That was the year that was – a year of living dangerously

Last December, when we wrote our review of the year that was ending, fires were ravaging Eastern Australia, and civil unrest had broken out across the world, from Hong to Chile, Beirut to Bolivia. Calling it The End of the Beginning, we wrote:

“We enter a new decade with an American election that will focus our attention; Britain’s long farewell to Europe; an end, maybe, to Syria’s agony (accompanied by renewed repression and victor’s revenge); the rise and rise of China and the geopolitical challenge it presents to the senescent “Old World”. And that is just a few things we have to look forward to”.

As they say, “be careful what you wish for”, or more prosaically, when men make plans, god laughs.

This was a year unlike any other in my, dare I say it and invite the evil eye, long lifetime. It started so well with the abatement of our smoky, fiery Black Summer, and then the rains came. This was the year optimists hoped would be one of 20/20 vision: progress on tackling climate change, perhaps, and end to the entertaining but scary presidency of Donald Trump, a cure for … well everything.

But it was to be the year of the virus. By year’s end nearly eight million people will have been infected and almost two million will have perished, with the US recording more than any other country – by New Years Day, its death-toll will very likely exceed its dead in World War II. Economies have been shattered, livelihoods threatened or destroyed, borders closed, cities, towns and homes closed, locked-down and isolated.

In its turbulent and divisive election year, the death of George Floyd at the hands of – or more specifically under the knee of a policeman, painted a brutal portrait of the implacable indifference to black life that defines American policing. It reopened America’s long-festering wounds of racial and social injustice, white racism and vigilante violence. Rather than douse the flames with water and retardant, The White House reached for a can of petrol. The Black Lives Matter Movement, like #MeToo in recent years, an incendiary spark ignited protests around the world, showing that police violence, injustice and inequality do not belong to the USA alone.

Armed protesters on the steps of the Michigan State Capitol in Lansing, demanding the reopening of businesses

Whilst most of the world had entered into a kind of limbo, awaiting the vaccine that will end our travails and reopen our countries and indeed, the wide world, others dropped down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories that alternatively deny that the pandemic exists or that it had been deliberately created and spread by mysterious and malevolent cabal that seeks total control, like some villain from an old James Bond film or an Avengers movie. Social media has enabled a veritable eBay of ideas and explanations where the isolated and excluded who do their own research and follow the breadcrumbs into the Matrix can buy one and get four free.

On a saner but nonetheless destabilizing level, denizens of the so-called “cancel culture” had a field day exercising its democratic right to be easily offended by demanding the deplatforming, defenestration and demolition of persons, ideas, careers, and monuments. Long-dead slavers, imperialists and generals bit the dust; JK Rowling and Nick Cave got a serve, the latter for devaluing that “cancel culture’s refusal to engage with uncomfortable ideas has an asphyxiating effect on the creative soul of a society”; and an episode of Fawlty Towers was temporarily committed to the naughty corner. 

In the cold-blooded, brutal real world, there was no abatement in the wars and insurgencies that have been grinding on years now in Africa and the Middle East, whilst an old conflict over blood and soil broke out anew between Armenians and Azerbaijanis. Donald Trump’s much touted “deal of the century” that would reconcile Israelis and Palestinians was revealed to be no more than a shifty and shitty bribe, whilst US-brokered “peace” deals with a bunch of autocracies who had never gone to war against Israel are but smoke and mirrors that like Kushner’s Peace to Prosperity plan throw the unfortunate Palestinians under the bus. It is as if there is, beyond the planets COVID, Conspiracy and Cancel, a parallel universe of misery and carnage, power games and proxy wars.

Meanwhile, China, or more precisely, the Chinese Communist Party, having let loose the virus, has taken advantage of the world’s distraction and confusion by pressing forward in its quest its political, military and economic predominance. Uighurs, Mongolians and Tibetans face cultural extinction whilst in Hong Kong, the flame of freedom flickered and went out. Sooner or later, something is going to give – what some pundits perceive as President Xi’s impatient recklessness will be followed by a reckoning.

Michelle Griffin, World Editor with the Sydney Morning Herald provides a brief but excellent run down of 2020: The 2020 Pandemic – our year of living dangerously. And on 2020 as the year of “cancel culture”, the reflex response of the easily offended, here is 2020, the year we finally broke our culture. Both are well worth a read.

Time during 2020 has been elastic and confused. On 21st December, The Guardian asked readers to sum up how they felt about 2020 in one word – and likewise their feelings for 2021. As of Xmas Eve, the standout words were respectively (a) shit, fucked and challenging and (b) hopeful and better. My poll responses were “fascinating” and “unpredictable”.

The year ahead?

Our year in review

And so to our review of what In That Howling Infinite published during the plague year. Curiously, deliberately or by mere circumstances, nothing about the plague.

The year began with the fires and smoke abating here on our Mid North Coast, though raging still in southern New South Wales and eastern Victoria. Inspired by an early Cat Stevens song, we opened with a light, nostalgic history of the first the schools of the Tarkeeth, where we live.

Before we knew it, Australian Day was upon us. Normally, the weeks preceding our national day see social and mainstream media, posturing politicians and personalities and cultural warriors of all our tribes caught up in argument and invective about its meaning and significance. This year, however, things are unseasonably quiet. As a nation and a community, we were perhaps too preoccupied with Australia’s unprecedented bush-fire crisis to wage our customary wars of words. Elizabeth Farrelly asked what it means to be Australian: “As the fires rage on, bringing little but anti-green and pro-coal propaganda from our governments, we have a choice. We can go on pretending that exploitation is a sustainable way of life. We can pursue this culture of denial, where truths about nature, climate, women and Indigenous peoples are held in contempt. Or we can smarten up” … It was Australia’s choice – survive by respect or die by stupid.

February saw the first of several cynical and futile attempts by the international community to resolve the morass of the Libyan civil war. In Tangled – a cynic’s guide to alliances in the Middle East, we pointed out that Libya was not the only quagmire of outside powers and their local proxies. Then there the Trump administration’s “deal of the century”. Intended to end half a century of conflict between Israel and Palestine, it was the beginning, dead in the water: Clouded Vision – no peace, no plan, no Palestine, no point.

The unfortunate Palestinians were viewed more sympathetically in a retrospective of the life and work of one of Palestine’s most celebrated artists: Visualizing the Palestinian Return – The art of Ismail Shammout.

The ominous drumbeats of the novel coronavirus we now know as COVID19 drew close and closer during January and February, and by mid March, it was all on for young and old. A tiny but loud minority protested that all a cod. It was to misapply Bob Dylan, “just a dream, babe, a vacuum, a scheme babe that sucks you into feeling like this”.  With enough being written about the pandemic on mainstream and social media, we took the pasty now very well traveled with The view from the grassy knoll – the resilience of conspiracy theories.

The onward March of the “Conspiratualists” merged by midyear with anti-lockdown protests in otherwise rational western democracies, the violence on America’s streets following the death of George Floyd, and the anticipation of open war between rival militia in the Land of the fearful – home of the heavily armed. As the US descended into a social and political division as contagious as the coronavirus, the calls to right historical wrongs led to the demands that statues of morally dubious long-dead white be torn down led to Arguments of a Monumental Proportions.

It was time for In That Howling Infinite to retreat into history, with The Bard in the Badlands 2 – America’s Shakespearean dreaming, a sequel to an earlier piece on America’s historical fascination with William Shakespeare. The lockdowns and self-isolation of the pandemic’s first wave saw people going out less, homeschooling, drinking more (and sadly, in many instances, beating each other up more. But many of us were also avidly FaceBooking, Tweeting and Zooming; and also binge-watching Netflix and Scandi-noir and reading large books.

In Bad Company – how Britain conquered India, we reviewed The Anarchy, the latest in a long list of excellent histories of the sub-continent by Scottish scholar and longtime resident of India, William Dalrymple – the daunting and depressing story of the rise and fall of the British East India Company, a quasi-military industrial complex that earned the misleading sobriquet The Honourable Company.

Flashman in the Great Game

Just in time for the lock-down, Hilary Mantel gave us the finale of her magisterial and magnificent Wolf Hall trilogy – The Light and the Mirror. In That Howling Infinite took up two themes that threaded through all three books. We know how the story ends, but are fascinated with how Mantel takes us there. Taking as it theme the golden bird-boy flying too close to the sun, Beyond Wolf Hall (2) – Icarus ascending asks the question “could Thomas Cromwell have avoided his doom?” Beyond Wolf Hall (1) – Revolution Road reviews Cromwell’s legacy, the Protestant Reformation that changed the course of English (and British) history.

Mark Rylance and Damian Lewis as Tom and Hal

Fast forward from the life and dangerous times of Henry VIII to the present, and Netflix’ release in November of the third season of The Crown, a sumptuous soap that beguiles even ardent republicans. The latest serve, highlighting the rise and fall of Margaret Thatcher and the salacious pas de trois of Charles, Diana and Camilla, is deliciously seditious. And there was an entertaining Australian interlude, as described in The Crown – the view from Down Under  even if it was actually filmed in Spain.

In August 2020, the largest man-made explosion since Hiroshima and Nagasaki rippled the heart out of Lebanon’s capital. Over two thousand tons of illegal, combustible, unstable, and almost forgotten ammonium nitrate went up in a fireball that resembled an atomic blast. Social media shared memes and messages, hearts and flags, and “we are all Lebanese” profiles. Expatriates and others wrote and spoke about the country’s present turmoil and fears of a return to the bad old days. Many shared  videos of songs by Lebanon’s national cultural icon, Fairuz – most particularly, her poignant Li Beirut, which she wrote during the civil war as a tribute to the city’s timeless beauty and the suffering of its people people. O Beirut – songs for a wounded city presents Fairuz’ songs, and also Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani’s famous O Beirut, Mistress of the World, and Khalil Gibran’s iconic Pity the Nation.

And finally, as this strangest of years was ending, we published a frolic that has been several years a’making. A cowboy key – how the west was sung takes us on a leisurely jaunt through some of those grand old songs, films and musicals that have shaped our more pleasant perceptions of America.

Happy New Year.

Our reviews of previous years: 2019, 201820172016; 2015

Androids Dolores and Teddy enjoy the Westworld view

Bad company – how Britain conquered India

In September 1599, as William Shakespeare was putting the finishing touches to Hamlet, in Southwark, a mile to the north across the Thames, a group of London merchants, artisans, adventurer and privateers formed history’s first joint-stock, limited-liability company with tradeable shares.

The East India Company developed over two centuries into “a state in the guise of a merchant”, to use English politician Burke’s phrase, with a private army 260,000 strong – twice as large as that of Britain at the time, and the proving ground of many celebrated British officers, the most famous of those being Arthur Wellesley, later to become the Duke of Wellington and who at the time of his Indian service, was the capable younger brother of the equally capable Richard Wellesley, Governor General of the principality Bengal, the keystone of the British hold on the Indian subcontinent.

At its peak, it had built a third of London’s docklands, its annual expenditure was half that of the British government, and it oversaw a third of the country’s imports and exports. For Britain, the East India Company was a gift that kept on giving. Unwittingly and haphazardly, it established and solidified British power in India and China, seeing off their European colonial competitors – the French and the Dutch, who also coveted a piece of the Indian action – and overseeing the transfer west of massive wealth to the home country. It set the keystone for the British Empire, with India, “The Raj”, the jewel in the crown.

William Dalrymple, author, historian, Indophile and longtime resident of India, has written a page-turner of a book called The Anarchy about the rise and fall of what became known as ‘The Honourable Company’ – yes, that’s what it was called with no hint of irony! It is a harrowing tale of how a small limited stock company managed to build an empire.

When the East India Company was first established, the Britain had about 1% of world GDP compared to 43% per cent for Mughal India. By the time it was wound down over one hundred and fifty years later, it had more or less inverted that. In co-opting, corrupting and conquering the powerful warlords of the fractious Mughal Empire, it effectively established the British Empire and in the process, destroyed India’s sovereignty, economy and society. The word “loot” is of Indian origin – it came to symbolize how the company drained the blood from India’s veins, sucked the marrow from out of Its bones, and sending its wealth back to Britain, many historians argue, substantially financed the nascent industrial revolution.

Sepoys of the East India Company

Granted the right to ‘‘wage war’’ in its royal charter, the Honourable Company was the first multinational corporation to run amok (a Malay word for unrestrained rampage) on a grand scale. Having established itself in eastern India, by 1765 it had control of a production and distribution network for opium that was illegally imported into China, sowing the seeds for the Opium Wars – and a Chinese animus that resonates to this day. It bought Chinese tea, which it sold in Britain and the continent, and established tea plantations in India. It was in fact company tea that ended up in Boston Harbour in 1773 – fear of what the company could do if it was granted access to the New World was one of the causes of the American Revolution.

The company effectively bankrolled the British economy, yet ironically, it was also the Bank of England’s largest creditor. It could also be said to have invented corporate lobbying. Members of the British Parliament were on retainers, and were offered shares in exchange for extending the company’s monopolies: some  two-fifths of British MPs held stock, including most members of the cabinet. Many members were in fact former employees who had repatriated millions of pounds in ill gotten gains from Bengal.  And yet, it overextended itself and its resources and was on the verge of insolvency. The contrast between the bankruptcy of the company and the vast riches of its employees was too stark not to be investigated, and indeed it was. but was deemed “too big to fail”,  and was bailed out by the British government  in 1773.

The Company’s premier enabler and exemplar was the first governor of the Bengal Presidency, Robert Clive, or Lord Clive of Plassey, as he was ennobled after a battle that demonstrated the aphorism that one should never enter a gunfight armed with just a knife. But wasn’t that just how the East – and West – was won?

Clive was a humble accountant labouring on the ledgers, but found his calling as a soldier (just like the Spanish conquistador Hernàn Cortéz “the killer” – as Neil Young called him), and rose to great heights of power and riches through remarkable grit and graft. When arraigned by parliament for his rapacity – and acquitted – he exclaimed: “My God, Mr. Chairman, at this moment I stand astonished at my own moderation!”

If ever you are in London, visit the small, quiet and shady Berkeley Square, where the fabled nightingale sang, and where Clive of India, as he became known, his mind curdled by corruption and conscience, and haunted by guilt and ghosts, cut his own throat with a blunt paper-knife. “How are the mighty fallen”. Leonard Cohen’s poet King David said that. “Not often enough!”  I said that.

Eventually, the company – whose lobbying efforts saw its original fifteen year charter last for 274 years – became an embarrassment for the English government and establishment. Its Indian “subjects” rebelled unexpectedly and violently in the Great Rebellion of 1857, and it was only by considerable military effort and repression that the British Army was able to save the company and its Indian ’empire”. In the wake of what the British called The Indian Mutiny, which saw cruel atrocities committed by Indians and Britons alike, tens of thousands of rebel sepoys (Indian soldiers in the company’s employ) were executed in vicious reprisal. As George McDonald Fraser’s antihero says in Flashman in the Great Game, “there’s nothing as cruel as a justified Christian”. Assuming full control, the British government nationalized the company in 1859. Long outliving its purpose it was wound down in 1874. Read more about what the British did for India in Weighing the White Man’s Burden  

Imagine today, a protection racket at the heart of government with the complicity of the British establishment, A company with the global reach of Facebook and Google, the economic tentacles of the likes of Halliburton and Exxon, and the military reach of Erik Prince’s mercenary armies. The corruption and criminality of the now defunct and disgraced BCAC (the so-called “Bank of Crooks and Criminals”), and the immunity and impunity of all the big corporates who took the world for a ride in the Global Financial Crisis, and not only got away with it, got governments to bail them out and we’re permitted to persist with their banditry. As Dalrymple himself has put it, The East India Company was literally Facebook with guns!

Read more about India and The Raj in In That Howling Infinite: Weighing the White Man’s Burden; Freedom at Midnight (1): the birth of India and Pakistan; Freedom at Midnight (2): the legacy of partition ; and Paradise Lost – Kashmir’s bitter legacy

Flashman in the Great Game

The Indian Mutiny – Weighing the White Man’s Burden