Australian Notes

Australian Notes

29 December 2012

As a curtain-raiser, William Shawcross could not resist quoting an extract from the recently published letters of the late Queen Mother, Counting One’s Blessings, which he edited. It had nothing to do with his subject at the Sydney Institute — war crimes trials from Nuremberg to Guantánamo Bay — but it was too good to let pass. As Duchess of York, she was in Australia in 1927 for the official opening by the Duke (later George VI) of the new federal Parliament: ‘Politics is very bad in N.S.W.,’ she wrote to her mother-in-law, Queen Mary. ‘The Premier [Jack Lang] who is cordially loathed by all classes, never appeared, except when we landed, & I expect he will very soon be thrown out.’ (Lang was indeed thrown out in 1928 — although he came back briefly in 1930.) ‘Most of the Ministers,’ the letter went on, ‘are disgruntled Englishmen with a grievance, and none of the better class Australian will touch politics.’ (Italics added.) Incidentally, Shawcross said the film The King’s Speech is ‘fairly accurate’ about the ‘invaluable’ help the Australian speech therapist Lionel Logue gave to the Duke in controlling his terrible stammer just before his Australian tour. The future King wrote to his father George V in June 1927: ‘Lionel’s teaching has really done wonders for me. I have much more confidence in myself now.’ On a later trip (1958) the Queen Mother wrote to Princess Margaret, still recovering from her break-up with the divorced Battle of Britain hero Peter Townsend, commending country Queenslanders to her. Tall, blue-eyed, with drawling voices and long legs in tight trousers, they are, she wrote, ‘a knockout’. Compared with Queenslanders, American cowboys are ‘a mere nothing’.

Should the world accept the Iranian Bomb as inevitable, or should the US and Israel destroy Iran’s nuclear capability while there is still time? Since either would have horrendous consequences, the argument is usually about which would be worse. President Obama says that, if there is no realistic alternative, ‘I will not hesitate to use force.’ Shadow Foreign Minister Bishop agrees with Obama, but Foreign Minister Carr says he clings to the unlikely possibility of stalling Iran’s nuclear program with sanctions, diplomacy and negotiations. Visiting British writers have joined the Australian debate. William Shawcross and David Pryce-Jones say it is unthinkable to allow Iran to develop the Bomb. In their reluctant view, bombing Iran’s facilities may be the only realistic option, since everything else has failed. But last weekend the London-based Australian lawyer Geoffrey Robertson delivered a sort of Iranian Brief to a packed Joan Sutherland Theatre in the Sydney Opera House. He had four main arguments. (1) The mullahs are merciless criminals but not mad. They will not risk losing the fleshpots of Tehran — the BMWs, the multiple wives, the privileges of power. Robertson appears, in other words, to have no inkling of the profound roots of the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which is surely comparable to the Russian Revolution of 1917. (2) Any Iranian Bomb is years away. But the now-or-never argument is not about Iran’s imminent development of the Bomb but its passing the point of no return. (3) Ahmadinejad’s talk of obliterating Israel is mere bluster. But it was in this same bluff spirit that commentators dismissed Hitler’s genocidal anti-Semitism. If I were an Israeli I would not take Robertson too seriously. (4) The best course is to ban nuclear weapons and empower the World Court to enforce the ban. This is Robertson’s most appealing argument, but if it is ever going to work, it will take years — by which time the mullahs will have the Bomb with all the consequences. Robertson’s lecture lasted 90 minutes. There was no time for questions. Some asked if he had filibustered to avoid them. Surely not.

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An extraordinary little book, just published in Melbourne, may receive a few but not many reviews. It is three essays by three writers who opposed the spirit of the age and paid a price. It is On the abolition of all political parties (Black Inc.) but the title is misleading. The essays are less about politics than about the survival of spirituality in a sterile age. The first, which gives the book its title, is Simon Leys’ translation of an essay by the French philosopher Simone Weil, written just before her partly self-induced death in 1943. All political parties, she wrote, conspire against truth and ‘the light’. Communist and Nazi parties do it best but all parties imitate them. The best hope for the world is to abolish political parties altogether. The second essay is a tribute to Weil by the Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz, who fled Communist Poland and found a fellow spirit in Weil. The third is Simon Leys’ tribute to Weil, Milosz and Albert Camus. The book is a gust of lost European realism across our frivolous Christmas diversions. Pope Paul VI said Weil was a great influence on him. General de Gaulle thought she was a fool. Decide for yourself.

How’s this for arts funding? The Commonwealth’s Literature Board has once more cut its annual grant to Quadrant magazine. This time it has halved it from $40,000 to $20,000. No comparable leftie magazine — Meanjin, Overland or Australian Book Review — has been cut. In a letter to subscribers, Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle writes that in all the years of the Howard government, it never reduced its grants to leftie magazines. He adds that the other magazines mentioned carry a fraction of Quadrant’s ‘literary content’ — poems, stories, essays. He has launched a public appeal for funds to counter the Literature Board’s odium theologicum.

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