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Australian notes - 13 October 2012 - The Spectator Australia

13 October 2012

9:00 AM

13 October 2012

9:00 AM

With Prime Minister Gillard defending former Speaker Slipper and ‘Margie’ Abbott disposing of the idea that Tony Abbott has ‘a problem’ with capable women, what is to be done with the ‘handbag hit squad’? Perhaps they might be encouraged to give some attention to those public figures who really do have ‘a problem’ with women — Islamists, for example, who condone forced marriage or genital mutilation, not to mention honour killings. A little thought and surely the hit squad will find a way to blame Abbott.

I  am not a regular listener to Alan Jones. His rages and enthusiasms are a bit early in the day for me. But I hope the relentless Labor/Green campaign to drive him off the air for the tasteless jibe he made in an after-dinner speech fails completely. The people trying to defenestrate him are not concerned with defending civility in public life. They are the same people who over the years have tried to silence all sorts of civilised critics, from Geoffrey Blainey to Les Murray, and any number of others whose offence has been not bad manners but independent opinions. Jones has a large and loyal following. Tony Abbott is right to refuse to boycott his listeners. Are they not as entitled to their say as, for example, the ABC’s constituency?

What do you do with old men? Many years ago in London I met the great Hellenist Gilbert Murray. He was well into his eighties but he had agreed to be president, patron or whatever of a modest association of expatriate Australian writers or would-be writers who in the early Fifties used to meet each month at Australia House. Speakers ranged from such illustrious figures as Stephen Spender (who talked about his new magazine Encounter) or the Australian novelist Jon Cleary (who told us a thing or two about London publishers). Murray’s involvement in our little group came as a surprise. He was not only a famous scholar — perhaps the most acclaimed classicist in the world at the time — he had been a leading ‘public intellectual’ in Britain, active in the interwar peace movement and Liberal party. But he appeared to have not the slightest interest in his Sydney childhood (his father was an MLA and pastoralist) or in his native Australia. So why had he agreed to be the distinguished public face of an obscure collection of Australian nobodies? As if to clear up the mystery, he told me at the first meeting: ‘I think an old man should be useful.’ I was far too young to take in his real meaning. I had no idea then of that sense of uselessness and defeat that accompanies old age. The real meaning of King Lear or The Old Man and the Sea or Peter Shrubb’s Catastrophe of Old Age was beyond me. But his dictum stuck in my mind.

It came back to me the other day when a group of strolling players (The Actors’ Forum) brought a production of Ernest Thompson’s On Golden Pond to a theatre in my local library. You may remember the film. It stars Henry Fonda as a bitter, sick old man, Katherine Hepburn as his loving wife and Jane Fonda as his estranged daughter. The plot follows a formula. Through sundry adventures on the Golden Pond with a schoolboy, including teaching him to fish, the old man recovers meaning and pleasure in life. He even learns to love his daughter. It is a feelgood story, a tear-jerker. The film was a popular success and won three Academy Awards. It also had its critics. Some saw it as a cloying treatment of old age. Others saw it as evasive, even cowardly. (Death hovers but does not strike.) It is no King Lear.

In the local production the old man and his wife were well played by Don Reid and Jacqueline Kott. They soften the man’s bitterness into grumpiness but the play’s underlying theme is the same. The answer to the question of what an old man is to do is not all that different from Gilbert Murray’s. There are after all only so many options. Some old men pray for forgiveness for the sins committed every day of their lives. Some stoically submit to nature. Some like W.B. Yeats reflect: You think it horrible that lust and rage / Should dance attention upon my old age; / They were not such a plague when I was young. / What else have I to spur me into song? Others like Gilbert Murray try to be useful — even as useful as the dying old man in On Golden Pond.

One of the most moving treatments of the theme is Peter Shrubb’s Catastrophe of an Old Man. It is about the last days of a widower from Sydney’s North Shore who quarrels with his daughters and clears out raging against the dregs who have inherited the earth. In the end he comes to the understanding or belief that the pain and the cruelty suffered by his family are ‘all my fault’. No one understands what he is trying to say, except one daughter mistily. He dies unforgiven and broken-hearted. A bleak, poignant tale, it is far less sentimental than Thompson’s On Golden Pond. It is a small masterpiece.

Robert Connolly’s new film Underground about Julian Assange’s early Australian years is a well-directed and well-acted thriller with the popular David-and-Goliath theme of a young man up against the big battalions, from the Australian Federal Police to the CIA. It is also modishly anti-American propaganda. It applauds Assange’s attack on the liberal democracy he despises. So it is bound to win a variety of awards, isn’t it?

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