Monthly Archives: January 2012 - Page 2

Classic Ellis: The Godwin Grech Poem

Attend the tale of Godwin Grech,
The poor, unprepossessing wretch,
His life one long and ugly itch,
His soul, at forty, black as pitch.

He was not handsome, tall or rich.
He learned too soon that life’s a bitch.
He learned to grovel, beg and fetch,
And smile a smile that Leak might sketch.

And Malcolm thought, well here’s a snitch.
We’ll prod him, and we’ll watch him twitch,
And leave him, like a salted leech,
To froth and bubble, far from reach.

And so it came to pass, poor wretch,
The shadows closed on Godwin Grech.
They flung him, shrieking, in a ditch.
You could not see which end was which.

These Liberals never, never flinch.
They suck your soul out, inch by inch,
And give the rack its final wrench.
They think themselves the Ubermensch.
They branded him the Christmas Grinch,
And left him for the mob to lynch.

Attend the fate of Godwin Grech,
Whose tapeworm grin made strong men retch.
He may, or may not, end in gaol.
There go, graceless, Primates, we. Wassail.

Warm Wedding Nights At The End Of The Known World: Lars Von Trier’s Melancholia

A planet long hidden behind the sun will pass by the earth soon in a vast unrepeatable astronomic display which a small boy must stay awake for. A bride arrives two hours late for a luxuriously furnished and sumptuously choreographed wedding party and finds herself once again in a twitchy, neurotic, world-hating mood and inclined to insult the guests and end the marriage before the night is out.

Into these two premises Lars Von Trier has poured more imagination than two Fellinis and supplied world cinema with a visual overture (slowly approaching and crashing planets, a slowly drowning Ophelia-like beauty in a wedding dress, a slowly sitting black horse in moonlight) that will glow in my mind for a decade hence and haunt, I fear, my dementia.

He takes, as always, enormous risks. The edgy repetitive jump-cut style which he first proffers, whose emotions leap about and return like fleas on a griddle, will drive some older folk my age from the cinema. He casts, but under-uses — or does he? — two iconic wrinklies, John Hurt and Charlotte Rampling, as ex-husband and ex-wife, but gives them no scene together. He gives the bride, Justine, a different accent from her father, mother and sister. He has a lot of Americans and British living natively, apparently, in what must be, has to be, is it, coastal Sweden. Are they meant to be Swedes? We are not told.

He leaves many characters unexplained: their income streams, their politics, their beliefs. And he makes us wait for things to happen: bad, dark, chiliastic things the snorting horses readily sense and are somehow impatient for.

Dunst has Joanne Woodward’s face, and gives the sort of performance — rich, unstable, righteous, promiscuous — that we saw in The Fugitive Kind and Two Faces Of Eve and Woodward’s later involvements in the filmed plays of Tennesee Williams. But there are further, closer comparisons, I suspect, in the novels and stories of D.H. Lawrence.

She lies naked in a pebbled brook staring worshipfully up at the godlike, nearing planet. She calls herself her horse’s ‘mistress’ and beats him and beats him for stopping, again, at a particular narrow bridge he fears, for some reason, like the river Styx, to cross. She denies sex on her wedding night to Michael the groom, but gives it, on a moonlit golf course, to a young, awkward, puzzled stranger, Tim, the boss’s nephew. She feels, like Gudrun in Women In Love — or Hedda Gabler, perhaps, or Blanche Dubois, or Supergirl — that she is Chosen for great things in the Universe which this preposterous provincial up-market pretentious wedding and its midnight coital messiness and lifelong spiritual diminishment will take from her. Her shy bridegroom reveals he has purchased an apple farm and she ends, casts off, derides, whatever love she feels for him because of it.

A spirited, principled young modern woman is Justine then, or a maddie off her medication and smashing up the furniture? We are unsure either way for a while, and then … but I shouldn’t spoil it for you. The bridegroom limps away uncomprehending and inconsummate and she gets fired at the wedding breakfast for calling her loathesome boss, correctly, a sadistic old talentless monster of greed and pointless vengeance, or words to that effect, fired from her top-grade advertising job at which she is, or may well be, or is thought to be, a rare, untutored genius at verbal improvisation, tag lines, punchlines; and then …

In the second part she is medicated, mumbling, unable to wash herself and hard for her sister Claire to be with, till the black horse Abraham revives her interest in living again, or living a sort of life, and she rides through morning mist in some of the loveliest helicopter following-shots in all world cinema; and the nearing planet pleases her also, because it may mean the end of the ‘evil’ human race, a species she doesn’t want, like Hedda Gabler, to be in.

She becomes convinced by some crackpot internet theories that the rogue planet Melancholia will not just brush the Earth but entirely destroy it, rip it out of the sky, and she loves this idea. She has become like an end-time fundamentalist without the Rapture; an atheist catastrophist keening for a dead and silent universe, toasting it, joying in it. Let it all come down, I’m sick of it. Let it be, dear Lord, tear it down.

Her brother-in-law John the absurdly wealthy amateur astronomer (Kiefer Sutherland) says it’s okay, the planet will miss us, and his little son Leo constructs a wire hoop in which he can see it getting bigger and, later, smaller. Which it does. And that’s all right then. And then … But I shouldn’t spoil it for you. Wagner’s Tristan music simmers and thunders, majestically, apocalyptically, in rolling musical phrases like the doomed Earth, sighing its last.

Characters arrive, are vividly present, and disappear: her mother, father, husband, young fumbling lover, intrusive in the first half, are in the second part barely even spoken of. Charlotte Gainsbourg is particularly good as Claire, her sister/carer/wedding planner/minder/scold, trying to greet the end of the world in a well-structured, appropriate, mannerly, middle-class way; and John Hurt as their drunken, piratical, desolate, crumpled, bearded father (a good bit like John Hepworth when he was drinking); and Alexander Skarsgaard as the bewildered, ardent, shy and cuckolded, wispy-bearded new husband Michael could not be bettered.

The images glow from within somehow, as Bergman’s black-and-white films do, and Raphael’s paintings, and though the camera bobs about, there seems to be a masterpiece of colour and composition revenant in every wobbling frame.

It was only afterwards that I realised how cheap it was to make a film like this. One country-mansion-horse-farm-and-golf-course location, lavishly upgraded, some fashionable modern dress, a trained black stallion, a sprinkling of sudden hailstones, a couple of not-too-difficult astral special effects …

But the magic that is conjured out of the planet’s particular look as it looms in the sky like a kindly, forgiving, frowning deity is as impressive as anything in Solaris or Alien or … well …The Seventh Seal. We are in the experience, imbibing it, in the moment of the Eve of Destruction, like no other in our lives, an image out of race memory. This is the End of Days and we’re sorry to see our Home obliterated and all its seas and mountains and buildings and art works and memories, going, going …

But there, I’ve spoiled it for you.

What an astonishing film.

See it in the cinema if you can.

As I Please: Ryan Versus Rann, The Donnybrook

Tuesday, 4.05 pm

Des Ryan’s nasty, gloating piece on Mike Rann calling him a waste of space who should quit parliament immediately (and he did, indeed he did) made no mention, curiously, of his entire track record — he was the best Premier in Australia’s history (name a better) — and spoke only of the ‘scandal’ of an alleged affair when single with a separated woman that then, to Des’s disgust, in spite of unceasing lurid headlines, lost him only one seat in toto in the subsequent, smeared and squalid Murdochised election, the worst in my long backroom experience.

And, oh yes, the ‘arrogance’ he showed when announcing those big initiatives that so wonderfully benefited the State, the new art galleries, museums, festivals, racing carnivals, universities, film studios, submarine contracts, literacy standards, solar power, wind power, wave power, hot rocks and desal achievements, the AAA rating, the biggest mine in the world, and so on. I mean, how dare he? How dare he even mention them?

I ask Des Ryan why it was he adverted to not one of these things and said only that Mike had a ‘competent economic record’? Why? Why not deal, in this kiss-off piece, with some of the things he did? Why not?

I offer him this space to say why not.

8.40 pm

Nothing back yet from Des, who thinks his unreasoned attack on one of our greatest leaders needs no defence, or evidence, or logical substructure, or argument.

I challenge him to a public debate at a place of his choice on any night of this calendar year on the subject: ‘Mike Rann: Australia’s best Premier, or a national disgrace?’

What a fucking oaf.

Wednesday, 9.10 am

No word from Des yet.

I repeat the offer.

What a cowardly fucking oaf.

5.45 pm

This Des has form, I now hear.

He wrote a book accusing Don Dunstan of homosexuality whose imminent release precipitated Don’s breakdown and resignation. He helped confect a rumour accusing Mike and Kevin Foley his deputy of consorting with Scientologists and taking money from them. For this his boss, Martin Hamilton Smith, had to resign as Opposition Leader.

Nonetheless I will debate him.

I await his reply.

11.05 pm

What a fucking oaf.

Lock, Stock and Sherlock, The Simpsons Episode

It’s the sort of Indiana-Jones-plus-Butch-Cassidy-plus-Lock-Stock-and-Barrel-plus-Bugs-Bunny-or-is-it-Inspector-Gadget-mayhem shakedown that Guy Ritchie has twice now done with Downey and Law and McAdams and there’s nothing wrong with it except the intellectual property theft of the title and character Sherlock Holmes.

Even this one, which is a preview, in his usual bullets-frozen-in-mid-air-and-barrels-dissassembled-to-show-where-they-came-from way, of the armaments of World War 1 (Jude gets to fire Big Bertha at both Holmes and Moriarty and fails to injure either of them), despite what must be the best re-creation of the Dickensian grime and Wildean high-bustle hauteur of 1891, still manages, like the last one, to both dazzle and irritate most audiences over 13.

Why is this? Well, Stephen Fry plays Sherlock’s brother Mycroft the Diplomat in it (and mockingly calls him ‘Shirley’) and is so good an alternative casting one begins to wonder about Downie’s bestubbled kick-boxing anti-superhero and his deductive cocaine-flashes altogether.

Do we need, moreover, Sherlock disguised as a painted strumpet invading Watson’s wedding night and hurling the bride off the train and machine-gunning half the British Army in the corridor with a biography of each individual bullet from manufacture to impact recapitulated while she falls aaaah into a moonlit river and Mycroft picks her up in a sluggish rowboat in the rain? It’s a good sequence, worthy of The Simpsons, but is it what us old Baker Street centenarians were yelling for, or my old prep school pal Dr Arthur, for that matter, or is it just a Ritchie wank?

The latter, I suspect. A man without Madonna has got to do what a man’s got to do and the drugs are plentiful in Strasbourg and phrrwoah, let’s add a slow-motion mid-air Crouching Tiger swordfight to the Cafe Royal or is it the Moulin Rouge and see if the punters love it or what.

The plot, involving terrorists and the dire oncoming Fate of Europe and the arms king Moriarty trying at the Reichenbach Falls Peace Conference to blow up everything, start a War and sell more bullets to every side, makes some sense strategically but Holmes and Watson and their new girl Noomi Rapace (the scrumptious upstaging McAdams poisoned early on Downey’s insistence by Moriarty) keep surviving terrorist bombings, machine-gun duels and black-belt kickboxers with the odd facial bruise and weakened elbow in a very annoying way and one is tempted to murmur, with Wilde, ‘All very well in its way, but one wouldn’t want to LIVE under Niagara.’ Or, in this case, the Reichenbach Falls, in a death-struggle with Moriarty tumbling down and down in which Doyle, poor Doyle, tried to kill off his uncorked genie Holmes in vain.

Jared Harris is superb as Moriarty, a Claude Rains cad with gappy teeth, and Kelly Reilly (the central gorgeous nude in Mrs Henderson Presents) exquisitely delicate, Edwardian and Gwendoline-smart as Watson’s new bride, but Rapace is sombre, French, beaked like a toucan and irritating; and Downey … well …

His is one of those ‘what if’ trick questions, like that posed by Robin Williams in Pan. What if Peter Pan did indeed grow up, and became a New York advertising man? What indeed if Christ survived the crucifixion and became a successful travelling salesman of surgical trusses in the Middle East, and later linked up with Judas, the Che of his day, to liberate Israel from the heinous reign of Nero and invent, with God’s help, nitroglycerine early? That way madness lies, and possibly cocaine.

The worst thing to say of Ritchie is how good the dialogue is (by Michele and Kieren Mulroney) and how infrequent. If he’d merely done what Hitchcock did in North By North-West and let them show off before he did, it would have been fine. But no, he had to mutate a languid, secretive British immortal into a sort of Bruce Lee, and have him fight and kick and fire weapons till even the Die Hard, James Bond and Matrix fans were yawning.

Niall Moroney’s art direction is amazing, James Herbert’s editing the best ever, possibly, in any feature film in all world history, the performances majestically accomplished (Downey is now playing Holmes as Noel Coward), but the endless bullets missing them in frozen slow motion grows wearisome and one wants, after two hours, to kickbox one’s way out of the cinema and secure a cup of Dilmah tea. One got to see Fry’s broad buttocks and that’s a plus I suppose, and, in view of his famed vows of celibacy, a round, saggy miracle of overeating and under-use.

But otherwise? Too much showing off.

Like Madonna.

P.S. I think I’ve just worked out what some of the problem is.

It’s McAdams: the gorgeous unkillable supergirl whom Holmes and Watson lately loved, a spirited mannerly hornbag like Natalie Wood in The Great Race, but this time succumbing so easily and so early to a mere poisoned Moriarty snifter and Rapace, with sombre Gallic ingratitude, again and again surviving the equivalent of Stalingrad.

You can kill all you want of the extras, the walk-ons, and have a larger body-count than Gettysburg of the also-rans. But you can’t, in a comedy-action-thriller like this, kill off the romantic leads. If Eva-Marie Saint had drunk a toast and died foaming and twitching in the first nine minutes of North By North-West it would been as big a mistake as what has happened here.

And it contains a suicide too: of a sympathetic terrorist who blows his brains out to save his kidnapped family. If Cary Grant’s mother had done this in North By North-West, to save a kidnapped Cary, it would have taken a lot of joy out of the the UN, drunk-driving, crop-duster and Mount Rushmore sequences, I can tell you. Farcical disrupted honeymoons and any form of noble suicide rarely mix, I find, though hundreds of gunfights, punch-ups and gypsy dances fill the bill, as a rule, unharmfully.

Guy Ritchie is a good, even fine, even great director, but he and his writers should learn a few of these rules before they do the next one.

And so it goes

Classic Ellis: The Rudd And Gillard Poems

Monday, 5th July, 2010

Beweep the fate of Kevin Rudd:
His end is tears, his name is mud,
Defamed by all as a useless cunt,
Knifed by comrades, back and front.

Judged by all a waste of space
Who’s done his dash, who’s run his race,
Who did not, would not, once consult
Anyone not in his cult.

Hubris, Primates, brought him low,
More than any sneaking foe,
He thought the sun rose from his arse
And no-one else was in his class.

Hubris is a dreadful thing:
It fells the mightiest, oh King,
It makes a joke of all one planned
When one was ruler of the land.

Heed well the end of Kevin Rudd.
The whole world picked him as a dud,
But he breezed onward, preened and sneered,
Striking all as fucking weird.

He flogged his minions, praised his God,
Called enquiries, pulled his wad,
Thought himself Christ’s gift to men,
Beamed, and pulled his wad again.

He did not hear the penny drop,
Nor see the dark steed come, clip-clop,
But bumbled, sleepless, round his dream,
A cat engorged with too much cream,

Who now in blank oblivion lies,
An empty grave neath blazing skies,
A Quiz Kid all said could not fail,
Unwept, unsung, undone. Wassail.

Tuesday, 3rd August, 2010

Attend the fate of Gillard, J.
Her hair was red, its roots were grey.
She struck to wound, but not to kill.
She never learned, and never will.

She claimed her gang had lost its way
Not once but twice: how dumb were they?
She claimed her bunch had not a clue,
And Welsh and barren, wouldn’t you?

She put the Earth’s end off with talk,
She posed in jewels, kissed Bob Hawke,
She smiled, and preened, and gaily laughed.
She laughed so oft some thought her daft.

She did not do a centrefold
For fear she might look, lately, old.
She’d heard the chimes at midnight creep,
She nuzzled Tim, and drowsed to sleep.

Poor little girl, so smug, so spoiled.
She thought to sprint, while others toiled.
She flirted, thinking this enough,
With power. It’s made of sterner stuff.

And now, held in the eagle’s claw,
She’s not in Kansas anymore,
And looks down, screaming of betrayal,
As crowds cry up, ‘Stiff shit!’ Wassail.

The Williamson List (2)

Some further plays that are better than Williamson’s best.

The Ripper Show. A Bunch Of Ratbags. The One Day Of The Year. A Refined Look at Existence. A Stretch Of The Imagination. Sex Diary Of An Infidel. The One Day Of The Year. Neon Street. And The Big Men Fly. We Dock At Twofold Bay. Shorts. On Yer Marx. Sydney Stories. Hamlet On Ice. Biggles. Underwear, Perfume And Crash Helmet. Bakelite Theatre. Waiting For Garnaut. Pennies From Kevin. Debt-Defying Acts. A Boy’s Own Macbeth. Fire On The Snow. Boswell For The Defence. Who. Down Under. The Life And Death Of Sandy Stone.

This makes a hundred and four. Eight or nine may be no better than Williamson’s best, or even a little worse than Williamson’s best — which I guess is Dead White Males — but the basic point remains the same: that immense injustice is being done to massive talent on a weekly basis, and good plays not written, and enormous career trajectories aborted before blast-off, or before even countdown, and genius neglected, and lives ruined, and hopes dashed, and joy not had, and nights not remembered, and souls not ignited, because of the Williamson Laziness that each year lulls and sedates most theatre managements and makes them crave only the ‘safe option’, which is to turn their back on genius, or the possibility of genius, and embrace each year predictable, bourgeois, ‘relaxed and comfortable’ Williamson Theatre, and turn their back on excitement, and on magic, year after year.

Or perhaps you disagree.

The Santorum Variations (2)

Further studies of Old Norse and Old English roots on the weekend by my tireless team of elderly Cornish and Basque decryptors came up with: ‘beazley’, the baffled look on the face of a huge, hard-working beaver whose laboriously constructed twig dam has been washed away by sudden storms; ‘thistlethwaite’, a windblown weed that on settling in a far-off meadow quickly assumes the shape and coloration of adjacent weeds and unwelcomely interbreeds with them; ‘wedderburn’, a tendency in some inbred Welsh rugby forwards to seize the ball and rush towards the wrong goal beaming happily; ‘albanese’, a sporting tactic, taught by twelfth-century Cornish Jesuits, of kneeling in seeming supplication before one’s victorious battle foe and biting off his balls; ‘barnaby’, a troublesome small rural beast like a marmoset that wakes its neighbours unpredictably at night with shrieks and plaints that sometimes resemble English words but have no actual meaning or sense to them.

More to come.

I am told that the addition to my drunken Thatcher piece will be missed by many and I should shift it, but I don’t know how. I urge anyone keen to know of the most successful ploy of the Right to seek it out and read it over morning coffee.

The Secret Language Of Race And Religious Abuse

Put it this way.

We do not call Fred Nile a ‘fireband cleric’ although he warns that sodomites will burn in Hell for a billion years. We did not call George Bush a ‘terrorist mastermind’ though his air raid ‘Shock and Awe’ scared at midnight blameless women and children more than 9/11, and killed rather more of them. We do not call Moses, or Schindler, or Bonhoeffer, or Rhett Butler, or Sidney Carton, or the Scarlet Pimpernel, or Rick in Casablanca, or the Kentish fishermen who in leaky boats moved soldiers off Dunkirk ‘people smugglers’, though this of course is what, in fact or fiction, they actually, logically were.

Interesting, isn’t it, how the language of the nightly news is tweaked or morphed along racial, cultural or theocratic lines.

We do not call Chris Bowen an ‘extremist’ though he likes to burn the boats of refugees. We do know, or we think we know, that ‘Islamofascism’ wants to blow up, hang and consign its heathen foes to Hell, but the Southern Baptist Communion, proposing the same things, we still call ‘Christianity’. If you’re black, or brown, or Muslim you are not forgiven by the language for your iniquities of thought or deed, your sins of the heart or hand, as we white Anglo-Saxon Christians or post-Christians are. The phrase ‘extremist Christian’ or ‘Christian extremist’ does not exist, though one of them killed with automatic gunfire eighty young people he suspected of being ‘soft on Islam’ on Utoya Island, near Oslo, on July the 23rd.

Saddam Hussein is said to have ‘killed his own people’ and he was eventually hanged for ordering the murder of a hundred and fifty mutinous Kurds in a town whose gunmen had recently fired upon him. Ehud Olmert killed thirteen hundred subjects of Israel in Gaza, three hundred of them children, but is not said to have ‘killed his own people’ though this of course is what he did. No calls have been heard for him to be tried for this, though he will go to gaol for corruption of course, for he is very probably guilty of this.

Nor was Margaret Thatcher held to have ‘killed her own people’ when she let the Belfast prisoners die, self-starved, in the Maze, or when she ordered shot on suspicion some Irish tourists climbing the Rock of Gibraltar. ‘His own people’ applies only to Muslims and Mugabe, heathens and blacks, it would seem, those lesser breeds without the Law, and never to Jews, post-Christians or feverish Anglican maddies like Maggie and Blair.

It’s an Orwellian commonplace now, but the words we use habitually govern and shape the thoughts we have, and the things we therefore come to believe. We are ‘protecting our borders’ when we move those borders around, which is a logical nonsense. We are ‘freeing up the market’ when we give Australian jobs to Asian slaves, or Asian semi-slaves, who treat our Qantas planes so carelessly they fall out of the sky.

Gillard lately called ‘lawbreakers’ those young man who boarded a Japanese whaling ship, seeking to stop those breaches of international law and the serial murder of a big, beloved, mighty protected species which occur within our seas and our sphere of influence. It was wrong, she said, to try to deter these  barbarians by trespassing on their expensive sea-bound property, and she would not protect them as she would, say, drug-runners in Indonesia.

With language so abused by this dim sea lawyer, and logic so abandoned, what hope is there for justice anywhere?

Just asking.

Or perhaps you disagree.

The Williamson List

The following is a list of seventy-seven plays that are better than David Williamson’s best.

A Hard God. The Slaughter Of St Teresa’s Day. The Last Of The Knucklemen. Hotel Sorrento. Blackrock. Sky. Mates. Away. Mongrels. Country Music. Summer Rain. King Of Country. Traitors. The Will. The Floating World. Scanlon. The Time Is Not Yet Ripe. Morning Sacrifice. The Summer Of The Seventeenth Doll. Rusty Bugles. The Last Of The Rainbow. Martello Towers. Diving For Pearls. Barmaids. Lantana. Europe. Toy Symphony. Cloudstreet. A Local Man. The Old Familiar Juice. Our Country’s Good. An Awful Rose. The Prince. White With Wire Wheels. Bran Nue Dae. Einstein. The Goldberg Variations. Flash Jim Vaux. Honk If You Are Jesus. Too Young For Ghosts. Backyards. Bon-Bons And Roses For Dolly. The Man From Mukinupin. Fields Of Heaven.  Manning Clark’s History Of Australia. Us Or Them. All My Love. No Sugar. Foreskin’s Lament. The War Horse. The Human Behan,The Father We Loved On A Beach By The Sea. Intimate Strangers. Welcome The Bright World. Myth, Propaganda And Disaster in Nazi Germany And Contemporary America. No Names No Packdrill. Inside The Island. Inner Voices. No Room For Dreamers. The Golden Age. Last Wake At Sheoak Creek. A Happy And Holy Occasion. Who Was Henry Larsen? I Am Work. Basically Black. Pig Iron People. The School Of Arts. The Boy From Oz. The Feet Of Daniel Mannix. The Christian Brother. The Last Night At Woolloomooloo. The Boys. Italian Stories.

All are locally written.

It is to be wondered why their fifty-five authors are so neglected, and the worse work of Williamson so frequently put on.

Can there be an explanation?

What is it?

Thatcher’s Problem Drinking, Reagan’s Biggest Lie, Malt Whisky Reconsidered By Moonlight On Pittwater

This infernal machinery has a will of its own and is moving the essays I write into the wrong order and throwing readers overboard in random acts of mutiny that even Cosmo the family expert cannot understand.

My attempt at high academic humour The Santorum Variations should be at the top of this page and is not; I glumly beseech you to find it five or six essays down and read it, if you will. It’s a trial run at a new kind of historical-pastoral-comical Borgesian jest which in the hands of Tom Stoppard, say, or Patrick Cook, or John Clarke — or, were they still available, Auberon Waugh or Anthony Burgess or Kingsley Amis — might have become in the next few decades an adequate parlour game for all us Baby Boomer has-beens in our Woy Woy beachside units and Moree caravan parks as the seas rise and the tornadoes fulminate and the Maldives dwindle and the rogue lightning strikes take out the few jumbo jets still flying and mosquitoes bearing Dengue Fever swarm south in their itching billions from Nuigini.

The Santorum Variations: find it if you can, and add suggestions to it if you’re of a mind to.

The several recent affectionate remembrances of Lady Thatcher and her soft sad fumbling early dementia (which began to gnaw at her brain in her middle seventies) in the recent surveys of her life and times in the British and Murdoch media leave out any thought of what caused it, which was clearly whisky. Her intake of it after midnight, and possibly after breakfast, was titanic and stiffened her famous resolve to make war haughtily on everyone without exception, the Argies in particular, though her elderly suitor President Reagan beseeched her not to go in, guns blazing and sinking ships and blowing up sheep and barns and widowing dumbstruck Englishwomen who judged her bonkers, and possibly pissed, at the memorial service in Westminster Abbey.

Her Minister for War Francis Pym said as much at a press conference I went to before the subsequent election, which I wrote a book about. ‘I myself can testify,’ he said, ‘to the emotional toll this conflict took on the Prime Minister in the days leading up to, and following, her decision to  go to war.’ Or words to that effect. She was sitting beside him, looked at him sharply, and after she won the election with a huge majority sacked him from her Ministry and never said why. He had plainly adverted to her drinking, and this would never do.

A similar intake of alcohol got Winston Churchill into early dementia also, via World War 2 in which by my estimate five million people needlessly died because he was tanked a lot of the time. His decision to bomb German civilians was brandy-driven, probably, and forced the scalded Hitler to launch the Blitz on London, and his decision to move Australians out of North Africa, where they were winning handily, to retrieve the lost cause in Crete, where they were fruitlessly slaughtered, in a now traditional Churchill-Gallipoli-style-fuckup way, showed just how dangerous a drunk, unflinching leader can be.

Menzies drank two bottles of Houghton’s white at lunch, Billy MacMahon once told me, had three martinis at sunset, and over dinner two more Houghtons. He changed in personality through the day, Billy said, and by evening could not remember what he had said or done or decided in the morning. He became a blithering wreck in his seventies also, like Thatcher, voting DLP in his last years and never letting Dame Pattie out of the house.

Does alcohol bring on dementia? This question absorbed me over several single malt whiskies with Darren Hanlon at a wedding party in Coaster’s Reach amid the cicadas and the moonlight and sleeping children and the old Johnny Cash and Buddy Holly standards he sang with unflinching vigour to a listlessly dancing audience of splished old friends, and with Lucy Lehmann later on her verandah over the water drinking Ardbeg, an Islay drop I have come to like, reading Larkin aloud and hearing her new song about a provincial murder. The whisky assisted both occasions, but you have to wonder. I spent an hour trying to remember the word ‘Killarney’ before I slept.

How soon does it come? Should I have the next drink?

You have to wonder.


Interesting how the Right has convinced us of so many unlikely things. That the Soviet Union deserved to be blockaded, paupered and threatened with nuking after it lost nine million soldiers fighting on our side. That ‘premature anti-fascism’ was a gaoling offence. That Vietnam was a ‘noble cause’ but not worth reinvading.

That Saddam Hussein would bury his atomic bombs in the sand and not hurl them at our invading armies. That Osama Bin Laden was dead, on dialysis, powerless, uninfluential and yet so charismatic he should never be tried but shot out of hand and dumped in the sea.

Another one was Reagan’s view that Big Government was ‘not the solution but the problem.’ Conservative and Labor governments went along with this for thirty years and Gillard still has a ‘Minister For Deregulation’, even after the Meltdown.

A very curious idea. Take out the word ‘Big’ and you see how curious. ‘Government’ is the problem.

This raises the question ‘What is government for?’ And ‘Why do we vote for it? Why do we have one?’

This is not too hard to answer. Government is there to keep us safe. It runs armies, police, the National Health. It makes sure aeroplanes do not collide at Mascot — by regulation, not deregulation. It gives us flood warnings, rescues people in trouble at sea or under threat of bushfire or buried in earthquakes. It looks after us.

And the Right says there should be less of it; or, in Ron Paul’s case, none.

And from time to time we tried this lessening. And trains collided in England, Qantas had an ‘incident’ every three days, suicides occurred in ‘privatised’ detention ‘facilities’, private armies shot up women and children in Baghdad, Telstra shares halved in value and private banks disrupted and bankrupted the world. And Big Government had to step in and rectify things.

It’s amazing what we can be led to believe by skilful Murdochist propagandists like Roger Ailes and Sean Hannity. That the death by gunfire of thirty thousand Americans per year is a fundamental right and no act of Big Government can, or ought to, reduce it. That the ABC if privatised and sold to Alan Jones or Singo or Kerry Packer (Gerard Henderson’s view in 1997) would be a better ABC. Because the ABC is part of Big Government, which should be reduced. And so were Whitlam’s free universities, and the current Green proposal of free dental care.


Take out the Big, and ask what Government is for, and the Right’s answer, roughly expressed, is ‘To stand at the salute while the Free Market goes thundering by.’

Who believes this any more?


Hands up.

As I Please: The Santorum Variations (1)

Friday, 4.20 pm

The newly discovered meaning of ‘santorum’ (a loathesome aggregration of expended fluids and fecal matter in the anuses of male homosexuals) moved me to look up certain Anglo-Saxon and Anglo-Celtic words no longer in common use.

These include ‘gillard’, a pointed sharp stick whose purpose was the removal of the anus of a trout; ‘ruddock’, an Iron Age plumb-bob used to measure the depth of fecal matter in certain poisoned wells of pre-Christian Yorkshire; ‘arbib’, an instrument of Celtic torture which, heated up and inserted in a Kentish king’s rectum, was said to have caused pained cries that were heard as far away as Gloucestershire; ‘tuckey’, an uninvited act of sex with a struggling peacock, or similar large wild bird; ‘heffernan’, an act of uninvited sexual congress with a male farm beast, a ram, hog, bull or domesticated otter; ‘pyne’, an act of mating, upside down, with a sleeping, or hibernating, bat of Brittany or the Channel Islands; ‘combet’, a sleeping-draught or tablet used by members of the Norman nobility to assist in the defloration of unwilling Saxon virgins on their wedding-nights ahead of the sometimes angry bridegrooms; ‘abetz’, a terrible recurring stammer, reputedly curable only by repeated acts of cunnilingus on octogenarian witches.

I am continuing my researches, and will add to this list in this column in the coming days; ‘plibersek’ is elusive, but may have a meaning in Gaelic or Sanskrit that will satisfy the linguists, historians and code-decryptors working with me.

Saturday, 8.40 am

Unsleeping scholars in five time zones have retrieved from crumbling parchment manuscripts in Icelandic, Cornish, Provencal, Siberian and Baffin Land archives and library shelves at my behest overnight some further eccentric outmoded common nouns: ‘plibersek’, for instance, a kind of scissors used by seventh-century Norfolk women to castrate ill-mannered or over-affectionate Vikings; ‘roxon’, an inefficient early contraceptive, involving small polished pebbles pushed in during foreplay (or ‘wooing’ as it was then called) in the Shetland and Orkney Islands, a prime cause, it was bewhispered, of sudden weddings and big happy peasant families; ‘ferguson’, a very small Bronze Age dildo with a titmouse face, its function obscure, a sacred icon, some Gaelic scholars hold, in a Badger Cult that briefly dominated Galway, after the drowning of Connor the Damn Fool in a hogshead of his own mead, from BC 337 to 325; ‘keating’, a three-day contest of improbable stories between two rancorous former chieftains, the loser put to death on the Monday night, a word some experts think derives from the Bantry County gerund ‘skiting’; ‘entsch’, a corkscrew-shaped brass implement used in Ethelred’s time to threaten, subdue and torture owls; ‘oakeshott’, a tall, pale, timid man who becomes a sparrow-infested tree in winter; and ‘mirabella’, a seven-breasted earth goddess who suckles wolves.

I will publish more of these illuminating rediscoveries as the information comes in.

As I Please: The Appropriate Language For Everlasting Defeat

A  considerable victory of the Right in the last fifteen years has been the removal of the concepts of ‘winning’ and ‘losing’ from the concept of ‘war’.

In Iraq, where seventy Shi-ite pilgrims were killed by a Sunni strapped with bombs only yesterday, two weeks after the Shi-ite Prime Minister ordered the arrest of the Sunni Deputy Prime Minister for treason, and three weeks after the last of the ‘Coalition’ forces left for good with their ‘heads held high,’ it was not alleged we had ‘won’ the war there. It was said we had given the Iraqis the solid democratic foundation of their future freedom and prosperity. This is where, I solemnly repeat, the Prime Minister is going after the Deputy Prime Minister for treason and proposing to hang him for it.

In Aghanistan, similarly, it is not a ‘war’ we will ‘win’ any more. It is a ‘situation’ we are planning to ‘stabilise’ by ‘training’ the Afghan goodies in the rudiments of their ‘self-defence’ whilst we negotiate with the baddies a ‘coalition’ with them after a cheated election in which the baddies could not even put up candidates. It is hoped that when we leave the ‘situation’ will be ‘stable’ enough to guarantee the people a ‘fair chance’ of a ‘democratic future’ and their women a better deal.

And, oh yes, we are there to ‘deny the terrorists a training ground’ for their future acts of militant insurgency. We have done this by training such insurgents ourselves in the dark arts of terrorist infiltration; like the ones who machine-gunned their Australian tutors on the parade ground lately, or  blew them up in the canteen or the dormitory and scarpered in the dead of night, as our brave and selfless Diggers wisely trained them to do.

No-one speaks of ‘winning’ or ‘victory’ now.

The first instance of this morphed language dates back to Nixon and Kissinger, who hoped to ‘Vietnamise’ the Vietnam War before pulling ignominiously out of it and kicking their clinging servants off the rope ladders of the ascending helicopters which they then dumped in the sea. This they called ‘an honourable cause’ not a victory or defeat, though they have not since, in thirty-five years gone back to revisit it and, as Rambo said, ‘get to win this time.’

So we don’t fight wars any more.

We ‘exit’ them with ‘honour.’

This is not ‘losing.’

It is seeking ‘an acceptable outcome’ that gives the Hazaras, say, an outside chance of survival in a ‘ flawed but functioning democracy’ whose elections are cheated by drug lords and whose ministers are blown up from time to time by young men in suicide vests who, as Sunnis, hate the Shi-ite Hazaras and the heroin-pushing Karzais more than the Devil himself.

I myself think we should rectify the language, as Confucius declared was humankind’s first duty, and declare ‘defeat’, and move out. I myself think we should stop pretending we are there to bomb the Afghans into treating their women better, or train them how better to blow our Diggers up when they’re of a mind to, or the Hazaras when we leave.

We should simply call it a defeat, as we did in Somalia and Lebanon and Ruanda and Burma and Tibet and Fiji and Dubcek’s Czechoslovakia, and say we lost this one, we’ll regroup and think things over. In the meantime any Hazaras who want to should come here, and we’ll put them up in caravan parks in Tasmania and West Queeensland, and see how they do as small businessmen, or small farmers, or university students in those regions.

Defeat is defeat, and should not be spun as anything else. Pursuing this defeat is not worth one more flesh-wound, let alone twelve more soldiers’ funerals, with Abbott and Gillard attending, in stricken, reft and weeping country towns. It is worth no more expenditure of blood.

It was a fool idea go start with, to bomb a country for harbouring a man who was in an adjacent country.

We should get out now, by Australia Day.

Or perhaps you disagree.

Classic Ellis (2): The Big Lie

(This is a lecture I gave to Adelaide Festival of Ideas which went down pretty well, I think, with an audience of about two hundred, and a lot of ABC listeners in the nine or ten weeks since then. Bear with the length, if you will.  It addresses the central, driving myth of modern Australia.)

When driving north north-west, as I sometimes do, from Melbourne to Adelaide, I find myself sometimes in twilight engulfed by green and fertile plains and hills round Ararat in the Western District, a great bonus of countryside the size of half of England, with very few people in it. And I pull over and drink some orange juice and look out at the surrounding, fading beauty and wonder how many Hazara peasants and their sons could fruitfully till the soil here on small holdings, growing things. It is five hundred thousand? A million? Or how many cities the size of Newcastle could be sustained here? — three? four? – if the rains and rains and floods kept coming and were piped to places of need, recycled, purified, desalinated, poured down into hot rocks to come up as steam that powers electricity and is then, and therefore, clean enough to drink? Why not? I ask.

And I drive on, into the dark.

Sometimes I go to Adelaide by train from Sydney, and in dawn go past the Menindee Lakes, as big now as Lake Erie, and wonder why no fish are being farmed there, no waterside restaurants built, no grey mud beauty-cream harvested, as it is from the Dead Sea. Is it truly because the lakes will recede, and not be there in ten years’ time? Or is it another reason?

We are told we must not let the Boat People in, in part because they jumped the queue, preferring not to have their children caned and sodomised and whored and fed drugs and under-educated in Malaysia, but in part because Australia cannot sustainably hold more than, what, twenty-five million? Thirty-five million? People? Ever?

And our Asian neighbours think this is a really strange thing to say. They look at a continent two-thirds as big as China, which has 1.4 billion people, two-thirds of which is 900 million people, and they wonder, where do we get off? And, how dare we?

And I look at the map, and I find that Bob Katter’s electorate, embracing most of the northern thrust of Queensland, mostly green and fertile, is as big as Great Britain, and has ninety thousand people in it. And Tony Crook’s electorate, which is only half desert, is as big as Scandinavia, and has ninety thousand people in it. And Mike Kelly’s electorate, green, fertile, beach-fronted, ski-lodged and cheese producing, is as big as Israel, and has ninety thousand people in it. And I look at Tasmania, which is as big as Ireland, and mostly green and fertile, and has six hundred thousand people in it, unlike Ireland, which has four million.

The Maralinga lands, given back to their people by Mike Rann, are the size of Belgium. The far North Coast of New South Wales, from Taree into Quirindi and up to Tenterfield, Nimbin and Tweed Heads and back down the coast to Taree, is the size of Massachusetts, Vermont and Rhode Island put together, and has only four hundred thousand people compared with those parts of New England, no more fertile, no more richly soiled and freshly watered, which boast nine million people.

So what are we talking about here? A genuine crisis in our carrying capacity in a parched land that is full up? Or something else?

And let’s leave aside the Ord River Catchment Area, as big as Denmark, the Murrumbidgee Irrigation Area, as big as Wales, the Snowy River high country, bigger than Switzerland, South-East Queensland, as big as Macedonia, and try to find out, following, as it were, the paper trail, or the water trail, why we really fear immigration from Asia of people not of our religion, into our cities and pastures and country towns.

We are told it’s because we don’t have the water to sustain much life here, that this is the driest continent. Well…I’m not sure ‘continent’ is a useful word in any argument that we might have on any subject on this planet. Asia is probably the coldest inhabited continent, but it contains Saudi Arabia, India, Sri Lanka. Africa is the most food-rich continent, potentially so, though five thousand children starve there every day.

And…Australia is the driest continent, with the thinnest top soil. Well, the top soil’s pretty deep round Mullumbimby and the rain abundant and provident in the Tweed and Richmond valleys. The deep-soiled, well-watered parts of Australia are bigger than half of non-British Europe. Why say ‘continent’ at all? ‘Continent’ is not a useful word. We should never use it again, in any context. It is a fraudulent word, a waste of ink, a waste of breath.

And what we have here for sure is a big lie, a lie as big as Terra Nullius, however innocently it was arrived at, a lie as big as the notion that Israel was an underpopulated, savage, desert place before 1948 when the bulldozers levelled the towns and the armies at gunpoint pushed out people resident there a thousand years to provide a Terra Nullius in which to build a new Jerusalem free of the memory of the old.

It is a big lie, and there is plenty of room. And we have to ask why and how this big lie, Australia Deserta, was innocently arrived at, or maliciously told.

Innocently? Well, after Burke and Wills and Edward John Eyre and the hardships of Dad and Dave on their selection, and the dust-blowing droughts that so formed the sun-burnt souls of Henry Lawson, Barcroft Boake, Xavier Herbert and John Williamson, one could be forgiven for thinking Australia a dry, inhospitable, unreliable, ecologically cantankerous place. But this is only if you think of it as an ill-equipped nineteenth century share-cropper would, not as a twenty-first century minerals industry CEO, or a tourist hotel owner with a bedroom view of Uluru. It’s then as hospitable and population-friendly as Palm Springs is, or Vegas, or the Grand Canyon, or Los Angeles. You only have to pipe the water in.

And, as to the question of water, to put it a little vulgarly, the sea is full of it. And its level could be brought down just a bit, by piping some of it into South Australia where desal plants, powered by hot rocks, wind or solar, could turn it cheaply into potable water, or shaving water, or garden water. Australia Deserta, or Terra Australis Deserta, as some medieval cartographer might call it, the big lie, was innocently born of nineteenth century eyes, and powerful words, and word-clusters like The Outback, and The Birdsville Track, and The Back of Beyond, and The Never-Never, stopped us measuring what we had, in cane-growing coastlands, and wheat-growing inlands, and the cattle-farming north, and the apple-growing south, and the once fish-teeming rivers, and blizzard blowing ski-lodge mountain valleys as big as Switzerland, and, as John Ford said, we printed the legend, and we believed in it.

That’s if we got here, to this conclusion, innocently, though some in this room I imagine did, and were not encoiled into a larger racist fantasia of prized possession of a blessed place, and repelling the swarthy heathens who want to take it from us, as in Tomorrow When the War Began, and want to take it soon.

Is it just the Hughes-Curtin-Menzies myth of the Yellow Peril overwhelming in their invading millions and insistent sperm our proud British stock that drives this parsimonious fantasy, this frugal superstition, that there is no room at the inn for anyone but our own post-Christian Anglo-Celtic grandchildren, and the odd Japanese chef and the odd buxom Ukrainian waitress to feed them, or the odd Russian bride to breed their blue-eyed children? Or is it something deeper, something more primally transmitted? Something deep in our DNA?

The question should be asked: Why is it boats that so affright us and not aeroplanes, not aeroplanes loaded as they eventually are with immigrant illegals? I believe myself the reason lies in race memory, of the medieval plague.

Boats, if you remember, leaky hulks with rotten cargo, and rats, and fleas, brought the plague to England, and Europe, from the Middle East and North Africa, and a third of England died. And we somehow remember this, and we search on arrival, and probe on arrival, each Middle Eastern or Muslim boat person for disease, in a way we do not search and probe any English round-the-world yachtsman, or Jessica Watson, or Willem Dafoe, or Hillary Clinton, or Kevin Rudd, though they have been as far and as deep into disease-bearing latitudes as any Palestinian refugee. We have this image of menace by boat, a tall ship with black sails, so well evoked in The Threepenny Opera, and also in Pirates of the Caribbean, that bears a cargo of ill-fortune, of kidnap and pillage and syphilitic rape, an image as old as Greece in its war with Persia, of advancing seaborn menace we must repulse with might and main and virgin sacrifice, which in our day continues, and is shouted from the rooftops by Tony Abbott. ‘Stop the boats!’ he bellows in war cry, but never ‘Stop the refugees!’ It is the boats, and their disease, he starts us thinking of and fearing, not the talented little children within them, or their frantic pregnant mothers watching our naval vessels approach, and praying to their sky-god to make us Australians wise providers of their need.

It is the boats we fear, and fear primally, and not the goat-herding mountain Shi-ites who would prosper here, and make good slaughtermen, and nurses, and brain surgeons, and old-age carers, and Sanskrit scholars, and husbands for lonely schoolteachers, and it’s because of the boats we have invented the myth, and printed the legend, of Australia Deserta, when our ecology is agog with possibilities.

We have an Inland Sea now, and we could breed fish in it, while it is here. Australia is a net importer of fish, despite our twenty-seven-thousand-mile coastline and this to me seems ridiculous. We could make the Menindee Lakes a hive of trout, and salmon, and export megatons of them to Japan, while the lakes last, and we do not know for certain they will ever go away. But…if they do…well…

What will we do if the desert returns, and we become, again, the driest continent, instead of what we are now, one of the wettest? What do we do to house and heal and feed the multitudes now breeding in Uruzguan and Aceh and Syria and Sri Lanka, who may soon choose to ask us for shelter and succour and sanctuary on our none too fatal shore?

Well…we should think a bit, and revolve in our minds the twin thoughts that, lo and behold, the desert does bloom, because it has, and the desert, in order to bloom, needs, well, it needs not so much rainfall, as water. And where is it to come from?

In California, which is desert, it comes, in pipes, from snow-topped mountains four hundred miles away. In Kuwait, which is desert, it comes, in pipes, from the desalinated Red Sea. Don Dunstan had an idea of towing some icebergs north and feeding them, as ice cubes, into Adelaide’s reservoirs. But there are other means to the end of nourishing the refugee millions who soon will be sharing our green and gold and sand-blown, mine-gouged, beach-proud, water-scarce, blue remembered hills and kookaburra-chuckling suburbs, if we let them in.

Israel found, in their DesertBloom project, that deep underlying brackish desert water, in which South Australia is richly abundant, made sweeter tomatoes, and bigger strawberries, and fatter bananas, and statelier red roses, than normal clean snow-melt water by a factor of about thirty-two percent. Looked at that way, thought on that way, suddenly our desert is a garden; and the fifty thousand Hazara peasant farmers currently keen to come here, suddenly and surprisingly a boost and boon and a bonanza to our economy.

They would also be of help in the difficult matter of camel milk. There are half a million camels in South Australia, and camel milk, as is well known, mitigates diabetes and lasts ten months when refrigerated, and is therefore a multi-billion dollar export, but the difficulty is, how to get it. Well, you have to sneak up on a mother camel feeding her eager baby and, as it were, grasp her attention without losing her respect. It can be done but it requires a lot of running, jumping, lassoing, tying down and praying to Allah, and, of course, Hazaras would be good at this, and we would make, oh, ten billion a year, halve diabetes worldwide, make productive use of our desert, and so on.

Hazaras might be useful also in growing and tending and reaping non-hallucinogenic marihuana in great northern forests and turning it into chairs, tables, chopsticks, clothbound novels, T-shirts, trousers, curtains, carpets and blankets and with it sequestering more and more carbon as it swiftly grows and is swiftly cut down, thereby delaying, I guess, for a century or two, the world’s end, on twenty acre allotments rented from Aboriginal peoples, or shared by them, in newly watered places now judged desert, or Back of Beyond, by cartographers underinformed of human progress and modern possibilities.

Or they could be licensed to fish in the new, vast, continuing Inland Sea, or grow oysters, or teach waterskiing there. And thus by intricate adjustments to an altering ecology provide the tax base for the comfort of us baby-boomers grown old and rancorous in crowded and filthy nursing home in the 2020s and ‘30s.

I know I mention the Hazaras a lot, and it’s because, well, I know a few, and to me and my children they look like Mediterranean Australians, most of them, those that do not exactly resemble Ricky Ponting, and their industrious, parsimonious, hardworking family values put me in mind of the Anatevka Jews in Fiddler on the Roof, dispersed and exiled by the Russian pogroms, Jews from whom I descend, and I resent the idea, affected but not believed by our Prime Minister, that they are a problem that should be ‘finally solved’ by their ‘resettlement’ in Malaysia: jobless, resented, ill-schooled, enslaved, pious, mocked, persecuted and festering at the end of an endless queue, and considering, at long last, some of them, terrorism as a career option.

And if the Inland Sea dries up? Well, there are pipes, there is water. A big enough pipe could transfer the Fly River into the Darling or the Laklo in East Timor into the Drysdale in Western Australia. And there is coastal storm-water that could be sucked up after storms and driven in tankers to grey-water reservoirs in towns with a need of it.

Water, you see, is not the problem, or it is not the problem any longer. Water can now be made. And living space, lebensraum, Hitler called it, is not the problem. There is a continent one-third as big as Africa of it. Race is not the problem. Nearly all of them look like us.

Sustainable numbers, therefore, are not the problem either. That thought, that phrase, that question, that mischievous hypothesis is a big lie. The problem seems to be that we do not like women wearing certain headgear, or men praying loudly five times a day to an angry deity we do not much like the smell of, with his multiple wives and hatred of dogs and pig-meet. And this is the fear we have disguised beneath the very, very dodgy theory of lebensraum, Hitler’s excuse for exterminating – or, as he put it, relocating - another Semitic people, elbow-room for the ubermensch, the Anglo-Celts, and our lesser Mediterranean cousins, lebensraum for the Euro-Aryan supermen, us.

So: how many, do you think? Let’s not be too ambitious. Let’s look at the world’s most successful, most prosperous and, yes, multicultural and conscienceful functioning democracy, Germany. It’s three-quarters the size of Western Australia, it has eighty-two million people, and it will have ninety million people by 2025.

Let’s begin to match it. Let’s take in all the one hundred and seventy thousand queued up refugees in Malaysia and Indonesia, let’s pay whatever Hazaras who want to come here to do so, thus easing much of the divided, reft and bloodstained anguish of Afghanistan, let’s ask what country towns and cities would like some refugees, let’s put them in caravan parks outside or in those towns, give them the unemployment benefit, and the caravan rent, and a bicycle, and the use of the local schools, and see how it goes.

If we do this in the next five years, we may have a population of twenty-five million, by decade’s end, with as many young people working in it as are needed to subsidise the swollen bubble of the old, a better country, and a better society, and a better feeling within ourselves of what Australia hereafter must mean.

All those in favour?

Streep’s Maggie: Magnificent, Ill-Scripted, Wrong

Given the big things The Iron Lady gets right — the casting, the makeup, the dialogue, the central four performances, the Johnny Walker-driven Falklands War, the soft and shaming dementia she is now in — it’s amazing how many other things it gets wrong.

Not Streep of course, whose haughty tippling sleepless dominatrix perfectly exhumes the Margaret I first saw plain in 1974 and travelled with for three days in 1983, a sort of roving Boadicea with a hint of Mary Poppins, whose gorgeous legs and breathy fluttering flirtatiousness attracted more journos — like me — than it repulsed.

Nor Jim Broadbent’s Denis, the film’s most intricate character, part ghost, part humorous wooer, part old-age carer — as he was, in Iris, of another tottering, talented maddie; nor Harry Lloyd and Alexandra Roach as the younger versions of him and her (Roach even has the same gap in her front teeth). Nor the quirky, elderly dialogue (screenwriter Abi Morgan) which gets exactly the fumbling, tetchy forgetfulness of a lasting marriage more composed of mutual amusement than fiery deathless love.

But … none of her big electoral battles are shown (1974, 1979, 1983, 1984), and the formidable men she was up against (Heath, Wilson, Callaghan, Healey, Foot, Kinnock, Heseltine, Major) barely get a look in. Heseltine — nicknamed ‘Tarzan’ — a big blond beast best portrayed by the Kirk Douglas of Spartacus, is here played by the serial sissy Richard E. Grant; the Harold Wilson (unaccented, bellowing) of Martyn More nothing like him; Michael Pennington’s Michael Foot is excellent, but abolished after a single blazing House of Commons oration; and her treacherous flattering protege/successor John Major and her rumoured bonk/party chairman Cecil Parkinson (they canoodled brazenly on public platforms while I, for one, observed amazed) get barely a nod from the screenplay.

Nor do her great and powerful admirers Gorbachev and Reagan. Nor does her royal female rival the Queen, who reportedly detested her. Nor does the first Margaret Thatcher, whom she displaced in Dennis’s bed. When he asks her to marry him and then to dance with him to the music of The King And I (a quite touching scene, among many), he looks unencumbered, guiltless and inexperienced, the only rich non-pants-man in England, and she seems unlearned in even the rudiments of the adultery she was  by then richly, madly, deeply in.

Is it a fraud, then? Well.. not exactly.

It gives us an exact, impertinent and touching portrait of her present, long-running ga-ga phase (Is Dennis, her Jiminy Cricket, alive or dead? Dead, it seems, as long ago as 2003), which is by far the least interesting one, and compensates for its preponderance by skimping the war with Argentina, the war on the IRA, the war on the miners’ unions, the starvings-to-death of imprisoned Irish heroes, the targeted assassinations of terrorist suspects and the trashings of the northern towns that she, like a kind of twinsetted Saddam Hussein, made her calling-cards in her years of rogue adventurist whisky-breathed power that changed, and deranged, the western world.

And what we have instead, from the director of the saccharine soufflee Mama Mia! (the worst film ever to make five hundred million dollars), is a sort of stage musical without the numbers: the song of neglecting the twins and going into politics (come back mummy, come back and play with us); the song of biting the bullet and going to war (don’t shoot, Margaret, don’t shoot, don’t shoot, the Belgrano is sailing away); the song of going on the turps (one more Johnny Walker and I’ll solve this, Denis, I’ll solve it, you will see), and the song of surviving assassination (walk on, walk on with hope in your heart). Which is why, I guess, it’s 98 minutes long plus titles and not the 140 minutes of, say, Piaf. The songs were probably in, and then taken out when found to be ridiculous.

So it’s not, in short, the tragical-historical-political-comical sub-Shakespearian cavalcade of the recent past that it should be (precedent: Richard III), but a daft and flabby twinning of Truly, Madly, Deeply and Auntie Mame that invades, unflinchingly and snoopily, the crabbed and querulous old age of actual people, one of them yet living and viewing it, probably, as I speak, in bewildered and snuffling dismay.

There is, in contrast, an excellent earlier film on the subject, Margaret, directed by James Kent and written by Richard Cottan, released in 2008, with Lindsay Duncan (Brutus’s mother in Rome) in the lead.

Framed not by her penultimate woolly dementia but by Heseltine’s challenge to her leadership after Howe’s fraught Commons resignation and her too-narrow win in the first ballot that necessitated then a second ballot, and the subsequent crumbling of her support, it flashes back to her challenge to Heath’s leadership and her several familial crises and gives due attention to the politics of the time, with Robert Hardy as Whitelaw and James Fox as her secretary Charles Powell, including every step, misstep and stubborn denial of her final struggle for the numbers and a consultation, even, with her Queen.

It shows, like The Ides of March and The King’s Speech and The West Wing, what part male ego plays in these great matters of state, and male suspicion of female turbulence, and what one might call tribal end-time superstition: this is the bitch from Hell, and we must be soon rid of her, lest a curse fall on the land.

And although publicised as a sort of modern Ben-Hur, The Iron Lady is budgeted like a telemovie. The Brighton bombing, the Falklands War, the Poll Tax London riots, the IRA slaughter of the royal horses, are nearly all mere newsreels, blurred and stretched and flattened to seem improbable, nightmarish, and somehow irrelevant. A single recurring shot of ten demonstrators beating at her car window is meant to stand in for all the national hatred she stirred, and all the trouble she brought on the planet, the millions of lives she up-ended, the international chaos she caused with her Grantham-Grocer pinchpenny nut-religion, and the one shot of hoons thumping windows is not enough.

And, on another level, it’s even unfair to her too, and queasily close to prurient. Imagine that, say, Baz Luhrman, another stage musical director, were to make a film now that centred on Gough Whitlam’s failing intellectual powers, and his wife Margaret’s tough but humorous management of his final phase, and to use this as a frame for his life — as a bomber navigator under fire in wartime; as a Labor Deputy Leader about to be expelled; as a prescient statesman about to meet Mao Zedong — and forty minutes of it were about his verbal fumblings, misrememberings and difficulties eating food. How would that seem to you? Like the Phyllida Lloyd film, I expect. Like The Iron Lady.

Olivia Colman is very fine as the constant, worried Carol Thatcher, and so is Iain Glen as Margaret’s magnetic provincial handsome father-hero Alderman Alfred Roberts. But as Airey Neave — Colditz escapee, drunken rogue and wily numbers-man — Nicholas Farrell inexplicably recapitulates his loyal Horatio in Branagh’s Hamlet and not the kind of rough-hewn Trevor Howardish buccaneer that was needed, so his death by IRA car-bomb seems a little undermotivated when it occurs.

Her other steely ally Norman Tebbit, the neofascist cockney-accented air pilot whose wife was crippled in the Brighton bombing, doesn’t even make it into the cut, whereas the least interesting one, Denis, is all over it, tutting and snooping and bickering and refusing to leave. ‘You’re dead, Dennis.’ ‘Well, if I’m dead, who are you talking to?’

It’s a little contentious to say this, but a female sensibility is not what was needed for the Lady Thatcher story. The tireless, unturning lady boasted herself that ‘the Women’s Movement had NOTHING to do with my success’, and the big world-altering things she did (changing the way western governments disburse their money, selling off the electricity, starving the terrorists, and so on) cannot be tucked into the genre of ghost-comedy or senility-farce.

It needs I think a male writing talent, as Margaret did, and The Queen and The King’s Speech, Frost/Nixon, The Ides of March, Rome, Deadwood, Julius Caesar, and much more political research.

I know of no good political drama by a woman, and this, though a worthy experiment, ought not, I think, to be tried again.

Thus article was first published, with some rude bits left out, by The Drum Unleashed on Friday, December 31st, 2010.

As I Please: Henderson Agonistes: A Fool For All Seasons

It was unwise, I suspect, of Gerard Henderson to say in his column this morning that the ABC was going leftward, ever leftward, since he himself is going leftward even faster.

In 1997 he was urging that the ABC be privatised. Now he is brazenly taking money from it; for appearing irregularly on Insiders, whatever money that might be (‘your thirty pieces of silver,’ his mentor Santamaria would have called it), on top of the ninety thousand a year or so he gets from the lazy louche leftist-latte-elitist rag the smh now that its sister elitist rag The Age has fired him for premature fascism, or whatever the sin was, and the drifty-eyed somnolence he induces in bus commuters every Tuesday morning. He even favours boat people now, and urges they get a fair go, an extraordinary thing to do, and very irritating I would think to his secret backers whoever they are — and he must not say, he cannot say — and their alleged secret backers ASIO, or the CIA, or MI6, or Mossad, or Hughes Tools or whoever.

He says in this morning’s piece that Margaret Thatcher was right, entirely right, to turn the Falklands dispute into the Falklands War by sinking the General Belgrano when it was on its way home to safe harbour and threatening no-one, and six hours away from any possibility of imperilling any servicemen, and thus ensure the death of hundreds of sailors and soldiers and civilians on both sides of a war that none but she was keen on; and Julie Rigg by contrast wrong, very wrong, to call her ‘a tyrant’ merely because she allowed her political foes to starve to death in prison and ordered the assassination of ‘terror suspects’ in another country, Gibraltar, in breach of that law of nations which thinks this kind of thing premeditated murder. The ABC should have made Rigg apologise for saying this, Gerard humphed. A balanced broadcaster would never say this, even thirty years later, of even Suharto, or Kim Jong Il, or Francisco Franco.

Gerard claims very few right-wing voices are to be heard on the ABC though Peter Reith, who was very nearly Liberal Party President, has an Unleashed column each week and Tony Abbott is printed whenever he writes in and about a third of its contibutors are Liberal voters and half its respondents Liberal staffers or climate change deniers and its boss Mark Scott, a Howard appointee, continues in office unharassed by latte-lapping mutineers, a passionate Christian, Liberal voter and Sunday churchgoer like Gerard himself. 

But for Gerard this is not enough. Perhaps the ABC should be privatised after all. When did he stop believing it? He should tell us about this. When did the Saviour appear to him on the Damascus Road saying, ‘Keep the ABC, my son, and use it for my glory, and for the earthly mission of John Howard, my Chosen One’?

Gerard’s view in 1997 was that the ABC should be put on the market and bought up by a consortium headed by Singo or Packer or Murdoch or Alan Jones. He has never recanted from this or apologised for it, and behaves as if he never said it. He also called George Bush ‘the Winston Churchill of our time’ for invading Iraq and going on quest for those atomic bombs which all sane folk well knew were buried, for some reason, under a sandhill there. He also called me ‘the false prophet of Palm Beach’ for saying John Howard would lose his seat and jeered at me for six years in his quarterly for saying it, calling me a writer of ‘doggerel’ and never quoting any. He has a convincing tone of voice, rather like that of Rudd, and he writes rather well from sentence to sentence, but he is nearly always wrong. And he follows the CIA line so strictly it’s hard to believe they don’t buy him the odd lemon squash from time to time, or send him a box of chocolates.

He has refused to debate me for twenty years, afeared that I might assault him, or use bad language, or take off my clothes or something, though Tony Abbott did once, and found it quite a nice experience, and me a fairly civilised fellow, and did it again a year later.

The great problem for Gerard, and for most of the Right, is the old oriental one of ‘saving face’. They were wrong about Vietnam; wrong about Kruschev; wrong about Utzon; wrong about the Birthday Ballot; wrong about Nixon; wrong about Che; wrong about Dubcek; wrong about Allende; wrong about Whitlam; wrong about John Lennon; wrong about Dunstan; wrong about Hawke; wrong about Deng; wrong about Gorbachev; wrong about Ortega; wrong about Greiner; wrong about Carr; wrong about Rann; wrong about Kennett; wrong about Bracks; wrong about the yellowcake of Niger; wrong about Bin Laden being already dead or on dialysis; wrong about Hicks; wrong about Habib; wrong about Haneef; wrong about Howard; wrong about Nelson; wrong about Swan and the world economy; wrong about Obama’s chances of election; wrong about the intellectual grunt of Sarah Palin; wrong about the sanity of Glenn Beck; wrong about safe nuclear power; wrong about Iraq; wrong about Afganistan; wrong about Karzai; wrong about Murdoch; wrong about the speed of global warming; wrong about the strategic intelligence of Alan Joyce; wrong about the viability of the Arab Spring; wrong about Bachman, Perry, Huntsman, Huckabee, Paul and Santorum, and yet they have to behave, as Gerard always does, with a kind of Mandarin unflappability as though they are always right; and they never are.

And yet they get up each morning and go on television and pretend they are. And they never are. And they never have been. If anyone can give me an example of them being right in the last fifty years he or she should inform this website in the next fortnight or so.

Think hard.

Which is one way of saying, I guess that they’re very good actors, nearly all of them. Nearly all of them look unconflicted, but Gerard twitches a bit in the clinches.

Gerard is worse off than some of the others  because he also believes in a human-sacrifice and hellfire-burning religion that requires him to eat Christ’s living flesh most Sunday mornings and burned a lot of Jews in its time, and must somehow pretend to believe that God is in charge of things and a very nice fellow who loves us very much though he’s killed nine billion of us thus far and lots and lots of Jews in ovens lately and visits earthquakes on Christchurch so often that the city fathers soon might change its name. I hope he drinks a lot of whisky before bed, because he’s in a lot of intellectual trouble with his Christianity and his humanist wife and his guru Howard who likes locking up children in hell-holes though Gerard, lately, oddly, changeably, does not.

I invite him to come to Gleebooks at a time of his convenience and have a chat.

We could call it ‘The Right Thing To Do’.

He would be, in Kingsley Amis’s wonderful phrase, ‘Christendom’s premier fucking fool’ if he does not.

Classic Ellis (1): After The King Spoke

Several Australian commentators have lately noted that The King’s Speech hurt the republican cause in this country.

It had an Australian hero, an Australian co-star, Australian producers (Geoffrey Rush, Emile Sherman) and that unique Australian melding of the piss-take and the lazy salute. And it showed the late king, Bertie, to have been a game, disabled, conflicted, suffering, crotchety, valiant fellow.

But it did more than that, not just for him but for the Royals in general. It put into our minds the thought that worse people make more money.

And now, today, this week, when men of power routinely order the killing by drones and hit-squads of the daughters, sons and grandchildren of their opposite numbers, it is nice to have a Head of State who speaks up now and then for good behaviour, and peace in our time and is head of the least offensive Christian sect on earth.

Bertie kept his family in England under the Blitz, and in Buckingham Palace, a visible target, served as their human shield. He struggled with his affliction to utter great words of comfort and fortitude in London’s hour of catastrophe. His daughter Elizabeth served in the army, as a driver, his eventual son-in-law Phillip in the navy, as a lieutenant oft-times in peril on the sea. His grandson Andrew flew a helicopter in the Falklands War, attracting and evading heat-seeking missiles. His great-grandson Harry served in Afghanistan. His faraway heir, King William V, in his day-job pilots a rescue helicopter, a not-always safe contraption through the buffeting winds of coastal England.

In a past era of terrorist attack, the royal males walked behind the coffin of Lord Mountbatten, war hero and victim of an IRA bomb, for miles through London streets alive with possible threat. They are a bloodline not easily daunted. They show up for the service. They speak the speech.

And it is thought by the Murdoch press that because in a bugged phone call a prince once used the word ‘tampon’ in private converse with his lover he should not be king; but not by me. It is thought that because Prince Andrew is, like other ex-RAF survivors of war, a womaniser, his money should be cut off; but not by me.

And I’ll tell you why I think this.

It’s because if there were no royalty in England there would be instead a presidency, elective or not. And the president might not as good a fellow as Bertie, or Andrew, or William, or Harry. He might be Rupert Murdoch. He might be Richard Branson. He might be Tony Blair. He might be Conrad Black or some equivalent of James Packer, or Robert Maxwell, or Donald Trump, or someone with the money and the vulgarity to run for the position, run hard, as such men do for the presidency in America. And what a pity that would be.

Worse people make more money than Wills and Kate. George Bush makes more money, and knows less what to do with it. The Winkelvi make more money, and want more and more of it, for having had a rather ordinary idea in 2003. A quarter of a billion they want now.

Those who watched the Royal Wedding were struck, like me, by the intellectual force of the occasion. Great music, chosen by the Prince, great words from the burnt martyr Cranmer, adequate, modest advice from the sonorous agnostic Rowan Williams, a man who has read a book or two and thought a bit about life’s meaning.

And the young man who wed, at last, the girlfriend he met in a provincial university ten years ago and is obviously keen on her still, and who lately said at the site of the Christchurch earthquake, ‘Grief is the price we pay for love,’ of his mother who died violently and scandalously, and who goes to work in a rescue helicopter, seems to me a better role model for my grandson, soon to be born, than Rupert Murdoch or Jamie Packer, or Alan Jones, or Gerry Harvey, however much money they push towards the cleaning up of their act. (I would certainly accept Sir David Attenborough as the elective Uncle of England, but he is too decent and busy a man among his fossils, bugs and lizards to seek that improbable new position.)

The best countries on earth are constitutional monarchies: Holland, Norway, Sweden, Denmark, Spain, Japan, Canada, New Zealand, Australia. Some republics are good places too: Austria, Germany, Switzerland, France. But the worst countries in the world are republics: Iraq, Iran, Afghanistan, Libya, Israel, Italy, Russia, China, Somalia, Mexico, the United States, and far outnumber the good ones.

And the reason for this is what it is supposed to be: tradition, good form, a royal example, a way of doing things that is legal, affirmed, accustomed — unlike the shooting in the face before his grandchildren of a man accused but not arraigned for a crime the FBI did not suspect him of. Such things do not usually happen, now, under monarchies; but under republics, all the time.

The Royals of England pay for themselves in the tourists they attract, the films and miniseries they summon from the rogues of showbiz (are there better costume films than The Young Victoria, The King’s Speech and The Queen? I doubt it) and the sheer joy they bring to working-class women; and they rarely murder anybody - unlike George Bush, an elected president, who murdered fifty thousand children, and Ehud Olmert, an elected prime minister, who murdered three hundred. Their gaucheries, adulteries, power-plays and small corruptions cost their nation less than those of Berlusconi. They mostly mean well, and they do some good.

And they stayed in London under the Blitz. And who can say that was wrong?

God save the Queen.

Or perhaps you disagree.

This article was first published on the ABC website Unleashed, on May 16th, 2011.

Nobbs’s Dublin

I was told I would be bored by Albert Nobbs, a turn-of-the-twentieth-century cross-dressing romantic tragedy starring Glenn Close as the eponymous withered waiter, but within minutes found myself not just involved but engulfed.

For here was James Joyce’s Dublin seen plain and close up, its hypocrisy and tenderness and self-delusion, its penny-pinching servants, drunken doctors, casual debaucheries, backyard abortions, smashed hopes and yearning for America, and the sad, exploited and quietly defiant working classes from whom so many Australians descend. It was good to be in their company in a time capsule as finely hewn as the best of the Merchant Ivorys (Howard’s End that would have to be), with that extra bewitching spark of Celtic deviltry that comes always with Brendan Gleeson, here unrecognisable in a vast white beard and a stethoscope, and first seen avidly pursuing cunnilingus with a nervous, unsmitten chambermaid.

A wonderful Irish cast, as good as that of John Huston’s James Joyce film The Dead, swirls round the alleys and stairways and basement kitchens of a lace-curtain, drink-sodden, snobbish, guilt-stung and Christ-crushed West Britain — woven, it seems, from the whole cloth of the Anglo-Gaelic race memory (John Banville is one of the scenarists) by a director with a Spanish name and, in his television masterwork In Treatment, a lot of previous experience of angel-wrestling with the bruised and stricken human soul.

One of his better collaborators in that already stupendous venture, Mia Wasikowska, plays Helen Dawes, a cheeky, sensuous teenage waitress keen to marry a prince — or a yob with a ticket to America would also suit her fine — with a startling worldliness-interpenetrated-with-innocence that echoes most Irish girls then, and now I suppose — and carries the secondary chapter of this narrative of aspiration mugged by reality.

The primary chapter tells of Albert Nobbs, an otherwise nameless woman in her fifties who, gang-raped at thirteen, found accidental employment as a waiter when dressed up as a man, a polite little man, and stuck to the costume and the line of work, and over the sad, skrimped, secretive decades that followed saved money, and wants now to open a tobacco shop, and to have some tardy scraps of respectability, from the tips, in pennies and farthings, she has hoarded under the floorboards of her dowdy upstairs bedroom in Morrison’s Hotel, where aristocrats throw absinthe parties, and bring loose women and give them silk petticoats, and shout a lot, and speak with contempt of the servants when leaving.

In the role Glenn Close is part Charles Chaplin, part Stan Laurel, part Marcel Marceau and Alec Guiness and Estragon, and all of the lost, fumbling underclass of Ireland’s walk-ons and also-rans and their disappointments that Joyce, O’Casey and Beckett reimagined in exile and made immortal. She has played the part on stage before, but here, because of the long life etched in her melancholy, stoic face, we see a kind of blank easel on which we imagine … anything. She will walk away with Oscar in even this, Streep’s year, after nine failed nominations and Garcia deserves one too.

A lot of the plot should not be revealed. There is a house-painter, a boiler-maker, an avaricious landlady, a typhoid outbreak and a pregnancy crucial to the plot. There is a ‘crying game’ moment which may tempt you believe the whole enterprise has become unhinged, or invaded by Monte Python’s pirate ship, but do not worry, it serves the story, and after much lovelorn wayward sad self-sacrifice ends it.

I beg you to see this film. Do it now.