Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road

A wide-ranging rural road trip through England’s green and pleasant land takes the traveller by antique and desolated abbeys and monasteries, their ageing walls crumbling and lichen covered, their vaulted pediments open to the English elements. The celebrated poets of the romantic era immortalized these relics in poetry, and even today, when one stands in grassy naves, gazing skywards through skeletal pillars, one can almost feel an ode coming on. Their number is remarkable – as a Wikipedia catalogue shows – and incalculable. The list is by no means exhaustive. There were one eight hundred religious houses existed in England and Wales before Henry VIII’s dissolution of the the monasteries and abbeys. Virtually every town of any size had at least one abbey, priory, convent or friary, including many small houses of monks, nuns, canons or friars. Many were spared despoliation and demolition, but many more were reduced to ruins and rubble by workmen and weather.

The 1530s were among the most significant in British history for the changes they wrought on its politics, society, culture. The backwash of the King’s Great Matter – his divorce from Katarina of Aragon, the onetime Spanish Princess and daughter of the formidable Queen Isabella, who was unable to give him a male heir to set fast his dynasty, and his marriage to Anne Boleyn in the hope that love and lust would bring forth male progeny – severed Britain from Rome’s papal dominion in matters of church and state, of its people’s bodies and souls. The pope in faraway Rome, regarded as a puppet of the Hapsburg Holy Roman Emperor in Vienna – who centuries later, historian Edward Gibbons declared as neither holy nor Roman – refused to grant Henry a divorce from Queen Katherine, his niece. Their reluctance and ultimate failure to secure this for their master doomed two wise, erudite and formidable chancellors, Cardinal Wolsey and Thomas More.

They were succeeded by Thomas Cromwell – kin, by way of his nephew, to his more famous namesake, Lord Protector Of The first and last English republic, Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell has until very recently been one of those people who whilst having immense historical significance is virtually unknown outside academia – most probably because his preeminent role in English government, politics, religion and society has long been overshadowed by the deeds and misdeeds of his royal master. Everybody knows about Henry and his six unfortunate wives – only one, Jane Parr who outlived him, got to live happily ever after – and his schism with catholic Rome that led to the establishment of the Church of England. It’s as if the narrative of the juvenile but enduring British history primer 1066 And All That had become established fact – to wit, Henry was “a bad king” but The Reformation was “a good thing”.  Few will be aware that Cromwell, Henry’s counsellor and Chief Minister, had a hand in three of those marriages and their undoing, and was the prime mover for Henry’s religious revolution, and much more besides.

German artiist Hans Holbein The Younger’s portrait of Cromwell

The Hand of the King

In Hilary Mantel’s superb Wolf Hall and it’s equally magnificent sequels, Bring Up The Bodies and The Mirror and the Light, the story of English King Henry VIII is retold through the life and times of Thomas Cromwell, royal counsellor and chancellor. All the manoeuvres and machinations of church and state are set against the background of day to day life in 16th century England politics,trade, commerce and culture; and the annual plague that scourged high and low born alike, swift and deadly, laughing in the morning, dead by the evening. And threading through it all, is the religious ferment that was to persist, dangerous and deadly, for the next 150 years – Henry’s split with Rome, his founding of what was to become the Church of England, papists and protestants, priests and puritans, bells and smells, hair shirts, and burning flesh.

This article is the first of two published In That Howling Infinite discussing Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell. Read Beyond Wolf Hall – Icarus Ascending here.

It is Mantel we must thank for placing Cromwell on a pedestal denied him for close on five hundred years. He is now a household name, and even, as she has herself described it, an industry. She and Oxford scholar and ecclesiastical historian Diarmaid MacCulloch have developed a mutual appreciation of each other’s ‘Crummie’, and it is MacCulloch’s 2018 biography Thomas Cromwell – A Life that is the ‘go to’ book for a definitive insight into the man and his works.

Before Wolf Hall, many of a certain age might remember he was portrayed with leering, Machiavellian relish by the late Leo McKern in the old movie A Man For All Seasons. In the play and film adaptation, Cromwell was the definitive ‘baddie’ and nemesis of the virtuous and principled Thomas Moore. Wolf Hall tells a different tale. More is the wowser and prig, and also, a keen inquisitor and torturer. And Cromwell is the reasonable, affable, capable, cultured “man for all seasons”.

Younger generations met him In HBO’s sprawling, splendidly dressed, violent and naughty multi-series The Tudors. James Frain plays Cromwell as an able, cunning, too-clever by half, commoner on the make; a vindictive and vengeful man who is not averse to “showing the instruments” (of torture, that is) and ordering their use upon those he wishes to interrogate and invariably execute. Hilary Mantel’s Thomas would do no such thing. A lifetime of observing and recording has taught him that less sanguinary measures more often than not encourage confessions, and indeed, as the value of information gleaned under torture is usually false, tend to elicit the truth also. Merely talking about the instruments is enough to open the most reticent of mouths. In the television adaptation of Wolf Hall, Cromwell is played with calm understatement and restraint by veteran actor Mark Rylance.

Henry VIIII and Anne Boleyn in The Tudors

In her review of the book, What Hilary Mantel left left out, The Guardian’s Jessie Collins wrote of Cromwell: “It is his contradictions that stand out: intense focus and frenetic energy, rapacity and a social conscience, “clubbability” and a trainspotterish enthusiasm for waterworks. He was a wily operator, but a favourite of widows and wayward young men. He was undoubtedly ruthless, but sometimes tried to mitigate the king’s cruellest inclinations. He was at his fiercest when seeking revenge for Wolsey’s fall, but if we are to be sympathetic to Cromwell – as MacCulloch is – then we must recognise its correlative: his ardent loyalty”.

Reviewing MacCulloch’s tome for The London Review of Books, Stephen Alford wrote that is was “necessarily the study of a royal bureaucracy knocked into shape by the size of the job it had to deal with, as well as a close encounter with a Church remodelled in the 1530’s image of a king”.

And regarding ‘The Hand of the King’, to borrow contemporary coinage, Alford continues:  “A man who in life strenuously resisted easy categories, Cromwell has been forced into the competing roles of hero and villain many times over. Neither quite fits him. To his enemies, of whom by the late 1530s there were many, he was an abominable heretic. Even today it can seem that every ruined monastery south of Carlisle and Berwick was somehow pulled to pieces by Cromwell personally … Over the centuries great claims have been made on Cromwell’s behalf. One is that he helped to bring the ‘true religion’ of Protestantism to England. Another is that he revolutionised and modernised the functioning of the English state. Both rest their weight on an individual whose life story is full of question marks …”

I have reproduced Alford’s and Collin’s reviews of MacCulloch’s biography of Cromwell below. They are well worth reading.

James Frain as Cromwell in The Tudors

The rift with Rome

Henry’s dispute with the Pope concerning his Great Matter was ostensibly more about monarchical power and sovereignty, his existential need to secure his heirs, and to Europe’s dynastic yet dysfunctional power struggles than about religion. He did not regard himself as one of the reformists, or Protestants as they became known. He remained, and regarded himself, a catholic monarch, and a “Defender of the Faith”, a title the Pope himself conferred upon him for his written repudiation of the heretical works and preachings of one time cleric Martin Luther – and a motto that still circles the image of the monarch on Britain’s coinage.

Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell is well aware that Henry is no true Protestant and that. His repudiation of papal authority split is about power and sovereignty, and not popish practises, which he persists in observing. The king continues to follow the mass, to observe the saints’s days (though there are less of them now). Both king and clergy resisted the publication and dissemination of the bible in English. Like their predecessors, they did not want the lower orders to discover that the scriptures made no mention therein of indulgences, of clerical celibacy, of purgatory, and indeed, of clergy. Like the kings and prelates of Catholic Europe, he was not averse to consigning heretics to faith’s cleansing fire, and torched those who’d adopted the rejectionist doctrines of Martin Luther and John Calvin – those who by the end of the sixteenth century, would be described as  Protestants – and before that, theological dissidents who populated a broad continuum between traditionalists and reformers. Later, when  Protestants were in the ascendant, the authorities cast Catholic and other adversaries into the fire.

But perennially impecunious, His Majesty can smell the money and is soon hooked on the riches and the lands that accrue to the crown and its cronies with the dissolution of the great abbeys and monastic houses. Thomas, his “go to”, “can do” red right hand fixes it – to his own benefit and that of his family and friends, and, also of the impecunious honour-rich but debt-deprived ancient families.

Whilst Henry was opportunistic and impulsively adventurous, Thomas, for all his erudition, political skill, and lived experience in Europe and England, was actually a cautious and calculating true believer. Stephen Alford again: “He was a man of the world, a pragmatist whose preoccupations were with the possible; it just so happened that for Cromwell the scope of possibility was so much greater than it seemed to be for other people. Yet he was a believer too, from at least the 1520s an enthusiast for Reformation. After 1537, as secure as he was ever likely to be politically, he began to pursue with a single mind an evangelical agenda. But he was also cautious …In the always unpredictable and often dangerous religious landscapes of the 1520s and 1530s he played his faith very close to his chest. Spared the agony and ecstasy of a public spiritual crisis, he left prophecy and martyrdom to others”.

In the wake of Cardinal Wolsey’s failure and demise, Cromwell becomes the public face of the king’s split with Rome and the spiritual and temporal authority of the Pope. His Protestant beliefs, fostered during his sojourn in the heretical Low Countries, impelled his rejection of the Roman faith with its corruption and its confidence tricks, its profiteering and its hypocrisy, its fabricated sinecures and sacraments, its relics and its indulgence. His pure hatred and contempt for the whole shaky edifice is force-fed by the prospects of divesting the English church of its immense power, wealth and influence, of filling the crown’s hungry coffers.

Cromwell is fully aware that he is loathed by the common people who yearn for the old, familiar ways, the “bells and smells”, the bits of dead saints’ bones and the shreds of their shrouds. They rise up, in a quixotic revivalist crusade called The Pilgrimage of Grace, and having risen up in rebellion against the new order, are on his orders, put down mercilessly with sword and rope by England’s hereditary warlords.

“It takes a generation, he says, to reconcile heads and hearts. Englishmen of every Shire  are wedded to what their nurses told them. They not like to think too hard, or disturb the plan of the world that exists inside their heads, and they will not accept change unless it puts them in a better case”?

And yet he is resolute in his convictions. “But new times are coming … children yet to be born – will never have known their country in thrall to an old fraud in Rome. They will not put their faith in the teeth and bones of the dead, or in holy water, ashes and wax. When they can read a Bible for themselves, they will be closer to God than to their own skin. They will speak His language, and He theirs”.

The Dissolution Of the Monasteries

The harrowing of the shires

Hilary Mantel gives us a formidable and very original account of the dissolution of the monasteries and the demolition of the very foundations of the established faith. She catalogues the work of the commissioners, the enforcers and the executioners, the suppression of the superstitions and the scams, and the rivers of gold that flowed into the pockets of the king and his agents along with lands and mansions. It’s such a remarkable read, I quote it here in full:

This winter the king is taking the surrender of the great abbeys, with their manorial titles and broad acres, their watercourses, fishponds, pastures, their livestock and the contents of their barns: Every grain of wheat weighed, every hide counted. If some geese have flocked to market, cattle strolled to the slaughterhouse, trees felled themselves, coins  jumped into passing pockets… it is regrettable, but the kings commissioners, men not easy to deceive, could not go about their work without their presence being heralded: The monks have plenty of time to spirit the assets away. Treat the King fairly, and he will be a good master. When Saint Bartholomew surrenders and it’s bells are taken to Newgate, Prior Fuller is granted land and a pension. Officers of the Court of Augmentations move into its great buildings, and Richard Riche plans to turn the prior’s lodgings into his townhouse. In the North Country, Abbot Bradley of Fountains settles for an annual pension of 100 pounds. The Abbot of Winchcombe, always a helpful man, accepts a hundred and forty. Hailes surrenders, where they displayed the blood of Christ in a phial. The great convent at Syon is marked for closure, and he reminds himself of Launde, with Prior of Lancaster has been in post for three decades, which is too long. It has not been a pious or happy house these last years. When questioned the prior would always declaring, omnia bene, all’s well, but it wasn’t: the church roof leaked and there were always women about. All that is over now. He will rebuild it, a house after his own liking, in England’s calm and green heart. In dark weather, he dreams of the garden arbour, of the drifting petals of the rose, pearl-white and blush-pink. He dreams of violets, hearts-ease and the blue stars of the pervink or periwinkle, used by our maids as lovers knots; in Italy they weave them into garlands for condemned men … (page 699)

… In November he writes in his memoranda, “the Abbott of Reading to be tried and executed”. He has seen the evidence and the indictments; there is no doubt of the verdict, so why pretend that there is? The Days of the great abbeys died with the north country rebellion. The king will no longer countenance subversion of his rule, or the existence of men who lie awake in their plush curtained lodgings and dream of Rome. Thousands of acres of England are now released, and the men who lived on them dispersed to the parishes, or to the universities if they are learned: if not, to whatever trade they can find. For the abbots and priors it’s mostly ends with an annuity, but if necessary with a noose. He has taken into custody Richard Whiting, the Abbott of Glastonbury, and after his trial he is dragged on a hurdle through the town and hanged, alongside his treasurer and his sacristan, on top of the tor: an old man and a foolish, with a traitors heart; an embezzler too, who has hidden his treasures in the walls. Or so the commissioners say. Such offences might be overlooked, if they were not proof of malice, a denial of the king’s place as head of the church, which makes him head of all chalices, pyxs, crucifixes, chasubles and copes, of candlesticks, crystal reliquaries, painted screens and images in guilds and glass.

No ruler is exempt from the death except King Arthur. Some say he is only sleeping, and will rise in an hour of peril: if say, the emperor sends troops. But at Glastonbury they have long claimed that he was as mortal as you and me, and that they have his bones. Time was, when the abbey wanted funds, the monks were on the road with the mouldy head of John the Baptist and some broken bits of the manger from Bethlehem. But when that failed to make that coffers chime, what did they arrange to find beneath the floor? The remains of Arthur, and beside him the skeleton of a queen with a long golden hair?

The bones proved durable. They survived the fires have destroyed most of the Abbey. Over the years they attracted so many pilgrims that Beckett’s shrine waxed jealous. Lead cross, crystal cross, Isle of Avalon: they wrung out of pennies from the treacherous and awed. Some say Jesus himself trod this ground, a bruit that the townsfolk encourage: at Saint George’s In they have an imprint of Christ’s foot, and for a fee you can trace around it and take the paper home. They claim that, after the crucifixion, Joseph of Arimathea turned up, with the Holy Grail in his baggage. 700 He brought a relic of Mount Calvary itself, part of the hole in which the foot of the cross was placed. He planted his staff in the ground, from which a Hawthorne flowered, and continues to flower in the fat years and lean, as the Edwards and Henrys reign and die and go down to dust. Now down to dust with them go all the Glastonbury relics, two saints called Benignus and two kings called Edmund, a queen called Bathilde, Athelstan the half-king, Bridget and Crisanta, and the broken head of Bede. Farewell, Guthlac and Gertrude, Hilda and Hubertus, two abbots called Seifredus, and pope called Urbanus.Adieu, Adelia, Aidan Alphege, Wenta, Walburga, and Cesarius the martyr: sink from man’s sight, with your muddles and your misstranscriptions, with the shaking of your flaky finger bones and the compound jumble of your skulls. Let us bury them once and for all, the skeletons of mice that mingle with holy dust; the ragged pieces of your tunics, your hairshirts clumbed with blood, your snippets and your offcuts and the crisp charred clothing of the three men who escaped from the Burning Fiery Furnace. The lily has faded, that the virgin held on the day the angel came. The taper is quenched, that lighted the Saviour’s tomb. Glastonbury Tor is over 500 feet high. You can see for miles. You can see a new country if you look, where everything is fresh, repainted, re-enamelled, bleached, scrubbed clean … (page 701)

While the welcoming party is around the sea, the Abbott of Colchester is in the air. Colchester had signed up to the King supremacy, he had taken the oath. Then he gave backward, in whispers behind the hand: More and Fisher were martyrs, how he pitied them! When he was called upon to surrender his abbey, he said the king had no right to it – which is to say, his will and laws I know. He is head neither of the spiritual realm nor the temporal; in effect he is no king and parliament can make the law. According to the Abbot.

… It is the last of the hangings, he is sure. They were infecting each other, Colchester,  Glastonbury and Reading.  But now resistance to the King’s will is broken. All other houses can be closed by negotiation: no more blood, no more ropes and chains. No more examples are needed; the traitor’s banner is trampled, that portrayed the Five Wounds. Superstitious men in the north claim that in addition to his principal wounds, Christ suffered 5470 more. They say that every day fresh ones are incised, as he is cut and flayed by Cromwell. (page 709)

Let England shake

Thomas Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill  on 28th July 1540 and was buried in the Tower of London’s  Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Interred thereto are  Anne Boleyn and Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and the last of the Plantagenet line – both of whom were executed through Cromwell’s’ manoeuvrings. Seventeen year old Catherine Howard became Henry’s fifth wife on the day that Cromwell died – and condemned for adultery and accordingly, high treason, she went to the block on Tower Green less than two years later. These were dark times for bad girls and wide boys.

Hilary Mantel’s story has been about England, it’s legends and it’s legacies, it’s rythmns and rhymes, it’s history past, present, and future. And he, Thomas Cromwell, has made England shake. And hisnrevolution endured. Henry VIII let it run, and his son, frail but resolutely Protestant Edward, endeavoured to anchor it. The Spanish Princess’s daughter ‘Bloody Mary’ strove with fire and sword to unmake it. And Anne Boleyn’s child, Elizabeth, set it in concrete so strong that Scottish James and his unfortunate son Charles I could not crack its foundations.

The rest, as they say, is our history.

For other posts in In That Howling Infinite on matters historical, see Foggy Ruins of Time – history’s pages

A Man It Would  Be Unwise To Cross

Stephen Alford, London Review of Books November 8th 2018

Review of Thomas Cromwell –  A Life by Diarmaid MacCulloch, September 2018

In 1517, a fierce commercial struggle broke out in England between two enterprising competitors in the busy trade of saving souls. The English Province of Austin Friars and Our Lady’s Gild of Boston, deep in the Lincolnshire fenland, went to law over the sale of indulgences, those pardons, common across the whole of Europe, offering remission for souls in purgatory. Since 1500 Our Lady’s Gild had built up what was probably the largest indulgences business in the kingdom. The friars pursued the same trade with equal vigour. The collision of interests was not surprising – big money was at stake. Far away in Saxony, Martin Luther, a brother Augustinian, was about to open heavy fire on what he saw as the whole worthless racket.

Our Lady’s Gild threw its considerable resources at the case. It appealed to Thomas Wolsey, Henry VIII’s indispensable right hand: cardinal, archbishop, lord chancellor, Wolsey was a formidable broker of power. And it also bought the services of a clever (and therefore expensive) attorney. This was Thomas Cromwell, who in early 1519 went to Rome to make his client’s case at the pope’s court. He journeyed via Calais, was away on his mission for 26 weeks, and as he travelled read Erasmus of Rotterdam’s New Testament in Greek and Latin. Erasmus, the most brilliant scholar of the age, got him thinking.

Cromwell loved books. He was a talented linguist and his Italian in particular was excellent. But he wasn’t a secluded intellectual. He hadn’t studied at a university, and the law he picked up in London he used to make a good living for himself. Intelligent and restless, he had knocked around a bit in his time. Teenage wanderlust had taken him as far as the Mediterranean, and in his twenties he was in Antwerp, the greatest European entrepôt of its day, a magnet for merchants and high financiers. He was comfortable in mercantile company and he liked money. Socially it was tricky to pin him down. His father was a yeoman with a substantial interest in brewing, his mother was a gentlewoman. He was thus himself a bit of a hybrid, and would always remain so. The accounts of Our Lady’s Gild of Boston gave their comfortably middle-aged attorney (he was now in his thirties) the gentleman’s title of master. Cromwell was the boy from Putney who rose and fell at the court of Henry VIII with, as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s biography shows, spectacular unobtrusiveness.

A man who in life strenuously resisted easy categories, Cromwell has been forced into the competing roles of hero and villain many times over. Neither quite fits him. To his enemies, of whom by the late 1530s there were many, he was an abominable heretic. Even today it can seem that every ruined monastery south of Carlisle and Berwick was somehow pulled to pieces by Cromwell personally. Reginald Pole called him a Machiavel, and the label, seemingly congruent with the Frick Collection’s famous portrait by Hans Holbein the Younger, has stuck: Cromwell’s intensely focused stillness suggests a man it would be unwise to cross. Even for those who lionised him as a champion of the English Reformation, there were bits of his life which didn’t quite fit. The story of attorney Cromwell’s mission to Rome was first told by John Foxe in Actes and Monumentes, the ‘Book of Martyrs’. Foxe had to rescue his hero with some deft literary footwork, turning on its head the uncomfortable tale of Cromwell’s journey to the heart of Roman superstition and error. Elizabethan Protestants could thank providence that Erasmus’s New Testament had spoken to Cromwell’s spiritual sensitivity in those weeks of travel and given him a ‘better understanding’ of God’s truth.

Over the centuries great claims have been made on Cromwell’s behalf. One is that he helped to bring the ‘true religion’ of Protestantism to England. Another is that he revolutionised and modernised the functioning of the English state. Both rest their weight on an individual whose life story is full of question marks. There is no tidy box of historical explanation into which we can put him. The brisk judgment of Hugh Trevor-Roper was that Cromwell ‘was a freak in English history’. It has always been easier to fall back on broad-brush assertions or to dismiss him with an adjective: ‘sinister’ and ‘Machiavellian’ used to be two of the most common. As Geoffrey Elton wrote in 1953, ‘We do not call a man sinister whom we know well, whether we like him or not.’ But Elton merely restates the problem. How do we get to know Thomas Cromwell in the first place?

The answer is by a painstaking forensic recovery of every surviving piece of evidence and then letting the completed dossier speak for itself. MacCulloch’s biography is itself an exercise in Cromwellian rigour. Nothing here is rushed, no detail overlooked. Care and precision are everything. Later reminiscences of Cromwell are positioned and repositioned, the chronology tested, every particle sifted and cross-referenced. We need to know before we can judge. We feel by the end of MacCulloch’s formidable book that we know Cromwell very well indeed.

The Cromwell of this Life seems at times to be a watcher more than an actor, purposeful and busy yet somehow also passive. He had a strong sense of family and kinship, and a gift for making friendships durable enough to survive the later painful upheavals in religious belief. He understood the obligations of courteous reciprocity in a society whose mechanisms were lubricated by patronage. MacCulloch’s Cromwell is a collector and a reader of books. Italy is his passion, Italian the shared language of his friends and colleagues. He read Machiavelli (History of Florence as well as The Prince), Petrarch and Castiglione’s manual for the courtier, Il Cortegiano – important reading for the attorney from Putney. He was on equal terms with university scholars like Cranmer, a don to his fingertips. But Cromwell never lost the self-containment and self-reliance of the autodidact. He was a man of the world, a pragmatist whose preoccupations were with the possible; it just so happened that for Cromwell the scope of possibility was so much greater than it seemed to be for other people.

Yet he was a believer too, from at least the 1520s an enthusiast for Reformation. After 1537, as secure as he was ever likely to be politically, he began to pursue with a single mind an evangelical agenda. But he was also cautious. As Foxe described it (and his description seems to fit the man), Cromwell’s conversion was a process, not a spasm of Damascene revelation. In reading the Erasmian New Testament, as Foxe put it, Cromwell ‘began to be touched and called to better understanding’. In the always unpredictable and often dangerous religious landscapes of the 1520s and 1530s he played his faith very close to his chest. Spared the agony and ecstasy of a public spiritual crisis, he left prophecy and martyrdom to others.

Striking in the world MacCulloch builds around Cromwell is its sense of order and routine, its reasonableness, its gentleness even. The fractures of the 1530s, the consequences foreseen and unforeseen of Henry’s ‘Great Matter’ – the problem of Katherine of Aragon and the break with the Church of Rome – are all the more shocking because the bonds of social and political solidarity which pushed Cromwell up the ladder of preferment and promotion had once been so resilient. He had no grand plan for greatness. To talk about his ‘rise to power’ after 1530 feels almost like bad form; however true, the cliché, which suggests the energy of personal ambition, doesn’t quite fit. Though he was ever the sharp-eyed attorney, it was his grasp of minutiae, his gift with a pen, his ability to persuade others, his patience, that really marked him out. He had an instinct for the right move to make at the right time, offering a masterclass in the softly, softly approach to the acquisition of authority. In his life, routine and process counterweighted those moments in Henrician politics when the blade of the executioner’s axe met the neck on the block or the fire was lit under the prisoner bound to a stake. Volatility in this book is left to King Henry, tantrums and petty revenge to Anne Boleyn, sulks and tactlessness to Stephen Gardiner, fuming at upstart nobodies to His Grace the Duke of Norfolk. Cromwell, without title and for a long time without proper position, moved quietly ever forward.

It all​ began in Putney, a few miles upriver from London, where he was born and from where he escaped probably as soon as he was able. Born around 1485, he was a teenager at the turn of the new century. His father, Walter Cromwell alias Smith, was a more or less successful businessman whose brushes with manorial justice were practically routine. His mother’s name may have been Katherine, and her origins can be traced with some close detective work to the Meverell family of the Staffordshire Peaks.

The mature Cromwell looked back to his own wild youth, ‘as he himself was wont oftentimes to declare unto Cranmer Archbishop of Canterbury, showing what a ruffian he was in his young days’ (the words belong to John Foxe). We shouldn’t take him too seriously here; it is easy to overlook his wry sense of humour. He was a wanderer and a traveller, and gave himself an education in the world so very different from the suffocating discipline and narrow curriculum of a university. What historians and biographers can’t fix with the certainty of fact and evidence offers the novelist the rich and necessary space of imaginative possibility. This has been true of Cromwell’s life since the 16th century. A novella by the Italian author Matteo Bandello, printed (naturally) by John Foxe, interpreted Cromwell’s adolescent travels in Europe as an escape from the violence of his father, a story with shaky foundations that was taken up with enthusiasm by the Victorians. Our first meeting with a young Thomas felled and bloodied by the calculated savagery of Walter Cromwell’s kicks in Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall is viscerally memorable.

There is no clear vision of Cromwell until the age of forty, though by the 1510s he begins to come a little more into focus. He married his wife, Elizabeth, probably a few years after Henry’s accession in 1509. They had two daughters, Anne and Grace, and a son, Gregory, born in 1519 or 1520. At some point in the 1520s Elizabeth’s mother, Mercy (the Mistress Prior always popular with the family’s friends and handy with medicines), moved in. In 1523 the Cromwells took up residence near Austin Friars, in a grand house on Throgmorton Street. Thomas was doing well for himself. Nestled close to the beautiful Augustinian friary, his legal practice took him upriver to the Court of Chancery in Westminster. His Anglo-Italian business and legal connections were extensive. He counted as friends and clients merchants who went to the king’s court to trade their luxurious fabrics before Henry himself. Already Cromwell was on the fringes of power.

The big step up came in 1524, when he was recruited into the household of Cardinal Wolsey. Wolsey, prince of the Church and Henry’s man, wanted to build his legacy in stone. He planned two colleges, one in Ipswich (his home town) and the other in Oxford, as well as a tomb that would stand as a masterpiece to celebrate a masterly career. With his scrupulous eye for detail, Cromwell was perfect for the job of managing these considerable projects. This laid the groundwork for a later career that, had Wolsey lived years longer, might never have happened. Cromwell had the job of winding up some small religious foundations whose liquidations funded Wolsey’s colleges and tomb. Cromwell visited these houses and, with an improvisatory talent for handling the paperwork, oversaw the legal details. By the late 1520s few outsiders knew the English monasteries better than he did. He was given a job and got on with it, enjoying his freedom. In recruiting distinguished scholars for the Oxford foundation, Cromwell already had a good eye for university men sympathetic to Reformation ideas.

And so he prospered and he learned. Elected to the House of Commons for the Parliament of 1523, he saw for the first time from the inside a body he would come to manage in the 1530s with the same confidence he demonstrated in Wolsey’s service. He knew early on what he was up against, though he saw too the very human side of institutions. Of his 17 weeks in Parliament he wrote to a friend in 1523: ‘Howbeit, in conclusion, we have done as our predecessors have been wont to do, that is to say, as well as we might, and left where we began.’ Even the frighteningly efficient attorney had a sense of humour.

The hardest year personally and professionally was 1529. Elizabeth, Anne and Grace Cromwell died and Wolsey proved unable to deliver what Henry VIII had demanded: a satisfactory conclusion to the Great Matter, the neat annulment of a marriage to Katherine of Aragon that had been no marriage at all in the eyes of the king. Wolsey – like everyone else – had failed to attend to his majesty’s delicate conscience. Yet Cromwell remained close to Wolsey. He stuck his neck out to defend the cardinal in the Parliament of 1529, where Wolsey’s many enemies were determined to bring him down once and for all. For most of 1530 Cromwell hovered uncertainly between loyalties. But he was Wolsey’s man still, handling his master’s business long after the cardinal’s fall.

Parliament had shown his capabilities. In early January 1530 he took a walk with the king in his majesty’s garden at Westminster during which, such evidence as there is suggests, he gave an expert’s view of how profit might be made out of Church reform. Henry, at a critical moment in his fight with Rome, saw the possibilities. But no deal was done. That summer Cromwell toyed with a plan to fall back on his private practice as an attorney. In August 1530 he laboured over the wording of a letter to his disgraced master, who seemed incapable of keeping himself out of the headlines. ‘Learn to experiment how ye shall banish and exile the vain desires of this unstable world,’ he wrote to Wolsey. Now with a decision to make for himself, Cromwell’s words may have spoken as much to his own situation.

Something almost irresistible seems to be acting on Cromwell in the early 1530s, MacCulloch’s biography suggests, and the next step in his career happened as a kind of natural process, like the turning of the seasons. Somehow it was inevitable. Some people noticed it, some didn’t. By 1530 he had supporters at court, and they shared a common profile: they had been close to Wolsey, they didn’t like Anne Boleyn, but they were obeying as loyal subjects the king’s efforts to get rid of Queen Katherine, though with little enthusiasm. Just when few knew precisely how to give Henry what he wanted, Cromwell was the man being talked about. ‘And forasmuch as now his Majesty had to do with the Pope, his great enemy, there was (he thought) in all England, none so apt for the King’s purpose, which could say or do more in that matter than could Thomas Cromwell.’ So, in later years, said Sir John Russell, a court insider.

From 1531 Cromwell became the king’s fixer. In a sense he merely moved from one legacy project to another, for by now Henry was no longer content to play by the rules of Rome. His majesty’s cause had run into the buffers at the legatine court at Blackfriars in 1529, precipitating the collapse of Wolsey’s power. Yet Henry refused to give up, and by 1530 a kind of royal think tank, of which Cranmer was a member, was beginning to suggest a radical change of strategy.

The King Henry of this biography is impulsive and unpredictable, with a short attention span and a consistently high regard for his own genius. In the Great Matter he knew what he wanted. When in late 1530 Henry read a dossier that set out compelling historical evidence of his own spiritual supremacy, he annotated it in 46 places. Even Henry’s normally dormant critical senses were alert enough to ask of key passages ‘Ubi hic?’ (‘Whence does this come?’). But naturally he was an enthusiast, for supposedly erudite scholarship by others told him what he wanted to hear. In his mind was the image that Cromwell and Cranmer were later able to transmit to all the king’s subjects by means of the title-page of the Great Bible: Henry at the centre of everything, beholden to no other human power, communicating with his God without the need for an intercessor.

It was Cromwell’s job to make something strong and meaningful out of this confection of royal ego, dodgy history, polarised court politics and happenstance. It was a task that involved facing down the elite of the English clergy, detaching England from the authority of the bishop of Rome by statutory means (while emphasising that the king was very firmly above any law), managing official propaganda, and breaking Henry’s opponents. Thomas More and John Fisher were two victims. In the final encounters with More we find in Cromwell the human face of a process the collateral damage of which meant almost nothing to the king; they were two servants of a royal master, bound by that commonality, who found themselves on opposite sides of his majesty’s will. Cromwell as ever got on with the job, roughly balancing duty and conscience, and smoothing to the best of his ability the sharper edges of Henry’s displeasure.

Closeness to the king himself mattered more for Cromwell than formal position. The later promotions – Baron Cromwell of Wimbledon in 1536, Earl of Essex for a mere two months in the year of his downfall, 1540 – look like overcompensations for a loyal servant snubbed early on. But the initial appointments, the earliest signs of favour, meant something. Master of the jewels (1532), chancellor of the exchequer (1533), master of the rolls (1534), vice-gerent in spirituals (1535): each of these gave access to the king and influence over the flow of paper, allowing Cromwell to expand his horizons and his control. Newly promoted, he quickly needed a portrait (hence Holbein’s extraordinary picture) and a coat of arms, for which he, daringly, chose to incorporate elements of Wolsey’s own. Always perhaps a little unpredictable, a bit of a hybrid, his standing was never quite fixed. In fact the new offices of vice-gerent and vicar-general, which gave him as the king’s deputy the authority to suppress the religious houses, produced a very English awkwardness over etiquette. How should one refer to the vice-gerent? ‘Your grace’ was out, ‘Your holiness’ a non-starter. One bureaucrat with a talent for flattery came up with the perfect title: ‘Your goodness’. Probably it spoke to Cromwell’s own genius for flexible improvisation, as well as to his sense of humour.

The question​ that used to be asked of the huge upheavals of Reformation in the 1530s was ‘King or minister?’ Henry or Cromwell? Whose responsibility was it all? Whose vision? Whose fault? These questions once made sense, based as they were on the belief that an individual alone might be masterful or visionary enough to direct the fortunes of a kingdom. We seem today to have lost that easy faith. In the 1530s there was a sustained effort at making the Henrician revolution work, at least in the interests of the king. That conversation between Cromwell and Henry in Westminster in early 1530 bore fruit. The king and his elite made a fortune out of the Church and its lands. Enforcement was tough, its instruments being a new treason law and propaganda and new agencies of government able to process a massive administration. There was of course a reaction from subjects who saw their world being ripped apart. In the great rebellion in the north of England in 1536 ‘pilgrims’ stood for the commonwealth against Cromwell and other heretics. And all of this from the king’s passion and scruple of conscience. There was little intelligent design here, at least initially. Henry was too flawed a leader to have thought very much or for very long about the consequences of what he began, other than for himself. Led by impulse from one moment to another, he put the allegiance of loyal subjects under immense strain. Disconnected from the human cost of his actions, he was a tyrant in the making.

Holbein’s portrait of Cromwell shows the ideal bureaucrat. Within reach are the implements of office: quill, book and papers. The steadiness of the gaze is what unnerves the viewer. Cromwell’s instinct for government and process, and his sense of balance, were impeccable, at least when he was at the height of his powers. He liked detail and he preferred neat uniformity. He understood possibilities and he worked with the realities of the moment. He was able to manage change on an immense scale. He shared with friends like Thomas Cranmer a reforming agenda in religion, and he had ambitions for his own promotion and the standing of his family. But even Cromwell could go only so far. He was human after all. Later portraits lack Holbein’s extraordinary precision but they succeed in showing just a little softening of that early hardness.

A Life of Thomas Cromwell is necessarily the study of a royal bureaucracy knocked into shape by the size of the job it had to deal with, as well as a close encounter with a Church remodelled in the 1530s in the image of a king. This is where MacCulloch’s passion lies: one feels his love of ecclesiastical process and order, his sympathy for spiritual men wrestling with the material realities of change and ambition. He has the pleasure in fine detail of an antiquary, the historian’s range and depth of vision and the biographer’s feel for his subject. This is a book about people, their friendships, alliances and obligations. As such it is inevitably a book about the forces in the 1530s that had the power to fracture all of those things. In it we never lose sight of Cromwell’s humanity. One strand of this is the protective eye he kept on wayward boys, the first of them Wolsey’s genially feckless illegitimate son Thomas Winter, the second his own son Gregory. An exquisite Holbein miniature of Gregory in 1537 shows a young man of about 18 with closely cropped hair. Lips pressed together, he looks down. There is something submissive in his attitude: the son of a powerful man with a certain weight of expectation resting on young shoulders. How different from the experience a generation earlier of that young ruffian who had knocked around Europe in the years after 1500, and who later made his own way up the ladder.

The end came in 1540. It was the strangest of years: an earldom, an English Bible, another neck on the block. The politics of the court finally caught up with Cromwell, as they had with so many others before. The debacle of the Cleves marriage, which was annulled after six months, left him exposed to enemies ready to take advantage of his having fallen from favour with the king. Of Cromwell’s arrest in early June we have a second-hand account by the French ambassador. Informed by the captain of the king’s guard that he was a prisoner, he ‘ripped his cap from his head and threw it to the ground in contempt, saying to the Duke of Norfolk and others of the Privy Council assembled there that this was the reward of the good service he had done to the king, and that he appealed to their consciences to know whether he was a traitor in their accusations.’ Norfolk’s response was to rip the Garter collar of St George from the prisoner’s neck. It’s likely His Grace rather enjoyed the moment.

In spite of his appeal to the loyal service he had given his majesty, he’d been around long enough to know that any minister was in the end dispensable. He served at his majesty’s pleasure, and his majesty’s track record spoke for itself. It was the same for everyone: once you were on the wrong side of Henry, he cut himself off completely, pulling down the shutters even on his closest relationships. In any case, Cromwell had never made Wolsey’s mistake of believing that he was the king’s friend. In some ways, oddly, Cromwell and Henry seem to have operated almost in parallel spheres. It was true at the very end. On the day of Cromwell’s execution, 28 July 1540, the king was otherwise occupied: that was the day he married Katherine Howard. With Cromwell on the scaffold there was no melodrama, only loyal submission to God and to Henry’s will. His thoughts in those few remaining minutes of his life were for the future wellbeing and security of his family.

In 1529, at the fall of Wolsey, Stephen Vaughan wrote to Cromwell: ‘You are more hated for your master’s sake than for anything else which I think you have wrongfully done against any man.’ We might ask ourselves whether Vaughan’s judgment is as true for the king Cromwell served, for that second legacy project he steered through to a conclusion of sorts – the heavy burden of a service from which he is only now being rescued.

Thomas Cromwell, by Diarmaid MacCulloch – What Mantel left out

Jessie Childs, The Guardian, 22nd September 2018

iarmaid MacCulloch, who is presumably no stranger to mispronunciation, thinks we’ve been getting Thomas Cromwell wrong. It should be “Crummle”. This matters more now that Cromwell is a household name, or, as Hilary Mantel has put it, “an industry”. There have been several biographies of him recently, but this is the one, according to the Booker-winner, “we have been awaiting for 400 years”.

The admiration is mutual: Mantel appears in MacCulloch’s introductory material as well as the main text, where he refers to a scene in her novel Wolf Hall in which Cromwell’s glowering portrait is unveiled. He adds that Cromwell put up with it, whereas Thomas More’s image took Holbein “quite a lot of adjustment to get right”. The two are now locked in a duel in the Frick collection in New York.

So this is far from being a buttoned-up biography of Henry VIII’s chief minister. MacCulloch is a stylish and playful writer who knows his readership and keeps his more scholarly conversations (“Frankly, that seems a naive reading of events”) to the back of the book. It is, at the same time, seriously heavyweight, both in terms of size (more than 700 pages) and archival heft. Anyone looking for the true story of Wolf Hall will be challenged, but also mightily rewarded. MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford (you have to understand religion to get anywhere near Cromwell) and has spent six years reading, re-dating and interrogating Cromwell’s papers.

Cromwell only really got going in his 40s. His early years, like Shakespeare’s, are “lost” to the historian. MacCulloch does a fine job of slashing through dense undergrowth and catching “Putney straws in the wind”. The Cromwells might have had Irish roots. Thomas’s father, Walter, a brewer, was charged with assault, but was not necessarily abusive. MacCulloch doesn’t now think that he watered down his beer.

The Dissolution Of the Monasteries

As a teenager, Thomas travelled to Europe and opened his eyes to Florentine politics, Habsburg-Valois wars, Antwerp markets and the intellectual ferment of the early 16th century. He returned, according to MacCulloch, “the best Italian in all England” and it is ironic – though by no means incredible – that the man who would be known as the hammer of the monasteries began his career (in legal work for a Lincolnshire guild) as a champion of papal indulgences. MacCulloch speculates that his son Gregory might even be named after Pope Gregory the Great.

Cromwell soon caught the eye of Cardinal Wolsey and went to work on his “legacy project”, which involved dissolving monasteries in order to fund two memorial colleges and liaising with Italian sculptors on a magnificent tomb, topped by four bronze angels. Then Wolsey fell, the legacy was dismantled, and the angels flew. They eventually alighted on the gateposts of Wellingborough Golf Club and are now in the Victoria and Albert Museum.

Cromwell was rescued by Henry VIII, who relied on his “improvisatory genius” to drive through the break with Rome. Councillor Cromwell had the instinct to recognise the potential of parliament as an instrument of government. He had the talent to oversee the Valor ecclesiasticus, a financial survey comparable to the Domesday Book in scope. He had the chutzpah to curb the power of the church, as well as to marry his son to the king’s sister-in-law, and he was cut-throat enough to destroy Anne Boleyn, among others.

His greatest lasting achievement was the provision of an authorised vernacular Bible

None of this was straightforward, as can sometimes appear in more condensed narratives. MacCulloch describes Cromwell’s progress as “complex and crabwise”. He came to be loathed by the nobility as an upstart and by the rest of the country as a metropolitan elitist. The Pilgrimage of Grace (‘a northern civil war’) nearly toppled him, but iIn the end what did it was the king’s fourth marriage to Anne of Cleves. Henry’s Trumpian sense of injury was nowhere more apparent than in the bedroom.

Cromwell’s driving impulse was not to revolutionise government, but the church. MacCulloch brilliantly teases out his links to reformers in Zürich, far hotter Protestants than Martin Luther, who was too hot for Henry VIII. This was supremely risky and it is astounding that he should become, in 1535, vice-gerent in spirituals – effectively the lay head of the church under the king – a position that was unique and never repeated. His greatest lasting achievement was the provision of an authorised vernacular Bible, “the basis of every English biblical translation until modern times”.

This is a superb rendering of an extraordinary decade and a virtuoso portrait of the man whom most contemporaries blamed for its worst outrages. MacCulloch’s focus is sharp, but since nearly every item of business and news crossed Cromwell’s desk in the 1530s, there are fascinating vignettes on everything from water mills to Münster, that city state of apocalyptic fanatics who refused to baptise their babies. MacCulloch thinks it plausible that Cromwell’s much-laudedintroduction of parish registers listing burials, marriages and baptisms was a way of flushing out Anabaptist extremists at home.

Geoffrey Elton, the Cambridge don whose name was synonymous with Cromwell in the second half of the 20th century, didn’t think that his biography could be written. He thought it a poor way of doing history, and infra dig for a scholar, but the main problem was the nature of the evidence. It is overwhelmingly political and half of it is missing. MacCulloch thinks the filed copies of Cromwell’s sent letters, the ‘out-tray’, were burnt by his servants when he was arrested in June 1540. A few survive, but not enough. There is often a sense with Cromwell that we are running alongside his supplicants, clawing at his cloak as he hastens from Austin Friars, to Westminster, to The Rolls, to the Court.

The Family of Henry Viii: an Allegory of the Tudor Succession, by Lucas de Heere, 1572.

There are no Cromwellian poems (though MacCulloch might have thrown us one of Wyatt’s), no hint from Cromwell as to why he didn’t remarry after the early deaths of his wife and two daughters, not even a legal trial at which he might have dropped his guard as More had done in 1535.

It is remarkable, therefore, how much of the man MacCulloch does, in fact, capture, certainly more than any previous attempt. It is his contradictions that stand out: intense focus and frenetic energy, rapacity and a social conscience, “clubbability” and a trainspotterish enthusiasm for waterworks. He was a wily operator, but a favourite of widows and wayward young men. He was undoubtedly ruthless, but sometimes tried to mitigate the king’s cruellest inclinations. He was at his fiercest when seeking revenge for Wolsey’s fall, but if we are to be sympathetic to Cromwell – as MacCulloch is – then we must recognise its correlative: his ardent loyalty.

There is a beautifully drawn scene in which Wolsey, his power ebbing away, avidly reads a letter from Cromwell and keeps it close, like a talisman. We later find Master Cromwell painfully drafting another letter that is full of crossings-out and corrections. He was trying to save Wolsey from himself, and from Henry VIII, who was manipulable, but always the master and sometimes a monster. “No one,” MacCulloch asserts, “reading the original of this letter can think of Cromwell simply as a heartless bureaucrat.”

• Thomas Cromwell: A Life is published by Allen Lane. To order a copy for £25.80 (RRP £30) go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.

Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending

          Wild Bill Hickok: You know the sound of thunder, don’t you, Mrs. Garrett?
          Alma Garrett: Of course.
Wild Bill:  Can you imagine that sound if I asked you to?
Alma: Yes I can, Mr. Hickok
Wild Bill: Your husband and me had this talk, and I told him to head home to avoid a dark result. But I didn’t say it in thunder. Ma’am, listen to the thunder.
Deadwood (Series 1, Episode 4. Here was a Man. HBO

We know how it ends. It’s how we get there that matters.

There is a scene in the superlative western noir, Deadwood, where the madame of the Bella Union hotel and whore house, Joanie Stubbs, mentors the young and conniving con-artist Flora on survival in a hard world:  “ … mostly, you can steer it, sweetheart”, she says, “and when it’s going to get to where you can’t, you get just a little notice, just a couple of seconds, before the one thing turns into the other.  It’s like a funny smell comes into the air. And then you know, there’s no more steering and get the hell out of the way”. Flora, overconfident and full of herself, is deaf to th sound of thunder, and ignoring Joanie’s advice, proceeds to a brutal and bloody doom.

Towards the end of The Mirror and the Light,the final volume in Hilary Mantel‘s acclaimed Tudor trilogy, Thomas Cromwell, disgraced and imprisoned in the Tower of London in the very room he’d placed the doomed Anne Boleyn, contemplates the old Greek legend of Icarus and his father, Daedalus, the builder of the famous Minotaur’s labyrinth. There was a point at which headstrong Icarus could have changed course – but the temptation to fly higher and higher was irresistible: Thomas “reads the book of Erasmus, Preparation Until Death, written only five, six years back, under the patronage of Thomas Boleyn. It tires his eyes; he would rather look at the pictures. He lays the book side and turns the pages of his engravings. He sees Icarus, his wings melting, plummeting into the waves. It was Daedalus who invented the wings and made the first flight, he more circumspect and circumspect than his son: scraping above the Labyrinth bobbing over walls, skimming the oceans so low his feet were wet. But then as he rose on the breeze, peasants gaping upwards, supposing they were seeing gods or giant moths; and as he gained height there must have been an instant when the artificer knew, in his pulse and in his bones, This is going to work. And that instant was worth the rest of his life”.

Poet WH Auden recreated this scene decades before Hilary Mantel in his visit to Paris’ Musée des Beaux Arts. On the one hand, the poet might appear to be commenting our indifference to others’ misfortune and suffering, but on the other, the message is more mundane: whilst bad things happen to someone, life goes on around them. The multitude is not necessarily indifferent but rather, unaware, uninformed, and physically or emotionally distant. He writes:

In Breughel’s Icarus, for instance: how everything turns away
Quite leisurely from the disaster; the ploughman may
Have heard the splash, the forsaken cry,
But for him it was not an important failure; the sun shone
As it had to on the white legs disappearing into the green
Water; and the expensive delicate ship that must have seen
Something amazing, a boy falling out of the sky,
had somewhere to get to and sailed calmly on.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Thomas senses that “ funny smell” that Joanie mentioned well before his fall comes inevitable. Like Icarus ascending, he could have changed course. He senses it some two thirds into Hilary Mantel’s house brick of a literary masterpiece. When Queen Jane perishes soon after giving birth to the future Edward VI, King Henry having now got his male heir, needs a spare to ensure the survival of his dynasty and charges Cromwell with the chore of securing him a new bride. Things have already been getting dicey for the bold  Chancellor.

He is the public face of the king’s split with Rome and the spiritual and temporal authority of the Pope. The perennially cash-strapped Henry is hooked on the riches and the lands that accrue to the crown and its cronies with the dissolution of the great abbeys and monastic houses. Cromwell himself has his hand in the till, enriching himself and his family.

On the one hand, he is loathed by the common people who yearn for the old, familiar ways, the “bells and smells”, the bits of dead saints’ bones and the shreds of their shrouds, and having risen up in rebellion against the new order, have been put down mercilessly with sword and rope. On the other, there’s the ancient noble families who whilst also being enriched by the plundering of the abbeys and the appropriation of the church’s expansive landholdings, harbour hatred for Cromwell the commoner, the blacksmith’s son, who has risen so high – too high – in the kings favour. The king too is a parvenu beneath their contempt. As Mantel writes, “the grandees of England’s claim descent from emperors and angels. To them, Henry Tudor is the son of Welsh horse thieves: a parvenu, a usurper, a man to whom oaths may be broken”.

Thomas is only too aware of all this. The tide is turning, and not in his favour. And yet in his self confidence and overweening faith in his capacities, his sense of obligation to his family and friends who would almost certainly fall with him, he resolves to “manage it through” as we say today in management-speak, knowing that “he who rides the tiger never can dismount”. “We are living on borrowed time” he tells a clerical friend and Protestant, “in small rooms, a bag always packed, an ear always alert (we sleep lightly and some nights hardly at all … If the king can burn this man, he can burn us’.

James Frain as Cromwell in The Tudors

Should he have quit whilst he was ahead?

That would have been back at the end of Wolf Hall, the first volume in this outstanding trilogy. Tom, the blacksmith’s son, former street urchin, soldier, mercenary, kitchen hand, clerk, accountant, banker, dealer and merchant had risen high in the services of Henry’s first chief councillor Cardinal Wolsey. When the prelate falls in the wake of his failure to resolve the king’s “great matter”, his divorce from the first if his six wives, Katarina of Aragon, “the Spanish Princess”, Cromwell emerges unscathed and indispensable. He engineers the disgrace and death of Wolsey’s successor, Thomas More, the righteous and ruthless scourge of heretics, and fosters Henry’s affair and marriage to the vivacious and opportunistic Anne Boleyn.

Thomas finds solace at the Seymour family’s Thames-side ancestral pile, the eponymous Wolf Hall. Plain Janes sweet, and young, and though he does not quite admit it at this point in the narrative – it is one of the ‘reveals’ of book three – he’d like to make her his second missus (the first died from plague along with his two little girls, and all three haunt him throughout his odyssey).

Thomas could have pulled out of his ascent then and retired to a modest but, for his time and circumstances, quite comfortable fortune. But no. The devil drives, and his political, economic, social and spiritual ambitions, and, yes, his pride and his greed got the better of him.

His Protestant beliefs, fostered during his sojourn in the heretical Low Countries, impelled his rejection of the Roman faith with its corruption and its confidence tricks, its profiteering and its hypocrisy, its fabricated sinecures and sacraments, its relics and its indulgence.  His pure hatred and contempt for the whole shaky edifice is force-fed by the prospects of divesting the English church of its immense power, wealth and influence, of filling the impecunious crown’s coffers, and diverting a goodly portion to Thomas Cromwell and his nearest and dearest.

His hatred for the old families was undisguised – his dismissive contempt for their interests and pretensions, their precious noble lineages and pride therein. To his mind, they were all the heirs and successors of barbarians, bandits and warlords, unfettered, unlettered, and unappreciative and unworthy of his grand project

The hatred was mutual. They abhorred the Cromwell the commoner, and resented the Boleyn ascendancy – for when Anne rose, so did the boats of Cromwell, and of Anne’s father and brother and their kin – parvenus all in England’s heraldic hierarchy and tainted with French blood.  And yet, as is the manner of the English aristocracy, they are all interconnected, through marriage or the outcome of illicit liaisons, and run with hare and hunt with the hounds. Nor more so than the noble (in the aristocratic rather than the moral sense as morality doesn’t come into it) and pugnacious Duke of Norfolk. He is Cromwell’s erstwhile ally and nemesis; he fosters sad Anne’s marriage to the king, observes her fall from grace, presides over her trial and its preordained verdict, and attends her execution; and then, when the opportunity presents itself with Henry’s rejection of his fourth wife, Princess Anna of Cleves, handpicked by Thomas from a lineup of eligible, royal and strategic European beauties, goes after the matchmaker, the low-born, ambitious and avaricious Cromwell.

Add to Thomas’ reformational fervour, his ambition and greed, and a major misstep with regard to Anna, the original “sad eyed lady of the lowlands”, his justified pride in his prodigious talent and intellect, and his hubris. Too clever by half, we’d say today. He knew he was the nobles’ intellectual superior and never failed to flaunt it with friends and foe alike. And the latter, when it all came down to it, were more numerous and strategically placed.

And finally, his “doom”, to talk in Tolkien terms, was that he misjudged King Henry – his vanity, his pride, and his obsessions, his hopes and his fears. Thomas had convinced himself that he knew the king and could control – no, guide him, anticipate his desires, and his wishes. In the quiet after-hours, he was writing “The Book of Henry”, an anthology of Cromwellian ruminations on the essence of kingship. It is a theme that Mantel returns to often in this doorstep of a book. Henry is indeed “The Mirror and the Light of all other kings and princes in Christendom”. The Book Of Henry is a guide to kingship modeled on Machiavelli’s contemporary treatise “The Prince” (arguably the most quoted, misquoted and never read political tract ever published –  up there with Marx’s Communist Manifesto, Lenin’s What is to be done? and Mao’s Little Red Book – not to mention Thomas Hobbes who wrote about life being “nasty brutish and short” during the English Civil War a century after Cromwell and Henry were rendered to dust – a confrontation with the monarchy precipitated by Thomas Cromwell’s nephew’s great grandson Oliver. History sometimes works like that – that which goes around comes around.

And, yet, whilst Cromwell reckons he can “read” the king, he acknowledges throughout that when it all comes down to it, Henry is actually unpredictable, quixotic, eccentric, capricious, narcissistic, and unknowable. And dangerously so. To repeat, “If the king can burn this man, he can burn us”. Which he does, although sparing him the fire that consumes heretics and the hanging, drawing and quartering that awaits traitors; both charges having been laid against him, “the kings mercy” consigned him the headsman’s axe. Not the beautiful, scripture inscribed French long-sword that dispatches Anne of the Thousand Days, the first of the “light and the Mirror ” motifs reprised in this story, but an easily blunted English broad axe wielded by an allegedly intoxicated executioner (histrorians maintain that this story is apocryphal).

As we said, we know how it ends, but it’s how we got there that matters. And I’d long wondered how Hilary Mantel would take us there – before I’d read the final installment and whilst I was reading it.

And how do you drop the final curtain when you are in essence the narrator?

“The pain is a acute, raw stinging, and ripping, a throb. He can taste his death: slow, metallic, not come yet. It is terror he tries to obey his father, but his hands cannot get a purchase, nor can he crawl. He is an eel, he is a worm on the hook, his strength has ebbed and leaked away beneath him and it seems a long time ago now since he gave his permission to be dead; no one has told his heart, and he feels it writhe in his chest, trying to beat. His cheek rests on nothing, it rests on red … He is very cold. people imagine the cold comes after but it is now. He thinks, winter is here …  I flail my arms in angel shape, but now I am crystal, I am ice and sinking deep: now I am water. Beneath him, the ground upheaves. The river tugs him; he looks for the quick-moving pattern, for the flitting liquid scarlet. Between a pulse-beat and the next he shifts, going out on crimson with the tide of his inner sea. He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the water salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall”.

“He is far from England now, far from these islands, from the water salt and fresh. He has vanished; he is the slippery stones underfoot, he is the last faint ripple in the wake of himself. He feels for an opening, blinded, looking for a door: tracking the light along the wall”.

Thomas Cromwell was executed on Tower Hill on 28th July 1540. he had sent many to their fate there, including Sir Thomas More and Anne Boleyn’s alleged paramours. He was buried in the Tower of London’s  Chapel of St Peter ad Vincula. Interred there are also Anne Boleyn herself, Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury and the last the Plantagenet line – their doom was Cromwell’s’ doing – and nineteen year old Catherine Howard who became Henry’s fifth wife on the day Cromwell died, and, condemned for adultery, went to the block less than two years later.

The Tower of London’s chapel,, St Peter ad Vincula

This whole story has been about England, it’s legends and it’s legacies, it’s rythmns and rhymes, it’s history past, present, and future. And he, Thomas Cromwell, has made England shake. But it’s all over now, and the saints are indeed are coming through, and the sky is folding under him. Everything is moving; there are no stepping stones. Icarus has reached ignition point, and the rest, “the rest is silence”.

But Cromwell’s revolution endured. Frail Edward endeavoured to anchor it. Bloody Mary strove with fire and sword to unmake it.  And Queen Elizabeth set it in a concrete so strong that Scottish James  and his unfortunate son could not crack it’s foundations. The rest, as they say, is our history.
[This article is the second of two published In That Howling Infinite discussing Hilary Mantel’s Cromwell. Read Beyond Wolf Hall – Revolution Road  here.
For other posts in In That Howling Infinite on matters historical, see Foggy Ruins of Time –  history’s pages

Base Fortune, now I see, that in thy wheel
There is a point, to which when men aspire,
They tumble headlong down: that point I touch’d,
And, seeing there was no place to mount up higher,
Why shall I grieve at my declining fall?
Farewell, fair queen. Weep not for Mortimer,
That scorns the world, and, as a traveller,
Goes to discover countries yet unknown.”
Young Mortimer, in Christopher Marlowe’s Edward II

A ghost of aviation
She was swallowed by the sky
Or by the sea, like me, she had a dream to fly
Like Icarus ascending On beautiful foolish arms
Amelia, it was just a false alarm
Joni Mitchell, Amelia.

 

German artiist Hans Holbein The Younger’s portrait of Cromwell

 

The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming

Two years ago, we published The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,  a contemplation on the part played by William Shakespeare in the history and society of the American West – and more specifically in those original and excellent HBO series Westworld and Deadwood. It quotes Daniel Pollack-Pelzner  in Slate Magazine::  

“What these portentous allusions don’t seem to register … is the actual role that Shakespeare played in the American West…(Settlers) performed Shakespeare from Missouri to San Francisco in the Wild Frontier. Gold-miners queued up to land a plum part in favorites like the bloodthirsty Macbeth or Richard III. “Traveling through America in the 1830s, Alexis de Tocqueville observed “There is hardly a pioneer’s hut that does not contain a few odd volumes of Shakespeare. I remember that I read the feudal drama of Henry V for the first time in a log cabin.” An army scout in Wyoming traded a yoke of oxen for an edition of Shakespeare; mines named Cordelia, Ophelia, and Desdemona dotted the Colorado mountains. More recent evocations of this period link the Bard to territorial conquest…When the United States prepared to defend the newly annexed state of Texas from Mexico in 1846, Ulysses S. Grant was cast as Desdemona in an army production of Othello in Corpus Christi”.

President Abraham Lincoln used to love reciting, and was particularly enamoured of Macbeth, the play, not the disturbed anti-hero; ‘Nothing equals it’, he confided, “I think it is wonderful: he confided. John Wilkes Booth, his murderous nemesis, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s fiery and treasonous Geordie rebel, Hotspur, and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar.  

Whilst Shakespeare  and his plays attracted countless aficionados of high and low estate, he also found himself involuntarily conscripted into the young nation’s contentious race and immigration debates. eminent abolitionist and and former president John Adams believed that Desdemona was a “wanton trollop” for falling in love with a blackamoor”. Senator Henry Cabot Lodge opposed immigration and used the Bard as one of his weapons against the ‘Calibans” from Southern or Eastern Europe.

These are just a few examples of how The Bard of Avon popped up in at times in American history like a figurative and literary Doctor Who as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. in his new book, Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro informs us that when great (and small) things happened in the United States, someone, somewhere, was brushing up their bard – as the following review from The Times illustrates. These do not include, however, the present resident of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue who “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or else, as the reviewer remarks, “maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen”.

See other posts on American history from In That Howling Infinite: Blind Willie McTell – Bob Dylan’s Americana, Rebel Yelland The Bard in the Badlands – Hell is empty and the devils are here,.

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

Deadwood’s wild bunch

The Bard in America’s Uncivil Wars

David Aaronovitch, The Australian, 14th March 2020

On May 10, 1849, outside the Astor Place Opera House in New York, more than 10,000 residents turned out to try to stop the great British Shakespearean actor William Macready giving an interpretation of Macbeth that they didn’t care for. The militia and the hussars were mobilized, artillery was deployed and in the ensuing riot more than a score died and twenty thousand were injured. This was arguably the most extreme event in the history of drama criticism.

This was just one example, according to Shakespeare scholar James Shapiro, of the way in which the playwright turns up at critical moments in American history as guide, mentor, exemplar and even catalyst. When great things happen in the US, someone, somewhere, is brushing up their Shakespeare.

In the case of the 1849 riots, the Bard was largely a pretext. The poor of the city were being roused by populists to attack the wealthy who exploited them, and the blacks and newer immigrants whom they despised. But the bard was a crowd magnet – on one turbulent night, ten thousand New Yorkers saw Macbeth in three separate productions.

Shakespeare in a Divided America

As Shapiro explains in his new book, Shakespeare in a Divided America, the theatre then was cheap and became a place where people of all classes gathered. The public battle about how to play Hamlet between Macready and the much more masculinist American actor Edwin Forrest was taken up by partisans as being a matter of tribal importance.

When demonstrations (including the flinging of animal carcasses on stage) led to Macready being invited to perform more safely in a new, smarter, more expensive venue — the Opera House — the “mob” took it amiss. So Shakespeare became a proxy for the war between the wealthy and cosmopolitan on the one hand, and the poorer and angrier on the other.

Indeed, it was a contention of more sophisticated exponents of American nationalism and nativism that Shakespeare was more like the Americans than like the British. His spirit was more authentically represented by those pioneers who left England for the New World than by the descendants of those who remained.

Certainly it is true that some of our best, most popular Shakespearean scholars have been American, and Shapiro is one of them. Readers who have invested in his two books about seminal years in Shakespeare’s creative life, 1599: A Year in the Life of William Shakespeare and 1606: Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, know what a lucid, lively joy he is to read.

And his dissection of the controversy over whether the Elizabethan Mr S wrote his own plays, Contested Will, settles the issue for any sensible reader.

Shapiro is the erudite tip of an American iceberg. He tells us that there are no fewer than 150 summer Shakespeare festivals in the US. I looked them up and decided that the Fairbanks Festival in Alaska looked particularly committed.

This enthusiasm is not universal, however, for, as Shapiro points out, the present incumbent “may be the first American president to express no interest in Shakespeare”. Or maybe we’ll see a tweet soon revealing that at private school his Desdemona was accounted the most fabulous Desdemona ever seen.

This was a fate narrowly avoided by Ulysses S Grant, who as a young officer was slated to play opposite Othello in an army production. His Civil War boss, Abraham Lincoln, though never called to act a part on stage, adored Shakespeare, had a particular affection for Macbeth and would recite long and apposite chunks when he felt moved to.

It was ironic, then, that his murderous nemesis, the actor John Wilkes Booth, was also an aficionado. Booth, from an acting family, had a particular liking for Henry IV’s Hotspur and was impressed in a less theoretical way by the regicidal Brutus in Julius Caesar. Indeed, he was playing as Mark Antony opposite his brothers to 2000 playgoers in a large theatre on lower Broadway in 1864 when Confederate sympathizers set fire to the building next door, hoping the flames would spread. Had the plot worked, it would have been the biggest death scene in theatre history.

Booth’s murder of Lincoln was animated by Lincoln’s promise to give limited suffrage to American blacks. And Shapiro writes a brilliant chapter on how Othello was interpreted in the first part of the 19th century as America’s original sin of slavery began to dominate the nation’s politics.

He focuses on the writings of the former president John Quincy Adams, who in 1836 published an essay on The Character of Desdemona. In it Adams wrote of Desdemona that “when Othello smothers her in bed, the terror and the pity subside immediately into the sentiment that she has her deserts”. Why?

As Shapiro tells us, two years earlier Adams had been at a dinner in Boston with the visiting British actress Fanny Kemble. According to her journals, he told her much the same thing, “with a most serious expression of sincere disgust that he considered all her misfortunes as a very just judgment upon her for having married a ‘n***er’ ”. Kemble had married a Texan slave owner. And she noted the Southern hypocrisy about “amalgamation”, given that, as she now knew, “throughout the South a large proportion of the population is the offspring of white men and coloured women”. One of those instances in which British bluntness punctures US social hypocrisy.

This isn’t a long book and it’s easy to read, elegant, to the point and with well-chosen quotes. Other chapters range from how the character of Caliban informed immigration debates in the early 1900s, to the way in which the screenplay of the movie Shakespeare in Love was watered down because of concerns about positive gay themes and Will’s unpunished adultery.

Possibly my favourite chapter convincingly links the musical Kiss Me Kate (based on The Taming of the Shrew) to the post-war situation of American women. During the war, when Rosie was a Riveter, American women went into occupations previously only held by men. And they liked it.

With those men due back from serving abroad, social psychologists and marriage experts expected trouble. Their answer was clearly that women needed to go back into the home and re-become pliant wives.

That many didn’t meekly accept their lot may be measured in the soaring divorce rate, and possibly in the hugely increased incidence of domestic violence. And it’s at this point that one of America’s most successful Shakespeare-inspired productions, Kiss Me Kate, appears, first on stage and then on film. In the film, one of the most famous scenes is when Petruchio puts Kate over his knee and “spanks” her. It’s even on the poster (see the featured image).

This spanking scene, though it had never occurred in any of the previous productions of The Taming of the Shrew, was by now common in US movies. Shapiro tells us there were five films featuring men spanking grown women in 1945 alone. Now Google the words of that most famous song from the show and you’ll see that Brush Up Your Shakespeare is practically a hymn to wife-beating. Someone really should tell the President.

David Aaronovitch is a columnist at The Times.

Shakespeare in a Divided America, James Shapiro Faber, $39.99

 

How the ‘Lucky Country’ lost its mojo

A simple explanation  of seventeenth century physicist Robert Boyle’s Law is: the greater the external pressure, the greater the quantity of hot air. 

And none more so than in contemporary Australian politics. Commenting on the shameless political posturing and finger-pointing inflicted on us by our inadequate leaders during this fiery week, Australian journalist  Jacqueline Maley nailed it:

“Politicians like to talk sentimentally about how much Australians pull together in a crisis, putting aside differences to help out their neighbours. And of course they have during these bushfires. We always do, when it comes to natural disasters. It was the politicians who failed to. And they keep failing. Increasingly it feels the government, so keen to invoke its “quiet Australians”, is using the phrase as a gag on debate. “Quiet Australians” is a genius political term – mystical and impossible to disprove. If you self-nominate as one, you ain’t one. Strangely the quiet Australians’ biggest boosters in the media tend to be the loudest, un-drown-outable voices”.”

We know the system is broke. But how to fix it?

Author and onetime publisher Steve Harris offers some directions as he recalls the genesis of two seminal books on Australian history, politics and culture and examines their continuing relevance. It is a scathing commentary on the sad state of politics and governance in Australia today and of the wit and wisdom of our elected rulers in addressing the myriad problems confronting our country and indeed the wider world.

“Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.”

Harris writes of our need for a better understanding of our past, present and future We are “led”, he observes, by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councilors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies; and concludes that we have “so much “government”, so little­ good governance’.

“Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless point-scoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government. Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, consumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability”.

The result, he laments, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, and challenges not confronted … “it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement”.

On 16 the November, the Sydney Morning Herald’s economic commentator Jessica Irvine reported on the malaise described by Harris, quoting John Roskam, the director of conservative think tank The Institute of Public Affairs “Public policy in Australia is often made on the run, built on shabby foundations, motivated by short term political gain, and consequently having mediocre outcomes.”

On the same day, the Herald’s  political editor Peter Hartcher voiced similar sentiment. He was referring specifically to the politicians’ inability to unite to face a common foe – the devastating bush-fires raging through New South Wales and Queensland – but his diagnosis is much wider than this:

“Now we have to ask if we’re entering a new phase of over-politicization. Where each party is so intent on its own internal politics that they are incapable of coming together to deal with a parched country, running out of water, and burning as never before. This might be premature. The so-called leaders might yet discover leadership. Real leadership would bring the major parties, and governments federal and state, together to soberly deal with a national crisis. There is a much broader agenda than climate change alone, but it’s also hard to pretend that climate change is irrelevant.

And yet, he concludes, “The omens aren’t good. The Prime Minister refuses to meet former fire chiefs who’ve been seeking a meeting since April to warn of fire catastrophe. Refusing expert advice on a national crisis because it might not exactly suit your existing policies is hardly the stuff of leadership. Politics at its best is problem-solving. Guys, it’s your job. Don’t tell us “not now”.”

Veteran journalist Laura Tingle has summed up a widely felt frustration with our leaders: “For so many people, and so many communities, there have been days and nights of sleeplessness, exhausting anxiety, and fear of monstrous firestorms; and for some, the destruction they have caused. And now the oppressive knowledge that it is likely that this could go on for months. It has also been a week of catastrophic failure of our political dialogue. It’s easy to just express exasperation at the sniping of some of the statements made by politicians this week as they have tried to fight a culture war about climate change in the midst of such disastrous scenes. But there is actually something much more alarming going on here. If our political conversation really is at a point when these cultural weapons can’t be downed in the face of a crisis, we really are in a lot of trouble”.

When commentators and opinion-makers on all sides – even conservative platforms like The Australian and the IPA – are lamenting the (sclerotic?) condition of our body politic and the (toxic?) quality of much public debate, I am reminded of what an old Greek once said (or maybe didn’t say it quite like this): those whom the Gods wish to destroy, they first render stupid.


For more on Australian history and politics in In That Howling Infinite, see: Down Under

Bare Dinkum

A failure to create our own luck results in new tyranny

Steve Harris, The Weekend Australian, 2nd November 2019

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Albert Tucker, The Lucky Country, 1964

Dragon years are especially significant in the Chinese zodiac, the dragon being the only animal born of imagination, and dragons seen to be the world’s best leaders because of their traits of ambition, courage, tenacity, intelligence and risk-taking. And so it was in the dragon year of 1964, when the ­storyline of China was challenged by its own leadership and the ­storyline of Australia was challenged by three men with a different perspective.

In 1964, China exploded an atom bomb and Mao Zedong made his famous “China will take a giant stride forward” speech, declaring­ the country had to “not just follow the beaten track traversed by other countries … and trail behind them at a snail’s pace” but be unstoppable in showing that the East could best the West.

And three Australians took some bold strides: a young Rupert Murdoch bravely launched The Australian to start a global reshaping of media. A former newsboy and young historian, Geoffrey Blainey, accepted a commission that became The Tyranny of ­Distance, a bold and fresh perspective on the story of Australia. And journalist-editor Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country, a ­courageous and challenging crit­ique of Australia’s capabilities.

In their own way, Mao, Murdoch, Blainey and Horne understood Nobel laureate William Faulkner’s sentiment of the 1950s, one Barack Obama also adapted in 2008 in his landmark “A more powerful union” speech that set him on the path to the presidency: “The past isn’t dead and buried. In fact, it isn’t even past.” All understood this, and ­wanted to impact our knowledge of the arc of history and its consequen­ces, and the capacity to bend it.

The three Australians reflected a view that conventional wisdom is more conventional than wisdom­, that status quo can be code for “not good enough”. Today The Australian is an integ­ral part of the ­national lexicon, so too ­“tyranny of distance” and “the lucky country”, and half a century on the ­potency of their thinking remains very alive.

In the final chapter of his study of Australia in the 1960s, Horne lamented that his country had ridden­ for too long the “luck” of its natural resources, weather, British ­antecedents and distance from problems elsewhere in the world. It had become manacled to its past, bogged in mediocrity and lacked imagination. “Australia is a lucky country run mainly by ­second rate people who share its luck. Although its ordinary people are adaptable, most of its leaders (in all fields) so lack curios­ity about the events that surround them that they are often taken by surprise.”

Blainey ambitiously elevated his commission to write a slim volume on the history of transport in Australia into a deeper explor­ation and explanation of how Australia’s remoteness and distance from the British “mother country”, and the enormous size of the continent, shaped so much of Australia’s history and thinking. He originally had two equal halves, The Tyranny of Distance and The Taming of Distance, and his first choice for the title was Distance and Destiny.

Blainey was somewhat hesitant about The Tyranny of Distance as the chosen title, and it did not initially sell well, stirring critics and resentment as much as Horne’s Lucky Country. But then the launch of new satellites transmitting images between hemispheres and the first reigning pope visit saw people boasting of a conquering of the “tyranny of ­distance”. It featured in the Split Enz masterpiece, Six Months in a Leaky Boat, and now, as perhaps the ultimate modernist cred, is the name of a vegan restaurant in Melbourne.

Many who use the terms “lucky country” or “tyranny of distance” have probably not even read the books or understand their original context or meaning. If they read the books today, they might see that almost every form of our personal, community, national­ and global interests still involves “distance” as much as ever, and that notions of “the lucky country” ­remain ironic.

A 2020 publisher might commission new versions called The Mucky Country and The Tyranny of Distraction, recognising that while Australia has come a good distance and been “lucky” in many respects, we have not made the most of our “lucky” assets and have “mucked about” on too many fronts.

Yes, we have seen notable examples of national ­ambition and outcomes but they are the ­exception. And, yes, there has been some taming of distance with the global transformation of transport, trade, communications and economics but it has also brought us closer to world forces of nationalism, terrorism, crime, social ­unrest, civil rights, people movement, pandemics and the environment.

Such authors might argue that we still have a poor understanding of the many forms, the tyrannies, of “distance”, that distance and proximity can swing between positive and negative. And that “luck” is a fragile companion. They might see new and different tyrannies of distance and more ­reportage evidencing a country limping along the same beaten tracks, unable to take “giant ­strides. They might challenge us to think whether it is due to a “she’ll be right” lethargy, insou­ciance and detachment. Or distraction. Or lack of imagination, ambition or competence.

We have the world’s oldest civilisation yet have not learned much from its people’s practices and powerful sense of “country” or “mob”. And still not closed the ­distance to full connectedness and acceptance.

On the driest continent on the planet, we still struggle to have ­national policies on how to optim­ally trap, maintain and use our rainwater and rivers. Government departments insist we are on “the leading edge” of water policy, yet urban rain and water flows into the sea, we recycle almost anything except water for drinking, our rivers have become ill-used and ill-managed, and we have a mirage of national drought, clim­ate, energy and environmental policies. Dorothy Mackellar’s “sunburnt country” has not seen us become a world technology epicentre.

A scheme that took 25 years, 100,000 people from all over the world to build 10 townships and 1600km of road and track in rough terrain to divert water for farms and energy sounds like a heroic engineering tale from 19th-century America or 21st-century China. Or a pipe dream in modern Australia. But this was the Snowy Mountains scheme just 70 years ago. Forget such ambition and commitment today: we muck around with decisions, let alone de­livery, of even modest ­infrastructure.

Australia’s colonies united in part to end rivalry and ineffic­iency. But it didn’t prevent passengers from Perth to Brisbane having to travel in six trains and Sydney-Melbourne passengers changing trains at Albury. A century on, we still have inefficient and disconnected systems in and between cities and towns.

We salute the self-sacrifice of so many of our military, the ethos of “mateship”, and ride on the shoulders and self-sacrifices of our parents and grandparents. We have talked about “a fair go” for our soldiers, young, aged, ­disadvantaged and ill since Federation, and every election features words about “the battlers” and “the forgotten”.

Yet today we have unresolved wounds among our vets and in Veterans Affairs management. An estimated 700,000-plus children live in poverty, 30 years after Bob Hawke’s prepared speech ­declared that “by 1990 no child need live in poverty”. About 600 children under the age of 14 are incarcerated­ and frequently held in solitary confinement, despite its condemnation as a form of mental torture. Our age of criminal ­responsibility remains at 10. Suicide is the leading cause of death among those aged 15-24.

We see more intergenerational disadvantage, with diminished prospects and ambitions, more uncertain paths through education to meaningful employment. The “fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay” mantra, job security and training-skill balance are victims of globalisation, outsourcing, casualisation, contracting, ageism and wage theft.

A royal commission is demonstrating that our entire aged-care system, despite numerous past ­reviews, is on the point of collapse, yet there is no sense of urgency or action. Health systems are struggling and one’s wellbeing can depend on a postcode. Inquiries into corporate and financial malfeasance do not seem to preven­t new sins.

After decades of prosperity, the dream of home ownership has ­become unaffordable to many, and we build houses and apartment complexes that are unsafe and unsound in engineering and environmental terms. We celebrate our story as a ­nation of immigrants, and bristle at any charge of being racist.

Yet 70 years after the post-World War II rallying cry to “populate or perish” in the pursuit of econo­mic and military security, and despite­ all the economic and cultur­al up­sides of immigration and living in one of the most diverse­ populations in the world, with ­almost half the population being born overseas or having at least one parent born overseas, we lack meaningful policies and strategies on population and immigration. Half a century after the Whitlam government dismantled “White Australia” laws, we have not ­buried latent racism, inequal­ity and bigotry.

Colonial Irish and Catholic settlers­ were demonised, their ­religious leaders pressed to disown any troublesome members and avow “loyalty” to Australia. We now have multiple faiths but still slide into moral panic and ­demonisation when “different” religious and ethnic groups are seen to be threatening or un-Australian “them” rather than “us”.

The Cold War 1960s and “yellow­ peril” fear has been overtaken by the “luck” of our natural ­resources being fuel for China’s great strides, and the dollars from fee-paying students and tourists. Now we fret over China’s Belt and Road Initiative economic and military influence across the globe, including our South Pacific backyard.

We don’t know how Brexit and Trump nationalism will impact­ our longest-standing allies and alliances­. Closer to home, outside trade and economic pragmatism and holidays in Bali and South ­Pacific, few ­Australians could honestly say they have a real understanding of and/or trust with many of our nearest neighbours other than New Zealand.

Australia’s 43 universities ought to be unambiguously at the heart of curating our past and present knowledge and understanding, and underpinning ­nation-building. But too many pursue fee-paying students even if it means compromising standards and results; send conflicting signals­ about academic freedom and assaults on free speech, science­ and reason; opportunist­ically offer populist and profitable courses while reducing crucial ­engagement in Australian history, culture and literature.

The national need for a better understanding of our past, present and future is not for lack of government, reviews and regulations. Or perhaps the need is greater ­because of it. We are “led” by nine parliaments, 800 federal and state politicians, 500 councils and an estimated 6000 local councillors, hundreds of bureaucracies and agencies, standing commissions and committees, and continuous reviews, papers, inquiries, royal commissions, consultancies, conferences and consultancies.

So much “government”, so little­ good governance. Attention too often on the urgent rather than the important, the short-term quick gain rather than long-term betterment. Debates that are just re-runs and meaningless pointscoring. Parties that cannot even be sure their candidates are legal and honest, and are geniuses in calling from opposition benches for ambition and results that they failed to adequately address in government.

Delivery too often poorly managed or funded, incompetent or even corrupt. Rarely do we see a harnessing of all the available strengths, leadership and resources across government, business, makers, sellers, investors, funders, networkers, teachers, influencers, enablers, con­sumers, with good governance, transparency and accountability.

The result, predictably, is a re-run of issues revisited but not ­resolved, opportunities not seized, challenges not confronted. And it is no surprise that the distance ­between word and deed on so many fronts, and so often, has created its own climate change, one of a collective vacuum or vacuousness. An environment where it is too easy to become disinterested, or be distracted by, or attracted to, those offering an “answer”, even if it is often more volume, ideology, self-interest, simplicity, hype and nonsense than validity, ideas, public­ interest, substance, hope and common sense. A 24/7 connected world where we drown in words and information but thirst for bona fide truth, knowledge and understanding, and more disconnectedness and disengagement.

There is something amiss in the national storyline when we have long had many more assets and opportunities than billions of others in the world, yet we have reached a point in our story where many Australians see too many tyrannies of distance in their lives, too many doubts about future “luck” and prosperity.

If we do not better see and ­respond to needs and opportunities then current distances will ­become greater, risking whether our destiny is one of our own ambition. One hopes we don’t have a future historian challenging us with a critique of a place called Lostralia, a land where “distance” and “luck” slayed the dragons.

Steve Harris is a former publisher and editor-in-chief of The Age and Herald Sun, and author of three books on Australian history. His latest book is The Lost Boys of Mr Dickens, How the British Empire turned artful dodgers into child killers (Melbourne Books).

Living off the sheep’s back

 

 

 

 

I hear America singing – happy birthday Walt Whitman

I hear America singing, the varied carols I hear,
Those of mechanics, each one singing his as it should be blithe and strong,
The carpenter singing his as he measures his plank or beam,
The mason singing his as he makes ready for work, or leaves off work,
The boatman singing what belongs to him in his boat, the deckhand singing on the steamboat deck,
The shoemaker singing as he sits on his bench, the hatter singing as he stands,
The wood-cutter’s song, the ploughboy’s on his way in the morning, or at noon intermission or at sundown,
The delicious singing of the mother, or of the young wife at work, or of the girl sewing or washing,
Each singing what belongs to him or her and to none else,
The day what belongs to the day—at night the party of young fellows, robust, friendly,
Singing with open mouths their strong melodious songs. 

America’s national bard set the song lines for a young nation, and what was seen at the time as its  promise and its bold, independent identity. He reflected his country’s growing up and coming of age to his own personal awakening and awareness, in his seeing and being enlightened. “Afoot and light-hearted, I take to the open road, healthy, free, the world before me, the long brown path before me, leading wherever I choose” (Song of the Open Road).

From his rural roots on Long Island, where, in youth and early adulthood, he lived and worked as an itinerant schoolteacher and newspaper editor, Walt Whitman would go on to become one of the most influential and significant American poets. He’s viewed today as a modern voice even though he lived two centuries ago, a poet of the people for the people, without pretension or pomp, who wrote verse that captured everyday speech, both its fluency and its clank. “The best writing,” Whitman would say, “has no lace on its sleeves.”

Whitman scholar Brenda Wineapple has written of how the poet was unequivocally declaring his own independence from poetic conventions and niceties:

”In 1855 no one had yet heard anything like the raw, declamatory, and jubilant voice of the self- proclaimed “American, one of the roughs, a kosmos” – Walt Whitman, who in Leaves of Grass, his dazzling poetic debut, announced, ‘I celebrate myself,/And what I assume you shall assume,/For  every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you’.”

Whitman’s reputation as an innovator, she says, is partly based on Whitman’s then-radical use of free verse – poems that are not developed around a rhyming structure. “Every poet that comes along is looking for his new voice, and their own tradition and they look to Whitman to see how he did it”.

Regarding his “American-ness”, author Karen Karbenier asks us “… to approach Whitman and his work not as a hero or a villain but as a mirror. “Do I contradict myself? / Very well then I contradict myself, / (I am large, I contain multitudes),” announces the narrator of “Song of Myself.” Walt Whitman the man was as conflicted and complex as the country he sought to embody. He may still be regarded as a representative American — but representative of who we have been and continue to be, not just who we claim we are … When examining Whitman’s racial slurs alongside his most egalitarian poetic lines, we should feel discomfort and regret and the need for renewal and change. This complicated and conflicted American also envisioned, described and celebrated a truly democratic society that neither his era nor our own has yet realized. What could America need more right now than a poetic figure whose work spotlights the chaos and division that have long defined what it means to be an American?”

Celebrating the two hundredth anniversary of his birth, I republish here one of my favourite Whitman poems, Out of the Cradle Restlessly Rocking.

The poem contained three intertwined motifs: the boy, awakening to nature and himself; the bereaved mockingbird, futilely hopeful and lost in his loneliness; and the sea, it’s waves forever breaking on the shore. It is a bittersweet song, an aria transforming, expanding, transcending into a pantheistic opera. That encompasses the wheel of life: the child, the youth, the lover, the man, the poet awakening – discovering, uncovering, and learning, sensing and seeing and being.

When first published in 1859 (it was included in the 1860 and subsequent editions of Leaves of Grass), A reviewer called it “unmixed and hopeless drivel” and a disgrace to its publisher.

Such is the lot of the poet …

See also, Walt Whitman – Citizen Poet; and,  in In That Howling Infinite,  The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad, and The Sport of Kings – CE Morgan’s “great American novel” ; and, listen to my musical tribute to Walt Whitman; Valances (early in the morning at break of day)

Out of the Cradle Endlessly Rocking

Out of the cradle endlessly rocking,
Out of the mocking-bird’s throat, the musical shuttle,
Out of the Ninth-month midnight,
Over the sterile sands and the fields beyond, where the child leaving his bed wander’d alone, bareheaded, barefoot,
Down from the shower’d halo,
Up from the mystic play of shadows twining and twisting as if they were alive,
Out from the patches of briers and blackberries,
From the memories of the bird that chanted to me,
From your memories sad brother, from the fitful risings and fallings I heard,
From under that yellow half-moon late-risen and swollen as if with tears,
From those beginning notes of yearning and love there in the mist,
From the thousand responses of my heart never to cease,
From the myriad thence-arous’d words,
From the word stronger and more delicious than any,
From such as now they start the scene revisiting,
As a flock, twittering, rising, or overhead passing,
Borne hither, ere all eludes me, hurriedly,
A man, yet by these tears a little boy again,
Throwing myself on the sand, confronting the waves,
I, chanter of pains and joys, uniter of here and hereafter,
Taking all hints to use them, but swiftly leaping beyond them,
A reminiscence sing.
Once Paumanok,
When the lilac-scent was in the air and Fifth-month grass was growing,
Up this seashore in some briers,
Two feather’d guests from Alabama, two together,
And their nest, and four light-green eggs spotted with brown,
And every day the he-bird to and fro near at hand,
And every day the she-bird crouch’d on her nest, silent, with bright eyes,
And every day I, a curious boy, never too close, never disturbing them,
Cautiously peering, absorbing, translating.
Shine! shine! shine!
Pour down your warmth, great sun!
While we bask, we two together.
 
Two together!
Winds blow south, or winds blow north,
Day come white, or night come black,
Home, or rivers and mountains from home,
Singing all time, minding no time,
While we two keep together.
Till of a sudden,
May-be kill’d, unknown to her mate,
One forenoon the she-bird crouch’d not on the nest,
Nor return’d that afternoon, nor the next,
Nor ever appear’d again.
And thenceforward all summer in the sound of the sea,
And at night under the full of the moon in calmer weather,
Over the hoarse surging of the sea,
Or flitting from brier to brier by day,
I saw, I heard at intervals the remaining one, the he-bird,
The solitary guest from Alabama.
Blow! blow! blow!
Blow up sea-winds along Paumanok’s shore;
I wait and I wait till you blow my mate to me.
Yes, when the stars glisten’d,
All night long on the prong of a moss-scallop’d stake,
Down almost amid the slapping waves,
Sat the lone singer wonderful causing tears.
He call’d on his mate,
He pour’d forth the meanings which I of all men know.
Yes my brother I know,
The rest might not, but I have treasur’d every note,
For more than once dimly down to the beach gliding,
Silent, avoiding the moonbeams, blending myself with the shadows,
Recalling now the obscure shapes, the echoes, the sounds and sights after their sorts,
The white arms out in the breakers tirelessly tossing,
I, with bare feet, a child, the wind wafting my hair,
Listen’d long and long.
Listen’d to keep, to sing, now translating the notes,
Following you my brother.
Soothe! soothe! soothe!
Close on its wave soothes the wave behind,
And again another behind embracing and lapping, every one close,
But my love soothes not me, not me.
 
Low hangs the moon, it rose late,
It is lagging—O I think it is heavy with love, with love.
 
O madly the sea pushes upon the land,
With love, with love.
 
O night! do I not see my love fluttering out among the breakers?
What is that little black thing I see there in the white?
 
Loud! loud! loud!
Loud I call to you, my love!
 
High and clear I shoot my voice over the waves,
Surely you must know who is here, is here,
You must know who I am, my love.
 
Low-hanging moon!
What is that dusky spot in your brown yellow?
O it is the shape, the shape of my mate!
O moon do not keep her from me any longer.
 
Land! land! O land!
Whichever way I turn, O I think you could give me my mate back again if you only would,
For I am almost sure I see her dimly whichever way I look.
 
O rising stars!
Perhaps the one I want so much will rise, will rise with some of you.
 
O throat! O trembling throat!
Sound clearer through the atmosphere!
Pierce the woods, the earth,
Somewhere listening to catch you must be the one I want.
 
Shake out carols!
Solitary here, the night’s carols!
Carols of lonesome love! death’s carols!
Carols under that lagging, yellow, waning moon!
O under that moon where she droops almost down into the sea!
O reckless despairing carols.
 
But soft! sink low!
Soft! let me just murmur,
And do you wait a moment you husky-nois’d sea,
For somewhere I believe I heard my mate responding to me,
So faint, I must be still, be still to listen,
But not altogether still, for then she might not come immediately to me.
 
Hither my love!
Here I am! here!
With this just-sustain’d note I announce myself to you,
This gentle call is for you my love, for you.
 
Do not be decoy’d elsewhere,
That is the whistle of the wind, it is not my voice,
That is the fluttering, the fluttering of the spray,
Those are the shadows of leaves.
 
O darkness! O in vain!
O I am very sick and sorrowful.
 
O brown halo in the sky near the moon, drooping upon the sea!
O troubled reflection in the sea!
O throat! O throbbing heart!
And I singing uselessly, uselessly all the night.
 
O past! O happy life! O songs of joy!
In the air, in the woods, over fields,
Loved! loved! loved! loved! loved!
But my mate no more, no more with me!
We two together no more.
The aria sinking,
All else continuing, the stars shining,
The winds blowing, the notes of the bird continuous echoing,
With angry moans the fierce old mother incessantly moaning,
On the sands of Paumanok’s shore gray and rustling,
The yellow half-moon enlarged, sagging down, drooping, the face of the sea almost touching,
The boy ecstatic, with his bare feet the waves, with his hair the atmosphere dallying,
The love in the heart long pent, now loose, now at last tumultuously bursting,
The aria’s meaning, the ears, the soul, swiftly depositing,
The strange tears down the cheeks coursing,
The colloquy there, the trio, each uttering,
The undertone, the savage old mother incessantly crying,
To the boy’s soul’s questions sullenly timing, some drown’d secret hissing,
To the outsetting bard.
Demon or bird! (said the boy’s soul,)
Is it indeed toward your mate you sing? or is it really to me?
For I, that was a child, my tongue’s use sleeping, now I have heard you,
Now in a moment I know what I am for, I awake,
And already a thousand singers, a thousand songs, clearer, louder and more sorrowful than yours,
A thousand warbling echoes have started to life within me, never to die.
O you singer solitary, singing by yourself, projecting me,
O solitary me listening, never more shall I cease perpetuating you,
Never more shall I escape, never more the reverberations,
Never more the cries of unsatisfied love be absent from me,
Never again leave me to be the peaceful child I was before what there in the night,
By the sea under the yellow and sagging moon,
The messenger there arous’d, the fire, the sweet hell within,
The unknown want, the destiny of me.
O give me the clew! (it lurks in the night here somewhere,)
O if I am to have so much, let me have more!
A word then, (for I will conquer it,)
The word final, superior to all,
Subtle, sent up—what is it?—I listen;
Are you whispering it, and have been all the time, you sea-waves?
Is that it from your liquid rims and wet sands?
Whereto answering, the sea,
Delaying not, hurrying not,
Whisper’d me through the night, and very plainly before day-break,
Lisp’d to me the low and delicious word death,
And again death, death, death, death,
Hissing melodious, neither like the bird nor like my arous’d child’s heart,
But edging near as privately for me rustling at my feet,
Creeping thence steadily up to my ears and laving me softly all over,
Death, death, death, death, death.
Which I do not forget,
But fuse the song of my dusky demon and brother,
That he sang to me in the moonlight on Paumanok’s gray beach,
With the thousand responsive songs at random,
My own songs awaked from that hour,
And with them the key, the word up from the waves,
The word of the sweetest song and all songs,
That strong and delicious word which, creeping to my feet,
(Or like some old crone rocking the cradle, swathed in sweet garments, bending aside,)
The sea whisper’d me.

That was the year that was – the road to nowhere

Well we know where we’re going
But we don’t know where we’ve been
And we know what we’re knowing
But we can’t say what we’ve seen
And we’re not little children
And we know what we want
And the future is certain
Give us time to work it out
The Talking Heads

To borrow from Boz, these were the worst of times, these were the strangest of times. So disillusioned were we with our politics and our politicians, so dispirited by the sad state of the plant, so fissured and fractured as a society, with our intractable culture wars, we retreated into own private Idahos, pulled up the drawbridge and settled in with our iPads and iPhones and our Foxtel with the vino collapso and watched all the fun of the fair.

The mellifluous but perennially entertaining Donald Trump had a bad year, and a resolute Theresa May likewise. Confounding critics, she endeavours to persevere as she steers her foundering shipm of State towards Brexit and China’s Uighur Muslims. Barbaric Da’ish had a bad year (which was rather a good thing) , as did the unfortunate Rohinga of Myanmar, and the long-suffering people of Gaza.. Resilient Bashar Assad had a good year, with a little help from his Russian, Iranian and Hezbollah friends, but the wars of the Ottoman succession grind on. Vladimir Putin and the fat conductor Kim Jong Un had an excellent year, courtesy of POTUS. Angela Merkel lost her sparkle but royal Markle sparkled, and the luminous Taylor Swift, all legs and lipstick, emerged from her apolitical closet to swing the vote against the Donald in the US midterms. Her trim gluteus maximus starredin a court case that typified a year that saw women stand up strongly against years of aberrant male behaviour.

The Australian parliament devolved into a circus of tantrums and turncoats as the Liberal and National coalition devoured its own in a year book-ended by smutty sexual scandals, whilst canny Labor kept its powder dry for what bodes to be an whopping electoral victory in 2019. We wished that our rulers and representatives would stop behaving like children and start running the country and governing it for all of us.and then the children walked out of school en mass and told us that when they grew up they’d do a better job. The circus clowns huffed and puffed and denigrated the young ones – which only served to embarrass them more for their paucity of vision and partisan division.

And so, to the year in review:

During what was to many observers a dispiriting year of division and destruction, In That Howling Infinite maintained its  watch  with an eclectic mix of commentary, commemoration, culture and comedy. It was a big year – some forty posts in all. So many indeed that decided to reposted my favourite top five – those that I most enjoyed writing – on In That Howling Infinite’s Facebook page. See these at the conclusion of this review.

In a December post, Free Speech, One Each, we expressed disappointment with the ignorance, naivety, and self-absorption of electorates, left and right: their lack of historical knowledge and of curiosity, an unhealthy and self-defeating habit of accepting facts, narratives and theories based upon their preconceptions and prejudices. Nowadays, it often seems as if the reasonable middle has been excised from political discourse, drained out by the shrill voices of the extremes with their identity politics, virtue signalling, and vested interests. Social media has exacerbated the situation as folk lock themselves into their own echo chambers, listening only to those with whom they agree, ignoring or even avoiding contrary opinions and perspectives. It is a self-defeating, delusional, zero-sum form of groupthink that erodes trust and goodwill and prevents the development of consensus and cooperation. Meanwhile, opportunistic politicians and commentators build their constituencies by appealing to the particularistic, even atavistic wants and fears of their followers. Too often this reduces things down to atavistic lowest common denominators. They literally seize the low moral ground. Peoples problems and fears are real enough, and do need to be solved or allayed, but too often they are gulled, manipulated and recruited by modern-day snake-oil salesmen and show-tent shysters.

It was with this in mind that we caste a weary and cynical eye over Australian politics and society, particularly the ongoing history and culture wars, beginning in January with the self-explanatory We’ve Got The Australia Day Blues , and continuing with Conservatism in CrisisMilo Downunder, an alt-right love story, and the ongoing angst about the Ramsay Centre and its proposed university course on western civilization. Never in recent memory have so many words been printed about so little – at least not until the right’s last holy war. And so, there is The long, dark teatime of The Australian’s soul and its sequel The Oz’s lonely crusade. By year’s end, both sides appear to have run out of puff and the course will most likely end up in small regional campuses rather than the prestigious halls of Sydney and Melbourne.

Southern Discomfort.

The year’s leitmotif was the ongoing fiftieth anniversary of 1968, a tumultuous year for the world, and a formative one for myself personally. Stories of the events of that year are interspersed my own recollections – what I was doing at at the time, and what was going through my youthful head.  In Encounters with Enoch, I revisit English politician Enoch Powell’s controversial ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech. Then it’s Springtime in Paris as I recall les Évènements de Mai. And thence to Prague and the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia with Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life. Finally, there was the year in review with Things fall apart, the centre cannot hold – 1968 revisited.

2018 was also the centenary of the armistice that ended The Great War. November 1918 – the counterfeit peace discussed how for many countries and peoples in Europe and beyond, the conflict and the bloodshed continued. We also shared a poignant, fitting tribute by Gerry Condon  to all the “doomed youth” of all wars with Dulce et ducorem est – the death of war poet Wilfred Owen

There were other anniversaries. The Wild Wood and the Wide World revisited Kenneth Grahame’s riverbank pastorale The Wind in the Willows 110 years after it’s publication. Ghosts of the Gulag, which followed on from an earlier discussion of film The Death of Stalin released earlier in the year, looked at the contribution of Alexander Solzhenitsyn on the fiftieth anniversary of The Gulag Archipelago. The Russian theme continued with Whoar! And Peace – a light look at the BBC’s recent racey adaptation of Tolstoy’s celebrated house-brick.

The fiftieth anniversary of the death of John Steinbeck inspired The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl Blues. This featured the complete first chapter of The Grapes of Wrath, describing the unfolding of an environmental disaster. Two other posts also covered ecological bad news stories: The return of the forest wars in Australia, and Losing Earth – the decade we almost stopped climate change.

As always, the politics and people of the Middle East feature prominently in In That Howling Infinite. January kicked off with Ahed Tamimi – A Family Affair, a discussion about the young Palestinian activist and the first family of the resistance. Out of season, we visited the birthplace of the Christ child with O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see thee lie and tell the story of a border town that has existed since the beginning of recorded history. We considered whether an Israeli-Palestinian confederation was possible, and republished Israel author David Grossman’s A Fortess But Not Yet a Homeand a review of author Amos Oz’ Dear Zealots – letters from a divided land. Sadly, Oz passed on 28th December, his death and that of the indomitable Uri Avnery (see last September’s Seeing through the eyes of “the other’) in August saw the passing of two of the most forthright intellectual proponents of the receding ‘two state solution’. We also reviewed  the intimations, imperfections and implications of Donald Trump’s “ultimate deal”, an ostensible end to the intractable Arab-Israeli conflict but which is effectively Throwing Abbas under the bus. The wider Arab and Islamic world features in Islam’s house of many mansions, and, in the wake of the murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi and the Yemen war, we consider the possibility of Sanctioning Saudi -1973 revisited.

Our history posts were as eclectic as ever. We continued our series of Small Stories with a profile of The Monarch of the Sea, Prince Roy of Sealand, the smallest country in the world, and The Odyssey of Assid Corban from a tiny village in Lebanon to a wine dynasty in Auckland, New Zealand. A video of University College Dublin’s celebrated Choral Scholars inspired a look at an old Jacobite song  Mo Ghile Mear, whilst the anniversary of the Irish rebellion of 1798 recalled another song and a host of personal memories: The Boys of Wexford – memory and memoir. We reviewed two historical novels. In Cuddling up to Caligula, we discovered a soft side to the controversial Roman Emperor; whilst melancholy Martin Sparrow’s Blues shone fresh light on the travails of Australia’s early white settlers. And a review of Ulrich Raulff’s Farewell to the Horse, a history of man’s long relationship with our four-legged friend, galloped away from me as we sang the song of the horse with The Twilight of the Equine Gods  – part history, part memoir, part prose-poem.

And that was the year that was.

And the top five?

Number five was that slap that resounded around the world – the story of young Ahed Tamimi and her family. Four, the tale of melancholy Martin SparrowThree, the Jacobite love song Mo Ghile Mear – Irish myth and melody. Two, the reverie of 1968. And, number one, my very, very favourite and indeed, a labour of love, The Twilight of the Equine Gods

Happy New Year. See you on the other side.

Our reviews of previous years: 20172016 2015

The last rains came gently – Steinbeck’s dustbowl ballad

The highway is alive tonight
Where it’s headed everybody knows
I’m sitting down here in the campfire light
With the ghost of old Tom Joad
Bruce Springsteen

In the last of our posts commemorating 1968, we pay tribute to author and Nobel Laureate John Steinbeck who died fifty years ago this month.

Back in the day, The Grapes of Wrath was included in our GCE A level curriculum, nearly thirty years after its publication and its iconic status. It was, to our formative minds, a pleasantly surprising choice. In the mid ‘sixties, before Vietnam became the quagmire that sapped America’s blood and treasure and trashed its post-war reputation as a force for good in the world, the land of the free and home of the brave was also was a beacon of bright consumerism, great movies, and pop music. The idea of an American novel in English Lit, so long the preserve of Britain’s literary canon, wonderful though it was, has a certain excitement to it. It gave to us a new literary language, a different sensibility, a fresh perspective.

But Steinbeck’s America was new to us, an America far removed from of the hope and glory that we’d been accustomed to in the years following what was seen as the US’ triumph in World War Two (the costly and critical contribution of the Soviet Union, now our ostensible foe, was singularly downplayed during these years). The Grapes of Wrath was a revelation, an eye-opener, a primer, indeed, for a youthful awareness and politicisation that would be further nurtured by the escalating war in Indochina and the rise and rise of the civil rights movement in the US.

The inevitable examination question in the summer 1967 was exactly that: why were studying an American novel? Any discerning reader taking in the opening pages of chapter one can answer this in a trice. The simple beauty, the lyrical and descriptive power, the gradual but relentlessly unfolding narrative is such that I can recite parts of it from memory over half a century later.

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

I have reproduced chapter one in full below. In a few short pages, it describes how the the last rains fell on Oklahoma’s cornfields and how the searing summer sun rendered the land to dust, creating the dust bowl so chillingly portrayed by filmmaker Ken Burns in his singular documentary of that name, and propelling tens of thousands of destitute ‘Okies’ “on the long, hard road of flight” (as Bob Dylan would describe it in Chimes of Freedom)  to California. As a literary record of an unfolding environmental disaster, it is without equal.  It is poetical, powerful, and profoundly unsettling, and there’s worse to follow.

There are few books that strike such a chord with me – books that I reread in whole or in part once in a while, often aloud, just for the verbal and lyrical thrill. Moby-Dick is such a one, Herman Melville’s classic treatise on seafaring, whales and obsession – from which this blog takes its name – particularly chapter forty one which brilliantly describes the demented and doomed sea captain’s descent into madness.

Whilst few writers can lay claim to have written the “great American novel”, Steinbeck and Melville cracked the code. My own personal contender would also be CE Morgan’s Sport of Kings, a long and deep story about a old Kentucky horse-breeding family – the “kings” of the title. Like The Grapes of Wrath, it is a harrowing journey through America’s dark soul. Morgan’s debt to Steinbeck  is transparent in her descriptive power.

Far across the road, cattle moaned with longing for a night coming in fits and starts. The air was restless and the crickets thrummed. The hot, humid breath of August was lifting now from the ground, where it had boiled all day, rising to meet the cooler streams of air that hovered over it. Airs kissed and stratified, whitening and thinning as the sun slipped its moorings and sank to the bank of the earth. 

Following the excerpt from The Grapes of Wrath, I republish an informative essay from The Independent with regard to a new biography of Steinbeck on the anniversary of his death. He was a gifted, complex and at times, unpleasant man. His stories of the lives of migrants and workers during US’ Great Depression, most notably in The Grapes of Wrath, and his short stories Cannery Row and Of Mice and Men, resonate today, prefiguring as they do the mass migration of populations due to climate changes, infrastructure collapse, the heartless hypocrisy of trickle-down economics, the reluctance and even refusal of the powers-that-be to help those cast by the wayside or onto the scarp-heap, and the demonisation of those are forced to take to the roads and oceans of the world in search of a better, safer life for themselves and their children.

In a 1952 radio interview, Steinbeck said:

“People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California. They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

I recall Tom Joad’s parting words in the 1940 film adaptation when he leaves his family to fight for social and economic justice:

“You don’t aim to kill nobody, Tom?”
“No. I been thinkin’, long as I’m a outlaw anyways, maybe I could — Hell, I ain’t thought it out clear, Ma. Don’ worry me now. Don’ worry me.”
They sat silent in the coal-black cave of vines. Ma said, “How’m I gonna know ’bout you? They might kill ya an’ I wouldn’ know. They might hurt ya. How’m I gonna know?”
Tom laughed uneasily, “Well, maybe like Casy says, a fella ain’t got a soul of his own, but on’y a piece of a big one – an’ then -”
“Then what, Tom?”
“Then it don’ matter. Then I’ll be all aroun’ in the dark. I’ll be ever’where – wherever you look. Wherever they’s a fight so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever they’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. If Casy knowed, why, I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad an’ — I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry an’ they know supper’s ready. An’ when our folks eat the stuff they raise an’ live in the houses they build –  why, I’ll be there. See? God, I’m talkin’ like Casy. Comes of thinkin’ about him so much. Seems like I can see him sometimes.”

And now, let Steinbeck set the scene for why Tom Joad and his family abandon their farm, pile their possessions on on old truck and head into the west …


The Grapes of Wrath, Chapter One

To the red country and part of the gray country of Oklahoma, the last rains came gently, and they did not cut the scarred earth. The plows crossed and recrossed the rivulet marks. The last rains lifted the corn quickly and scattered weed colonies and grass along the sides of the roads so that the gray country and the dark red country began to disappear under a green cover. In the last part of May the sky grew pale and the clouds that had hung in high puffs for so long in the spring were dissipated. The sun flared down on the growing corn day after day until a line of brown spread along the edge of each green bayonet. The clouds appeared, and went away, and in a while they did not try any more. The weeds grew darker green to protect themselves, and they did not spread any more. The surface of the earth crusted, a thin hard crust, and as the sky became pale, so the earth became pale, pink in the red country and white in the gray country.

In the water-cut gullies the earth dusted down in dry little streams. Gophers and ant lions started small avalanches. And as the sharp sun struck day after day, the leaves of the young corn became less stiff and erect; they bent in a curve at first, and then, as the central ribs of strength grew weak, each leaf tilted downward. Then it was June, and the sun shone more fiercely. The brown lines on the corn leaves widened and moved in on the central ribs. The weeds frayed and edged back toward their roots. The air was thin and the sky more pale; and every day the earth paled.

In the roads where the teams moved, where the wheels milled the ground and the hooves of the horses beat the ground, the dirt crust broke and the dust formed. Every moving thing lifted the dust into the air: a walking man lifted a thin layer as high as his waist, and a wagon lifted the dust as high as the fence tops, and an automobile boiled a cloud behind it. The dust was long in settling back again.

When June was half gone, the big clouds moved up out of Texas and the Gulf, high heavy clouds, rainheads. The men in the fields looked up at the clouds and sniffed at them and held wet fingers up to sense the wind. And the horses were nervous while the clouds were up. The rainheads dropped a little spattering and hurried on to some other country. Behind them the sky was pale again and the sun flared. In the dust there were drop craters where the rain had fallen, and there were clean splashes on the corn, and that was all.

A gentle wind followed the rain clouds, driving them on northward, a wind that softly clashed the drying corn. A day went by and the wind increased, steady, unbroken by gusts. The dust from the roads fluffed up and spread out and fell on the weeds beside the fields, and fell into the fields a little way. Now the wind grew strong and hard and it worked at the rain crust in the corn fields. Little by little the sky was darkened by the mixing dust, and the wind felt over the earth, loosened the dust, and carried it away. The wind grew stronger. The rain crust broke and the dust lifted up out of the fields and drove gray plumes into the air like sluggish smoke. The corn threshed the wind and made a dry, rushing sound. The finest dust did not settle back to earth now, but disappeared into the darkening sky.

The wind grew stronger, whisked under stones, carried up straws and old leaves and even little clods, marking its course as it sailed across the fields. The air and the sky darkened and through them the sun shone redly, and there was a raw sting in the air. During a night the wind raced faster over the land, dug cunningly among the rootlets of the corn, and the corn fought the wind with its weakened leaves until the roots were freed by the prying wind and then each stalk settled wearily sideways toward the earth and pointed the direction of the wind.

The dawn came, but no day. In the gray sky a red sun appeared, a dim red circle that gave a little light, like dusk; and as that day advanced, the dusk slipped back toward darkness, and the wind cried and whimpered over the fallen corn.

Men and women huddled in their houses, and they tied handkerchiefs over their noses when they went out, and wore goggles to protect their eyes.

When the night came again it was black night, for the stars could not pierce the dust to get down, and the window lights could not even spread beyond their own yards now the dust was evenly mixed with the air, an emulsion of dust and air. Houses were shut tight, and cloth wedged around doors and windows, but the dust came in so thinly that it could not be seen in the air, and it settled like pollen on the chairs and tables, on the dishes. The people brushed it from their shoulders. Little lines of dust lay at the door sills.

In the middle of that night the wind passed on and left the land quiet. The dust-filled air muffled sound more completely than fog does. The people, lying in their beds heard the wind stop. They awakened when the rushing wind was gone. They lay quietly and listened deep into the stillness. Then the roosters crowed, and their voices were muffled, and the people stirred restlessly in their beds and wanted the morning they knew it would take a long time for the dust to settle out of the air. In the morning the dust hung like fog, and the sun was as red as ripe new blood. All day the dust sifted down from the sky, and the next day it sifted down. An even blanket covered the earth it settled on the corn, piled up on the tops of the fence posts, piled up on the wires; it settled on roofs, blanketed the weeds and trees.

The people came out of their houses and smelled the hot stinging air and covered their noses from it. And the children came out of the houses, but they did not run or shout as they would have done after a rain. Men stood by their fences and looked at the ruined corn, drying fast now, only a little green showing through the film of dust. The men were silent and they did not move often. And the women came out of the houses to stand beside their men—to feel whether this time the men would break. The women studied the men’s faces secretly, for the corn could go, as long as something else remained. The children stood near by, drawing figures in the dust with bare toes, and the children sent exploring senses out to see whether men and women would break the children peeked at the faces of the men and women, and then drew careful lines in the dust with their toes. Horses came to the watering troughs and nuzzled the water to clear the surface dust.

After a while the faces of the watching men lost their bemused perplexity and became hard and angry and resistant. Then the women knew that they were safe and that there was no break. Then they asked, What’ll we do? And the men replied, I don’t know. But it was all right. The women knew it was all right, and the Watching children knew it was all right. Women and children knew deep in themselves That no misfortune was too great to bear if their men were whole. The women went into the houses to their work, and the children began to play, but cautiously at first. As the Day went forward the sun became less red. It flared down on the dust-blanketed land The men sat in the doorways of their houses; their hands were busy with sticks and Little rocks. The men sat still—thinking—figuring.


John Steinbeck: A flawed genius

Martin Chilton, The Independent 20th December 2018

It’s the 50th anniversary of the death of Steinbeck, who will be the subject of a new biography in 2019. The Nobel Prize-winning author of The Grapes of Wrath was a complicated and controversial man, explains Martin Chilton in The Independent 20th December 2018 

New light was shed on the writer when interviews given by his second wife were found in a loft in Wales last year

“I have left a lot of tracks in my life,” said John Steinbeck, a giant of 20th-century literature, who died on 20 December 1968 at the age of 66. Novels such as Of Mice and Men, The Grapes of Wrath and East of Eden made him world famous, yet some of the truth about his past has taken half a century to come to light. Steinbeck was a complicated and contradictory man – and weirder than you might have thought.

Mad at the World is the title of a new biography to be published in 2019, and there is little doubt that Steinbeck was an angry man. He was outraged by injustice, poverty and prejudice, as his books make clear. He was also capable of more personal animosities, whether that was towards Adolf Hitler, his second wife or even book reviewers (“what lice they are”).

The quirkiness of his character was evident at a young age. Steinbeck was already dreaming about becoming a professional writer when he enrolled as an English major at Stanford University at the age of 17. He tried to sign up for a practical course in how to dissect corpses. “I want to learn about human beings,” he told a clearly unimpressed dean of the medical school. His application was rejected. Medicine’s loss was literature’s gain, and he went on to win a Pulitzer Prize in the novel category (1940), the Nobel Prize in Literature (1962) and the United States Medal of Freedom (1964).

Although he never got the chance to cut up bodies, he was to spend a lot of time in hospital, because illness and freakish accidents were a recurrent theme in his life. The pattern started at high school in Salinas, the Californian town where he was born on 27 February 1902. At age 16, Steinbeck contracted pleural pneumonia and came close to death. A doctor saved him by cutting through his rib cage to drain the fluid. Around a year later, he was seriously ill again and had to have his appendix removed.

Things were little better in adulthood. He had a serious kidney infection that required hospital treatment. He had an operation on a detached retina, an operation to remove varicose veins and another to repair a shattered knee cap after a balcony rail gave way on the second floor of his Manhattan home. In 1959 he suffered a stroke, in 1960 he had a suspected heart attack. At the end of his life, he was poleaxed by a back injury that required complicated surgery.

As fate would have it, an injury to a stranger was one of the decisive factors in pushing Steinbeck towards full-time writing. After leaving Stanford without graduating, he had spells working on farms and as a painter’s apprentice before moving to New York in the mid-1920s. In New York, he worked on a building site, ferrying wheelbarrows loaded with 100 pounds of cement, during the construction of Madison Square Garden. Six weeks into the job, a co-worker fell to a bloody death near where Steinbeck stood. The horrific sight made Steinbeck throw up. He quit his job that night.

His uncle helped him land a job as a reporter for the New York American, a William Randolph Hearst newspaper, but he quickly became disillusioned by journalism and returned to California. He worked as a tour guide and it was in that job he met his first wife Carol Henning. His wedding came shortly after the publication of his first novel, 1929’s Cup of Gold. It was the start of a career that would produce 16 novels and novellas, two sets of short stories, 11 non-fiction books, two plays, two screenplays and a large volume of letters.

Steinbeck sometimes played up to the image of a struggling writer whose upbringing was hard financially. Throughout the 1920s, however, Steinbeck was getting an allowance from his father, the treasurer of Monterey County, of $50 ($700 or £550 in today’s terms) a month. “Most people imagine that Steinbeck came from an impoverished background and was almost one of those workers in The Grapes of Wrath, but his family home in Salinas was a beautiful Victorian house with maids and servants,” said his biographer Jay Parini in 1994. “His was a self-conscious identification with working people, but he always travelled first-class and stayed in suites at the Dorchester in London and the Georges Cinq in Paris,” Parini added.

After a series of well-received novels, including 1935’s Tortilla Flat, Steinbeck won critical acclaim in 1937 for his novella Of Mice and Men, the moving portrait-in-miniature of 1930s California, seen through the friendship of oddball ranch workers George and Lennie. Two years later came The Grapes of Wrath, one of the defining novels of the 20th century, a work of rich descriptive power, in which Steinbeck showed his ability to summon poetry out of poverty in the lives of the “Okie” Joad family.

This deeply affecting story about the oppression of migrant workers, who were fleeing from the Dust Bowl states to California, struck a chord with an America reeling from the Great Depression. By February 1940, the novel was in its 11th printing, having sold nearly half a million copies. More than 15 million copies were bought in the next eight decades and around 50,000 copies are still bought in America every year.

The impact of Steinbeck’s work on the American people was momentous. When I met the singer and actor Harry Belafonte, he told me Steinbeck “was one of the people who turned my life around as a young man”, inspiring “a lifelong love of literature”. Arthur Miller wrote of Steinbeck, “I can’t think of another American writer, with the possible exception of Mark Twain, who so deeply penetrated the political life of the country.”

The 1940 film adaptation of the novel, starring Henry Fonda, is considered a Hollywood classic. Only a bitter legal dispute over the writer’s estate (between Steinbeck’s stepdaughter Waverly Scott Kaffaga and his daughter-in-law Gail Steinbeck) prevented Steven Spielberg from going ahead with his proposed remake of the movie in 2017.

Steinbeck rarely gave interviews, but in 1952 he spoke to the radio network Voice of America about how he had been “filled with anger” at the ill-treatment of migrant workers. “People were starving and cold and they came in their thousands to California,” Steinbeck said. “They met a people who were terrified of Depression and were horrified at the idea that great numbers of indigent people were being poured on them to be taken care of when there wasn’t much money about. They became angry at these newcomers. Gradually, through government and through the work of private citizens, agencies were set up to take care of these situations. Only then did the anger begin to decrease and when the anger decreased, these two sides got to know each other and they found they didn’t dislike each other at all.”

Many years later, it emerged that the FBI file had begun to keep files on the writer at this time, justifying it with claims that “many of Steinbeck’s writings portrayed an extremely sordid and poverty-stricken side of American life”. Thankfully, more enlightened minds than FBI director J Edgar Hoover were in positions of influence when Steinbeck won literature’s most illustrious award. It is notable that the Nobel committee praised his “keen social perception”.

The Grapes of Wrath was making Steinbeck world famous just as the 41-year-old began to fall for a 22-year-old nightclub singer called Gwyn Conger, whom he married in 1943. Three decades later, as a divorcee in her late fifties, Conger gave a series of interviews in Palm Springs to a show business writer called Douglas Brown. These interviews remained unpublished for more than four decades, until they were discovered in a loft in Wales in 2017.

After they had two children together – Thomas, born in 1944, and John Steinbeck IV, born in 1946 – the acrimony became unbearable and she divorced him in 1948. “The impulse of the American woman is to geld her husband and castrate her sons,” Steinbeck wrote to a friend shortly after his marriage ended. “American married life is the doormat to the whorehouse.” He would exact his revenge a few years later when he based Cathy, the wicked alcoholic character in East of Eden, on Conger. He would also fight her in court throughout the next decade to avoid paying child support.

Steinbeck, a heavy drinker, was not blind to his own failings and mood swings. “I know of no sadder people than those who believe their own publicity,” he said. Steinbeck had suffered from bouts of depression in the 1940s and even after meeting and marrying his third wife, Elaine Scott, he was frequently brought low by what he called his “what-the-hell blues”. Steinbeck said he “hit the bottom” in October 1953, a year after the publication of East of Eden, when he was treated at Lenox Hill Hospital by psychologist Gertrudis Brenner. “A sad soul can kill quicker than a germ,” he remarked.

In this period of mental health problems, he produced some of the strangest work of his career. In 1955, he published a short story called The Affair at 7 Rue de M, a horror-like tale about a child who is unable to get rid of a piece of bubble gum. Wherever he puts it, the gum keeps finding its way back into the boy’s mouth. In desperation, the father cements the gum to a dining table and it takes a week for the piece of gum to die. Steinbeck later burned dozens of stories from this period. He also abandoned a novel about a man who watches one too many westerns on television and then puts on a cowboy hat and heads out to be an urban vigilante.

Poet Ezra Pound once dismissed accounts of a writer’s life as a mere “laundry list” and Steinbeck shared this disdain for focusing on the personal life of an author. Perhaps he has a point. What can we ultimately conclude from the knowledge that Steinbeck preferred writing with pencils (using up to 60 in a day), that he liked jazz, enjoyed playing the harmonica, laughed at jokes by Bob Hope, preferred smoking small cigars and regularly snacked on tuna-covered crackers, washed down by red wine?

“The fact that I have housemaid’s knees or fear yellow gloves has little to do with the books I write,” he said. He derided the public’s need to “create a Steinbeck out of its own imagination” and insisted there were more important matters on which to focus. In 1938, for example, shocked by reports of the Nazi looting and burning of Jewish homes and synagogues in Germany, he was among a small band of writers, including Dorothy Parker, who sent a telegram to President Franklin D Roosevelt urging him to cut all ties with Hitler. Steinbeck became a war correspondent for The New York Herald during the subsequent conflict, reporting from England, North Africa and Italy.

Steinbeck was certainly a progressive in a backward era of race relations. He asked for his name to be taken off the screenplay for the wartime Alfred Hitchcock film The Lifeboat, because he was furious that the “dignified and purposeful” black character he had created had been “distorted”. He wrote to 20th Century Fox to complain about the addition of “a stock comedy negro”, blaming them for “strange and sly obliquities”. Not only did the Fox bosses deny his request, they actively stepped up a publicity campaign that highlighted Steinbeck as the screenwriter. The Oscar nomination he received simply added salt to the wound.

Despite these laudable actions, he was not above his own dirty tactics. In 1958, he was asked by Adlai Stevenson’s fixer, William McCormick Blair Jr, to write a novel that featured a corrupt version of presidential candidate Richard M Nixon. Steinbeck rejected the idea and instead suggested attacks on Nixon’s character, “kidney punch” zingers as he called them, such as starting rumours about Nixon and wife-beating. “All of these are dirty, but as I said, the man who tries Queensberry against gutter fighting is going to get the hell kicked out of him,” Steinbeck wrote to Blair.

John Updike said that for most Americans in the post-war era, Steinbeck’s reputation was as “a best-seller as well as a Nobel Prize-winning author of high intent”, but during the 1960s Steinbeck’s politics moved away from the liberalism that had earned him a reputation as America’s social conscience. He became friends with President Johnson (helping him to write his acceptance speech) and reported sympathetically on the Vietnam war from late 1966 to early 1967.

Observers in Vietnam noted Steinbeck’s fascination for American weaponry, especially the Douglas AC-47 Spooky gunship, nicknamed “Puff the Magic Dragon”. It could fire a hundred rounds of 50-calibre bullets every second. The writer loved going target practice shooting with the same type of M16 rifle the troops carried. He even manned a US army outpost during a night of sporadic fire.

His sons Thomas and John were on active duty in the US army at the time of his visit. John later became a fierce opponent of the war, a stance that put him at odds with Steinbeck, who wrote publicly about how Vietnam peace protesters gave him “a shiver of shame”. Steinbeck derided the hippie demonstrators for their “dirty clothes, dirty minds and their shuffling drag-ass protests”.

It is a characteristically odd twist that the 64-year-old who was able to survive a night taking on the Vietcong – and an attack on a helicopter in which he was a passenger – did himself irreparable harm with the innocuous action of lifting some beer. In Hong Kong, travelling back from Vietnam with his wife Elaine, he helped a Chinese delivery man. As he lifted the case of beer, he ruptured a spinal disc. Six months later, still in agonising pain, he had a five-hour operation on his back. The last few months before his death from a heart attack at his East 72nd Street home in New York were deeply miserable.

Biographers Jackson Benson (1984) and Jay Parini (1995) have previously battled with the character of Steinbeck and that challenge has now been taken up by William Souder, whose biography Mad at the World: John Steinbeck and the American Century will be published by WW Norton & Company in 2019.

There is no shortage of fascinating material for Pulitzer finalist Souder to re-examine. As well as Steinbeck’s writing (the prize-winning novels and less-well known masterpieces such as Cannery Row, The Pearl and Sweet Thursday), there is his sometimes madcap life, such as his drunken treasure-hunting escapades in the Bahamas. Even his friend, the noted psychological novelist Sherwood Anderson, admitted that he couldn’t “figure out Steinbeck”.

With Steinbeck, the unexpected was the norm. When his New York house was burgled in 1963, for example, the police report listed the stolen items as “a television set and six rifles”. The writer enjoyed the idiosyncrasy of humans. When he was asked for his “rules for life” by a friend in Vietnam, Steinbeck replied with his four mottos: “Never make excuses. Never let them see you bleed. Never get separated from your luggage. Always find out when the bar opens.”

Souder says he is excited by the challenge of writing about such a complex figure. “One of the things that attracted me to Steinbeck is that he was far from perfect – as a man, a husband, a writer, he had issues,” Souder told the website Steinbeck Now. “He had a permanent chip on his shoulder. He got side-tracked by ideas that were a waste of his time and talent. Some of his work is brilliant and some of it is awful. That’s what you want in a subject – a hero with flaws. Steinbeck was a literary giant who wouldn’t play along with the idea that he was important. I love that. He was mad at the world because it seemed somehow mad at him.”

Steinbeck wasn’t always mad at the world, though. Ten years before his death, this conflicted genius wrote a memorable letter to Thomas Steinbeck (the full version is available here), after his 14-year-old son revealed he had fallen desperately in love with a girl named Susan.

“There are several kinds of love,” he wrote, signing the letter as “Fa”. “One is a selfish, mean, grasping, egotistical thing which uses love for self-importance. This is the ugly and crippling kind. The other is an outpouring of everything good in you – of kindness and consideration and respect – not only the social respect of manners but the greater respect which is recognition of another person as unique and valuable. The first kind can make you sick and small and weak but the second can release in you strength, and courage and goodness and even wisdom you didn’t know you had … don’t worry about losing. If it is right, it happens – the main thing is not to hurry. Nothing good gets away.”

These tender and optimistic words of advice remain, like Steinbeck’s best writing, an absolute joy, despite the flaws of the man.


Here are other posts in In That Howling Infinite with regard to 1968:  Things fall apart – the centre cannot hold;  Springtime in Paris – remembering May 1968Phil Och’s Chicago Blues ; and Tanks for the memory – how Brezhnev changed my life

And the ‘sixties: Encounters with Enoch; Recalling the Mersey PoetsThe Strange Death of Sam CookeLooking for LehrerShock of the Old – the glory days of prog rockWindow on a Gone WorldBack in the day; and, The Incorrigible Optimists Club

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”

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.