David Evans from his perspective spoke admiringly of Harold Coombs, this powerful banker who loved the theatre, and gave patronage to a range of endeavours towards giving Australia a flourishing art world.
‘Russel Ward knows him from his Canberra days. Let’s hear what he’s got to say.’
‘We had our doctorates conferred on us in the same ceremony at the Australian National University’, said Dr. Ward. ‘Something primitive in all of us expects great and powerful people to be commensurately outsized physically. Nugget wasn’t.’
‘It’s generally believed that tall people are better remembered for their achievements, isn’t it?’
‘What about Napoleon?’
‘When it comes to getting a job done it’s all about attitude and confidence. I have seen guys six feet in height slouching and speaking like mummies and people the size of Nugget bursting with energy and persona. It’s all about how you carry yourself.’
‘What about his thinking’ I asked?’
‘They say good things come in small packages. In his case, it’s true. Nugget values intellectual vigour highly and approaches learning as a polymath, a scholar all about knowledge of the broadest kind. He dabbles in everything.
‘He’s interested in ‘the big picture’’.
‘A polymath if ever there was one,’ said Dr. Ward. ‘And one with a cautionary tale for teachers.’
‘How so?’ I asked.
Like all chalkies, Nugget, David and I dreaded the visit of the school inspector. It was a stressful time.
What was the purpose of their coming?
They came to assess our professional competence for promotion on merit and to give professional guidance.’
‘How did you find them, David?’
The ones I had were fairly benign, they genuinely aimed to identify aspects of our craft requiring attention and improvement. By observing my classroom teaching they helped me diagnose any problems I had.
They gave you glowing reports, didn’t they, David?
‘That’s true. I was deemed an outstanding teacher. Somebody up there must have liked me.’
‘I saw others as intruding policemen,’ said Dr. Ward, ‘always looking for faults. A negative judgment from them, speaking of inadequacy, could occasion consternation and drain the confidence of our students and parents. It could change the course of lives. Of course, we embrace entirely the need for a robust inspection and monitoring framework.’
‘If you don’t get looked over, you get overlooked, said David.’
‘True. And teachers do need to be held to account by the outcome of the inspection – but they require a regulator, not a boa constrictor. And who holds the inspectors to account? Do they have a particular hidden agenda.’
‘Seen from outside,’ I said, ‘it might seem that having a group of fellow professionals come round every few years to write up your performance and give it a grade, after reviewing your performance, is not such a big deal. Aren’t these men selected because of their ability to convey ideas and information most effectively.’
‘Good heavens no, Allan. There is an element of this but only too often these are men who are themselves only too happy to get out of classroom teaching. Many couldn’t do it to save their life. They may have more knowledge about behaviour and safeguarding than any subject area. Their function is to maintain conformity and uniformity in educational institutions. The inspection is an old concept in management.’
‘It sounds just like the army. Would you elaborate on this?’
‘The basic concept is that of autocratic management aimed at catching the workers red-handed; a fault-finding attitude in management, and a one-time fact-finding activity. It can be viewed as a process of checking other people’s work to ensure that bureaucratic regulations and procedures are followed and that loyalty to the higher authorities are maintained. This view of inspection largely overlooks the professional interests and needs of the teaching personnel.‘
‘So how do they judge efficiency?’
‘Inspection process conducted with this view in mind may not be effective in upgrading teaching and learning. It’s more often than not a time for putting on something of a show to impress. But it’s very effective at getting teaching personnel to toe the line.’
‘How could we improve on this?’
‘We should move the responsibility for judging teachers and shaping improvement strategies on to the staff, students and parents who use them and work in them.
‘Even parents?’ I queried
‘Yes, Parents can bring a lot to this process, drawing both on the knowledge they have of the their children and their experience of other organisations. Involving all parties would ensure that all viewpoints are equally included in a discussion about what is good, what is less good and – once a shared understanding has been reached on those points – what would make things even better. This approach would enable people to be completely open with their views, critical, appreciative or whatever else. The possibility of contributing to positive change would provide an incentive to thinking hard.’
‘I hope such a process comes about before I graduate’. I said.
Don’t hold your breath. Our inspectoral system is highly bureaucratic and shares with all other aspects of the education bureaucracy, a top-down, hierarchical, and authoritarian character.
Regrettably it is well entrenched.’
‘And what was Nugget Coombs experience with the inspectorate?’
‘As a schoolteacher in rural Western Australia, Nugget horrified inspectors in the mid 1930s with his choice of classroom poetry. He taught his charges T.S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Wasteland’. ‘So much wastepaper!’ said one of his supervisors about this work. ‘This is not a book that should be set aside lightly. It should be flung with great force.’
‘What is it about these works that raised their hackles?’
‘They deal with the general feeling of disillusionment and disgust of the period after World War One. The ‘Great War’, he said contemptuously.
‘He was part of the Lost Generation, wasn’t he?’, I asked.
‘Yes,’he replied, ‘and he felt part of that flower of artistic youth who escaped being mowed down or gassed in World War I. A good many of them were rebuilding their lives after being pitchforked into combat and suffering the horrors of war. For them the idea that if you acted virtuously, good things would happen, went up in smoke forever. Unlike your generation they missed the civilizing influences that young men usually have between the ages of 18 and 25.’
‘Weren’t young men from the ruling class able to escape being drafted?’
‘Unlike those of today and previously, they were expected to lead. In the years immediately after this ‘war to end all wars’, while others of the gilded youth wallowed in the decadence and superficiality of the era, the more serious felt spiritually alienated.’
‘In what way? I asked.
“Stranded between two wars, they were characterized by lost values, lost belief in the idea of human progress. Their mood was one of emptiness, futility and despair leading to hedonism.’
‘This is the aimlessesness described by F. Scott Fitzgerald in ‘This Side of Paradise’, said David. He writes of a generation that found “all Gods dead, all wars fought, all faiths in man shaken.”
‘Coming into the war late,’ I said, they surely weren’t as devastated in the same numbers as the English and Europeans. Couldn’t they have just come back, buy some land, settle down in a quiet little town and forget about everything.’
‘The Americans in this group found their country a great place to go into some area of business but one they considered hopelessly provincial and emotionally barren. They all expressed a highly vocal rebellion against established social, sexual, and aesthetic conventions and a vigorous attempt to establish new values.
‘How did they go about this?’
Reticent about moving into a settled peacetime life, some were determined to raise a hue and cry. Intent on making a new art, they flocked to Greenwich Village, Chicago, and San Francisco.’
‘It sounds like that’s happening all over again. What about the rest?’
‘Others packed up their bags and went to cosmopolitan Europe, more open to less socially restrictive lifestyles and more experimental literature. While most relocated to Paris as expatriates, Eliot took up permanent domicile in London.’
‘Did they work together in any collective way in their self-imposed exile from the American mainstream? How was their work affected?’’
‘This group of American literary notables often had social connections with one another, even meeting to critique one another’s work, building a new literature, impressive in the glittering 1920s and the years that followed. Romantic clichés were abandoned for extreme realism or for complex symbolism and created myth. Language grew so frank that there were bitter quarrels over censorship. The influences of new psychology and of Marxian social theory were also very strong.
Out of this highly active boiling of new ideas and new forms came writers of recognizable stature in the world, among them Ernest Hemingway, doing away with the florid prose of the 19th century Victorian era, replacing it with a lean, clear one based on action, and in poetry T.S. Eliot, sharing a distaste for grandiose patriotic war manifestos.
Of course,’ said Dr. Ward, ‘Nugget’s inspectors, wanting to hear about the love of a sunburnt country, a land of sweeping plains didn’t go for this… To say nothing of Nugget’s inclusion of the trio of political poets and prophets inspired by the artistic principles of Eliot: W.H. Auden, Stephen Spender and C. Day Lewis who emerged out of the Oxford scene. With all their differences notwithstanding, they tended to be lumped together as the Oxford Group. From backgrounds in elitist schools and coming of literary age in one of Britain’s most prestigious universities, they rejected the traditional poetic forms favoured by the Victorians. Rather they concentrated on themes of social injustice, protest and the class struggle. For them writing became a form of action. Little of the opprobrium young Nugget had incurred from these stern scrutineers would have derived from the actual poetry – the pettifogging inspectors probably didn’t have a clue about it – and would have dismissed it as overly convoluted and delphic, as much of Eliot’s work was. These poets were suspect because of their political temper.
‘As in the case of Pearl Buck,’ I said.
‘The inspectors must have seen red when they saw the names, Spender and Day-Lewis, card-carrying members of the Communist Party. Like Nugget they had counted Karl Marx in among their influences. Spender and Auden had been involved in reportage and drumroll for the war against Franco. Spender had written a eulogy to the 1934 socialist uprising in Vienna and an anti-fascist drama “Trial of a Judge”.
On top of that, Spender and Auden were seen as ‘iffy’ because of their flaunting of the straitlaced sexual conventions they were expected to follow. Auden’s percolating homosexual tendencies bubbled up when he was a pupil. Allusions to this homoeroticism do occur through his writings. The inspectors must have feared that these poems would sway young impressionable minds, ignite an outbreak of bloody rebellion and perverse licentiousness …
“… leading to a juvenile Red Gomorrah”. I commented, presaging elements of Lindsay Anderson’s scenario “If”.
“To what extent people’s behaviour – particularly that of the impressionable youth – can be swayed by their reading is a perennial issue in education” Dr. Ward replied. “Literature resonates with the experiences of each individual differently and brings out certain tendencies in some while leaving others unaffected. It depends on what one is predisposed towards. Young Auden’s inclinations – being innate – were most likely brought on early as much by the repressiveness of the boys’ public school he attended as by any book he got his hands on. The school encouraged informing and discouraged any discussion of personal development other than the straight and narrow. His first love grew in an environment of furtive loneliness.
The same goes for the political consciousness raised by these poets. In his hands Nugget’s students may have become more critical and belabouring issues but hardly likely to become violent. In point of fact, allowing them discussion of the widest range of ideas is the safest approach for any democracy wanting to win the unflagging fealty of its citizens. Driving literature considered subversive underground only reinforces any critical message it may have. All truth will out given time’, he said, excusing himself to get a cup of tea.
“Wasn’t it highly unlikely that such privileged young men from the ruling class elite joined the Communist Party, an organization avowedly claiming to smash class rule or became fellow travellers?” I asked of David.
“Once again Russel, would be better able to answer that question. He has a Masters Degree in Modern English Poetry. His thesis dealt with Ezra Pound, T.S. Eliot and W.H Auden and their followers. He’s a mine of information about Communism.
Back in his seat, this is the account Russel gave of the politicisation of these poetic prodigies.
“Socialism taps at all doors, Allan. Let me point out that a key element of the vanguard of social and political change is usually to be found in the cradle of the ruling elite, those who fear change the most. The future of a country depends on the development of the movement of students. In the case of these young intellectuals between the wars, their poetry grew out of the nature of the contemporary world and reacted upon and influenced the ideas and passions of their readers.
‘You’d imagine they were as far from deprivation as anyone could get,’ I said. ‘In a desert of misery, Oxbridge was an oasis of civilized comfort. They were guaranteed the keys to the kingdom. There was no visible cause for them to turn against society.’
‘These young English minds, as brilliant as their pedigrees, fired by youthful idealism, saw clearly that, as in the Great War, every man jack except those who could hide one way or the other would be drawn in.
They saw no alternative to taking the stand they did.
You have to be aware of the climate of the time, Allan. This was a period of expanding fears and ever more urgent political and social crises. The pace of the time itself, the sense of time passing and an end approaching gave a special quality to the Thirties. The public world pressed insistently on the private world. Britain, like the rest of Europe was in a parlous state following the war.
The Depression brought widespread unemployment and hardship. Fascism was on the march. Hitler had been appointed Chancellor. Many saw fascism, including the homegrown strain, as a sword of Damocles overhanging the liberal democracies of Europe. We watched in horror as the Spanish overture gave way to the much larger conflict into which the whole world would be dragged.
To many students at Oxbridge – privileged though they were – this was deeply troubling and unacceptable. It forced thoughtful people to think intensely national and international politics just as the war in Vietnam is doing a generation later. Witnessing the democracies stand by passively and do nothing while the Spanish Republic was destroyed by Hitler and Mussolini, they expected them to be too invertebrate to confront them. They-and myself- saw the Soviet Union – the only example of a socialist state in the world – as the one powerful enough to smite this menace.
‘So it wasn’t at all surprising that you, with some deep feelings of guilt, questioned the justification for such a state of affairs.’
‘On the contrary, it would have been surprising had any sensitive and informed young man coolly accepted his position as though by divine right. The Communists did not require secret recruiting sergeants; the economics of the time did the job quite well enough”.
“What were the ideas these poets took up in this process, Dr Ward?” I asked.
“Before we go on, just call me Russel,” he said.
‘Russel it is,’ I replied.
“Clearly situated on the Left, like many intellectuals of their generation,’ said Russel gathering his thoughts, ‘poets like Auden openly espoused the ideas of Marxism – with its clinical, astringent rundown of the class system – which had gained popularity in educated circles”.
“What happened to them, Russel?” I asked. “They became disillusioned with doctrinaire Communism with its zigzag turns, u-turn manoeuvres, skulduggery and shifting alliances to gain control, people never knowing what it was going to come up with next. One minute it was all for a popular workers and farmers revolutionary government in Spain and the next it was arming forces to stop this and gain control, aiming to present a moderate face to the liberal democracies. The clincher was the Molotov–Ribbentrop pact between Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia which many on the left saw as a betrayal. From Stalin’s perspective, the lack of resolve of the parliamentary democracies to confront Hitler left him little choice.
Spender and Day-Lewis resigned from the party. Spender, refuting his past, called it ‘The God that Failed’. For others after the Second World War the final straw was the repression of the 1956 Hungarian Uprising and the ruthless tactics employed by Soviet intelligence agents. A continuous line of idealists soured to politics”.
“So what was the fate of the Auden generation?” I asked.“Did they continue to pose a threat?”
“Come to think of it, they were more pink than deep red. They jumped ship quickly rather than staying in the party and opposing Stalinism. Heading into the maelstrom of war, the alliance of the Soviet Union and the parliamentary democracies tended to blur – even if only for the war’s duration – their major differences and facilitated the poets’ return to the fold. Highly articulate, well-connected, they knew the right thing to say and had entrees into the highest cliques.
The old boys’ club would bend over backwards to co-opt them smoothly. Sounding like roosters taking credit for the dawn, they put this down to their own irreproachable forgiving reasonableness and reforming character. They institutionalised the rebellious tendencies of these ‘enfant-terribles’, giving them a set place in their scheme of things, rendering them harmless. They forgave their youthful indiscretions, placed fig leaves on them, seeing the error of their ways as something committed in the heat of the moment.’
‘So, in politics nothing is impossible.’
‘It’s not preserved in aspic. Today’s bogeymen can become tomorrow’s national treasures, albeit usually only after they have been rendered harmless. Like Nugget, having committed to the allied war effort, these poets would reach a level of their career at a peak and become liberalising pillars of the establishment.’
“What about you, Russel? You were part of that generation. Are you a pillar of the establishment?” I asked this self-styled radical who would join me increasingly with David in our collegiate canteen to strike sparks off each other.
‘It was tremendously exciting for me as a young man passionately reading literature at that time to come across these challenging minds. I knew just how young Wordsworth felt growing up across the Channel in the early days of the French Revolution.
“Bliss was it to be in that dawn alive;
But to be young was very heaven!”
I quoted, the poem fresh in my mind.
“As for any pillar talk, I’m now more like a Pillar of Hercules” continued this historical oracle. “A port of entry guiding my students into the realm of the unknown. Mind you I’ve done all right for myself,” he went on cautiously, as if he were rather embarrassed by his status. “You might call it poetic justice. I’ve worked hard to get here and copped my share of flak on the way. All par for the course.”
Take a Proper Gander.
‘I’m fascinated by how so much “cultural influence” can be allocated to such a small number of individuals to earn them the reductive catch-all title of The ‘Such And Such’Generation or ‘Such and Such’ Group. How they can come to represent an entire period in time’, I told David.
He replied’ Each generation discovers itself and finds its own expression through the Promethean output of its most talented members. ‘Do you have any particular one in mind?’’, he asked. ‘Is it today’s ‘Love Generation’ with long haired hippy girls and guys in velvet pants with spangles and flowered shirts walking around carefree, eating macrobiotic food, hugging trees.’
‘I’m interested in the so called ‘Angry Young Men’”, I replied.
‘Ah, the catchphrase applied by the popular press to that literary rat pack from unpromising places and unglamorous backgrounds. What did they do?’
‘They crashed the stuffy Establishment party in one generation, harried the citadels of culture, and brought their idioms, themes, and passions to the centre of British life. They undermined the warm, cosy and bumbling stereotype of British life that had been projected in the 50’s comedies.’
‘What was it about the state of affairs that fed their anger and frustration?’
‘These were times when Britain being finally exposed to the very real limits of its power, the political elite was more concerned with international crises such as Suez, or with their own internal debates such as the one taking place in the Labour Party over the future of Clause Four of its constitution. Even Tony Benn gave little hint of any interest in everyday working-class issues. As for the Conservative Government of the day, the Prime Minister, Harold MacMillan was famously telling Britons that ‘You’ve never had it so good’. Many young people could discern no brave causes.’
‘What do you see as their achievement?’
‘They transformed the British heritage, working with the materials of their own backgrounds, the class system, tradition, and artistic convention to make new art. Working class origins and identity no longer needed to be cleaned up. They could be seen as meritorious in their own right.’
‘‘This is nothing new, you know. These writers took their place in a long line of writers who thrived in grit: Daniel Defoe, Charles Dickens, Bernard Shaw, D. H. Lawrence. Do you have any favourite amongst them?’
‘Above all others I’m partial to Alan Sillitoe, the grittiest latecomer. Keep in mind you need grit to make a pearl. I found his prizewinning stories, definitive of their genre, hard to put down’.
‘Why is that?’ David enquired.
“Like Pearl Buck’s, Alan’s stories are grounded in a particular place and time. Set in the industrial heartland of England they reflect the disintegrating social fabric of postwar England. The comfortable complacency and social harmony of the early nineteen-fifties had been exposed as an illusion.’
‘Have you made any comment to him?’
‘Alan appreciated my greeting him.
I told him he had injected fresh vigour into post-war literature with brash realistic portrayals of masculinity and defiant working class anti-heroes heretofore largely ignored in recent literature;with stories riveting for their striking realism and raciness. I congratulated him for helping make their faithful adaptation into some gems of films.”
‘Frontrunners of the new wave in British cinema I believe,’ commented David.
‘Saturday Night and Sunday Morning and the ‘The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner,’ I confirmed, ‘the rebels portrayed by Albert Finney and Tom Courteney respectively. The former film is important for escaping the cloying banalities of Ealing studios, the simplistic celebration of the Second World War and the reassuring conceits and certainties that followed.’
‘Talk about the characters in these stories, Allan.’
‘The main characters in his early novels are usually poor people, rebellious individuals, young men from rows of brick houses and grubby homes, deprived of economic and social opportunities.
They generally are opposed to the established social order but are yet affected by consumerism and hedonism. ‘Saturday Night’, a seminal novel of the period, conveys the attitudes and situation of a young factory worker, Arthur Seaton, charting a year in the life of this rude, abrasive and amoral young labourer who lives for the weekends, slugging down beer and looking for a bit of slap and tickle. This was the time of the week he thinks about taking a wife. The only question is, ‘From whom?’
His foreman says he must be a Communist, which Arthur accepts without knowing much about. Or caring about.
Alan describes Saturday night for this rapscallion as ‘the best and bingiest glad-time of the week, one of the fifty two holidays in the slow turning big wheel of the year, a violent preamble to a violent Sabbath’. Inevitably that roving glad-eyed rooster is faced with the end of this misspent youthful philandering. Wild oats sown in wasted daze could bring an unwelcome crop-being tied tied down with squalling brats as his missus dropped another. The three-timing Arthur looks doomed to knuckle under and for all his bravado he sees no other life but the humdrum one he was born into. Getting conjugal with a complacent ‘nice’girl from his own neighbourhood only sealed his fate.
‘Arthur doesn’t sound like the kind of guy you’d care to cross’said David,’Flinty and self-possessed. Does he have any redeeming features?’ he asked.
‘His saving grace is his honesty’, I replied,’it helps you overlook his off-putting traits. He flaunts his motto:’ I’m out for a good time. All the rest is propaganda!’While life has dealt him a lousy hand and his horizons are limited, he’s determined to make the most of what lies within them. Smarter than he looks, he knows what he wants and is sharp enough to get it. He has worked out on point the right degree of give and take he needs to make in order to live the kind of life he wants to live. He drinks hard, plays hard but works hard. He seldom feels sorry for himself and has a wise eye for the world. At one point, looking about him, he comments: ‘Nobody’s satisfied with what they’ve got, if you ask me.’
‘What about his other stories?’ asked David.
‘In the title story of ‘The Loneliness of the Distant Runner’, the narrator is a young reform school inmate This boy who gets his back up finds a kind of freedom in the isolation of distance running. The written sentences, rhythmic and breathless, read like miles and miles of evenly-paced running, taking you along with him. When the Governor backs him in a cross-country race we are party to the internal dialogue on his reasons for running and his ideas of what victory really entails. The borstal boy shows his appreciation for his gift being patronized. When the time for the race arrives, he declines the offered chance to abscond on his dawn solo runs and exacts the far subtler payback. He deliberately loses in order to spite and take down his guardians, to show his defiance of authority.’ ‘Some critics found found this authenticity too confronting, I’m told.’ ‘Sillitoe has often shown authority figures as inherently ignorant and ready to be manipulated by the lower classes. In making the film version, Tony Richardson drew upon the emerging youth culture as in ‘Saturday Night…’ in which Sillitoe’s use of vernacular was toned down and the successful abortion was changed so as to come up dry. One script reader found the screenplay rather risky. Let me read to you what he had to say’ I said picking up the report from The Sydney Morning Herald. “But this story is very blatant and trying Communist propaganda, and particularly worrying for us because the hero is a thief and is held up to the admiration of young thuggish airheads. If leading citizens of Nottingham didn’t like Saturday Night because they thought the hero was not a good representative of that city, I don’t know what they will say about this epic.”
‘What Alan had to say was that likeminded attempts to censor his work smacked themselves of Soviet heavyhandedness in deciding what writers could and couldn’t say. What do you say about this, David,’ I asked.
‘I say that any roughness or rudeness emanating from these ‘bad’ representatives is far outweighed by their economic contribution to society whether they be in Nottingham or Sydney. Some say all these proletarian lads want to do is drink and let their hair down, but don’t all members of the drinking class have something in common?’ he said as a familiar bawdy, glugging sound drifted in from down the corridor. Someone new had been singled out in the latest boozing match.
‘Here’s to Proudy, he’s true blue,
he’s a piss-pot through and through,
he’s a bastard, so they say,
He tried to drink it down, but it went the other way
Drink it down, down, down.’
This chug-a-lug chant continued till Proudy had finished gulping down his beer. When he had given full throttle to the bottle and downed it all they followed the skolling by trolling—
“Hooray to Proudy, Hooray at last! Hooray to Proudy, He’s a horses arse!” Such rituals could go on well after the law of diminishing marginal utility had set in.
The test was ‘you’re not drunk if you can lie on the floor without hanging on’.
‘Does a man good to cut loose once in a while,’ said Proudy.
‘You could do with being tied up once in a while.’
‘As for the more anti- social proletarian elements,’ said David, continuing, ‘we have to see things through their eyes and understand them. Louts and criminals come from all layers of society. It is less forgivable when they come from the ranks of the privileged’.
Making the Science less Dismal.
Not surprisingly my preoccupying interest in the dismal science became that of understanding the factors required for a stable equitable economy in which the welfare of all citizens is paramount, structured to satisfy human needs rather than to produce profits.
I learned how fluctuations in prices can lead to instability and uncertainty. My study revealed that the best time to buy anything is last year.
The prevailing idea in my economic studies was that developed by John Maynard Keynes. His approach to economic policy making was to increase demand for goods and services by government spending and other means. The aim was to guard against the recurrence of the kind of economic depression that had paralysed the world between the wars. There was a feeling that the past had to be acknowledged and a determination that such unemployment and poverty not be repeated.
I became particularly interested in the way in which the monetary system affected this. I studied more about Dr. Harold Coombs. He thanked me for my kind remarks to him when I was studying Money-the lifeblood of the capitalist system.
His signature was on all of our bank notes. I thanked him for his compassionate approach to people.
A self styled activist and interferer, he saw it as the public servant’s line of duty to protect and develop the interests of society as well as those of the state which employed him and her. His social conscience and commitment were stirred during his years of study in London. He was appalled by conditions created by the Depression in what purported to be a modern industrialized society. He embraced Keynes interventionist, deficit-spending ideas. As a student, he used to dine with Keynes.
”I am by nature an interferer,” he once said, ”and I would like to do something about things if I can. There is too much poverty, too much intolerance, too much hatred.”
During World War II he was director of rationing: the man who cut off the nation’s shirt tails to save cloth. He believed that rationing should be based on equity and solicitude for each and every individual. He promoted rationing as being concerned with “fair shares”.
Dr Coombs or ‘Nugget’ as he was affectionately nicknamed was appointed to a new post of Director-General of postwar reconstruction – charged with promoting ideas designed to make Australia after the war something to live for and fight for. One important task was to successfully restore time expired veterans to civilian life. Appointed as head of the central bank by Ben Chifley, his objectives included controlling creation of credit so that those whose needs and deserts were greatest were those who benefited most, and second controlling credit so that it enhanced the efficiency of the system. During his tenure as central bank governor, from 1948 to 1968, he tended to favour less intervention and greater Government discipline over spending.’
In banking legislation he made good at writing a charter charging the bank specifically with the task of promoting stability of the currency, full employment and the economic prosperity and welfare of the people.
In later life Nugget would despair at the tunnel vision of the modern economist and the lack of idealism in public life, bemoaning the reason of a new, uncaring intelligentsia. The battle of ideas, he said, was being won by an uncaring corporate society without a sense of community obligation.
“By intelligentsia,’ he told a seminar on ethics, ‘I mean not those people who have inherited power because of nobility, but those who by good fortune have had access to time to think or to read or to argue; those who have had the benefit of what we used to call small liberal education; those who have inherited the same kinds of obligations as the lords of the manor inherited – the sense that we, too, have an obligation personally to care for others. One of the distressing things to me about what has happened towards the end of my life is… the fact that decisions are made without the kind of study which it is the function of the intelligentsia to provide, that decisions are made without allowing that kind of debate in an independent context.
It distresses me to see how far the corporate society, in addition to taking over the economic culture of the management of resources, seems to have taken over the intelligentsia. … Regrettably, the intelligentsia is becoming increasingly the instrument of the corporate society”.
First hand experience of the horrors of the Depression had led even the conservative Harold Macmillan to advocate Keynesian policies then unpopular in his party. He went to the country successfully in 1959 with the slogan, ‘We are all workers now.’
A cut above the rest, with sincere notions of noblesse oblige, this member of a patrician family worked at winning over the Conservative Party to accepting the welfare state. ‘The nation cannot afford it,’ complained one hardline Tory. ‘Every time that Labour moves to the left, the decimal point in the budget moves to the right.’ Limiting funds for pensions, family allowances and the national health service would have of course hurt even his party’s middle class rank and file. It could be patronising if not punitive. His constituency, Stockton-on-Tees was one of many depressed areas where widespread unemployment and hopeless street corner groups of unwanted men haunted Britain for years between the world wars. This human waste made a mockery of the ‘land fit for heroes’ that had been promised to soldiers returning from the 1914-18 world war.
An astute statesman Macmillan cultivated a public image that was reassuring, imperturbable, sensible, urbane, slightly aloof and always in control. In the immediate aftermath of the racist violence that had erupted in Nottingham and Notting Hill Gate in the 1950’s, he had shown determination in being seen not to give way to racist demands.
He primed the pump so to avoid unemployment. As minister of housing and local government (1951-54) he triumphantly made good on a Conservative pledge to build 300,000 new houses a year. I told him this was the right direction and he appreciated this.
Mrs Thatcher, who headed in the opposite direction with savage cutbacks would refer to Mr Macmillan belittlingly as a ‘closet socialist’. As for Mr. Benn, across the floor in the Parliament, she would view him as well and truly out of it.
Off with Her Head!
Having been a childhood philatelist, I noticed that on the letter from the double barrelled Mr. Anthony Wedgewood Benn, as he was formerly known, the Queen’s portrait on the stamp had been scaled down to a pintsized profile in silhouette. The cameo in the corner. A republican, he wanted to permit the introduction of “non-traditional” designs – of landscapes, portraits of composers and so on. He persuaded the Queen to overrule officials who deemed Robert Burns unfit to appear on a stamp.
As Postmaster General, scaling up the functions of the Post Office, he had proposed issuing stamps without the Sovereign’s head. He knelt on the floor and spread stamp designs before her very eyes, but this time it met with her private opposition. He went on to say : ‘If the Queen can reject the advice of a minister on a little thing like a postage stamp, what would happen if she rejected the advice of the prime minister on a major matter? If the Crown personally can reject advice, then, of course, the whole democratic facade turns out to be false.’
This protest epitomised what Benn stood for throughout his political life: the massive patronage afforded to a prime minister through the Crown.
Formerly 2nd Viscount Stansgate, who had worn top hat and tails as a public schoolboy, he was as recognisably English as a character out of Anthony Trollope or even PG Wodehouse. He fought a vigorous and eventually successful campaign for the right to renounce his peerage and the usual box of tricks. All in order to be eligible to eligible for a seat in the House of Commons. He had successfully contested an election but couldn’t occupy it because of his title. Ironically, his victorious Conservative opponent was himself the heir to a peerage, held by his cousin. Benn said the situation could be most easily resolved if he murdered his opponent’s cousin.
The Clerks in the House of Lords told him to they were very insulted that anybody did not want to be a peer. He said: ‘If I had arrived with a string around my trousers and a choker scarf and said I was a dustman but thought I had a strong claim to be the Earl of Dundee, I think they would have treated me with more respect!’
The press called him “the reluctant peer”. Benn said that was wrong. He took some blood out in a vial and said he did not have blue blood at all, and that he was not a “reluctant peer” but a “persistent commoner”.
The result of his campaign was not foreseen. The law of unintended consequences had kicked in. He paved the way for the Tory grandee, the 14th Earl of Home, who also renounced his peerage. Charging through the opening, the Earl would automatically secure the prime ministership. Home at last!
Mr. Benn was in the forefront of the technological revolution of the 1960s. When I read his article [‘The Guardian’ February 1964] in the university library, I had to refrain from shouting ‘Eureka! He’s got it. The Red Sea has parted. This politician understands it.’ In ‘The Guardian’ February 1964, he denounced the culture of amateurism and an overly narrow specialization at the same time: ‘Both narrow their vision when it should be broadened’. Of the two he saw the cult of specialization as probably becoming the most dangerous: ‘To take a narrow view of human beings is both destructive of the human personality and also unscientific. The interaction of one factor on another cannot be considered by the specialist alone. The urban explosion is a perfect example of the failure to relate industrial development, housing development, road construction and office building, one to another.’
He saw that it ‘may create it’s own mythology of expertise designed to freeze out those whom it’s elite do not think qualified to comment. Yet it may well be that the most valuable member in society is the innovator who, though not necessarily the best in his field, has so successfully retained his capacity for general thinking that he can make the really important breakthroughs and make the relevant connections. Anything which makes it harder to locate the innovator or makes it harder for him to play his vital role will be a loss for the whole community.’
Taken to it’s logical conclusion, more and more specialisation means that everyone becomes better and better at less and less and eventually someone will be superb at nothing at all.
As a generalist high school teacher working in the N.S.W. Department of Education with it’s baleful record of delivering literacy skills and protecting children’s welfare, my ability to convey such skills and concern over children in my charge at risk was totally disregarded by it. Mr. Benn contrasted the revolution he had in mind, based on education and research with human goals, with the traditional one where firstly barricades are built. ‘Ours must begin with the destruction of the barriers that now divide us from one another. The paradox of modern society is that we can only reap the harvest of specialization when we have developed the courage to specialize professionally.’
I gave my encouragement to this boyish enthusiast in his public office. Having increased the functions of the Post Office, The dashing ‘young Lochinvar’ was promoted inside the cabinet in charge of a new ministry that he believed could ‘really change the face of Britain and its prospects for survival.’ It was Mr. Benn who was given a large part in implementing Harold Wilson’s “white heat of technology” agenda. In 1963, Prime Minister Wilson had delivered a speech to the Labour Party saying that for Britain to prosper it must be forged in the “white heat” of a science and technology revolution. He committed to setting up a Ministry of Technology to lead this with Benn as Minister. The Queen told him: ‘You’ll miss your stamps.’
Mr. Benn gave voice to a formidable minority in the Labour party wanting to reverse the long deviation from its socialist agenda and to transform the political, economic and social systems through a comprehensive program of nationalization, including financial institutions, welfare provision and unilateral nuclear disarmament. He believed a state possessing such weapons and the means to guard them has insulated a whole part of itself from democratic control.
In February 1958, the month of CND’s foundation, Mr. Benn resigned his position as one of Labour’s front bench spokesmen on Defence, stating that he could not, “under any circumstances, support a policy which contemplated the use of atomic weapons in war”.
I encouraged Mr. Benn in this and to help bring about a Race Relations Act. He had given crucial support to the successful Bristol Bus Boycott. This protest at the Bristol Omnibus company’s refusal to employ a black driver would be instrumental in creating the1968 Act.
I encouraged him to help bring about not just this but also the easing of divorce and discussions over raising the school-leaving age as the progressive capstones of the Wilson administration. I told him, ‘Your blood’s worth bottling’.
I passed on a joke to him: ‘And what rank does your uniform signify?’asked the old lady of the officer. ‘I am a naval surgeon, madam,’he replied.
The lady exclaimed in wonderment, ‘Goodness how you doctors specialize these days!’
‘Wedgie’ got back to me promptly.
Great Leaps- Backwards and Forwards.
One of the most authoritive texts on Keynes was written by Alvin Hansen from Harvard University. He urged greater government spending for schools, hospitals, roads, housing, slum clearance and power development. His policies were adopted in the US Employment Act of 1946. While I getting my head around these fiscal ideas, Professor Hansen told me that his work ‘Business Cycles’ had been translated into Russian.
I found this interesting as with all their stopgap measures to solving problems, the Russians through the planned economy had largely been able to avoid the chaotic fluctuations of the market economy. They would well done have studied such ups and downs to understand their fate – their cast-iron stagnant economy bankrupted by the stakes in the arms race being constantly raised, going west cold turkey, joining the triumphalist world capitalist economy as a basket case, on one big ‘downer’.
Glasnost gave everyone the right to complain and accuse, but it didn’t make more shoes.
Unable to lick us, their leaders joined us, hoping to be pulled along in the slipstream. Moving to the capitalist right at the speed of light. Rejecting state interventionism, off to the I.M.F. with their begging bowl. Sharing our ‘hit and miss’ cult of the individual, private property, and casino capitalism on steroids. Following the ‘shock therapy’ prescribed by the neo-liberal witch doctors, millions would hit the wall, missing their jobs and their homes, their savings and their common wealth gutted. Those who objected enough could be imprisoned so that prices could be free. Precious little would trickle down.
It all gushed up. The ownership of public capital was expropriated by kingpin capitalists and other high rollers believing tomorrow belongs to them, getting rich on public share sell-offs and massive bonuses for cost-cutting. As for many former soviet citizens, including war veterans and babushkas, they would see their quality of life deteriorate. Like in Britain and the U.S., only worse, massive public disinvestments rendered school accommodation unusable, hospital buildings with walls falling down and public transportation downright dangerous to use. Workers were left straggling, thrown onto growing industrial scrapheaps.
Farm workers discovered the land they had lived on and worked for generations had been sold out from underneath them. And like most of the Russian population now confronting the consequences of privatisation, they had no clear idea how this happened or where the money exchanged, if there was any, went.
Debt collectors circling, desperate people bartered their battered housewares in the street to scrape by. Retreating to homes where the electricity flickers on and off and the telephone often goes dead in the middle of a call. Women transported into virtual slavery by prostitution rings involved in human trafficking. Oh bondage up yours!
Little wonder some would turn to the universal suspicion that whatever Now is like, Then was better. They would voice nostalgia for the good old days of Stalin when things worked properly. When a cult came with poisonality.