Monthly Archives: April 2009

(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


‘The Judicial Bench in England 1727-1875’ by Daniel Duman


This book is a prosopographical study of the 208 men who ascended to the judicial bench in England  between 1727-1875.  “Prosopographical??” I hear you ask.   My Concise Oxford dictionary defines prosopography as

Description of person’s appearance, personality, social and family connections and career; study of such descriptions.

This is the second prosopographical work I have read, and I really quite enjoy it.  (I just want to show off that I can use such a word- I have no idea how to pronounce it, so I’ll just have to write it. )  The first was a book about the Colonial Office and the governors sent to the various colonies (Cell, 1970). Prosopography is not  so much descriptions of individuals, as a compilation of multiple biographies to develop a broad sketch of a particular career group.   The methodology uses biographies, memoirs, diaries, letters and personal papers to compile statistics about particular life events- birth place, birth order, schooling, occupation, place of residence, income, marital status etc.   From this emerges a picture of the “typical” judge or colonial governor which, although of course a generalization, helps to highlight the exceptional and anomolous.

Duman categorizes his judges into five separate time-spans of about 25-30 years which reflect social and professional changes occuring in Britain at the time.  He argues that, instead of being a ladder to success for men of lowly means, the law was always the preserve of upper middle-class and middle class men.  Landed gentry were not particularly attracted to it as a profession because, unlike the army or church, patronage was of limited use if you were incompetent.  There were more certain ways of maintaining one’s status without entering into the lottery of the law.  Likewise,  lowly families would not have been able to financially support their sons over the decade of insecure and poorly paid idleness, waiting until the briefs started to come in.

Although in the second half of the 19th century the law became more accessible to the sons of merchants and proprietors,  the ‘great public schools’ remained the educational nurseries, and Oxford and Cambridge (and later Dublin) remained the main universities attended.   The men on the bench may not have been so enmeshed in the landed gentry as they had been in the past, but they were just as much imbued with a belief in the sanctity of private property.

There is barely a mention of the colonial judiciary in this book: instead, these judges are the ones who succeeded ‘at home’.  Nonetheless, for colonial judges, the experience of the colonies and the nascent law administrations they encountered was laid over the formative, common experience of the bar back in Britain.

I find this broad-brush depiction of a designated profession in this book quite fascinating.  The statistics and generalizations are interspersed with particular case studies,  fleshed out with letters and diary entries.  The intent is to develop a profile of a class as a whole, which could be a reductionist, disembodying act, but the re-introduction of individuals back into this meta-biography returns it to the realm of the personal again.


John W Cell, British Colonial Administration in the Mid-Nineteenth Century: The Policy Making Process, 1970

Daniel Duman The Judicial Bench in England 1725-1875: The Reshaping of a Professional Elite, 1982.

The Elizabeth Street Creek

Melbourne has experienced two earthquakes in recent weeks.  They tell us that it’s due to geological activity around Korumburra, but don’t believe a word of it.  It’s not an earthquake: instead, it’s the sound of the Port Phillip fathers turning in their graves as they hear of a proposal to return Elizabeth Street in Melbourne to a creek bed.

The Age on Saturday invited a number of Melbourne worthies to respond to the question “What would you do for this city if you could?” releasing them from those pesky considerations of economic and political constraints.  Gilbert Rochecouste, described as a “planning mastermind” (who has escaped my radar completely, but apparently he’s the man who led the rejuvenation of Melbourne’s laneways), suggested opening up the concrete on Elizabeth Street and letting Williams Creek underneath flow free.

Actually, I hadn’t heard it referred to as “Williams Creek” before, but William Westgarth’s recollections confirm that it was previously known by this name.  The people of early Melbourne had other names for it too- “a jungly chasm” is particularly evocative.   The corner of Collins and Elizabeth Street seems to have been particularly treacherous.  Thomas Strode the newspaperman recalled in 1868

At almost every hour of the day may be viewed the interesting spectacle of drays being bogged in the muddy depths of Collins-street…We remember on [one] occasion a dray of bullocks were so hopelessly imbedded in a hole in Elizabeth-street, that the animals were allowed to stifle in the mud, and its being nobody’s duty to remove the nuisance, their remains with that of the dray, lie buried in that extemporary graveyard to the present day.  (cited in Annear p. 41)

Perhaps the reclamation of “Williams Creek” may uncover them!  It was obviously a pretty boggy area. Apart from Williams Creek, two other tributaries  ran  into Yarra.  “River Townend” which ran from the corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets  was named after Michael Townend, the ‘fat, comfortable-looking grocer’ on the south-west corner. “River Enscoe” ran from the north-west corner of William and Flinders street, and was named for the merchant John Enscoe who very nearly drowned in it.

Each winter “Lake Cashmore” would form on the doorstep of Michael Cashmore the draper who owned the shop on the northeast “Block” corner of Collins and Elizabeth Streets, described by Garryowen as “a large pool of stagnant water, not sufficiently deep to drown a man, but quite sufficient to half do it. ” (Garryowen p. 457)

During downpours of rain,  litter from the surrounding streets would pour into Elizabeth Street gully:

Pieces of timber, wisps of straw, waste paper, and corks, as they are borne past and beyond carpenter’s shops, stable yards, printing offices, or hotels, sufficiently indicate the character of the neighbourhoods from which they have been carried; corks come down into the main stream from every side.  From all the ‘rights-of-way’ they pour in crowds.  They rush out of the lower slums of Little Bourke Street, and from both ends of every street in the town, until they collect in a dense mass in the wide space between Collins Street and Flinders Lane, where they form a closely-packed army of bobbing bedouins… (cited Brown-May, p. 75)

Somehow the ‘bobbing bedouins’  of wine and champagne corks is a quainter image than a congealed mass of Big Mac wrappers.  Melburnians of a certain age will remember when Elizabeth Street flooded in 1972:  looking back, it seems remarkable that no-one drowned given the number of basement shops and subways there.


When the ravine was in full flood during the early years, the only safe place to cross it was at Lonsdale Street.  In 1880s Elizabeth Street became one of the first stormwater drains, carrying water from Carlton down to the river.   In the Stork Hotel at the top of Elizabeth Street (much loved for the late Dennis Prior’s dramatizations of the Greek myths), there used to be a series of photographs on the wall showing the raising of Elizabeth Street so that what had previously been the street-level bar became the basement.

All that engineering; all that technology!  What would the city fathers say?

Well, actually, one of them thought of it first. William Westgarth in his Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne wrote in 1888:

Melbourne missed a great chance in filling up with a street this troublesome, and as a street, unhealthy hollow… A reservation of the natural grass and gum-trees between Queen and Swanston street would have redeemed Melbourne up to the first rank of urban scenic effect and the riotous Williams might, with entire usefulness, have subsided into a succession of ornamental lakes and fish ponds.

Maybe all this earthquake activity is not the city fathers turning in their graves; perhaps it’s old Willie Westgarth slapping his knees and roaring with laughter that it has taken us 121 years to embrace his vision.


Robyn Annear, Bearbrass: Imagining Early Melbourne, 1995

Andew Brown-May Melbourne Street Life 1998

Garryowen Chronicles of Early Melbourne

Kirsten Otto Yarra: A Diverting History of Melbourne’s Murky River,  2005

William Westgarth Personal Recollections of Early Melbourne (e-text)

‘The Tall Man’ by Chloe Hooper


2008, 269 p

Chloe Hooper is obviously strongly drawn to this story.  It started as an essay “The Tall Man”  in The Monthly ; she returned to it in November 2006 with another essay “Who Let the Dogs Out?”. She revisited it more recently through a book review of Thea Astley’s ‘Multiple Effects of Rainshadow’ in  Sept 2008, and  again in a tangentially related story “Boxing for Palm Island” in the February 2009 edition of The Monthly.

Her book and related essays use the motif of the mythical figure of  The Tall Man to frame the story of the death in custody of Mulrunji, who died in police custody on Palm Island in 2004.  His death sparked inquests,  a riot, a court case and a re-opened inquest over a five year period. The story is not finished: nor do I think it ever will be.

Palm Island has had  a troubled history. It has been an Aboriginal mission station and viewed by its inhabitants as a penal settlement; it was used as a naval base during WW 2;  and a nearby island was set aside for sexually transmitted disease, then as a leper colony.   An early white administrator Robert Curry went berserk there in the 1930s, shooting his children after the death of his wife, a tragedy compounded by the arrest of the young aboriginal boy deputized by the white staff to kill Currey in order to protect the other inhabitants.  Fortunately, after six months remand, the young man was found not guilty.

As was Chris Hurley, the police officer accused of the death in custody of Mulrunji in 2004.  Drunk and abusive, Mulrunji was  arrested for causing a public nuisance.  An hour later he was dead in his police cell.  Death was found at autopsy to be caused by “an intra-abdominal haemorrhage caused by a ruptured liver and portal vein”.

This was the first trial of a police officer for a death in custody. Hooper spoke with Mulrunji’s family, sat with them at the trial and shared an umbrella with them in a tropical downpour.  She makes no secret of where her sympathies lie.   On the other hand, though, she is clear-sighted about the violence, drunkenness, poverty and hopelessness of life on Palm Island.  She could not get access to Chris Hurley, and in an attempt to understand him better, she travelled to where he had been posted earlier-  the ironically-named Doomadgee, and Burketown.

The inhabitants of Burketown, and the Queensland and Northern Territory police who closed ranks around Chris Hurley are dismissive of  ‘southerners’ with their caffe lattes and liberal ideas.  They’re right in one thing: people ‘down south’ don’t understand.  It churns up all the ambivalence that ‘southerners’ feel about John Howard’s intervention (continued by the ALP); our discomfort with the group of aborigines drinking under a shady tree on a naturestrip in a country town, or even here in St Kilda, Melbourne; our  conflicted feelings about David Gulpilil.  The world she describes here evokes Kurtz in Heart of Darkness, Maycombe County  in To Kill a Mockingbird.  Somehow it’s easier to slot it into a literary genre, rather than own it as part of your own country.

This is a gritty and challenging book.  It evokes Helen Garner’s work, where the author is right there in the story: questioning, weighing, judging.   As with Garner, as a reader you are always aware that the author is framing the narrative for you, and directing you to “look here”, “listen to this”.   Like Garner, Hooper declares her loyalties and feels angry and bemused.  I suspect that she will keep writing it, on and on, because the story itself goes on and on and on.

Not the Tim Tam surely…


Say it is isn’t so.   The Sydney Lord Mayor, it seems, has banned Tim Tams in case the chocolate is produced using child labour.  Not only Tim Tams, but also bottled water, fat-rich cakes, dairy desserts and “bad” fish species.  That’s it- no more Sydney Town Council functions for me.

But where to get a good nosh-up at a function these days?  Some ten years ago, in a dual-sector university where I worked, Arnott’s Cream Assorted were loftily derided by higher-ed staff as “TAFE biscuits”.  Nothing but danish pastries and blueberry mini muffins would do. Now we all  pounce avidly upon the Monte Carlo and- even better still- the Kingston with servile gratitude at such bounty.

Mind you, in my day ANY sort of chocolate biscuit was luxury, child labour or not.  I come from good home-cooking stock and can rustle up  chocolate chip biscuits, chocolate brownies, date loaf and my special lemon slice with nary a thought.  In fact, I am becoming increasingly aware, faced with tables of ‘bring a plate’ suppers all bearing their Coles labels, that home cooked biscuits and cakes are becoming quite endangered.

I have breathed Melbourne air for over fifty years and have never yet done a Tim Tam dunk.

At my age, I think it would be rather undignified.