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Australian Particularities

Philippa Hetherington may ‘still call Canberra home’, as I once called London home (LRB, 27 September). But it helps to live at the coal face. The ‘particularities of the Australian political system’ long preceded the recent ‘radical instability’ represented by our having had five prime ministers in six years. Certainly these particularities have contributed to the instability, not least by facilitating the rise of ‘Nativist’ populism, which has boosted the vote of the minority One Nation Party, mainly at the expense of the conservative Liberal-National Party coalition.

But arguably the main reason has been an unfortunate sequence of prime ministers, especially Kevin Rudd, Tony Abbott and Malcolm Turnbull. All three had powerful, even narcissistic egos, and arrogant know-it-all dispositions. None of them could run governments. All of them were finally voted out by parliamentary colleagues worried about their jobs. Turnbull was a great disappointment, particularly in his political ineptness, right down to calling a spill that fateful recent Tuesday morning when he didn’t have to. He failed to call an election in late 2015 to capitalise on his then huge poll lead. Instead he stumbled badly in the 2016 election, emerged clinging to office, all the better to be picked off by opponents inside and outside his party.

Where now? Well, Scott Morrison has shown early signs that he has an ear sensitive to the middle ground. He may well prove a much tougher opponent for Labor at next year’s federal election than his predecessors were.

William Etheridge

For readers who aren’t accustomed to seeing the word ‘spill’ in a political context, Philippa Hetherington explains that it’s ‘the term used in Australia for the declaration that the leadership is vacant’.

The Editors

Mired in Laissez-Faire

Can it really be that the only thing Colin Kidd takes away from the closing line of William Jennings Bryan’s 1896 Democratic Convention speech – ‘You shall not crucify mankind upon a cross of gold’ – is a hint of ‘the bigotry which lay behind his homespun appeal’ (LRB, 13 September)? Is one of the most influential popular movements in American history to be dismissed as just a lot of nativist race-baiting by a rabble cynically roused, Mencken’s old canard about inflamed half-wits? One hopes not. There is today a new left-progressive surge in the Democratic Party that aims to clear out the corporate, centrist cobwebs. And in that respect, its representatives (like New York’s Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez) owe a huge debt to the agrarian movements of the West, the Grangers et al, who brought Bryan onto the convention floor in 1896. As James Morone wrote ten years ago in these pages, the Democratic Party of 1896 was ‘mired in laissez-faire … its politicians served local oligarchs, broke unions and busted strikes’ (LRB, 21 February 2008). Sound familiar? This is why the agrarian movement was so important. In Morone’s words: ‘Bryan and his followers pushed the party in a radically new direction: federal power ought to protect workers, tax wealth and fight inequality.’

And they had to, because economic life in America in the 19th century was eye-wateringly unequal. The Morrill Tariff of 1861, the capstone of sixty years of legislative wrangling over import policy, secured rates of 48 per cent on dutiable goods, a 70 per cent increase on the tariff of 1857. During the thirty years between its passage and Bryan’s speech, farm wages fell by 35 per cent. Much of this had to do with the monopoly power of railroads and grain-buyers, who cartelised agricultural distribution and repelled every attempt by farmers to set up co-operatives that could guarantee stable prices amid droughts and a long-term decline in agricultural profits.

With manufactured goods now considerably more expensive and wages considerably lower, all that was left to paper over the loss of purchasing power was debt, which exploded. And deflation of 2 per cent a year from the 1870s until the beginning of the 20th century meant that the debt, issued on an unregulated and therefore usurious basis, grew heavier at a compounding rate. ‘The Republican Party is unreservedly for sound money,’ said McKinley in his own nomination speech. Unreservedly, and unremittingly. By 1896, the situation was a vice-grip so crushing that farmers had no room to breathe.

What is missing from Kidd’s article, and what so much liberal political scholarship of the last half-century has been at pains to avoid, is capitalism. ‘Democracy’, as he points out, is ‘a shorthand term for a family of political practices’. And one of those practices – arguably the most important of all – is figuring out who gets paid and how much they get away with. The Pew Centre has calculated that since 1964 mean hourly wages (in 2018 dollars) in the US increased from $20.27 to $22.65, or 12 per cent. Almost all that growth has gone to the top 20 per cent of earners. Perhaps we should spend less time tearing our hair out about the sudden disappearance of ‘norms’ and ‘civility’ from American politics and more on who it is that politics has been expressly uncivil to. Decorum, it turns out, might be code for the harmonisation of elite interests; hand in hand, they have led us right back to the foot of the cross.

Lion Summerbell

Ancient DNA

Steven Mithen steps carefully around the issue of the fecundity of the offspring produced by couplings between ancestral hominin species (LRB, 13 September). The initial sequencing of Neanderthal DNA was of mitochondrial DNA, which is passed strictly along the maternal line. It proved to be entirely distinct from that of Homo sapiens: there is today no one on earth whose mitochondria comes from a female Neanderthal ancestor. This means that interbreeding produced fertile offspring only through mating between Neanderthal males and Sapiens females. Subsequent analysis of autosomal DNA showed that the Neanderthal Y chromosome went extinct as well. This means that of the hybrids, only the females were fertile.

The implications are clear: relations between the two populations must have been difficult.

Steve Balogh
Loweswater, West Cumbria

Dobson v. Lewis

Although Rhodri Lewis’s letter displays some of the same hectoring and sneering which mar Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness, I gather it is at least more gracious than the draft he circulated to his Twitter followers, or the long emails with which he has favoured other reviewers of the book (Letters, 27 September). It also appears to rescind one of the passages to which I objected in my review (the one about the way Hamlet explores the proposition that humanist philosophy is a confidence trick). However, his letter has not inspired me to offer any comparable recantation.

Contrary to what Lewis says, I do not regard readings of Hamlet that haven’t been endorsed in its stage tradition as heretical, but I do find it at least suggestive that even the most attention-seeking producers of the play have yet to experiment with some of Lewis’s more impressive heuristic feats. One example I cited is his claim that Claudius is left unaffected by the talk of the poisoning in ‘The Murder of Gonzago’, interrupting the performance at that point by sheer coincidence in order to go away and attempt a solitary repentance for his fratricide. I should perhaps have added that Lewis explains the usurper’s indifference to the play-within-the-play’s near representation of his crime by arguing that any intelligent reader will have realised that since Old Hamlet was asleep when he was murdered he cannot be regarded as a reliable witness to the exact cause of his death, so that his account of having poison poured into his ear, accepted so glibly and uncritically by his son, represents either a rhetorical spicing-up of a more banal poisoning or a misguided posthumous leap to an obvious but mistaken conclusion. For Lewis the pay-off for this impressive piece of deduction (whereby Claudius can ignore an onstage poisoning via the ear because the actual poisoning used some other, unspecified orifice) is that it enables him not only to represent Hamlet’s staging of the play as futile but also to represent the prince’s claim that it has succeeded in startling his uncle into betraying his guilt as yet another piece of deluded self-congratulation. In short, even without the characteristic tone of Lewis’s prose, I do not think that one has to be suffering from the quasi-papal paranoia which Lewis attributes to me to think that Hamlet and the Vision of Darkness reads less like a book with a thesis than like a book with a grudge.

As for the thesis itself – that, once properly read within the erudite milieu of intellectual culture to which it originally belonged, Hamlet can at last stand revealed as a play that precisely anticipates the crisis through which we are ourselves living – I am still not convinced. It seems to me symptomatic that in his letter Lewis still clings to the notion that when it was first performed Hamlet was caviar to the general, rather than one of the public stage’s most successful products. How can any study of ‘how and why Shakespeare wrote Hamlet as he did, when he did’ ignore the play’s original audiences, medium and impact? What does Lewis mean, ‘the long and celebrated history of Hamlet in performance … only begins in the later 17th century’? (Which part of ‘As it hath been diverse times acted by his Highness’s servants’ does he not understand?) I quite enjoy Lewis’s eloquence about ‘the experience of being confined to the darkened space between two moral and cultural worldviews. One dead, the other powerless to be born. One a ghost, the other as yet confined to fantasy.’ I even agree that this experience may be as relevant in 2018 as it was c.1600. But I would point out that most historical periods have sooner or later been described, plausibly enough, as times during which people have stumbled blindly around in the present feeling anxiously torn between a past that hasn’t quite finished and a future that hasn’t quite started, including periods well before Shakespeare’s and most of those between his and ours. I would also point out, again, the fairly notorious fact of cultural history that there has so far been practically no period between 1600 and the present to which Hamlet has not seemed an uncannily pertinent piece of drama, even when read without Lewis’s assistance.

Lewis closes by observing that ‘on two or perhaps three occasions I have been seated in close proximity to Dobson at the theatre,’ and he is generous enough to speculate that my apparent obliviousness of his presence may have been feigned out of politeness. I am sorry to have to report that my obliviousness was merely genuine. However, now that I have read Lewis’s letter and his book and seen his image on a dust jacket, it will be possible for me to ignore him in future every bit as politely as he could wish.

Michael Dobson


Marina Warner notes that Buck Mulligan, mocking Christianity in the opening pages of Ulysses, refers to the Holy Ghost as ‘the gaseous vertebrate’ (LRB, 30 August). Mulligan is quoting Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), the controversial German zoologist whose Die Welträtsel (The Riddle of the Universe) of 1899 was a bestseller throughout Europe. Haeckel was the chief populariser of Darwinian thought on the Continent, a role which earned him the nickname ‘Darwin’s Dachshund’. He was a Spinozan pantheist, and was notorious for his caustic remarks about Christian doctrine. He often used the phrase ‘gaseous vertebrate’ (gasförmiges Wirbeltier) to characterise the ‘anthropic’ deity. Mulligan would have approved of Haeckel’s response to his critics, quoted in the Daily Telegraph in an article from 1905 entitled ‘Haeckel Kills the Soul’: ‘I have been blamed for saying that the papacy is the greatest swindle that ever dominated the world of thought. I will substitute the word humbug for swindle.’

Melissa Monroe
New York

Be careful what you wish for

David Campbell discerns in my review of Marco Duranti’s The Conservative Human Rights Revolution an ‘implicit claim that Churchill would have intended to leave as his legacy the chaos caused by the [human rights] convention and the act as they are now interpreted’ (Letters, 27 September). There follows a familiar jeremiad on the current state of asylum and immigration law, the ‘parlous state of judicial review’ and ‘the danger to national security consequent on this’.

Making the somewhat generous assumption that the judges are indeed causing chaos by their use of human rights and are routinely jeopardising national security by ignoring what Parliament enacts, my article not only contained no implicit claim that this was Churchill’s objective, it explicitly said the opposite: namely, that Churchill, Maxwell Fyfe, Sandys and their allies considered that ‘some supranational constitutional restraint was needed on what even elected governments might do.’ This was to take the form of an international human rights regime, to be interpreted and applied by judges, and expressly designed to put a stop to socialist and statist incursions into personal freedom. It is, as I pointed out, time’s whirligig – the disconcerting intervention of the unintended – which has brought about the situation deplored by Campbell, in which both Conservative and Labour administrations have been held, domestically and internationally, to be violating Churchill’s human rights.

As to the immigrant’s cat, a revisit (with the help of Professor Campbell’s kind offer of a copy) to the judgment of the first-instance immigration judge confirms that the cat (which was real enough) had no decisive effect on the outcome. Contrary to Theresa May’s description of it as a deportation case (deportation, in general, is what happens to foreign criminals), the case concerned the liability to removal of a Bolivian national who had entered lawfully as a student but had overstayed. By the time the Home Office caught up with him he had settled down with a partner and – yes – a cat in what the Home Office did not dispute was family life within the ambit of Article 8 of the ECHR. The immigration judge concluded that the couple had an established family life in the UK; that the partner, whose father was terminally ill, could not reasonably be expected to move with the applicant to Bolivia; and that the demands of immigration control were not strong enough in the circumstances to make removal a proportionate interference with the right to respect for family life. The cat played no part in any of this.

However, tongue visibly in cheek, the Home Office in refusing leave to remain had suggested that the cat could adapt to life abroad: ‘While your cat’s material quality of life in Bolivia may not be of the same standard as in the United Kingdom, this does not give rise to a right to remain.’ Nevertheless, the acquisition of the cat, said the immigration judge, ‘reinforces my conclusion on the strength and quality of the family life that the appellant and his partner enjoy’. On formal reconsideration, a senior immigration judge found no error of law in the judgment, adding: ‘The cat need no longer fear having to adapt to Bolivian mice.’

Whether these asides and moments of judicial levity justified Theresa May in saying in a speech ‘We all know the stories about the Human Rights Act … about the illegal immigrant who cannot be deported because – and I am not making this up – he had a pet cat,’ your readers can judge. Unlike David Campbell, I don’t for my part think ‘myth’ is too strong a word for a recycled assertion that, thanks to the Human Rights Act, an illegal immigrant cannot be deported because he has a pet cat.

Stephen Sedley

Au Contraire

Mathieu Thomas challenges Ferdinand Mount’s interpretation of De Gaulle’s speech in Montreal in 1967, where he shouted, ‘Vive le Québec libre’ (Letters, 13 September). Thomas asserts that this speech ‘was consistent with the views he [De Gaulle] had held for many years.’ In fact on Canada Day, 1 July 1944, De Gaulle gave a speech from a balcony in Ottawa in which he shouted ‘Vive le Canada!’ to encourage Canadian support for the liberation of France. He gave a similar speech in Montreal, where, as Mount points out, the Québécois nationalists, then the supporters of Vichy France, ignored him and his cause. It was only after his outburst in 1967 that the Vichy Québécois of the 1940s through to the 1960s supported him.

Sam Allison

Censorship at the BBC

Raymond Clayton refers to rumours that the version of the post-Dunkirk speech recorded for radio in 1949 wasn’t delivered by Churchill himself, but by an impersonator, ‘the guy who played Larry the Lamb on Children’s Hour’ (Letters, 27 September). That ‘guy’ was Derek McCulloch, also known as ‘Uncle Mac’. My understanding has been, over the years, that it was Norman Shelley (who played Winnie the Pooh) who revoiced Churchill’s speeches.

Peter Rowland
London E11

His kitchen hat was red

I was surprised that Tim Parks’s review of the new translation of Chateaubriand’s memoir (LRB, 27 September) didn’t mention his chef, Montmireil, creator of the famous steak. Unlike his employer, the chef was a sympathiser of the Jacobins – his kitchen hat was red. It’s said that Napoleon tried to poach him but the chef refused to work for ‘the emperor’. He did not accompany Chateaubriand to the US, choosing instead to open a small restaurant in Varengeville in Normandy. I know because I’m a direct descendant.

Clara Magnani