Dulce et decorum est – the death of Wilfred Owen

Poet Wilfred Owen died on 4 November 1918 – seven days before the guns fell silent. The centenary of his death was marked in the village where he died by a ceremony in which the Last Post was played on a bugle Owen took from a German soldier killed during the battle to cross the nearby Sambre-Oise.

A poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon of Liverpool to all the “doomed youth” of all wars. Lest we forget …

On the road to the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

Ors Communal Cemetery, the last resting place of Wilfred Owen

See also in Into That Howling Infinite,: In the dark times, will there also be singing?, a selection of poetry compiled by Gerry Cordon around the theme of “undefeated despair”

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The Oz’s lonely crusade for Western Civilization

In June, Into That Howling Infinite published a piece that discussed a subject that was causing many conservative commentators to lose their beauty-sleep:  Western Civilization and the long dark tea-time of The Australian’s soul.  I wrote at the time:

“Australia’s national broadsheet (that is, published nationally rather than in a particular state) The Australian, owned by expatriate Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation, is indulging in a mighty bout of shadow boxing on the subject of whether or not western civilization is or isn’t in decline in our antipodean Elysium. Shadow boxing in the sense that it preaches largely to the converted on a subject that is close to the heart of its opinionistas, and of little consequence to the public at large. Its adversary is that will ‘o the wisp otherwise know as the ‘green-left’ that has set up a virtual red commune in the our universities and the soviet that is our national broadcaster. Take the question of whether the Australian National University should have accepted money from a private body to establish a course in Western civilization aimed at educating a new generation of potential movers and shakers in the cultural foundations of our society. This argument has swept the pages of the conservative media like a wildfire with, it must be said, more heat than light. In the outrage industry it is hard to recall an episode that has generated, well, more outrage”.

As an hour of reckoning draws closer with respect to the Ramsay Centre’s intellectual monument to the virtues of Western Civilization, The Australian is still battling its demons with its staunch defense of this noblest of causes. None more resolutely than its latter-day Madame Défarge Janet Albrechtsen whose succinct summary of the academic left’s opposition to the course is : “White: bad. West: evil. No learning, no debate but lots of unshakable victim-hood”.

Since the phoney “culture war’ erupted six months ago, clearer heads have outed the motives of the opposing teams. The left thinks members of the Ramsay board, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, are using it as an ideological Trojan horse, a nag that is Anglo-centric, Christian, white, and, predominately, male. The right considers the the opponents’ outrage is yet more more evidence that left-wing group think has overtaken our university campuses. And yet, even without the controversy sparked by the Ramsay board’s perceived politics,  there is nevertheless unease among some academics about creating a new course focusing on Western and mainly antique works whilst Australia’s community becomes increasingly multicultural and socially polyglot.

This piece takes up where the last left off …

When negotiations between the Ramsay Centre an the Australian National University down last  May, the prestigious University of Sydney entered the ring. In June, one of The Australian’s Inquirer’s editors must have thought, “perhaps we ought to get someone with intellectual heft to have a shot at this”, to which another replied, “Hey, why don’t we get the professor to write something?” So they call ‘national treasure’ historian Geoffrey Blainey and ask him to put his epaulette-laden shoulder to the conservative wheel. The good professors thinks, “Blimey! I don’t have much to say about this storm in a tea cup, but to keep The Oz happy and earn some beer money, I’d better rustle something up”.

And so we got another couple of thousand word in defense of the, well, by now tired old debate, as the acclaimed conservative historian weighed in with a longish piece that actually added very little to this bonfire of the inanities. He did, however, make a few interesting but with regard to the subject at hand, irrelevant observations.

“Nothing has done so much to transform the world in the past 400 years as Western civilisation. It is a main cause of the rise of democracy, the spread of education, the dissemination of Christianity to new continents and the flowering of various fine arts. Yet another gift — thanks to Western medicine — is that billions of human lives are enhanced and prolonged. These gains are part of what we call Western civilization. Yet this is the civilization that most Australian universities are ceasing to study in depth or, if they do study it, often reach hostile or unsympathetic conclusions.

“Much of (the ANU’s) income is from Asian parents who attach invisible strings to their financial support. Chinese citizens might not send their sons and daughters to the ANU if it preached worrying messages about China and its history, and various other overseas citizens would be offended if Islam were heavily criticized in ANU lectures … It was little known until this month that one ANU department received large sums from Turkey, Iran and Dubai. Would the same money arrive next year if Israel suddenly became the more favoured nation in ANU books and articles?”

“But Western civilisation is not Eurocentric. Even in origins it owes a heavy debt to the Old and New Testaments — and they are Asian, not European, books in origin…The fact is that science and technology dominate the mainstream of Western civilisation, and they are the dynamic, not conservative, fields of knowledge. A … course in Western civilisation cannot be confined to Europe. Printing as an infant technology came from East Asia to Europe, where it was improved, with dynamic effects. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the ultimate mainsprings of democracy, owed much to the printing press. The slow rise of democracy and the rise of mass education owed much to the printing press and cheap paper.

“There are few grounds…for the idea that a Ramsay-type course simply would be preaching the benefits of Western civilisation. It will gain legitimacy only if it weighs on the same scales the defects as well as merits of the changing civilisation in which we live”.

A week later, the cauldron was bubbling stilll. This time, it was the turn of Greg Sheridan, Cardinal Pell admirer, Tony Abbot aficionado, devout Catholic nostalgist, but otherwise competent and cogent veteran writer of foreign affairs. And former NSW premier, ex-foreign minister, American Civil War tragic, and longtime bush-walker Bob Carr, a self-confessed interrogator of “the canon” who surrendered the premiership out of ennui. We publish Sheridan’s artiucle below, after that of the good professor.

But first, welcome reality checks by the Herald’s Jacqueline Maley and Jordan Baker.  In short, our hyperventilating culture warriors ought to get out more often and hang out with the oi polloi.

Jordan Baker, Education Editor, 27 October 2018

If negotiations succeed, the first of the University of Sydney’s Ramsay scholars will file into their classrooms in February 2020. There will be six to eight of them in each class, mostly fresh-faced 18- and 19-year-olds armed with sky-high ATARs, big dreams, and dog-eared copies of Homer’s Iliad, which is usually the first text dissected in a course on Western tradition.

They’ll chat about their selection interviews, their scholarships – up to 40 of them will get about $30,000 a year – and the other subjects they are studying. They may well talk about the outcry over their course, too, which probably intensified as their first day drew near; everyone they know would have had an opinion on their controversial choice of major.

They will graduate three years later with what the chief executive of the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, Simon Haines, believes will be an education “in the old and important sense. What this course is supposed to be teaching you is to be a more thoughtful, more reflective, more articulate, more authentic, more self-possessed citizen, parent, friend, or member of the community.”

Negotiations may not succeed. The University of Sydney last week revealed the terms on which it would accept the Ramsay Centre’s millions, but there’s no guarantee the centre’s board, led by former prime minister John Howard, will agree to them. If it does, the university will begin drawing up a curriculum for the first significant Great Books course in Australia.

Such courses are an American creation, established in the 1920s to revive the concept of a broad education amid increasingly narrow focus on disciplines. Many have survived; there’s Columbia’s Core Curriculum, Yale’s Directed Studies, and Reed College’s Humanities 110.  “The great book model was founded on the idea of independent thinking,” says Salvatore Babones, a US-born assistant professor in sociology at Sydney University.

Students discuss the themes that have recurred in great works of literature from “Plato to NATO” across philosophy, history and literature. They might discuss the concept of duty as argued by Aristotle, Cicero and Immanuel Kant; or revenge across The Iliad, Othello and Milton’s Paradise Lost.

Their teachers use the Socratic method. “Students are encouraged to disagree with each other with the gentle mediation of an experienced teacher,” says Haines. The classes are intellectually intense and so small that they leave nowhere for students to hide.

Some Great Books courses don’t want specialists teaching texts, and might enlist a philosopher to teach Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War, for exampleinstead of a Greek historian. “A specialist wants to get into discipline-specific debates,” says  Babones. “But the idea is not to get the ‘right’ understanding of the book, it’s to explore the book.” St John’s College in Annapolis in the US, which teaches only Great Books, believes that providing historical and social context is ideological, and unnecessarily distorts students’ independent thought.

But like Ramsay’s proposed course, US liberal arts courses have faced controversy. In the late 1980s, protesters argued that Stanford’s Western civilisation courses perpetuated European and male biases. Civil rights activist Reverend Jesse Jackson joined protesters chanting, ‘Hey hey, ho ho, Western civ has got to go.” Stanford cut the course,  and an attempt by conservative students to reinstate it two years ago failed. More recently, students at Reed University protested in Humanities 101 lectures, arguing the course is too white, too male, too Euro-centric, and ignored how the texts might been used to perpetuate violence against people of colour.

Great Books courses are not entirely new in Australia;  Sydney University already has one. But it is open only to Dalyell Scholars, elite students who’ve achieved an ATAR of 98 or above. Students can study it for two semesters, reading 12 texts over the year. A Ramsay-funded course would be far more ambitious, says Professor Peter Anstey, a senior advisor to the university during negotiations with the Ramsay Centre

'Puerile' culture war battering Ramsay Centre negotiations, says Sydney Uni boss

Instead of 12 texts over one year, there would be 30 over three, with the option of an honours year. “What we are proposing is an undergraduate major that is six times the size of that [existing] course,” he says. “If we did get funding, our course in Western tradition would not just be a Great Books course. We would also teach students the skills for analysis and interpretation and so on. It’s a quantum leap from what we are currently doing.” The university would use subject specialists, some of them inter-disciplinary, to run the courses’ tutorials. “However, it might all fall over,” Anstey says. “We don’t know.”

When the Ramsay Centre first invited Australian universities to apply for two or three Western civilisation degrees late last year, funded from part of a $3 billion bequest from late healthcare magnate Paul Ramsay, it posted an example of a potential curriculum on its website. The University Sydney would draw up its own, but Ramsay’s is indicative. Students would begin with Homer, Sappho and Euripides, then move through the classical historians to Chaucer, Augustine and Machiavelli. In later years they would study Marx, W.E. Du Bois, and Patrick White. They would study female writers, but only a handful including Virginia Woolf and Jane Austen.

Some Sydney University academics don’t think much of that curriculum. “It’s largely about the conversation between modern English and German writers about the Graeco-Roman classics,” says Bruce Gardiner, a senior lecturer in the Department of English. “However much the university may massage the syllabus, its version would still be measured by the centre against its own version, which is neither cogent nor disinterested.”

Details of a Sydney University-Ramsay partnership are yet to be nutted out and hang on the Ramsay board’s decision, which could be weeks away. But an initial agreement with the Australian National University before the negotiations broke down in May amid claims from ANU that Ramsay’s demands would interfere with academic independence (a claim denied by the centre) – illustrates what it might look like

Ramsay scholars would need ATARs of 97 or above and be selected by application and interview, the ANU agreement said. Some 12 academic staff would be paid for by Ramsay, and about 30 students would receive scholarships of about $30,000 a year so they could focus on their studies, a benefit some believe has been lost in the debate. “The opportunities for students in terms of scholarships are tremendous,” says Professor Matthew Hindson, a composer at the university’s Conservatorium of Music who supports Ramsay’s proposal at Sydney. “Students do it really tough these days.”

Not everyone agrees. Gardiner believes the scholarships are iniquitous. “The fundamental educational principle of equal opportunity would be entirely undermined were some to be treated, in this way, as more equal than others,” he says.

Partly because of the ANU scandal, the proposed partnership between Sydney and Ramsay has become mired in a culture war. The left thinks members of the Ramsay board, such as former prime minister Tony Abbott, are using it as an ideological Trojan horse; the right considers their outrage more evidence that left-wing group think has overtaken campuses. But even without the controversy sparked by the Ramsay board’s politics,  there is still unease among some academics about creating a new course focusing on Western works while Australia’s community becomes increasingly multicultural.

Ahead of a speech on Australian education in China next week, Dr Nicholas Jose, professor of English at the University of Adelaide, has been thinking about the texts he would include in a Great Books course that reflects the ethnically diverse Australian community of 2018. He would begin with Aboriginal song poetry. “That raises the question of ‘what is a book?'” he says. “This is literature that was oral literature for many centuries before being written down and translated”. He would include texts from the Indian Sanskrit tradition, China’s Confucius, and the world’s first novel, the ancient Japanese Tale of Genji by Murasaki Shikibu. “Then there’s the literature of the southern hemisphere more broadly, whether it’s J.M. Coetzee’s Waiting for the Barbarians or great writers of Latin America,” he says.

An Australian Great Books course should be more ambitious than those on offer in the US, but “also specific to the questions of Australian civilisation in the 21st century,” says Jose. “Of course, the same themes apply in the thinking and literature of these other cultures – ambition, revenge, power, politics, greed, passion, love.”

Sydney’s deal with the Ramsay Centre might never come to pass. Even if the board accepts the university’s conditions – changing the name ‘Western civilisation’ to ‘Western tradition’, and giving Ramsay fewer rights on scholarship and academic appointment committees than other donors to reassure staff of the university’s academic independence – there is no guarantee the arts faculty and academic boards would approve the university’s proposed curriculum.

Ramsay’s millions might end up at the University of Queensland, which is also interested. Or nowhere.

Professor Haines believes part of the resistance to Ramsay’s proposal is unease about introducing a concept that is unfamiliar to Australia’s academic landscape. But he believes it’s necessary. “We need more diversity, and more variety, and more different approaches in the university sector, as many in the humanities say themselves,” he says. “[We need] to reintroduce this kind of concept of a rounded education at a time when the pressure is ever stronger to make university e


Academic freedom, freedom of speech, the right to be a bigot that former Attorney-General George Brandis so famously advocated – the fight for such liberties is a luxurious hobby for people who have all their basic needs covered.

I have a hunch that the people who have enjoyed the greatest personal freedom the modern world can offer – those with money, freedom of career choice, and few caring responsibilities at home – are the ones most pre-occupied with freedom-based culture wars.

That doesn’t mean these freedoms are unimportant, on the contrary.  It just means we need to be hyper-aware that the people with time on their hands to fight for them are highly unlikely to be representative of the mainstream.

Meanwhile, most Australians, preoccupied with paying mortgages, raising children, worrying about looming HECS debts or laughing with incredulity at the impossibility of buying a home have their views consistently misrepresented by people with an ideological agenda.

Recently we have seen this dynamic play out over a few very important issues.

The Ramsay Centre/Australian National University debacle is perhaps the most infuriating example of the gaping chasm between mainstream values and the agenda pushed by cultural warriors.  The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, funded by a bequest from the late billionaire Paul Ramsay, had been in talks to finance a Western Civilization degree at the Australian National University.

Then Tony Abbott wrote an article for Quadrant magazine. The piece is well argued and worth looking up, if only because it reads like Abbott had been binge-watching Dead Poets Society before he wrote it. In it, Abbott explains the Ramsay Centre is not simply “about” Western civilisation but “in favour” of it, and asserts that “respect for our heritage has largely been absent for at least a generation in our premier teaching and academic institutions”. This statement is as false as it is sweeping, and proof, if it was needed, that Abbott is out of touch with what is being taught in iversities.

Crucially, Abbott also wrote that “a management committee including the Ramsay CEO and also its academic director will make staffing and curriculum decisions” for the new degree, which was wrong, insomuch as it had not been agreed upon. Abbott’s article helped cripple the negotiations, which were at a delicate stage when it was published.

But what truly killed the deal was the imposition that the centre wanted to make on the academic freedom of the university. ANU chancellor Gareth Evans and vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt wrote this week that: “We took our decision for no other reason than the centre’s continued demands for control over the program that were inconsistent with the university’s academic autonomy.”  They said the Ramsay Centre had “an extraordinarily prescriptive micro-management approach to the proposed program” and most extraordinary of all: “the centre has gone so far as to insist on the removal of ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective for the program”.

In his Quadrant piece, Abbott quoted a Tennyson poem on Britain as a land where “freedom slowly broadens down from precedent to precedent”. Such freedom stops when you have the culture police sitting in on tutorials to make sure the professor stays on message.

Similarly, Abbott and his small band of supporters in the Coalition party room are out of touch with mainstream Australia on the issue of reducing Australia’s carbon emissions. Their continued opposition to the National Energy Guarantee, which Energy Minister Josh Frydenberg is trying desperately to wrestle into legislation, shows zero regard for the majority of Australians who support renewable energy.
The 2018 Lowy Institute Poll showed 84 per cent of people agree that “the government should focus on renewables, even if this means we may need to invest more in infrastructure to make the system more reliable”.  This is up from 81 per cent last year.
Likewise, the vote of the federal Liberal Party executive to “privatise the ABC”, the latest step in an anti-ABC campaign based on criticisms the broadcaster is a swamp of left-wing bias, only shows how out-of-step the executive is with average Australians.

The Roy Morgan MEDIA Net Trust Survey, published this week, shows the ABC is Australians’ most trusted media brand, followed by fellow public broadcaster SBS, with Fairfax Media, the only commercial publisher in the top three, coming third.

Finally, the campaign to change section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act, which occupied the culture warriors for half a decade, was one of the most marginal of their un-Australian causes. A Fairfax-Ipsos poll taken in March 2017, amid the second round of debate over the section, showed 78 per cent of Australians opposed legalising speech that “offends, insults or humiliates” on the basis of race.  Most trusted Brandis; 84 per cent; 78 per cent – they are the kinds of polling results politicians can only dream of.

Australian values, mainstream values, the values of Western civilisation that we have been hearing so much about lately: they are too important to be hijacked by men (for it is mostly men) who have too much time on their hands and little care for what most Australians actually believe in.

Let the culture warriors play their Boy’s Own war games over academia, free speech or even climate policy.  But not for a minute can they tell us, with a straight face, that their views represent “mainstream Australian values”.

Geoffrey Blainey The Australian, 23rd June 2018

Australia’s universities are themselves creatures of Western civilisation. But many of their leaders refuse to teach or debate the history and the essence of their civilisation.

When some reply that they are independent and cannot possibly handicap themselves by accepting a big sum of Ramsay Centre money, then maybe they should devise their own courses.

Several vice-chancellors convey the strong impression that they are less interested in the vast sweep of Western civilization than in being the king of their own impressive castle. We must have academic autonomy, they say.

Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt seems to be doubting his own civilisation. He is a great scientist, and our nation is lucky to have enticed him away from his fast-moving Arizona-Harvard escalator of fame.

His field is astronomy and astrophysics, and if this year in Canberra his university had been offered a huge Chinese grant for that domain of research, he would have turned on all lights and telescopes to accept it. Obstacles would have been swept aside. But when offered a new course in the humanities and social sciences, and especially in history, he says no.

He is backed so far by several academic heads who say they display already in the ANU a wonderful smorgasbord of courses. But why is there no room for one more plate, a larger plate that tries to fit into one piece many fragments of knowledge?

Nothing has done so much to transform the world in the past 400 years as Western civilization. It is a main cause of the rise of democracy, the spread of education, the dissemination of Christianity to new continents and the flowering of various fine arts. Yet another gift — thanks to Western medicine — is that billions of human lives are enhanced and prolonged.

These gains are part of what we call Western civilization. Yet this is the civilization that most Australian universities are ceasing to study in depth or, if they do study it, often reach hostile or unsympathetic conclusions.

The ANU is said to possess one of the best humanities and social sciences faculties in Australia. Why are its leaders not guiding the debate?

Although they respond enthusiastically to a few media queries, their answers raise fresh questions and doubts.

Where is a thorough academic statement that covers each of the key issues? Does the university already have a wide course that covers Western civilisation and much more? Of course the university has dozens of minor history courses, but is there one that covers the wider world?

Schmidt has been frugal in his public appearances. Interviewed expertly and politely by Stan Grant on ABC television, he cheerfully played a straight bat while giving away scant information. In the end he gave the impression, mistaken of course, that he knew less about the topic than did Grant. He relied almost solely on the argument that the university must be autonomous.

Why does he think the ANU has held such a high reputation in the world? He says it is “based on that academic autonomy we have”. With all respect, this seems slightly far-fetched. There is no evidence that the other 40 or so Australian universities have less academic autonomy than the ANU.

Academic autonomy, while important, can be illusory. Much of a university’s income is from the federal government, with strings sometimes attached.

Much of its income also is from Asian parents who attach invisible strings to their financial support. Chinese citizens might not send their sons and daughters to the ANU if it preached worrying messages about China and its history, and various other overseas citizens would be offended if Islam were heavily criticised in ANU lectures.

It was little known until this month that one ANU department received large sums from Turkey, Iran and Dubai. Would the same money arrive next year if Israel suddenly became the more favoured nation in ANU books and articles? In light of these facts the Ramsay Centre cannot be seen as a unique threat to academic autonomy. It is easy to toss around the hallowed phrase “academic autonomy” because it implies that academics preside over that autonomy. But the council that governs the typical Australian university — and appoints the vice-chancellor, and often has a hand in appointing other high officials and even professors — includes lay members.

Traditionally citizens of some distinction, many have not attended a university but still have a welcome say in its affairs. These council members sometimes prove much superior to certain professors in judging human nature.

The chancellor — the chairman of the governing body — of a new university is appointed usually by the state government and reflects its sympathies. Some of the best known leaders of the oldest universities were retired prime ministers. Sir Robert Menzies was chancellor of the University of Melbourne and EG Whitlam was prominent on the senate of the University of Sydney.

Gareth Evans has been chancellor of the ANU since 2010 and presumably was chairman of the committee that appointed Schmidt. Before beginning his long career as a federal Labor politician and prominent cabinet minister, Evans was an excellent law lecturer at the University of Melbourne, but it was not that area of expertise that won him the honoured post of chancellor of the ANU.

There is indignation that two former Liberal prime ministers, John Howard and Tony Abbott, were on the board of the Ramsay Centre and trying to influence the university’s autonomy. But Kim Beazley, former leader of the Labor opposition in the federal parliament, also was on the board during nearly all the months of negotiation. And on the other side of the debate, Evans was perfectly entitled to his say. It is unlikely Schmidt would have made a decision about academic autonomy without close consultation with his chancellor. As I was once the chancellor of a new university, I glimpse the unwritten rules and conventions.

Evans, being overseas, remained out of sight in this debate but his views were briefly and eloquently quoted in The Australian Financial Review: “Great universities are fiercely defensive of their autonomy, and alarm bells properly ring when potential donors refuse, for example, to accept ‘academic freedom’ as a shared objective, as was the case here.”

Do alarm bells sometimes ring in your head when you hear the phrase “academic freedom”? A noble phrase and worthy goal, it is sometimes scorned or misused by universities.

Should scholars retain academic freedom (and the high salary and superannuation that goes with it) when their performance as teachers and researchers fails to meet normal academic standards by a large margin? When freedom is venerated but incompetence is tolerated, the university has really lost its autonomy. Moreover, its paying students have been robbed.

The forces so vigorously opposing a new course in Western civilisation have not yet found persuasive arguments. About 100 academics at the University of Sydney, uneasy that their campus might be landed with the course, called the concept “conservative” and “Eurocentric”. Here was “European supremacism writ large”. But Western civilisation is not Eurocentric. Even in origins it owes a heavy debt to the Old and New Testaments — and they are Asian, not European, books in origin.

The Sydney 100 attach the word conservative without thinking. The fact is that science and technology dominate the mainstream of Western civilisation, and they are the dynamic, not conservative, fields of knowledge. A Ramsay Centre course in Western civilisation cannot be confined to Europe. Printing as an infant technology came from East Asia to Europe, where it was improved, with dynamic effects. The Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, one of the ultimate mainsprings of democracy, owed much to the printing press. The slow rise of democracy and the rise of mass education owed much to the printing press and cheap paper.

How can the Sydney 100 view Western civilisation as simply a European phenomenon or a woeful example of white supremacy?

There are few grounds, in any case, for the idea that a Ramsay-type course simply would be preaching the benefits of Western civilisation. It will gain legitimacy only if it weighs on the same scales the defects as well as merits of the changing civilisation in which we live.

I agree that universities have to be cautious. With much to be proud of, they have much to defend. Major earners of export income and supermarkets of knowledge, they closely watch their competitors at home and overseas. Every year they must woo a new procession of customers, from Shanghai to Gundagai.

Like huge corporations, they have to steer clear of the more damaging kinds of controversy. A harsh headline in the morning paper, an exposure on evening television news, the threat of a parliamentary inquiry, all have to be avoided.

Big decisions that were once made by a variety of specialist scholars, after much debate, are now made quickly and defensively on high.

You can bet your life that if this inflammable topic had come up for discussion in the late 1940s, in the small universities of that era, the debate would have been intense in tea rooms and lecture theatres. A surprising facet of the Schmidt debate is that it is taking place less in the ANU than in the media. And the university is not yet winning this debate.

If I understand the contents of the proposed course in Western civilisation, I would suggest that it does not go far enough. Many critics see the proposed course (which they mostly have not read) as a hostile invasion of Canberra on a wide front. But the teaching course proposed by the Ramsay Centre and rejected by the ANU is notable for its modesty. Perhaps that was the wisest path when approaching a university that ultimately has proved to be sceptical.

So many of those who reject Western civilisation are cultural offspring of the 1960s. They deplore the recent history of the environment and they rejoice in the rise of feminism, the campaign against racism and the crusade for civil rights. Especially in the 60s and later decades, they rediscovered the Aborigines and their lost history.

No university in the nation can equal the role of the ANU — and its celebrated researchers such as John Mulvaney, Jim Bowler, Rhys Jones and others — in unveiling the long and often ingenious story of Aborigines.

Without doubt these new teachings revealed weaknesses in Western civilisation, but many present-day scholars exaggerate. They minimise the benefits of Western civilisation and forget the gains.

They forget to report that Australia was sometimes a trailblazer globally. This was the first nation in the world to allow women not only the right to stand for parliament but also the right to vote.

These critics actually enjoy the fruits of the Western civilisation that they deride. Unlike their great-grandparents, they had the chance to study at secondary school and university, largely through dramatic improvements in the standard of living. It was Western civilisation and its genius in multiplying wealth and leisure that gave them this opportunity.

In the 90s I coined the phrase “the black armband view of history”. The phrase is still valid. Too many educated Australians feel guilty or ashamed about their nation’s past. Admittedly there is much to regret but there is far more to be praised.

If the ANU were defending a majority ideology and viewpoint, we might have to pay more attention to its arguments. But an opinion poll conducted this week shows that most Australians, whether Labor or Coalition voters, appreciate Western civilisation. The only major political viewpoint that is often opposed to Western civilisation is that of the Greens.

Until recently, John Warhurst was a professor of political science at the ANU. Discussing the Schmidt affair on the basis of his wide experience of universities and their politics, he concludes pragmatically: “Universities should be left to make their own decisions so long as they are consistent, pluralist, transparent and willing to explain themselves in the public square.”

This is the problem facing the leading university in Canberra. Its leaders have so far been unable “to explain themselves in the public square”.


Western civilisation a lost cause at public universities

Greg Sheridan, The Australian, 30th June 2018

Australian philanthropists, anyone who has accumulated a little extra money and would like to ­donate it generously to make a difference, should no longer consider giving any gift to an Australian public university in the field of ­humanities.

In the physical sciences, and mostly in the learned professions, our public universities are still good. But if you have any interest in or concern for Western civilisation, and all the treasures of human wisdom and insight involved in that vast, sprawling, critical and magnificent tradition, stay away altogether from our public universities.

If this tradition is to be creatively explored, renewed and understood, indeed intelligently criticised, it will happen outside our public universities. Pockets of excellence remain in the humanities in public universities but overall they are on an ideological path of narrowness and anti-intellectualism, and they are getting worse. Their university administrations will certainly never reform them.

This is the inescapable conclusion from the extraordinary opinion piece penned by Australian National University vice-chancellor Brian Schmidt and chancellor Gareth Evans to explain why they suddenly ended negotiations with the Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation, which had offered huge donations to set up a degree based on the great books.

Such courses are common in the US. But in Australia only the small Campion College runs such a great-books-based program to an accredited degree level. (Full disclosure: I have been a visiting fellow at Campion, as I have been at sandstone universities.)

Schmidt and Evans made various allegations about Ramsay seeking improper control that were rebutted the next day by the centre’s chief executive, Simon Haines. Haines was at the meetings. Schmidt and Evans were not. Haines, and Ramsay board members John Howard and Tony Abbott, quoted ANU documents on its website to support their case that these disagreements were not serious until ideological political opposition emerged at the ANU. Schmidt and Evans have now offered a counter-narrative that also seems plausible.

However, it is not important to adjudicate who is giving the more accurate account. Schmidt and Evans make one crucial statement: “The Ramsay Centre for Western Civilisation simply did not trust the ANU to deliver a program acceptable to it.” If it is to succeed with other public universities, Schmidt and Evans argue, “it will have to change its approach”.

I don’t know if the Ramsay people agree with those propositions but I think Schmidt and Evans are right. No vice-chancellor in recent decades has stood up to on-campus far-left pressure. Ramsay is in negotiations with the University of Sydney. I have no doubt that if it embarks on a program there it will effectively be flushing its money down the toilet.

More than 100 Sydney University academics signed a protest letter against the prospect of Ramsay coming to their campus that declared: “The Ramsay programme represents, quite simply, European supremacism writ large.”

If a Ramsay Centre is established at Sydney it will be at best an embattled outpost surrounded by hostility and controversy. It will be at any moment subject to crippling demonstrations. It will wilt and die in the hostility or, more likely, be taken over in time by the educational left, the normal fate of any such conservative effort.

The grotesque inversion of normal standards in allowing the department of peace and conflict studies to be a throbbing principle of political activism, but expressing horror that someone in academe might have some genuine appreciation of Western civilisation, reveals the deep reality of Sydney Uni today.

The educational left is also politically left, but the bigger problem is the pedagogic and epistemological nature of the dominant view in humanities departments. This is not a distinctively Australian phenomenon. As is normal, our left-wing intellectual revolutionaries are completely derivative of US and British trends. Nor is this something conservatives made up to scare innocent children.

Let me offer you three random examples. The Economist, a socially liberal magazine, in its Bagehot column last week commented, entirely in passing, that an Oxbridge education “disposes people to despise their own country”.

Niall Ferguson, one of the great contemporary historians, recently lamented the systematic way the educational and political left have moved through mainstream Western university departments and taken over every new position. They are ruthless about appointing like-minded people who sign up to broadly sympathetic ideological approaches.

Mark Bauerlein, professor of English at Emory University in Atlanta, in a recent Australian interview suggested the effective suppression of the great books has become so ubiquitous and entrenched, yet their appeal is so timeless and magnificent, that they will survive now only through new courses springing up outside traditional departments.

Confronting the stark reality that you can no longer enjoy the prestige of the traditional institutions, no longer rely on them to do the job, that you must support the newer private institutions or undertake the herculean task of creating new institutions, can be bitter, especially if you like the quiet life. But you will never reach your destination if you don’t start your journey from reality.

The ANU says it has more than 150 courses concerned with Western civilisation. Yet as my colleague Rebecca Urban has reported, many of them approach their subject through the cliched lenses of class, race and gender as rendered by contemporary cultural theories.

The Institute of Public Affairs did a simple word search of the course description material and found that none of them mentions Dante Alighieri or Thomas Aquinas. It is not possible to understand the development of Western civilisation without understanding such figures. And of course there is no sense of a coherent integrated exposure to the development of Western civilisation.

There are two fundamental problems with humanities departments in many Western universities now — their content and their intellectual methods. Both have been overwhelmed by critical theory and postmodernism.

Postmodernism regards all traditional historical narrative as false, while critical theory denies the very reality of objective facts. Both are mired in a series of interlocking cliches and dogmatic assertions about gender, class and race. These approaches, far from being radical, hip and relevant, have resulted in massive decline across the Western world of enrolments in humanities.

Partly this is because these approaches render even beautiful texts horrible to read. When your analysis is fixated on a frequently fictional and highly tendentious a priori evaluation of class, gender and race, you don’t really read the books at all. It doesn’t matter whether you’re analysing Shakes­peare or a restaurant menu, you can come up with the same theoretical analysis games.

Much that passes for humanities study in Western universities now routinely convicts the West — both Western societies today and the West more broadly throughout all its history — of five capital ­offences.

One, chronic, structural, irredeemable injustice in the economic order.

Two, always and forever being sexist, patriarchal and, most recently, destructively and oppressively heteronormative.

Three, pervasive racism in every aspect of their power structures.

Four, inherent and intrinsic militarism.

Five, false consciousness, imprisoning a supine public in unjust and wickedly untrue meta-narratives, which are themselves instruments of oppression.

Naturally, in the history of Western civilisation all kinds of crimes and injustices were committed, as in the history of every other civilisation. That is the nature of the human condition. The intellectual dialogue that students would engage in by studying a traditional great books course would be a thrilling journey of humanity trying to come to grips with questions of meaning and justice.

The idea that such a course is inherently triumphalist or all about European supremacism is a grotesque parody, a kind of kindergarten argument of stupefying misrepresentation of the contents of the Western canon itself.

It is not necessary to subject the great books of Western civilisation to the depravity of critical theory to imbue students with critical thinking. The great books do that themselves.

For example, Dante wrote his Divine Comedy in the early 14th century. During the Middle Ages there was a robust dialogue between popes and princes about the limits of political power and spiritual power. Pope Boniface VIII claimed a rather excessive degree of spiritual and temporal authority over all rulers. Partly as a result, Dante rather unkindly puts him in the eighth circle of hell.

If you actually engage with the great books, and read them before consigning them to a sterile theoretical subcategory of mind-numbing tediousness, you will find every critical faculty exercised and challenged. Human rights did not begin with the UN declaration after World War II but were at the centre of a great rolling theological and political dialogue. From the start, the Western tradition, profoundly influenced by Christianity, grappled with the evil of slavery. Many Christians stand rightly accused before the bar of history as slave owners. But many Christians denounced slavery.

Gregory of Nyssa, a 4th-century bishop, delivered a sermon in response to a rich man’s boast that he had bought slaves. Gregory asked: “For what price, tell me? What did you find in existence worth as much as this human nature? What price did you put on rationality … If he is in the likeness of God and … has been granted authority over everything from God, who is his buyer, tell me? To God alone belongs this power; or rather, not even to God himself. For His gifts are irrevocable.”

One of the worst ways to teach Western civilisation is as isolated bits and pieces without ever seeing the integrated, connected nature of Western thought. The West, uniquely, developed experimental science because of its theological views of nature. God was sacred and nature was natural. Nature didn’t embody warring or capricious demons. It was good, as Genesis had proclaimed. And it embodied order, as a reflection of divine order. The desire to discover the secrets of that order led to experimental science.

In an act of vandalism and cruelty, of neglect and foolishness, we are hiding from our young people all the fun and adventure of the great books, all the grandeur and excitement, all the drama and passion of the Western canon.

We will never recover it at our public universities. Better to recognise that, and make a start somewhere else.

READ MORE : Why we rejected Ramsay CentreGARETH EVANS, BRIAN SCHMIDTWestern studies, with a twistREBECCA URBAN

Comments made in response to Sheridan’s article:

Yes. And Ramsay should walk away from the Public Unis and leave them to wallow in their ideological sewers. The left is nothing if it is not railing against something. Leave the academics to rail against themselves as is happening in the feminist movement and amongst the gender warriors where now all men are rapists and all women are victims. Normal people regard this as tiresome and are keen to see it unravel. At Unis before too long the public will demand that the students get an education, not an indoctrination. The Lomberg nonsense was a good start. Now it is Ramsay. Soon it will just unravel when miserable self loathing old lefties like Evans and a few thousand other 60’s and 70’s “revolutionaries” leave the trough.

It is difficult to see what we have understood as ‘western’ civilization lasting for many more decades, for both ideological and demographic reasons. We are now ideologically committed to multi culturalism, by which we mean, not having a plurality of cultures, but equating all cultures as of similar value, therefore forbidding critique. That’s hate speech. The exception is being super critical of our own past, and of the Christian influence within it. This leveling of cultures, is, in my view, non sustainable and illusory. Whilst secularism predominates, it lacks coherence and fails to satisfy deeper human needs. What will rise to the top? Whatever it is, it will be totalitarian in nature.
I am more optimistic. I dont think even the disillusioned millennials want totalitarianism. They are just disappointed with the pathetic leaders recently thrown up by democracy. But I think it is a cycle. There is evidence of the people in the west demanding values based leadership. Some of their choices are experimental and enigmatic and flawed, like Trump, but they presage change. The tired old mixed up sexual revolution generation (like Evans) is dying out literally, and that is great.
Universities should be redefined as “insular institutions for the social conditioning of young people, the propagation of ideas that don’t work and the defence of values-less stupidity.”
The bottom line is that publicly funded institutions HAVE to be accountable to the various Acts that require Universities to have open discussions. They are not there for themselves but for the people of Australia.

An audit to measure compliance is overdue. Funding will have to hinge on whether these institutions are fulfilling their PUBLIC duties and obligations full stop! We pay the taxes that fund these places.

Simply replace ‘Univesities’ with ‘ABC’ and it explains why nothing will change.
I wont pretend that I can even begin to understand what this academic stuff is about. I think that people should be free to study whatever they want if they think they can make a living out of it.

What has really annoyed me over the last week or so in reading all the articles & opinion pieces here is the way that the perpetually outraged have reduced this matter to a bomb throwing exercise between the “We love Tony fan club” and “everybody else”. The whole thing has been hijacked by the Abbott fans as another weapon in their war on the Liberal Party. Now I am not a supporter of Abbott as a politician although I freely admit being an admirer of (most of) his religious and family values and I am not sure if in fact he had anything to do with the material content of this course of study. I just wish that the Editor of The Australian had not allowed this matter to be hijacked as a populist political issue for the sake of clickbait, rather that the Editor had encouraged a far more nuanced academic debate such as this article by Mr Sheridan. I don’t pretend that I would have understood the arguments from either side but I would have enjoyed reading and trying to understand them.

A great article. Jordan Peterson is proven again to be correct in his criticism of the loony left ideology driving our universities. Shame on you all.
An over reaction Mr Sheridan to an esteemed University exercising its right to say no. Disgruntled Ramsay Centre supporters are now only talking to each other. The ANU has dismissed the Ramsay Centre, it’s over, it’s time to move on, everyone else has and as far as the ANU is concerned the matter is closed. Give it a rest Greg.!

Yes Conrad, “it’s time to move on”. When  I see that phrase I know its NOT time to move on, unless you like to join the other leemings heading for the cliff of great social equality and diversity utopia. Prepare for the mass destruction mate, you’ll be the first to suffer.

If we raise student fees we might drain the arts swamp. Otherwise tenure makes them untouchable fools.
If the post that I have just made is actually posted Barbara, your post is a perfect example of what I have just said.
With all honesty, we cannot look in the mirror and deny our the past that has created our current beingز
Perhaps the 100 Sydney academics ensconced in their insular monastic universities would have preferred that Japanese supremacism had dominated in the Second World War rather than European.

I wonder exactly what these academics contribute to our society.  I mean they don’t seem to produce anything of quantifiable value as do those engaged in the hard university areas such as medicine, engineering , sciences etc (although recent revelations indicate that some have been infected with the humanities plague and have rejected the scientific method). The 5 capital offences listed:  economic injustice in the economic order, sexist, patriarchal and heteronormative, racist, inherent and intrinsic militarism and false consciousness, imprisoning a supine public in unjust and wickedly untrue meta-narratives, which are themselves instruments of oppression; all of these define Middle Eastern Islamic culture, not Western civilisation.

These five define ALL civilisations that currently and previously existed some, as you’ve pointed out, more so than others.  To paraphrase Winston “Western Civilisation is a dreadful system it’s just better than all the others”, especially those utopian dreams based on Marxist false premises.  Go ahead read the old fool, all his assertions are based on mid nineteenth century English class structures.  Remove those premises from his writings and its just a recipe for totalitarian rule just different tyrants as Orwell wrote in his seminal critique Animal Farm.
There are other ways of framing this.  Let’s assume that HECs is a way of framing Western Civilization.

Here we have the consumers deciding what they want to buy. Here we have consumers making choices. Here we have the market, distorted as all markets are, operating as it ought to operate.

Here we have a University protecting its extremely valuable brand.

Here we have the purchaser unable to debase the that brand by piggybacking on it, replete with a bit of ambush marketing.

Where do all these points come together?

Southern Cross University.

Craven wants the money and would let the Ramsay Centre do what it wants because it would do what he wants.

Abbott could have a sort of St Patrick’s Seminary with some additional ‘canon’ texts added but without the gays, the feminists, the Marxists, the post-modernists, without Indigenous people and without global warming.

Howard could set the seal on a couple of decades of setting back the fight against global warming and a couple of decades of utter denial about the way in which Western Civilization utterly smashed the Indigenous population. Legitimacy at last!

But why will this not happen? Because, as it says in the canon of another domain, ‘Money can’t buy me love’.

Virtue signalling and rank hypocrisy does not buy you a loaf of bread either Pat .

If you and your ilk were in charge long enough , bread would be something only your “ elite “ would know anything about .

Hey, hey, Tim. HECs is the apotheosis of Western Civilization: have money, can choose, will buy.
The logic of those who view western civilization through the prism of the five points Greg highlights totally escapes me.You could apply those same five prisms totally or in part to all civilizations.Surely an open mind should be maintained in examining all history and placing it in the context of the prevailing views of the time.Same applies to the recent phenomenon of apologizing for past what are now seen as injustices.Being over seventy I lived at the time when these perceived injustices were the prevailing world view and although I won’t be around to see it I will guarantee in fifty years society will look back in horror to the things that we now see as mainstream, and particularly the current post modernists philosophies.
What a great debate is happening. The role of universities, the quality of education, the achievements of the West, and the skeletons of the West.

 Students doing such Western civilisation courses can learn what others have thought about the West’s 2,500 years of civilisation, and apply to the current age what they’ve learned from the past.

Negotiations have not ended – just mere sabre-rattling.

A very good article. Maybe the most optimistic point is that enrolements in humanities are falling. These remaining students will be the left wing politicians of the future.

Spot on Greg. We need to commence the redesign and new build of all our institutions. The West can do it. We have been in this type of instability before and our young are waiting for new leadership and ‘to go’.
Yesterday, someone disputed my assertion that, unlike existing courses on Islam, an ANU course would have been critical of Western Civilisation.

It seems that many are unaware of the fondness for teaching ‘Critical Theory’ amongst left wing academics these days. From Wikipedia:

“Critical theory is a school of thought that stresses the reflective assessment and critique of society and culture by applying knowledge from the social sciences and the humanities. As a term, critical theory has two meanings with different origins and histories: the first originated in sociology and the second originated in literary criticism, whereby it is used and applied as an umbrella term that can describe a theory founded upon critique; thus, the theorist Max Horkheimer described a theory as critical insofar as it seeks “to liberate human beings from the circumstances that enslave them”.

In sociology and political philosophy, the term critical theory describes the neo-Marxist philosophy of the Frankfurt School, which was developed in Germany in the 1930s.”

Most often, what left-wing academics mean by “critical” is *not* critical reasoning, but merely criticising anything that runs counter to Marxist dogmas.
If you want to study Western Civilization go to Asian universities. They are pretty sure that it is an important study if you want to prosper

Well said Greg. Schmidt is a great scientist. He should have stuck to that and left university admin to someone who knows about it. As for Evans, well, he is just being his Biggles best.

A very tactful exclusion of your colleague, PVO, who supports the ANU narrow mindedness. You are right, the ANU is beyond redemption until the lefty thinkers see the error of their ways.
Both Schmidt and Evans are men of towering intellect and monumental achievement. But should they be running a university? Surely it is obvious that universities should be run by people who have established their credentials as leaders in tertiary education? Presumably people like Schmidt and Evans are appointed as bridges to the wider world. But part of the problem surely is that people of stature do not rise up through the ranks of tertiary education. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark.
Well one of them is.  Wouldn’t rank Grovelling Gareth anywhere near this term.
There is great depth and insight here.
Just on the question of slavery, it was white Christian men that defeated the use of slaves in the West. The Royal Navy and 400, 000 casualties in the US civil war. Worthy of praise IMO.
Just on the Question of Slavery. A classic example of Revisionist Christian History. Christian England was only Second to Christian Portugal in transporting millions of slaves into the New World. Rather than some great moral epiphany, the only reason (not withstanding some isolated moral souls) England abandoned the Slave trade was the colonies had decimated her sugar trade and she sort to economically cripple them. Meanwhile England moved from the slave trade to direct oppression and plundering in India destroying a thriving economy and nation.
Slavery existed long before Western Civilisation (ask how the pyramids were built) and during & by Western Civilisation (as you point out)and finally ended by Western Civilisation (as Peter states).

But the modern Arts student at ANU will of course never hear the full story, courtesy of Evans and Schmidt. Only the Left viewpoint, as you kindly outline, allowed.

So Wilberforce had nothing to do with it?

Um Oh Russ.  Suggest you read up on the history of muslim slave traders before you start ranking societies.  But of course that doesn’t fit with your mindset does it.

The Liberal Party has been blind to the decades-long leftist indoctrination going on in our universities. As a student in the 1970s, we truly were taught to despise our culture and civilisation, usually through snide references and cheap mockery. To our juvenile minds, we thought that was the ‘right’ attitude–ie to be unthinkingly left. It’s a training ground for the leftists, who then vote Greens or Labor. Why do the Liberals tolerate it? Surely not on ‘free speech’ grounds? Free speech at universities is only the ‘freedom’ to preach leftist, or worse, Marxist, doctrine.
This is why history is not being pursued. If students were taught real history they would be extremely scared of what is being preached to them by the marxists
You are right Greg. It would be a big mistake for the Ramsay Centre to go to ANU or Sydney Uni or any of Australia’s public universities. Campion would be an excellent choice.

I think, however, that there is a serious problem within the Ramsay vision of Western civilisation. Ramsay has a ‘great texts’ focus. This is too limited. It puts (for example) John Locke on the same level as the Bible. The latter is the fundamental ‘great text’ of the West. The truth is that Western civilisation cannot be taught or understood from a position wholly external to the Christian worldview. It cannot in principle be secularised.

What we are seeing today is many advocates of Western civilisation courses, including Simon Haines from Ramsay, but extending into the general public, who are thinking in terms of the Enlightenment. They are progressives, in other words, who see the West as having evolved via John Locke and other ‘greats’, from a benighted religious culture into the wonderful secular culture we have today. This is not going to communicate to students what Western civilisation – the real civilisation – is all about.

I would be disappointed if the Ramsay trust were to renegotiate with ANU. This worthy benefactor has really dodged a bullet. The ANU have been outed as a shameful bunch of left wing politicians that are not interested in anything academic- what is worse, is that we the tax payer fund this garbage institution that purports to be our national university
Yes. Being rejected by ANU is what my mother used to call a “blessing in disguise”.
Absolutely agree. Transfer the funding to a new start elsewhere from the current universities.

Every builder knows when termites have infested a building, you knock it down, destroy the infestation, and rebuild with strong defences. The infested structure is irredeemable. Metaphorically, universities and their academies are the same.

Well said Greg. The Ramsay Centre should focus on either private universities or establish its own, or perhaps spend money on public awareness campaigns to counter the biased rubbish being taught in our slipping Education System. Perhaps it should also donate to political parties that strongly defend Western culture and values; Australian Conservatives springs to mind!
Postmodernism projects present grievances onto the past. The objective is to undermine and destroy western civilisation. It has been fueled by the environmentalism that developed in the 60s and the scare mongering that came with global warming catastrophism. Maurice Strong who chaired the 1992 Earth Summit was a Marxist and stated: “Isn’t the only hope of the planet that the industrialized civilizations collapse? Isn’t it our responsibility to bring that about?” The survival of Western civilisation faces challenges not only in the social sciences and humanities but in the natural sciences where scientists who question global warming alarmism are sacked or ostracized. Look what happened to Peter Ridd at James Cook.
What a great article Greg.  In our primary education seventy years ago in a small school in Charters Towers, we learnt much of what you have discussed here in our history classes and form the many extracts from the great classics which formed part of our “reading books.  (See Queensland School Readers”)

Unfortunately, in the 1960s/70s, when our children were in primary school, all of this was flushed away.  The readers wre replaced by a series about two modern children in the uninspiring series of “Dick and Dora”, intended to make children read about things with which they were already familiar and hence, it was argued, could learn to read more efficiently.  This was rubbish of course and did not cause children to become avid readers. (fortunately in our case, their mother did that for them)   (John, Nancy’s husband is writing!).

I don’t want to get bogged down in the merits of Western civilisation but to identify why one inherently cannot trust an academic culture that does not recognise the benefits of intellectual diversity. Ideas should be tested from a variety of viewpoints to find truth and bad ideas changed or rejected. Karl Popper said that a theory that cannot be falsified cannot be valid. Yet vast swaths of Left orthodoxy are not allowed to be challenged because they throw up all these alleged principles that are more important than truth. On the Ramsay issue 170 Sydney University academics have now signed a protest letter that Ramsay is at odds with “promoting a society of diversity, inclusiveness, and mutual respect.” Those words are not harmless motherhood statements but the Left’s Trojan horses for Marxism, and they are apparently of a higher order priority to the pursuit of truth. They promote identity diversity at the expense of ideas diversity. The Left has cleverly arranged their ideology and strategies in such a way that all pathways leads back to privileging their ideology irrespective of common sense observations that they are wrong. The Left insists that they know all and that challenging them is evil because the Left also claim to monopolise all lofty morals. This arrogant, unchallenged outlook means for example that social researchers should be suspected of corruption because they are not intellectually curious but merely inventing or massaging ‘facts’ to fit their ideological prejudices. There is nothing new to learn, just a plan to implement. It mocks the core functions of a university. With challenge impossible academic life becomes a virtue signalling contest to be the most extreme and other-worldly. The university becomes a place of ritual like an Islamic Madrassa where they chant dogma and rock back and forth, except at the centre of this religion is worship of oneself for transcending the earthly limits of pesky obstacles like facts and reason to become creatures of pure moral essence. John Stuart Mill said, “he who only knows his side of the case knows little of that.”   Antipostmodernism Stephen

A very neat analysis, Stephen. I particularly like your remark regarding the Gauleiters of the Left, “They promote identity diversity at the expense of ideas diversity.”

Excellent comment on an excellent article. I particularly liked: “With challenge impossible academic life becomes a virtue signalling contest to be the most extreme and other-worldly. The university becomes a place of ritual like an Islamic Madrassa where they chant dogma and rock back and forth, except at the centre of this religion is worship of oneself…”

The Wild Wood and the Wide World

On this day, 8th October 1908, The Wind in the Willows, Kenneth Grahame’s classic children’s book was published.

In 1908, Kenneth Grahame retired from his position as secretary of the Bank of England. He moved to Berkshire, where he had lived as a child and spent his time by the River Thames doing much as the animal characters in his book do – “simply messing about in boats”. He elaborated on the bedtime stories he had earlier told to his son Alistair and created a children’s classic that has never been out of print.  It was into its thirty-first printing in 1929 when playwright A. A. Milne, creator of Winnie the Pooh, adapted the most raucous and rambunctious part of it for the stage as Toad of Toad Hall in 1929 – which in 1949 Walt Disney’s studio took to the highest heights of slapstick hilariousness with its animated featurette the same name.

This anthropomorphic of riverside animals was set in a pastoral version of Edwardian England, characterized by its mix of mysticism, adventure, morality, and camaraderie, and celebrated for its evocation of the nature of the Thames valley. It was an early precursor of late-century melodramatic morality tales such as Watership Down (rabbits) and Ducton Wood (moles) which contain none of its endearing magic and humour.

The Wind in the Willows is a strange book. It poses as an almost homoerotic Arcadian fantasy, and yet it is also an opaque upper middle-class tract preaching deference to and and support for the British class system and the established order. Mole looks up to Rat who looks up to Badger and they all kowtow to the ridiculous, pompous and self-indulgent Bullington Club Toad because he is the lord of the manor. The bad weasels and stoats, of course, were the socialist revolutionaries who wanted to wreck the joint. They had to be vanquished by the valiant – one could say vigilante –  forces of righteousness and order – the stout burgers of the riverbank – and violently ejected from Toad Hall. The rule of law is restored, and Mole and Ratty resume their bucolic idyll.

Six years later, this shuttered Edwardian dreamtime shuddered to a terrible end in the carnage of the Great War, and in a decade, Red weasels broke the wheel of history and reset the clock for the rest of the twentieth century.

When I first read The Wind in the Willows as a child, it was a fantasy. When I reread it again as a left-wing teenager, living not too far from where the story was set and indeed, often rambling by Thames water’s edge, it was a fable – and a lame one at that. But I really must’ve must’ve been stoned or tripping when I reached Chapter Seven because I fell in love with it. It has been a favourite of mine ever since despite its twee, self-conscious encounter with the “divine”. The Piper at the Gates of Dawn is a most magnificent chapter. No wonder Pink Floyd chose it as the title of their first album back in the day!

Critics have not been so smitten. As Rosemary Hill notes in her excellent centennial review (see below) , it is “one strange, unsettling chapter … that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for the Otter’s lost child, are granted a vision of the great god Pan, a muscular, horned god, “the Friend and Helper”, before whom the animals, “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship”. Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it. Pan’s parting gift to Rat and Mole is “forgetfulness”. They will not remember the pure happiness of their vision because if they did the memory would grow until it overshadowed and spoiled the rest of their lives with the knowledge that it could never be regained. The “little animals” would never be “happy and light-hearted” again”.

Read it anew here: Chapter 7: The Piper at the Gates of Dawn

Reproduced in full below are two excellent reviews of a centenary annotated edition published in 2009. They place Grahame’s story in the context of its time – an idyllic last summer bathed in golden sunshine before the storm that hit Europe in August 1914, and an equally golden age of children’s books.  There is a certain consensus in both reviews – with which I concur: The Wind in the Willows is a above all a book about longing, but it also also a book about letting go, if only for a brief moment.

And here is the e-book:  The Wind in the Willows  

Wild waters are upon us

Rosemary Hill, The Guardian, 13 June 2009

If Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank idyll inspires nostalgia, it’s because The Wind in the Willows is itself saturated in longing. The tale of Ratty and Toad was, Rosemary Hill argues, a product of its own uneasy times

If the Edwardian age is not remembered as a decade of social discontent and growing international tension when the cracks in the British empire began to show, but as an the reason is largely to be found in children’s literature. It was the age, if not of innocence, then of Jemima Puddleduck, Peter Pan and Mr Toad. Most of what became the canon of English writing for children appeared in a mere nine years. The Tale of Peter Rabbit, the first of the stories that Beatrix Potter modestly referred to as her “little books”, came out in 1902 and was rapidly followed by six more. Peter Pan was first staged in 1904, E Nesbit’s The Railway Children was published two years later, and then, in 1908, came Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows, soon to become one of the best loved of them all.

The riverbank adventures of Mole, Ratty and Badger have now taken their place among the earliest memories of four generations and seem timeless, while the impossible, irrepressible Mr Toad got his own stage show, written by AA Milne, as early as 1929 and is still going strong. Yet Grahame’s story and indeed the whole Edwardian renaissance of books for and about children were peculiarly the products of their own uneasy time. If The Wind in the Willows inspires nostalgia now, that is because it is itself saturated in longing for other times and other places.

A year older than JM Barrie and a year younger than E Nesbit, Grahame was, like them, middle-aged when he produced his most enduring work. He was 49 when the book appeared, and described himself, accurately, as a “mid-Victorian”. His was the generation that had known no other monarch than Victoria and that felt with her death in 1901 that they had lost “a sustaining symbol”, as Henry James put it, adding, “the wild waters are upon us now”.

The Wild Wood and the Wide World are the twin menaces that loom over The Wind in the Willows. The sensible Water Rat wants nothing to do with either; it is only the Mole’s naivety and Toad’s hubris that force him to encounter them from time to time. The Mole soon learns his lesson. He is a creature, as he comes to understand, of the “frequented pasture” and the garden plot. “Nature in the rough” is not for him. The life of the riverbank, of messing about in boats, of ample picnics and long rambles, is essentially the life of suburbia, a rapidly growing but not entirely benign sign of the Edwardian times. The railway, which facilitates Toad’s daring escape from prison, had by now brought the branch lines deep into the shires, but with them came the commuters and the red-brick villas that Grahame so disliked. His typically English ambivalence towards suburban life runs like the river through the book. On the one hand, there’s the love of comfort and security, on the other, the chafing at its limitations and the sense that the pursuit of rural bliss may destroy the very thing that it desires.

Grahame was himself part of the phenomenon. Having spent the happiest years of his childhood at Cookham Dene in Berkshire, he returned, shortly before he started work on The Wind in the Willows, with his family and took a house there, grumbling, like Ratty, about incomers and over-crowding. In the episode where Toad’s caravan is overturned by a speeding motor car, the new Norton edition tells us that Grahame’s original version had Ratty shouting after it: “Stockbrokers!” Grahame changed it later to “road hogs”. As a recently retired secretary of the Bank of England he may have felt he was on thin ice.

Other social nuances of home-counties life in the early 20th century are reflected along the river bank. Toad Hall, with its secret passages and Tudor mullions, was given up some time ago by the original family and sold to a Victorian magnate. It is now in the hands, like Britain itself, of a spendthrift, headstrong eldest son who indulges one fad after another and is treated with the respect his pretensions deserve by the older tenantry. Rat points out to Mole the place where they will moor their boat at Toad Hall, next to “That creek on the left, where the notice-board says, ‘Private. No landing allowed'”. Toad blithely sees his non-ancestral home as a desirable commercial property. He describes it as it might be advertised in the new magazine, Country Life, founded in 1897 in London to cater largely to the aspirations of the stockbroking classes: “an eligible self-contained gentleman’s residence … dating in part from the 14th century but replete with every modern convenience … Five minutes from church, post-office, and golf-links.”

Like Beatrix Potter, Grahame was a keen observer of his characters’ domestic arrangements. The opulence of Toad Hall contrasts with Mole End, where the humble collection of prints and popular plaster busts, the outdated Gothic lettering on the house sign and the peculiar garden ornament made of cockle shells, mark Mole out as the Mr Pooter of the riverbank. Badger’s arts and crafts interior, complete with English oak settles and plain brick floor, shows a more cultivated taste. Indeed his home, with its central hall surrounded by “stout oaken comfortable-looking doors”, is in the old English style of suburban country-house design pioneered by architects such as Norman Shaw and admired by connoisseurs at home and abroad.

The trouble with Edwardian suburbia was that it was, as Grahame knew, an optical illusion. With its need for the golf club and the water closet as well as nature and history, it could best be found in the pages of Country Life where Gertrude Jekyll’s artfully planned landscapes dissolved the garden boundaries, while Edwin Lutyens’s houses turned newspaper magnates and mill-owners into county gentry. Great gusts of longing for something wilder and wider, whatever the risk, blow through The Wind in the Willows, as they stirred among many of Grahame’s contemporaries.

The fantasy of the “open road”, which troubles Toad and even sometimes Ratty, found expression in a fashion, which Grahame followed, for long cross-country walks. “Tramping”, as it was sometimes called, suggested a possible temporary change of class as well as scene. The poet WH Davies’s The Autobiography of a Supertramp was published in the same year as The Wind in the Willows and was also a great success. It told of Davies’s travels across thousands of miles of America, living rough and doing menial jobs, as he later recollected them in the tranquillity of Sevenoaks. For the riverbankers, however, there is no such possibility. Their caravan trip ends abruptly when they collide, literally, with modernity in the form of the car. Later, when Ratty is tempted by the sea rat to yield to the call of the Mediterranean, Mole rapidly talks him out of it.

England itself in the early 20th century was suffering from a similar timidity or failure of nerve – what Hermann Muthesius, the shrewd German observer of English life and architecture, called in 1904 “a certain hardening of the arteries”. The 1890s had been very different. Then it was possible briefly to belong to both suburbia and bohemia, and Grahame had. While rising smoothly through the ranks at the Bank of England to become its youngest ever secretary, he was also part of the literary set surrounding Aubrey Beardsley and Oscar Wilde. He had written regularly for The Yellow Book, a magazine devoted to modern decadence in the persons of Max Beerbohm, Walter Sickert and WB Yeats. It was in its second issue that he published the story that made his name, “The Roman Road”, a narrative cast as a conversation between a child and an adult, its message that only the artist and the child are imaginatively free.

Reviewing Grahame’s collection of stories The Golden Age, which was about, but not for, children, the arch-aesthete Algernon Swinburne found it “too praiseworthy for praise” in its lack of sentimentality about its subject. Then came the arrest of Oscar Wilde, the demise of The Yellow Book and a change of mood. Grahame’s Dream Days, another collection of stories published in 1899, was followed by nine years of silence before The Wind in the Willows, which, when it appeared, disconcerted some critics who had admired his earlier work and were not expecting a children’s book.

The editors of the latest editions are not the first to detect a comic echo of Wilde’s tragedy in the rise and fall of Mr Toad. Grahame’s Berkshire home was not far from Reading Gaol, George Gilbert Scott’s turreted Gothic revival prison, where Wilde was incarcerated. Reading is undoubtedly where Toad is taken from court, loaded with chains, having been sentenced to 20 years for being rude to a policeman. “Across the hollow-sounding drawbridge, below the spiky portcullis, under the frowning archway” Toad recedes.

He is disappearing, though, not only into prison but into the Victorian fiction of the past that Reading Gaol represents. As he passes them, the prison warders sprout medieval halberds, there is a rack-chamber and a thumbscrew-room, and the police sergeant suddenly starts to talk in impenetrable Walter Scott Gothic: “Oddsbodikins … and a murrain on both of them!” Toad finds he is immured in the darkest dungeon in “the stoutest castle in all the length and breadth of Merry England”. Merry England, Grahame knew, was a fiction, and it was finished. It could no longer offer a resort for the imagination as it had to the writers of the early 19th century who sought respite from their own times in the pious middle ages. The Edwardians knew much more about history and they were much less sure about God.

Those of them who went on searching for the divine often found it enveloped in clouds of pantheism and neo-paganism, spiritualism and theosophy, the faiths of the doubtful. It is this diffuse but potent supernaturalism that appears in The Wind in the Willows in one strange, unsettling chapter, “The Piper at the Gates of Dawn”. It is a section that abridgers of the book have always been quick to drop, though Grahame himself thought it essential. In it, Rat and Mole, searching for the Otter’s lost child, are granted a vision of the great god Pan, a muscular, horned god, “the Friend and Helper”, before whom the animals, “crouching to the earth, bowed their heads and did worship”.

Whether it is the latent homo-eroticism of the vision or simply the sudden change of tone that makes the scene so uncomfortable, it is certainly a failure. But while artistically it is the weakest part of the book, it is at the same time the key to it. Pan’s parting gift to Rat and Mole is “forgetfulness”. They will not remember the pure happiness of their vision because if they did the memory would grow until it overshadowed and spoiled the rest of their lives with the knowledge that it could never be regained. The “little animals” would never be “happy and light-hearted” again.

At Edward VII’s coronation in 1901 Kipling’s great fin-de-siècle poem, “Recessional”, was read with its tolling refrain “Lest we forget – lest we forget”. But for Grahame and his contemporaries the problem was that they couldn’t forget. The enemy without, the stoats and the weasels from the Wild Wood, might be driven from Toad Hall with sticks, but memory, the foe within, haunted them along with all that they had lost or might be about to lose. And so they turned aside, as one view of history has it, from modernism and went back to the nursery. What they found there, though, was not so much a second childhood as the first, the ideal one, which they preserved forever for their readers – childhood as we may all remember it and as it never was.

Second Wind for a Toad and His Pals

Charles McGrath, New York Times, July 9th 2009

The years between 1900 and the outbreak of World War I, it has often been remarked, were a golden age in Britain for the writing of children’s books. Among the books published then are most of what we remember of Beatrix Potter; several of E. Nesbit’s novels; Kipling’s “Jungle Book” and “Just So” stories, J. M. Barrie’s “Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens,” which became the basis for the stage play; Kenneth Grahame’s “Wind in the Willows”; and “A Little Princess” and “The Secret Garden,” by Frances Hodgson Burnett, who eventually became an American citizen but was born in Manchester, England. In hindsight these books seem to reflect the long, sunny afternoon of Edwardian England, a moment of arrested innocence before the outbreak of the Great War. Many of them also yearn for a rural, preindustrial England that was already vanishing. Part of their appeal is that they’re nostalgic, as we are, for childhood itself, or for a simpler past that seems to embody childhood virtue.

Of all these books “The Wind in the Willows” may be the oddest and most endearing. Too late for the centennial of its original publication in 1908, but a century and a half after the birth of the author, it has been reissued in two large-format annotated editions — one edited by Seth Lerer and published by the Belknap imprint of Harvard University Press, the other edited by Annie Gauger and published by Norton as part of its well-established series that already includes “Alice in Wonderland,”“The Wizard of Oz,” and three volumes of Sherlock Holmes.

“The Wind in the Willows” is probably most famous for a single line, Rat’s remark to Mole: “Believe me, my young friend, there is nothing — absolutely nothing — half so much worth doing as simply messing about in boats.” But the boating adventures, charming as they are, are the least of what makes the book so singular. “The Wind in the Willows” is a children’s book that, unlike most, doesn’t describe a world without grownups; instead, it parodies the grownup world. The characters — Rat, Mole, Badger, Otter, Toad — aren’t just woodland creatures with a few anthropomorphic traits. They’re of indeterminate scale — Toad is toad-size in some scenes but in others big enough to disguise himself as a human — and they have full-blown adult personalities, more nearly Edwardian clubmen than rodents, burrow-dwelling mammals or amphibians. Toad, who has certain traits in common with the overweight, fun-loving King Edward, even parts his hair in the middle, a detail that Beatrix Potter famously took exception to. “A frog may wear galoshes,” she wrote. “But I don’t hold with toads wearing beards or wigs!”

The adventures depicted in the book include the famous riverine idylls and a couple of almost equally well-known scenes of cozy underground bachelor life, which Mr. Lerer says owe something to Ruskin’s ideal of British domesticity. There are also the much wilder episodes of Toad’s manic car theft and car smashing; a Bolshevik takeover of Toad’s great manor house, Toad Hall, by the lower-class stoats and weasels; and, most bizarre of all, a moment of sexual and religious ecstasy when Mole and Rat behold, in the silvery, creeping light of dawn, no less than a naked, shaggy-flanked goat god, Pan himself, taking a break from his piping.

This scene is so charged that Ms. Gauger detects an element of homoeroticism. But then she, by far the more extensive and detailed of the two annotators, is quick to find an erotic subtext throughout a work that Grahame declared to be “free of the clash of sex.” After Toad and Mole companionably spend the night together, she notes, “If this were a novel for adults, Mole and Rat would perhaps consummate their relationship amorously.”

This kind of observation is indicative of the problems inherent in annotating a classic text, even one as well known as this. On the one hand, parts of the cultural landscape that inspired the book are already lost to us, and there are echoes and allusions that we remain deaf to even after having them pointed out, others that we are apt to misinterpret from our habit of seeing sex everywhere. On the other hand, the book is still perfectly readable without pedantic notes or explanations, and Ms. Gauger’s edition, in particular, is so laden with commentary that it sometimes resembles the Talmud, with more commentary than text on the page.

Both editors devote vast amounts of space to defining words like “panoply,” “repast,” “provender,” “vouchsafe,” “sniffy,” “fusty,” “hummocky” that are all in the dictionary and whose meaning hasn’t changed much, if at all, since 1908. And neither is entirely reliable: both think that a “well-metalled road” is one literally paved with metal when a glance at Google would have told them that the term is a synonym for what we think of as tarmac.

Both editors, to be fair, are very good at picking up echoes of Romantic poetry, huge chunks of which were clearly swirling inside Kenneth Grahame’s head while he was writing “The Wind in the Willows,” and both illuminate the text by suggesting, among other things, that Toad — blusterer, aesthete, jailed prisoner — was inspired in part by Oscar Wilde. He probably also owes something to Horatio Bottomley, a flamboyant, gasbag journalist and politician of the time. Mr. Lerer further suggests that Toad’s mania, his grandiosity, his compulsive lies and self-deceptions may derive from Grahame’s reading in Krafft-Ebbing’s “Textbook of Insanity.” A simpler explanation of Grahame’s understanding of wild, unpredictable personality may be that he grew up with an unreliable, alcoholic father who eventually abandoned his two sons.

In general Ms. Gauger is more willing than Mr. Lerer to find the roots of “The Wind in the Willows” in Grahame’s biography, and though she sometimes overdoes it, or explains the parallels at tedious length, her commentary nevertheless provides a sad and illuminating subplot of sorts. In many ways Grahame resembles A. A. Milne, who in 1929 dramatized the Toad sections of “The Wind in the Willows,” which always remained his favorite book. Both, though they had little use for women, were married to remote, difficult wives (Grahame courted his by writing to her in baby talk), and each had a single son whom he both doted on and neglected.

“The Wind in the Willows” began as a bedtime story and evolved over a series of letters (reproduced in the Gauger edition) that Grahame wrote to his son, Alastair, during the long months when he was farmed out to a nanny. Alastair Grahame was born part blind (an inspiration for Mole?) and appears to have been emotionally disturbed. After a miserable experience at school he lay down on some train tracks while an undergraduate at Oxford and was decapitated.

Kenneth Grahame’s own early life was scarcely much happier. His mother died when he was 5, his father ran off, and he was raised by relatives who were too stingy to send him to university. Like P. G. Wodehouse, another aspiring writer with a blighted childhood, Grahame went into the banking business. Unlike Wodehouse, he stuck it out, and by the age of 39 had risen to become secretary of the Bank of England, a post that doesn’t seem to have required him to do a whole lot.

His ostensible life was that of a proper Edwardian gent, with lots of male bonding and messing about in boats, and yet privately he burned to write, to live in his imagination. For all its apparent celebration of neatness and domestic orderliness “The Wind in the Willows” is really a book about letting go. It begins with Mole, tired of spring cleaning, putting aside his whitewash brush and taking to the road, and its true hero is Toad, who is anarchy incarnate.

Officially the text seems to disapprove of him: vain, swaggering and boastful, Toad is reprimanded and briefly chastened, and at one point the other characters even stage what we would call a full-scale intervention to confront him with his car-wrecking addiction. But he nonetheless runs away with the book, just as he runs away from prison disguised as a washerwoman, and supplies most of its narrative energy.

Though Rat is supposed to be a poet, Toad’s Song of Himself, sung to an imaginary audience near the end, is the novel’s most exuberant creation. To say that he is Grahame’s alter ego is too simple. More likely he’s the alter ego Grahame wished he could have but was also a little afraid of. Like a surprising number of stuffy-seeming Edwardians, Grahame was half in love with, and half terrified of, the idea of Pan, who never grows old, never goes to the office, never even bothers to put on clothes, and yet embodies all that is magical about the world we imagined we grew up in.

 

Whoar! And Peace

Or, Gone with the balalaikas

Random thoughts on the latest television dramatization of War and Peace which showed on free-to-air here in Australia in September.

In the early ‘seventies, I went through a ‘Russian’ phase, wading patiently and pensively through the greatest literary hits of Tolstoy, Dostoevsky, Turgenev and Solzhenitsyn. They seemed to suit my temperament during the cold, damp winter months as I journeyed back and forth on the London Undergound to mundane and monotonous temp jobs. I recall watching all seven hours of Sergei Bondarchuk’s epic ‘sixties adaptation in one overnight sitting at at an art house cinema in Bloomsbury Square in 1973. But I fell asleep during the thunderous battle of Borodino. The BBC crammed its 1972 adaptation of War and Peace into fifteen hours over twenty episodes – the film that shot Anthony Hopkins and Robert Powell to stardom.

How on earth do you compress some 1,500 close-typed pages into just six one-hour episodes, as the Beeb’s  latest period piece does?  A lot, obviously, has to go.

So, out go all the long expositions and naval-gazing ruminations. There no need to ponder much on the inner manifestations of the ‘Russian soul’, whatever that might be. The philosophizing that was left in felt lightweight and incongruous against the splendor of the social scene, the rural vista, the battlefields, and great historical events. Hence Andre’s deepandmeaningfull thoughts on glory, and latterly, on bucolic visions, seemed a tad intrusive. Pierre’s thoughts on freedom. freemasonry and, latterly, after his near-death experiences, on brotherly love and the simple life, appear lightweight and cloying.

And to suit our twenty-first century tastes, in comes some glamorous naughtiness – a surfeit of sexy bits which old Leo Tolstoy would probably have loved but would never have committed to print, with some poetic license (or licentiousness), bare thighs and cleavage, so that we well and truly got the message. It was, nonetheless a “polite society” sans filth, blood, and profanity.

What Tolstoy left to surmise and imagination, this down-sized saga leaves no sheet unturned. Helene and Anatole Kuragin really do appear to have had it off together, and she does indeed bonk Nikolai’s mates Dolokhov and Drubetskoy, and sundry others – she was quite clearly the Petrograd bike. And, of course, she comes to a bad, hallucinogenic, and sanguinary end. The families are well drawn, and quite humorously depicted. The scheming, naughty Kuragins; the affectionate and lighthearted Rostovs, headed up by their bumbling, adoring and ultimately impecunious papa – well played by comedian Adrian Edmondson. The uptight, and undemonstrative Bolkonskys, with Jim Broadbent giving a masterclass in fine acting – “best in show” indeed. We get a fair if Kubrikesqe ‘Eyes Wide Shut’ picture of Pierre Bezukhov’s wicked, dissolute lifestyle, and his faltering, stumbling road to redemption.

So, does this truncation of the big book work? I would say yes. The story flowed, the various story-lines held together, and it was relatively easy to keep track of the characters by their appearance if not by their long names. The best way to judge a serialization is by the question: do you finish an episode looking forward to the next? And the answer is yes.

As for the cast, it appears like anyone who was anybody in British television drama or comedy, looked good in historical costume and was not in Game of Thrones, got a gig and a chance to do Napoleonic dress-ups – with the exception perhaps of Colin Firth, Aiden Turner, Jenna Coleman and Claire Foy.

Lily James is gorgeous in an elfin, ingenue way. Although her Natasha Rostova looks and behaves like an eighteen year old throughout, and not the thirteen years old who ages in years and wisdom as portrayed by Tolstoy. She sang beautifully, and she sure can dance. The famous Natasha’s Dance scene was nicely done if too brief. It was over too quickly and failed to show how important this particular scene was to Tolstoy ; in the book, the Rostovs retire to a wooden hut at the end of a day’s hunting, where folk songs are played to the balalaika. Natasha dances to a song, but it is not a waltz or polka she is doing – instinctively, she dances like a peasant girl. The Russian soil is in her blue blood.

Paul Dano, the slim, young, scheming, preacher of There Will Be Blood, as Pierre Bezukov? Still slim and young looking, though “kinda funny looking” as they say in Fargo-speak. But portraying the tall, fat, shortsighted, dissolute and bumbling Pffierre? Amazingly, it seems to have worked. His is a credible performance, although his “niceness” to the Rostovs and Bolkonskys, and his transformation to all-round good guy could be quite irritating. Inept, opinionated, inadequate, and out of his depth both romantically and socially. My favourite Pierre moment in the book is when he resolves to  liberate or lighten the burden on his serfs – a subject close to Tolstoy’s heart – and how his steward circumvents his wishes. This was not even touched on in the film.

Jim Broadbent as the crusty, cranky old curmudgeon Bolkonsky Senior was a tour de force. He stole every scene he was in, and although he was not like I imagined from the book – less ascetic, more rough-edged – he was the best character in the film.

Adrian Edmondson, Jennifer Saunders’s other half, and bad boy of The Young Ones and Bottom, was an unexpected delight as the genial but incompetent Rostov patriarch. He played it for laughs, and his decline under financial pressures and family tragedy was nicely handled.

James Norton’s wannabe martial hero Andrei Bolkonsky was a stitched up, uptight, frustrating, and irritating jerk. You wanted to give him a good shake. And that’s just how Tolstoy would have liked it. He looked good, especially in uniform, and carried himself just as a stitched up, uptight jerk would. I guess that makes his apotheosis and death all the more interesting. So nice that everyone got to say their goodbyes. The Gladiatoresqe ‘out of body’, vanishing into into the Russian sunset sequence as he passed on was a bit too much, but.

Jessie Buckey as his sister Princess Marya was excellent. Whilst she was in no way as plain and unprepossessing as Tolstoy painted her, her “ugly duckling” transformation was lovely to behold. I actually felt happy that she finally found happiness. She had to lose her father and brother to find herself, and also, find Nikolai, the naive and gallant hussar.

Jack Lowden’s Nikolai, Natasha’s air-headed, profligate brother, was very well cast. A selfish prick who takes his folks for granted (and bankrupts them for bad measure), and treats pretty, poor, patient, pauper Sonya terribly, he has awful taste in friends (except for loyal Denisov) and plays a terrible game of cards,. But he sings beautifully (his duet with Natasha is a delight), and looks great in uniform.

Tuppence Middleton played Helene Kuragin as the soap-opera bad girl. She looked good, took her clothes off, wore see-through fashions, and camped it up (would Tolstoy have let her out like that, I wonder? He would doubtless of appreciated her “indoors,). And you couldn’t wait for Pierre to kick her out.

Helene and Anatole Kuragin

Minor characters were presented – with the exception of Matthieu Kannovitz’s Napoleon – a very poor caricature. I liked Brian Cox’s Kutuzov, but for me, he will always be Dalgeish of Deadwood. And Aneurin Barnard was excellent as the opportunistic Boris Drubetskoy. His meeting with Napoleon was a hoot. He is a great actor, having portrayed Cilla Black’s Bobby in Cilla, and David Bailey in We’ll Take Manhattan . Rebecca Front was very good as his scheming, impecunious and irritating Mama – well remembered from the comedies The Thick of It and Nighty Night, and still, to a degree, playing it for laughs – even when securing Pierre’s inheritance by wrestling a soon-to-be disappearing will from the hands of his avaricious relatives.

Stephen Rea played Prince Vassily Kuragin with a supercilious lugubriousness, whilst Callum Turner portrays his son Anatole as a card-board cut-out rake. Gillian Anderson, looked resplendent as society hostess Anna Pavlovna Scherer, did not have very much to do except play, well, a society hostess. And lastly, there was Tom Burke’s over-the-top bad-boy Fedor Dolokhov. As Tolstoy himself put it: “There are three things I love to do!’ he roared. ‘Fight, drink, and I can’t remember the other one … “ And: “I think you’re an absolute ruffian,’ Helene tutted, branding him ‘disgusting.’

One judges the success of a visual dramatization by how well renders the original’s iconic scenes and set-pieces. Here then is a brief critique.

The famous, plot-setting grand ball was nicely done – the set, the clothes, and the dancing, building up well to Nat and Andy’s meeting and floor show. Natasha’s Dance at the Rostov dacha, so iconic and important to Tolstoy’s narodnik sympathies, was, however, disappointingly undercooked.  Bezukhov and  Dolakhov’s duel in the snow , was deftly done, demonstrating what a foolish, deadly practice this was. Pierre’s Freemason initiation was risably pythonesqe – all signs and handshakes and overdone dramatics. Why bother?

The French Invasion of 1812, heralded Halley’s Comet, as a vast army crossing the Neimen, Boney’s fateful Rubicon, is melodramatically underwhelming but perhaps, to be otherwise would have required a very big budget. and yet, the battle of Borodino – I was awake for this one – was probably the best screen portrayal of this bloodbath that I have seen. The French occupation of Moscow was cliched and cursory, whilst the burning of the city, always difficult portray in film, came across as cut-price CGI. The disastrous French retreat from Moscow, prisoners in tow,  was likewise difficult to portray, but somehow, by thinking small and focusing on the micro-dramas of the debacle, and with some cold-weather channeling of David Lean’s Dr Zhivago, it actually worked.

And finally, when the tumult and the shouting ended, the captains and the kings departed, and the characters have met their various ends or apotheoses, what of that bucolic happy families ending?

As Tolstoy himself was to say, in the opening lines of another weighty tome, all happy families are alike. The rural family barbecue was a derivative denouement. The surviving members of the three families, now three generations, gather together after all their trials and tribulations in an idyllic rustic lifestyle bought and paid for with Bezukhov and Bolkonsky money. It is reminiscent of the final scene in Cold MountainShenandoah, How the West was Won, The Sound of Music, and many others in which ‘Good’ eventually triumphs over despair, deprivation and disaster – you know how it goes: “We’re so glad all the bad stuff is over and done – may our lives now be pleasant and delightful”. Or as Tint Tim (of Dickens’ fame, not Tulips) declaimed, “God bless us all!”

But, Tolstoy’s drawn-out, ponderous and indeed, anticlimactic and awful “getting of wisdom” finale would not have worked on screen. “Thankfully!” many would declare.  And anyhow, isn’t this how the classic hero’s quest is meant to end: with revelation redemption, reunion, and a kind of contentment. The old Count, in his mystical, mythic way, wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

And after six hours of pretty good entertainment, who am I to blow against the wind?


Here’s what the papers said:

And here is all you ever wanted to know about Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace, but were put off by three inches of closely-typed mall print:

War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy – digested read

We’re going to speak Frussian, join the army, fall in love, fall out of love, get very cold, and then die
Illustration: Matt Blease
                                                                Illustration: Matt Blease

It was July 1805, and all St Petersburg was concerned about the advance of Bonaparte. Though not so much as to cancel a soiree at which Pierre, a bastard by birth but not by nature, was to be introduced to Russian society.

“Pierre is not one of nous,” several guests observed. “Not only does he forget choses but he doesn’t speak Frussian. Et he drinks even plus que nous.”

Prince Andrew, a bastard by nature but not by birth, cleared his throat delicately. “As a member of the officer class, I have decided to join the army,” he declared.

“I shall join the hussars,” Nicholas declared, while his sister Natasha eyed up potential husbands. They might become rather scarce.

Pierre checked his fob watch. The pages were turning faster than he expected and his father had now died. “I seem to find myself the richest man in Russia.”

War proved more terrible than either Andrew or Nicholas has expected. Dreams as well as men got killed. “How I embrace death,” Andrew murmured as the battle of Austerlitz raged. “Pas so vite,” said Napoleon. “Permettez-moi de vous donner une main. Now I must wash my chubby little body.”

“I’m home,” said Andrew as his wife died in childbirth.

Pierre felt the burden of expectation and married Helene but, helas, she had a bit on the cote. The anguish was intolerable, but Pierre felt obliged not to kill his love rival in a duel and left St Petersburg for many years to ruminate on Freemasonry before deciding a knotted handkerchief was not for him. Instead, he chose to improve the lot of his serfs, who had up till now remained entirely invisible. “Harrumph,” he concluded at last. “I cannot improve their lot because they have never had it so good.” Tolstoy nodded approvingly, lifting his eyes momentarily from the handsome handmaiden beneath him.

“So, 500 roubles on the peace lasting,” said Nicholas, as Napoleon and the Tsar embraced in friendship, thereby losing the remains of the Rostov fortune.

“I am distraught,” Andrew declared as Natasha fell dangerously ill.

It was now 1812 and Pierre was beside himself as the French approached Moscow. “‘I am deranged with symbolism and Helene has left me even though I left her first. I vow to kill Napoleon,” he said.

Je ne peux pas believe que je have just perdu the battle of Borodino,” Napoleon squeaked, his shoe-lifts giving him gip. “The French had by lointhe best army.”

“But Russia had nature and spirituality on its side,” said Tolstoy while a chorus of Volga boatmen sang patriotic songs.

“Can you not faire quelque chose about the fumee in Moscow?” asked Napoleon. “Et quand will I receive the surrender?”

Jamais,” Mother Russia replied. First scorched earth, then General Winter. War is hell.

Pierre hovered between madness and death as the French performed atrocities during their withdrawal from the icy embrace of Mother Russia.

“There is a nobility in being broke,” said Nicholas’s aunt. “So I am going to give you some more money.” “Oh, thank you,” Nicholas replied. “Now I can marry Mary. And maybe you and Andrew can make up now, Natasha?”

“I forgive you, Natasha,” said Andrew, before dropping dead.

“That’s handy,” said Pierre, appearing out of nowhere. “Maybe I can marry you instead.”

“Yes please,” Natasha whimpered. “I can give up my singing, we can have four children and I can become a right old drudge, because Leo thinks that submission is a woman’s natural state.”

Tolstoy bowed his head. He was tired. The novel was a difficult thing. Not that his book was a novel, of course. Though people would be bound to call it that. Fools all of them. We can only know we know nothing.

 Hear Simon Callow read John Crace’s digested War and Peace on the BBC Today programme

Cuddling up to Caligula

Why is it that when we think of Roman Emperor Caligula, we recall the late John Hurt’s over the top, mad and malevolent portrayal in the classic BBC adaptation of Robert Grave’s sardonically serious I Claudius.(1976). Or else, Malcolm McDowell’s vicious, almost cartoon villain in Penthouse pontiff Bob Guccione’s semi-pornograpic biopic Caligula  (1979).

British author Simon Turney turns I Claudius on its head with the bumbling, stumbling, stammering Clau-Clau of book and film cast as a canny, conniving and ultimately successful player positioning himself to assume the imperial purple. Gone is the Caligula so malevolently and magnificently portrayed by John Hurt. No horses in the Senate. No incest. None of the orgies, explicit sex and delectable cameos of Penthouse Pets. But there is violence and gore – loads of it, in fact – and plots and conspiracies aplenty. But it is Claudius who is “nasty, brutish and short” while young Gaius is tall, blonde and well-intentioned. He’s certainly not all hugs and puppies, but he’s an astute, well-meaning but misunderstood victim of imperial circumstance who rides the perilous waves of bereavement and betrayal to assume the psychotic Tiberius’ throne.

The full title of Turney’s tome says it all: Caligula: loving brother, reluctant ruler and tortured soul (Orion 2017)

It is inevitable that history is written by the victors and throughout the past two millennia there have been plenty of cases of good men being maligned by their successors, as well as evil men canonized by their heirs and successors. Rome was no different and may indeed be the very epitome of this. Being so far removed from our modern world, we have only fragmentary archaeological and epigraphic evidence to directly base our research on – that and the writings of those who lived in these times.

And so it is with Caligula. Turney argues that once the chaff is cleared away, misunderstandings and misrepresentations clarified, and the more obvious cases of character assassination discarded, we are left with a complex man who fell foul of the most influential and dangerous people in the Empire. He could hardly have been the monster he has painted, for while those powerful senators and nobles managed to remove him, the ordinary people of Rome held him up as the golden prince and the army remained his – the latter in part on account of how as a child, he’d accompanied his father on victoriouscampaigns in Germania and Syria, earning the sobriquet “Little Boots” – in Latin, “Caligula” – named for the replica army sandals he wore on these road trips.

So, leave your assumptions and preconceptions at the city gates and enter Rome, 37AD.

Emperor Tiberius Caesar is dying. No-one knows how much time is left to him, but the power struggle has begun. The ailing old tyrant thrusts Caligula’s family into the imperial succession in a bid to restore order to the chaos and carnage engineered by Sejanus, the cruel commander of the Praetorian Guard. The story is told through the eyes of Livilla, Caligula’s loyal, little sister and confidante. She recounts how her quiet, caring, beautiful brother became the most powerful man in the known western world, how, with lies, murder and betrayal, Rome was changed for ever. She is an attractive and insightful narrator, drawing the reader into her life as niece and hostage of mad, bad Tiberius and sister of his infamous successor.

Starship Captain Picard as Praetorian commander Sejanus

Being part of the extended family of the Divine Augustus is a tough gig. The five children of Germanicus appear to be cursed from birth. Their war-hero father is believed to have been poisoned on Tiberius’ orders, and mom and two brothers are arrested for treason, exiled on desert islands, and starved to death. Cold, ambitious, Agrippina is married off to an abusive husband, but keeps her eye on the ultimate prize. Sweet, docile Drusilla is wedded to a mild nonentity and pines for her own true love. Only Caligula and Livilla remain, as virtual captives on Capri, Tiberius’ pleasure island.

The ascent of the family into the imperial succession transforms Caligula from the easygoing lad Livilla knew to a shrewd, wary and calculating young man, used to watching his back and learning the dangerous power game of thrones. As much out of self-preservation as ambition, he maneuvers himself into the top job. A golden age beckons for Rome, but things unravel as political allies, friends, and finally family betray him and plot his demise. He becomes a bitter, resentful and vengeful Emperor, eventually losing touch with reality and his humanity. Even loyal Livilla comes a cropper. Power corrupts and absolute power, whilst not surreal scale of the films, leads Caligula to a rendezvous with the assassins’ knives.

Complementing the human drama of the quasi-Shakespearean rise and fall of a tragic hero, Turney also provides his tale with a political dimension. There is the well known backstory of the Roman Republic and how Julius Caesar was slain by gallant patriots who feared that he was about to make himself King – a concept that was anathema to SPQR, the Senate and people of Rome. Caesar’s heir, Octavius, who became Augustus, whilst hailed as ‘Imperator’, was most careful not to become ‘Rex’. Through Robert Graves’s epic, Claudius as courtier and as Caesar, perennially proclaims his desire to restore the republic – although, truth be told, the republic had run its course, governed by a corrupt and self serving senatorial elite. It was, perhaps, a nostalgic chimera, which, nevertheless, provides numerous conspirators in Turney’s narrative with a worthy motive. Caligula, they fear, is falling under the influence of royal middle eastern friends who advertise the attractions of absolute monarchy. At the end, Caligula’s Caesar complex commands a Caesar solution.

Turney next turns his attention next to another Roman emperor who was “mad, bad, and dangerous to know”. Skipping the lugubrious Nero, who features in Caligula as a chubby babe in the arms his devious and disloyal momma Agrippina, the projected series of “The Damned Emperors” will jump to Commodus, last seen impaled by Maximus Decimus Meridius, known today as Russell Crowe, in Ridley Scott’s solid if somewhat overwrought sword and sandals saga Gladiator (2000). It would appear that whatever history and show business has conceived, Turney aims to tear asunder.


In That Howling Infinite has traveled the Roman world many times before:

Roman Holiday, the perils of a poet in the time of Claudius and Nero;
What have the Romans Done For Us? A review of Mary Beard’s wonderful history of the republic and the early emperors;
Roman Wall Blues, a riff on WH Auden’s famous poem and a tale of Hadrian’s Wall and the magical museum of Vindolanda; and
A Brief History of the Rise and Fall of the West.

 

 

The Twilight of the Equine Gods

The horse has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability. Our story resonates with an equine leitmotif – in our dreams, our fantasies, our histories, our literature, and our movies; in our aesthetics and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty.

Hey and away we go
Through the grass, across the snow,
Big brown beastie, big brown face,
I’d rather be with you than flying through space.
Mike Oldfield, On Horseback

Pastorale

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare

What is there not to love about a horse?

Its big, brown, doe eyes; its earthy, sweaty aroma from a land somewhere between babies and barnyards; the warmth of its neck on your palm; the rough feel of its mane in your fingers; the smell and the squeak of saddle leather; the jingle-bells of the bridle. The strength you sense through your thighs; an exhilaration that is close to fear as you kick his flanks into a trot, a canter, a gallop, and whoa! and you’re never one hundred percent sure she will obey you. And then, when it’s over, the radiated heat, the damp hide, the glow of sweat, almost a mist of equine energy as you dismount after the ride. You feel wired, alive, and at one with the horse, with the land, with nature.

I first rode a horse in the late seventies, on my first visit to Australia with my first wife. Her old man was a doctor on locum in Coolah, ‘beyond of the Black Stump’, which is to say, the back of beyond (and there really WAS a black stump on the outskirts of town, for the infrequent tourist to be photographed by in pre-selfie days). A local farmer had invited us out to ride his large property, and so we rode, in the heat haze of high summer, through wide, dry, open, paddocks, mobs of roos scattering as we approached, flocks of cockatoos roosting riotously in the branches of dead trees, and flies. Yes, I learned about the “Aussie salute” that summer. I fell in love with the Australian bush then and there, the “wide brown land” of Dorothea Mackelllar’s sunburnt country“. A few years later, as a newly arrived immigrant, I would go riding again, this time with country friends in the Dungog cattle country north of Sydney.

I was not a good rider, but I loved the craic. Not a natural like Adele. When we first met, she kept four horses and looked after a whole riding school of them, bringing them in bareback riding, stock-whip cracking, a proper jillaroo. ‘Western pleasure’, it was called. No jackets and jodhpurs – it was cowboy hats, boots and blue jeans – before helmets and Occupational Health and Safety. I rode her gorgeous chestnut quarter horse called Twopence, and she, a handsome palomino named Trigger (of course). A riding accident put me in hospital – and I never rode a horse again.

Twopence & Trigger

That was a decades ago, but living in the bush, I still feel pleasure when I see horses in their paddocks. The sight, sound, and smell strike a melodious, atavistic chord that many would  recognize as distinctively Australian. How many Aussies of a certain age would not thrill at the Banjo’s ballad of the bushman that is almost our national poem:

He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko’s side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse’s hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough’.

In this centennial year of the Palestine Campaign of WWI and the gallop of the Australian Light Horse towards the strategic Beersheba wells – praised, inaccurately, as history’s last great cavalry charge, the Light Horseman and his hardy “Waler” (from New South Wales) have achieved iconic status in a media supercharged on “Anzacery”. Calmer voices have argued that on the scale of the carnage on the western front, where Diggers died in their thousands, and indeed the Gaza battle itself, where the ANZACs were a very small part of a very large army, it was really no big thing, But never let the facts get between a politician and a photo-opportunity. During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

And it was always thus. As German academic and cultural scientist Ulrich Raulff’s tells us in his captivating “micro-history” Farewell to the Horse: The Final Century of Our Relationship: 

“Like love and the stock exchange, our historical memory is a motherland of wishful thinking, sacrificed to our faith and blind to known facts…This is why historical myths are so tenacious. It’s as though the truth even when it’s there for everyone to see, is powerless – it can’t lay a finger on the all powerful myth”.

Farewell to the horse

It is an easy segue from my Australian pastorale to Raulff’s illuminating canter through the story of the “Centaurian Pact” between humans and horses. it is at once a ride, a revelation, and a reminiscence of my short-lived ‘cowboy’ days.

“The horse” Raulff begins, “has been man’s most important companion – forget cats and dogs – and the most durable of historical alliances – against which every other covenant into which we have entered has been fragile and ephemeral – not even our relationship with our gods has shown a comparable degree of stability”.

He then recounts how over the span of a few decades, a relationship that endured for six millennia went “to the dogs” – excuse my awful pet-food pun. And it happened almost unremarked, unnoticed, and unsung. “For a century, the oat-powered engine was the universal and irreplaceable power unit of the forced mechanization of the world”. And then it was gone, replaced by the internal combustion engine. And yet, the term “horsepower” is to this day a measure of the performance of vehicle engines (although now mostly replaced by kilowatts) – a horse was the equivalent of seven men.

“The twilight of the equine gods”, as Raulff describes it, was a long goodbye indeed, and in the realm of myth, memory and metaphor, horses are with us still; or as he so lyrically expresses it: “ghosts of modernity” (echoes of Dylan, in my mind, at least) that “haunt the minds of a humanity that has turned away from them”.

Like its subject, Farewell to the Horse is a handsome, wide-ranging, beast. More elegy than epitaph, eclectic and imaginative in scope, viewing the horse as muse, as mount, and as metaphor, Raulff sings the song of the horse – and if ever there was a ‘horse opera’, this is it.

Eloquently and at times poetically translated, and generously illustrated with pictures from galleries, libraries, and photo archives, Raulff takes the reader through the many worlds of the relationship. On his academic home-turf of sociology and psychology, his references are primarily German, but straying from his academic stable, he ambles into a lush and diverse pastureland of history and mythology, politics and philosophy. economics and geography, industry and commerce, physics and biology, science and medicine, sport and recreation. And art and literature: how artists and writers brought their perspectives, personas and passions onto canvas, Kodak and the printed page. In many ways, its infinite variety reminded me of English historian Simon Schama’s fascinating Landscape and Memory.

Raulff has divided his book into four broad thematic sections, each with an evocative title – The Centauran Pact, A Phantom in the Library. The Living Metaphor, and The Forgotten Player – each exploring a particular aspect of the horse’s story. But he allows himself much extempore stream of consciousness as he periodically wanders off-script with childhood reminiscences and collected anecdotes, and dips into favourite paintings, books and films. And time-travels through six thousand years, and traverses the globe too in his long ride – from the Steppes of Eurasia to the Great Plains of America, from the cities of MittelEuropa to those of the Midwest, with side trips to the Middle East and Andalusia.

It was contagious. I too got to thinking beyond the page, recalling and contemplating a miscellany of ideas and images that came to mind whilst reading, and indeed, whilst writing this review, wandering down forgotten bridle-ways (literally, a horse riding path, or trail originally created for use by horses, but often now serving a range of travelers). And is this not what a good book should do?

The Song of the Horse

The horse, the intelligent mammal, the great vegetarian, a prey animal whose strength is in flight, who has no desire or need for confrontation or quarrel. It’s speed, its main asset, enabling it to flee its predators, is also what attracted it to the attention of man, with whom it entered into a long-lived, unequal devil’s bargain. “They were able to turn the inconspicuous potential energy of tough prairie grasses, inedible to almost all other animals into the spectacular energy of a fast endurance runner. Thanks to its natural properties as a converter of energy, the horse could bear kings, Knights, female lovers and rural doctors, draw carriages and cannons, transport hordes of workers and employees, and mobilize entire nations”. And indeed, Raulff takes us on a jaunt   through these tableaux.

He quotes historian Ann Hyland: “it was a small step, albeit a brave one, for man to mount a horse”, and writes: “The comparison with the moon landing is certainly not exaggerated. The moment when man began, by domestication and breeding, to connect his fate to the horse – not with a nutritional intention, but with a vectorial aim – may have been, before the invention of writing, the narrow gate through which man entered the realm of history”.

And lo, our story resonates with an equine leitmotif.

The horse is in our dreams and our fantasies, in our literature, and our movies, in our aesthetics, and our notions of speed, strength, power, courage, fortitude, loyalty and beauty. From the diverse mounts that conveyed Chaucer’s pilgrims to Canterbury to that paragon of American folk culture, the cowboy. From the rambunctious centaurs of Disney’s’ Beethoven Fantasia to the gaunt quartet bearing the seer of Patmos’ horsemen of the Apocalypse. From the teenage innocence of National Velvet and Black Beauty to Thomas Hardy and Carey Mulligan’s sensual and photogenic jaunt in the recent remake of Far From the Madding Crowd. From the patriotic jingoism of Alfred J Tennyson’s The Charge of the Light Brigade and Rudyard Kipling’s East is East and West is West to Banjo Patterson’s blokey bush ballad The Man From Snowy River, which i have quoted above. The horse has even entered into the invented worlds of science fiction, with Joss Whedon’s rollicking space-pirate adventure, Firefly, and more recently, Westworld with its Wild West theme park populated by lifelike android cowboys and Indians on their robot horses.

Westworld

[If I have one small quibble about Farewell to the Horse, it is in its Eurocentricity. The Land Down Under doesn’t rate a mention even though the horse has played an important role in the evolution of Australia’s perceived national identity – “perceived” because here too, we are captive to that “powerful myth” that Raulff believes subverts fact]

Whilst drawing cleverly on the arts – and the book is well-furnished with illustrations that are  well spoken to in the text – Raulff does not venture into poetry, where there are to be found many wonderful images. Take but a few examples drawn from just one poem, and marvel at the metaphors in Rudyard Kipling’s ‘Boys Own’ tale of a young British officer tracking down a daring Pathan bandit:

The Colonel’s son has taken horse, and a raw rough dun was he,
With the mouth of a bell and the heart of Hell and the head of a gallows-tree”.

“It’s up and over the Tongue of Jagai, as blown dust-devils go,
The dun he fled like a stag of ten, but the mare like a barren doe.
The dun he leaned against the bit and slugged his head above,
But the red mare played with the snaffle-bars, as a maiden plays with a glove”.

“They have ridden the low moon out of the sky, their hoofs drum up the dawn,
The dun he went like a wounded bull, but the mare like a new-roused fawn”.

And, of course, there are the songs. There’s the doomed Texan troubadour Townes van Zandt’s enigmatic anti-hero:

Pancho was a bandit, boys
His horse was fast as polished steel,
Wore his gun outside his pants
For all the honest world to feel
Pancho and Lefty

And whilst Raulff includes a poignant picture of a lone, pedestrian cowboy carrying his saddle through the scrub like a mariner lost on the land, he doesn’t mention Leonard Cohen’s bereft and distraught cowpoke :

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
The Ballad of the Absent Mare

But more from St. Leonard of Montreal later…

Frederic Remington’s Bronco

A Phantom Limb

The horse’s glory days may be over, but the echoes of a long and fruitful relationship linger in our lines and in our language – in our idioms and our figures of speech: like, “getting back in the saddle”, “pulling the reins” and “taking the reins”, “champing at the bit”, “gaining the whip hand”, and the timeless put-down, “get off your high horse!” Phrases such as these are used everyday by people who have never been physically close to a horse let alone ridden one, and whose visual encounters are limited to country outings, circuses, televised equestrian events and westerns (in Australia, as in the US, we can still enjoy country fairs and carnivals that feature rodeos and endurance rides).

And note that these usages are somehow connected to power, control, and aggression – and often, casual, almost matter-of-fact violence (the idea of being “horse-whipped”) – violence inflicted not only on humans but on the animals too.

Raulff asks: Why is it that the most powerful visual images of horses are in their warrior role?  Does it not say more about ourselves than what was genetically a passive, docile, tame-able (we call it “breaking”) grazer?

Equestrian Statues

Salah ud Din al Ayubi, Damascus

The horse has a complex and varied curriculum vitae. For six millennia, it has been our dependable beast of burden, the bearer of people, packages and progress, shrinking distance and opening up new lands. But it has also been the agent of power, politics and pogroms. A bearer of great ideas, and also of great tyrants.

The horse has long been a living metaphor of power – the absolute political metaphor, indeed.

“The combination of horse and rider is a powerful symbol of domination, and one of the oldest in the book”. The caudillo, the martial “man on horseback” so beloved of painters and sculptors – and of putative dictators (although Stalin and Hitler, Raulff reminds us, despised horses). There’s Alexander the Great on Bucephalus, defeating Darius; David’s conquering Napoleon crossing the Alps; bodacious Boudicca reining in her chariot steeds on The Embankment. To be physically and violently unhorsed is to be taken down literally and figuratively. Hence Richard III’s anguished “my kingdom for a horse”, and George Armstrong Custer and the men of the Seventh Cavalry demountd and doomed on Last Stand Hill.

The rise of the horse changes the position of the people and along with it, their view of the world around them – what Raulff calls the ‘cavalier perspective’. It is rooted in an age-old fantasy of the fusion of man and beast, from centaur to chevalier. The unfortunate Aztecs believed the mounted conquistadors to be half man half beast. That dismissive rebuke “get off your high horse” echoes a primal fear of the mounted marauder, be he the Scythian archer, the Mongol warrior, the rogue knight or the Red Indian (“savage” he was called back in the day) of the Great Plains. Recall the Cossacks lining up on the snow-covered square, about to charge the defenseless marchers in David Lean’s Dr Zhivago. Recall the Dothraki, screaming their war cries, thundering down on the doomed Lannister infantry. “We still see traces of horses’ archaic role as inspirers of terror when required to intimidate picketing workers or to drive rallies of protesters out of shopping precincts”.

Something wicked this way comes – Clive Owen’s Slav King Arthur

During his travels, Raulff visited Israel, where he chanced to observe ultra-orthodox Jews protesting against their youth being conscripted into the IDF. Jerusalem authorities mobilized mounted police officers against the recalcitrant religious. He indulges in pogrom projection, imagining the Haredim being intimated by a Cossack Shtetl flashback. Fanciful, perhaps, but as a young man during the Vietnam demonstrations in London’s Grosvenor Square, I learned that there’s no greater killer of revolutionary passion than the sight of than a wall of fat horse’s arses backing towards you with those nervous hooves a’twitching.

And yet, the use of the horse in this manner forces it to go against its nature, trained to stand its ground in dangerous circumstances when all its instincts are to flee danger. Ostensible police brutality in Grosvenor Square was juxtaposed by the reality that police horses were stabbed by banners and tripped and stoned with glass marbles. Several were so injured that they had to be euthanized.

Horse meets Haredim in Jerusalem

…and meanwhile, in the other side of town

 The Wide Open Spaces

The power bestowed upon men by horses is much more than such authoritarian, martial muscle. The horse enabled landsmen to conquer what Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey called “the tyranny of distance”. For Rudyard Kipling’s “fluttered folk and wild”, it ushered in a tyranny of a malevolent kind.

The horse-led conquests of European and Asian empires during the second millennium BCE by the chariots and later, cavalry of the horse-people disgorging from the steppes like some equestrian blitzkrieg, transformed world history. They brought their political structures, their warfare, their masculine, spiritual character – their “asabiyyeh” or, literally “muscle” as famed Arab historian Ibn Khaldun put it. The Eurasian nomadic warrior, “that ‘natural born’ combatant, who, as tough and austere as his resilient horse, emerged as the terror of the sedentary populations of Europe and the orient”. The same could be said of the warriors of Islam as they erupted out of their Arabian heartland and reached the walls of Constantinople and the frontiers of the Franks.

One powerful factor in these invasions was the horsemen’s speed. “In every contemporary account of the Mongols, great stress is laid on their speed: suddenly they were there, only to vanish and appear somewhere else even more suddenly”. The alliance between man, horse, and the arrow was likewise significant, providing the ability to kill from a distance, whilst moving, on horseback.

“Thanks to the horse, distant territories could be conquered and vast dominions could be established. The horse and its rider made the land they traversed tangible, recognizable, and able to be taken”. The horse became indispensable in terms of control of the land, subduing its inhabitants, and enabling Its exploration. In America, it brought the conquistadors, and in time, ensured that The West was won with catastrophic consequences for the native Americans with the loss their land and hunting grounds .

A Day at the Races

Our pact with the horse was much more up more than the power and the glory, the conquest and the trail-blazing. Horses’ fleetness, stamina and beauty satisfied other, more hedonistic yearnings, and today, their days on the field of battle long over, they serve to give us pleasure – and profit.

And they have always done thus – particularly in the antecedents and descendants of the Ancient Greek hippodrome (named thus for horses and the racing thereof). In the downtime between warring and raiding, hunting and horse and chariot racing attracted many a warrior’s energy and enthusiasm, and provided  less martial spectators with, vicarious thrills. We have been racing horses for as long as they have been our companions, and wagering on their speed and stamina. This passion fostered complementary endeavours in breeding, training, thieving, and gambling.

The racing carnival still exerts an atavistic, oftimes addictive spell over riders, owners and punters alike. “The spectacle of race day echoes times and indeed conflicts past, the jockeys’ bright colours, representing a return of heraldry, a way of distinguishing otherwise indiscernable participants”.

It’s there you’ll see the jockeys and they’re mounted out so stately,
The pink, the blue, the orange and green, the emblem of our nation,
When the bell was rung for starting, all the horses seemed impatient,
I thought they never stood on ground their speed was so amazing
Galway Races (Ireland, traditional)

In horse racing, nothing and no one is hunted, only the shadows of time”, Raulff notes prosaicly.

American author EC Morgan is similarly lyrical: “Time is a horse you never have to whip”,

In That Howling Infinite recently published a review of Morgan’s masterwork The Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about an old Kentucky horse-breeding family. She displays an unerring instinct for metaphor and music. A horse’s neck shudders under its rider’s hands “like a dreaming dog”. Of the racehorses, she writes: “they exploded out of the gate like doves from a cote”; and, “now the school of horses swung round the turn as if caught in a sweep net”.

Raulff explains why horse racing was indeed ‘the sport of kings: Britain emerged as the world power of thoroughbred racing under the racIng-mad Stuart Kings who transformed the sleepy village of Newmarket into the Mecca of the turf, supplanting hunting with punting as the favourite pastime of the idle rich and the indolent upper classes. When Scots King James wasn’t corralling and coaxing the best minds in the land into producing his beautiful Bible, he was both patron and participant with a keen eye for quality horse-flesh.

Teenage Daydream

Did I mention that horses can be dangerous? They are large, high, broad, heavy, and for all their tameness in the hands of a seasoned rider, they can also be excitable, unpredictable, and wild.  When you take up the reins, you literally put your life in your hands. In My Early Life , his biography of his cavalry days, Winston Churchill wrote: “No hour of life is lost that is spent in the saddle. Young men have often been ruined by owning horses, or through backing horses, but never through riding them, unless, of course, they break their necks, which, taken at a gallop, is a very good way to die”.

But danger can come in other guises.

There was probably no way a cultural scientist trained in sociology and psychology could or would avoid how in its variegated pedigree, the horse has also figured as a sexual metaphor, conjuring up thoughts erotic with images of fair maids carried away by amorous riders. Raulff’s copious images include those famous abduction scenes beloved of renaissance painters, but there are many encounters in literature, art, cinema and song that are much less violent. It is as if the rider’s skill with his mount presages his prowess in the sack. There is titillation, there is temptation, and perhaps, surrender. Picture Ross Poldark cantering broodily across the Cornish clifftop, and lifting his Demelza up onto Seamus’ back (that is indeed his name).

True you ride the finest horse I’ve ever seen,
Standing sixteen one or two with eyes wild and green,
And you ride the horse so well, hands light to the touch.
I could never go with you no matter how I wanted to.
Jimmy McCarthy, Ride On (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Ross Poldark and Seamus

Ulrich gets into his stride, so to speak, when he commits to print his daydreams of the object of many a teenage baby boomers’ longing, the androgynous, pony-tailed cow-girl. He ponders also the puzzle of pubescent girls and horses – that tom-boy world, temporary “islands in the flowing river of time”: “Somewhere between a doll and a real-life partner, the horse is the ultimate sex toy. It’s the largest, most beautiful and final plaything before the transition from home and family to a new relationship with a sexual partner”.

Arwen Evenstar

Having raised the subject of women on horseback, there no ignoring the Amazons. Legend says that they were adept horse-women. As are the heroines of the literary canon who express their subversive sexuality in equestrian interludes – Emma Bovary, Anna Karenina, and Thomas Hardy’s Bathsheba Everdene. Each are subjected to the author’s affectionate attention. When JRR Tolkien wanted to present a strong and wilful heroine in his ostensibly homoerotic epic, he placed Éowyn on a horse, albeit incognito. But she was the exception to JRR’s macho rule. He would never have sent elf princess Arwen Evenstar out like that. But director Peter Jackson, sensing how well it would translate to film, substituted the luminous Liv Tyler for elf lord Glorfindel to confound the Nazgul riders at the ford of Bruinen.  Here is a Carey Mulligan in glamorous array as Bathsheba:

The Unequal Bargain

There are wealth of emotions associated with horses, such as pride and admiration, a desire for power, fear and joy, compassion, and companionship, and a lust for freedom. The pony is the cowboys’ closest pal. Western star and crooner Roy Rogers described it best:

Who carries your burden, who carries your load
On tumbleweed land or a long dusty road
Who asks you no questions, who tells you no lies
That four legged friend with the two honest eyes
A four legged friend, a four legged friend
He’ll never let you down
He’s honest and faithful right up to the end
That wonderful four legged friend
Roy Rogers, A Four Legged Friend (listen to the song at the end end of this post)

Over two millennia  we have lavished depthless emotion, boundless affection and unlimited treasure upon horses. But we have also been capable of great cruelty both casual and calculated,  – from willful neglect and senseless whipping to silent sacrifice as expendable extras on battlefields and motion picture sets. Raulff documents in prose and picture the violence inflicted upon our “four legged friend”, and also how pathos and sympathy for the horses’ plight evolved into a worldwide movement for the prevention of cruelty to all creatures great and small.

But  horses’ iconic place in our hearts and souls are sealed by their status as mobile metaphors of speed, of grace, of the wind in one’s hair, of wild, exhilarating, uninhibited freedom: “Run wild, run free”, like the troubled teen and the wild blue-eyed white colt in the 1969 British film of that name.

And it is with this in mind that Raulff concludes his epic ride, for it  is one of the most poignant paradoxes that the idea of freedom and movement associated with horses and being on horseback, the image of the wild mustangs in The Misfits and Banjo Paterson’s Colt from Old Regret, is juxtaposed with the reality that this “creature of the wind”, as the Arabs described him, has surrendered her freedom and free will in the service of man.

Quoting the poet Albrecht Schaefer, Raulff tells of how “the horse knows that it would like to be free…but the burden is never ending, and it is rarely allowed to run and has to stand there even when it is frightened and when it is seized by the urge to return to its nature, to flee…It is trapped in eternal captivity, always overshadowed by an inescapable will to which it resigns itself without ever realizing”.

This magnificent animal, Raulff  writes, “held in perpetual captivity, is seen by us as the epitome of all in nature that embodies nobility and magnanimity, stature, pride, and courage”.

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair
Leonard Cohen, The Ballad of the Absent Mare


 Epilogue

The Troubled Trail – an equine parable 

When the white man came into the new world, he brought his horses. He conquered the land and broke it – its ecology, its  pre-Columban history, and its people.

In the early years, the horses of the conquistadors humbled and harried the Native Americans. In time, many horses scattered and ran wild, and on the open prairie grasslands, they prospered and multiplied. The free people of the plains captured and tamed those feral mustangs, and so mounted, were better able to travel over great distances to fresh pastures and to the wide grazing grounds of the vast herds of buffalo, a rich source of food and fashion.

The horse gave the Native Americans mobility and speed, and an economic asset of value. They began trading horses with their neighbours, and also horse stealing, whilst their mounts gave them the edge in their territorial vendettas with neighbouring tribes. They bought steel axes and knives From the white traders who ventured into their lands from the east, and also, firearms which augmented their already effective mounted archery. This gave them a tactical edge when they first came up against the mounted soldiers of the US Army.

They were a formidable foe, their speed and manoeuvrability and their skill with bow and rifle, were more than a match for the clumsy, old-school heavy cavalry, and these, indeed, were compelled to adjust their own style and tactics to match their guerrilla adversaries, taking up light weapons – carbines and revolvers – and fighting on foot as circumstances dictated.

The irony of the Battle of Little Big Horn is that George Armstrong Custer and his men rode on to a battlefield in which they were out-horsed, outgunned, and outmanoeuvred by their numerically stronger foe. But the US Army exacted a terrible revenge for Little Big Horn. The days of the Plains Indian were numbered as the army and the hunters destroyed the buffalo herds that fed and clothed the tribes, and killed their horses, ending forever their wandering ways. As Neil Young was later to sing in Pocahontas:

They killed us in our tepee
And they cut our women down
They might have left some babies
Cryin’ on the ground
But the firesticks and the wagons come
And the night falls on the setting sun

Frederic Remington’s Braves


The Ballad of the Absent Mare

Leonard Cohen 

Say a prayer for the cowboy
His mare’s run away
And he’ll walk til he finds her
His darling, his stray
But the river’s in flood
And the roads are awash
And the bridges break up
In the panic of loss.

And there’s nothing to follow
There’s nowhere to go
She’s gone like the summer
Gone like the snow
And the crickets are breaking
His heart with their song
As the day caves in
And the night is all wrong

Did he dream, was it she
Who went galloping past
And bent down the fern
Broke open the grass
And printed the mud with
The iron and the gold
That he nailed to her feet
When he was the lord

And although she goes grazing
A minute away
He tracks her all night
He tracks her all day
Oh blind to her presence
Except to compare
His injury here
With her punishment there

Then at home on a branch
In the highest tree
A songbird sings out
So suddenly
Ah the sun is warm
And the soft winds ride
On the willow trees
By the river side

Oh the world is sweet
The world is wide
And she’s there where
The light and the darkness divide
And the steam’s coming off her
She’s huge and she’s shy
And she steps on the moon
When she paws at the sky

And she comes to his hand
But she’s not really tame
She longs to be lost
He longs for the same
And she’ll bolt and she’ll plunge
Through the first open pass
To roll and to feed
In the sweet mountain grass

Or she’ll make a break
For the high plateau
Where there’s nothing above
And there’s nothing below
And it’s time for the burden
It’s time for the whip
Will she walk through the flame
Can he shoot from the hip

So he binds himself
To the galloping mare
And she binds herself
To the rider there
And there is no space
But there’s left and right
And there is no time
But there’s day and night

And he leans on her neck
And he whispers low
“Whither thou goest
I will go”
And they turn as one
And they head for the plain
No need for the whip
Ah, no need for the rein

Now the clasp of this union
Who fastens it tight?
Who snaps it asunder
The very next night
Some say the rider
Some say the mare
Or that love’s like the smoke
Beyond all repair

But my darling says
“Leonard, just let it go by
That old silhouette
On the great western sky”
So I pick out a tune
And they move right along
And they’re gone like the smoke
And they’re gone like this song

 

Grosvenor Square, London 1968

Poll Tax Riots, London 1990

Grosvenor Square 1968

Why “in that howling infinite”?

It refers to Herman Melville’s “Moby Dick”,  a magnificent study in mania and obsession:

“But as in landlessness alone resides highest truth, shoreless, indefinite as God – so better is it to perish in that howling infinite, than be ingloriously dashed upon the lee, even if that were safety!”   Chapter 23

In a figurative sense, it speaks to me of the themes and schemes that are addressed in the thoughts, ideas, songs, poems and stories that will feature in this blog.

Other memorable quotations follow:

“For long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched out in one hammock as his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another, and so interfusing, made him mad”.  Chapter 41

“Drink, ye harpooneers! drink and swear, ye men that man the deathful whaleboat’s bow — Death to Moby Dick! God hunt us all, if we do not hunt Moby Dick to his death!”   Chapter 36

“Now small fowls flew screaming over the yet yawning gulf; a sullen white surf beat against its steep sides; then all collapsed, and the great shroud of the sea rolled on as it rolled five thousand years ago”.  Chapter 135

In That Howling Infinite is the title of Poems of Paul Hemphill, Volume Five.

For more on  Captain Ahab and Moby Dick, see Chapter 41 and Ahab’s Madness.

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Ahab’s Paranoia The New Yorker

Moby-Dick

Drink, ye harpooneers! Drink and swear, ye men…

Continue reading

Deconstructing Dunkirk

During the closing scenes of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, the journalist says: “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend”.

Acclaimed British historian Max Hastings examines the reality of the events behind Christopher Nolan’s blockbuster whilst pricking the illusions and delusions of the Brexit balloon. “The irony…is that Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone”. “Wars” said Winston, “are not won by evacuations”.

“After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us”.

Whilst these are Hasting’s principal themes, he also demolishes a couple of common misconceptions. Firstly, the Dunkirk “miracle”, impressive as it was, was not the only major evacuation that harrowing summer. A few weeks later, “some 144,000 British troops, together with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Allied soldiers, were brought to England. Only historians are much aware of this “second Dunkirk”. Secondly, soldiers on the beach and commentaries thereafter talk of how the “bloody RAF!” was nowhere to be seen in the skies above Dunkirk. Recent archival research how shown that the RAF was indeed active in the hinterland, suffering heavy losses as it fought to prevent reinforcements and materiel reaching the Wehrmacht and and as it attacked the Luftwaffe before it hit the beaches.

For more posts by In That Howling Infinite, visit:
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Splendid Isolation
Max Hastings, New York Review of Books, October 12 2017

Christopher Nolan’s epic movie about the rescue of the British army from the beaches of northeastern France in May 1940 has become a worldwide box office success. This is splendid news for its makers, and can do no harm to American, Taiwanese, or for that matter Rajput audiences. In the eyes of some of us, however, its impact upon the British people is calamitous at this moment in our fortunes.

Dunkirk contains no foreigners except a few understandably grumpy French soldiers. It is a British tale that feeds the myth that has brought Churchill’s nation to the cliff edge of departure from the European Union: there is splendor in being alone. This was most vividly expressed at the time by King George VI, who wrote to his mother: “Personally I feel happier now that we have no allies to be polite to & pamper.” One of the British officers who escaped with his battalion via the beaches greeted news that the French had surrendered on June 17 by exulting mindlessly to his comrades in the mess: “Thank heavens they have, now at last we can get on with the war.”

Michael Korda, for decades a celebrated New York publisher, was born in Britain in 1933; his father was Vincent Korda, one of three Hungarian-born brothers who were cinema wizards of their day. Now he offers two books for the price of one, interweaving a historical narrative of the events of 1939–1940, climaxing with Dunkirk, and a succession of vivid fragments of autobiography. He describes the flow of Jewish refugees through the North London homes of his childhood: “They had the haunted look of people who have just witnessed a bad accident, people with aggressive charm and formal manners who had grown up with the Kordas in Túrkeve, or had been to university in Budapest with Alex, or loaned him money, or worked with my father on film sets in Vienna, Paris or Berlin.”

Vacationing in France in the summer of 1939, as the world tumbled toward catastrophe, he recalls his actress mother constantly reprising the comic hit song of the day “Tout va très bien, Madame La Marquise,” which tells of an aristocratic woman on holiday who calls home to check that all is well and hears from her servants of one catastrophe after another, each described as “a little incident, a nothing,” culminating in the suicide of her husband and the incineration of her château. Korda writes: “Even as a boy of six, I observed that everybody in France talked about la ligne Maginot reverentially as if it were a holy object.”

He is very funny about his family’s experiences embarking on the film That Hamilton Woman, which eventually became one of Churchill’s favorites: his father, as set designer, failed to grasp that this was a tale of Admiral Nelson. Supposing it to be about General Wellington, he began to create a backdrop for the Duchess of Richmond’s ball in Brussels before Waterloo.

Once the European struggle began in earnest with the launch of Hitler’s blitzkrieg, Korda writes, “my mother, when she thought about the war at all, had the cheerful conviction that everything would work out well in the end because it always had for Britain, except for the war against the American colonies, and that was too long ago to matter.” He discerns among Britain’s modern Brexiters the mood that he himself witnessed after Dunkirk.

This comparison seems valid. Boris Johnson, Liam Fox, Michael Gove, David Davis, Iain Duncan Smith, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and their misbegotten Tory kin daily assure the British people that once we have cast off the shackles that bind us to Europe, caravels laden with the spoils of free trade will bring gold, frankincense, and myrrh to our island; as an added bonus, the sun will shine every day. Watching Dunkirk, I half-expected Foreign Secretary Johnson to appear in lieu of Winston Churchill, promising to hurl back the Hunnish hordes led by Angela Merkel, and to show no mercy to such knock-kneed Pétainistes as France’s Emmanuel Macron.

The irony, of course, is that Churchill himself never saw anything in the least glorious about standing alone. In May and June 1940 he moved heaven and earth—even fantastically offering Paul Reynaud’s government political union with Britain—to persuade France to stay in the war rather than sign an armistice. When the Nazis invaded Russia in June 1941, Churchill embraced the tyranny of Stalin, morally hard to distinguish from that of Hitler, and greeted the Russians as comrades in arms. The foremost objective of his premiership was to woo the United States into belligerence.

No man understood better than Churchill that while Britain might somehow avert defeat, without fighting alongside friends it could not conceivably aspire to victory. Only necessity and a supremely courageous willingness to defy reason, which many British politicians and generals felt unable to share, caused him in June 1940 to proclaim his country’s determination to fight to the last.

Our most eminent living historian, Sir Michael Howard, who lived through that era relatively early in his ninety-four years, observed to me recently: “The great lesson of my lifetime is that all difficult problems and challenges are best addressed with partners and allies.” This is the wisdom that the modern Brexiters seek to trample. They find the “Dunkirk spirit” refreshingly bracing, which Churchill certainly did not. “I cannot say that I have enjoyed being Prime Minister v[er]y much so far,” he wrote wryly on June 4, 1940, to one of his predecessors, Stanley Baldwin.

 

And so to the Nolan film. It possesses many of the virtues and vices of Steven Spielberg’s epics, wrapped in a Union flag instead of the Stars and Stripes. It looks terrific, though it is noisier than any battle I have ever attended. It contains some adequate acting, reminiscent of the silent movie era, because the stars deliver few coherent lines, being merely required to look staunch, stressed, and indomitable at appropriate moments.

The film opens with unseen Germans firing on a group of British soldiers in the deserted streets of Dunkirk, killing all but one, Tommy (Fionn Whitehead), whose experiences during the ensuing week, on the beaches and offshore, form a principal theme of what follows. At intervals between being bombed and strafed by the Luftwaffe, Tommy and various companions board ships in hopes of escape, only to find each in turn stricken. Nolan offers some extraordinary sinking scenes: Tommy’s escapes make Leonardo DiCaprio’s misfortunes aboard the Titanic seem tame stuff.

Meanwhile the Royal Navy has commandeered a host of small boats from the harbors of the South Coast and dispatched them to aid the evacuation. One boat owner, named Dawson (Mark Rylance), sets forth with his teenage son, Peter (Tom Glynn-Carney), and a young helper named George (Barry Keoghan). Their first encounter with the war comes when they rescue a traumatized soldier (Cillian Murphy) from a floating hulk. He is so appalled on finding that they are heading for Dunkirk, from which he has just escaped, that he tries to seize control of the boat, hurling George onto a ladder below, which his head strikes with fatal effect—a mawkish moment.

Meanwhile in the air, there are spectacular scenes as three Spitfires duel with the Luftwaffe over the Channel. One RAF pilot (Jack Lowden) ditches in the sea, from which he is rescued by Dawson and his son. As they then approach the beaches amid a throng of such craft, a colonel on the Dunkirk mole (an old term for a pier or jetty) asks the Royal Navy’s Commander Bolton (Kenneth Branagh) what the boats mean. Branagh offers a performance as the elegant, unruffled naval officer that Noël Coward—who played Captain Kinross, based on Lord Mountbatten, in that notable wartime weepie In Which We Serve—might identify with. Bolton answers the colonel laconically: “Hope.” In the cinema where I saw the film, at that moment the audience burst into applause.

The small boats, including Dawson’s, load up with soldiers amid worsening perils—oil from a sunken minesweeper blazes on the water—before setting course for home and a heroes’ welcome. Commander Bolton gallantly lingers on the mole to ensure that some French soldiers can also get away. He remarks wryly that it has been not a bad fortnight’s work to rescue 338,000 British, French, and Belgian troops, when at the outset it was thought that no more than 30,000 could be taken off. Back home, the rescued Tommy reads in a newspaper Churchill’s heroic words to the nation, concluding with the vow that Britain will never surrender.

Most of us would agree that no work of art, whether novel, play, or film, has a responsibility to represent history accurately, any more than Shakespeare did, or David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan opens with a thirty-minute portrayal of the 1944 D-Day landings that is as vivid and realistic as anything we are ever likely to see on screen. Thereafter, however, that film deteriorates into routine Superman stuff that bears no relationship to anything that happened to US soldiers in Normandy. The mini-series Band of Brothers is a superb piece of filmmaking, probably the best ever made about Americans in World War II, but it is suffused with the romanticism that colors all of Spielberg’s work as well as much of that of Stephen Ambrose, who wrote the book from which it derives.

Nonetheless, for the record, we shall consider how far Nolan’s film tells the Dunkirk story like it was. There is no historical background to explain why the British army found itself on the beaches. On May 10, 1940, Hitler invaded France and the Low Countries. The British army, together with a substantial French force, promptly hastened north into Belgium, expecting the Germans to reprise their 1914 Schlieffen offensive.

Instead, however, in fulfillment of the only authentic personal inspiration of Hitler’s career as a warlord, the Wehrmacht’s main thrust pushed through the Ardennes, meeting the French army where it was weakest and bursting across the Meuse. The British found themselves falling back, fighting desultory actions but chiefly making haste to avoid encirclement. When the panzers reached the Channel coast, cutting off the British, the Belgians, and the French Seventh Army from the bulk of France’s forces further south, evacuation became the only plausible, though immensely difficult, option.

The first miracle of Dunkirk was that the German army scarcely interfered with the evacuation, partly because Hermann Goering assured Hitler that the Luftwaffe could dispose of the British, and partly because Churchill’s contingent was marginal alongside the forty-three divisions of the French army still in the field further south. There was no ground fighting in the town or port, so Nolan’s opening scene is spurious.

In the film, all the big ships seeking to rescue troops are sunk in dramatic circumstances, leaving small craft to do the business. This is a travesty. The Royal Navy sent thirty-nine destroyers to Dunkirk, of which only six were sunk, although many were damaged. Two thirds of all the men brought home sailed in big ships, notably including the destroyers, just one third in smaller ones.

The film shows air battles low over the Channel, whereas many soldiers came home full of bitterness toward the RAF because they never saw its aircraft: combat took place thousands of feet above, invisible to those on the ground or at sea. On the British side, it was dominated by Hurricanes, not Spitfires. Nolan shows a fighter floating for some minutes after ditching, whereas the huge Rolls-Royce Merlin engine in its nose would have sent the plane plunging to the bottom within seconds.

The character of Dawson may owe something to Charles Lightoller, a former officer on the Titanic who at the age of sixty-six took his boat Sundowner to Dunkirk, accompanied by his son and a friend, and brought home 120 men. Commander Bolton’s role at Dunkirk was fulfilled in reality by Captain Bill Tennant, who did a superb job as senior naval officer. Oddly enough Tennant, as evidenced by his diary, later became a bitter critic of Churchill’s war leadership.

Onscreen, endless British soldiers perish. Michael Korda suggests that the British army’s rate of loss was “comparable to that in the bloodiest battles of the First World War or the American Civil War, and an indication of just how hard the fighting was.” Yet what was remarkable about the real event was how few men died. In the entire May–June 1940 campaign, including Dunkirk and later episodes, just 11,000 British troops were killed, compared with at least 50,000 French dead.

A further 41,000 British troops were taken prisoner by the Germans, but alongside the 193,000 brought home, the “butcher’s bill” was small. General Sir Harold Alexander, who commanded the rear guard, told Anthony Eden on his return: “We were not hard pressed, you know.” This remark is sometimes cited as an example of his bent for heroic understatement, but was no more than the truth.

Cinema audiences are left to assume that after Dunkirk, the British sat down on their island and prepared to resist the Nazis on the beaches. In truth, in one of Churchill’s more spectacular follies, he promptly insisted upon dispatching another two divisions, one of them newly arrived Canadians, to Normandy and Brittany to show the French government and people that Britain remained committed to fight on at their side.

His chief of staff, Major General “Pug” Ismay, gently suggested to the prime minister that it might be wise for these troops to proceed slowly toward France, since it was obviously doomed. “Certainly not,” replied Churchill angrily. “It would look very bad in history if we were to do any such thing.” Few great actors on the stage of world affairs have been so mindful of the verdict of future generations. On June 13, four days before the French surrender and nine days after the Dunkirk evacuation ended, British soldiers were still landing at Breton ports.

By yet another miracle, within days of arrival in France their commander, Lieutenant General Sir Alan Brooke, persuaded Churchill that they must come home. This time there were no beaches—they embarked through the ports. Many prisoners, tanks, and vehicles, including the entire 51st Highland Division, fell into German hands and there was a spectacular disaster when the liner Lancastria, carrying over three thousand men, was sunk by air attack.

But thanks to Brooke, the prime minister was spared from evil consequences of his reckless gesture. Some 144,000 British troops, together with 24,352 Poles and 42,000 other Allied soldiers, were brought to England. Only historians are much aware of this “second Dunkirk,” and it seems ill-natured to make much of the fact that of 100,000 French soldiers brought to Britain, even De Gaulle at his most sanguine admitted that only one third agreed to serve with his newly created Free French forces, while the remainder preferred repatriation to France.

As for the British people, for the rest of 1940—the mood turned sourer in the following year—they did indeed display a stoicism and even euphoria as irrational as today’s Brexiter exultation. The MP Harold Nicolson wrote in his diary on June 15:

My reason tells me that it will now be almost impossible to beat the Germans, and that the probability is that France will surrender and that we shall be bombed and invaded…. Yet these probabilities do not fill me with despair. I seem to be impervious both to pleasure and pain. For the moment we are all anaesthetised.

The writer Peter Fleming, then an army staff officer, wrote in a similar vein: “It was as though the whole country had been invited to a fancy-dress ball and everybody was asking everybody else “What are you going as?” A latent incredulity [gave]…problems connected with invasion the status of engrossing digressions from the main business of life…. The British, when their ally was pole-axed on their doorstep, became both gayer and more serene than they had been at any time since the overture to Munich struck up in 1937.

Among countless reasons for revering Churchill’s performance in 1940 is that he himself never for a moment succumbed to such silliness. Though he justly described Dunkirk as a deliverance, he also warned the House of Commons and the nation that “wars are not won by evacuations.” He knew that while the men had been brought home, almost all their weapons and equipment had been lost: the British army was effectively disarmed.

Thereafter he and his nation set the world a magnificent example of defiance. But it was an impotent defiance, from which both Britain and democracy were redeemed only by the belated arrival of allies. It was 1944 before Churchill’s soldiers, aided by huge infusions of American men, matériel, and especially tanks, were fit to face a major European battlefield.

In the intervening four years, relatively tiny British forces fought the Germans in North Africa and Italy, and a large imperial army surrendered to the Japanese at Singapore in February 1942. Contrary to persisting British delusions, Hitler’s enmity and ambitions always focused on the East. Because of his invasion of Russia, the British and later the Americans were granted the priceless luxury of being able to prepare at leisure for the belated June 1944 liberation of northwest Europe: the band of brothers of the US 101st Airborne Division, for instance, spent almost two years in uniform before hearing a shot fired in anger.

Michael Korda suggests that thanks to the final triumph in 1945, “Dunkirk was, and remains, perhaps the greatest British victory of World War Two, that rarest of historical events—a military defeat with a happy ending.” This assertion stretches a very large point, not least because Churchill himself regarded the outcome of World War II as anything but happy, since Britain’s voice in the world, not to mention his own, had become so much diminished.

It would be unreasonable to demand that Christopher Nolan should have injected more than a fraction of these realities into his Dunkirk. The most absurd assaults on the film come from India, where critics complain that he does not feature the two companies of Indian service troops who were present on the beaches. This is comparable to the British wailing when Saving Private Ryan appeared that their soldiers were absent without leave from the screen. I wrote at the time that if any nation wants its part in any conflict glorified, it must make the films for itself.

Nolan seems to deserve congratulations for declining to include even a token American, for decades a prerequisite for securing a US audience for a British war movie. Indeed, this imperative so intimidated many British directors and their screenwriters that gallant American characters were often depicted showing the stupid English how battles should be fought.

This latest epic represents a version of history little worse than The Longest Day, A Bridge Too Far, or The Guns of Navarone. Some of us are grateful that so many schoolchildren are going to see it, because they will at least discover that in 1940 there were beaches, the rescue of an army, and sacrifice and considerable fortitude by their forefathers. Britain’s grown-ups, however, should have been forcibly denied entrance to cinemas at this moment when we are threatened with embarkation upon one of the most self-indulgent, willfully foolish acts of self-harm in the nation’s history.

For all the charm of Michael Korda’s personal reminiscence of 1939–1940, he is on much less sure ground in his narrative of the big events, partly because he is obviously a romantic, and partly because he relies heavily on elderly sources, including the British official history of the campaign in France, much of which is tosh. He is surely right, however, to conclude his book by comparing the emotions of the modern Brexiters with those of the British in June 1940: “There was a national sense of relief…at leaving the Continent and withdrawing behind the White Cliffs of Dover.” After Brexit takes place I fear that this time around we shall be unable to rely upon the Russians to stage a grand diversion in the East to spare us from the hideous economic, social, cultural, and political consequences of attempting to fight on alone, without the impeccable justification that Hitler has forced such a course upon us.

 

Otis Redding – an unfinished life

Fifty years after his untimely death, a fabulous retrospective of the life, times, and musical greatness of Otis Redding:

Five magnificent years of an unfinished life. 

Singer-songwriter Otis Redding was born on September 9, 1941, in Dawson, Georgia. He became known the voice of soul music. Just as his career was taking off, he died in a plane crash on December 10, 1967. “(Sittin’ on) The Dock of the Bay” became posthumously his first and only Number One hit in January 1968.

Also, In That Howling Infinite, read:  The Strange Death of Sam Cooke

 

Weighing the White Man’s Burden

By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.
Rudyard Kipling

And where the crazy whiteman
And his teargas happiness
Lies dead and long since buried
By his own fantastic mess
Roy Harper

As a young lad in Birmingham, my school chums and I would be enthralled by a world map covered in red – the empire upon which the sun never set. As Britain turns its back on Europe, it would seem that quite a few folk are still enamoured of the defunct Imperium. A 2014 YouGov opinion poll that found 59% British people polled believed the old British Empire was something to be proud of. 34% wished they still had one.

Back in the day, we’d do school projects about cocoa cultivation on the Gold Coast (now Ghana, not our Australian schoolies’ mecca), rubber trees in Malaya and East Africa, and tea plantations in Assam and Ceylon – enhanced by attractive, child-friendly posters and other educational aids provided gratis by the likes of Cadbury, Dunlop and Typhoo. That these household names had factories in our industrial ‘second city’ which encouraged school outings rendered the wonders of empire all the more tangible.

In the Britain of my childhood, the “silent sullen peoples” of Rudyard Kipling’s famous poem were beginning to “colour-up” (pun quite intended) our monochrome, white-bread, demographic cityscape. The bleak and bland streets and suburbs of our English and Irish Birmingham were already rocking with new sounds and flavours, from the ska and reggae beats of Sparkhill to the spicy aromas of Balsall Heath and Alum Rock. There was prejudice, there was discrimination, there was at times violence, but as Britain emerged from the austerity of the war years, as the bombed cities were rebuilt, and a resuscitated economy created a consumer society, labour shortages persuaded politicians to facilitate mass immigration from the empire – and particularly, from the West Indies and the Indian subcontinent

Words like imperialism and colonialism, economics and exploitation, were yet to enter our vocabularies. The colonies and dependencies spread across all continents, and the ‘grown-up’ white ‘commonwealths’ and ‘dominions’ like Australia, New Zealand, Canada, South Africa, and Rhodesia, were the friends, partners, and indeed, children of the mother country.

It was, we perceived, in the innocence of youth and the blinkers of our school curricula, a benign and fruitful partnership of mutual benefit to all. “To serve our captives’ need”, we gave them our civilizing, Judeo-Christian, Anglo-Celtic values, our able and empathetic if patronizing and prejudiced administrators, our gallant soldiers, pious pastors, selfless doctors and inspiring teachers. They in return yielded up their natural resources and an abundance of cheap labour, and when the Empire was imperiled, they despatched their young men in their thousands to perish in our wars.

We were not to know that the mournful notes of the Last Post were sounding across a changing post-war world. The Union Jack was was descending on buildings and parade grounds the world over as unfamiliar new flags were raised in their stead. Tired, broke, and damaged Britain was retreating from Empire, as were France and the Netherlands, and a new imperium was rising in the west. Within a decade, India, and Pakistan and Ceylon were joined by Indonesia, and a score of young nations emerged throughout Africa. France fought long and bloody wars in Vietnam and Algeria to cling on to its colonial patrimony, and it too finally let go of its “fluttered folk and wild”.

And we were not to know the reality of Britain’s “mission civilatrice”. From the seventeenth century, the European colonizing powers were enmeshed by trade, greed, and national aggrandizement in what today we would define as “mission creep”. Distant posts morphed over three centuries into vast bureaucracies, mines and plantations that underwrote the North’s industrial and commercial hegemony, and into societies ruled by white, expatriate elites and segregated by class, caste, clan and colour.

How all this played out in The Raj is described in detail by politician and historian Shashi Tharoor in Inglorious Empire: What the British did in India.  This is reproduced below, together with a video, whilst the full Kipling poem, a song by Roy Harper, and a review by Australian author Christopher Kremmer follows.

Read also my earlier posts on India and the passing of Empire:

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But what about the railways…? The myth of Britain’s gifts to India 

Shashi Tharour, The Gusrdian, March 9, 2017

Holding court ... the lieutenant-general of the Punjab takes tea with maharajas and Rajas in 1875.
The lieutenant-general of the Punjab takes tea with maharajas and Rajas in 1875. Photograph: Popperfoto
Many modern apologists for British colonial rule in India no longer contest the basic facts of imperial exploitation and plunder, rapacity and loot, which are too deeply documented to be challengeable. Instead they offer a counter-argument: granted, the British took what they could for 200 years, but didn’t they also leave behind a great deal of lasting benefit? In particular, political unity and democracy, the rule of law, railways, English education, even tea and cricket?

Indeed, the British like to point out that the very idea of “India” as one entity (now three, but one during the British Raj), instead of multiple warring principalities and statelets, is the incontestable contribution of British imperial rule.

Unfortunately for this argument, throughout the history of the subcontinent, there has existed an impulsion for unity. The idea of India is as old as the Vedas, the earliest Hindu scriptures, which describe “Bharatvarsha” as the land between the Himalayas and the seas. If this “sacred geography” is essentially a Hindu idea, Maulana Azad has written of how Indian Muslims, whether Pathans from the north-west or Tamils from the south, were all seen by Arabs as “Hindis”, hailing from a recognisable civilisational space. Numerous Indian rulers had sought to unite the territory, with the Mauryas (three centuries before Christ) and the Mughals coming the closest by ruling almost 90% of the subcontinent. Had the British not completed the job, there is little doubt that some Indian ruler, emulating his forerunners, would have done so.

Divide and rule ... an English dignitary rides in an Indian procession, c1754. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
 Divide and rule … an English dignitary rides in an Indian procession, c1754. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

Far from crediting Britain for India’s unity and enduring parliamentary democracy, the facts point clearly to policies that undermined it – the dismantling of existing political institutions, the fomenting of communal division and systematic political discrimination with a view to maintaining British domination.

Since the British came from a hierarchical society with an entrenched class system, they instinctively looked for a similar one in India. The effort to understand ethnic, religious, sectarian and caste differences among Britain’s subjects inevitably became an exercise in defining, dividing and perpetuating these differences. Thus colonial administrators regularly wrote reports and conducted censuses that classified Indians in ever-more bewilderingly narrow terms, based on their language, religion, sect, caste, sub-caste, ethnicity and skin colour. Not only were ideas of community reified, but also entire new communities were created by people who had not consciously thought of themselves as particularly different from others around them.

Large-scale conflicts between Hindus and Muslims (religiously defined), only began under colonial rule; many other kinds of social strife were labelled as religious due to the colonists’ orientalist assumption that religion was the fundamental division in Indian society.

Muslim refugees cram aboard a train during the partition conflict in 1947 ... the railways were first conceived by the East India Company for its own benefit. Photograph: AP
Muslim refugees cram aboard a train during the partition conflict in 1947 … the railways were first conceived by the East India Company for its own benefit. Photograph: AP

 

It is questionable whether a totalising Hindu or Muslim identity existed in any meaningful sense in India before the 19th century. Yet the creation and perpetuation of Hindu–Muslim antagonism was the most significant accomplishment of British imperial policy: the project of divide et impera would reach its culmination in the collapse of British authority in 1947. Partition left behind a million dead, 13 million displaced, billions of rupees of property destroyed, and the flames of communal hatred blazing hotly across the ravaged land. No greater indictment of the failures of British rule in India can be found than the tragic manner of its ending.

Nor did Britain work to promote democratic institutions under imperial rule, as it liked to pretend. Instead of building self-government from the village level up, the East India Company destroyed what existed. The British ran government, tax collection, and administered what passed for justice. Indians were excluded from all of these functions. When the crown eventually took charge of the country, it devolved smidgens of government authority, from the top, to unelected provincial and central “legislative” councils whose members represented a tiny educated elite, had no accountability to the masses, passed no meaningful legislation, exercised no real power and satisfied themselves they had been consulted by the government even if they took no actual decisions.

As late as 1920, under the Montagu-Chelmsford “reforms”, Indian representatives on the councils – elected by a franchise so restricted and selective that only one in 250 Indians had the right to vote – would exercise control over subjects the British did not care about, like education and health, while real power, including taxation, law and order and the authority to nullify any vote by the Indian legislators, would rest with the British governor of the provinces.

Democracy, in other words, had to be prised from the reluctant grasp of the British by Indian nationalists. It is a bit rich to oppress, torture, imprison, enslave, deport and proscribe a people for 200 years, and then take credit for the fact that they are democratic at the end of it.

A corollary of the argument that Britain gave India political unity and democracy is that it established the rule of law in the country. This was, in many ways, central to the British self-conception of imperial purpose; Kipling, that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism, would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it. But British law had to be imposed upon an older and more complex civilisation with its own legal culture, and the British used coercion and cruelty to get their way. And in the colonial era, the rule of law was not exactly impartial.

Crimes committed by whites against Indians attracted minimal punishment; an Englishmen who shot dead his Indian servant got six months’ jail time and a modest fine (then about 100 rupees), while an Indian convicted of attempted rape against an Englishwoman was sentenced to 20 years of rigorous imprisonment. In the entire two centuries of British rule, only three cases can be found of Englishmen executed for murdering Indians, while the murders of thousands more at British hands went unpunished.

The death of an Indian at British hands was always an accident, and that of a Briton because of an Indian’s actions always a capital crime. When a British master kicked an Indian servant in the stomach – a not uncommon form of conduct in those days – the Indian’s resultant death from a ruptured spleen would be blamed on his having an enlarged spleen as a result of malaria. Punch wrote an entire ode to The Stout British Boot as the favoured instrument of keeping the natives in order.

Political dissidence was legally repressed through various acts, including a sedition law far more rigorous than its British equivalent. The penal code contained 49 articles on crimes relating to dissent against the state (and only 11 on crimes involving death).

Rudyard Kipling, ‘that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it’. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images
Rudyard Kipling, ‘that flatulent voice of Victorian imperialism would wax eloquent on the noble duty to bring law to those without it’. Photograph: Culture Club/Getty Images

 

Of course the British did give India the English language, the benefits of which persist to this day. Or did they? The English language was not a deliberate gift to India, but again an instrument of colonialism, imparted to Indians only to facilitate the tasks of the English. In his notorious 1835 Minute on Education, Lord Macaulay articulated the classic reason for teaching English, but only to a small minority of Indians: “We must do our best to form a class who may be interpreters between us and the millions whom we govern; a class of persons, Indians in blood and colour, but English in taste, in opinions, in morals and in intellect.”

The language was taught to a few to serve as intermediaries between the rulers and the ruled. The British had no desire to educate the Indian masses, nor were they willing to budget for such an expense. That Indians seized the English language and turned it into an instrument for our own liberation – using it to express nationalist sentiments against the British – was to their credit, not by British design.

The construction of the Indian Railways is often pointed to by apologists for empire as one of the ways in which British colonialism benefited the subcontinent, ignoring the obvious fact that many countries also built railways without having to go to the trouble and expense of being colonised to do so. But the facts are even more damning.

The railways were first conceived of by the East India Company, like everything else in that firm’s calculations, for its own benefit. Governor General Lord Hardinge argued in 1843 that the railways would be beneficial “to the commerce, government and military control of the country”. In their very conception and construction, the Indian railways were a colonial scam. British shareholders made absurd amounts of money by investing in the railways, where the government guaranteed returns double those of government stocks, paid entirely from Indian, and not British, taxes. It was a splendid racket for Britons, at the expense of the Indian taxpayer.

The railways were intended principally to transport extracted resources – coal, iron ore, cotton and so on – to ports for the British to ship home to use in their factories. The movement of people was incidental, except when it served colonial interests; and the third-class compartments, with their wooden benches and total absence of amenities, into which Indians were herded, attracted horrified comment even at the time.

Asserting British rule during the war of independence, also known as the Indian mutiny, 1857. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images
 Asserting British rule during the war of independence, also known as the Indian mutiny, 1857. Photograph: Universal History Archive/Getty Images

 

And, of course, racism reigned; though whites-only compartments were soon done away with on grounds of economic viability, Indians found the available affordable space grossly inadequate for their numbers. (A marvellous post-independence cartoon captured the situation perfectly: it showed an overcrowded train, with people hanging off it, clinging to the windows, squatting perilously on the roof, and spilling out of their third-class compartments, while two Britons in sola topis sit in an empty first-class compartment saying to each other, “My dear chap, there’s nobody on this train!”)

Nor were Indians employed in the railways. The prevailing view was that the railways would have to be staffed almost exclusively by Europeans to “protect investments”. This was especially true of signalmen, and those who operated and repaired the steam trains, but the policy was extended to the absurd level that even in the early 20th century all the key employees, from directors of the Railway Board to ticket-collectors, were white men – whose salaries and benefits were also paid at European, not Indian, levels and largely repatriated back to England.

Racism combined with British economic interests to undermine efficiency. The railway workshops in Jamalpur in Bengal and Ajmer in Rajputana were established in 1862 to maintain the trains, but their Indian mechanics became so adept that in 1878 they started designing and building their own locomotives. Their success increasingly alarmed the British, since the Indian locomotives were just as good, and a great deal cheaper, than the British-made ones. In 1912, therefore, the British passed an act of parliament explicitly making it impossible for Indian workshops to design and manufacture locomotives. Between 1854 and 1947, India imported around 14,400 locomotives from England, and another 3,000 from Canada, the US and Germany, but made none in India after 1912. After independence, 35 years later, the old technical knowledge was so completely lost to India that the Indian Railways had to go cap-in-hand to the British to guide them on setting up a locomotive factory in India again. There was, however, a fitting postscript to this saga. The principal technology consultants for Britain’s railways, the London-based Rendel, today rely extensively on Indian technical expertise, provided to them by Rites, a subsidiary of the Indian Railways.

Mother and children ... the British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27 and over 90% living below the poverty line.
The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27 and over 90% living below the poverty line. Photograph: Bettmann/Bettmann Archive

 

The process of colonial rule in India meant economic exploitation and ruin to millions, the destruction of thriving industries, the systematic denial of opportunities to compete, the elimination of indigenous institutions of governance, the transformation of lifestyles and patterns of living that had flourished since time immemorial, and the obliteration of the most precious possessions of the colonised, their identities and their self-respect. In 1600, when the East India Company was established, Britain was producing just 1.8% of the world’s GDP, while India was generating some 23% (27% by 1700). By 1940, after nearly two centuries of the Raj, Britain accounted for nearly 10% of world GDP, while India had been reduced to a poor “third-world” country, destitute and starving, a global poster child of poverty and famine. The British left a society with 16% literacy, a life expectancy of 27, practically no domestic industry and over 90% living below what today we would call the poverty line.

The India the British entered was a wealthy, thriving and commercialising society: that was why the East India Company was interested in it in the first place. Far from being backward or underdeveloped, pre-colonial India exported high quality manufactured goods much sought after by Britain’s fashionable society. The British elite wore Indian linen and silks, decorated their homes with Indian chintz and decorative textiles, and craved Indian spices and seasonings. In the 17th and 18th centuries, British shopkeepers tried to pass off shoddy English-made textiles as Indian in order to charge higher prices for them.

The story of India, at different phases of its several-thousand-year-old civilisational history, is replete with great educational institutions, magnificent cities ahead of any conurbations of their time anywhere in the world, pioneering inventions, world-class manufacturing and industry, and abundant prosperity – in short, all the markers of successful modernity today – and there is no earthly reason why this could not again have been the case, if its resources had not been drained away by the British.

If there were positive byproducts for Indians from the institutions the British established and ran in India in their own interests, they were never intended to benefit Indians. Today Indians cannot live without the railways; the Indian authorities have reversed British policies and they are used principally to transport people, with freight bearing ever higher charges in order to subsidise the passengers (exactly the opposite of British practice).

This is why Britain’s historical amnesia about the rapacity of its rule in India is so deplorable. Recent years have seen the rise of what the scholar Paul Gilroy called “postcolonial melancholia”, the yearning for the glories of Empire, with a 2014 YouGov poll finding 59% of respondents thought the British empire was “something to be proud of”, and only 19% were “ashamed” of its misdeeds.

All this is not intended to have any bearing on today’s Indo-British relationship. That is now between two sovereign and equal nations, not between an imperial overlord and oppressed subjects; indeed, British prime minister Theresa May recently visited India to seek investment in her post-Brexit economy. As I’ve often argued, you don’t need to seek revenge upon history. History is its own revenge.

Inglorious Empire by Shashi Tharoor is published by Hurst & Company at £20

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2017/mar/08/india-britain-empire-railways-myths-gifts#img-2

Rudyard Kipling published his famous poem to salute the US’ conquest of the Philippines in 1899, although he had originally written it to celebrate Queen Victoria Diamond Jubilee.

 

    The White Man’s Burden

Take up the White Man’s burden –
Send forth the best ye breed –
Go bind your sons to exile
To serve your captives’ need;
To wait in heavy harness
On fluttered folk and wild –
Your new-caught sullen peoples,
Half devil and half child.

Take up the White Man’s burden –
In patience to abide
To veil the threat of terror
And check the show of pride;
By open speech and simple,
An hundred times made plain,
To seek another’s profit,
And work another’s gain.

Take up the White Man’s burden –
And reap his old reward,
The blame of those ye better,
The hate of those ye guard –
The cry of hosts ye humour
(Ah slowly !) towards the light:-
“Why brought ye us from bondage,
“Our loved Egyptian night ?”

Take up the White Man’s burden –
Ye dare not stoop to less –
Nor call too loud on Freedom
To cloak your weariness;
By all ye cry or whisper,
By all ye leave or do,
The silent sullen peoples
Shall weigh your Gods and you.

In 1970, Roy Harper, Britain’s high priest of lyrical angst Roy created a counterpoint with this song from Flat, Baroque and Berserk.

Shashi Tharoor’s indictment of the British in India

Christopher Kremmer, Sydney Morning Herald, August 18, 2017

“Orright,” concedes the leader, Reg, played by John Cleese. “But apart from the sanitation, the medicine, education, wine, public order, irrigation, roads, the freshwater system and public health, what have the Romans ever done for us?”

In Inglorious Empire: What the British Did to India, Shashi Tharoor, writer, politician and United Nations-based diplomat for 30 years, asks a similar question to the one posed by Cleese’s beleaguered revolutionary.

In doing so, he seeks to remind misty-eyed Raj romantics that colonialism was no joke. As empires go, he says, Britain’s was uncommonly ruthless, devious and rapacious in its quest to enslave a people whose leaders failed to see how free trade, unwisely managed, can undermine a country’s long-term sovereignty and prosperity.

In the process, Tharoor accuses a number of historians, most prominent among them, Niall Ferguson, of being apologists for the racial discrimination, violence, economic sabotage and denial of liberty embodied by centuries of British rule in India.
It all began as a harmless commercial enterprise, Tharoor reminds us. In 1600, the British East India Company was formed under royal charter. Its aim was to compete with colonial rivals such as the French and Dutch for lucrative trade opportunities with India, an industrial and cultural superpower that under its Mughal emperors would account for 27 per cent of the world economy.

Awash with gems, natural resources, shipyards and a sophisticated cultural life, the Mughals were happy to trade. By the end of the century, however, they were tired, divided, and overextended. In 1739, the capital at Delhi was sacked by the Persians.

Meanwhile, in the expanding coastal trading posts, the initial presence of armed guards to protect the company’s staff and premises had evolved into a fully fledged army that by 1757 under Robert “Clive of India” had toppled the independent nawab of India’s richest province, Bengal. By 1800, the company had 260,000 men under arms and a talent for regime change that brought 200 million people under its control.

In 1857, after Hindu and Muslim rebels joined in a bloody revolt, India came under direct rule from London, and the company was eventually dissolved. The new Raj survived two world wars and the Great Depression, extending British rule for another 90 years until Gandhi’s Freedom movement triumphed in 1947, albeit at the terrible cost of Partition.

It is unusual, but not unheard of today to meet Indians who believe their country was better off under the Raj. Muddle-headed history is much more prominent in soon to be Brexited Britain. Tharoor cites a 2014 opinion poll that found 59 per cent of British people polled believed the old empire was something to be proud of. Thirty-four per cent wished they still had one.

Tharoor marshalls a formidable array of research to make the case that such attitudes are anachronistic and poorly informed. All the old chesnuts, for example, that the British modernised India, bequeathed it a tradition of parliamentary democracy and civilised the locals by teaching them the gentlemanly sport of cricket, are lined up and skewered, or at least plausibly challenged.

The company smashed India’s advanced textiles industries, literally by demolishing factories and imposing tariffs of 70-80 per cent on exports to Britain. In doing so, they turned a manufacturing, shipbuilding nation into a source of raw materials with little scope for value adding industries. The railways, he argues, were developed principally to more efficiently ship out those raw materials, and were financed by an elaborate and shonky racket that enriched British investors by inflating the cost of Indian rail track to twice that of Australia and Canada.

Meanwhile, ordinary Indians were taxed 50 per cent of their incomes, far beyond their experience and capacity to pay. Defaulters were tortured and jailed or, in the case of two-thirds of Indians under British rule in the late 18th century, fled their lands.

“The bones of the cotton weavers were bleaching the plains of India,” as one colonial administrator observed. The treasuries of princely states such as Bengal were systematically looted by coercive and corrupt methods, while prices for basic commodities were driven up by the opulent lifestyles of expatriate Britons.

Indian taxes not only paid the salaries of the British army of occupation, but also of the hundreds of thousands of Indian troops who became cannon fodder for British interests on the Western Front, at Gallipoli, and in Mesopotamia.

Behind the entire rip-off, as Ferdinand Mount, has observed, “lay the hard calculus of the City of London”. The Indian currency was manipulated to British advantage, and its trade with Europe was forced to go through London. Specifications were set to ensure that Indian steel could not be exported to Britain. India did not miss the bus of the Industrial Revolution – it was forcibly prevented from boarding it.

Discrimination against Indians in civil service employment was rife. Even the arch-colonial writer Rudyard Kipling observed that the bureaucracy was “neither Indian, nor civil, nor a service”. The “justice” British rule gave India meant it was almost impossible for a white man to be given a serious term in jail for murdering his Indian servant, which happened rather a lot. The racism of the occupiers gave the lie to the fiction of modern, enlightened and benign British rule. As one viceroy put it, “We are all British gentlemen engaged in the magnificent work of governing an inferior race”.

Tharoor acknowledges the sincere efforts of many British expats to ameliorate the harsh realities of colonial rule. But even in the 20th century, when the sun was setting on the Raj, enlightenment attitudes took second place to the desire to crush the Indian independence movement. The same people who condemned the nationalist leader Nehru to 10 years in British Indian jail cells also labelled Gandhi’s non-violent campaign for freedom as terrorism. Newspapers that alerted the public to such injustices, particularly the vernacular press, were often censored or shut down.

For all its claims to superiority, the British Empire was in charge in India during no fewer than 11 famines in which 30 to 35 million people died of starvation, Tharoor notes. Ultimately, he believes, Britain’s desire for wealth trumped all other values and considerations. The rhetoric of uplifting the benighted brown man was always a self-serving, grotesque and conceited pose to justify a regime that bribed and murdered, annexed and stole to enrich a certain class of Briton.

This book burns with the power of intellect married with conviction. It ends with Tharoor commenting that the way the Raj ended was its greatest indictment. The collapse of British rule amid devastating sectarian violence and creation of a Muslim “homeland” in Pakistan can be seen as the logical conclusion of 90 years of divide and rule strategies as London clung desperately to power in the subcontinent.

As they washed their hands and packed their carpet bags, the British departed an India in which 84 per cent of people could not read or write their own name in any language. What an achievement. In 1600, Britain produced 1.8 per cent of the world’s gross domestic product, compared with India’s 23 per cent. By the end of the Raj, Britain’s share had multiplied fivefold, while India had been reduced to penury.

But in 70 short years, India’s proud republic has made enormous strides in literacy, numeracy and poverty reduction, and is now the world’s fastest growing major economy.

Yet there are contradictions in the new India’s rise, some with their roots in the British period, like the ruling Hindu nationalist movement’s proclivity to cast the Indian identity in sectarian terms. At times, Tharoor’s determination to resist such trends leads him to downplay the injustices of earlier empires to more graphically illustrate the failings of the British one.

Yet overall, this is erudite, well-written, thoroughly documented and persuasive history that focuses varied sources into a coherent critique of colonialism in the Indian context. Tear up your copies of Ferguson’s neo-liberal mind rot and get angry like Tharoor.