Monthly Archives: April 2009

On TV tonight

And what will your Resident Judge be watching on television tonight? Rock + Roll Nerd on ABC 1 at 8.30.  that’s what.

I saw it late last year- here’s my response at the time.  I thought it was absolutely fantastic.

Pigs flew

We can all relax. There was a parliamentary delegation in Mexico City this week. Here’s a picture of them.


But, as Pixie-Anne Wheatley might say,  the real question on our tips and lips is


And our government, I hear, has stock piled two face-masks for every man, woman and child in Australia.  I wonder if that means we can wash one, and wear one?  Or do we keep one for good, and wear the other one while we’re just dagging around the house?

Reclaiming Anzac

I had hoped that the fetishisation of Anzac was a symptom of the Howard years, and that perhaps with a change of government, it might recede.   I think I’m about to be disappointed though: if anything it seemed just as fervent this year.

I’d been disconcerted by Rudd’s evocation of “The Anzac Spirit” at the bushfire memorial service– a characterization that was largely rejected by firefighters themselves, who under procedures revised after Ash Wednesday and the later fires in the Dandenongs,  deliberately withdraw from situations where lives are endangered- a luxury not extended to soldiers in battle.

ANZAC Day’s co-option by the AFL as a marketing opportunity is even worse. I was repulsed by the visits that AFL football teams made to the Shrine this week to soak up the ANZAC spirit to embolden them for the Anzac Day Round of football this weekend, and the pre-match images of war shown to players to gee them up for the game.  Mick Malthouse’s petulant response to Collingwood’s loss says it all:

I don’t think we played anywhere near (well enough) to capture the spirit of the Anzacs, and I think this is what makes this one of the most disappointing games I have ever been associated with…Unfortunately, I reckon we let the Anzacs down.  The whole game, not just (the final few minutes), the whole game, and Essendon showed true Anzac spirit, why we play here.

Some how, I don’t think the Anzacs themselves will be too fussed about the loss of a football game.  I’m sure that the diggers who played for Essendon before dying in war won’t feel too let down at all.  The whole solemn intoning of the sentimental nationalist pap before the ” invented tradition” of the fifteenth Collingwood/Essendon match (yep, that’s some tradition),  the marketing of the “Badge of Honour” football magazine,  and the crass slippage between “heroism in the trenches”  and “heroism in taking a mark” is manipulative and demeaning.

Thursday’s Age carried an edited version of a longer paper that Marilyn Lake delivered at Melbourne University’s free public lecture program hosted by the School of Historical studies. In this paper she challenges the funding of an ANZAC creation story provided  so generously by the Department of Veterans Affairs since 1996 that elides the controversy over involvement both during and after the war, that excludes on the basis of gender and race, and which silences other claims to Australian identity.

The comments posted to the Age website are revealing. Jack Jones, for instance, writes:

Typical academic perspective pandering to the lefty minority groups whilst ignoring the majority view and belittling past sacrifices made so she could actaualy be in a position to enjoy the opportunity to write such diatribe. Suggest you revisit your history lessons (if you had any) and go on a site visit to Gallipoli and see what it means first hand. Then come back and write an apology.

David Farmer writes:

Trust a left wing ‘academic’ to loose site of emotional reality! I’ve been to Galipoli and the sense of pride and spiritual emotion was enormous. It made me proud of our fallen hereo’s regardless of the success or idealogy that came with fighting for mother England. Time for a true blue Aussie reality check Marilyn Lake!

Yes,  Marilyn, it seems that you do have to go to Turkey to know what it means to be Australian, and learn some ‘real’ history while you’re at it, girlie.

In an otherwise worthy speech, the Governor-General has elevated our response to the ANZAC story even further beyond the call of national identity to that of  the spiritual:

We have a sacred trust to remain accountable to its legacy.

I’m not quite sure by whose authority it became “sacred”.

And all the shiny-eyed school children, brought to the Shrine breathlessly parrot that “the diggers at Gallipoli died for our freedom”.  Ah- freedom!- is that the same “Fridom” that G. W. Bush held aloft for us?  King, Country, Empire, British Liberty, Mum, my sisters, “the boys”, my house, our way of life– all these for sure, but “freedom” then didn’t necessarily mean the same as “fridom” now.

Although, having said that and to contradict myself completely – I was interested to see if “freedom” rhetoric was common during WWI. I went to the “Despatches from Gallipoli” section of the NLA site, and conducted a word search for “Freedom”  and found only a reference to press freedom in reporting the war, which seemed rather ironic.  But a word search of newspapers on the NLA website turned up this hither-to unpublished poem, written by a Mr Gilbert Crawford, a reader on the night staff of the Daily Mercury Office,  Mackay Qld- safely on home soil, but eager to encourage men to hear Freedom’s call.

I hear a voice a’calling and its note is one of pain

Don’t you hear that voice a’calling out to you?

Tis the voice of nations ravished, Freedom crushed and honor slain

Can’t you hear that voice a’calling out anew?


Don’t you hear that voice a’calling, calling clear as tocsin peal?

It is echoing throughout the whole world wide.

T’is the voice of Freedom calling from beneath the tyrant’s heel

The sons of Freedom calling to her side.

I hear a voice responding from the heart of sunny France

Don’t you hear her answer sent to Freedom’s call?

And the tenor of her message makes men’s pulses throb and dance

Have you no response to make to it at all?

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

I hear a voice responding and it sounds now loud, now low

Don’t you hear it in the shrieking Arctic wind?

T’is the Russian National Anthem, rolling o’er the fields of snow

And the might of Russia’s millions rolls behind.

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

I hear a voice responding by the Meditterean shore

Don’t you hear the sons of Italy reply

And ’tis swelling ever louder o’er the din and battle’s roar

As Freedom’s hymn goes mounting to the sky

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

I hear a voice responding from across the Atlantic waves

Don’t you hear them  as they come to play their part?

‘Tis the warsong sounding lustily of Canada’s proud braves

Don’t their warsong wake an echo in your heart?

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

I hear a voice come swelling o’er the burning desert sand

Do you hear the sons of Africa respond?

And a pealing echo answers it from India’s coral strand

Don’t these voices make your recreant heard despond?

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

Where the Southern Cross is beaming comes another voice that swells

Don’t you hear the answer of your own Home clime?

‘Tis the slogan of the Anzacs welling down the Dardenelles

And their war song echoes down the tide of Time.

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

And another voice comes pealing through the starry night

Don’t you hear the eager Banzai of Japan?

‘Tis the men of Nippon marshalling to battle for the right

Can’t these voices stir your soul to play the man?

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

Won’t you hear those voices calling, they are calling close and clear

Won’t you also take your place beside the brave?

To Freedom’s earnest pleading do you still turn a deaf ear?

Will you bear the coward’s brand into your grave?

Chorus: Don’t you hear that voice? etc…

I hear a voice that rises now supreme above them all

Don’t you hear it through the battle’s awful roar?

‘Tis the voice of Victory swelling up to Heaven’s highest hall

As the Tyrant’s ramparts fall, to rise no more.

Last chorus: Don’t you hear that voice a’calling, calling clear as tocsin bell

It is echoing through the whole world wide

‘Tis the voice of Freedom calling, and the notes of triumph swell

From the sons of Freedom rallied to her side.


No doubt, this is all part of the conscription debate of the time, and Freedom is depicted as a feminized  figure calling to the Allies at a national level,  even ‘the sons of Africa’ and those ‘from India’s coral strand’.   What ever it is, it’s not the personal freedom our “me-me-me” culture tells us we are entitled to.

I have been to the dawn service at the Shrine, and found it a sobering and yes, emotional experience.  In April 2003, I went with my teenaged children to a local ANZAC ceremony on the Gold Coast, where we were holidaying at the time.  With a heightened sense of being a nation contemplating war, I wanted to show my respect for older men and women who had responded- for whatever reason- to their country’s call for action.  I wanted to acknowledge the waste, the pity, the tragedy of war.  And so, it was with mounting anger that I sat as the gathering was harangued by the local RSL president about the commie hippies who were protesting Australia’s involvement in the war to find Saddam’s weapons of mass destruction that were going to destroy freedom for us all.  In the end, I stood up and left.

And I think that, for a while, I want to stand up and leave for Anzac Day generally as it is being manufactured and marketed at the moment.  I have not forgotten: I do respect.

Where’s that wrecking ball?


I see that the good people of Williamstown are concerned about the possible demolition of what they suspect might be Melbourne’s oldest house.  Judging by the McMansions in the background, it no doubt occupies valuable space.   The evidence for the 1842 date seems to be rather sketchy though- land could change hands several times in the efferversence of the early 1840s without an actual dwelling being built.  A search on the Heritage Victoria database records that Pope, who purchased it from James Cain in 1842, was a property-owner and eligible to vote in 1843.  However, many men had several parcels of property, and he could have qualified otherwise through other holdings.  The database gives an approximate date of 1855, presumably because the type of construction was common around 1850.  The 1856 rate book records it as a four room timber building.

Attached though I am to old things, I don’t know if I’d die in the ditch for it.  It needs so much work as to constitute an absolute re-build.   Its value as a curiosity, or as a reminder of times past could just as easily be achieved by shifting it to a park somewhere.

One building that I would have stormed the barricades for, though, was Redmond Barry’s house at 494 Bourke Street that was demolished in 1924.  (It must be a sign of age that I think of it as “only in 1924″ when it’s actually ninety years ago).   It was situated between Queen and Elizabeth Streets, on the north side of Bourke Street- then numbered as  97 Bourke Street West.  The five roomed, low-slung brick cottage with an old mulberry tree in the remnant of a garden would have stood as a reminder that there were people living in that section of  Bourke Street, at that time close to the hub of town,  as distinct from shopping or working in it.  There’s so much else in Melbourne that commemorates him as literally larger-than-life, and this brings the man back to a human scale.

You can see a painting of the house made in 1915, and a photograph of the house just prior to demolition.

But this building is long gone of course, so perhaps I should gird my loins to defend the Northcote Bowl.  Ugly, yes.  At one time ubiquitous, yes.  And, while not the first or only, it’s one of the last left standing in suburban Melbourne, yes.  There’s a sentimental glow about something from a hundred years ago, but it’s just as important- and more difficult- to fight for something forty years old that now violates every concept of good taste without yet attaining the gravitas of being ‘historical’.



Robyn Annear  A City Lost & Found: Whelan the Wrecker’s Melbourne

Update to the Williamstown house:

The Sunday Age of 30 August 2009 reported that the land will be auctioned on Sept 19 2009 and it is expected to bring about $1 million dollars and be developed as a townhouse project.  Heritage Victoria recently authorized the dismantling of the house.

“The dismantling will be recorded and it will form part of an archival record which will be lodged with the State Library, the National Trust and the Williamstown Historical Society” Heritage Victoria acting executive director Jim Gard’ner said.


The permit be directed that the parts of the house be “stored” at the owner’s discretion.   Apparently all fabric and any significant archaelogical items are to be removed and catalogued.

I think they could do better than this.  Somehow the documentation of the dismantling seems a rather inadequate response, and “at the owner’s discretion” is so wide that you could drive a truck through it.

‘Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51’ by Michael Roe

In his long epilogue to War and Peace, Tolstoy mused about the role of ideas in history.  He didn’t think much of  it: according to him,  it was “altogether impossible to agree that intellectual activity has controlled the actions of mankind”.  Michael Roe’s Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-51 , however, is just such a history of ideas.

In particular, Roe poses the question: as the penal nature of the Australian colonies subsided, what new form of power was to take its place?  Was it to be the charisma of an individual or a small group of men?  Virtuosity on the part of government? Or the dominance of a set of ideas? He plumps for the final one: the set of ideas he dubs ‘moral enlightenment’ which, he argues, provided an alternative vision of society to the one  presaged by the dominance of conservative forces in the early 1800s.  The  Church of England and the transplanted (albeit rather second-rate) landed gentry had been dealt with generously in the carve-up of land and authority in the penal years, and they could have shaped Australia into an antipodean replica of a paternalistic, authoritarian, static society.  But they did not succeed, and this book explores that failure.

Roe argues that the conservative forces of the Episcopal Church and the landed gentry were challenged by four main factors.  First was the squatting movement which eschewed the landed gentry’s emphasis on property ownership and paternalist responsibility for a more pragmatic use of the land without emotional attachment and without actually paying for it. The squatters vociferously resisted any form of authority which attempted to constrain them, and once attaining political power in the 1850s, became a staunchly conservative force in protecting their gains.   Second was the phenomenon of radical politics, part of the mental freight of free immigrants especially in the 1840s.  They brought with them a strong antipathy to taxation without representation, and by the late 1840s a distinct working-class political movement had emerged, eclipsing the earlier linking of  native-born ‘Australianism’ and the emancipist cause.  The third and fourth factors are different manifestations of religious expression: the Roman Catholic Church and Protestantism.   The Catholic Church, although not necessarily ‘liberal’ in its politics drew on a strong Irish tradition of resisting Anglican supremacy, and identified more with “have not” policies that championing the small man.  Protestantism, on the other hand, was more fractured than Catholicism, but shared its insistence on equal standing before the law.  It also injected an element of self-will and challenge to hierarchical authority.

These factors did not cause, but did support the intellectual and emotional attractiveness of the philosophy he calls (after the poet Charles Harpur) “moral enlightenment”.  This grew out of eighteenth-century thought, combining  Romantic, Protestant and liberal attitudes.  It drew on the utilitarian tenets of individualism,  rationality and progress, suffused with the Romantic ideals of a simple and optimist view of humanity and perfectability.

In Australian society it was manifested through the emphasis on generalized learning (Mechanics Institutes, debating societies etc),  a popular but not deep interest in science and technology, belief in progress, temperance,  voluntaryism and self-help.  To be sure, it was a transplanted derivative philosophy, common across the European and especially English-speaking world.  But it lent itself easily to the concept of a new start in a new country, where the absence of tradition was a boon rather than a handicap.

I was nudged into reading this book which I’d had on my to-be-read list for some time, by a friend’s negative response to it.  Where were the people? she asked- and certainly, there is a dizzying array of small-time largely forgotten colonial political activists, named but then passed over without a coherent narrative being drawn out of their individual contributions.  This name-dropping tendency seemed less obvious in the final part of the book, perhaps because his research on transcendentalism and temperance was deeper and more original, and there was less need to tip his hat to the men and times of  colonial politics that he assumed would be familiar to his readers.

I was looking for an exposition of Conservative colonial politics and the challenge to it in 1840s NSW society- and in that, I am satisfied.  I was hoping for a template into which  I could fit Judge Willis’ own political stance and in that I was frustrated.  That, however, reflects the man.  I also found myself wanting to go one step further back- “But where did moral enlightenment come from?”. It was, as Roe, admits a transplanted species, and I find myself wondering if this contest of ideas was played out across many colonial societies of the 19th century, or whether it was a particularly Australian challenge.


Michael Roe Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851, Melbourne, Melbourne University Press, 1965.

No Good Damper

While reading through the newspapers of 1840s Port Phillip, my attention has been arrested several times by the location called  “No-Good-Damper”.  The location seemed to attract malfeasants and scoundrels of all types: people were often being held up and robbed on the road, and the Plenty Valley bushrangers were sighted there.  So where is No-Good-Damper?  Why was it called that?

The No-Good-Damper hotel was located, apparently, near the present Springvale six-way junction where Dandenong and Centre roads converge.  For those who are topographically inclined, the longitude is approximately 145.16 and latitude 37.95.

The present-day Vale Hotel claims it as its forerunner.  The original licence for the No Good Damper hotel was granted to Christian Ludolph Johannes De Villiers on April 20 1841, and it seems to have changed hands several times- to William Scott who also had the licence for the Squatters Rest in April 1842 (they may have been the same hotel), and then to a Robert McGhee in May 1844 who may or may not have been the same person as Robert McKee who held the licence in April 1845.

It was a rather dangerous place to hang around.  The Port Phillip Herald of April 4, 1843  reports that Mr Bond of No-Good-Damper was the victim of an attempted robbery:

On Monday night week as Mr Bond of No-Good-Damper was returning home from Melbourne, and only a short distance from his house, he was suddenly commanded “to stand” by an armed man, who after demanding his money, and not waiting to see if the same would be delivered to him, struck Mr Bond a violent blow with a bludgeon, which, however, did not bring him to the ground, but being armed with a leaded riding whip, he quickly knocked down the ruffian, and before he could dismount a pistol was fired at him, the ball carrying away the brim of his hat, and shaving off a portion of the hair of his head.  Mr Bond made up to him with the intention of closing with him, but the villain took to his heels, and notwithstanding that he was pursued for a short distance he succeeded in getting clear off.

A year earlier, in April 1842, there had been another more daring raid by the Plenty Valley bushrangers, who were to later be sentenced to death by hanging by Judge Willis. On April 29th 1842 the Port Phillip Herald reported

In our last we reported some daring attacks, which have been recently made upon the stations of a number of settlers in the vicinity of Melbourne, since which we have learned the particulars of another outrage committed, it is presumed by the same banditti, upon Captain Gwatkin of the ‘Scout’ at present in our harbour, and Mr F. Pittman.  On Wednesday evening as these gentlemen were proceeding in a gig to the station of the Messrs. Langhorne at Dandenong, they were stopped at about seven o’clock, a mile and a half on this side No Good Damper, or about twelve miles from Melbourne, by four men heavily armed both with guns and pistols, three of the gang being well mounted and the other on foot.  They immediately ordered Messrs. Gwatkin and Pittman to get out of the gig and strip off their clothes, which of course they were compelled to do, as during the time the guns were held cocked at their heads, and threats of instant death pronounced should they disobey orders.  The clothes were minutely rifled, and from those of Captain Gwatkin were taken 21 pounds in Launceston notes, of which 3 were fives and the remainder ones, 33 pounds of the Melbourne Banks, of which five were fives, also four sovereigns and a half, a quantity of silver, and a few coppers, amounting in all to 63 pound 1s. 8d.  They returned 5s to Mr Pittman “to pay for his bed at No Good Damper”, but upon being remonstrated with by Captain Gwatkin, who said that having got such a handsome booty they might have the generosity to return a sovereign to pay his expenses until his return to town, they very cooly informed him that he could go to sea and make more, and to think himself safe they did not blow his brains out; they had at first demanded and learned his name.  The horse was next taken out of the gig; the harness, with the exception of the bridle was taken off; and Mr Pittman ordered to assist the ruffian on foot to mount thereon, when the whole party rode off at a brisk pace. Messrs. Gwatkin and Pittman proceeded on to No Good Damper, from which they immediately despatched a messenger to town with the intelligence; and on coming into town yesterday morning they called at Mr Le Mann’s near the place where they were robbed, and were informed that about 8 o’clock the previous evening, four men paid him a visit, “bailed up” two men who were in his hut, forced a woman to make them some tea, helped themselves to two saddles, one for the horse they had taken out of the gig, and the other for one of the horses on which they had previously only a saddle cloth, gave a boy 1s. 7d. for holding their horses, and decamped.

How  did this salubrious location get the name No-Good-Damper?  Let’s be charitable and go with the explanation given to the editor of the Argus on 9 September 1924:

Sir: In the interesting article “The Gippsland Mystery” on Saturday by Ernest McCaughan it is stated that a party of five whites and ten blacks were sent out under the leadership of De Villiers, an ex police officer who kept the extraordinary named No Good Damper Inn.  Apropos of this, a story was related to me by the late Robert Rowley, then of Rye (a very old colonist who had known Buckley, the wild white man). The story, which may be of interest, is that about the year 1840 lime was being burnt about Sorrento and Rye.  A layer of sheoak logs was laid on the ground, then a layer of limestone.  Another layer of logs, then again stone, and so on, until there was a considerable stack.  Fire was next applied.  By this rough and ready, though wasteful system, lime used in the building of early Melbourne was then burned.  The lime was then “slacked”, afterwards sieved through a fine sieve, and forwarded to Melbourne by ketch.  One of these old windjammers had the misfortune to go aground near the site of Frankston.  The lime was taken off  undamaged, stacked, and carefully covered a little way from the shore. A number of blacks were in the vicinity.

They had some little experience of the white fellow’s flour.  When they found the lime, sieved and done up in small bags under a tarpaulin, they were sure they had got the genuine article in plenty.  So they mustered in force, took away all they possibly could and fearing pursuit did not stop running until they put about 12 miles between them and the stack of lime.  The blacks then mixed their flour with water upon their ‘possum rugs and put the dough in the ashes to bake, the result being spoiled rugs and bad damper.  In the words of Mr Rowley, “they called that place Dandenong” which means “no good damper”.

Yours &c J. L. Brown, Sandringham Sept 8.

And now for the slightly less cheery version, courtesy of Edmund Finn (Garryowen) p. 963.

There is a place near Dandenong called “No good Damper”, and the origin of this name is very laughable.  The proprietor of a small store there had occasion to be sometimes away from home, and the Aborigines, who had a great weakness for flour and mutton, stole a quantity of some flour, but the storekeeper said he would be even with the blacks.  So he got a couple of bags of lime from Melbourne, and made them do duty for the flour at his next absence. “Blacky” called again, but instead of flour purloined a bag of lime, and left in great glee. On arriving at their quambying ground they commenced baking operations, when on mixing water with the supposed flour, they were horrified to find it fizz, and fancing the white man’s “debble debble” was about to bewitch them, they ran away yelling “No good damper, no good damper.”  So thus the phrase took, and so the storeman’s place is named to this day.  The flour was never troubled after.  Arsenic, is said to have been often mixed with flour for the special use of the blacks at more than one of the stations in the then wild interior.

Ah, yes, a laughable little story indeed.

And George Dunnerdale, who wrote ‘The Book of the Bush’ in  1893  wrote:

It was near Caulfield on the Melbourne side of  “No Good Damper swamp”.  Some blackfellows had been poisoned there by a settler who wanted to get rid of them.  He gave them damper with arsenic in it, and when dying they said “No good damper”.  (p. 276)

Would it have been possible at the time to pass off a deliberate poisoning as a “laughable” little anecdote, or even then would it have to have been disguised in some way?  Certainly, several of the settlers who came before Judge Willis made no secret that they had shot aborigines who had “trespassed” on their land, or in retribution for stock deaths. And even now, you could be sitting in the comfort of your twentieth-century car passing “Murdering Gully” near Camperdown or   Massacre Hill near Port Campbell.

For what-ever reason, though, “No Good Damper” seems to have slipped away as a place-name, even though it was used quite freely in the early 1840s.  I wonder what would be the response if we tried to revive it?

One size fits all at the one stop shop

When we are forced to grapple with the hydra of a government department, we are assured that it won’t be so bad because we can go to a one-stop shop.  This is a good thing, presumably.  No more traipsing from one bureaucracy to another, telling our pathetic little tale over and over again to a succession of nameless public servants.

But what won’t we get at the one-stop shop?  Why, one-size-fits-all. One-size-fits-all is a bad thing, presumably.  It flaps around you, engulfing you in one-sizeness and, truth be told, fits nobody.  Oh, no- we’re all special and different, and no one-size-fits-all for us!!

Personally, I am quite fond of the one-size-fits-all.  Being a woman-of-a-certain-age, and a woman-of-a-certain-size, it’s quite a relief to think that I, too, can wear the same one-size-fits-all outfit as a young gel should I wish so to do.  No  more struggling into fitting rooms bearing an armful of the same garment in an optimistic size 14, a grudging size 16 and a depressing size 18. Why no!  One-size-fits-all! If it doesn’t fit, sweetie, bad luck!

(Im)moral accounting

On last night’s ABC news, I noticed a rather chilling form of accounting going on.  Recent weeks have seen an increase in the number of  “unauthorized arrivals”/”asylum seekers”/”boat people” coming into Australian territorial waters. The terminology varies,  and I sense but am not attuned to the nuances in the different phrases.  It is part of a world-wide phenomenon, and one that comparatively, Australia is largely insulated from.  But we have a particular sensitivity to the image of hordes sweeping down and ravaging our solitary continent, sharpened perhaps by the inflexibility and cockiness borne of being an island nation, freed from the messy necessity of sharing borders with any one else.

And so to the news this week of the fire aboard one of the boats.  The West Australian Premier’s rapid assertion that the boat was deliberately doused with petrol evoked a sinking feeling of deja vu,  to the subminal soundtrack of  “We will decide….”.  I feel a hot prickle of embarrassment when I think of Australia’s refugee policy over recent years, a shame-faced acknowledgement that we have not acted with the fairness or generosity that we would like to claim for ourselves, but also feel wooden-tongued and at a loss to find the words or the prescription for a more principled stance.

However, as a result of the fire on board,  the ABC news told me – let’s call it all ‘x’ as good mathematicians seem to do- X men were airlifted to Broome hospital, X to Darwin and X to Brisbane.  X number of doctors had been called in for duty; X ambulance crews scrambled, X nursing teams assembled to provide intensive care.

In a society with finite goods and resources in the health sector, there is of course a form of rationing going on all the time.  The whole Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme is based on it;  it underpins the question of funding for IVF treatment.  It is reflected the bemoaning in today’s Sunday Age of the arrival of ravers  who had overdosed on GHB while hospitals were on high-alert for the arrival of more innocent burns victims from Black Saturday.

But, rightly, all this accounting goes out the window in an emergency, when our shared humanity is at stake. As London bombing survivor Gillian Hicks reminded us just this week, kindness was extended to her , irrespective of colour, nationality, religion because she was a person who needed help.   No-one was standing at the door, counting the doctors and nurses and totting up the figures when burns victims were being airlifted from Bali.  “What ever it takes!!” the politicians vowed after the Victorian bushfires.

Ah, but that’s ‘us’; not ‘them’.

War and Peace, Hedgehogs and Foxes


So, do people ever read another novel after they’ve read War and Peace?  They must, I suppose, although having just finished it, I find myself wondering how anything else could come close to it.

This is not the first time I’ve approached the “big baggy monster” but it’s the first time I’ve completed it.  It really is not a difficult book, once you overcome the fear of losing track of the names and their variations.  And for someone who only vaguely remembers seeing Anthony Hopkins in the BBC version many, many years ago, it surprised me in many ways.

The first surprise, but one that I was prepared for, was Tolstoy’s  sheer virtuosity in assembling such a range of all-too-human characters: blustering and self-centred old patriarchs, twitty young gentlemen, loving mothers and daughters,  earnest searchers after truth, militarized young soldiers.  He  doesn’t just assemble them: he peels them bare, exposing selfishness, pride, confusion and insecurity.  He goes to the heart of the myriad petty concerns that make up our consciousness- our pride in hospitality in throwing a function just like everyone else’s;  the act of falling in love with your baby; the flush of hero-worship,  the cold stripping-down of betrayal.   If we ever needed to be reminded, this is what it is to be human.

The second surprise for me was the striding onto this stage of real historical figures.  I knew that the book was “about” Napoleon, but I didn’t expect to see him there- or Tsar Alexander, or Kutuzov.

And a third, related surprise was how much this book was about the writing of history.  Throughout the novel, again and again, Tolstoy struggles against the concept of the “great man” and causality in history- indeed this is how the book finishes, which I found unsettling.  It’s as if, after lowering his microscope down to examine the individual, he leans back in his chair and scans the heavens with a telescope.  What’s he saying here? I don’t know if even he knows:  that events don’t lie with great individuals; there is no great plan or immutable set of laws ; there is no causality.  There is just the innate goodness of simple man, with all the rest stripped away.

So, it was with interest that I picked up Isaiah Berlin’s 80-page  essay The Fox and the Hedgehog (PDF full-text).  He takes up a fragment of text from the Greek poet Archilochus: ” the fox knows many things but the hedgehog knows one big thing”.  With some trepidation (and ignoring the dire necessity for a full stop), Berlin divides the big thinkers into hedgehogs  and foxes:

…there exists a great chasm between those,  on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of what they understand, think and feel- a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all they they are and say has significance- and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without, consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.  The first kind of intellectual and artistic personality belongs to the hedgehogs, the second to the foxes: and without insisting on a rigid classification, we many, without too much fear of contradiction, say that, in this sense, Dante belongs to the first category, Shakespeare to the second; Plato, Lucretius, Pascal, Hegel, Dostoevsky, Nietzsche, Ibsen, Proust are all, in varying degrees, hedgehogs; Herodotus, Aristotle, Montaigne, Erasmus, Moliere, Goethe, Pushkin, Balzac, Joyce are all foxes.  (p. 2)

But what about Tolstoy?  Berlin hesistates.  He suggests that Tolstoy was by nature a fox, but believed in being a hedgehog, and that the long sections where Tolstoy grapples with issues of the writing of history are where his own inner conflict between what he was and what he believed emerges.   Based on evidence of Tolstoy’s own reading during the writing of War and Peace, he draws a counterintuitive link between the reactionary, aristocratic and arch-conservative views of  Joseph de Maistre and Tolstoy’s own scepticism of intellectualism and empiricism.  Both de Maistre and Tolstoy lash out at the intellectual and political props that fail to explain how things are as they are. But while Maistre turns back to the Catholic Church and the monarchy to provide certainty, Tolstoy turns to the “immemorial wisdom” of peasants and the simple folk, who alone have the knowledge of how to live.

Although unable to express it with the same elegance as Berlin, I found myself thinking much the same thing about Tolstoy on history. He tells us that the ‘great man’ is a nationalist myth;  that our selecting one from a multiplicity of so-called causes is only confirmed by later events; that power lies not in the ‘strong’ individual but the collective acquiescence of the mass;  that the closer we are to events the more determined they seem and yet we cling vainly to the chimera of ‘free will’. He slashes at these fallacies, and then, when they all lie lopped at his feet, he steps away from them into an almost-mystical embrace of the simple peasant and the truly good life.

And how does this fit in with the intimate, rawly psychological drama of Pierre, Natasha, Prince Andrei, Princess Marie that Tolstoy lays out before us?  How does the fug of domesticity fit in with the grand sweep of Napoleon, Moscow, Bordolino?  This,  Berlin writes,

is the great illusion which Tolstoy sets himself to expose: that individuals can, by the use of their own resources, understand and control the course of events.  Those who believe this turn out to be dreadfully mistaken.  And side by side with these public faces- these hollow men, half self-deluded, half aware of being fraudulent, talking, writing, desperately and aimlessly in order to keep up appearances and avoid facing the bleak truths- side by side with all this elaborate machinery for concealing the spectacle of human impotence and irrelevance and blindness lies the real world, the stream of life which men understand, the attending to the ordinary details of daily existence.  When Tolstoy contrasts this real life- the actual, everyday, ‘live’ experience of individauls- with the panoramic view conjured up by historians, it is clear to him which is real, and which is a coherent, sometimes elegantly contrived, but always fictitious construction. (p.19)

But, Berlin argues, Tolstoy was unable to reconcile the two, either through logic or through emotion and will, and this was his own intellectual and existential tragedy.  By nature a sharp eyed fox, he looked for a harmonious universe but found only disorder.

Tolstoy was the least superficial of men: he could not swim with the tide without being drawn irresistably beneath the surface to investigate the darker depths below… Tolstoy’s sense of reality was until the end too devastating to be compatible with any moral ideal which he was able to construct out of the fragments into which his intellect shivered the world, and he dedicated all of his vast strength of mind and will to the lifelong denial of this fact. (p.81)

In the news 14 April 1843

The Port Phillip Herald of 14th April 166 years ago has its usual lengthy report of the Town Council proceedings of that week.   The newly-minted Council must have been a god-send to newspapers looking for material to fill their columns.  In tedious detail are written the motions put forward, the speeches given while presenting and seconding the motions, speeches against, objections etc. etc.  Not that there was much action from the council, though.  Judge Willis had protested against the legality of its incorporation, rendering it unable to collect rates and hence hobbled in actually doing much.

As part of their ineffectual bluster, on 14th April 1843 Councillor Stephen (long time opponent of Judge Willis) rose to put forward a motion.  The Council, he said, acted something like a Grand Jury (something that Judge Willis might not have agreed with), and it was within its rights to offer  suggestions to the Government.  In this spirit, he noted that Judge Willis had often commented on the dearth of spiritual education in the gaols.  There were 840 prisoners per annum incarcerated in the gaol,  but only 213 visits by the clergy.  He gave a breakdown of these visits by denomination:  77 visits by the Roman Catholic clergy; 65 by the Episcopalians;  48 by the Presbyterians and 25 visits by the Wesleyans.   He proposed that a sum be put aside for chaplains’ visits, which should be divided amongst the clergy according to the frequency of their visits.

His fellow councillors did not agree.  Cr. Smith (who was himself an Episcopalian) argued that one chaplain should be appointed by the government to the position.  Cr. Fawkner (Congregationalist) was appalled at the idea that an Episcopalian chaplain might minister to a Presbyterian or a Catholic, and bridled at the idea of a government church.  Cr Kerr said that in Sydney,  Gov Bourke’s Church Act notwithstanding,  Episcopalian chaplains only were appointed to preach to convicts and those on the chain gangs.  However, he thought it was none of the Council’s business.   And in the end, the motion was put but defeated.

Let’s unpack this a bit.  Cr Stephen was right in saying that Judge Willis had been agitating for better religious education in the jails for some time.  The Port Phillip Herald of 29 November 1842 reports Willis stating from the bench that he did not know how, in his conscience, he was justified in sending a prisoner to a place beyond the reach of all religious instruction, and bemoaning  that despite his utmost exertions to get the services of a chaplain at the gaol in Melbourne, he had not been successful.  Certainly he had been lobbying privately to Governor Gipps, although his requests at first had been for a paid position for Rev Thom(p)son, his own Episcopal minister (and incidentally, a steadfast supporter of the Judge) who had been providing these services previously without charge.   He changed tack some six months later, decrying the neglect of religious education in jail and noting that under English law, prisoners were entitled to the benefit of a resident chaplain.  He pointed out that the Sydney gaol had recently  allocated funding of 30 pounds per annum for one chaplain, with two additional chaplains receiving 25 pounds.

The issue of whether there was to be an ‘established’ Church in Australia was a fraught one.  As Michael Roe argues in The Quest for Authority in  Eastern Australia 1835-51, the Church of England was one of the bastions of  conservatism in early New South Wales.   Governor Bourke’s Church Act gave subsidies to the main religious denominations, thus granting legal equality between the churches.  Nonetheless, the battle over Anglican establishment continued, albeit in smaller arenas- like prison chaplains. Judge Willis, who was not backward in his vehement criticism of the Roman Catholic church,  seemed to be lending his support- at least at first.

The prominence of the chaplains in execution rituals is striking, but not unexpected.  After all, the law drew its legitimacy for capital punishment not only from the State, but also from religious justifications involving eyes and teeth.  The first executions in Port Phillip, of the aborigines Bob and Jack, were conducted with the oversight of Rev Thompson, while the bushranger executions later in 1842 involved all three chaplains:  the Episcopalian Rev Thompson; the Presbyterian Rev Forbes and the Roman Catholic Fr. Fogarty.  The chaplains visited the condemned men, prayed with them, accompanied the coffins and accused men in the parade to the execution spot;  even physically escorted them and helped them up to the scaffolds.  Their reports of their charges’ penitence and contrition fed into the script of the ritual, published in minute detail for the newspaper public.

So, if Judge Willis was unsuccessful in lobbying for paid chaplains, and if the Council motion lapsed, what happened next?  Garryowen tells us that on 1 January 1847, funding was finally allocated for paid chaplain positions.  Rev. A. C. Thom(p)son and the Roman Catholic priest Rev. J. J. Therry both shared 25 pounds per annum for chaplaincy services to the gaol.


Michael Roe The Quest for Authority in Eastern Australia 1835-1851