Thursday, 25th December, 2003
Mist all round our hill and I look out on grey tumbling vacancy. So it must have been before mankind’s beginning on this hill, in primordial fog and jungle fruitfulness.
Christmas Day and a bull terrier called Dotty owned by Princess Anne has a killed a corgi called Shara owned and loved by the Queen. Her Christmas Message seems superfluous after that: to the strong, the victory.
In Baghdad Operation Iron Justice (it used to be Iron Hammer but George Bush, I guess, renamed it) is shooting up ‘suspects’ in some southern suburbs and bulldozing houses. La Guardia Airport was evacuated after a woman set off the metal detector and walked off, dwindling into the murmurous crowd. Three Air France flights were cancelled on CIA advice that al-Qaeda may have ‘infiltrated the passenger list’.
I took the dogs to Hitchcock Park and there was hailed by Glenn, a man unknown to me. He used to be in the oil business and said America was buying up oil and putting it down old holes in Texas to have it in reserve when the Oil Wars began. The world was run, he said, by a small number of people who told American Presidents what to do and will order (and President Dean as readily as President Bush will obey them when they order) the subjugation of the entire oil-rich Middle East. Having got that, they will turn America into an isolationist fortress hogging all the petrol and sending every other nation broke.
I tried to tell him things weren’t as orderly as that; from what I knew of politics there were no enduring groups or alliances and no Big Plan survives more than six months, but he knew better. I asked him what religion he was. ‘None,’ he said, ‘I’m a Mason.’
The seaplane slowly moves to its take-off point on flat blue Pittwater. The dogs lie under tables in stone-dead poses, mortified by the heat.
And the God of Christmas looks sillier and sillier. He created humankind, it seems, and finding some of it were adulterers, murderers and sodomites, determined to drown it. One family, however, built a boat and survived and from them descended all the present races of the earth. They then offended God by sodomy, idolatry, murder, theft and adultery again and God proposed to slaughter the lot of them. And his Son said ‘slaughter me instead.’ ‘Right,’ said God, and did, and if we acknowledge he did this we’ll be okay, and we can commit sodomy…idolatry…adultery…no, that’s not it. We can commit them as long as, before we die, we admit we were wrong to commit them, and if we don’t, or if we die suddenly, we burn eternally shrieking for ointment, water, oblivion for billions and billions of years.
Over one hundred and fifty million Americans believe this nonsense and so does their President, and he’s running the world. He thinks the End Time is so near it doesn’t matter if we wreck the environment, mine the ice and pollute the sea and whack up the temperature everywhere and speed the day when the earth becomes unfit for human life. There’s only twenty years to the Rapture anyhow.
Vote George Bush. He knows the score.
Manger Square in Bethlehem is almost empty and only one church choir from overseas – Korea – made it there to sing ‘O Come All Ye Faithful’ on this glum Christmas Eve. Tourism has lately zilched (and so has the Arab equivalent of McDonald’s) and many many young Palestinians lost their jobs. What are they living on, one was asked on television. Charitable donations, came the answer, from overseas, but these are dwindling.
A rocket lands on Mars today. They hope to find if there’s life there — and if, presumably, Christ had to die for it, or if the Angry Red Planet stayed too ignorant and unredeemable for that.
Friday, 26th December, 2003
Another assassination attempt – the second in two weeks – on Musharaff has killed a goodly number, thirteen or so, of his motorcade. A helicopter gunship has killed a member of Islamic Jihad and some civilians in Gaza and a suicide bomber killed two women and a baby in Tel Aviv. ‘A lot of intense activity’ around the American compound ‘in the last hours of Christmas night’ has followed rocket attacks on the Sheraton and killed no-one and a roadside detonation and a suicide bomber that killed three Americans. It is Mad Cow Disease, the English labs assure us. The rocket did land on Mars but has fallen silent and the boffins are ‘disappointed’.
Hot, grimy and gloomy. A pelican glides by my window very close: he looks like Mr Percival in Storm Boy back from the dead or the final smug soaring dinosaurs in Jurassic Park. Annie is flying to Perth and I fear she will die in the first Qantas crash to cap a terrible year.
I walk the dogs and go through scenario after scenario. A single spent nuclear fuel rod in a reservoir in Los Angeles killing, slowly, millions. A hundred Mad Cows already eaten destroying McDonald’s and much American tourism. Jeb Bush kidnapped on Christmas night and exchanged, in Syria, for Saddam.
Or a rocket-grenade attack on Three Mile Island radiating Eastern America. A suicide bombing in Florida’s Disneyland, the bomber disguised as Mickey Mouse. Or in L.A.’s Warner World, the bomber disguised as Elmer Fudd. This is what terrorism is for, to make us think of these things.
And the media now is so infused with Hollywood hype that all it wants as headlines is that kind of story. The rescue, as in Private Ryan, of Private Lynch. The long grim search, as in Day of the Jackal, for Saddam Hussein. The quest for the lethal weapon as in Lord of the Rings. The tyrant’s regime on trial as in Judgment at Nuremberg. War up close with the ‘embeds’ as in Black Hawk Down. The black villains O.J. Simpson and Kobe Bryant and Michael Jackson, guilty as charged. This is what Murdoch and his jabbering marionettes have turned news into, each scenario disposable as kleenex, replaceable by another. The co-heroes of Rambo, the Taliban, are villains now. The master criminal Gaddafi a born-again friend of peace. The heroic foe of Khoumeini a Stalin-like tyrant, spitting on his captors. The thousand Israelis dead are ‘innocent victims of terrorists’, the three thousand Palestinians dead a luckless, expendable ingredient of a ‘government crackdown’ on ‘militants’. I’ve no time for losers, Bush (apparently) says of the Palestinians, and a nation goes to the wall. Their scenario is untidy so they end on the cutting room floor, like the coffins coming home and Michael Moore’s press conference after the Oscars.
The scenarios, however, can turn round and bite you sometimes. Saddam has been ‘run to ground’ but the death of young Americans continues and the ‘Saddamist diehards who hate our freedom’ scenario won’t last very long. Osama survived the lethal poundings of mortars all around him and instead of dying like Hitler in a Wagnerian holocaust of blood he crossed ancient mythic mountains safely like Julie Andrews and the Trapp family in The Sound of Music and seems more and more like Robin Hood or Che Guevara or even (hush my mouth) Davy Crockett as the years go on. Or Arthur, the once and future king. And even if they get him (Musharaff, it is said, has arranged to deliver him alive in August in time for the Republican convention in New York near Ground Zero) the terrorism will not cease, of course it won’t.
It’s as illogical as saying that JFK’s murder ended forever America’s desire to make useful wars worldwide and make money rebuilding the ruins. Or Ho Chin Minh’s death meant the Viet Cong would now surrender, or FDR’s death meant Hitler had won. The myth of Lost Leadership is a Hollywood fiction like so many others.
Saturday, 3rd January, 2004
A great earthquake has killed forty thousand in the ancient mudbrick city of Bam and left a hundred thousand, maybe, freezing in flimsy tents with nowhere to defecate, earn money or deal with their grief. Though ‘the worst natural disaster in the Middle East in centuries’ with a body count thirteen times as large as that of 9/11 no-one has yet said ‘the world changed on Saturday, December 27, 2003′.
It probably did, however. For after twenty-four years of diplomatic nastiness, trade embargoes and Islamophobic jihad America sent aid to Iran. But we shouldn’t mistake it for ‘the beginning of normalisation,’ Bush said on his farm, waving his arms and crossing his eyes till he got the words right. Not till they give up to ‘justice’ their protectively incarcerated al-Qaeda buddies, cease building and marketing weapons of mass destruction both nookular and chemical, establish democratic institutions and liberalise their economy. They were evil after all, and members of an Axis known to be Evil and if they thought a monumental national disaster worse than the crumbling towers of New York changed things they’ve got another think coming.
Three flights to Los Angeles from Paris meanwhile have been cancelled; a six-year-old on one of them had the same name as an al-Qaeda operative, and so did a Welsh insurance broker. Jet fighters escorted a flight from London into Washington. Another was diverted to Canada, where a search of an unaccompanied suitcase found ‘no explosive materials’. Two more London flights were cancelled, wrecking the holidays of many tourists. ‘Chatter on the line’ suggested a hijacked plane, a New Year’s Eve attack, a metropolitan slaughter larger than 9/11, we are told, in Los Angeles perhaps, or San Francisco or Las Vegas. International passengers are being held up for hours, interrogated, harassed, accused and strip-searched in freedom’s name and suspect planes may be shot down, tourists are now warned, first class passengers and all, to show the ‘terrorists aren’t winning’.
Sounds like they’re winning to me. Making particular people terrified is what terrorists do and wow, it’s working. ‘Chatter on the line’, it proves, is the cheapest, most effective terror there is.
What an idiot Bush is, and how clear it’s becoming, to even Americans.
On New Year’s Eve I fearlessly went to the city and ate with Bodisco and his rat pack and Walt Secord, the huge, fast-thinking Native American who does much of Bob Carr’s daily spin. We drank a bit, and talked of Carr for Canberra and the December Surprise.
‘I think he didn’t mind yielding up his place in history to Kim,’ I said, ‘but Latham’s elevation really shocked him.’
‘Well, he’s better than Latham, and he knows it.’
‘This is true.’
‘One winning strategy,’ Walt said, thinking it through, ‘might have been to keep Simon as Leader till the Sydney Labor Party Conference and there have Bob elected by acclamation, against his will, by a spontaneous outburst of irresistible affection from the assembled party.’
‘Yeah, it is. I wonder what we’re going to do with our lives after this when he goes?’
‘Hard to say.’
‘I’ll have to go to the corporate sector, and work for Coca Cola.’
We drank some more.
Tuesday, 13th January, 2004
‘I know I shouldn’t do this,’ I said to Sir Tom Stoppard. ‘I’m aware it’s against the rules of engagement. But I want to tell you what the ingredients of your next play should be.’
‘Please don’t,’ the theatrical titan said. He had a big handsome face that in spite of time and his rediscovered Jewishness was reminiscent still of Mick Jagger’s.
‘Its characters should be,’ I persisted, ‘Bush, Bin Laden, Blair, Beckham, Botham, Bob Hope, Saddam, Condoleezza and Madonna.’
‘They could be all fogbound in an airport lounge.’
‘I don’t like realistic premises. I’m sorry to hear you do.’
We were on a boat on the Harbour having lunch. Bob Carr had interviewed him in the Town Hall the day before. He had spoken of Shakespeare’s ‘simultaneous compression of language and expansion of ideas.’ When asked what he thought Shakespeare was like he said it was always hard to say with writers. ‘I mean if you saw Dylan Thomas vomiting over a bar in New York, you wouldn’t automatically think, “Ah, he must have written ‘Fern Hill’.”‘
I asked him why he’d refused to write one of Stephen Sondheim’s librettos. ‘I’m not sure I like his kind of musical theatre,’ he said. ‘I like Guys and Dolls.’
‘I love Guys and Dolls. Why do you like it?’
‘Well, I don’t have to tell you that.’
On the boat as well was Sir Ian McKellen, who was Gandalf in Lord of the Rings. I belatedly congratulated him on his 1968 Hamlet, which I had seen, and asked him if it was true that he had been giving Tony Blair voice lessons, and thus prolonged a tyranny. He said it wasn’t. ‘The last such person I coached in that way was Neil Kinnock. And he was such a total disaster I stopped.’
The sun shone on the Harbour and the conversation was very fine. A week later Bob ran into Stoppard in a London bookshop, and both were amazed.
How lucky is Carr. How blissfully, brazenly, bafflingly lucky.