Friday, April 3, 2015

Even Odder Than Usual

Some readers have been kind enough to reassure me that my 'rambling essays' are not the worst thing in the world, after I resolved to give them up recently. I'm glad to hear it, because I do like writing them! I also like putting ALL my thoughts on cyber-paper, even those not immediately related to anything Papistical.

So I am going to write about something idiosyncratic even by my standards. The video above, as a matter of fact.

I have quite a fascination with Joh Bjelke-Petersen, the controversial Premier of Queensland from 1968 to 1987. (I first heard about him through a satirical song by the English band The Stranglers, which intrigued me.) He was a right-wing populist who grew up in a poor farming family, became a very wealthy farmer through his own efforts, and then entered politics. He was a partisan of low tax and put a huge emphasis on economic development. He also had an authoritarian streak; he declared a state of emergecy to deal with protests against the South African rugby team playing a competitive game in Queensland (this was in the Apartheid era, obviously). He permitted the demolition of a very historic hotel in Brisbane, having it done at night to avoid protests. He also had little respect for environmentalists or for the aboriginal rights lobby.

He was a devout Lutheran, although he was more likely to have the Christian churches in Australia opposing him than supporting him. But he did take his faith seriously, in his own way; as Wikipedia puts it: "He demonstrated a strong moralistic streak, banning Playboy magazine, opposing school sex education and condom vending machines and in 1980 proposing a ban on women flying south for abortions. In May 1985 the government conducted a series of raids on so-called abortion clinic." (This is certainly a lot more of a genuinely conservative social policy than Margaret Thatcher, another politican who was seen as economically liberal but socially conservative. She wasn't really very socially conservative, apart from rhetoric.)

The first thing I should say is that I don't hold up Joh-Bjelke Petersen as an admirable figure. I find him fascinating, and he certainly annoyed a lot of the right people (including The Stranglers, even though I like their songs), but there is too much in his career and his whole attitude that I couldn't agree with. His hostility to unions and his enthusiasm for strike-breaking is not an attitude I share, though I can see that unions (especially in industries that are public utilities) can abuse their power. Nor do I think that tearing down a historic hotel is something that should be celebrated. There were also accusations of gerrymandering and corruption in his regime, which seem quite well-founded.

Nevertheless, I have always had a fascination with people who fly in the face of fashionable opinion, who ruffle feathers, and who are only ever mentioned with scorn by the sophisticated and right-on. I can't help a sneaking admiration for such people, most of the time.

He's also a colourful character. He had famous catch-phrases like, "Don't you worry about that!" (the title of his memoirs). I've always wanted a catch-phrase so I envy that. He is said to have slept in a cow-shed six nights a week for ten yeas, when he was working his way up to wealth as a small farmer.

Here are some of the reasons I find both Joh-Bjelke Petersen and this video fascinating:

1) Australia is another world to most of us. This blog has more readers in America than anywhere else, as I see from my blog statistics. After that, most of its readers are in Ireland and England. Some are in mainland Europe. I don't know if anyone from Australia reads this (please say hi if you do!). The notion of 'the Anglosphere', a cultural community formed of English-speaking nations, has become fairly well-known recently, but the truth is that people in America, Ireland and the UK share a cultural world that rather excludes Australia. We don't know about the ordinary life of Australians in the same way that we know about the ordinary life of Americans and British and (to a lesser extent) the Irish; we don't know about their pop culture references, TV shows, politics, advertising, current affairs, and so on. And yet, they are so similar to us; English-speaking, predominantly white and of European descent, Christian or post-Christian, liberal democratic, and so forth. Whenever I do find mself interested in any story from Australia, this contradiction is part of the fascination.

2) I don't share Joh Bjelke-Petersen's free market views, but I find them strangely poetic and romantic. The older I get, the more centrist I become in my economic views, and the less time I have for people who use either 'capitalism' or 'socialism' as dirty words (or rallying cries, for that matter). I believe in private enterprise and the profit motive; I also believe in government regulation and social welfare.

But the romance of the free market...there is something thrilling about it, as an idea. The idea that work, thrift and initiative, if freed from regulation, would bring about a better society on their own is very appealing. Partly this is in account of its simplicity. Partly it because it promises to free us from a lot of guilt and concern about poverty and homelessness and exploitation and things like that. How liberating it would be, to feel we could in good conscience ignore all the lectures and sermons on these topics! Besides, the idea that anyone willing to work hard will get ahead, or at least stay afloat, is a very encouraging thought. (Unfortunately, I believe there are lots of people who do work hard and practice thrift but who sink anyway-- or who barely keep their heads above water.)

I sympathise with the romance of commerce, too. There is something strangely reassuring and jolly in the sight of an 'Open 24 Hours' sign, of a shop where the lights never go out and there is always someone waiting to serve you. One of the things I like about staying in hotels is knowing that there is always someone on the reception desk, even in the middle of the night. Perhaps that relates back to a childhood hatred of bed-time and "lights out"; perhaps it goes back to prehistoric race terrors of night and winter. Intellectually, I am all in favour of a limited working week and of shared public holidays (and of the 'Keep Sunday Special' campaign in Britain); but I can't help but be depressed by the sight of a street full of shuttered shops and businesses, or the recorded voice message on a telephone telling you a business's hours of opening. (And not because either might be inconvenient; it goes beyond that.) We all find the phrase 'the city that never sleeps' evocative. That's the poetry I'm talking about.

(Before moving on from this point, such as it is, I should point out that my imagination can just as easily be stirred by the opposite. I love the movie Hot Fuzz, which features a high-powered London cop being exiled to a sleepy village, since he is showing up all the other police on the London force. I especially like the part where the Inspector in charge of the station announces (at 11:30 a.m.) that it's time for lunch, since it's the new guy's first day. I also love remembering the several days during Ireland's Big Freeze in 2010, when the library remained closed because of snow. It was such a delicious feeling, several evenings in a row, to get a text telling you not to venture out into the cold next morning! And I love to quote Chesterton's phrase: "The inn does not point to the road; the roads points to the inn.")

3) I like the video itself because it's a video of two men-- one elderly and snowy-haired, one very cosily middle-aged and avuncular-- chewing the fat over the old days. What could be more appealing? I like Joh Bjelke's sleeveless jumper and comfortable armchair. I like the interviewer's thick moustache and 'grizzled veteran' look. In fact, in trying to describe what I like about its atmosphere, I have found myself straining to avoid repetition of the adjectives 'avuncular' and 'cosy'. But why should I? Avuncular and cosy. Cosy and acunvular. Cosily avuncular. That sums up the appeal of the interview to me in two perfect words. (The interviewer, of course, is the avuncular one.)

But, most of all, I like the fact that they are looking back at events they both experienced first-hand. (The interviewer was one of Joh's 'chooks'-- the press pack he dealt with regularly.) To me, the past imperfect is a thing of great beauty. Whenever people fall into reminiscing about their own experiences, the sublime is not far away. "I remember the time..." is every bit as magical as "Once upon a time..."

Perhaps this is simply the mysteriousness of the past. The past is both real and unreal at the same time. It has no tangible, concrete existence, and yet-- there it is. It can be conjured out of nowhere, out of nothing. And, when we recall it, we are not simply 'playing it again' as though it was a DVD. It is a creative act, an act of storytelling, an act of re-creation.  When somebody tells you the story of their lives-- or even a story from their lives-- they are staging a drama, making a statement about the world, their view of the world, and the meaning of their own experiences. How can that not be thrilling?

 If anyone actually watches the video and finds it at all interesting, please do leave a comment. I suppose that all writing, other than purely informative writing, is an effort to get someone else excited about something that excites you. I'm always wondering how far I have succeeded, especially when it's something odd like this.


  1. For what it's worth, I like present perfect far, far better than past imperfect. (More specifically, I have maintained that first person, singular number, present tense, perfect aspect, indicative mood, active voice is most satisfying verb form: "I have fought the good fight, I have finished the course, I have kept the faith" or "I have hoped, I have planned, I have striven...")

    While I enjoyed reading your essay all through, I had no intention of watching the full documentary...until the last line of your essay. So, yes, one person on Earth was so moved. (Not that I actually sat and watched it, you understand; I streamed it while I was cleaning house and making almond sweet rolls for Easter.)
    And, yes, this essay was idiosyncratic even for you.

  2. Ha ha ha, Well, TMR, that makes me very proud. I feel I have influenced the world in some small way.

    My love of the past imperfect would be the subject of an essay, or an essay series, in itself. It's too big a subject to take on without mental preparation. I do like the example of the tense you gave....truth be told, I don't know very much about the tenses or the names of the parts of speech, but I can certainly see the appeal of "I have fought the good fight" or (am I right?) "I have been one acquainted with the night". Well, there may be a shift of tense there, but it certainly has the same flavour, to me.

    I'm actually proud that I got you to watch the video while making almond sweet rolls, because I suspect that one of the happiest states we can ever attain is doing two things simultaneously, neither of them too taxing on our atention. For instance, wrapping Christmas gifts while watching the Christmas episode of a sit-com on TV. I have noticed that over and over. Anyway, I hope the rolls turned out well, and happy Easter!