Post-Brexit: “leave us be!” Queen demands

Buckingham Palace has announced that the Queen has restored the ancient law of lèse-majesté to the United Kingdom.

The law makes it an offence, punishable by up to 145 years in jail, “to publicly criticise, mock, make derogatory remarks, or otherwise offend the sensibilities of any member of the royal family, including Her Majesty’s corgis”.

There will be a one-week grace period during which anyone who accidentally says anything unkind about the monarchy or the corgis will merely be cautioned and banned for life from watching Premier League football.

LM training sessions are being rolled out across the country in conjunction with the Covid-19 vaccination program.

A Palace spokesperson explained the background to the restored law and Her Majesty’s thinking:

  • As the United Kingdom enters a new era of friendlessness it is vital to show those Euro[expletives deleted] that no longer can they get away with constant cheap pot-shots and high-speed car chases through Parisian tunnels involving the British royals, their assorted hangers on and, of course, the royal corgis.
  • With Philip is on his last legs, the Queen is all too conscious of the many unkind things that may soon be said about him. She has said many of them herself already.

“I know he often comes across as a bigot and a misogynist who makes a habit out of stupid, offensive remarks,” the Queen observed. “I well remember the time he said to the President of Nigeria, splendidly dressed in traditional robes, ‘You look like you’re ready for bed!’ It was so hard not to laugh but I tell you this: Philip was never so insensitive that he made a joke about the royal corgis.”

  • How hurtful it was for Her Majesty when recently she overheard her grandchildren guffawing at a joke told by one of them:

Prince Charles was driving around his mother’s estate when accidently he ran over her favourite corgi. He alighted from his Range Rover and sat down, totally distraught, knowing the Queen would go ballistic. Then he noticed a lamp half-buried in the ground. He carefully dug it out and rubbed it clean. Instantly a genie appeared. “You have freed me at last,” the genie cried, “I shall grant you one wish”. Charles pointed to the mangled animal, “I don’t suppose you could fix Mummy’s dog,” he asked. “Sorry, no can do,” the genie replied, “even my magical powers have their limits.” Charles thought for a moment, then reached into his pocket and took out two photographs, one of Diana, the other of Camilla. He stared at the photo of Camilla and said, “I know it’s a big ask but could you possibly make this one as beautiful as her?” He held up the picture of Diana. The genie thought hard for a moment and replied, “Let’s have another look at that dog”.

  • Her Majesty has noted that Thailand’s King Vajiralongkorn is an ardent fan of lèse-majesté. His country recently sentenced a public servant who had criticised the monarchy to 43 years in jail.

“Many people would see that as excessively harsh. I beg to differ. It’s a clear sign of royal magnanimity. The original sentence was 87 years, cut in half for no better reason than a guilty plea from the defendant. King Vajiralongkorn is the world’s richest monarch. His $40 billion fortune makes my $500 million look positively paltry. It would seem this lèse-majesté stuff offers real opportunity to boost the royal cash flow.”

  • That said, and ever attentive to her subject’s simple needs, the Queen has acknowledged the financial impact of lèse-majesté on satirists everywhere. She has created a special fund to assist them.

“They can laugh as much as they like, as long as they leave me and my retinue and, of course, the royal corgis, well out of it. And the best thing: the fund’s coming from withdrawals I’ve ordered from former Prince Harry’s expense account. That’ll teach the ungrateful little shit,” Her Majesty chortled before adding, “I’m sure Andrew will chip in too. He owes me big time for not locking him in the Tower and throwing away the keys.”

 

My Beethoven dilemma

I’ve written a satirical novel called Beethoven’s Tenth and the journey which saved the world. It’s about a small group of fictional characters with grudges against their authors. Led by Dr Watson, of Sherlock Holmes fame, they set out to publicise their grievances. This revolves around one of them, Johannes Kreisler, a brilliant eccentric created by the real composer, E T A Hoffman, finishing Beethoven’s Tenth Symphony. After a roller coaster ride it all ends triumphantly, with grudges resolved and, thanks to the new symphony, the world a much rosier, hopeful place. Beethoven, at least in spirit, has saved the day.

But have I perpetuated a terrible wrong? Not a single character in my novel considers that Beethoven’s music might embody the ‘racist, misogynist, patriarchal tradition’ that some claim has ‘colonised’ Western classical music. How could I possibly have missed the fact that Beethoven’s famous Ninth Symphony overflows ‘with male violence and female subordination, its narrative primarily based on phallic sexuality’? Why was I so blind to the ‘bisexual narrative’ and ‘Oedipal configurations’ lurking in Beethoven’s grand works?

Foolishly, I thought also that ‘masterful’ and ‘masterpiece’—derived from Latin and German—signalled skill and refinement. How embarrassing to discover that, according to some modern commentators, they are little more than codewords for slavery and sexism. I’m so relieved I don’t hold a Masters degree.

In my novel’s defence, I often spell out Beethoven’s name. The book’s dedication is to ‘Ludwig and Francesca’ (my partner). But that was more good luck than good management. Only now do I know that the mononym, Beethoven, is also a source of offence. I feel badly, then, about the title and the cover. Thank goodness I wasn’t writing a politically correct novel about Giacomo Antonio Domenico Michele Secondo Puccini. There’d be little space for the actual story.

From now on I’ll make sure it’s always William Shakespeare and Dante Alighieri. I’ll go only to art galleries who display names such as Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, Salvador Felipe Jacinto Dali y Domenech, Élisabeth Louise Vigée Le Brun, Maria Helena Vieira da Silva and so on. I’m not sure how to handle Aristotle and Sophocles, who seem positively name deprived. By contrast, Jesus of Nazareth Son of God is both a mouthful and consciously gendered. I’ll need advice on that one.

I will try to make amends, though aspects of my novel may cause readers unease. Johannes Kreisler hero worships ‘the noble, the miraculous Ludwig van Beethoven’. So too does one of the villains. Influenced by hearing LVB’s Third, Fifth and Ninth Symphonies played over a jail intercom, he declares he loves the composer’s ‘string quarters’ (sic) more than he loves his mother.

And there’s not a single word in my book about LVB’s fractious relationship with his young relation, Karl. If I’d done my research I would have discovered a 1945 book, jointly authored by Richard and Editha Sterba, Beethoven and His Nephew: A Psychoanalytic Study of Their Relationship. It reportedly ‘marshalled evidence to prove that LVB was a repressed homosexual whose inability to reconcile conflicting male and female impulses deprived him of a secure ego and left him without tenderness, warmth or most other human qualities’.

Oh dear. Could that explain why LVB never married? Or maybe he was just too busy with his music. Perhaps he never found the right woman, or at least the woman who thought he was right for her. He certainly doesn’t seem to have lacked self-confidence, commenting to his long-term supporter, Prince Lichnowsky, that while there were thousands of princes there was only one Beethoven.

Deutsche Welle, Germany’s international broadcaster, has noted that a pattern emerges among the women in LVB’s life: affection, friendship, respect, passion, though probably mostly platonic. His loves ‘were usually impossible or at least unlikely, often because the objects of Beethoven’s affection were women of noble birth or already married. As a result, what we would today call a “stable relationship” seems to have always remained just out of reach.’ Not a whole lot out of the ordinary there.

In a wonderful new book, Oxford academic Professor Laura Tunbridge suggests there were very human qualities both of light and dark in LVB. She paints him as brilliant, flawed, often irascible, shrewd if not wise about money, with a keen taste for good coffee and wine. (On his death bed he lamented that wine he had ordered had arrived ‘too late’.) I’ll have to consider carefully the future of Beethoven’s Tenth. I could take the easy way out and switch on the shredder. But a book burning during a fierce thunderstorm would be more to LVB’s style. Maybe I should just relax and let his extraordinary music wash over me. It’s worked pretty well for the past 50-plus years.

 

Palace Letters – the Queen’s Hard Quiz

We interrupt this repeat broadcast of the 2019 Sydney to Hobart yacht race to bring you exclusive coverage of the Queen’s preparation for her New Year appearance on Hard Quiz, hosted (how could anyone forget?!) by Gold Logie winner, Tom Gleeson.

A courtier is putting the Queen through her paces on her special subject:

How One definitely knew nothing  whatsoever about the plot to sack Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and any suggestions otherwise will be regarded as treasonous slurs, prompting aforementioned One to pursue maximum redress through legal channels.

COURTIER:    May it please Your Majesty to start?

QUEEN:         Yes, Thomas, please be as frank as you dare.

COURTIER:    Thank you Ma’am, though if I may beg your indulgence I will observe in passing that my name is other than Thomas.

QUEEN:         So many years, so many faces, so many names, all so bothersome. Please clarify the situation at once.

COURTIER:    The name of the individual bent before you, Ma’am, is Alexander.

QUEEN:         Are your new?

COURTIER:    Yes, Ma’am, I was formerly His Excellency the High Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

QUEEN:         One forgets so easily those who One has no call to remember.

COURTIER:    Indeed so, Your Majesty. Perhaps we best continue.

QUEEN:         One consents.

COURTIER:    Begging your further indulgence, Ma’am, may I point out that the special subject Your Majesty has nominated is of such extensiveness in the nature of its description that it may not actually leave sufficient time for meaningful answers.

QUEEN:         That, Alexander, is precisely the point.

COURTIER:    Yes, Ma’am, of course, Ma’am, a wise strategy indeed.

QUEEN:         One does not require grovelling compliments from One’s staff, Alexander. Now get to the questions, so One may practice not answering them.

COURTIER:    Of course, Ma’am, of course. True or false:

Her Majesty had no inkling that Sir John Kerr was planning to sack a democratically elected Prime Minister?

QUEEN:         Such impertinence. Next question.

COURTIER:    Without delay, Ma’am.

Is there a smoking gun?

QUEEN:         Of course. Many of them in fact after the Royals have been out in the fresh air blasting away at pheasants and grouse and other wonders of nature.

COURTIER:    Brilliant deflection, Ma’am. Now, multiple choice:

When did Her Majesty first learn that Prime Minister Whitlam had been replaced. Was it—

QUEEN:         One so looks forward to clarifying this, once and forever. It was 1977. One’s Silver Jubilee. With One’s consort occasionally by One’s side but mostly trailing rearward, One visited Awstralya. One could not help but observe that the Prime Minister looked quite different to the one One encountered on an earlier visitation. Only when One queried One’s staff did One learn they had forgotten to advise One of the change. Very sheepish they were. One assured them that such a trivial matter hardly required One’s attention.

COURTIER:    Multiple choice again, Your Majesty:

When Sir John Kerr—

QUEEN:         Oh, him again.

COURTIER:    If I may, Your Majesty.

QUEEN:         Proceed.

COURTIER:    When Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Whitlam for being a Labor Prime Minister—

QUEEN:         Oh, so that was the reason! One always thought it had something to do with the constitution. Sir John’s was never very good; drank far too much poor man, stress of the job, that sort of thing.

COURTIER:    If I may continue, Your Majesty;

What were Sir John’s stated reasons:

  1. Your Majesty had ordered abovementioned dismissal
  2. Sir John could not recall why he had done it
  3. Sir John could not recall when he had done it
  4. Sir John could not recall if, in fact, he had done it at all.

QUEEN:         Tricky question this one. One thinks it was 2) but cannot be certain. Could One possibly phone a friend? Well, acquaintance actually, One does not really have friends in One’s exalted position.

COURTIER:    With your Majesty’s permission I will contact Mr Gleeson and ensure a phone is readily to hand on the great occasion. May it please Your Majesty to be informed that I would be delighted to fulfil the role of “acquaintance”.

QUEEN:         Good boy, Alex, it seems you can play at almost anything!

COUTIER:      Begging your indulgence yet again, Your Majesty, may I offer a final thought.

QUEEN:         If you must.

COURTIER:    Play hard!

QUEEN:         I always have. Remember Diana.

 

The Australia-China trade war explained

From a special correspondent

A senior Chinese official has finally revealed the real basis for the country’s trade war with Australia.

 

The official, identified only as SO, said, “Even by the standards we’ve come to expect”,  Australian commentary to date had demonstrated a “shocking ignorance”.

“Portraying the trade management measures we’ve taken as retaliation for Australian criticism of vital land reclamation programs in our maritime domains, or as a response to Australia’s childish behaviour over the origins of Covid-19 is simply absurd. In reality, it all comes down to a question of understanding customer needs and being truthful.”

Pointing to the bottles of Australian wine arrayed on the table in front of her, SO continued. “Take wine, and I do a lot. White wine is meant to be just that. So listen to this.” She picked up a bottle of white wine and read aloud: “Combining honeysuckle yellows, vanilla, peach-kernel and chicken stock, the dry yet buttery characteristics of this blend are sure to delight any palette.”

Her faced flushed with anger, SO just managed to go on: “When we pay over the odds for so-called white wine, which we certainly do now that we’ve imposed a 200 per cent tariff, we don’t expect to be quaffing chicken stock. And just how are our poor customs officials expected to categorise such a product: fruit, dairy, manufactured foodstuff or what?

“The reds are just as bad”, SO continued. She reached for a bottle. “Black current, pepper, grassiness! Just what are they putting into it?”  Staring at the label, she spat, “Yellow tail? That’s a fish, and not a very good eating one at that!

“I could on on”, SO went on, picking up another bottle: “A beautiful purplish hue with a long, silky finish.

We invented silk”, she snapped, “I’m wearing it right now, then lo and behold it turns up in Australian wine!

“Until Australians can tell the difference between red, white, yellow, purple and so on, no Australian wine will enter the country, except the ones I like to drink with my colleagues after a hard day in the office.”

Asked about the ban on Australian lobsters, SO momentarily looked awkward. She took a deep breath before answering. “Actually, we have nothing against Australian lobsters. We love the way they switch instantly to red with the simple addition of boiling water. It was just a typo in the instructions. We actually meant mobsters. We get quite a few of them from Australia too.”

Shaking her head, SO added, “If only other countries would own up to their mistakes as openly as we do.”

“Now to coal,” she continued, sounding ominous. “It presents us with a different problem. We’re sick and tired of black smoke. Quite frankly,  it’s boring us to tears. Why can’t we have some green smoke, my favourite colour incidentally, or maybe orange, though that colour is a bit on the nose at the moment. Red would make a nice, patriotic, change. Is it too much to ask that Australian exporters are sensitive to their customers’ preferences?”

At this point I plucked up courage and asked, “It seems there’s a straightforward explanation for the current tensions, so why won’t you talk to the Australian Trade Minister? He’s been trying to phone you for weeks.”

“Has he?” SO responded with what could have been mistaken for a genuine surprise. “He must be using one of those inferior western mobiles. I’ll send him one of ours. All he has to do is phone me on the latest model Great Call and I promise you he’ll get through in a flash.”

 

 

 

The end is nigh: prepare!

It’ll be hard going but we have no choice.

We’ve been spoilt, our senses dulled, our imagination and creative thinking corroded. It’s time to excise the lowest common denominator for all our conversations, if you could actually call them that. There are scary times ahead.

You know the trap we’ve fallen into: “I can’t think of anything better to talk about so I might as well have a gripe about … you know what”.

Our excuses have been manifold:

  • It’ll take too much time and effort to find something more meaningful to discuss
  • Is there really something more meaningful?
  • Suits me fine, I was never much of a conversationalist anyway
  • It’s part of God’s devilish plan
  • Couldn’t care less, I’ve got a really bad hangover.

Mother Nature tried to help, sending Covid-19 to distract us. What did we do? We spurned the opportunity MN offered. We refused to mention one topic without the other. How good was that for ingenious stupidity?!

But it’s all coming to an end. I’m getting ready and so should you. My psychoanalyst, fearful of what she calls “cold turkey mass psychosis”, recommends a gradual withdrawal.

“You can’t undo the damage of the past four years overnight,” she counselled me. “Try going for an hour without saying the T-word. Depending on how you cope, extend it to, say, a half-day, then, if you’re feeling really strong, maybe a whole day. Whatever you do, pace yourself. This is not something that can be rushed. And keep a detailed record of the state of your nerves.”

I’ll try but it won’t be easy. There’ll be no extravagant New Year resolutions. Fortunately, my psychoanalyst has provided a stockpile of heavy-duty meds.

“You think there was a problem with the supply of toilet paper,” she warned. “Just wait until 20 January next: the shock at hearing the President of the USA talk in civil tones, using multisyllabic words we no longer understand, using we rather than I. It will be simply too much to bear for a lot of people. We are in for a rough ride.”

“Mind you”, she went on, “it’s not all bad news. There’ll be a pharma-led economic recovery right around the globe. I’ll be booked out for years to come though I can squeeze you in late in 2022. Hope that suits. Good luck!”

Things I will miss about Trump

 

Just imagine the relief when, finally, the Donald is gone. But, like it or not, there’ll be things we will surely miss.

 

  • Trump has made us all feel highly literate. Every day we could wake up, knowing that in the course of the next 15 hours or so we would fluently use a much wider range of words than POTUS ever managed. Said to be “allergic” to reading, a 2018 analysis found that Trump, who attributes his success to “being, like, really smart”, had the worst vocabulary of any US President since 1929. (Jimmy Carter had the best.) Trump’s (sacked) national security adviser, H.R. McMaster, described the president’s intelligence as that of a “kindergartener”; his (sacked) Secretary of State, Rex Tillerson, preferred the more direct, “fucking moron”.

  • Hot on the heels of literacy has been our moral superiority. Trump demonstrated daily what amateurs we are when it comes to bending the truth. Trump was/is a serial liar; like,

    really serial.  We can only wonder whether he is capable of telling the truth and, worse, whether it matters to him in the slightest. His outrageous mishandling of the Covid-19 crisis (225,000 Americans dead and counting, one million new cases in a week) is but one example. As of August 2020, The Washington Post “Fact Checker” had recorded 22,510 false or misleading claims by Trump since he assumed office. An average of 17 porkies a day from the world’s most powerful figure has offered the rest of us plenty of wiggle room.

  • The Trump circus has also been entertaining—though often in a sickening way. High-level sackings; offensive comments about places (“shithole” African and Central American states); tasteless remarks about individuals (Ivanka Trump, with her “very nice figure” who the president might have “dated” if she “weren’t my daughter”; obscene stereotyping and fear-mongering (“ Black guys counting my money! I hate it. The only kind of people I want counting my money are short guys that wear yarmulkes every day”; “Biden will turn Minnesota into a refugee camp”). Following his electoral defeat, Trump tweeted there would be a “big press conference” at the Four Seasons in Philadelphia. The venue, it transpired, was not the glamour hotel but a landscaping business located between a crematorium and an “adult” book store. (Maybe its tomes appealed to POTUS.)

Post-Trump, we will no longer be able to rely on his crazy, offensive behaviour to make us look (relatively) civilised. That could be a worry. But there is much good news.

  • The “pussy-grabber-in-chief” will no longer have the keys to the White House. That should lift the morale of women everywhere. Trump has faced 26 allegations of sexual misconduct, including from his first wife, Ivana, who initially accused him of rape. Trump has dismissed all allegations as publicity stunts, politically motivated or coming from women who, in his own words, were “not my type”. His then lawyer, Michael Cohen, argued in 2015 that Trump could not have raped Ivana because legally “you cannot rape your spouse”. That was false and Cohen later recanted his “inarticulate” comment. Caught up in the 2016 Russian electoral interference scandal, Cohen was subsequently jailed but released into house arrest because of Covid-19. His recently published tell-all, Disloyal, The True Story of the Former Personal Attorney to President Donald J Trump, noted Trump’s “inadvertent” comment about Cohen’s 15-year-old daughter: “Look at that piece of ass. I would love some of that”.

  • Life is likely to be a lot less comfortable for those political leaders for whom Trump, in effect, ran a protection racket. Leading this list is the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, closely followed by Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince, Mohamad bin Salman. May they have many sleepless nights.
  • Those with red ties will be able to wear them again, without using a balaclava to disguise their identity.
  • Finally, just imagine what’s going through the mind of Rupert Murdoch and his pet parrots as they contemplate the reality of a Trump-free White House. Key Murdoch mouthpieces (Fox News, the New York Post, the Wall Street Journal) recently urged Trump to preserve his “legacy” by showing grace in defeat. Oh Rupert, life will be different for you too!

New hope for spurned writers in Biden victory

 

Rarely has Joe Biden been described as inspirational. That is now changing as aspiring authors around the globe tap away with renewed hope and purpose. Why? Because President-elect Biden, more than any other political figure around, has shown that constant rejection – the bane of authors’ lives – can be overcome.  

Next January, when he is sworn in as 46th President of the USA, it will be 34 years since Biden first ran for the top job. He tried again in 2008, only to confront the eloquent appeal of Barack Obama, and had to settle for a consolation vice-presidency.

Finally, he’s done it! On inauguration day, I appeal to him to speak to authors everywhere. To use his story to lift their spirits, to make clear that decades of rejection are just part of the great plan.

I offer these notes to guide him.

“I know your despair”, the new President should say. “I understand your often-pointless toil. That day-after-day, month-after-month, year-after-year grind of creating short stories, novels, plays, multi-volume histories on subjects as diverse as the history of ancient Rome or the reproductive habits of the speckled cuttlefish. I know the cost: the blood, sweat and tears; the intellectual ferment and emotional turmoil; the alcohol abuse; the family stress. And, finally, when the draft is complete and despatched, I know the suffocating quiet that settles over you, your house, your computer, your iPhone; the stillness of the cemetery.”

“Look at me”, he might go on, “I, too, have written books. Like you, I reached into my heart, and my head. Alright, I know mine were best sellers and I had no difficulty finding a publisher. But do you know why that was so? Because I had an impeccable record of failure in my chosen field of endeavour.”

The President might then pause and gaze reflectively at the hushed audience. “This next bit’s difficult”, he can say, sounding heartfelt, modest. “No one watching this great celebration of democracy should take it as an admission on my part. It involves the p-word. Plagiarism! A charge levelled at me many years ago. It is true that in recounting my struggle to get ahead my words were eerily similar to those used by the then British Labour leader. But we are a great trading nation, we will always import ideas. I simply chose the best available. There is no shame in that.

“To writers everywhere, I now say, ask not what your publisher can do for you, rather what you can do for your publisher. Be yourself, everyone else is already taken. And always be a first-rate version of yourself, not a second-rate version of someone else. Never let anyone walk through your mind with their dirty feet. Remember, too, no tears in the writer, no tears in the reader. And while you’re at it, don’t forget that ideas are like rabbits – get a couple and learn how to handle them and pretty soon you’ll have dozens.

“Keep all that in mind”, the new President should conclude, “and a new, golden era will be upon us. Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence, so let’s make writing great again. It’ll be tremendous. Just tremendous!”

 

You can’t make this stuff up

Confused about America and the workings of that country’s politics? So are we. That’s why our Special Correspondent got America on the phone for an exclusive interview.

 

Special Correspondent: Thanks for taking time out to join us, America. Interesting times, don’t you think?

America: What sort of a trick question is that? We’re sick of smart-arse foreigners setting us up for failure. We remain the one and only beacon of hope for the world, for democracy, for … mmm, quite a few other things I can’t recall right now.

Special Correspondent: Life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?

America: Exactly! It’s good to see our values are so widely recognised.

Special Correspondent: But your political system seems to be, don’t take this the wrong way, a bit creaky. I know you got rid of the most outrageous examples of discrimination—

America: What does that mean?!

Special Correspondent: Wasn’t there a time when African Americans were quizzed when they tried to vote? Some of them were even asked, “How many bubbles in a bar of soap?” to try to disenfranchise them.

America: All in the past, and name me a country that doesn’t have a few awkward memories. I hear that Australia’s hardly squeaky clean. What about that dictation test you had: asking a migrant from say, Swaziland, to write a passage in Icelandic, or vice versa, and deporting them when they couldn’t.

Special Correspondent: Fair enough, but I’m asking the questions here. It’s hardly one vote one value in America, is it? As for the electoral college, can an eighteenth-century institution really meet the demands of the twenty-first century? Some have described it as, quote a disaster for democracy unquote.

America: What idiot said that?

Special Correspondent: President Trump.

America: We’re not expected to believe anything he says. That’s why he’s so popular. It’s about the acting, the entertainment, the need to distract us from all the horrible things we’re doing to each other.

Special Correspondent: But isn’t the truth important?

America: It’s grossly overrated. If you’re so hung up about truth remember this. Trump didn’t take us into one new foreign war. Not one. That’s quite an achievement when you think of all the countries we either invaded or subverted under earlier presidents: Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Iraq, Iran, Lebanon, Cuba, Costa Rica, Honduras, Haiti, Panama, Grenada, Venezuela, and so on and so forth.

Special Correspondent: That’s an impressive list.

America: C’mon, that’s just a sample. When it comes to interfering in the internal affairs of other countries no-one, absolutely no-one, can hold a candle to us. Trump realised, wisely, it’s all about the economy nowadays. Why start a foreign war when we can have one at home? It stimulates growth, creates jobs, saves all that foreign travel, even helps in the battle against climate change—if you’re stupid enough to believe in that conspiracy. And why go overseas to catch Covid-19 when you can so easily get it at home?

Special Correspondent: That’s all very persuasive. But don’t you think the day of America having to reckon with its internal contradictions is inevitable?

America: Well, I question the premise of your question. Just because we’ve trashed the principles of Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, foreigners like you get all sniffy. We’ll go on doing what we’ve always done so well: proclaiming principles we have no intention of upholding. That’s what made this country what it is today.

Special Correspondent: Isn’t that just the problem?

America: No comment.

Special Correspondent: A final question. How many bubbles are there in a bar of soap?

America: No comment. But do send me more info on the dictation test, will you. Could be a real goer here.

Image: Inkforall.com (CC BY-NC 4.0)

The first Tuesday of November: think like a horse

I’ve just watched a short, award-winning play about three horses, locked in their stalls and bickering about their lot in life (no pun intended). One of them is a self-satisfied champion, the two other horses feel deprived and exploited. It all sounds very human.

That’s entirely reasonable. The play, Fabio the Great, was written by a woman, not a horse. Even the most subtle, incisive mind within a human head will never know what it’s like to be a horse. Or a whale, a rocking chair, or any other animate or inanimate object. That shouldn’t stop us imbuing them with human qualities and characteristics in the wonderful grown-up game of pretence many of us like to play.

Rarely will anyone contemplate what it’s like to be a baked bean. Still it would be an interesting exercise to set for children and adults: you are a baked bean who keeps a diary: write an entry for one day. Note that you are not allowed to be eaten at lunch time to save imagining how baked beans while away their afternoons.  

But leave baked beans aside. It’s early November in Australia and there are bound to be a few people wondering what it’s like to be a horse in the Melbourne Cup.

A giddying mix perhaps of fitness, sleekness and nervousness?

Do the animals give each other “may-the-best-horse-win” neighs of encouragement? Or are they conscious of all the money riding (no pun again) on the outcome and determined to stay “in the zone,” just the way a champion human athlete would. Do they have their own favourites, encouraging the young, or maybe deliberately giving an older runner a last hurrah? Do the horses themselves ever fix the result, knowing they won’t be held to account? Do they contemplate the horror of an accident, talking in hushed whinnies about what happened last year or the year before and why some contenders will be forever absent. Do they bridle (alright, that one is intended) at the fact that injured jockeys are rushed to the hospital while injured horses often end up in the knackery.

And just what do horses think of their jockeys: do they like some more than others, making more of an effort for them? Do they resent the hypocrisy of rules which allow riders to whip them while society at large decries animal cruelty?

What’s truly going on in a horse’s mind will forever remain a mystery, as much as the mysteries of being a baked bean or whether an apple feels discomfort when it’s pulled from the tree.

Still, “I wonder what it’s like to be a …” is a critical question we should ask every day. If we can’t or won’t imagine how others see the world, and us, we can’t expect much understanding or sympathy from human beings, or animals for that matter.

Exercise: you are a wombat; write a short play about three humans sitting near your burrow and discussing their lives. (Remember: a group of wombats is called a wisdom.)

Will we ever be satisfied with less?

I can’t imagine the old normal returning unaltered after COVID-19 but worry that the rush towards a new normal will entail too much focus on growth and profits and not enough on caring for the vulnerable and the environment. If that happens, we will have squandered an opportunity to reset how we value health, work and leisure.

Anthropologist James Suzman has written a history of work that gives us plenty to consider as we navigate our way out of the pandemic towards that new normal. Here’s my review (which first appeared in The Weekend Australian 19-20 September) of Work: A History of How We Spend Our Time, published by Bloomsbury.

Why, in an era of unprecedented abundance, are we preoccupied with scarcity and therefore aspire to more and more growth? Anthropologist Suzman employs the second law of thermodynamics, also known as the law of entropy, to answer this question. His idea is that entropy – the energy not available to do useful work, like the steam that escapes from an engine – ‘unpicks whatever order the universe creates’. Entropy, Suzman argues, has ‘driven humans to direct energy surplus into something purposeful’. This is the book’s leitmotif but repetition does not make the concept easier to grasp. Nevertheless, most of this history of work is accessible and thought-provoking.

To explain contemporary attitudes to work, Suzman traces the convergence of the way humans use energy with our evolutionary and cultural history. After the hunter-gatherers, whom Suzman knows well from his work with the Ju/’hoansi bushmen of eastern Namibia, came mastery of fire. This began a process of capturing energy that has changed the way people live, produce and value time. I found the chapters about early human endeavour the most interesting and enlightening. They lead to the proposition that, after fire, farming (which triggered population growth) and then the exploitation of fossil fuels in the Industrial Revolution have had dramatic effects on work, society and the climate.

What Suzman admires about the Ju/’hoansi is their satisfaction with just the resources available to nourish them. He appreciates their bewilderment at the notion of scarcity, which now drives the pursuit of growth in modern economies, although he also acknowledges that, for subsistence farming societies, scarcity was often a matter of life and death. His critique is that when ‘hardly any of us now produce our own food, … the sanctification of scarcity still underwrite[s] how we organise our economic life’.

Suzman shifts across centuries as he tells the story of how we spend our time. He illustrates his points with references to individuals, some famous, some anonymous, some like Thadeus, an urban dweller on the outskirts of Windhoek, Namibia. Thadeus’s story illustrates an important development: increased urbanisation, with 2008 a landmark year when more people lived in cities than in the countryside for the first time in human history. But the story of cities goes way back, to the communities built by termites and to ancient Rome where the first guilds were established.

The book is a feat of synthesis: Suzman draws on anthropology, archaeology, economic history and philosophy. He humanises many of the thinkers he quotes, offering snippets about their lives that illuminate or just entertain. For example, he tells us that Sir John Lubbock, the person behind introducing the bank holiday to encourage work-life balance, also tried to teach his poodle, Van, how to read. One person Suzman does not mention, strangely, is Thomas Piketty, the French economist whose work on the concentration of wealth and rising inequality, must have influenced Suzman’s analysis.

When he reaches the recent past and discusses the rise of the consumer society and then the dominance of services, Suzman’s opinions and prejudices rather than scholarly insights come to the fore. He hates management consultants and is scathing about bloated university bureaucracies. In the latter case, his criticism is not accompanied by a discussion about the trend towards demand for higher skills and mass tertiary education. This change in perspective raises the question as to when Suzman’s history of work should have stopped? I suggest in the 1980s when his lived experiences fog up the historical lens.

Most of the contemporary analysis is in Western countries, though Suzman does talk about the Japanese phenomenon of ‘karoshi ’: death by overwork. He also mentions those whose health can be affected by boredom at work, and workaholics. Suzman strikes me as one of these, given the enormous breadth of his canvas and his forensic search for interesting anecdotes. He is, however, ambivalent about ambition as well as affluence. Durkheim’s idea of anomie, a ‘malady of infinite aspiration’, caused by people’s sense of dislocation during the Industrial Revolution, is, Suzman fears, becoming a permanent condition of the modern age.

This has resulted in the blurring of work and leisure, with people finding it more and more difficult to be idle. It is a shame Suzman did not investigate further the consequences of this blurring. But his real omission is inadequate discussion about the individual and social effects of unemployment in modern economies, especially in the time of COVID (which he does mention) when work is proving to be an important psychological as well as economic prop. Indeed, the role of work in building social capital and self-esteem deserved greater attention in this history.

Suzman is now the director of Anthropos Ltd, a think tank that applies anthropological methods to solving contemporary social and economic problems. Work does not provide solutions. We still do not know how to reach the Keynesian dream of valuing ends above means and preferring the good to the useful. Nevertheless, this survey of human endeavour gives us plenty to think about as we navigate the post-COVID fourth industrial revolution and try to make better work for all, with less waste, less carbon and more leisure.