Sunday, December 26, 2010

London 3

Another chance encounter in London last week: a beautifully spare publication of 150 rare documents spanning the last six centuries, each carefully selected to commemorate the sesquicentenary of the Victoria Tower in the Palace of Westminster, Charles Barry’s facility for housing in perpetuity the parliamentary archives, in so many ways the greatest loss in the fire of 1834. The tower was completed in May 1860, and was at first, as Claude Monet demonstrated fifty years later, the dominant symbol of Westminster, long before the slenderer bell tower came to replace it as a shorthand symbol of London, much bolstered by the chimes of Big Ben broadcast by the BBC in wartime.

Victoria Tower Treasures from the Parliamentary Archives, by Caroline Shenton, David Prior, and Mari Takayanagi (House of Lords, 2010) is much more than a souvenir, or a digest of the greatest archival hits of the British Houses of Parliament. It deftly explores the meaning of ancient documents; the purposes of their preservation, and their role as the very receptacles of key moments in the history of parliamentary government.

The earliest, an act for taking apprentices to make Worsteds (12 Henry VII, c. 1, 1497) is astonishingly legible, and was the Tudor equivalent of an economic stimulus package for the wool industry of Norfolk. The most recent is the Freedom of Information Act 2000, which came into effect on January 1, 2005. In between there is a wealth of intelligently chosen manuscripts and printed documents, ranging from gigantic, defining constitutional matters to brief, apparently trivial, but powerfully evocative ephemera, and everything in between.

On January 24, 1581, Queen Elizabeth sends a sharp message of rebuke to the Speaker of the House of Commons for having permitted the voting through of an unauthorized day of public fasting, prayer, and preaching for the members. Letters patent incorporating the Company of Beaver Hat and Cap makers are granted on February 19, 1638, liberally decorated around the margin with illuminations of aquatic rodents—a valuable reminder of the persistence and political sensitivity of sumptuary legislation. Charles I requests the House of Lords to show mercy for the Earl of Strafford. Eight years later fifty-nine commissioners sign and seal the King’s death warrant, thereby in most cases preparing the first working draft of their own. Permission to make coffee in the Palace of Westminster is granted to a caterer by the Earl of Lindsey, Lord Great Chamberlain of England, on November 3, 1681. A messy draft Declaration of Rights, dated February 12, 1689, arising from the so-called Glorious Revolution that deposed James II, is on the same day beautifully copied and certified as “engrossed.” Extremely sinister letters, addressed anonymously in November 1690 by persons who might best be described as shivers in search of a spine to run up, warn of a second and entirely fictitious gunpowder plot, shamelessly exploiting the Popish Plot hysteria of 1679. The peers of Scotland feebly sign the Articles of Union on July 22, 1706. An Act for naturalizing three German foreigners, including George Frederick Handel, receives royal assent as 13 George I, c. 2, in 1727. Handel composes his Zadok the Priest for the coronation of George II later that same year. The Duke of Cumberland dashes off a blasé report to the Lord Chancellor concerning the grisly fate of “that unhappy infatuated Multitude” so brutally dealt with at the Battle of Culloden on May 15, 1746. On January 20, 1778, a word-perfect copy of the American Declaration of Independence is laid before a stunned House of Lords. Printed tickets are issued in April 1793 for admission (and re-admission) to the trial of Warren Hastings. Plans of new roads, canals, harbour facilities, and eventually railways, are meticulously gathered, scrutinized, and preserved throughout the Industrial Revolution. Slavery is abolished in 1807. In 1821 the longest piece of legislation in English history is enacted, providing for the appointment of commissioners to collect the land tax. It consists of a huge roll of 757 vellum membranes joined end to end (above), measuring roughly 380 yards long when unravelled. The Dominion of Canada is created in 1867; the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901, and legislative relations with the other dominions partly adjusted and clarified by the Statute of Westminster in 1931. Women aged thirty and older are given the vote in 1918, and the disparity with men aged twenty-one and older finally abolished in 1928. Nancy Astor, the first woman to sit in the House of Commons, takes her seat for Plymouth Sutton in 1919. King Edward VIII abdicates the throne at the end of 1936. Life peerages are created in 1958, and in 1978 evidence of a disastrous oil slick from a North Sea tanker is collected from a beach in Norfolk, deposited in a small plastic bag, and submitted to the House of Commons Select Committee on Science and Technology.

The brief commentaries here are cogent and revealing; the photography exquisite, and you are left with an overarching sense of the longevity of the Mother of Parliaments, its organically intelligent behavior, and of the cautious, incremental but occasionally radical nature of British constitutional and parliamentary reform—that particular genius of the British nation.

In so many cases, as well, the materiality of the document reflects, even captures the essence of its content: the almost pathetic flimsiness of the 1936 typewritten instrument of abdication, for example, and the king’s extraordinarily adolescent signature; the superabundant elegance of the hand of Charles I, even when riffling impatiently through the cipher and occasionally ditching it entirely whilst writing gloomily to Prince Maurice after the Battle of Naseby in 1644; the panic and disorder clearly apparent in the notes hurriedly scribbled in the hours following the assassination of Spencer Percival, the only British prime minister ever to have suffered that fate, so much more shocking because he was shot dead in the lobby of the House of Commons; the creaking, proto-Dickensian complexity of evidence submitted in support of special divorce legislation arising from individual cases of incestuous adultery prior to the passage of the Matrimonial Causes Act of 1857; the preposterous size of that land tax, which was abolished only as recently as 1963. The list goes on. Three cheers for the Parliamentary Archives!

Now, please, an Act to Provide for the Better Adminstration of British Airports and Railways During Snowy Weather.

Saturday, December 25, 2010

London 2

This week, whilst kicking my heels in London, I chanced upon a gem of a book in a remote corner of Hatchard’s of Piccadilly. It is an anthology drawn from Corona, the journal of Her Majesty’s Colonial Service, 1948–1962. The selection was made for I. B. Tauris in 2001 by Anthony Kirk-Greene, formerly of the Nigerian Administrative Service, and it shines brilliant beams of light over the multitude of tasks carried out by members of the last and probably most able generation of British colonial administrators, and every sort of problem they weighed on long tours of duty. It also captures the complex moods brought on by the withdrawal from India and partition, ranging from bombast to pathos. British officials singlehandedly juggled any number of responsibilities that in most jurisdictions are now handled by whole departments of state, and handled each with impressive efficiency, and despatch. In most cases there was very little supporting infrastructure, quite often none at all, and rapidly dwindling support in Whitehall, on the contrary: Harold Macmillan’s Wind of Change rhetoric made it clear that the days of colonial administration were drawing to a close, yet morale remained determinedly high. How did these men and women spend their time? Here’s how: Trying to defuse lethal sectarian violence between villagers in the Gwoza District of Nigeria; completing tours of inspection of the “ulu” in Sarawak, in other words “impenetrable jungle coupled with discomfort and/or romance among the head hunters,” or the far more pleasant ulendo of the northern province of Nyasaland; enforcing regulations according to which the licence of an Indian proprietor of a coffee shop in Malaya could be renewed upon his passing a scrupulous medical examination; improving methods of disposing of slaughter-waste and dung in rural Kenya; calculating and levying royalties on the export of guano from the Gilbert and Ellice Islands, paying the salary of the wireless operator, and returning to H.M. Treasury his income tax; preventing French planters from selling cheap, actually lethal home-made liquor to thirsty sugar cane workers in the New Hebrides; gathering intelligence concerning the Mau Mau; persuading the Sultan of Perak to prevent the stoning to death of a young couple who confessed to adultery in Terengganu; finding an affordable boarding school in England for the son and daughters of a young district commissioner temporarily detained on official business in Micronesia; investigating the connection, if any, between the discovery of the remains of a giraffe (game properly belonging to the local chief, and therefore protected) and the cultivation of illegal narcotics in Barotseland; authorizing during “Good Manners Week” a dicey experimental landing by a Polish test pilot of a Dakota and then a bigger, heavier DC–3 on the newly completed but temporary landing strip on St. Vincent; sourcing adequate supplies of toothpaste and mosquito netting in Uganda; monitoring food hygiene in Hong Kong, specifically making discreet inquiries as to the real origin of snake, bear’s paws, and other delicacies putatively shipped from northern China; mastering the tribal politics of the two chiefdoms and eleven sub-chiefdoms of the Ha people of Kibondo, a region lying roughly half way between Lake Tanganyika and the Belgian Trust Territory of Rwanda; eradicating malaria in Cyprus; insuring the delivery of UNICEF milk to children throughout the Windward Islands; single-handedly providing medical attention to the entire population of the Falklands; doing battle with the tick, the worm, and the tsetse fly in Sukumaland; draining swamps in Selangor, the better to create and irrigate viable rice paddies; finding ways to prevent soil erosion in Fiji, without setting Fijian labourers against Indian farmers; collecting statistics relating to the better regulation of forestry in Hausaland; adjusting and refining the school curriculum in Antigua and Montserrat; defending from inter-clan hostilities the new trade unions of West Africa; maintaining port facilities in North Borneo, adapting them for the use of tankers should oil ever be discovered (it was, to the infinite delight of the Sultan of Brunei), and trying to keep the harbour master off his grog; insuring that officials of the Public Works Department and non-English-speaking Chinese draughtsmen were on the same page in respect of tall buildings that were creeping onto increasingly vertiginous sites in Hong Kong, with poor drainage and scarifying exposure to typhoons; keeping the peace in Jerusalem; meting out justice to surprisingly violent Norwegian sealers on South Georgia; studying cyclonic conditions and other meteorological phenomena on Mauritius with an eye to their global application; acting as returning officer in federal elections in the Malay states, and at the same time serving as registrar of births, deaths, and marriages, collector of land revenue, and chairman of the liquor licencing commission; running (for an official of the Home Office”) a Mrs. Boye, wife of the manager of the Vanikoro Kauri Timber Company, who for many years in the Solomon Islands very effectively spied for H.M. government, mostly on the United States Navy; helping to prevent most forms of medical malpractice as an especially watchful operating theatre sister in Gibraltar, Nicosia, Nairobi, and then Mombasa— she saw everything, and was intimidated by no surgeon, however eminent; encouraging bridge parties and Scottish dancing as morale-building distractions during the hurricane season in British Honduras, with mixed success; providing to the Foreign Office a crisp assessment of the personal character and political ability and/or limitations of His late Majesty King Malietoa Tanumafili II of Western Samoa; auditing the public accounts of St. Helena, Ascension, and Tristan da Cunha—perhaps the most spectacularly boring occupation ever devised by man, even worse than proofreading the telephone directory (as Nick Trumble once pointed out to me, someone must have had to do it); and, perhaps above all, moving—constantly moving; moving so often that up sticks was for hundreds of British colonial officials and their families the domestic occupation of a lifetime, and retiring to somewhere in West Sussex or Shropshire or Devon or Midlothian during the mid- to late 1960s the most painful, bewildering, and dislocating transition of all. Beyond all this, there are telling flecks of detail contained in the crisp and straightforward advertising copy. Life insurance policies tailored for colonial servants by Acworth, Gaywood & Co., of Essex Street, Strand, balanced the extremely high premiums against the real likelihood of ill health, the perils of local riot and warfare, or misadventure at sea or in the air. The National Bank of India at 26, Bishopsgate, offered superior banking facilities in Kenya, Zanzibar, and Aden. Listings of sporting, theatrical, musical, cricket, and tennis highlights of the London season provided a convenient framework for planning your home leave. Lawn & Alder of 32, Sackville Street, W.1., offered personal shopping services: no matter what the need may be, a tropical suit, a domestic utensil, a silver trophy, or a newspaper subscription, the L. & A. service is always at your bidding. Wanted: Administrative Officer’s sword. T. N. Rosser, Glenfield Crescent, Galashiels.A marvelous, engrossing read, especially in the circumstances. (See London 1.)

Friday, December 24, 2010

London 1

I have just returned to New Haven from a working trip to London. I should have returned a week ago, but I got marooned in what will no doubt be long remembered as the great Heathrow collapse of December 18, 2010. Last Friday and Saturday a considerable amount of snowfall was forecast over southern England. Early in the morning, on December 18, I rang the airline and inquired whether, knowing how unusual any amount of snowfall is in England at this time of year, and also that British Airways had already cancelled all of its flights out of Heathrow that day—whether in view of all this, my Delta Airlines flight to New York (Kennedy), scheduled for later that morning, was also cancelled. Oh no, came the reply: It’s on time. So out to the airport I went, checked my bags, and settled down to wait. The departure board told an increasingly forlorn story as the morning unfolded. A constant and especially uninformative and passive process of incremental lying and postponement gave way to the even more depressing hold-all message of “Please wait.” Meanwhile the snow came: four inches in two hours, not much by North American standards, but by England’s a blizzard of inconceivable disruptiveness. I knew we were in trouble when I looked out of one of the carefully concealed windows at Terminal Four and observed two little old men half-heartedly wielding shovels—not the useful broad plastic sort for snow, but old-fashioned wrought-iron gardening implements, suitable for the transplantation of rhododendrons. Hello, I thought. They’ll be still going in February. I was right. The airport closed, and all flights were put on hold. The initial plan was for the airport to reopen at four o’clock in the afternoon, but that never happened. At about 4.30 p.m., every remaining flight was cancelled—several hundreds, all at once. Throughout the day, no accurate information was made available by the airlines, for the entirely plausible reason that none was made available to them by BAA, a hugely profitable Spanish-owned company that runs Heathrow, along with all the rest of the British airports. At this point, all passengers were funneled back through customs and immigration, then required to retrieve their bags from one of eight provocatively slow and enormously overstretched luggage carousels. There were thousands of us, and no sign of any airline representatives, except for one long-suffering bloke who was, with rapidly deteriorating temper, passing out to a bewildered multitude sheaves of photocopied pieces of paper with the telephone number of Delta Airlines on it—a telephone number that immediately jammed because of the sheer volume of calls from tens of thousands of cell phones, and also a cheerful invitation to log onto the airline’s website. Naturally by this time the server had crashed under the weight of the same number of smart phones. And those were not the only things that crashed in Berkshire by this time: The Piccadilly Line was caput; Heathrow Express was gummed up with too many refugee passengers, the Eurostar services were at first put under extraordinary pressure by smart travelers thinking on their feet, and with a grim determination to reach France. Then they collapsed entirely, leaving queues of desperate people waiting outside St. Pancras, snaking for more than a mile, clinging to the vain hope that canceled services might just be restored. Back at Heathrow, the flow of London taxicabs slowed to a trickle, just as the taxi queues lengthened preposterously. Devious passengers were shamelessly nicking cabs at the back of the line, thumbing their nose at a forest of CCTV cameras, but there were no Metropolitan police in evidence. Not one, only a couple of outsourced Poles and a lady in a burqa, all cowering next to a wan little radiator inside the taxicab hutch. It took five hours to retrieve my bag, and another four and a half to get back to Central London. For the first time in my life I lost feeling in both feet, such was the biting cold. All up, I was stranded at Heathrow for sixteen hours and eleven minutes.

To my infinite relief there was room at the inn: Blessed Durrants Hotel, my home from home, put me back in my old room, and turned on a double whisky, and game pie with mashed potato.

In the days that followed I never managed to reach a human being at Delta in the United States, though it was mildly interesting to learn that my call is important to them. On Monday or Tuesday my office managed to get me shifted onto an Air France desperado escape ticket via Paris yesterday—a 23-hour journey, as it turned out (because of more snow in Paris), but a good proportion of the nearly 500,000 other displaced travelers who got stuck in London this week were not so lucky. Many are still kicking their heels there.

The larger question that troubled many minds in London this week was this: How is it possible for an admittedly unusual four inches’ worth of snow—a tiny amount by most realistic wintry standards—to bring the entire British nation to its knees, and prompt the daily newspapers to use language such as “national embarrassment,” “abject humiliation,” and worse? This is a country that eighty years ago, thanks to a few handfuls of dedicated clerks in Whitehall, quite competently ran a global empire, but is today wholly and demonstrably incapable of functioning under a light dusting of powdery snow. The rail network collapsed. The roads clogged with 24-hour, forty- or fifty-mile gridlock, as on the main artery between Edinburgh and Glasgow two weeks ago. I experienced this for myself. What has gone wrong? It’s not just that there is no conception of the need to shovel (to prevent the formation of lethal floes of pack ice—this happens when temperatures rise, the snow melts, but then freezes again when the temperature drops back down again at night, producing a far denser, and more dangerous frozen surface). For decades it seems there has been no eye trained even on the possibility of snow, nor on the need to maintain the infrastructure and supplies of salt or de-icing fluid that are needed to keep the place moving if indeed the snow comes fast and, by English standards, plentifully, as was the case last Saturday. Yet for the last couple of years this is precisely what has happened. Britain is getting more snow every winter, but the transport system has not yet equipped itself after the manner of Boston, Mass., Buffalo, N.Y., Chicago, Ill., Toronto, Winnipeg, or Saskatoon. And in England the general population doesn’t yet understand what those of us who live in snowy places know we have to do after a storm: Get out there and shovel, or, if you’re not prepared to do it yourself, pay someone to do it for you, and if you fail to take either step you can expect a hefty municipal fine. Perhaps worst of all, where was the spirit of the Blitz, or of Dunkirk? The kindly farmers volunteering with tractors, or hatted, scarved, and gloved matrons bringing thermoses of cocoa and McVitie’s digestive biscuits, or impeccably stoical queueing—in other words the quiet genius of England in times of trouble? Gone, gone, gone—alas. Gone the way of the Empire, almost certainly never to return. It is very sad indeed.

Sunday, October 10, 2010

Wednesday, October 6, 2010


I am now forty-six. How on earth did this happen?

Friday, October 1, 2010

Ten years

It is ten years to the day since my father died in Melbourne. I can hardly believe it. I have his photograph on my desk at home, and another one hangs in my office. And I have any number of others in my head. The photo in the office is a head-and-shoulders portrait that was commissioned when he was elected president of the Australian Club. It’s complicated, because although it certainly looks like him, and moreover at the peak of his professional life when my memories of Dad are the vividest, it doesn’t really capture his gentleness and good humor. It’s rather over-formal. Still, it is a fine thing to have Dad watching over my shoulder at all times. I miss him very much.


Real estate


Saturday, September 25, 2010

Tuesday, September 21, 2010


I was terribly shocked this morning to learn that Tiffany McNab has died. Somewhere along the line the bush telegraph has broken down.

This is the first occasion I can remember on which a direct contemporary of mine has died—something of a Rubicon experience.

Tiffany was a dear person, and a considerable artist. I have an early etching of hers, full of vigor and life. It is an attenuated figure, clambering in mid-air, with lots of plate tone, burr, bite, and velvety ink-black emphasis—a work of early maturity. As a young art student she was the embodiment of fun, but the sort of fun that was built on kindness. She embodied all the best qualities of a country upbringing, near Lismore I think. Her laugh was a bell; her hair a luminous red in Depeche Mode. She was magnificently tall; her legs came up to here. When I first knew her at the beginning of 1983 she wore skirts made of unprimed canvas, but decorated with hand-painted neo-constructivist post-De Stijl motifs, a good-humored riff on the color-field aesthetic. She also wore—according to Charles Gillies—an ammunition belt for the Harraway tennis tournament. I remember being deeply impressed by learning that Ned Brew had sat for Tiffany in the
ad hoc art room, not merely nude but adopting the pose of the Barberini faun. It has taken me more than twenty-five years to pluck up the courage to follow suit, though of course in my case the pose is that of the Louvre odalisque brune by Boucher, quite a different proposition. I’m not sure I would ever have had the courage to pose for Tiffany, whose visual assessments were sharper and more accurate than suits the current state of my love portions. She was a wonderful friend to Margaret Kirby and, especially, to dear David Harley. I seem to recall Bohemian evenings spent with all of them, and Tim Klingender, and Julian Mitchell, and so many others. In a very real way they taught me all about letting go, and having fun. I regret very much that for most of the past twenty-three years we lived on different continents, and that I didn’t make a far better effort to keep in touch.

Vale dear Tiffany.

Saturday, September 11, 2010


Patricia Rofe has died. She was remarkable. I first met Pat when I was ten years old, and I have a vivid recollection of that occasion. It was after a game of football in Adelaide—surely Simon must have been playing; we were visiting him there. In the lengthening shadows, with the rich fragrance of clods of mud and football boots hanging in the damp, chilly early evening air, both teams, with corresponding girlfriends, families, friends, coaches, umpires, spectators, and hangers-on, repaired to the warmth and light of the old weatherboard pavilion for cocktails, and there, sitting in a fur coat at an ancient upright piano, Pat was good-naturedly accompanying everyone in a rousing set of sporting and other songs. She played with flair, and a sunny smile. Quite obviously everybody loved her. I had never seen anything remotely like this, and actually that pattern has continued in the thirty-five years since. Here she is, our hostess, at the wedding of my brother Simon to my sister-in-law Mary Ann. Pat wore red, and is sixth from the right. When at length I returned to Adelaide to work at the Art Gallery of South Australia, Pat was infinitely kind to me, and also did me the honor of attending some of my talks and lectures. In the middle of one of these, I referred to the English custom that continued long into the Edwardian period of letting the hair of little boys grow long until they attained the age of seven or eight, and of putting them into smocked dresses. When you lecture with slides, your audience is usually invisible—but out of the gloom came the welcome sound of dear Pat in the front row, laughing like a drain. She raised two sons and three daughters pretty much on her own—her husband, a pioneering rocket scientist, died far too young—and Pat dwelt in a world (she really created it) in which every single person except Don Dunstan was interesting, or fun, including the ambulance man who attended her when a few days ago she left her beautiful house in Kensington, knowing full well that it was for the last time. Pat was the grandmother of second helpings and, I suspect, contraband. She detested flying; the Overland has lost its principal income stream. Her politics were robustly conservative, but she loved the Jesuits. And they loved her. Pat played an occasionally flamboyant game of bridge, and also fibbed outrageously about her age. No document, however official, may ever be regarded as a sound measure of it. She was a stalwart of the Adelaide archdiocese, and has, I assume, gone straight to Heaven. May light perpetual shine upon her.

Monday, September 6, 2010

Lasting relationships II

It breaks your heart. At the end of first term in 1979, in the grand tradition of total denial, Messrs. Hallo and Smith wrote: “I have been pleased to see that he has improved his relationships with his fellows and now appears to be enjoying school life more.” Mr. Creese, the headmaster, then piped up: “He seems to be happier.” At that point I had never even met Mr. Creese, so one wonders upon what basis he conjured this rosy, and totally inaccurate picture. At the end of first term in 1980, Mr. Nethercote (economics) wrote: “He could do very well but it would be pleasing to see him ‘free up’ and become more relaxed towards his learning and class involvement.” In his form master’s report at the end of that year, Mr. Brumley wrote: “Despite his difficulty with human relations he remains polite and cheerful.” He was right about being polite and cheerful; I got very good at that, but there it is again: “difficulty with human relations,” as if that were a matter of incapacity, or lack of focus, and not aggravated sexual assault! Mr. Rosenhain (mathematics) chimed in with “He lacks a little confidence but he does have ability.” Major Morton (French), meanwhile: “He lacks confidence however in speaking the language, and this seems to worry him; which it need not do.” Mr. O’Brian (music) broke into intimate typescript with “This student needs to work on his snare drum rudiments. His work on the timpani could also do with more control in the roll area.” Quite. What on earth did any of them really think was going on? Who read these reports in their entirety, and wondered if perhaps a little further investigation might be warranted—beginning with a quiet word to me? By the end of 1980 that would have yielded much evidence of criminal misconduct, so maybe they just thought it safer not to ask. And what should one now do with these bleak, mostly handwritten documents? Shred them, burn them, or send them back to whichever of the authors are still alive, together with an icy covering note?

Lasting relationships

Not many things make me really angry, but this morning’s perusal of the old Melbourne Church of England Grammar School reports has brought me to the point of apoplexy, never a good thing. In the House Master’s Report for the third term of 1978, my first year at the senior school in Domain Road, South Yarra, the following relatively brief summary remarks were signed by “R. Hallo” and “A. J. Smith”: “An excellent academic start has been made which augurs well for the future. His hard work certainly deserves the success he has enjoyed. He has an obvious contribution to make to the library and music. However he must make a real effort with the main problem he has faced this year, that is, developing better and lasting relationships with boys of his own age.” At that time I was fourteen, and scarcely even beginning to go through puberty. Throughout the previous three terms I was subjected to physical and emotional abuse of almost unbelievable severity—including but not limited to sexual assault, battery, imprisonment, mental torture, and an orchestrated program of excoriation, belittlement, and ostracism, wherein one day the boy whom I then regarded as my closest friend casually announced to me in the school parking lot that upon the advice of his own father, a sometime lord mayor of St. Kilda, he had come to the conclusion that my friendship was so damaging to his own reputation that it must henceforth cease entirely, and cease it did. David never spoke to me again, and I do not know what has become of him. The lasting effect of all those things on an adolescent boy never quite go away, but I guess thirty-two years later I have built a viable sort of life despite them. Books, art, and music were my refuges at school, such as they were. But I do not know, and nor now can I ever know, what on earth my deeply worried parents ever made of these House Masters’ view that I “must make a real effort with…developing better and lasting relationships,” as if this were something over which I had any control, or for the lack of which any shy fourteen year-old might actually be blamed. On the whole, better and lasting relationships prosper when you are not being beaten, or having your head pushed down a lavatory in the tog-rooms, or being stuffed into a locker and left there for a good long while. These schoolmasters were in a far better position to stop the abuse and punish the bullies than I ever was. To be fair, schoolboys are as cunning as they are cruel and dangerous, and I would hazard a guess that Messrs. Hallo and Smith actually knew very little about what was going on right under their noses. If they did know, they chose to do nothing about it. I am not sure which is the more damning form of negligence. Poor Mum: She and Dad encouraged me to think seriously about moving to a different school, but such was my state of mind then that I recall thinking that if it was bad at this elite breeding ground of Australian peers, prime ministers, and bishops—I had no points of comparison—then how much worse might it end up being somewhere less distinguished? I suspect they may have felt the same, however misguided was their apparently infinite trust in the wisdom of the school authorities. Simply incredible, and regrettably that is where all of us left the matter. I soldiered on, and survived the ordeal. But how many other boys were not so lucky?

The Rusden Scripture Prize

I have come across my old Melbourne Church of England Grammar School reports. According to Miss Cameron, writing at Grimwade House in 1970, when I was six, “Angus brings many books for us to read. He is most responsive to the rhythm of words and can join in the saying of many poems. He writes down many stories for our enjoyment…His drawings and paintings are especially interesting, being both colourful and imaginative. He has some excellent ideas for creative work and he gets much pleasure from the things he makes.” In conclusion, Miss James remarked: “Angus now smiles much more readily, and seems much happier in a big and busy school.” Two years later, Miss James’s assessment continued to be upbeat: “Angus is a quiet, hardworking boy who always gives of his best. He has completed an excellent third form year.” In the same year Mrs. Fairbairn saw fit to write: “Angus’s work in divinity has been excellent throughout the year. He shows particularly good understanding of this subject and well deserves his Rusden Scripture prize.” Now, interestingly, my dear brother Hamish also won the Rusden Scripture Prize, nine years earlier, as did our beloved father some forty years before that. Not long ago Hamish told me that Dad was awarded the Rusden Scripture Prize for an impressive essay about his great uncle Harry, whose life was taken by heathen savages in New Caledonia whilst engaged upon missionary work—an outrage that apparently prompted the punitive expedition of H.M.S. Psyche. Alas, his account was not accurate, because it seems that Great Uncle Harry actually died of injuries sustained in a pub brawl somewhere in Queensland. The casus belli on that occasion was missionary work of an entirely different character, in connection with a married lady, and a heated discussion arising from that between Great Uncle Harry and the married lady’s cuckolded husband, a cane-cutter. Dad’s mistake was an honest one, and I do not know if Pa took any steps to clarify this delicate matter with the school authorities. Certainly the prize was never rescinded: I have it now, a fine hand-tooled edition of Weigall’s Nero.

The flat

It’s nobody’s fault, I suppose, except my own. I am now all packed up and ready to move house, except I haven’t got a house to move to. The dear little flat that I am trying to buy is waiting there, but owing to some curious historical preservation matter arising from the nature and construction of the windows my lawyer tells me that the City of New Haven has seen fit temporarily to decline a certificate of occupancy, without which it cannot be sold. There’s a meeting at city hall tomorrow at which this issue may be resolved, but if it is not—and I am not hopeful—I shall then have to wait until no sooner than October 12, quite possibly longer. This will require all the patience I can muster, but at least I may have the option of retrieving my deposit and starting again. I don’t especially want to do that, and to some extent it will be for the vendor to decide how much they want to conclude the sale upon which we have agreed. Perhaps they will decide that they have a good chance of selling it to someone else for more. Good luck to them. From my vantage point the local housing market has all the vim and vigor of an Ice-Age mastodon lumbering towards a snowdrift in which to die peacefully, or a sluggish coal-burning tramp steamer with an alarming list. I am repeatedly told that it is a buyer’s market, but it doesn’t really feel like that. Among the benighted markets of America the housing market is quite obviously still the sickest of men, not merely on life support, but with metastases à go-go. Apart from those many small anxieties of moving house, there is added to these that overarching, palm-moistening fear that if it is this hard to pay cash for a not inexpensive flat in New Haven, Conn., how much harder will it be in due course to sell the damned thing? The Labor Day weekend marks the psychic end of summer, but this year I am spending it immured in a canyon of cardboard boxes, tawdry cartons of atrocious take-away food, and nail-biting anxiety. But I have not been unproductive: In an effort to distract myself I been listening carefully to the three concerti for piano and orchestra by Nikolai Medtner, in the sensational recordings made for Chandos by the late Geoffrey Tozer (at the inspired suggestion of the Hon. Paul Keating) and the London Philharmonic conducted by Neeme Järvi. The tragically premature loss of Geoffrey Tozer a little more than a year ago is something that has diminished Australia, and the world. He was a great, great artist—of the stature of Arturo Benedetti Michelangeli, Artur Schnabel, and Sviatoslav Richter. So in the end, and in the larger scheme of life and art, you have to say: Who cares about a dear little flat?

Saturday, August 14, 2010

The figurine

About twelve years ago Uncle John gave me this beautiful object for my birthday. He acquired it in London in the early 1970s when he was a partner in Barling and Co., a small but highly respectable firm of antique dealers in Mount Street, just off Berkeley Square. Roy Barling, the principal, used to take Chinese antiquities and works of art on consignment from the distinguished New York dealer Robert Hatfield Ellsworth, and I presume that this was one of them. Eventually for a while after Roy Barling died, Robert Ellsworth owned the London firm, but I gather not for very long. Despite my best efforts to insure the figurine was expertly packed before I moved from Adelaide to New Haven, Conn., in May 2003, sadly she got broken in transit, and I have only lately got around to having her mended and conserved in New York by the excellent sculpture and objects conservator Susan Schussler. Happily, Susan is convinced that the breaks are actually old ones.

Uncle John loved the figurine, and never sold her—partly because he became convinced that she was a clever fake. At the time he acquired it in the mid-1970s, he engaged the Research Laboratory for Archaeology and the History of Art at Oxford, who took a sample from beneath the base, and subjected it to thermo-luminescence testing. The results were not encouraging. At least that was Uncle John’s decidedly vague recollection towards the end of his life. He told me that afterwards he filled the hole with a scrap of kleenex and spit, but I cannot now find it. It must have been tiny.

Now, the consensus of opinion among specialist objects conservators and laboratory technicians has since then shifted substantially. Samples are best taken from somewhere other than underneath the base for the simple reason that bases are more likely to have been restored, mended, consolidated, or otherwise interfered with, which obviously can make a big difference to the thermo-luminescence test results. The convenient aspect of the present situation is that Susan has been able to take a new sample from inside the head, from the broken part of the neck, in other words from a spot which will not be visible when she reattaches them, and which, when tested, will be far more likely to provide reliable evidence of my figurine’s antiquity, or not.

The question is of some moment, because if she turns out to be genuine, my little musician is almost certainly a Sui Dynasty (A.D. 580 to 618) temple musician, of which Chinese archaeologists have lately excavated a number from tombs. Indeed a complete female orchestra came from the tomb of Zhang Sheng and his wife; it is dated to A.D. 595. According to my generous colleague David Sensabaugh, Curator of Asian Art at the Yale University Art Gallery, the hairstyle here may be just a little later, perhaps early Tang (i.e. early to mid-seventh century). She is playing a four-stringed pipa, a fretted instrument obviously very like a lute or a modern guitar. David suspects that the figure was originally painted with cold colors that have now disappeared from the slightly powdery surface slip.

If the thermo-luminescence results turn out to be as discouraging as the previous set, it seems likely that the figure is indeed a forgery, but almost certainly made in the early to mid-twentieth century. David does not think there was much systematic forgery in China from the late 1940s through to the end of the Cultural Revolution (other than in Hong Kong) for the simple reason that there was too much upheaval. In the 1920s and 1930s, however, temple musician figurines of this kind were indeed forged for an almost exclusively western market. Chinese connoisseurs tended to avoid them because of their inauspicious associations with death and burial, and indeed the presumption that, if genuine, they must almost certainly have been swiped from the final resting place of someone eminent or at least respectable. Alas, western taste has proven altogether less scrupulous, and quite obviously remains so.

Anyhow, Susan’s preliminary assessment is that my figurine has been heavily restored on at least more than one occasion and presumably in radically different circumstances. This could mean (a) that what remains of her is indeed genuine, or else (b) she was assembled by forgers from a stock of “authentic” ancient broken fragments illicitly harvested from tombs, in other words as a sort of palimpsest-like assemblage whose claim to authenticity is uniquely Chinese, and characteristically complicated. Hence the importance of thermo-luminescence testing, though of course an encouraging result from the new sample would not rule out this second possibility. The main and overriding point is that my figurine now seems unlikely to have been forged from scratch.

And she is beautiful. To my untrained, non-specialist eye, there is a gentle subtlety and vivaciousness in her plump face, and an charmingly affectionate disposition of the little left hand, qualities in other words that are not usually generated in the otherwise coldly calculating mind of a brilliant professional forger. On the other hand, Chinese forgers are among the cleverest ever to have thrown a brace of spanners into the thrumming machinery of connoisseurship, and their best productions may well escape notice forever. Even so, it would be odd, though not impossible, for such a subtly beautiful object to be identified as an obvious fake, or a clumsy hybrid.

Part of me hopes that that is what she is, because therefore she was not stolen from some poor gentleman’s tomb. And even if she is not a terribly compromised, much-repaired antiquity from the Sui or early Tang dynasties, I love my little pipa player, as Uncle John did, and she will henceforth preside over my dining room, serenading his merry ghost, together with Jim Lawson, Aunt Anne, Uncle Henry, gusty old Uncle David, Gran, Nan and Pa, and of course Dad and Mum, all of whom are just now getting ready to move house with with me.

The table

In the midst of preparing to move house, I unfolded Mum’s card table—for the first time since it arrived here last February. It is a pretty splendid piece of furniture, and I wanted to take some photographs so that it can be appraised for insurance purposes, along with everything else. I have an idea it came from Gordon Grove after Nan died.
The carved scrolls, tapering pedestal, shapely platform base, and the scalloped “bun” feet on casters, are I suspect an overweight Edwardian homage to an Empire or Regency prototype. I wonder if it is Australian. I had forgotten—if I ever knew—that when you swivel the top ninety degrees but before you unfold it, a shallow compartment is revealed. And there, in the compartment, I was startled to discover four pens, four pencils, four Royal Flying Doctor Service of Australia Bridge Scorers, and four spares (from the Cottage By The Sea” children’s charity at Queenscliff), all primed and ready to go.
Win. Lose. We. They. It was like feeling her hand on my shoulder, and hearing her voice: “Ango.” “Darling!” I gasped, and had to sit down. Then the tears came. It was the suddenness and unexpectedness of the discovery, I suppose, and the absolute Mumness of that bit of Mum that was waiting for me there: Characteristically neat and tidy. Carefully organized. The used pages carefully removed, but ghostly columns of indented penciled or ball-pointed numerals just visible on the fresh page.
In other words supreme order was still maintained inside the card table, despite its having been shipped across the Pacific, and by truck from Seattle, right across the continental United States to New Haven, Conn. Only two sheets left in one, the one sitting on top, but that’s two more games: Waste not, want not. God, how I miss her!

Saturday, June 19, 2010

The chair

Through the combined efforts of Susan Holbrook, of the firm of Holbrook and Hawes in Bethany, Conn., and Benny Becker of Norton Upholstery in West Haven my chair may now be revealed in all its renovated splendor. I picked it up last Tuesday. Real horsehair has taken the place of clumps of coconut fiber (and a lot of other junk swept off the Melbourne upholsterer’s floor in the late summer of 1949). My excellent colleague Pat Kane should take credit for having recommended the most appropriate sort of fabric—indestructible mohair velvet—while, of course, the color was my bright idea, as was the inspired choice of gimp.

Friday, June 11, 2010

The finger

Lately I have been noticing fingers everywhere. For example, in his fascinating book about the methods of conducting business in the early ecumenical church councils, Ramsay MacMullen quotes from Gregory of Nazianzus. With de haut en bas exasperation, Gregory describes the limited capacities of the late fourth-century bishops who drifted into town to attend the first Council of Constantinople in 381:

Some, sprung from the change-tables and the icons you find there; some from the plow, blackened by the sun; some from the never-ending toil of the mattock and how; others, off the galleys or army list, still smelling of bilge-water or with scourge marks on their backs…; still others who have not yet cleaned off the soot of their fiery trade [as blacksmiths], fit only for a beating or the work-mill…now on their upward path, dung-beetles headed for the skies…babbling stupid phrases while not up to counting their own fingers or toes.

A mixed bag, certainly. Now, MacMullen goes on to describe the huge contrast between metropolitan intellectual heavyweights such as Gregory, Augustine, Ambrose, etc., in other words the tiny élite, and the vast majority of voting bishops, many of whom were illiterate—and the challenge, therefore, of reaching any sort of authoritative consensus. However, this passage rang a loud but rather different bell for me. It comes in Gregory’s autobiographical poem De seipso et de episcopis, the purpose of which was not merely to render a fairly devastating judgment on the poor quality of late fourth-century bishops in general, but also to deliver a finely tuned invective against certain individuals—individuals whose claim upon episcopal rank was dubious, for example the rather too recently and expediently baptized Nektarios. How, Gregory wonders aloud, did the flashy Nektarios manage to become so stupendously rich whilst working in the imperial taxation office? And weren’t his accounting methods there well known to be more akin to the throwing of dice?

In other words which is worse, a clever and charismatic but corrupt bishop, or a dung-beetle?

Anyhow, I wondered if the fingers, here, are meant to refer explicitly to the widespread methods of addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division that were universally practiced by merchants on the fingers of both hands for commercial transparency on those same change-tables, in markets, and on wharves right throughout the Mediterranean world. Obviously illiteracy was an ancient nuisance, but innumeracy was far, far worse.

Anyhow, time to check the original—and there it is, in volume 37 of J.-P. Migne’s vast Patrologia Graeca, now accessible online (a boon). The Greek is unequivocal: “podasarithmeincheiras” (col. 1179) feet and hands. The Latin translation is pretty watertight: “pedesnumeraremanusfeet and hand, singular. I’m afraid there is nothing at all in the text specifically about fingers and toes. The really fascinating part is that Gregory of Nazianzus’s original formulation was, if anything, the more devastating. A dung-beetle with no ability to carry out routine accounting on his fingers is pretty useless, let us say in relation to charitable donations or church property, but a dung-beetle who cannot even count up to two (hands and/or feet) is far worse than a liability. But then, in Gregory’s view, so was Nektarios—with his well-practiced, not to say subtly grasping fingers.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Drinking champagne from a lady's satin slipper IV

The practice of drinking champagne from a lady’s shoe enjoyed one final moment of resuscitation in the early to mid-1950s, thanks in part to a public-relations blitz surrounding the publication of the autobiography of Tallulah Bankhead, that most flamboyant personality of American show business. Here she is, celebrating the occasion at the Ritz in Piccadilly in 1951, using chocolate suède. I doubt if Farrar, Straus and Giroux in New York or Yale University Press in London would object if something similar were staged for the benefit of the media, and my new book, The Finger: A Handbook. But in these times of economic bleakness would they pay? I must remember to ask them. In any case this early 1950s revival of the podiatric champagne-quaffing stunt was hardly exclusive to Miss Bankhead. According to the London correspondent of the Sydney Sun-Herald (Sunday, November 7, 1954, p. 57):

Two ex-Gaiety Girls who reigned supreme among Edwardian sprigs of aristocracy came to verbal blows this week over whether the dandies of their day drank champagne out of their slippers. Said Ada Reeve, on her 80th birthday: “If it ever occurred, it was probably an isolated incident at some drunken party—the sort I preferred not to go to.” This aroused the ire of Ruby Miller, equally as celebrated and about as old. “Of course it is true!” snapped Ruby. “Why, grand dukes were always swilling champagne out of my slipper.” She added: “But Ada and I belonged to different eras. Ada was long before me.”

The “Gaiety Girls” of Edwardian musical theater came to prominence in the mid-1890s at George Edwardes’s Gaiety Theatre, Strand, and, through sheer force of personality, apparently gave rise to the curious phenomenon of “Stage Door Johnnies,” who were thought to be eagerly downward-leaning, class-wise. Ada Reeve (1874–1966) played Cleopatra in The Great Caesar in 1899, and in the same year created the role of Lady Holyrood in the hit musical comedy Florodora. She never looked back. Ruby Miller (1889–1976) was indeed fifteen years younger, but I suspect her remarks were in part driven by deeply encoded media savvy, a distant memory of allegations once leveled in Chicago at the Grand Duke Boris of Russia, and generalized sexagenarian over-excitementperhaps further stimulated by the demise of food rationing in Britain on July 4, 1954, and the joy of six months’ unfettered consumption of meat.

Friday, June 4, 2010

Counting to the power of eight

I have been fossicking through the mountains of paper that gradually accumulated while I was researching and writing The Finger: A Handbook, lately published in New York by the house of Farrar, Straus and Giroux, in other words sweeping the cutting-room floor. Sometimes the things you abandoned at first eventually found their way back into the book by another route—and indeed might have benefited from the ballast of additional evidence that was originally discarded for completely different reasons. For example, at the beginning of the chapter entitled “The Finger and the Economy” I explore the relationship between the fingers and counting to the power of ten: “There have been important exceptions, such as counting to the power of twenty (fingers and toes)...and more primitive counting systems developed around the concepts of two (hands), four (hands and feet), five (the fingers of one hand) and, intriguingly, eight, a rare anomaly once encountered among a certain group of First Nation Americans which, according to John D. Barrow, owes its existence not to the fingers themselves but the spaces separating them—four on each hand.”

Maybe counting to the power of eight is not such an anomaly. I have just retrieved a letter addressed from Kyrenia in Cyprus by one “H. Campbell” to the editor of that indispensable monument to fruitful curiosity and antiquarianism in England, Notes and Queries (February 15, 1930):

OCTAVAL NOTATION.—Has it ever been suggested that the European races (and perhaps others) originally omitted the thumbs and used only the eight fingers [sic] in counting? I can find nothing about it in the new [thirteenth 1926] edition of the “Encyclopædia Britannica.” Yet how else can we account for the fact that the words for “nine” and “new” are so alike in four out of the five main branches of the White Races? I cannot speak for the Slav tongues; but I daresay the rule holds true in them also. Thus, in Latin “nine” is novem and “new” is novum; Greek en-nea and nea; German neun and neu; Gaelic naodh and nuadh. English appears to be an exception; but this is due to the fact that we get “nine” from the German and “new” from the Scandinavian, the two words in the latter being “ni” and “ny,” this last word being pronounced very much like “new,” only much thinner. Gaelic shows the similarity more clearly when we remember that the root of “nuadh” is “nodh—.” As to Greek, one can hardly doubt that “en-nea” was originally “hen-nea” (one new”). All southern races tend to disuse the aspirate. Furthermore, in all these languages we have a trace of the root of “two” in the word for “ten.”

The Russian девять (nine) does not seem especially close to новый (new), and I doubt if, being rather preoccupied with race, H. Campbell would have attached much significance to octaval counting among the First Nations Americans so carefully observed by John D. Barrow. It does strike me, though, that counting to the power of eight makes better sense as an expression of the number of intervals between all ten fingers than as a tally of fingers excluding the thumbs, because, as far as I can tell, anxieties about whether or not the thumb is a bona fide finger simply did not exist before the nineteenth century. I wonder why that is so?