trees.  The trunks of the trees too were dusty and the leaves fell early that year and we saw the troops marching along the road and the dust rising and leaves, stirred by the breeze, falling and the soldiers marching and afterward the road bare and white except for the leaves.

For some, this will be like a mix of Debussy and Auden.

There are passages about the war.

I did not say anything.  I was always embarrassed by the words sacred, glorious and sacrifice and the expression in vain.  We had heard them, sometimes standing in the rain almost out of earshot, so that only the shouted words came through, and had read them on the proclamations that were slapped up by billposters over other proclamations, now for a long time, and I had seen nothing sacred, and the things that were glorious had no glory, and the sacrifices were like the stockyards at Chicago if nothing was done with the meat except to bury it……Abstract words such as glory, honor, courage or hallow were obscene beside the concrete names of villages, the numbers of roads, the names of rivers, the numbers of regiments and the dates.  Gino was a patriot, so he said things that separated us, but he was also a fine boy and I understood his being a patriot.  He was born one.

Well, whatever else a patriot might be, you are not born one.  You have to accept moulding and pledge active loyalty and devotion.  The narrator has learned the horrors of war from being involved in one, even if not as a fighting man, and a citizen, and therefore potential patriot, of any of the nations involved.

But less than twenty pages later, we get this from an American volunteer dealing with Italian soldiers – quite possibly conscripts.  They appear to be deserting. The American tenente orders them to come back.  They said he had no authority because he was not their officer.

‘Halt,’ I said.  They kept on down the muddy road, the hedge on the other side.  ‘I order you to halt,’ I called.  They went a little faster.  I opened up my holster, took the pistol, aimed at the one who had talked the most, and fired.  I missed and they both started to run.  I shot three times and dropped one.  The other went through the hedge and was out of sight.  I fired at him through the hedge as he ran across the field.  The pistol clicked empty and I put in another clip.  I saw it was too far to shoot at the second sergeant.  He was far across the field, running, his head held low.  I commenced to reload an empty clip.  Bonello came up.

‘Let me finish him,’ he said. I handed him the pistol and he walked down to where the sergeant of engineers lay face down across the road.  Bonello leaned over, put the pistol against the man’s head and pulled the trigger.  The pistol did not fire.

‘You have to cock it’, I said.  He cocked it and fired twice.  He took hold of the sergeant’s legs and pulled him to the side of the road so he lay beside the hedge.  He came back and handed me the pistol.

‘The son of a bitch,’ he said.

There you have that stern spare style.  ‘I shot three times and dropped one.’  Just as if he were shooting wooden ducks on a conveyor belt at the town fair.

But what has happened here?  An American is there in Italy as a volunteer ambulance man.  He is there to save people, not to kill them.  But he is concerned that soldiers – ‘real soldiers’ – are deserting ‘his’ side.  They are in truth showing a feeling to war that the narrator has just embraced.  He assumes the authority, which is challenged on obvious grounds, to order them to stop, and then he fires at them.

Whatever you might think of this, how do you describe ‘finishing’ the wounded man – who was born to some mother and who may leave a wife and children – as anything other than vicious murder?  Where does that leave the hero and narrator – or the author, who goes on as if nothing had happened out of the ordinary?  Was Himmler or Heydrich so clinical in describing the murders that he participated in?  How many novelists do you know who would be content to leave all this up in the air?

The child of the union is stillborn.

It seems she [Catherine, the nurse and mother] had one haemorrhage after another.  They couldn’t stop it.  I went into the room and stayed with Catherine until she died.  She was unconscious all the time, and it did not take her very long to die.


‘It was the only thing to do,’ he [the doctor] said.  ‘The operation proved – ’

‘I don’t want to talk about it’, I said.

‘I would like to take you to your hotel.’

‘No thank you.’

He went down the hall.  I went to the door of the room.

‘You can’t come in now’, one of the nurses said.

‘Yes I can I said’, I said.

‘You can’t come in yet.’

‘You get out’, I said.  ‘The other one too.’

But after I had got them out and shut the door and turned off the light it wasn’t any good.  It was like saying good-by to a statue.  After a while I went out and left the hospital and walked back to the hotel in the rain.

‘Like saying good-by to a statue’?  Is that all he has to show for the loss of his lover and mother of his child?

Sparseness in writing is one thing; being antiseptic is another; but heartlessness is altogether something different.  It is not then surprising if some readers – including me – are left cold, and fearing that they have just seen a victory of technique over humanity.

Why then is this book here?  This is a lovely and readable edition (even if the illustrations are awful); I have greatly enjoyed parts of this and other books by this author; and the acknowledged contribution of Hemingway to the literature of the twentieth century is such that it would have been churlish to have omitted him from a book such as this.

Here and there – Jude the Obscure


Jude Fawley is thoroughly decent.   He also wants to become learned and respected.  But he has doom written all over his face, and much more stridently than had either Romeo or Juliet.  He is at first seduced and then conned into marriage by Arabella Donn.  Arabella is anything but decent.  She is a tart who shoots through.  Jude then falls for his cousin, Sue Bridehead.  There are at least two problems – his marriage to Arabella, and the family relationship.  And Sue.  What is she about?  That is what the book is about.  Throughout my reading of this novel, a song my parents loved, I think sung by Eddie Cantor, kept on resurfacing.

If you knew Susie, like I know Susie,

Oh, Oh, what a gal!

There’s none so classy

As this fair lassie…..

You can see Thomas Hardy as the link between George Eliot and D H Lawrence.  There are also many times when this novel reads like Days of Our Lives.  And toward the end, a mordant slice of Wozzek hits you smack in the face from nowhere.  At times I wondered if the author’s mind was too fast for his pen.  The changes of tempi for the various star-crossed lovers can be very unsettling.  There are times, too, when you think that you may be watching a puppet show predestined by the coolest Calvinist.  Is Jude too innocent and vulnerable?  Is Arabella too predictably devious?  And will the mercurial Sue ever find peace?  And then there are times when the book just sounds alarmingly modern – and worlds way from Dickens

This is the start of Jude’s problems.

That night he went out alone, and walked in the dark self-communing. He knew well, too well, in the secret centre of his brain, that Arabella was not worth a great deal as a specimen of womankind. Yet, such being the custom of the rural districts among honourable young men who had drifted so far into intimacy with a woman as he unfortunately had done, he was ready to abide by what he had said, and take the consequences. For his own soothing he kept up a factitious belief in her. His idea of her was the thing of most consequence, not Arabella herself, he sometimes said laconically.

When Hardy spoke of Sue – and he should have known her – he referred to ‘the elusiveness of her curious double nature.’  She says she loves Jude but she has a hang-up about sex – or men generally.  Consequently, the two ‘lovers’ devote time and love to each other – without getting it off.  If Jude was bloody frustrated, so was I.  Sue was in mortal danger of being branded a teaser, but the strain on our credulity, or patience, can be severe.

You may often think that this was a book just written for Bette Davis – who made all those films that left you wondering why people wanted to torture themselves over ‘love’- with oodles of exclamation marks.

‘Yes… But Sue—my wife, as you are!’ he burst out; ‘my old reproach to you was, after all, a true one. You have never loved me as I love you—never—never! Yours is not a passionate heart—your heart does not burn in a flame! You are, upon the whole, a sort of fay, or sprite—not a woman!’

Jude has a philosophical disposition; in another life he may have been right into bondage.  And not many stonemasons can reel off Aeschylus.

‘Nothing can be done,’ he replied. ‘Things are as they are, and will be brought to their destined issue.’

She paused. ‘Yes! Who said that?’ she asked heavily.

‘It comes in the chorus of the Agamemnon. It has been in my mind continually since this happened.’

‘My poor Jude—how you’ve missed everything!—you more than I, for I did get you! To think you should know that by your unassisted reading, and yet be in poverty and despair!’

After such momentary diversions her grief would return in a wave.

(The ‘this’ is the Wozzek interlude.)

In the Preface, Hardy said that a German reviewer had said that the heroine – Sue Bridehead –

…..was the first delineation in fiction of the woman who was coming into notice in her thousands every year – the woman of the feminist movement – the slight, pale ‘bachelor’ girl – the intellectualized, emancipated bundle of nerves that modern conditions were producing, mainly in cities as yet; who does not recognise the necessity for most of her sex to follow marriage as a profession, and boast themselves as superior people because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.  (Emphasis added.)

The novel came out in 1894 – to uproar – but that absolute blinder of a line was written in 1912:….‘because they are licensed to be loved on the premises.’   That was when women were trying to come out – amid the blood and guts of a fearful partition.  And that I think is why the story of Sue Bridehead is so hard and chancy.  She was some sort of assault pioneer, and that sort of soldier takes heavy casualties.  Coming out, like breaking up, is hard to do.  Had a woman written this book, it may have been called Sue the Obscure.

For all its problems – especially for a bloke in this century – this book is an engrossing read.  And I have a soft spot for it for another reason.  It was the favourite book of the late John Arlott, a cricket commentator whose voice could be recognised instantly across the oceans, and who loved to get very deep with a bottle of red in his hand.



MY TOP SHELF – 50 – Beowulf


[These are serialised extracts of all the fifty books referred to in a book published in 2015 called ‘The Top Shelf, or What Used to be Called a Liberal Education’.  The extracts are as originally published, and they come in the same order.]


Seamus Heaney (translator)

Folio Society, 2010; bound in quarter burgundy buckram, with gold title and etching on cloth boards; gold trimmed pages; gold cloth slip case; illustrated by Becca Thorne.

So.  The Spear-Danes in days gone by

And the kings who ruled them had courage and greatness.

There is something about this poem Beowulf, which begins with the lines just quoted, that is at once mystical and elemental, misty but somehow internal.  It is as if we see ourselves but darkly, in some other plane.  It was composed in what we call Anglo-Saxon or Old English toward the end of the first millennium.  It was written in England about events in what are now called Denmark and Sweden.

Beowulf is a champion of the Geats.  He crosses the sea to help the Danes deal with a monster called Grendel.  He prevails, and then dies.  Like The Iliad, Beowulf ends with the funeral pyre of a hero.  If you like that kind of thing, you might see Beowulf as the missing link between The Iliad and Paradise Lost.

Great were the dangers to be overcome by Beowulf.

All were endangered; young and old

Were hunted down by that dark death-shadow

Who lurked and swooped in the long nights

On the misty moors; nobody knows

Where these reavers from hell roam on their errands.

So Grendel waged his lonely war,

Inflicting constant cruelties on the people,

Atrocious hurt.  He took over Heorot,

Haunted the glittering hall after dark

But the throne itself, the treasure seat,

He was kept from approaching; he was the Lord’s outcast.

These were hard times, heart-breaking….

Sometimes at pagan shrines they vowed

Offerings to idols, swore oaths

That the killer of souls may come to their aid

And save the people.  That was their way,

Their heathenish hope; deep in their hearts

They remembered hell.  (159-180)

It is hard to imagine someone better equipped to translate this great poem than the late Seamus Heaney, the distinguished Irish poet and scholar.

I came to translating Beowulf with a prejudice in favour of forthright delivery.  I remember the voice of the poem as being attractively direct, even though the diction was ornate and the narrative method at times oblique.  What I had always loved was a kind of foursquareness about the utterance, a feeling of living inside a constantly indicative mood, in the presence of an understanding that assumes you share an awareness of the perilous nature of life and are yet capable of seeing it steadily, and, when necessary, sternly.  There is an undeluded quality about the Beowulf poet’s sense of the world which gives his lines immense emotional credibility and allows him to make general observations about life which are far too grounded in experience and reticence to be called ‘moralising.’  These so-called ‘gnomic’ parts of the poem have the cadence and force of earned wisdom, and their combination of cogency and verity was again something that I could remember about the speech I heard as a youngster in the Scullion kitchen….The style of the poem is hospitable to the kind of formulaic phrases which are the stock-in-trade of oral bards, and yet it is marked too by the self-consciousness of an artist convinced that ‘we must labour to be beautiful.’

Here is some more of the remarkable poetry.

That great heart rested.  The hall towered,

Until the black raven with raucous glee

Announced heaven’s joy, and a hurry of brightness

Overran the shadows.  Warriors rose quickly

Impatient to be off; their own country

Was beckoning the nobles; and the bold voyager

Longed to be aboard his distant boat.  (1799-1807)

This is how Heaney saw the epic.

Grendel comes alive in the reader’s imagination as a kind of dog-breath in the dark, a fear of collision with some hard-boned and immensely strong android frame, a mixture of Caliban and hoplite.  And while his mother, too, has a definite brute-bearing about her, a creature of slouch and lunge on land if seal-swift in the water, she nevertheless retains a certain non-strangeness.  As antagonists of a hero being tested, Grendel and his mother possess an appropriate head-on strength.

The myth of the testing of the hero by a frightening instrument of evil is probably our favourite – right up to the movie Jaws.  But this epic is of interest to us also because it tells of the birth of our laws, in the replacement of the vendetta or blood-feud.

There was a feud one time, begun by your father.

With his own hands he had killed Heathaloaf

Who was a Wulfing; so war was looming

And his people in fear of it forced him to leave….

Finally I healed the feud by paying:

I shipped a treasure-trove to the Wulfings

And Ecgtheow acknowledged me with oaths of allegiance.  (459-473)

We might call this settling out of court.  It is not surprising that the scholar who trumpeted the claim of Beowulf to be taken as literature was named J R R Tolkien.

We learn that the object of the hero – as for Achilles – was to ‘gain enduring glory in a combat’ (1535/6).  It is right, then, that the poem ends with these lines.

They extolled his heroic nature and exploits

And gave thanks for his greatness; which was the proper thing

For a man should praise a prince whom he holds dear

And cherish his memory when that moment comes

When he has to be convoyed from his bodily home.

So the Geat people, his hearth companions,

Sorrowed for the lord who had been laid low.

They said that of all the kings upon the earth

He was the man most gracious and fair-minded,

Kindest to his people and keenest to win fame.  (3173-3182)

You do not need to crave immortality to see how the poet there speaks to all of us.  Heaney speaks of his ‘fondness for the melancholy and fortitude that characterised the poetry.’   He said that this poem has a ‘mythic potency’ that ‘arrives from somewhere beyond the known bourne of our experience, and having fulfilled its purpose…it passes once more into the beyond.’  Exactly – and is it not for this that we go to great writers?



Passing Bull 228 –Bull about paying the price


We don’t like paying tax but we don’t like bad roads or long waits to get into hospital or insufficient protection from the police.  It is the job of government to balance those impulses.  Most of the time, we get by, although some hiccups annoy us.  But for many reasons – including massive bribery – we can’t even get started sensibly on climate change.  Yes, people will lose money or jobs on restraining fossil fuel sources, but all the evidence is that the probabilities are that we will all be a lot worse off- especially those coming after us – unless we bite the bullet.  Most of Europe – including England – know this and are reacting.  But not us or the U S.  We cannot afford to pay the price. Indeed we elected a government that had expressly promised not to pay the price.  But balancing these contrary impulses is the first function of government.  No wonder our children and grand-children are in despair.

And the failure looks to be a failure of democracy.  MP’s from coal areas have far too much influence.  Some say the same about Christianity and abortion and assisted dying.

These failings came home to me reading about the abolition of the slave trade in England.  There was a massive cost to the English economy, and that was the basis of the opposition.  The parallel seems apposite.  But the English, driven by Evangelicals and Quakers, went ahead and prevailed.  Why?   Because that was the right thing to do.

We do look to be going backwards, and the backlash from those coming after us will be ferocious.


The low level of harm and the apology made by the Minister… to the Mayor…., along with the significant level of resources required to investigate were also factored in the decision [of the AFP not to investigate] not to pursue this matter.

AFR, 7 February 2020.

You know you are going bad when the rozzers say that there is only ‘a low level of harm’ when one politician alters a document to smear another politician.