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The Smell of Pell

We all have visceral instincts about others. Without literally smelling him, my senses and sensibilities signal that Cardinal George Pell, that erstwhile defender of the indefensible in the Catholic Church is a corrupt individual of the lowest (or highest?) order.

He seems thoroughly untrustworthy, and certainly willing to suborn, dare I say pell-mell, a recent witness to the Royal Commission into Child Abuse, who was allegedly abused as a child by a Catholic priest under Pell’s protection.

David Shoebridge, Greens MP in NSW Parliament, is trying again to introduce legislation to allow victims to sue the Church for damages. At present the so-called Ellis Defence protects the Church, which is deemed to be an unincorporated association with its assets held in unrelated trusts.

John Ellis failed in the High Court to overturn this outrageous rort, where the Church effectively does not exist as a legal entity with attendant responsibilities. Which is probably appropriate for an organisation dealing in the occult, but let’s them off the hook for all their gross wrongdoings.

The Church is also exempt from any form of taxation in Australia, which is handy for a wealthy fraternity (brotherhood indeed!) dedicated to serving, oh hallelujah, the poorest and disadvantaged of our abundant society, as did Jesus apparently.

Pell should be brought back from his Rome sinecure to face the Royal Commission, and finally be put under forensic legal scrutiny with serious consequences, and not just brush off any criticism as before. More power to Shoebridge, and may justice be done one day!

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As governments gather metadata on our internet communications and try to force journalists to divulge their sources, in the name of a ubiquitous and open-ended war on terror, it’s apposite to read about an early champion of freedom of the press in Regency England.

The title refers to an interesting book by Ben Wilson about William Hone, whose name has slipped from memory, but who deserves to be better known for his unsung legacy of fighting hard for freedom of speech and the press. Charles Dickens was a friend and admirer of Hone, and attended his funeral.

William honed (sorry, irresistible!) his skills as a satirist in conjunction with illustrator George Cruikshank, publishing best-selling pamphlets and books sending up corrupt political life in the fetid atmosphere of turn-of-18/19th century London. Hone was also a bookseller and journalist, who survived on his wits, and managed to feed a family of nine children and his faithful wife Sarah.

Hone eventually fell foul of the corrupt Regent, later George IV, and his minions, including the Lord Justice and Secretaries of State. They had Hone tried for contempt after he published a clever and cutting religious satire of Prince George. Hone successfully defended himself over three days of trials before a packed court in the Guildhall. Arrayed against him were nasty, prejudiced Lord Justice Ellenborough and a stacked jury, but to popular acclaim Hone won by the force of his sustained oratory and legal argument.

The story is made for film, so I hope the script is in development. An actor like Philip Seymour Hoffman would’ve been ideal for the role, but alas! Meantime, the book is a must for those interested in the history of the press. Interestingly the French Revolution and Napoleon scared the bejesus out of the English ruling class who feared revolutionary ideas and anti-monarchism creeping into England and tried to stem their influence by censorship of Hone and his contemporaries.

Actually the book title should clearly be ‘The Triumph of Laughter’.

(Thanks also to Matt C. for recommending and sending me the book)

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Anzac Fatigue & Iraq Redux

It’s meant to describe a feeling of consumer overload of Anzac themed TV offerings crashing in the ratings. Commercialisation is an understatement in this era of hyper-marketing of our cultural markers. Appropriation of Anzac for supermarkets, burgers, you-name-it, has been extant for years and becoming more flagrant. It can offend devotees of this quasi-religious popular annual outpouring of sentimentality known as Anzac Day.

It’s all been said already and I don’t mind ‘learned nationalistic sentimentality’ as a description of what’s going on in this veritable orgy of commemoration and brainwashing around it. Apparently its themes too have been updated from heroism and mateship to sacrifice and service. It rolls off the tongue nicely.

If you want to discuss the lessons we’ve learnt about not repeating (military) history then you have to explain why we are again sending more troops to Iraq, That’s right: making a total 1,000 to help train the Iraqi army. We did such a good job there last time, and it worked brilliantly in Afghanistan during 14 years of military mission in that benighted country.

As always our troops head off at Uncle Sam’s bidding, without even a parliamentary debate of the merits, strategy and national interest for Australia in doing so. The ongoing vacuum of political discourse about our endless military adventures is shocking. And this latest escalation is even more scandalous under cover of an Anzac Day centenary extravaganza.

Australians really haven’t learnt a bloody thing in the last 100 years or more. Ignorance, conformity and militarism are a fatal (ahem!) trifecta in our national DNA, and it’s grown like a cancer since we first sent NSW troops to fight against the Maoris in Enzed in the 1860s.

Poor fellow my country indeed, to borrow Herbert’s famous book title. My anger has turned to resignation and sorrow at our unrepentant failings.

Another VB, mate?

You mean Villers-Bretonneux?

 

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School of Hard Knox

Oh dear, the motto of Knox Grammar School is ‘Virgile Agitur’, which translates as ‘Doing the Manly Thing’. As the school is under the spotlight of the Royal Commission into Institutional Responses to Child Sexual Abuse those words take on an ominous ambiguity. The school is one of the privileged bastions of male-only education with righteous Christian overtones and bullying, chauvinistic culture which decorate the firmament of Sydney’s upper classes.

The very English model of these schools flourished in our secular sandy soil. In recent years they attached themselves limpet-like to the public purse, as the aspiring nouveaux riches deserted the honourable public school system. To ensure that the fruits of their loins would prosper in those hothouses of networking and ‘values’ which the parents somehow fail to inculcate themselves.

The Royal Commission is investigating sexual abuse of students by teachers during 1970-2012 (oh yeah!) and a culture of denial and cover-up by headmasters and staff worthy of the Catholic Church (theirs is Uniting). The long-serving headmaster Dr Patterson has admitted his connivance in failing to notify police, nor take any disciplinary action and protecting the school’s reputation above all. The hypocritical righteousness of these superior institutions makes my blood simmer!

The nefarious influence of same-sex schools on society has been canvassed before, and the evidence is accumulating. The headmaster himself is charged with handling the genitals of a visiting 16 year old actress performing in a school play in full view of the male student audience. The headmaster of another elite boys school was previously a Knox housemaster and did not follow up on reported sexual abuse going on under his nose. So to speak.

The lukewarm expression of shock and surprise by Peter Fitzsimons, a Knox Old Boy newspaper columnist who knew nothing of the shenanigans going on there is implausible denial. It only goes to show the misplaced loyalties and tribal indoctrination practised at the school, like others of its GPS ilk. ‘School spirit’ can be translated as Mitläufer, in the language of Goethe! And for a classical allusion, the labours of Hercules would be needed to clean out these augean stables of bad school culture, which always close ranks against the critics and outsiders.

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An Australian batsman is struck by a ball at the base of the skull and dies after a cricket test match. Followed by an amazing outpouring of grief, eulogies, hero worship and memorials of all sorts across the country. Way out of proportion. The incident is described as a ‘freak accident’. Why it was freakish is puzzling. It’s actually freakish that more such accidents don’t occur.

The huge elephant in the cricket change rooms and corridors of power is the modern version of ‘bodyline’, a term used during the 1932-33 test series against England. English fast bowler Harold Larwood targeted Australian batsmen instead of the wicket, which was considered shockingly ungentlemanly, dangerous and unfair play. Just not cricket! These days it’s normal bowling practice for all teams.

In the wake, so to speak, of the recent death, the cricket commentariat were resolutely silent about a glaring, fundamental problem at the heart of the game. Along with administrators and players themselves, an omertà rules: not a word about the danger of hurling a hard ball at speeds up to 160 kph directly at another human being, including his head. The only rule is to make it bounce first and try to ensure he’s in front of the wicket. It’s tantamount to aggravated assault, or worse. The wearing of helmets and other protection, including the ‘box’, for sensitive body parts only underscores the problem. The rules of the sacrosanct game should change, but mentioning it would be apostasy of the highest order.

Add so-called sledging, that is verbally insulting your opponents, preferably with racist taunts, and you have an unsavoury cocktail of super aggressive, negative role model behaviour. The big-money professional sports have refined their games for profit and entertainment so that only vague vestiges of sportsmanship remain. An obsolete, old-fashioned idea that can also be interred.

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‘Amnesia’

Peter Carey’s new book is a curious tale of young cyberattack heroes with backgrounds in the early days of computer culture in Melbourne. He wraps it around the dramatic political events of 1975 in Australia and the idea of CIA impetus in the downfall of the Whitlam government. The story unfolds retrospectively from a disabling intrusion into the networks of a US provider of prison services in present day Australia.

The cipher for the story-telling is the heroic but ill-fated leftist journalist Felix, who reconstructs ’heroine’ Gaby and her actress mother Celine’s lives from recorded tapes of their memoirs. An unconvincing literary device. The portrayal of activist and Labor party circles rings true, and the ‘love story’ of Gaby and her best friend co-conspirator is cute enough.The action rolls along through the gritty backdrop of inner Melbourne and the Hawkesbury River.

With flagging interest as the story becomes more surreal, although entertained in parts I was finally unfulfilled. As always with Carey, it brims with exaggeration and over-blown characters bordering on the caricatural. I found ‘Oscar and Lucinda’ rather indigestible too. Maybe his style just doesn’t suit me. As Margaret and David might say: I give ‘Amnesia’ three stars.

Thanks are due to neighbour Rob for lending me his fresh new copy of ‘Amnesia’, which I won’t forget to return, ha! Let’s see how the book prize judges handle it and whether Carey’s latest razzle-dazzle impresses them again. I must confess that I also didn’t really get the significance of the title.

Lucky Ludwig

Explorer extraordinaire Ludwig Leichhardt had lots of luck throughout his short life, but he pushed the limits so hard that it finally gave out in 1848 when his expedition disappeared into the Australian interior, never to be found. He lived his dream and his life story is a most extraordinary adventure. He died way too young, at thirty four, and the world was deprived of a superb intellect and polymath.

John Bailey’s terrific book (published in 2011) about him is titled ‘Into The Unknown, The tormented life and expeditions of Ludwig Leichhardt’. As he did with the life of John Macdouall Stuart, another of the great white explorers of early 19th century Australia (‘Mr Stuart’s Track’), Bailey gives a fascinating portrait of another incredibly courageous and obstinate personality.

Ludwig’s early life in Prussia, prodigious interests in all the sciences, mastery of languages, his friendship with John Nicholson (& his brother William who sponsor him) and travels together by foot across Europe, are the prelude to Ludwig setting off to Australia with a burning ambition to unveil the secrets of it’s unknown interior. Aboard ship he uses his amateur medical knowledge to successfully treat fellow passengers who refer to him as ‘doctor’ and the moniker sticks.

The heroic expedition of 1844 was to make Leichhardt a major ‘celebrity’. After enduring incredible deprivation during fourteen months of their inland journey from the Darling Downs the skeleton-like expeditioners finally arrive in Port Essington on the Cobourg Peninsula of far northern Australia. Long since assumed dead, with press obituaries, back in Sydney Leichhardt is feted as Prince of Explorers.

Bailey quotes generously from Ludwig’s diaries and letters and so we hear the voice of this solitary and driven character, whose only focus was the pursuit of scientific knowledge, even collecting plant and animal specimens while struggling to survive in the harshest conditions. Museums here have over 5000 herbaceous sheets prepared by Leichhardt, only a fraction of his collecting. He identified over 200 plant species unknown to botany.

Bailey says Leichhardt has been honoured in Australia like few others: ‘Named after him are streets, a parliamentary electorate, a river, a gorge, a range, numerous plants, a tree, a grasshopper, a fish, birds, hotels and a football stadium. Plays, books, poems, songs and even an opera have been written about him’. And a municipality in Sydney. Patrick White of course based ‘Voss’ on Ludwig. Reading this book is a tiny tribute to this remarkable man who so captured our collective Australian imagination of yore

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