Monday, June 25, 2012


Despite its dreary title, Britain and the Vatican during the Second World War by Owen Chadwick (Cambridge, 1986) is a marvelous book to which I have returned from time to time with real fascination ever since Jean McCaughey recommended it to me almost 25 years ago. It is largely the tale of a remarkable personality, (Francis) d’Arcy Godolphin Osborne (left), British Minister to the Holy See from 1936 to 1947, who from 1940, when Italy entered the war, was immured in a small flat in the Vatican City (together with other allied diplomats, their families and servants) until the Americans liberated Rome in 1944. Amazingly, throughout this long period, and especially during the traumatic German occupation of 1943–44, Osborne was more or less unmolested—protected by the somewhat quaint and decidedly uncertain conventions of diplomatic immunity while he remained on Vatican territory, much assisted by his friend the kindly Monsignor Giovanni Battista Montini, later Pope Paul VI. Naturally Osborne was watched, by various organs of the Italian police and intelligence services and various other spies—clerics with fascist sympathies, clerics with Gaullist sympathies, servants in the pay of the Italian police, certain Swiss guards who were not above accepting a little pourbois in exchange for useful information, neutral ambassadors and their staff, but above all the servants. Livio, Osborne’s footman, got hold of the Foreign Office cipher and copied it for the Italian police. Though it was maddening not to be able to cast Livio out, Osborne wisely realized that it was vital that the Italians never knew that he knew that they had his cipher—so Livio stayed, watched in turn by Osborne’s sharp-eyed and resourceful cockney butler John May. In fact it was a stroke of good fortune, because this meant that, together with the diplomatic bag, Osborne could to some extent manipulate the flow of information to the Allies’ advantage. He knew the bag was of course routinely opened and its contents inspected and copied, sometimes more than once along the enormously insecure route by which it passed from him to the Secretariat of State, thence via the papal nuncio to Switzerland then Portugal, and into the hands of the British Ambassador, and finally on to Whitehall—and back again. The Vatican protested loudly and indignantly about Axis interference with its diplomatic bags. Yet Osborne also grasped that the Italians were by no means inclined automatically to share the contents with their German allies, especially as Mussolini’s regime began to unravel, and relations between the two countries deteriorated drastically. Therefore Osborne’s position, not entirely understood in Whitehall until afterwards, was a delicate, even an invidious one. His communications needed to convey enough information that was true and useful so that the Italians never suspected Osborne knew they were intercepting and reading them. Therefore he had no alternative but to use his communications with Whitehall to create the impression that the Vatican not only posed no threat to the Axis powers, but might prove extremely useful to Italy in negotiating the terms of a separately negotiated armistice (i.e. without Germany)—and that by deploring such a possibility in the strongest possible terms, Osborne made the Italians believe it was true. And, in more than one sense it was true. At the same time Osborne had to be careful not to create too alarming an impression in Whitehall (and Washington, D.C.) that the Pope was either completely useless, or far too favorably disposed towards the Italian state at the expense of the Allies, which was in fact not true. In fact, the Pope had engaged from time to time in certain extremely dangerous diplomatic demarches, the purpose of which was to find some way of getting rid of Mussolini. Though Osborne dearly wished to communicate this to Whitehall, he obviously could not. And he was troubled by having deliberately to misrepresent his formal diplomatic discussions with his hosts in the Vatican; he knew very well that his presence there was ipso facto dangerous for the Pope. On the other hand, Osborne thought nothing of liaising secretly with the deliciously gallant Monsignor Hugh O’Flaherty, who let it be known about town that his attitude as an Irish patriot was staunchly anti-British, the better to maintain cover for his extremely effective escape network for escaped allied prisoners-of-war (who knew that they needed to make straight for the Vatican), as well as many Italian Jews and political fugitives from Mussolini—to all of which Monsignor Montini not merely turned a diplomatically blind eye, but took care to conceal as much as possible from his wily colleague in the Secretariat Monsignor Domenico Tardini, who was not nearly so sympathetic to the Allied cause. Towards the end of his life Osborne, a bachelor, became the twelfth and last Duke of Leeds.

Sunday, June 24, 2012

Mosquito Point

Mum again:
It was a really tricky business for my mother to feed us at Metung. Meat was ordered from the butcher in Bairnsdale and came on the boat until later it came on the mail car. This was an ancient vehicle with an extra seat so that it took about 10 passengers. Passengers from Melbourne by train caught the bust to Lakes Entrance at Bairnsdale, got out at a house in Johnsonville which was also the local post office, waited there with the Metung mail bags, assorted parcels, etc., to be collected by Mr. Howlett in the mail car, driven across on the punt at Johnsonville, and eventually to Metung. By the time of WW2 we were living in Geelong and the journey for my mother must have been appalling—up at daybreak to catch a very early train from Geelong to Melbourne in time to get the Gippslander (changing from Spencer Street to Flinders Street with several kids and mountains of luggage through platforms absolutely packed with train travelers—petrol rationing put everyone onto public transport—what a good thing for the environment but ruinous to Mum’s nerves), the long slow trip to Bairnsdale, the bus, the mail car and finally Metung by about 5 p.m. if we were lucky, then unpacking, making beds, feeding us. We spent the entire summer holidays at Metung—10 weeks. Before we went to Geelong we probably went from Raeshaw for longer, I don’t remember. We had a chook pen and used to take hens down with us for the eggs, and Anne’s pony. Also, I’ve been told, in the very early years, a house cow. The block included that which is now the Weymouths and extended on the other side to what is now occupied by the motel. Later we bought milk from the Casements, whose cows kept coming in and eating such trees as Mum was able to keep alive (no town water, only tanks and none to spare for the garden except the occasional bucket of bath water). We didn’t have electricity connected until 1939 (I think that was the year). The oak tree had to have a wooden guard round it to protect it as the cows continually chomped it. Probably why it developed the root system which sustains that giant now. I think the Casements’ cows must have been more or less (rather more) free-range then, as the Casements lived over on Mosquito point. I can remember the Misses Casement rowing across in a heavy, narrow dinghy which seemed to sit low in the water, in all weathers to (a) milk the cows, and (b) deliver to milk. There was an Italian market gardener who used to come round in his motor boat selling vegetables. I can remember going down to the jetty with Mum and thinking how lovely he looked, dark hair, olive skin, the array of colourful vegetables in the trim wooden boat. I wonder what happened to him.
The Misses Casement—Ethel, Meanie, Maud, Dorrie, May, Savina, and Roberta—and their brother William were first cousins of the Anglo-Irishman Sir Roger Casement, who was tried and found guilty of high treason then hanged following the Easter Rising of 1916. The case was especially traumatic in its wider, imperial context because Sir Roger Casement had earlier distinguished himself in the British Foreign Office, specifically by bringing to light the appalling atrocities perpetrated in the Congo by the administration of King Leopold of the Belgians—hitherto in effect a vast and vastly profitable personal fiefdom. Sir Roger Casement’s grandfather Hugh sailed to Melbourne much earlier, in the 1850s, and in 1894 his son David (Roger Casement’s uncle) bought land and built a house on Mosquito Point at Metung for his enormous family of eight children. Somewhat incongruously, he named it Dingle Dell. The Casements evidently swam their cattle across from Shaving Point—and clearly from time to time back again also. It is unclear whether the scandal of their famous kinsman’s trial and execution touched the Metung Casements during or indeed after World War I. It must have had at least some impact, though of course on Mosquito Point they were just about as isolated from any damaging fallout as they could have been. As far as I can remember, Mum never once mentioned it.

The mighty oak beside Balmadies at Metung was grown from an acorn prudently harvested by Gran from the tree at Kilmany Park that was, in turn, planted on his visit there for a day of shooting in May 1901 by the Duke of Cornwall and York, the future King George V.


The majesty of the law can, at times, strike one as not all that majestic, as, for example, in this opening page that begins to set out the case of Behrens and another v. Bertram Mills Circus, Ltd., which was decided on appeal by Mr. Justice Devlin of the Queen’s Bench Division of the High Court of Justice, the Court of Appeal, and the Court of Criminal Appeal as recently as January 1957. No doubt the language reflects a degree of exactness and jurisprudential clarity—including the invocation of Latin maxims: Ferae naturae = untamed or wild by nature (elephant); Volenti non fit injuria = to a willing person no wrong is done (midgets); Ratio decidendi = the reason for deciding (based on precedent)—but what were Bertram Mills Circus, Ltd., doing exhibiting these otherwise unnamed midgets (husband and wife, Mr. and Mrs. Behrens) during the Christmas holiday season of 1953, and in a booth that was evidently in such potentially dangerous proximity to a Burmese elephant (dog or no dog)? Still, I suppose Legem non habentis ipsi sibi sunt lex—Those who do not have the law are a law unto themselves (Romans 2:14), but still it seems unfair that the Behrenses should have been in effect obliged to exhibit themselves as licensees of the booth, and under what would appear to have been such inadequate contractual arrangements.


I have been reading The Origins of AIDS by Jacques Pepin (Cambridge, 2011, not to be confused with Jacques Pépin, the celebrity chef). This is a wholly engrossing work that elides with more than one aspect of the writing of my Edwardian Opulence exhibition catalogue—we open next February 28—because it necessarily casts a ray of bright and chilling light upon the very worst features of the colonial enterprise, especially in Equatorial Africa. Was anything as incomparably beautiful as a diamond ever extracted from the earth amid more or worse human suffering? Was ever something as completely unnecessary as a second railway line from the pool of the Congo River to the Atlantic coast built with such appalling disregard for the rights and dignity of man? If, as seems likely, the global pandemic of HIV/AIDS came into being as an indirect result of the latter, we the heirs of the colonizers—direct or collateral, as the case may behave certainly had our comeuppance.

The miracle is that modern medical science has been able to trace the origins of HIV/AIDS at all. The virus is recklessly wasteful, reproducing itself in every host (if permitted to do so) millions, even billions of times a day. Indeed it exists simply for the purpose of its own replication, an infinitesimally small strand of DNA whose innate character is destructively to invade other peoples cells for that sole purpose. Beyond this rather forlorn mystery, the frighteningly explosive rate at which the virus multiplies means that the processes of spontaneous mutation by which it naturally divides itself into the equivalent of substrains or subspecies are exceedingly rapid. The steps in evolution that divided us humans and our chimpanzee cousins from our common ancestor between four and six millions of years ago are for the various strains of HIV/AIDS compressed into mere decades, and will no doubt continue in this vein—to our continuing and collective peril. 

So the first basic principle is that the locality where the virus exists in the greatest diversity of strains is therefore likely to be the place where it first passed from chimp to person—and that place is Central Africa: the two desperately benighted Congos, Cameroon, Gabon, the Central African Republic, Equitorial Guinea, Rwanda, and Burundi. In other words, a great swathe of former French, Belgian, German, British, and Portuguese colonial possessions. 

Why chimps, and why the species Pan troglodytes troglodytes? Because the study of phylogenetics—the analysis of the DNA of different sorts of microbial pathogens to construct of a kind of family tree that accounts for their evolution, and also to plot the relationships that therefore exist between certain pathogens that are similar, even closely related to each other—told us in 1989 that there existed among that particular species of chimpanzee a simian immunodeficiency virus that was closely related to HIV. There have been other theories, relating to (1) the development of a polio vaccine in Philadelphia using genetic material extracted from green monkeys; (2) the injection by French scientists of small quantities of the blood of infected monkeys into psychiatric patients to see if they would contract malaria—definitely one for the ethics committee; and (3) the merrily optimistic but ultimately unsuccessful pursuit of the transplantation into men of monkeys’ testicles. However, the inference, since then confirmed beyond reasonable doubt, was that HIV came into being as a consequence of some sort of human exposure to the simian immunodeficiency virus in P.t. troglodytes: one chimp, one person (maybe a handful of people)—that subsequently exploded into a global pandemic which by 2009 claimed the lives of 29 millions, and insured that another 33 millions are now living with HIV.

When did this crossover from chimp to man happen? Pepin’s book argues convincingly that the crossover must have taken place in about 1921, or shortly afterwards. The epidemiology of HIV/AIDS is now sufficiently well understood that we can be fairly certain that across whole populations the virus develops its destructive hold over the human immune system in a period of roughly eight years (if unimpeded), though of course it can work a lot faster in some cases, and a lot slower in others. 

In 1921 the Chemin de Fer Congo-Océan, an entity that must go down in the annals of history as among the very worst corporate criminals—and think of the competition—started building a railway between Brazzaville and Pointe Noire on the Atlantic Coast in what is now Republic of the Congo or Congo-Brazzaville, formerly French Moyen-Congo. The terrible irony was that this railway was not really necessary, because it ran roughly parallel with an existing one that was built earlier and a little way farther to the south, on the other side of the Congo, by the neighboring Belgians. However, it suited the French to build their own, in the lively but, as it turned out, wholly misguided spirit of competition and free enterprise, much assisted by a small army of grotesquely mistreated slave laborers. Parts of the new railway traversed impossibly difficult terrain and dense jungle, and it has been estimated that between 15,000 and 23,000 construction workers perished there in conditions of unimaginable privation, squalor, and brutality—no better than slavery, and in certain respects rather worse even than that. 

Brought to light by well-meaning French newspapers, the ensuing scandal at home in Paris resulted in certain reforms being pressed upon the at best sleepy but more probably complicit and certainly negligent colonial officials en poste in Brazzaville, according to which improved pay and conditions for railway workers, the guarantee of minimum quantities of better food, including messily butchered bush meat (chimpanzee), and a supply of busy prostitutes, constituted what was then regarded as a partial amelioration of the worst offenses hitherto perpetrated by the railway company. 

The practice of medicine in Equatorial Africa was in any event dreadful, and ill equipped even to deal with the daunting smorgasbord of known tropical diseases, but by 1931 local conditions had generally improved in response to the railway scandal. In that year a clever young French doctor, Léon Pales, took up a two-year post in Brazzaville, just in time to perform what was almost never attempted previously for want of time and resources: a series of careful, detailed autopsies. 

Dr. Pales was struck by the existence of drastically thin patients, mostly young railway workers discharged because of ill health, who were all suffering from chronic non-bloody diarrhoea but in whom he could detect no parasitic agent, which ought to have partly explained their condition. They weighed between 30 and 35 kilograms (roughly 66 to 77 pounds). Pales had access to the Institut Pasteur laboratory, which tested stool samples for known pathogens, above all shigella (dysentery) but they found nothing at all that shed light on this desperate malady. So he called it Cachexie du Mayombe, after the gruesome stretch of the railway whence his patients found their way (and many, many more than them didn’t). It now seems likely that these sufferers, who promptly died, one after the other, were among the first crop of victims of AIDS, though of course Pales was unaware of it at the time. The published results of his autopsies, however, are today powerfully persuasive—having since then slumbered peacefully on the shelves of French medical libraries until the awesome meaning of their contents was lately comprehended

Dr. Pales found in these victims post mortem evidence of a profoundly disturbing array of diseases including but not limited to tuberculosis, occult tuberculosis (tuberculosis of the intestine or the intra-abdominal lymph nodes), lymphadenopathy, including large mesenteric lymph nodes (around the small bowel), but also cerebral atrophy, which is normally very rare among young patients—and now firmly associated with the onset of AIDS. However, he could identify no unifying or underlying pathology that would explain the extreme wasting in cases of this so-called Cachexie du Mayombe. 

Had it been a significant factor, malnutrition or privation ought to have been reversed almost as soon as his patients presented themselves in Brazzaville, were fed properly and treated. Instead they got steadily worse and without exception died, and there the matter lay—while HIV/AIDS quietly spread, insidiously, slowly at first in the rapidly growing colonial centers of Léopoldville (Kinshasa in what is now as described the Democratic Republic of the Congo, formerly Zaire and before that the Belgian Congo) and Brazzaville on the opposite, north bank of the two-mile wide pool of the Congo River in the what is confusingly also called the Republic of the Congo or Congo-Brazzaville, formerly French Moyen-Congo

Between both more or less French-speaking cities, there was much traffic depending upon how much political instability and upheaval took place through the Great Depression, the years of World War II, and onwards through the relatively prosperous 1950s, and continuing into the decade of independence, when many Belgian and French companies simply packed up and left the Congolese to their fate—at the hands, it turned out, of the obscene Mobutu Sese Seko Nkuku Ngbendu Wa Za Banga (which means, in all seriousness, the all-powerful warrior who, because of his endurance and inflexible will to win, goes from conquest to conquest, leaving fire in his wake). However, throughout their rapid growth during these decades: (1) young Congolese men consistently far outnumbered women and prostitution therefore thrived; (2) prostitution was actually embraced with enthusiasm by so-called free women for whom it represented the chance of a better life beyond the oppressive clan control of the traditional rural village (in which forms of prostitution existed anyway), and moreover (3) prostitution proliferated in steadily higher and higher-risk forms within a flourishing culture of hundreds of little bars, alcohol, and western popular music, while (4) colonial doctors and nurses thinly spread all over both regions routinely used and re-used glass hypodermic syringes with inadequate methods of sterilization (and often none at all). 

Thus, having crossed cover from chimp to cut hunter or butcher in about 1921, HIV accelerated dizzyingly in the midst of this perfect storm of mutually intensifying conditions for sexual and blood-to-blood transmission, quantum leaping onwards, and almost inevitably then breaking out of the Congo (by road, rail, ship, and latterly air—and to the Americas via one solitary Haitian soldier returning to Port-au-Prince from a tour of duty in Zaire in about 1964, a classical case of what is known to epidemiologists as a foundation event), until...

Sunday, June 17, 2012


In recent weeks I have been wholly transfixed by the procession of statesmen (and others) giving evidence under oath before the Leveson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the British press. The hearings, which stream live online, and may be consulted subsequently, together with witnesses’ written submissions, provide a unique and baffling picture of the British press in recent decades—but more interestingly an opportunity to hear an extended narrative furnished by people who were at one time at the very heart of government that is, for once, neither conveyed nor indeed meditated nor interpreted nor disrupted nor rationed nor tampered with by the press, television, or radio. I cannot remember a time when it was possible to sit there and take the measure of a public figure purely through what he has to say (in answer, here, to questions asked by Counsel to the Inquiry Robert Jay, Q.C.), without the background noise of media distortion, and outside the fiercely combative theater of Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons. Perhaps this is naïve, but it is at least a pleasant change—and to me revelatory. Sir John Major was especially impressive, I thought, far beyond the fact that he spoke in whole and uninterrupted English sentences, without notes, without hesitation, many of them complex, and brimming with common sense—in this case for more than two and a half hours, without interruption. In a sense this is anti-television, contra-media, and probably for that reason completely engrossing.

Friday, June 8, 2012

Pocket or Nasal?

Today I made a sudden discovery, that stopped me in my tracks and took my breath away. Nothing especially major, but it was as if I was hearing her voice. On May 19, 1992, Mum turned her notebook upside down, and started writing. I have never before noticed the resulting page and a half because of course until now they remained hidden at the very back, and the book is otherwise less than half filled.
Anne’s birthday. I have just read Hazel Holt’s biography of Barbara Pym which I enjoyed v. much. She says that B. P. always kept a notebook & jotted down all the funny/peculiar things she heard as she went about her life. This got me thinking & I realized I had heard/seen three strange things today & one the last time I went to the Prahran Market, viz. two women looking in the wondow of the chicken shop in the meat arcade—“I’m not a pie person.” Today. 1. When asked the whereabouts of men’s handkerchiefs, the girl in David Jones snapped “Pocket or Nasal?” 2. While waiting at the OPSM for someone to sell me new spectacle frames. The salesman in the next booth suddenly said quite loudly, “Wine, Women, and Song, and a good sex life…” Didn’t hear the rest, but he sold the customer several frames including wraparounds for skiing. When the customer walked out past me he was such an ordinary looking chap. I do hope his new specs fulfill his dreams. 3. Driving in Glenferrie Road I saw a small old woman in a battered straw hat & man’s raincoat carrying an enormous toy rabbit—nearly as big as she was. It was dressed, more warmly than she, in a fisherman’s white jersey & waterproof jacket (human sized). She was obviously nearly exhausted—the rabbit kept slipping & she was trying to use her umbrella without dropping everything. Where on earth was she taking it?
Pocket or Nasal? is even better with a broad Australian accent, but I too was unaware of the existence of any such distinction. Mum could be so wonderfully, sublimely funny.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

The flotilla

Perhaps no other object in our collection has lately received such immense media coverage than our splendid 1747 Westminster Bridge, with the Lord Mayors Procession on the Thames by Canaletto, yet few if any media outlets, including the New York Times, which spoke of it at considerable length, bothered to mention that the painting belongs to us and lives in New Haven, Connecticut. As regards proper or even cursory acknowledgment the media are most definitely a one-way street. Try posting something of theirs on YouTube, and one finds that it is generally removed in a matter of hours. Still, it was pleasing that our picture attracted such a lot of attention in connection with The Queen’s Diamond Jubilee flotilla last Sunday, and the resonances were indeed mighty powerful, especially when those plucky rowers fought a chill breeze on the same long, straight reach of the Thames that stretches between Millbank and the Palace of Westminster.
In Canaletto’s case, many of the little boats belonged to the watermen, whose closed-shop practices and stranglehold upon river traffic prompted the government of King George II to build only the second bridge over the Thames. The watermen appear to have resisted this unwelcome interference by sabotaging the first couple of spans, which duly collapsed, but the creation of this short-cut to the City of London via Southwark and London Bridge went ahead and was eventually successful. Indeed the task of painting it seems to have been the reason why Canaletto came to London in the first place. Interestingly, Canaletto painted the bridge as it was initially projected and not as it eventually looked. The elaborate personifications of the Thames were never installed in the middle, and nothing I think came of those useful cockle-shell niches for rainy weather. However much else last Sunday made you feel as if nothing much had changed on the Thames in the intervening 265 years.

Sunday, June 3, 2012

Moonrise Kingdom

Last week in London we went to see Wes Anderson’s glorious new film Moonrise Kingdom. I didn’t really want to go, because I had so much work to do that evening, but he insisted. Resistance would have been futile had I persisted in it. Thank goodness I did not, because no film has so charmed or inspired me for many years, rather like the man himself. Partly this is because at Grimwade House, when I was around the same age as those kids, we too mounted a production of Benjamin Britten’s Noye’s Fludde. I gather the director Wes Anderson also played in it once. I fancy the late and much lamented Geoffrey Joachim must have had a part to play in staging our Melbourne production, though it must have been realized by the then director of music David Byrne, or was it Ian Harrison? All of this came back to me in a powerful surge, a torrent of pretty difficult nostalgia. At some point we must also have sung “Cuckoo!” from Britten’s Songs from Friday Afternoons (Opus 7), because it too crashed over me like an ocean breaker of memory, mingling unhelpfully with the smell of the floor polish they used in the old Memorial Hall, and the ghastly hot-pheromone wall of airlessness that adolescent boys seem to generate. I could also hear the rapid-fire clatter and clunk of all those folding seats in hideous, moveable batches of four. I want to say they were blue. Never have I been gladder to have his hand to hold—except last February when we walked across the Golden Gate Bridge, and I was shaking like a leaf. But there were in the film many other echoes of my Australian childhood: the fishing basket, especially, exactly the same as the one we had at Metung (though in a far better state of preservation; that seemed just right: ours was heavily perfumed with whitebait). And then there are the sailing and the canoeing and the inlets and the beaches and the colors. On the whole I am glad they resisted the temptation to dispatch Tilda Swinton’s wonderfully officious Social Services in a sea-plane accident, but all of the performances were good, especially I think those of Frances McDormand and Bill Murray. My man told me beforehand that every frame was technically perfect—he is a brilliant photographer, as is Anderson’s director of photography Robert Yeoman—which one naturally grasped at once, but to this I would add and underline artistically perfect too. Chromatically so rich and nuanced: every shot a composition of painterly sophistication, and delight. Watteau for the screen, with a dash of Richard Dadd, and maybe the paleness of a Puvis or, much further back, the artful symmetry of a canvas at least as large as Veronese’s The Feast in the House of Levi. The film was evidently shot around Narragansett, Rhode Island, not all that far from where I now live. I suspect love makes a big, big difference, but I am so very glad I saw Moonrise Kingdom.