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On Australia Day 2011 again we hear the calls: Change the Flag; become a Republic; reparations for the White Invasion...

There are strong arguments for progress in each of these areas but as the following article discusses we first need to ensure that the changes that must be made are indeed progress; that we don't sacrifice that which has been achieved already.

One question that needs to be asked is how Australia has done so consistently well as compared to the bulk of the rest of the world; when measured by standard of material wealth; health; general literacy and education; contributions to world culture; and even contributions to science. 

 Is it just good luck - à la Donald Horn  - or good government, good management or good ideas?  

 It is obviously a good culture; but in what aspects (it can't all be good)? 

 Of course we have some near cultural competitors and some may be marginally ahead.  Arguably Norway, or New Zealand, does better - maybe because it's a bit colder and more miserable.

 Possible reasons include:

  • rule of law
  • our historical lack of a rural peasantry (Australia has always been amongst the most urban countries)
  • Federal, democratic government (federations and democracies usually do better)
  • 'New' countries generally do better
  • secular states do better
  • early discovery of gold - then other minerals agricultural wealth (not too flash compared to say Argentina or the US)
  • good, free education
  • egalitarianism
  • scepticism
  • a healthy lifestyle (but is this so and if so why... )
  • hard work (some historical accounts discount this)
  • smarter work (better directed effort)
  • better allocation of productive resources
  • reliance on unfettered markets
  • high home ownership (leading to community/personal responsibility)
  • universal suffrage
  • willingness to embrace change (as an outcome of...  all of the above?)
  • rapid acceptance and integration of new ideas and technology (as a result of... )
  • modesty in respect of our own achievements (lack of arrogance - 'wow, did we do that?')

 But none of these is entirely satisfying on its own.

 

Wealth generally maps closely to low levels of religious observance, and poverty to high, even within a religious country like the US;  but these also map to other factors such as health standards; and levels of educational achievement.  Certainly wealthy people generally demand more say in government; and better education; and better health services; and good law and order; and artistic distractions; and more freedoms; but in each case is this the chicken or the egg?

NSW has always enjoyed a better standard of living than most of the world:  before we joined the Federation; when almost all people went to church; before we discovered gold, then other minerals; when agriculture had to compete with producers with more water and that were much nearer to markets.

The Bigge Inquiry in Macquarie's time contained an element of outrage that emancipated convicts had attained a higher standard of living than middle class Englishmen at home.  But it also noted that NSW was a benign dictatorship - an autocracy under Macquarie - albeit based on the principles of the enlightenment (under the strong influence of the Scottish Enlightenment: - David Hume, Adam Smith et al - through Macquarie, Bigge and even Macarthur) and of course later; Darwin, after whom we even named a city.

Karl Marx used the number of pianos per capita as a proxy for standard of living and had to make an exception of NSW and Victoria (Australia) as what appeared to be rural societies, nevertheless leading the world in living standards.

Maybe we need an analysis on this level - perhaps we owe it all to a good foundation - from Hume and Smith to Macquarie?  What is it about our culture that works so well; what could we improve; and what must we never damage?

Nevertheless it is inconceivable that in another hundred years Australia will still defer to the British Monarch to provide an imprimatur to our Heads of State or that we will still have a flag that proclaims our subservient position in the British Commonwealth of Nations. 

Above all it is to our ongoing shame that a baby born into an Aboriginal family will, on average, have a much shorter life expectancy;  very much higher probability of suffering violence and abuse; lower educational and income prospects; and far higher likelihood of ending up in jail; than other Australians. 

All these things need fixing and the sooner the better.  The problem lies in our lack on consensus in the way forward.  As this article suggests, this stems from our different interpretations of the tales we call 'History'.  Elsewhere I have discussed some bad ideas that contribute to our inability to easily solve some of these problems. 

 


History

 

Have you ever been part of an actual news event?  Most of us have.  Did you think that the way it was reported accurately represented what happened?  Unless you were the reporter I doubt that you did.  Yet we daily read, or watch on TV, this approximation of events and accept it as if it was true.   Indeed, if you ask ten independent witnesses or participants you are famously likely to get ten versions or perspectives.

Before engaging in the recollections, reminiscences and gossip we call 'History' it's a good idea to forewarn readers or interlocutors with a disclaimer. 

The text should contain phrases like 'and so we agreed'; 'as I remember'; 'that's what I was told'; 'according to a witness'; and 'so the official version claims'. 

The disclaimer should make it clear that none of these confirm incontrovertibly what actually happened.  That someone believes something to be true does not make it true.  Worse, it is possible that they may say it without believing or meaning it, they may be concocting imaginatively or lying, and this may be indistinguishable to us from true belief or honest intent.

Irrespective of any historical account, what actually happened irrevocably changed the future; our more recent past; and our present.  There are world changing events occurring all the time because that's what 'time' is.  Most of these pass unremarked, unnoticed by 'history'.  As I have repeatedly asserted you would not be reading this now if what actually happened had not gone exactly as it did.  And you would not be here at all if the exact past had not been as it was to the moment of your conception.  This depended as much on 'historical' events, like Hitler and the Jewish holocaust; or the impact of Isaac Newton or Genghis Kahn as it depends on your ancestor slipping on the bathroom floor or their disappointment in a meal. 

For a more detailed argument follow this link...

But 'History', the story told and agreed by the 'winner' retrospective to an event, is independently relevant in so far as it alters the behaviour of those that act afterwards.  History as a story, true or not, about an event influences perceptions and future decisions. 

 


The House

 

History changes according to the teller.  Some time ago I took a free tour of Government House where a volunteer guide gave an idiosyncratic version of NSW history; Federation; Jack Lang; and the Constitution Australia.  From my perspective nothing in this account was glaringly wrong but nothing was precisely right either.  I can't imagine what the overseas visitors took away.  

Having taken similar tours around overseas palaces the most striking thing for me about the House is its intrinsic modesty.  You could fit the entire ground floor area into the grand ballroom of a typical European palace.  It is far less grand than many private homes in England.  It was built after abandoning the two, even more modest, Government Houses of the initial business-like governors, who were relatively junior working sailors and soldiers.  In British terms the house is appropriate to accommodating a minor royal relative in the antipodes or military high achievers, past their child rearing age, as a modest retirement sinecure. 

Initially the entire botanical gardens and the domain were set aside for the Governor's private use but in egalitarian NSW these private grounds were quickly drawn-in to the present much smaller area and the remainder made public.  Today the Governor is treated like any other senior official and lives in her private home.  The House shouts égalité from the very top of its modest staircase.

The contradiction with the actual importance and implicit status of the Governor is palpable.  Had I been explaining the history to tourists I might have said, 'the Governor is the highest official in the State.  New South Wales is similar in economic size and wealth to Switzerland and ranks in every physical and economic measure above Denmark, Norway and Finland.  The Governor, in council with her ministers, is at the head of our government, appoints the judiciary and senior public servants and signs every act into law (the guide did mention this signing as a responsibility of the role).  She can dismiss these ministers and parogue the Parliament; should the advice she receives from them be sufficiently inappropriate in her opinion; by convention after seeking qualified independent advice.' 

At a similar point in his story our guide mentioned Jack Lang and linked his dismissal as Premier in 1932 to a refusal to pay for the Sydney Harbour Bridge.   Two months prior to the dismissal the Bridge had been opened by Lang when he was temporally gazumped by Captain De Groot on his horse, who was incensed that it should instead be opened by the Governor on behalf of the King.

De Groot was dragged from his horse by irate police and taken to the notorious Darlinghurst reception centre, where he was unsuccessfully charged with a range of extreme offences; culminating in an attempt to have him declared insane. 

With the collapse of these charges he was finally convicted of offensive behaviour and fined five pounds.  He responded by serving a writ on the New South Wales police alleging wrongful arrest, securing an out of court settlement reported to have been 'a tidy sum'.

 


The Dismissal

 

Exciting as the story of the bridge opening is, the more scholarly version of the dismissal is much more interesting.  At the height of the Depression the 'Lang Plan' was, among other things, to unilaterally limit interest paid on foreign loans to 3% and to abandon the Gold standard. 

Unilateral State action was contrary to the relatively new  Australian Constitution and in serious opposition to the Federal, Scullin, Labor Government that had already gained the support of the High Court on this matter.  Lang asserted that the Commonwealth was trying to 'enslave the people of NSW' and this was 'illegal throughout the British Empire'.

Lange then defaulted on interest payments due to British investors and the Scullen Federal Labor Government picked up the bill:  £958 763.  To recover the funds the Commonwealth passed the Financial Agreements Enforcement Act 1932.  

In defiance 'the big fella'  ordered Treasury officials visit two Sydney banks and draw out over a million pounds in cash. This was subsequently taken to the Trades Hall where it could be guarded by loyal Labor Party supporters.  He also issued a circular instructing public servants not to pay money into the Federal Treasury as required by the new law.

To top off this 'banana republic' style stunt, he reputedly threatened to gaol Governor Game when he demurred.  Game had judged the Lang circular and his related actions to be illegal.

Commonwealth troops were briefly mobilised in support of the Governor.

Popular movements were also involved and tensions ran high.  On 13 May it was reported that a brigade of several hundred men of the 37,000 strong New Guard, a pro-monarchist anti-communist organisation mainly comprising returned servicemen (that included Captain De Groot) had allegedly assembled in the basement of  David Jones department store near Parliament House. They allegedly intended to march on Parliament House and stage a coup d'état if  Lang did not resign before seven o'clock. 

The New Guard had already, allegedly, been foiled in an attempt to kidnap the Premier in Parramatta Road; after which, it was further alleged, they intended to incarcerate him in the disused Berrima Jail and take over the Government!  Were they mad?  Could any sane person expect this plan to succeed?

It is easy to think that it was Lang himself (or a media adviser) who invented this story.  But ridiculous and unworkable as this plan seems today, it is hardly more bizarre that moving a million pounds in State finances, in cash, to the Trades Hall. 

In response to the perceived threat; the Trades Hall; Parliament House; and other possible targets in Sydney; were apparently being guarded by the New South Wales Police.  But the Police were in an interesting position; many were ex-servicemen and not a few were allegedly members of the New Guard. 

The Police are legally responsible to the Governor.  But Lang claimed their loyalty should first be to his Government and extended beyond their duty to protect property and guard against affray and insurrection.

This was soon put to the test.  Game successfully dismissed Lang at six o'clock on the evening of 13 May 1932.  Lang apparently took his dismissal with relief: 'I must be going', he said, 'I am no longer Premier but a free man. I have attempted to do my duty'. At least one contemporary claimed he had actually sought dismissal.

It was perhaps the closest to civil war that Australia has ever come.  So that is how big Jack Lang got dismissed.  Governor Game, not the Premier, had the support of the people.  An election was held in June and Lang was comprehensively defeated.  Labor more than half its seats from 55 to 24.

With the defeat of Lang the New Guard lost its main 'raison d'être'; and its support and membership faded away.

There is an interesting side story.  Lang had his election campaign advertising paid for by a man appropriately called Swindell.  Swindell held the patent rights for the 'tin hare' that made gambling on greyhound racing practical.  Greyhound racing became hugely popular among poorer and working-class Sydneysiders during the depression, who could own a dog, enjoyed the excitement and saw gambling (or rigging races) as the only way of escaping their poverty. 

Several prominent Sydney business men were also involved and Lang issued 12 licences to this goldmine; that was also a partial solution to the States failing finances.  The 'tin hares' issue was comparable to today's poker machines controversy; 'on steroids'.  Loto, lotteries and poker machines are still referred to in government as 'a tax on stupidity' or sometimes a 'tax on poverty'.  Welfare organisations, churches and temperance movements, characterised as 'wowsers' by Lang, were up in arms over the financial devastation the 'tin hare' was reeking on already poor families; and leant their voice to calls for Lang to go.

The pattern of the dismissal of this unpopular Government; followed by its comprehensive defeat at the following election; was repeated Federally in 1975.  In both cases the legality of the dismissal is still disputed by some.

But this 'dismissal' power is central to our democracy.  It is the ultimate check on the unfettered abuse of parliamentary power and the central reason for our remaining a constitutional monarchy nationally; and thus within the States. 

We have, so far, proven incapable of coming up with an alternative republican model that would ensure that a President, to replace the Governor General, would be similarly independent of the electoral circus and of consequent political, factional or fund raising influence; and to ensure that a President would not challenge, on political or electoral grounds, the primacy of the Prime Minister or the authority of the Parliament.

 


The Folly

 

Below the House in the Botanic Gardens we came upon the structure called A Folly for Mrs Macquarie, an artwork of particularly violent aspect consisting of a bell shaped bronze cage mounted on a circular sandstone foundation; topped with a bronze arm clutching a dagger, apparently stabbing the air. Over the door is an axe. The cage is made of oversize, simulated, woven barbed wire; its bronze ceiling pierced with skeletal images that could be aboriginal. It is quite alarming. It is obviously meant to speak to a contemporary audience as barbed wire was not invented till 1874, and was first mythologised as a violent material during the First World War; 'hanging on the old barbed wire'.

Is seems to be saying something about the violence of the early colony. 

Since writing my personal reactions to the piece, above, I've had a look on-line and discovered that the folly replaces one built on the instructions of Mrs Macquarie nearby; but since lost.  I also found the following explanation of the symbology:

'The design elements of Fiona Hall's folly echo early aspirations for the colony, but are also mindful that there was much folly in the way in which Britain chose to colonise Australia. The doomed roof of Norfolk Island pine fronds for example refers to the colonists regard for this tree Mrs Macquarie presided over the planting of one near here in 1816 which became known as the 'Wishing Tree". However the pine's brittle timber dashed hopes that it would make excellent ship's masts. The bone ceiling refers to animals which once lived in this area and the Gothic windows represent the barbed wire used to claim and divide up the land. The finial (the dagger) is from the Macquarie family crest, while the folly floor indicates the direction of Britain from this site.'

This last claim is interesting.  It contrasts a scientific fact with historical assertions, approximations and myths.   You can obviously face any direction you like at the actual antipodes of London near New Zealand; due south if you like.  From Sydney there is one perfect direction, that is the minimum point-to-point line, but the shortest distance relies on the method of travel; by air or following the surface; and the line found by using a string over a spherical globe differs in direction from the line on the Earth's actual oblate spheroid shape.  We trust that the one chosen for the Folly is accurate, using modern astronomy and satelite measurement, but it is very unlikely that the direction looked to in 1820 would have been the same.  The same problem confronts Muslims facing Mecca from Australia.  But religion solves the antipodean problem easily.  They simply pick a direction that 'feels right' and decree that it is the true direction for the faithful.

 

The image of the folly provides the icon for this article.

 


Founding Fathers

 

I have long taken and interest and have a different historical spin on the early colony.  I think it was  a relatively insignificant project concocted by a few enthusiasts in London who had in mind an experiment for turning some selected gutter trash convicts into useful citizens and perhaps 'civilising' or bringing God's Grace to the natives of New South Wales into the bargain.  They 'sold' the project to the government of the day on the grounds of the potential economic value of the pines and flax, identified on Cook's voyage, by Banks; by suggesting that the transportation would ease the load on domestic prisons by removing minor felons capable of being reformed; and by suggesting that a colony would strengthen the British strategic position in the south Pacific, and later the Indian Ocean, initially against the French.  As this latter purpose came to fruition Sydney was heavily fortified to protect the British South Pacific fleet against the Russians.  Some of those forts, notably Fort Dennison, are still in place today.

Many of these 'Founding Fathers' were under the influence of the Scottish Enlightenment and/or residual Scottish Puritanism.  They considered it a noble project, possibly a duty, to encourage people to better themselves or alternatively to bring them the redemption of the Gospels.  It was a pet project of Banks, in particular, who was keen to see the territory that he had helped to discover as a younger man, amount to something.  I doubt that they fully believed in any of the official reasons for the undertaking; and clearly there was never whole-hearted enthusiasm for the project in the Parliament or Whitehall.  The abolition of slavery was a hot political topic at the time and many were beginning to doubt the effectiveness of transportation at all.  Yet the reformation of criminals was successfully undertaken in NSW and it was clearly not accidental.

The Bigge Inquiry (1819-21) was to set up by the Parliament investigate these issues.  It raised concerns about the freedoms given to cooperative convicts and recommended harsher treatment more closely befitting a penal colony.  Far from being violent, NSW was revealed to be one of the most benign and humane societies; by the standards of the time.  Of course there were some bad choices among those transported, recidivists among the convicts and not a few bad apples among their guards.  These generally found themselves relocated to Tasmania or Norfolk Island.  But many made good; were emancipated; and given land.  Bigge, somewhat contrarily, also recommended a higher degree of democratic government, leading to the establishment of the NSW Legislative Council, and a number of other beneficial reforms.   As a result NSW soon enjoyed one of the highest living standards in the world.  Bigge himself was revealed to be yet another enlightenment figure and qualifies, along with his opponent Macquarie, as a principal architect of Australia's future success.  Not to be forgotten in this development, and the rise of the colony, was Brisbane who followed on from Macquarie and Bigge; another Scotsman.

 


The Motherland

 

The need to continually justify the colony's early existence in London became part of its character and from 1788 until the early 1970s Australia spent a great deal of time trying to stop mummy forcing her to leave home.  Bob Menzies was still getting his washing done at home until his death as Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports; and he 'did but see her passing by' , referring to good Queen Bess II and 'loved her till he died'.  Contrary to popular belief today, when we hear 'we fought under our flag in two world wars', Australia still used the Union Jack as our National flag until 1954, when the current flag became the official one, thanks to the Queen's visit and the need for a gracious act.  This is clearly seen in old newsreels.   My high school was the repository of the Changi Flag framed in the School Hall.  It was made by Australian prisoners of war in Singapore around 1943.  It is a Union Jack.

Australians still carried British Passports until 1949 and the word British was not completely removed from Australian passports until 1967. God Save the Queen  was our National Anthem until 1974.  Even the reformer, Gough Whitlam, never stopped referring to his old school masters in the 'Old Dart'; how should one pronounce kilometre?  We are probably the most reluctant independent Nation in history.  When I was a child our elderly neighbour always spoke of 'home', meaning England, even though she was second or third generation Australian. 

This self imposed sycophancy towards the Mother country, juxtaposed with the egalitarian sentiments of convicts made good, defined the Australian character for much of my childhood.   Intellectuals and artists had to be recognised in London; the 'cultural cringe' became a term of self abuse; we were constantly seeking the approval of the world in general; we wanted to emulate Americans; we built the biggest this and best of that, or so we told ourselves while in our hearts doubting it all the time; we had to excel in every sporting endeavour, culminating in 'the best Olympics ever'.  At the same time we doubted the credentials of our high achievers and were constantly on the lookout for a chink in their reputation.

 


The Holocaust

 

Often the history, the story we tell, is as important as the events that lie behind it. Take the disputed Holocaust as an example.   The Jewish Board of Deputies says the number killed was six million; holocaust deniers say that far less were killed.  What can we make of this?  Unless a lot of film and documented eyewitness accounts have been doctored, I'm reasonably sure it was a pretty big number.  Does the claimed number differ from the actual events?  If so does it matter?

The fact itself, as it really happened, changed the future.  Many people died; many more were never born; paintings were never made; music was never written; inventions were not conceived; discoveries not made; businesses never started.  Almost everyone alive today would never have been born if it had not happened just so.  Why then is the historical version, the story, so controversial?  It's one of few stories, perhaps the only one remaining, that in some countries has legal sanctions attached if people doubt it and say so. 

It's because the story itself, independent of the event it describes, has utility.

In the 1970's I met a widow who had a property in Castle Hill NSW.  In 1945 she said, she had fled from Auschwitz, with the other prisoners; together with their German guards who were also starving; ahead of the advancing Russian Army.  English was not her first language but I understood that she was a Polish political prisoner accused of being an anti-German activist; but the prisoners and their guards were more scared of the Russians than of the Germans. 

She was not Jewish and was not sympathetic to Jews.  She confirmed that the Jewish prisoners were very badly treated and many/most died.  She was, she said, not aware of the extermination ovens.  When they got to apparent safety the allied troops wanting to help gave them food from ration packs.  This proved to be too rich and many of them died as a result of this kindness. 

Her husband had fought with the Russians and for his pains was sent to a forced labour camp, from which he somehow escaped.  Reputedly the Russians massacred numerous troops who had previously fought with them.  For the remainder of their lives they lived in fear of the 'authorities' but most particularly of the Russians in the context of the 'cold war'.

As a result of the actual events that took place you and I are here.  We would not be had not the events that led to these deaths, and the millions of others in two world wars, been exactly as they were.  I explain why in more detail elsewhere on this website.  

But over and above what actually took place are the stories we tell about those events.  In the case of the Holocaust they are still told as an apparent justification for continuing to settle on the land of people who were totally remote from the actual events; and of the stories told about them.

 


Ned Kelly

 

Today historical films provide a two hour thumb nail sketch of the past that is usually even more imaginative than researched historical novels. These often capture and mould the popular conception of the past.  Thus Peter O'Tool is Laurence of Arabia; Ben Kingsley is Ghandi; and so on.

Was Ned Kelly a common horse thief and murderer or an Irish hero?  

What actually happened determined the present; what happened to you today; the birth and lives of children; the present not just of Australia but by now, of the entire world.  

The story, and the historical controversy, is known only to a few Australians and even less, rather confused, overseas fans of Mick Jagger; Heath Ledger or Peter Carey. 

The Kelly story is very well documented. It was followed closely by contemporary newspapers; documents such as the famous Jerilderie Letter were dictated by Kelly in front of reliable witnesses; and there were two trials for which a vast amount of evidence was collected, prior to his execution in Melbourne Jail.  

Yet the 2003 Gregor Jordan film, with Orlando Bloom and Heath Ledger, is such an imaginative retelling incorporating:  a circus; a desert survival by drinking horse blood; a squatter's wife as mistress; a bushfire; and numerous other embellishments to provide 'a love interest' and a 'fresh look at an old story'; that it should have carried a warning that nothing in the film relates to the actual events. 

There was no circus, except that Kelly's sister later became a sideshow attraction; there is no desert in the vicinity; and trackers had trouble following Kelly due the torrential rain, as it was particularly wet at the time.  

Kelly was an Australian born illiterate who was a victim of history; the stories told at his mother's knee.  He had a passionate sense of Irish identity strengthened by his marginalised family and associates.  

According to Kelly's dictated Letter, Irish Australians were:

...transported to Van Diemand's Land to pine their young lives away in starvation andmisery among tyrants worse than the promised hell itself all of true blood bone and beauty, that was not murdered on their own soil... were doomed to Port Mcquarie Toweringabbie norfolk island and Emu plains and in those places of tyrany and condemnation many a blooming Irishman rather than subdue to the Saxon yoke Were flogged to death and bravely died in servile chains but true to the shamrock and a credit to Paddys land...

The family were well known locally as horse thieves.  Kelly spent periods in jail from the age of 17 onwards.  He grew to become a large man who dominated his mother's large family and those around him, including those better educated.  As he made clear in the Jerilderie Letter, above all he disliked, or hated, Irish Australians who supported the establishment. 

..and is my brothers and sisters and my mother not to be pitied also who has no alternative only to put up with the brutal and cowardly conduct of a parcel of big ugly fat-necked wombat headed big bellied magpie legged narrow hipped splaw-footed sons of Irish Bailiffs or english landlords which is better known as Officers of Justice or Victorian Police...  A Policeman is a disgrace to his country, not alone to the mother that suckled him, in the first place he is a rogue in his heart but too cowardly to follow it up without having the force to disguise it. next he is traitor to his country ancestors and religion as they were all catholics before the Saxons and Cranmore yoke held sway since then they were perse cuted massacreed thrown into martrydom and tortured beyond the ideas of the present generation...

The story of the killings for which he was hanged, revolves around what happened when four police attempted to find and arrest him. Possibly it was self defence.  This is what he claims in The Jerilderie Letter.  But the outcome was three Irish police lay dead and the Scotsman was allowed to go free.  Kelly denies that it was he who handcuffed Kennedy to a tree and tortured him. He says this must have been done after Kennedy's death and the Kelly gang leaving the scene.

The initial killings were then compounded by additional and attempted crimes, including attempted murder. 

At his trial Kelly admitted that the attempted train derailment and associated ambush at Glenrowan was specifically aimed at stopping the 'black trackers' he feared would successfully hunt him down.  But he may not have considered killing 'black trackers' to be murder.

The Jerilderie Letter is a classic attempt to tell the story of events from a particular perspective.  Largely as a result of it, during the hunt for the gang, then at his trial, he became a rallying point for anti-establishment, Irish and Catholic sentiment across Australia.  Ned had become a folk hero; the focus of an unlikely legend that grew ever stronger after his death.

 


Stories we tell

 

Our stories and recollections, particularly those committed to paper or otherwise recorded, gain general acceptance and eventually the credibility we call 'history'.  They then become a template for future action.  We are told to learn from history, lest we be condemned to repeat it.  It tells us who are friends and who not to trust; where danger lies.

This mode of action is very familiar to us because it is just how we proceed as an individual identity.  For our every action, be they sub-conscious or even accidental, we are constantly inventing retrospective motivations and explanations.  We use these to guard against getting soap in our eyes; burning ourselves; or repeating a social faux pas.  We use salutary tales from others to avoid snakes and spiders; fallen electrical cables; or sometimes walking alone across a park at night.

When she was preparing for her death my mother was still very lucid.  Bedridden in Hospital she read through the entire Patrick O'Brien series of historical seafaring novels and at least another 30 books.  

Towards the end she and I had some long talks adult to adult; that's sometimes hard for parents to do.  I learnt a lot of things about her life I didn't know before.  One of these was the story of my conception in a hospital bed where my father was recovering from a severe back injury as a result of a plane crash.  He was a fighter pilot, and later a flying instructor, in the RAF.  

My mother had already lost a child in Canada.  There is a lot of history there too.  Suffice it to say I was an experiment to see if they could still conceive.   Thus, unless all those things, driven by 'Mr Hitler' and his cronies, had happened just as they did, I would not be here to record this; nor would you if you were born after he came to power.  This reality, that we would not be here to comment had the past not been as it was, extends to all the events that actually happened behind the tales we tell. 

 


The Law

 

History provided the basis for law making.  Just as it is perfectly reasonable to establish laws and regulations to guard against bricks falling from high places into crowded streets or naked short-selling on the stock market, so all laws are cast in an historical context. 

It is essential for the competence and proper functioning of society and of human relations in general, that laws and regulations are established.  These are inevitably based on our perceptions of the past, 'History', and its relevance to a mutually desired future.

These laws need to provide that criminality or serious abuse against one's fellow citizens does not go unpunished; that people are free to seek their fortune within the law; and that people can attain high rank based on achievements and ability or popular acclaim.  I believe that, in addition, everyone should have ready access to contemporary knowledge and ideas, limited only by their comprehension; and everyone should be able to live their lives, according to their own lights, with the maximum freedom, consistent with the freedom of others.

 


Society

 

But history has some downsides.  Without it we would approach everyone as a probable equal and, possibly with some caution, as a potential friend, without preconceptions; like an open-minded fool. It is history that confers such attributes as ethnicity, religion, and social status.  It is also the origin of our fear of strangers; and of known enemies.

History is also the basis of special pleading or treatment on the grounds of the past: some previous injury justifying current vendetta; or the converse, special privilege, often based on some claimed inherited status.  

In an ideal world we would disregard the history that precedes a birth.  All children would be given an unbiased start in life, through equitable education, nutrition, and parenting; to live their lives according to their ability, irrespective of historically imposed stereotypes or privilege or disadvantage. 

Like many if not all ideals this is obviously unattainable in the real world. New children are born all the time and the concepts of 'property' and 'truth', among others, are bound up with the past. But moving society in the direction of this ideal; and opposing attempts to move it in the opposite direction; seems to me to be a good principle.

 

 

 

 

Richard
January 2011

 

 

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Travel

Italy

 

 

 

 

A decade ago, in 2005, I was in Venice for my sixtieth birthday.  It was a very pleasant evening involving an excellent restaurant and an operatic recital to follow.  This trip we'd be in Italy a bit earlier as I'd intended to spend my next significant birthday in Berlin.

The trip started out as planned.  A week in London then a flight to Sicily for a few days followed by the overnight boat to Napoli (Naples).  I particularly wanted to visit Pompeii because way back in 1975 my original attempt to see it was thwarted by a series of mishaps, that to avoid distracting from the present tale I won't go into.

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Fiction, Recollections & News

My Art and Artists

 

 

One recreation that I find very absorbing is drawing and painting. 

Having once been married to an exceptionally talented artist (now Brenda Chat) I do not pretend great skill or insight.

I always drew and painted but living with Brenda was like someone who has just mastered ‘chopsticks’ on the piano being confronted by Mozart. 

Our daughter Emily has inherited or acquired some of her mother’s skill and talent.  

Emily and I once attended life classes together and I am awed by her talent too.  One of her drawings hangs behind me as I write.  It is a wonderful pencil study of a life class nude. 

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Opinions and Philosophy

The Carbon Tax

  2 July 2012

 

 

I’ve been following the debate on the Carbon Tax on this site since it began (try putting 'carbon' into the search box).

Now the tax is in place and soon its impact on our economy will become apparent.

There are two technical aims:

    1. to reduce the energy intensiveness of Australian businesses and households;
    2. to encourage the introduction of technology that is less carbon intensive.
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