Doggerel days

Now where was I?* Oh yes . . . The Wodehouse Society convention in Washington DC, way back in October . . . hmmm. It was a big couple of days and I’ve tried to capture them in verse, given that’s less typing. My excuse for not expanding on the topic in my usual wordy way is that the doggerel ate my homework.

No really, thank you, the applause is too much . . .

PGW logo

The Stepper Goes to Washington†

What ho, old bean, they brayed
as The Stepper hove into view.
G’day, I grinned, undismayed
amid the Plummy crew.

I’m the boy from Oz, how’re’y’all
doin’ here in Washington?
What, what, what, they said ’n’ all,
just to be clear, what again?

Well, I knew I couldn’t keep this up
for a whole weekend so I reverted
to English and they offered the cup
of kindness usual to the converted.

Up on the Hill they’re plotting the last Trump,
down below we’re unravelling the mysteries
of Jeeves and Bertie and things that go bump
in the night of Wooster’s Edwardian histories.

We sing the songs of the Trio of Musical Fame
and shake a dashed efficient ankle
at the Charleston of night-clubbing shame
before hearing some serious rankle.

Riveting talks take us to Blandings Castle,
dramas with the sisters Threepwood
and how the FBI began to wrestle
with Piccadilly Jim the spy – they would!

A prof named Constance, not Gally’s sister,
is bringing her students to Plum
by explaining irony – I say, hey mister,
it’s an irony-free zone, old chum.

There’s solemn talk among the assembled:
what’s the best of Wodehouse, they ask?
Right ho, Jeeves, I say – but, they dissembled,
we plump for Psmith he’s pfit for the ptask.

It seems the Americans prefer Lord Emsworth
and his supreme black pig, the Empress,
to the Drones, their girlfriends of much mirth
and the valet who rules the dress to impress.

Ah Jeeves! His eyebrow would have lifted
that merest fraction at the sight of
the soup and fish with soft shirt fronts,
and ties gents should’ve thought better of.

When we get down to browsing and sluicing,
a famous Washington Post writer
sends me to sleep with a speech loosing
his knowledge all over us, the blighter.

I wake up in time for the closing sketch,
a piece about the American Revolution
featuring Jeeves and Bertie, a wretch
of a wife and husband of Oily pollution.

I knew all the jokes, I’d heard ’em before,
and so had the author, in movies no less,
but I laughed anyway as I left the floor.
That’s Wodehouse, man of infinite jest.

So I got back on the train, headed for New York
to give my regards to Broadway where Kern
and Wodehouse a century ago were all the talk:
six shows up in lights at once – what a turn!

If you’re reading this, it means you actually got to the end of my doggerel in the window, the fun with the waggly tale.

No really, you’re too much . . .

The convention program was probably a bit esoteric for the uninitiated but I think it had two highlights that could have been well appreciated by any blow-in seeking to escape the wail of sirens and the rumble of tourist buses outside the auditorium.

One was the concert by Maria Jette and Dan Chouinard of their P.G. Wodehouse song repertoire. In case you haven’t caught up with this, Plum was a prolific lyricist for the Broadway musical theatre in roughly 1914-35 but he made his name in company with Jerome Kern and Guy Bolton as the Trio of Musical Fame up to about 1921. Click on Wodehouse to the Rescue Again in these archives for the full story.

Maria and DanMaria, a highly accomplished operatic soprano, and her accompanist/fellow singer, Dan, are paid-up Wodehouse tragics and their renditions of his songs gave a whole new meaning to lyrics most of which I had only ever read. Maria has done extensive research into the oeuvre, even travelling to the Library of Congress from her home town of Minneapolis to dig out the original manuscripts of the songs and their contexts, the shows for which they were written. Her version of Plum’s most famous song, Bill, from Showboat (although it wasn’t written for that), gives it a playful tone entirely missed by the torchsong reading mouthed by Ava Gardner in the movie. I find descriptions of music and musical performance in words very frustrating, so I won’t go on. I merely recommend that anyone who’s interested in what these songs sound like look up Maria and Dan on YouTube or go to their websites – and

The other possible highlight for the non-Wodehousean – and especially the Australian n-W – was a paper by an eminent academic on how she is using the works of P.G. Wodehouse to explain irony to her students. I remarked to a woman beside me that the rest of the world (actually meaning Oz) regarded America as an irony-free zone. Didn’t register . . . straight through to the keeper.

walkerThe speaker in question was Constance Walker PhD, the Class of 1944 Professor of English and the Liberal Arts at Carleton College. She called her paper Jeeves Among the Hipsters (with a PP presentation of course) and it was a mix of serious exposition and apt humourous references, which I found most interesting. I didn’t get a chance to talk to her in Washington but I wrote to her afterwards. She was very friendly, using part of her e-mail to tell me her son shared my interest in trains, and went on, as requested, to give me a synopsis of the paper.


irony 1irony 2“I talked,” she wrote, “about designing an undergraduate course on British comedy loosely based on Eliot’s Tradition and the Individual Talent, and about a syllabus that allows students to appreciate both where Wodehouse fits into the tradition and where his originality lies. For the rest of the talk, I argued that millennial students are actually advantageously poised to be able to appreciate PGW, due to 1) the pervasiveness of irony in contemporary cultural life (this fits well with PGW’s masterful deployment of situational, structural, and dramatic irony); 2) their keen interest in style and presentation of themselves on social media; and 3) the playfulness and inventiveness with language that’s a hallmark of both PGW’s style and modern discourse, with examples drawn from internet memes.”

I don’t mean to be facetious, or in any way mocking. I am after all, like her, not merely a fan but a student of Wodehouse (and others besides) but. . . I’ve remarked on this before: Americans are very serious people and, when they choose to study something, or even be enthusiastic, they do so . . . exhaustively. It’s a mark of Prof. Walker’s experienced teaching method, I suppose, that I don’t remember her paper being as, um, challenging as that. Perhaps that’s why the cryptic notes I took were almost meaningless when I looked at them later.

I think I got it, though. It’s simple enough: she’s using irony to explain irony. Ironic, isn’t it . . . and in America, too.

Bless my soul, as Lord Emsworth would say.


*This is an echo of (later Sir) William Connor, P.G. Wodehouse’s arch wartime denunciator. Connor, a journalist who wrote under the name, Cassandra, began his first column in the Daily Mirror after WWII with the words: “As I was saying before I was so rudely interrupted . . .”

†More echos. The convention convenors adapted the name of the Jimmy Stewart movie, Mr Smith Goes to Washington (roughly the story of a naïve bumpkin abroad in the cynical world of politics). Yours truly has taken the persona of The Old Stepper from the Wodehouse story Ukridge and the Old Stepper, for The Wodehouse Society’s e-mail forum. The yarn plays on the old poverty-stricken English fantasy of the rich uncle turning up from Australia and solving all their problems.


Nothing gold can stay

It’s been a while . . . what with one thing and another . . .

My mother died on 2 January, aged 91. The following is what I said at her funeral, and is published with the blessing of my father, who is 93. Just to make it clear, the geographic progression is from Brisbane in Queensland, Australia, to Maryborough, Queensland, via the bush, then Ipswich, Brisbane again and, finally, to my parents’ retirement home on Bribie Island, in the same region of south-east Queensland.

pink shirt 2Nature’s first green is gold,
Her hardest hue to hold.
Her early leaf’s a flower;
But only so an hour.
Then leaf subsides to leaf,
So Eden sank to grief,
So dawn goes down to day
Nothing gold can stay.
       –Robert Frost (1874-1963)


For most of the past 69 years, Esme Annie Bushnell was simply “mum” to me . . . then to my brothers and sisters, as she brought them into the world behind me – Dianne, Clark, Robyn, Ian, Alison and Elaine. To the 18 grandchildren she was “grandma”. And eventually to the great grandchildren I’ve no doubt that, if they had gotten to know her, she would have been, inevitably, “great grandma”. In fact, grand-daughter Dorothy, who’s 5½, was talking about “great grandma” and “great grandpa” just the other day. There are six “greats” at present and mum received the news just before she died that another was on the way. It gave her great joy in her last days.

For dad, I never heard him call mum anything but “Es” or occasionally “love”. What endearments they might have used out of earshot of us kids will remain a matter for dad and his memories. But somehow I reckon it would have been plain speaking, nothing elaborate . . . for that has always been their way. Straightforward . . . clear.

And so today this little farewell will be about just plain “mum” . . .

Mum was born to Emily and Harry Hambrecht in the Brisbane suburb of Lutwyche where her grandmother ran a nursing home. This was a Scots-German pairing – Em was a Campbell, only a generation away from a place called Espie in Argyll, and it was with this side of her parentage it’s my impression that mum came to identify herself, more than the Hambrecht side. Certainly, we talked about the Scots ancestry more, and mum liked her Scottish heritage.

Harry Hambrecht was a forester by profession and had been a Lighthorseman in the Great War. Early in life, therefore, mum went bush . . . to a speck on the map named Bauple, deep in the forest between Maryborough and Gympie. Bauple wasn’t even big enough to be called a one-horse town . . . but in any event the Hambrechts owned a horse. Mum used to tell stories of riding four miles through the bush to the one-teacher school, or if she really wanted to impress us kids with how well-off we were, the story was about walking four miles . . . barefoot. There was another story, too, of a sulky ride through the bush to get grandma to hospital in Gympie so she could give birth to mum’s sister.

Mum was the eldest of the four Hambrecht children. She was followed by Ray, Mima and Norm – all long gone. I don’t recall her talking about growing up in the Depression but I imagine it was just as tough for the Hambrecht family as it was for everyone else. But they got through it, came out of the bush and settled in Maryborough where mum went to high school . . . and this is where the story really begins.

Fast forward to 1947, sometime around mum’s 21st birthday. She’d had a few jobs since leaving school . . . in a book shop, in a news agency and a pharmacy. She was what would be known now as a shop assistant . . . but then in the language of the day, a shop girl. Life was jogging along until one day a handsome young man named Graham, not long home from the war, crossed her path. My sisters tell me mum’s story was that she met dad one day on a street corner in Maryborough. As dad tells it, he doesn’t remember any street-corner encounter. As far as he’s concerned, he met mum at a party . . . and things developed from there. Whatever happened, it was fate . . . and it wasn’t long before he was wheeling mum around Maryborough, doubled-banked on the bar of his bike. That bike was famous in our family. Mum and dad were to ride double-banked through the next 70 years.

With dad, mum found her calling . . . to be a wife and mother. Other vocations may be more glamorous, or receive more accolades these days, but none is more important. Mum became a wife in July, 1948, and a mother in November of that year. In a way, therefore, you could say mum’s calling found her, and I for one am pretty happy about that.

Indeed, she fulfilled her calling as well as anyone could. Between 1948 and 1969, when she was 42 years old, she carried eight babies – the third of whom was stillborn. As far as I could observe, she faced this tragedy stoically, as women have always had to do, and will always have to do. It was an event not much spoken about in the family but it was not buried. Mum herself raised it during her 90th birthday party . . . from which I think we can infer that her lost child was never far from her mind.

She made a comfortable and loving home for us all, until such time as we started to make our own way in the world. And even then, although she and dad branched out themselves, quite rightly, to expand their own lives, there was always a home for us when we came visiting.

It was a home of scones straight out of the oven, and apple pie. To this day, no one bakes apple pies as good as mum’s. Her method of making rissoles has been passed down the family chain. She taught us other small survival skills – sewing and knitting and washing and ironing. She was tough with us when she had to be, and nurturing all the time.

Mum didn’t just tell us how to behave. She showed us. She showed us strength and resilience in the face of adversity. We had some rough passages over the early years, when household resources were stretched to the limit. Mum used to make our clothes, at first on a treadle machine and then on an electric one that dad found the money for somehow. My high school uniforms were sewn on that machine. One day I have never been able to forget, I asked her at a meal time why she wasn’t eating when we children were. Not hungry she said, but even then as a child I suspected the real answer. She showed us the value of sacrifice.

For me, though, the most wonderful thing she did for us kids was to pass on her love of words, and not just the love but an understanding of the power of words. She might have been only a shop girl but mum knew about words. She used to read to us when we were babies, read with us when we were older and always made sure we had books around. She was never without a crossword, both the ordinary kind and cryptics, right up until her last days. She encouraged all of us in our writing, and to take notice of what was going on in the world. None of us is therefore notably lost for words. The great Bushnell debating society was born over the kitchen table in Ipswich and rolls on through our various households.

Mum was very competitive. She played hockey as a girl, well enough to represent Maryborough in state tournaments, and you’ll find a number of hockey players through our various family branches. And I remember her playing tennis until the pressure of family life took over. The love of the contest never left her – family Scrabble games were a form of blood sport. Mum inherited a strong bottom jaw from her mother and, when she wanted to assert herself (which was most of the time), that jaw would jut out and the teeth would grit. I guess the ladies at the bowls club on Bribie saw it more than once as she split the head with a well placed bowl.

Mum’s love of reading allowed her to travel the world even while she was necessarily confined to home. So when the chance came to get off the page and on the road, she was an enthusiastic traveller. She and dad did the grey nomad thing a few times. They had several caravans over the years after dad retired in the mid-eighties and they roamed many thousands of miles around Australia. Dad tells me she was still keen to get out there again until quite recently. They rode The Ghan [Australian transcontinental train] and dad insisted mum take a helicopter ride over Katherine Gorge. I never thought this woman who was afraid of heights would go up in a chopper but she did, and loved it. Dad says she’d go anywhere in a car, a bus, a train or a plane but would not contemplate a ship. The two of them covered Britain and Europe, Egypt and Gallipoli, China and New Zealand. The irony is that her children, to whom she’d opened up the world, had all been to see it years before she did.

One of the benefits of her long life was that she reached milestones worth celebrating and so when she hit 90 it was a grand experience to draw the family together at a lunch to mark the occasion. We all told stories about her and she told a few of her own. Even though she was by then getting frail, she soaked up a glass of red, some loud music and the party atmosphere. The collection of photos we had on display was evidence that it was not the first time she’d enjoyed a party, something that perhaps people meeting her might have found surprising. She was quite reserved in her public face. Dad says she was shy, and he should know. But I suspect there was also an element of sizing people up until such times as she had their measure. After that, though, the warm and fun-loving woman emerged. She was a caring and steadfast friend, and an implacable foe.

What we also saw gloriously on display at her 90th birthday party was what had been apparent for seven decades to anyone who wanted to see . . . and that was the life and strength she drew from the partnership with dad. She found her calling double-banked with him, and that’s how it was forever. She died at home in her own bed, lying alongside dad, where she’d been for 70 years.

It was a good end to a good life. Amen.

Rome on the Potomac

If it seems like an age since I promised to bring you my observations on Washington DC, it’s only because, well, because it’s been three weeks and, as you know, a week is a long time in politics, even longer if you’re travelling. Since I wheeled my suitcase out of the Wodehouse convention, I’ve put a week in Manhattan, a continent, an ocean and an unwelcome dose of the coughs and sneezes between me and the capital capital.

butt sign DC

Funny place, Washington

I am now, of course, by Wodehousean measure an Expert on the United States, if not all things American. My first piece in this series explained why this would be so and I see no reason not to claim Expert status. In three weeks, I supplemented my infrequent visits to the US over 30 years with a second train journey from the west coast across what I’ve seen referred to as “flyover country”, starting in San Francisco rather than Los Angeles (as I did 20-odd years ago), setting foot in Chicago, conventioneering in DC and marching through Manhattan. I have transported, housed, fed and watered myself mostly in ways not much different from those of the people around me, sometimes better than average and sometimes less than. In Washington I stayed in a rundown hotel that catered for the budget tourist and consequently was full to the brim with school groups, some of them foreign. The Wodehouse convention meant I was closeted for three days with a couple of hundred middle Americans from all over the country – all reasonably affluent, it is safe to say; mostly of a certain age, but not all; mostly white, but not all; and mostly Anglo, but not all.

I am an Expert then, and it is from this exalted position I declare that I’m damned if I know. I no more understand America than all the others who have traipsed through that vast and diverse experiment in civilisation. The only thing I have concluded is that, if you want to understand America, as everyone is always trying to do, you need to start in Washington DC.

This might seem counter-intuitive, given the way other Experts of all persuasions have fanned out across the nation over the past year, trying to get a handle on what happened in the Presidential election. Mostly, it seems to me, they’re trying to find out where they went wrong in their prognostications. If they really wanted to understand their own country, I reckon they should start by joining a tour group at the Capitol. Not only would they actually meet “deplorables”, they would hear what it is ordinary Americans are told about the foundations of their country and what it is they, oh so deeply, believe about it. Go to the source is an early lesson in journalism, and this is it.

Capitol pin cardAs anyone knows who has eyes to see and a TV to switch on, the United States Capitol is a gleaming white, neo-classical, domed pile built on a hill overlooking the broad sweep of the National Mall past the reflecting pool and the Washington Monument down to the Lincoln Memorial at the western end on the banks of the Potomac River. I bought a lapel pin at one of the Capitol souvenir shops. It has a quite handsome enamel image of the dome against a red background, which I shall be quite pleased to wear. But I’m a little reluctant to separate it from its card because the blurb on that card is a masterpiece of writing – maybe not the Gettysburg Address but in its own way a gem of succinct prose:

The United States Capitol is the most widely recognized symbol of democratic government is the world. It has housed Congress since 1800. The Capitol is where Congress meets to write the laws of this nation, and where presidents are inaugurated and deliver their State of the Union messages. For more than two centuries, the Capitol has grown along with the nation, adding new wings to accommodate the increasing number of senators and representatives as new states entered the Union. Its ceilings are decorated with historic images, and its halls are lined with statues and paintings representing great events and people from the nation’s history.

The 1875 Appleton’s guide book, so beloved of Michael Portillo, says simply: “It is probably the most magnificent public edifice in the world.

Capitol east side

Since 2008, visitors have had access to the Capitol via a huge two-level bunker under the building – not a bit under, but right under – approached through an unobtrusive entrance on the eastern plaza (the back side of the building, above). This “visitors’ centre” is not unlike a railway station – a big open space and booking windows where you acquire your ticket for a tour or maybe a seat in the gallery of the Senate or the House of Representatives. Off to the sides are a large cafeteria and at least three souvenir shops. You can book tours in advance or, if you’re like me, just blow in and wait your turn, which on the day I went meant a few minutes in a queue, and getting organised into manageable groups.

Capitol tourThe tour starts with a movie (of course: this is America) explaining where you are and the meaning of it all. Then, equipped with a radio receiver and earphones, you follow your guide upstairs and down, round the corridors, while he or she points out the salient features. I’m not going to reproduce that here, even if I could, but housed under that familiar dome, as the pin card says, is all the grandeur and pomp of what I term the imperial republic of the United States of America.

Our guide on my day was a young man with a basketballer’s name whom I took to be of African American heritage, at least in part. He had a very smooth and dead-pan, witty line of patter, which lightened the necessary dullness of “the Capitol was built in . . .” and “the statue in front of us . . .” One remark he made has stayed with me.

Capitol dome insideGeorge Washington’s presence is everywhere in the Capitol. The crypt was supposed to be his tomb but he willed that his body be buried at his home, so the space is empty. High up under the dome is a painting very reminiscent of the Sistine Chapel ceiling called The Apotheosis of George Washington – that is, the first president becoming a god. On the wall of the rotunda under the dome, among many large historical paintings, is one of Washington resigning his commission as a general. Our guide stated this really meant he was declining an offer to become king. Then he said:  “George Washington refused to be king, so we made him a god instead.” He did not smile. He is possibly the only master of irony in Washington DC, if not the whole of the USA.

Another founding father, Thomas Jefferson, apparently insisted when the Federal capital was being planned that the home of Congress be named the Capitol, a designation associated with the Capitoline Hill of Ancient Rome. This was the site of Rome’s most important temple and it was surrounded by the Area Capitolina, a precinct where certain assemblies met, and numerous shrines, altars, statues and victory trophies were displayed. In Washington DC today, the Capitol is at the heart of a precinct of Federal Government buildings, all linked by a labyrinth of tunnels. Monuments abound. And they are all in various incarnations of classical architecture. Even nearby Union Station, from which I entered and departed Washington, was built in the same style.

This is pomp and circumstance well before Elgar gave it to the British Empire. The tone is entirely deliberate. The Founding Fathers set out to create a capital city that reflected the ideals of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, and expressed their ambitions for their fledgling nation, even then glimpsing its manifest destiny. Born in revolutionary zeal, theirs was not to be a country which compromised on freedom and democracy, nor surrendered anything to Britain or France or any of the European empires. This was the New World and its capital was to be greater than anything from the old.

This is the Myth upon which the United States of America is built and that Myth is embodied in all the stones, in all the concrete and steel of all of Washington’s monuments, museums and institutions. And day by day, as the tour buses roll through, that Myth is being continually defended, reinforced and disseminated. You have to go to Washington and see it and feel it. The Stars and Stripes flying proudly over a forlorn little cottage beside the railroad in the middle of the desert then becomes understandable. The loyalty of people who have little reason to be loyal becomes explicable. Even the insularity of Americans becomes clear.

The point, it seems to me, is that when you see upheavals in the US, as one section of the populace or another rises in loud and often violent protest, it’s not the Disunited States on show. It’s quite the contrary. The Myth is real; the people live it and breathe it. They are united in their belief – it’s just that those who feel left out, or pushed out, want (back) in. It’s their birthright. SPQ . . . not R . . . A.


For those not up with the modern world, the above is not a typo. There is in Washington an institution called just that, and I thought it was dedicated to exploring and explaining the world of news, journalism and the media. As an old-time hack I made it my first stop in my tour of DC, ahead of even Union Station.

newseum guideIt is a six-level, modern edifice of concrete, steel and glass on Pennsylvania Avenue, the direct road link between the White House and the Capitol. Once you get inside, having paid your $15 for two days’ access, you receive a visitor’s guide which states on its cover: “The Newseum promotes, explains and defends free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment.” Mmmm, not quite what I was expecting but, to be fair, I hadn’t done any preparation. Clearly, then, everything to do with news in the Newseum is related to the text for the day, any day, the First Amendment to the US Constitution (1791): “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Everywhere you go in the place, you get a good dose of this from the Big Brother screens that constantly blare out “information” about what you’re seeing, and indeed what you’re not seeing. The ideals of the First Amendment cannot, and should not, be denied, but various illuminated faces are on continuous loops declaring that freedom of speech in the US is absolute, despite the contrary being demonstrably the fact of the matter. Somewhere in the place some nonentity is quoted as saying something along the lines that you are free to speak but not free to be stupid. Right there is a limit on freedom of speech, leaving aside all the other issues that statement raises. I suppose that if I’d started shouting some of the many words prohibited these days just about everywhere in the US, or places influenced by the US (like Australia), I’d have been shut down quickly and thrown out of the joint, maybe even arrested and charged under the hate speech laws. It takes only a quick perusal of Wikipedia to discover the limits on freedom of speech and the other four freedoms in the First Amendment. The Newseum does not even start to acknowledge the case.

Newseum selfie

The Capitol peers over my shoulder at the Newseum

There’s more. The guide book advises you to start your tour on the sixth-floor balcony from which you get a brilliant view of the Capitol. I would like to think that the positioning of the Newseum and its view of the seat of power is a metaphor for the tensions that must always exist between government and the media – the eyes of the people, if you will. However, the received message from the Newseum is that the media, empowered by the First Amendment, is in fact an institution within the body politic – the Fourth Estate, in the British tradition – and, underneath all the show and bluster of the daily news cycle, has a symbiotic, rather than antagonistic, relationship with the shining white symbol on the hill.

Two current exhibitions on at the Newseum put a QED for me on this assertion. One is a gallery of photographs labelled Creating Camelot, marking the centennial – I would have said “centenary” but let it go – of the birth of John F. Kennedy. The other is Inside Today’s FBI: Fighting Crime in the Age of Terror.

The Kennedy show is entirely of pictures by Jacques Lowe, a photographer who became embedded with the Kennedys during JFK’s campaign for President and stayed on until the fatal day in Dallas. Lowe created all the images that the rest of the media turned into Camelot. Nowhere does the Newseum address what we all know more than half a century later: the Kennedy Camelot was as much a myth (no capital letter on this one) as that of King Arthur. Emblazoned above it all is a quote from JFK’s father, Joe, that they were going to sell Jack like a can of peas. I would like to think someone smart added this to the display to lend some counterpoint to the Camelot contrivance. But, like the view from the balcony, I doubt it. The whole tone of the exhibition is one of approval and admiration. Oh, you might say, the presidency and the government are two different entities – and you’d be right. The government sits on the hill and the presidency way down on the other side of the paddock. The physical separation reinforces the constitutional. But there have been times in America when the two have become synonymous, and the Kennedy years, from the outside at least, constituted one of them. The message I received from the Newseum was: “We did this. We created Camelot and it was good.”

I didn’t enter the FBI exhibit. I just couldn’t. The FBI is clearly in PR campaign mode, with feel-good stuff placed strategically around Washington, and heaven knows it does need some good PR at present. I have no problem with that. But for the Newseum to mount a display by a powerful police force that has often been an enemy of the five freedoms of the First Amendment is perplexing, to say the least. Perhaps some Federal funding found its way down Pennsylvania Avenue.

The Newseum, I am sad to say, is more about propaganda than anything else. It promotes and defends, as it says, but doesn’t do much explaining in its stated focus on free expression and the five freedoms of the First Amendment. The news, journalism and the media are merely tools in its self-appointed mission, and its positioning at the heart of government.



I don’t know of any railway station anywhere that is as much part of a deliberate nationalistic image as Union Station in Washington DC. It was built in 1907-08 in response to legislators’ wish to banish the messy and noisy railroads from the middle of the grand Washington Plan that the capital managers were busy turning into the place we see today. The two major railroads servicing Washington came together under its roof (hence Union Station, like all the other Union Stations dotted around the US).

The result is a neo-classical building within walking distance of the Capitol in the style of the other grand (not say grandiose) buildings of the Capitol precinct. Indeed, the architect is said to have based his design on sketches he made of the Baths of Diocletian in Rome. One author in my library described it this way:

Detraining, one crossed southwesterly through the huge glassed-over concourse, into the vaulted Main Hall with its high Constantinian arches and gold-leafed ceiling panels, and out under mammoth military statuary into the Plaza, which opened on lawns and gardens leading directly to the Mall and the Capitol. This was a gateway rather than a central square. Visitors to the new Rome were initiated through a succession of environments providing a proper transition from the earthiness of trackside to the grandeur of the Capitol dome. Outside, the marble cornices, the arched entries, the epic inscriptions, and the plaza fountains constituted a fitting monument to the Columbian spirit embodied in the railroad and the nation over which the capital presided.

historic union station

Union Station . . . once upon a time

In practical terms, what the railroads did with this vision was to keep themselves close to the heart of government and, not incidentally, make their presence indispensable. Which is the way it was for nigh on half a century until the post WWII decline of the railroads made the florid edifices of major stations burdens to their owners. Many, like Pennsylvania Station in New York, fell under the wrecker’s ball. Others lay rotting away for years while passenger services were relegated to demountable sheds and single track platforms. You can still see this today, if you have travelled as far on Amtrak as I have. Once-grand stations have become bus stops.

Starbucks Union Station

This is Starbucks at Union Station

Union Station in Washington has been saved by turning it into a shopping mall. Mind you, what you see today represents several attempts over half a century to make the place viable as a commercial enterprise. I gather that the shopping part of the station was much bigger and busier when it was first established and I have to say that as of October 2017 trading looked not much more than desultory. The irony of it all is that, as a station, it’s probably never been busier, nor more important, with the growth of commuter traffic from the suburbs and towns of Maryland and Virginia, and with the demand for less hassle in transport along the Washington-Philadelphia-New York-Boston corridor.

Grand Hall union station

The result is that the edifice part of the station – the main hall, the side halls and the shops – is airy, open and spacious (albeit with few places to sit) and the train side is closed-in and crowded worse than airport departure lounges, not a little dingy and staffed by Amtrak people who couldn’t care less. The departure procedure is regimented in a way that I now recognise is standard throughout the land of the free – you get in line where and when you’re told, you use ESP to divine what those instructions are as signage is at a minimum and, when released through the platform doors by the guardians of the queue, you make a mad dash for the train.

The whole experience is summed up by a mini-incident I had in a Walgreens shop in Washington. I rolled up at the checkout with my modest needs – toothpaste, I think – and waited while a woman at the counter completed her purchases. She went and I presented. The woman on the cash register refused to deal with me. “You have to go through the line,” she insisted, twice when I protested that I was the only person there. What I had to do was wind around through the roped-off, designated queue line. She was adamant and I had to stifle my annoyance because I knew what the result would be if I didn’t. That’s the way it is, I’m afraid: you keep your mouth shut and you do as you’re told.

NEXT: Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington


To stop the pedants from revolting, let me just note that the word “media” when used as a collective to describe the many mediums of communication has long since lost its plurality. I am a staunch defender of the English language but it’s not on my agenda to deny the sense of new usages like this.

The quote about Union Station comes from Making Tracks by Terry Prindell (1988), a man who took a year off his work as a teacher to travel the then 30,000 miles of the Amtrak system. It is a measure of the way Amtrak has failed to reinvent itself that, 30 years on, Terry’s work remains a reasonable picture of the network.

From sea to shining sea

WASHINGTON DC,  20 October 2017

People I’ve met here have all reacted in the same way to my story of actually travelling by train across the country from San Francisco: “That sounds like fun.” Some are clearly dubious about the whole proposition but they’re being polite, and it’s part of the American way to be positive at all times. Others, though, mean it and start reminiscing about their various train trips, mostly long ago before cheap air fares.

For me it’s fun enough to roll 5000km on a pair of steel rails through some of the most interesting country anywhere, whatever the surrounding circumstances might be. But if your definition of fun includes old movie frames of smoothly tailored, trimly moustached gentlemen and haute-coutured ladies in little hats lounging in armchairs while a dazzlingly white coated, black steward named Sam, with feudal manners and a smile to match his jacket, serves them martinis and Cubans . . . forget it. If that vision ever existed beyond the railroad companies’ publicity, it most certainly does not apply now.

Amtrak doesn’t do style, comfort or deference. Amtrak does service with a “cop this” attitude. Passengers seem to accept irritation as part of the experience. Many of the people I met on the California Zephyr into Chicago and the Capitol Limited into Washington were doing the trips for “the experience”. It’s doubtful whether any of them will ever become repeat train travellers. Amtrak doesn’t really care – and that emerges in myriad ways, both large and small, from surly staff through tired rolling stock to stations that make bus stops look inviting. Dammit, in the land of the souvenir, you cannot buy any Amtrak merchandise on the trains or in the stations.

Grrr, I didn’t want to gripe. I wanted to tell you about a transcontinental crossing that even in the travel-jaded 21st century is an epic journey. It is one that still symbolises the construction of a nation. The joining of the rails from the east and rails from the west at Promontory in remote Utah in 1869 was the physical realisation of manifest destiny, the spread of the United States from the Atlantic to the Pacific. It’s a grand story, amid an horrendous Civil War and the assassination of the President who not only prosecuted the war to set free half of the then US but initiated and ensured the great rail project.

Australians would do well to reflect on the meaning of such linkages, as some of us celebrate this weekend the centenary of the departure of the first train on the Trans-Australian Railway, completed a few days before, on 17 October 1917. The Trans, as it used to be known, was the fulfilment of a promise to Western Australia that, if it joined the Federation, the new Commonwealth would fill in the gap between Port Augusta in South Australia and Kalgoorlie in Western Australia. So it really did tie us together as one nation, although our transcontinental railway was to remain a piecemeal affair. In 1967 a journey I took from Brisbane to Perth and return involved seven different trains over four gauges. It wasn’t until the Sydney-Perth line via Broken Hill was standardised in 1969 that the present day Indian Pacific would allow passengers to travel unchanged for the entire 4500km run.

Which is one up on the Americans. They have never been able to go coast-to-coast snuggled in palatial suites-on-wheels pampered by hot and cold running Sams. When the first transcontinental railroad was up and running, passengers had to make their way to Council Bluffs on the eastern side of the Missouri River, cross to Omaha, board a Union Pacific train and then change at Ogden in Utah to a Central Pacific train for the run into Sacramento. Much later everything became centred on Chicago, so that when P.G. Wodehouse, for example, went to Hollywood in 1930, he boarded the Twentieth Century Limited at Grand Central in Manhattan for Chicago where he changed to the Chief for Los Angeles via Kansas City and the south-west states.

For more than a century after the driving of the golden spike at Promontory, various companies operated various trains over various routes. By the 1970s, however, they were all done and the US Government formed Amtrak to take over long distance passenger services. It’s a system very much pared down since the heady days before the development of the interstate road system and the airliner heralded by the DC3. Today, Amtrak operates four routes to the west coast – Chicago to LA, San Francisco and Seattle, and New Orleans to LA. Or if you want to look at it as westerners do, it’s the other way round (hello Perth). In Chicago you connect with two routes to New York and the north-east, and one to Washington DC.

I knew all that when I stepped on to the California Zephyr at Emeryville (aka Oakland, when I first went through there 20 years ago) but I still had it in my mind that I was re-enacting, first of all, the travels and travails of the railroad pioneers and, second, the glamorous adventures of those who had ridden the Zephyr before me. This is entirely fantasy. The original Zephyr dates only from 1949 and lasted 11 years. It never ran over the original transcontinental route built by Union Pacific and Central Pacific. In fact there are no passenger trains today over that route, and to do justice to the story of the transcontinental railroad today you would need to get on one of the massive freight trains that trundle over it constantly.

That’s a pity, not only because it destroys the first part of my dreaming but because I didn’t get to do a proper Portillo with my Appleton’s guide from 1875. I had it tucked in my bag but, apart from being entertaining reading, it didn’t help much. Furthermore, like the lazy Amtrak route notes today, it takes a resolutely east-to-west direction – which is understandable given it was compiled only six years after the completion of the railroad and in the middle of one of the great one-way migrations of all time.

It is scarcely believeable that, when Union Pacific started to push out from Omaha in 1862, the Great Plains were inhabited only by the small population of Native Americans (don’t accuse me of being PC – these people were never “Indians”, as mistaken by Christopher Columbus) and millions of bison (also misnamed). Both were overrun by history, as we know, and replaced by millions of European migrants and the greatest agricultural industries ever developed (baa one). So when people today tell me travelling across the relentless, featureless plains east of the Rockies into Chicago is boring, I respond that I have done the trip twice now – once before, out of LA 20-plus years ago – and I have not been bored: I am amazed. The inland plains of Australia are essentially semi-desert or real desert in large part. They can be highly productive of course but not like the Great Plains of the US and Canada. It’s exhausting to see but, to me, never uninteresting.

I know, I know, all you critics, I don’t live there, I’ve never been in winter and, anyway, I’m hermetically sealed in my own manufactured environment – unlike in 1879, when Robert Louis Stevenson joined a migrant train to travel to California. Conditions on the train were primitive by his account – for example, you had to hire a plank to sleep on and meal stops were quick and grubby – and he climbed up on the roof of his carriage to take in the view as the train chugged across the plains. He described it as like being at sea, nothing but waving fields of grass for mile upon mile. The beautifully written Appleton’s concurs: “Settlements and farms are . . . swallowed up in the immensity of the interminable levels which roll off to the horizon like the sea”. Its view of a regular passenger service was more upmarket than Stevenson’s, as you might expect, and advised booking sleeping berths for a total of $14 each, which I suspect was a lot of money in those days.

The price of a sleeping compartment in today’s Superliner, double-deck carriages is nearly twice the price of a basic seat. So-called “coach” seats are not the hardship slots of airline cattle class – you can, for example, go and sit in the glass-roofed “sightseeing” car with us first class passengers, and dine with us, too – but for the best part of three days on a train a private compartment with a bed and access to a shower is what you want. The price per day includes meals so it’s not by any means outrageous, if you measure everything by the dollar.

It’s the “sightseeing” that matters. Isn’t that what we’re here for, folks? After getting over the novelty of travelling on a train instead of in a car or an aluminium tube, it’s the promise of grand scenery, an eye-level tour of wonderful parts of America that has caused many of us to take days out of our lives, connected only sporadically to phone cells and not at all to wi-fi. Oh yes, and this is the one part of the experience that Amtrak delivers, probably because it’s out of Amtrak’s control. Amtrak could make it better but that’s a topic for another day.

I always like staring out of train windows into the backyards of human habitation. Down by the tracks, wherever I’ve been, is the dumping ground of all sorts of ugliness – and that’s interesting – but the parts I really don’t want to unsee come from the Earth directly or from its human conquest. The Earth and humanity are in a constant struggle, of course, and the Earth often wins, but humanity has wrestled Mother Nature into submission and in the process has created sights for us on the Zephyr to marvel at.

Sierra Nevada

Winding up through the Sierra Nevada

One of these is the railroad itself, up through the Sierra Nevada from Sacramento, a tortuous ascent carved by hand and black (gun) powder out of the granite. Thousands of Chinese labourers chipped out the tunnels at the rate of an inch a day. Many of them died in the process. They sheltered from the 10 metres-deep winter snows in these burrows of their own making and the bodies of those who couldn’t were found in the spring, frozen to death. Today the Zephyr traverses essentially the same route, although there have been inevitably some improvements in 150 years. If you can tear your eyes away from the deep canyon of the American River, you can see where the alignment has been shifted, straightening the curves a little and eliminating a tunnel or two.

At the top, you pass by Donner Lake, named after one of the great tragedies of the westward pioneers. In pre-railroad 1846, a small wagon train became trapped in the snows up there and its 87 people began slowly starving to death. It took four months for a relief party to find them. By then the survivors had resorted to eating the bodies of their already dead companions. Forty-eight made it to California. Today, before the winter, Donner Lake is a pretty tourist resort giving no hint, from the train at least, of its grim past.

Reno station

Reno station

At Reno, the station is a concrete canyon buried somewhere in the city. The train pulls up between two poorly lit grey vertical slabs, unadorned even with advertising. There’s a door to a lobby that promises better above. After that, on this train running to a delayed schedule night closes in and Nevada passes by as we enter Utah, famed for the Great Salt Lake and Mormons.

I shared a dinner table with a family, and it emerged that the husband and father had spent two years in Sydney some time ago as one of those polite young men in black trousers and white shirts who knock on your door from time to time. Somehow he had developed a love of the Hawthorn Football Club (to my irritation – Go Tigers!) and a liking for cricket, so much so that his wife complained he had been sitting up in the middle of the night to watch the recent Australia-India one day series. I suggested she should direct him to the porn channel. This brought a genuine laugh but I thought I should quit while I was ahead and not mention The Book of Mormon.

The train reached Salt Lake City at about 4.30am. It was raining. The station was a series of tracks without shelter and a station house (or deepoh) a hundred metres away. John Betjeman might have made something of the dark figures in hoodies struggling with bags through the amber-lit drizzle to board a looming giant beast, growling and groaning to get away into the rising sun.

Mullock heaps

Well, that sun never rose for another 2½ hours, and by the time it really got going we were running into the vast open space that is Utah and Colorado, the vault of heaven held up by flat-top mountains and sheer cliffs. Though 1500 metres above current sea level it’s clear this land was once under water. Even to my unpractised eye, these are sedimentary rocks. The sides of the mountains are sliding (and I mean the present tense) on to the plain. Over more eons they will waste away. The long escarpments are like ancient city walls, except there’s nothing behind them. Big mounds of earth could be mullock heaps left by gold mining titans of long ago. Other large tracts look like nothing less than strip mines. They’re not – whatever has been taken from this land, it is Mother Nature who has done it. Her rehab program will take more than legislation to ensure.

Utah desert

All day the train runs through canyons in this tawny, yellow and sometimes grey landscape, following for a couple of hundred kilometres the course of the Colorado River.

Nile valley

The sphinxHardy humans in places have cultivated the river flats or created irrigated pastures, so that I started to think I’d seen this before – a green strip either side of a river flanked by bare plains and mountains, with as sharp a definition as if it had been carved by a knife. And I believe I had, in Egypt along the Nile. The strip was narrower in Colorado, the river was smaller but the desert was just as clear cut and just as stark. At one place a rocky bluff reared up out of the canyon like a sphinx gazing timelessly and imperiously upon his subjects below. These are unforgettable scenes that rarely feature in the picture books and the TV docos.

After a long day’s journey into night, passengers on the train going east miss seeing the western side of the towering Rockies and the descent into Denver, said to be a spectacular engineering triumph over the seemingly impossible. The train takes the 10km Moffat tunnel through the continental divide. Its length is such that train passengers and staff are warned not to move between the carriages for fear of being overcome by the fumes from the twin diesels up front. When we emerge, Denver can be seen below in all its brilliant lighting. For once, the station actually looks like a station as the Zephyr shares it with Denver’s new rail facilities for its rapidly growing urban population.

UP terminal OmahaFrom there it’s a run through the night to rendezvous with the original Union Pacific railhead at Omaha on the Missouri, where the train crosses the river by a circuitous route and barrels the length of Iowa, missing entirely the historic Council Bluffs, terminus of all railroads west before the transcontinental line and where then presidential candidate Abe Lincoln cooked up with railroad engineer Grenville Dodge a scheme to send the rails to California. I would have liked to have glimpsed this pivotal point – it would have given me something to think about as the train lurched its way along some poor track through lunch and the rest of the afternoon across the Mississippi and finally to Union Station in Chicago.

I had originally intended to cross straight over to Track 26 and board that evening’s Capitol Limited to Washington but in the end, from across the ocean and half a continent, I booked a night in Chicago because I didn’t have enough faith in Amtrak to make the connection even though the “layover” was about four hours. As it turned out I would have made it – the Zephyr that day was only about three hours late, including the rescheduling. I’m glad I saved myself the rush, if only because I got to see American Gothic close up. I was able to front up to the rigours of Amtrak that night with renewed optimism.

The last morning of my journey was spent on the Capitol Limited in the forests of Pennsylvania and the Appalachians. From the train the region seems to be still fairly sparsely populated country, with dense forests crowding in on both sides of the train, broken by odd farmhouses and clearings and a few small towns. This is the backwoods and I could half-hear banjo music as we trailed through river valleys. But chimneys and communication towers that peeped above the tree line from time to time suggested that what you see in this pretty country is not necessarily what you get. Later on, those modern excrescences on the skyline, wind farms, made their presence felt and contrasted with loaded coal trains sitting among the trees. Coal is still being mined in the Appalachians of West Virginia but the industry is slowly dying under the assault of green politics.

Then after the famous Harpers Ferry, the train begins its run into the towns and suburbs of Maryland and eventually into the railyards of Union Station in Washington DC. Non-Americans probably need reminding that when they hear the Battle Hymn of the Republic, it arises from the perhaps more familiar John Brown’s body lies a-moulderin’ in the grave, referring to the raid slavery abolitionist John Brown led on the Federal arsenal in Harper’s Ferry before the Civil War. He was hanged but his soul goes marching on.

Next stop: the wonders of Washington DC.

Gothic communication

CHICAGO, 16 October 2017

Like I said, the foreigner in these United States can find a reference point in popular culture, especially the movies, for just about everything that happens to him (or her, if you must). Right now what I’ve “got here is failure to communicate”. When I “detrained” in Chicago and emerged “momentarily” into the street, I wondered whether to go left or right towards my hotel in West Adams Street. So I asked a policeman, of course.

“Excuse me,” I said, in my best Homeland Security humility, “which way is west?” And the young policeman, equally politely, pointed me to my left. Well, I knew instantly this was wrong (as indeed you do, too; otherwise what’s the point of this story?) because Dr Google’s Maps had advised me weeks ago the hotel was up among the skyscrapers, and the buildings to my left were clearly diminishing in size. But like a good boy I set off in the direction indicated, trailing my suitcase behind me, and I must have gone five or six blocks and over a seriously major freeway before I decided I should ask someone to confirm what I most assuredly knew. Back over the freeway and then the canal and a few blocks more, and I puffed into my hotel to be confronted with the usual supreme and deflating indifference of hotel check-in staff everywhere.

This was all my own fault. I had asked the policeman the wrong question. If I’d asked him to point me towards the address of my hotel, there’s no doubt he would have done so. But you see, after only a couple of days in the country, I’m sinking into the American idiom. They always seem to know N, S, E and W and I’d just spent most of three days on the California Zephyr being directed accordingly. At breakfast on the train I asked the man opposite me (curiously, he was wearing those American Gothic bib-and-braces, denim dungarees) where we were. “Lancon,” he said, meaning Lincoln, adding when I didn’t understand, “about 50 miles west of Omaha.”

West. In Chicago, I had this address on West Adams Street. It’s obvious: go west, young man. I asked the policeman which way was west, and he told me. As I beat myself up over this performance, I could see “The Captain” Strother Martin laying into “Cool Hand Luke” Paul Newman and diagnosing the problem with his stubborn prisoner: “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” It didn’t help that Amtrak offers Newman’s Own salad dressing to passengers, in support of the Paul Newman Foundation’s Roundup River Ranch for sick kids in Colorado.

Of course Chicago is my kind of town . . . well, Frank’s anyway. He thought it was a toddlin’ town too, whatever that is, and State Street was a great street. It’s OK and I’m not sayin’ old blue eyes could be wrong. I ventured Frank’s opinion on New York – i.e. if you can make it there, you can make it anywhere – to a couple from Brooklyn on the train. “Huh,” said the wife, “he’s from Hoboken, New Jersey.” She wasn’t joking.

But look, a million other references notwithstanding, there’s only one Chicago and that’s the Chicago of “Joliet” Jake and Elwood. At breakfast I was offered three kinds of toast – whole grain, white or dry. I think the young waitress might have been baffled if I’d asked for “dry white toast” with “two fried chickens”. I settled for bacon and eggs, which prompted her to ask whether I wanted the “full English breakfast”. Just cos I talk funny don’ mean I’m British. Anyway on the Adams Street-Michigan Avenue corner opposite the Art Institute of Chicago a black woman in a red top was preaching about something, I don’t know what exactly, but she was definitely on a mission from Gard.

Over the road the woman standing guard at the door got busy organising early arrivals into orderly lines, and everybody did so. None of this land of the free stuff for people interested in art. No, we weren’t all tourists, either. By the way, the place opens at 10.30am, despite the tourist guides touting 10 – hence the bunch of us standing on the steps in the bracing breeze for half an hour.

It was worth a little chill, though. This gallery is everything you’ve ever heard of it. It’s the only thing apart from Union Station and the inside of my hotel room I saw in the Windy City. I’m glad I didn’t try to rush around. If you love the Impressionists you’ll be stunned: the building is not the Musée d’Orsay but the display of Monet, Manet etc is, well, impressive. The feature is the famed Seurat painting, Un dimanche après-midi à l’Île de la Grande Jatte (which the bilingual institute calls A Sunday on La Grande Jatte).

OzAm Gothic

OzAm Gothic

In the middle of the US, though, you can’t sit staring at 19th century France. You have to look for America and there it is, in acres of rooms . . . after you’ve walked down the avenues of ancient, classical and Asian sculptures and artefacts. In that context, the Grant Wood American Gothic in room 263 on level 2 could not be more confronting. Everyone knows this image and everyone sees it as the epitome of hard-ass attitude. Not so, according to the note in the Institute guide book, Wood was portraying “the Puritan ethic and virtues he believed dignified the midwestern character”. It is a compelling picture, whatever the back story, and I found it hard to get away.

Train landscape

Quite a sandwich

On the other hand, somewhere in the intellectual desert of the “contemporary” collection I was attracted by a name, Train Landscape, before I located the painting on the wall. Comprising what looked like three, deft and accurate horizontal swipes of the roller, this effort by an American named Ellsworth Kelly is his impression of viewing fields of lettuce, spinach and mustard from a speeding French train some time between 1948 and 1954. Claude Monet loved trains but I doubt everything blurred into solid stripes for him. As Mel Brooks said: “That Hitler, there was a painter . . . one day, three rooms.”

untouchablesAfter that, I strolled back to Union Station. This time, instead of going into the Adams Street portal I went to the real station, the formidable grey one with the classical pillars, like a Parthenon of the railroads. I pushed my way with my bags through the twin, unfriendly doors to the top of the staircase down into the Great Hall. No escalator, no lift. This was for real. So I started down, clunk by clunk. A couple of men, who sounded German, were taking pictures of each other on the stairs. Clunk, clunk. I said: “You need a pram for that.” The man with the camera looked at me and grinned: “You mean the Untouchables, yes?” Indeed I did. Much satisfied mutual smiling ensued.

So ended my day in Chicago. I’ll get around to Amtrak and my journey from sea to shining sea when I reach Washington. Don’t go away.


hotel lift panelIn San Francisco, my hotel had an interesting button on its lift panel. Earthquake. Right at the top, under the red emergency buttons. Of course, it could have been the name of the penthouse suite. But somehow, given San Francisco’s shaky history, I think not. I was tempted to press it and see what happened. Would the earth move for me, dear?

Down by Union Square, shops devoid of customers in the vast Westfield (Frank Lowy and the boys) centre, which includes Bloomingdales and Nordstrom, were advertising for “sales associates”. Could it be there are no shop assistants because there is nobody to assist? And the shops don’t display prices in the window – they advertise “50% off” but not off what. I don’t enter shops where I can’t see, at least, the price level. I hate shopping.

Mr RooterWho you gonna call? Just a cheap, juvenile Aussie joke. It reminded me of the garbage contractor in Port Moresby years ago who worked under the name of Mr Shit. His logo was a cute toddler dropping dollops.

San Francisco is clean – in three grades of public transport: “clean air” vehicles, “hybrid” vehicles and “no emission” vehicles. These last would be electric trolley buses and the city’s collection of vintage trams. Chicago is slightly more honest: they have “clean hybrid” buses.

street bannerI noticed some banners way up on SF light poles, particularly around China Town, proclaiming, with a picture of an AK47: “A uterus is more heavily regulated than an assault weapon.” Turned out, when I looked at the other half of the banner, this was an ad for a law firm. I glimpsed a billboard from the train in Reno, Nevada: “What’s your freedom worth?” Another law firm.

Also from the train in Reno, this billboard: “Adam and Eve stores. Where passion begins.” On one level, I kinda figured it out real quick. But when you know Reno’s reputation as the home of the quicky divorce, the message might be different. I mentioned Reno’s divorce industry to a train acquaintance and it took a while to register: “Uh. I see, married quick in Las Vegas and divorced in Reno.” Maybe.

I’ve always regarded Reno as the Capital of Crass (notwithstanding Vegas and I’ve never been to either place) and I must say the trackside ads and the lit-up casinos gave me no reason to change my view. The first giant billboard I saw advertised a marijuana dispensary. I was so startled I didn’t note the slogan. Another said this, with some kind of image: “Pre-K – 12 early prevention program. Keeping our kids safe.” I gathered the idea was to educate children from kinder (K) to pre-teen about the dangers of various activities. Like doing drugs, maybe.

Well, this is all fun but, really, I don’t know where to go with an ad I saw on a sports channel showing a Major League Baseball game between the Yankees and the Dodgers (these days, New York v. Los Angeles). The earnest looking chap below popped up extolling the virtues of the self-inserted catheter. Yep the little tube that goes . . . yeah, there . . . so your bladder can empty whenever. He never said exactly why he needed a catheter but he was a pilot, he said, who took long trips in his light aircraft. Apparently he was test pilot like Maverick and he crashed his plane one day and, as he says, he woke up a catheter user. You can watch him go through his paces on YouTube. Dr Google informs me these ads are controversial in the States but are the result of new Medicare benefits to cover a serious need. All sorts of stuff are advertised on American TV (and Australian, these days) and if it’s advertised it means you can get it. Walk into Walgreens, the drugstore chain, and ask. I’m sure no one will blink for a moment. Coming right up sir, one self-lubricating catheter. Would you like to wear it home, sir? Perhaps that’s the solution to a leaky West Wing.







Capital, capital

SF other bridge

SAN FRANCISCO, Thursday, 12 October 2017.

Tomorrow it begins. I shall be crossing San Francisco’s other bridge to Oakland and board the California Zephyr for a 5000km pilgrimage towards a junction with the 2017 convention of The Wodehouse Society in Washington DC. Think about the elements in that statement for a moment or two. Eccentric doesn’t really cover it.

Here I am already many thousands of kilometres from home on the other side of the Pacific Ocean so I can travel many more kilometres by sleeper-car passenger trains, relics of a golden era never to be repeated, to a meeting of mostly Americans obsessed by the work and life of Sir Pelham Grenville Wodehouse, the long dead author of comic yarns anchored in Edwardian times whom they see as a quintessential Englishman but who lived half his 94 (nearly) years in the United States, helped change the face of American musical theatre, got his big break from the also extinct Saturday Evening Post, irked Hollywood with an outbreak of candour not often seen in that part of the world and placed many of his best stories in American settings. The Wodehouse Society therefore not only capitalises its T and abbreviates itself to TWS but sees no reason to differentiate itself from other Wodehouse groups around the world, including the one in the UK. Like The Open, a golf tournament that breaks out annually in Britain, as far as TWS members can see they were there first and all the others are johnny-come-latelys.

The TWS – no, you can’t say that; it’s like having a PIN number. TWS, then, has these conventions every two years and so it is entirely serendipitous that this one, dubbed Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington after the Jimmy Stewart movie, is being held in DC at this time of rich farce in American politics. Whatever your view of The Donald, you cannot deny his Administration has provided plenty of material for humourists. Life is imitating art again, and the TWS e-mail traffic over the past few months suggests this has not escaped the Wodehouseans.

Indeed, I hadn’t long put the full stop on the previous paragraph when a message lobbed inviting TWS members to look at a piece in The Spectator from last year titled Jeeves and a Man Called The Donald ( The occasion for recalling the article was news that its author, Ben Schott, is about to write a new Jeeves and Bertie book. That looks like me creating a new book for the Bible but I concede the guy is a fair mimic, at least being able to sustain the act in a short piece.

Blurring the line between fact and fiction may be normal in the (The?) States these days. For this foreigner who hasn’t been here for a dozen years, the possibility weighs in strongly the moment the flak-jacketed, black-uniformed  security guards make their presence felt at the airport. Here is Homeland Security in all its TV glory. And so it goes: everything has a pop culture reference. It’s not fake news that California really is the nanny state we’ve all seen on the screen (complete with homeless peoples’ camps in San Francisco, ignored by all just like everywhere else that’s caring-and-sharing,). In the autumn cool, which the locals insist is really hot (19C today), deadly bushfires are devastating the wine country north of San Francisco Bay. The city air is thick with smoke that, for once, does not come from a fragrant weed. For super-hip Californians this is global warming at work and we’re all going to burn, baby, burn. Not, I hope, before I get on the train tomorrow.


The route of Amtrak’s California Zephyr

I am looking forward to settling down in the observation car and watching the scenery go by for a couple of days. Like Michael Portillo I have my Appleton’s guide from 1875 to provide some perspective on what I might see (and indeed not see, since the route is different now) but, alas, my wardrobe is deficient in bright jackets and pants. Look out for some Portillo-ing as I go along. Right now, I’m Wodehouse-ing.

Wodehouse sketch

PGW, not NGB

Old Plum, were he around tomorrow, would rejoice in what I am up to. First of all, I’m going conventioneering, and second I’m about to become an Expert on The United States of America. Two stories in My Man Jeeves, the first book of the genre, nailed these activities the small matter of a century ago.

Conventions, you must understand, are different from conferences. Even in the US, conferences are where serious people get together to discuss important issues, issue high-minded communiques and go home fired up to Do Something. Conventions, however, are about having fun. They reach their fullest expression in the presidential election conventions every four years but traditionally they’re about a bunch of guys from somewhere over the rainbow hitting the Big City for a weekend to promote whatever it might be the want to promote. This involves dressing up in garish ornamentation, waving flags and generally visiting as many bars as their livers will take before shuffling off back to Buffalo, or wherever it is the wife and kids live in suburban bliss. I have no idea why anyone thinks this will do the trick for them.

Jack Lemmon must have starred in every movie that featured a convention. He would most assuredly have been in the running for a major role in Wodehouse’s tale of The Hard-Boiled Egg. For reasons you don’t need to worry about, Bertie and Jeeves are in New York and looking for likely lads willing to pay an emolument for the privilege of meeting a genuine English aristocrat. They haven’t found any takers until Jeeves has a fortunate encounter.

“I happened last night, sir,” he informed Bertie over his morning cuppa, “as you had intimated that you would be absent from home, to attend a theatrical performance, and entered into a conversation between the acts with the occupant of the adjoining seat. I had observed that he was wearing a somewhat ornate decoration in his buttonhole, sir – a large blue button with the words ‘Boost for Birdsburg’ on it in red letters, scarcely a judicious addition to a gentleman’s evening costume. To my surprise I noticed the auditorium was full of persons similarly decorated. I ventured to inquire the explanation, and was informed that these gentlemen, forming a party of eighty-seven, are a convention from Birdsburg in the State of Missouri.”

Well, of course, I don’t know what to expect from Mr Wodehouse Goes to Washington but somehow I think it might be a fairly staid affair, given most of us will be of a certain age and the seriousness with which TWS-ers seem to approach their topic precludes revelry beyond the level of Mr Mulliner in the snug on a Sunday evening. I’m led to believe, however, there might be a certain amount of dressing up “in character” at the Saturday dinner. Maybe someone from Birdsburg will turn up. I live in hope The Donald might appear.

That would put the cherry on the cake of my putative status as Expert. You see, by then, I shall have climbed the Sierra Nevada, crossed a desert or two, tunnelled through the Rockies, traversed the Great Plains, the Missouri and the Mississippi, overnighted in Chicago and rolled through Pennsylvania and Virginia to the capital of This Great Nation. I shall have been eight days in the country, facing a further 10 in DC and New York for a grand total of 18. As Lady Malvern told Bertie in Jeeves and the Unbidden Guest, relating her plans for her latest book:

“I have to pay a visit to Sing Sing prison. I am extremely interested in prison conditions in America. After that I work my way gradually across to the coast, visiting the points of interest on the journey. You see, Mr Wooster, I am in America principally on business. No doubt you read my book India and the Indians? My publishers are anxious for me to write a companion volume on the United States. I shall not be able to spend more than a month in the country, as I have to get back for the season, but a month should be ample. I was less than a month in India, and my dear friend Sir Roger Cremorne wrote his America from Within after a stay of only two weeks.”

On that basis, I think I can safely claim Expert rank, don’t you, even though the closest I might get to Sing Sing will be Wall Street? Wodehouse characterised Sing Sing in a number of stories as a kind of finishing school for New York financiers. He loved little quirks of American culture like this that he picked up from the newspapers, and he was frightfully amused at the insights of Experts on America, especially pompous peers who have to get Home for the Season. Not only did Wodehouse live many years in the US, he made return trips across the continent by rail at least twice and he was a trans-Atlantic commuter for the better part of 30 years. So, he Knew.

Lady Malvern, by the way, is the subject of one of Wodehouse’s most memorable quotes. She was, said Bertie, “a hearty, happy, healthy, overpowering sort of dashed female, not so very tall but making up for it by measuring about six feet from the O.P. to the Prompt Side. She fitted into my biggest arm-chair as if it been built around her by someone who knew they were wearing arm-chairs tight about the hips that season”. For those wondering, OP is opposite prompt – this is Plum showing off, as he often did, his intimate knowledge of the theatre.

You may have noticed that, following the example of The Wodehouse Society, capitals proliferated in this post. It just Seemed Right somehow. After all, I am going to the US capital and when I get back to Oz I am expected to use my Expertise to inform and amuse the little band of Serious Thinkers at my club in Melbourne. Capital, capital.

My happiness engineered

My fellow Australian WordPressers and readers, you must have noticed that our pages this past little while have been headed by a rainbow band. You can hardly not know what it means, given the clamour reverberating around the world. I certainly understood instantly.

Nevertheless, when I had calmed down from being angry to merely annoyed, I asked our host a question. I wanted to see what the reply would be. I wanted to know whether our controllers would be honest, or fudge the issue with weasel words.

So I sent an e-mail to the WordPress support address:

I want to remove the pop-up rainbow strip from the top of my blog.

An e-mail came back quickly with “ – Expert Unable to assist further” in the subject line and the following message:


Thank you for submitting your question to our Experts. For your question below our Expert wasn’t able to help. A Happiness Engineer from our customer support team will be in touch to resolve your question.

Thank you, Experts

They were true to their word. Less than 24 hours later came this:

adelineAdeline Y. (Automattic) [sic]

Hi Noel,

Thanks for getting in touch!

Australia will be holding a national survey on marriage equality over the next two months. To show our support for marriage equality, we’re showing the rainbow bar to all our Australian visitors. You can read more about the marriage equality campaign here:

We cannot remove this banner for individual sites. We understand it looks a bit different to what you’re used to, but it’s here for everyone. We absolutely respect your right to publish the content you choose to your site, but the navigation bar styling reflects’s brand.

Best regards,

Adeline Y. – Happiness Engineer

So I sent back:

Thank you Adeline for your prompt and frank reply. That banner, however, makes a political statement that I don’t support, and I intend saying so.

The automatic reply carried “Directly – Expert Rerouted Question” in the subject line but no message. I have waited a few days to see whether Adeline or any other capitalised Happiness Engineer or Expert wanted to carry the matter any further but nothing has happened, so here I am carrying out my intention.

WordPress in this case has been completely transparent in what it is doing and why. Furthermore, in telling me the navigation bar is part of the WordPress brand, it is clearly marking out what is theirs and what is the user’s on WordPress pages. The implication is, if I don’t like the brand and the conditions that go with it, I can take my custom elsewhere. Oh, and I’ve taken note of the “absolute respect” with which WordPress regards my right to publish. I was tempted to remove the link to the campaign website but I left it to show my absolute respect.

I am not in much of a position to argue – as I knew from the first – if only because I operate The Traveller on WordPress’s freebie level. I suppose similar services exist elsewhere but I wouldn’t know where to look. Wikipedia tells me WordPress is the most popular website management or blogging system in use on the WWW, supporting more than 60 million websites. WordPress is used by 60 per cent of all the websites whose content management system is known, or 27.5 per cent of the top 10 million websites. It’s clear to me that moving to another supplier or setting up my own website would entail untold cost and trouble. I don’t have the skills or the money and, frankly, after working through the whole damned transition from typewriters, paper and hot metal printing over several stages involving OCR, mainframe processing and acoustic modems to PCs, the Web and desktop publishing, I really can’t be bothered.

Cancelling out would be futile. I would be the only loser. Quite apart from the above, I would have no outlet for my ego and my little obsessions. I mean, after all, who would notice if I wasn’t around any more? My readership is so small that WordPress has not bothered to place any ads on my site. WordPress could not care less, despite their Happiness Engineers, whether I came or went. This is not a whinge, merely a statement of the bleedin’ obvious.

But I do object to WordPress using its brand to suggest to my readers that I support something I do not, and furthermore to suggest to all readers of all sites that all users support the campaign. I actually would object to WordPress doing it, even if I supported the campaign, any campaign. It should be obvious that opinion on any issue will be divided within the WordPress “community” of 60 million websites. And yet nobody thought to ask. Most probably the WordPress owners and operators believe themselves to be supporting a righteous cause but also probably those same righteous people more cynically have an abiding confidence that most, if not all, of their clients will stay put because there are no easy alternatives.

We have seen a number of large organisations over the years tie themselves to trendy causes in the belief that this will engender goodwill among their customers and clients, and those they wish to be their customers and clients, only to have the stratagem blow up in their faces – in the case of BP, quite literally. Who remembers now BP styling itself “bp, beyond petroleum” in the hope that the world would think a) BP petroleum was green, or at least more green than that of the other oil majors; and b) BP was ultimately planning to move out of fossil fuels (i.e go out of business)? That all disappeared in a hurricane of flame and smoke one night in the Gulf of Mexico.

Like the WordPress insiders, however, I don’t think they’re in for that kind of nasty surprise. I doubt they will have a revolt on their hands over their homosexual “marriage” campaign – they have Happiness Engineers, after all.

That was the really stunning revelation from my e-mail exchange with WordPress. I knew what the answer would be on the rainbow ribbon but I never guessed there would be this fallout. Oh, Aldous! Oh, George! Where are you when we need you? Or, indeed, where are the drafters of the United States Declaration of Independence? Does the pursuit of happiness lead inevitably to Happiness Engineers?

I hope Adeline Y. and her colleagues are themselves happy in their work. I hope nothing happens to disturb the tranquillity of their lives, and they never feel the need to have their own happiness engineered. I hope they can smile and whistle under all circumstances, as Lord Baden-Powell advised, and they take their soma pills regularly according to the instructions. I hope they believe everything they’re told. I hope all their relationships are full of love and laughter, and never clouded by the reality that rainbows are products of storms and rain and a trick of the light.


Poetry and politics

Like Dirk Gently, Douglas Adams’ holistic detective, I am interested in the connectedness of things. I don’t know that I agree all events are linked but sometimes coincidences grow into more than just serendipitous collisions, like atoms in a jar. Last Sunday afternoon I had it in my mind to create a small literary prank to play on a few of my pals and so I took down from my bookshelves a slim volume that contains one of the great literary practical jokes in the hope I might be able to borrow something from it. I hadn’t read it for years and so I read it again, with much amusement and wonder at its insights. Later that night, in a quite separate frame of mind, I delved into the Review liftout of the Weekend Australian and found there a piece that I thought gelled with my afternoon’s reading. The old book gave the Review article a resonance that I’m sure the Review writer would not have intended, nor would he have wanted me to make the connection I did.

This is about Capital A Art and fashion, sins of omission and commission, and censorious politics. Let’s start at the end.

The piece I read in the Australian was by a Melbourne poet named David Campbell who decried the absence of poets from a recent anthology who actually write rhyming verse in a regular metre. The anthology, Contemporary Australian Poetry, purported to be a survey and critical review of material written since 1990. Without having the book in front of me, I inferred that, if you picked through this book, you would gain the impression that the only significant Australian poetry produced in the past three decades was in free verse.

David Campbell

Not so, according to Campbell. Scores of poets working in a genre misleadingly labelled “bush poetry” had simply been ignored, he said. “It’s as if all the poets and their books, and the hundreds of published award-winning poems, have been completely airbrushed from history.”

Campbell says a lot of the kind of poetry that he would have liked to have seen included in the anthology is not merely “bush verse” – it “tackles all of the contemporary themes that preoccupy writers of any persuasion”. Look up his website ( and you’ll find he’s not a disinterested critic. He writes “bush verse”, it has been published widely and he has won awards for it. So he’s open to accusations of talking his book, or just complaining he’s been left out.

But Campbell himself works both in poetry grounded in “metre, rhyme and clear communication” and in free verse. His concern is not about the merits of one form of verse over another but with the apparent prejudice of the editors and the blame they, and others like them, must shoulder for the decline of public interest in Australian poetry. The latter he attributes, at least in part, to the celebration of poems that are “little better than minced prose” or “crippled by jerky rhythms, clumsy vocabulary and a tin ear” – descriptions quoted from a review of the same book, Australian Contemporary Verse, by playwright Louis Nowra.

Campbell also quotes Clive James about “critics and academics who believe that the whole idea of a set form is obsolete” and furthermore: “The ruling majority of people concerned with poetry in Australia think free verse is a requirement of liberty, and anything constructed to a pattern must be leaving something essential out.”

Oh well, so what? Literary spats, or, more broadly, artistic arguments reverberate around the around the luvvy world all the time. Eventually they all come down to the one question: what is Art? Everyone knows what it is, and everyone knows what it isn’t. Right? OK then, move along . . . nothing to see here.

Except that, the old book I had read earlier that day was Ern Malley’s Poems, which should ring bells. For me, the commentary in it rather skewered the editors of Contemporary Australian Poetry in a way that neither they nor Campbell could have known. I need to make clear at this point that I have not consulted Mr Campbell for this post, nor should anyone infer that he shares the opinions expressed herein, beyond what he had to say in the Australian. Indeed, I really shouldn’t have to make this disclaimer but it will become clear why I feel I must. David Campbell may well have enough come down on his head for his Australian article without copping anything that might come my way.

Max Harris . . . post wild child

Anyone who has taken an interest in Australian literature since World War II knows the story of Ern Malley, or at least has heard of it. The yarn is more than 70 years old now but it remains a cause celebre in Capital A Art – and not irrelevant to Campbell’s and James’s complaints about the judges of recent Australian poetry.

To refresh everyone’s memory. In 1940, despite the war, an 18-year-old would-be surrealist poet named Max Harris from Adelaide established a magazine named Angry Penguins, typically self-referential in that the name derived from a line in one of his own poems. His patrons were OzArt gurus John and Sunday Reed and Sidney Nolan. Angry Penguins promoted the avant garde in visual art and published poems of that nature.

In 1944 a couple of scallywag poets (and soldiers), James McAuley and Harold Stewart, aged 27 and 28 respectively, decided they’d had enough of Angry Penguins poetry and sat down together at Victoria Barracks in Melbourne one Sunday afternoon – it seems to be the appropriate time for cerebral activity – with a few random reference books, extracted likely looking words and phrases from them and produced 16 “poems” under the group title of The Darkening Ecliptic. They named the author Ern Malley, gave him a life story and a helpful sister, Ethel, and passed the poems off to young Max as the unpublished life work of the late, unknown Ern. Harris bit and printed the poems with suitable accolades. The secret didn’t last long and the two naughty boys were soon exposed as hoaxters in a Sydney tabloid named Fact and then in the Sydney Sun afternoon paper. Harris might have been embarrassed but not much: he insisted the things had literary merit and continued to do so over ensuing years.

There the situation might have rested . . . the tiny OzArt world squirming over the discomfiture of the Adelaide upstart while the giggling rest of the country got on with the war . . . when an idiotic Adelaide policeman named Vogelsang (true: in a case like this you couldn’t make up such a name) decided to charge Harris and Angry Penguins with indecency, in part because of the content of seven Ern Malley poems. An even more idiotic magistrate agreed with Detective Birdsong, on the basis of a law which even he conceded could have had Shakespeare in the dock. None of the content complained about would cause remark these days, let alone pursed lips or a raised eyebrow. Poor old Vogelsang would die of shame just by turning on the TV now.

And so Ern Malley escalated from a practical joke to a debate about sexual censorship and from there to an enduring discussion about, yep, “what is Art?” The perpetrators insisted they had not intended to show up Max Harris. They were conducting a serious literary experiment.

James McAuley . . . c.1944

“For some years now we have observed with distaste the gradual decay of meaning and craftsmanship in poetry,” they wrote in a statement after the exposure. “Mr Max Harris and other Angry Penguins writers represent an Australian outcrop of a literary fashion which has become prominent in England and America. The distinctive feature of the fashion, it seemed to us, was that it rendered its devotees insensible of absurdity and incapable of ordinary discrimination.

Harold Stewart . . . a bit later

“Our feeling was that, by processes of critical self-delusion and mutual admiration, the perpetrators of this humourless nonsense had managed to pass it off on would be intellectuals and Bohemians, here and abroad, as great poetry.

“Their work appeared to us to be a collection of garish images without coherent meaning and structure; as if one erected a coat of bright paint and called it a house. [Wow, what a line!]

“However, it was possible that we had simply failed to penetrate to the inward substance of these productions. The only way of settling the matter was by experiment. It was, after all, fair enough. If Mr Harris proved to have sufficient discrimination to reject the poems, then the tables would have been turned.

“What we wished to find out was: Can those who write and those who praise so lavishly this kind of writing tell the real product from consciously and deliberately concocted nonsense?”

McAuley and Stewart then went on to describe in detail how they had gone about their Sunday afternoon, in one instance lifting a passage from an American report on the drainage of breeding grounds of mosquitoes and presenting it as the first three lines of one of Ern’s poems. Making up the Life of Ern took more time than composing his works.

The poems were accepted as brilliant, not only by Harris and co-editor John Reed but also by a lecturer in Australian literature at Adelaide University and an American poet who had some of them published in New York in an anthology of Australian verse.

“However,” wrote McAuley and Stewart, “that fact does not, as it might seem to do, prove a complete lack of intelligence. It proves something far more interesting. It proves that a literary fashion can become so hypnotically powerful that it can suspend the operation of critical intelligence in quite a large number of people.”

So we come back, to our local critic Campbell and his concerns about prejudice, and to celebrated expat James and his line about free verse as a “requirement of liberty”. I suspect neither would want to go further and call the bypass of “bush verse” censorship, or at least a politically motivated act. But I don’t mind doing so. Chaos and continuous disruption, jagged forms and discord, rather than order and harmony and, dare I say it, beauty, are the elements of a certain kind of political activism, not merely in art, that is as glaringly apparent in these uncertain times as it was in Ern Malley’s wartime days.

McAuley and Stewart saw it: “Such a literary movement as the one we aimed at debunking . . . this cultism resembles on a small scale, the progress of certain European political parties. An efficient publicity apparatus is switched on to beat the big drum and drown opposition. Doubters are shamed to silence by the fear of appearing stupid or (worse crime!) reactionary. If anyone raises his voice in protest, he is mobbed with shrill invective. The faithful, meanwhile, to keep their spirits up, shout encouragements and slogans, and gather in groups so as to have no time to think.”

If that passage from deep in the past does not describe to you the current state of debate in Australia – and elsewhere – about important public policy issues, you haven’t been paying attention . . . or worse.


Ern Malley’s Poems was published by Landowne Press in 1961 with an introduction by Max Harris and a cover design by Vane Lindsay. In his introduction, Harris relates how the poems came to him, how he came to be told they were fakes and neither Ern nor Ethel had ever existed, and how he reacted to the news. The book reproduces the statement by the culprits and statements by various luminaries lauding the literary worth of the poems in a 1960 ABC documentary (which also included interviews with both McAuley and Stewart reiterating their views of 17 years before). The indecency prosecution is discussed and the magistrate’s judgement appended. Laudably, Max plays it straight most of the time, something he had a reputation for not always doing.

All the poems are reproduced in full, as first published in 1944, with one significant exception. McAuley and Stewart noted in their post-exposure statement that the last line of the last poem Petit Testament had been printed as “I have split the infinite”, whereas the manuscript read “I have split the infinitive. Beyond is anything”. The 1961 reprint dutifully reverts to “infinitive”. You would have thought the original editor (undoubtedly Max) might have paused over “correcting” infinitive to infinite and maybe had a little doubt. But if you’re 22 years old and you have a scoop . . .

Today Ern Malley has his own website (of course) and you can read all the poems there (  Make up your own mind as to whether McAuley and Stewart accidentally created Art. Max Harris had no doubt. “Perhaps the best answer,” he wrote, “was the phrase I used at 3 am and in a state of semi-somnolence (when Mr Colin Simpson [of the Sydney Sun] chose to phone me: ‘The myth is sometimes greater than its creators.’. . . The main statement of support came from Sir Herbert Read . . .”

Sir Herbert Read

This eminent English art historian, poet, literary critic and philosopher cabled Harris ahead of a letter: “I too would have been deceived by Ern Malley but hoaxers hoisted by own petard as touched off unconscious sources inspiration work too sophisticated but has elements of genuine poetry.” Read elaborated in his letter: “If a man of sensibility, in a mood of despair or hatred, or even from a perverted sense of humour, sets out to fake works of imagination, then if he is to be convincing he must use the poetic faculties. If he uses these faculties to good effect, he ends by deceiving himself. So the faker of Ern Malley.” Read praised some of the content but dismissed other bits as “merely sophisticated or silly”.

None of what the authoritative knight had to say addressed the central issue McAuley and Stewart raised in their statement – that the guardians of what is deemed by the fashionable to be great and good, no matter how stupid, routinely employ totalitarian methods to intimidate and to suppress dissent. The parade of praise for the Ern Malley oeuvre on the ABC 17 years after the event and the continued appreciation of The Darkening Ecliptic today rather proves the point. The authors said the poems were nonsense but the promoters of such stuff have simply refused to take any notice. The poems are Art.

I am reminded of a TV documentary I saw long ago in which the late David Bowie described a method he used for writing one of his famous songs (not being a fan, I can’t remember which one). He said he wrote down a stream of words on paper, cut them up individually, threw them down and then, one by one, picked them up and randomly put them together again. This sort of rubbish was carefully left out of the flood of praise in the voluminous obituaries. Bowie died in 2016, Harris and Stewart in 1995, McAuley in 1976 and Read in 1968. Ernest Lalor Malley b. 1944 – still going strong.

Dramaturgid futility

This is the story of a failed quest – and, as it turns out, a futile and foolish one as well. I wish I could claim it as quixotic but it was far from noble and the windmill at which I tilted was more like one of those small, handheld electric fans that were popular at one time. This was a trivial pursuit.

I suppose I should start at the beginning. In 2014, my wretch of a wife and I decided to have a clean out of our many years of accumulated junk. Among the piles of stuff that went into the dumpster were a pile of theatre programs from our pre-children days when we used to be regular occupiers of the front stalls. I regret now committing these booklets of bumptious buffery to the tender care of the landfill managers because they recorded a glorious period on the Australian stage – original plays (like Don’s Party) and celebrated actors (like Frank Thring) – and I should have offered them to the archives of the Melbourne Theatre Company, for them to lose (as they have much else).

But because of my Wodehouse obsession, there was one program I retained – from the Melbourne Theatre Company’s 1974 production of The Play’s the Thing by Ferenc Molnar, adapted by P.G. Wodehouse. Molnar (pictured) was a highly successful 20th century Hungarian playwright and novelist who became well established on Broadway and eventually migrated to the US. He had written a romantic comedy (originally, Jatek A Kastelyban; in German, Spiel in Schloss; in English, The Play in the Castle) using the Hamlet device of the play-within-a-play to create the required dramatic complications and resolutions. It was more than a little Ruritanian in the florid, princes-and-castles, central European operetta way (think the Student Prince) but Wodehouse declared he could turn it into a Broadway hit – and he did. It opened as a bedroom farce on Broadway on 3 November 1926, played for 326 performances and has been regularly revived around the English-speaking world over the 90 years since.

In 1974, it was the Wodehouse name that attracted me to the play and 40-or-so years later that was what persuaded me to rescue the program from the tip and, of course, to refresh my memory. Well, of course, I don’t remember anything about the play, even if it was the thing, except that I laughed a lot. The program told me, though, that the show starred Frank Thring (pictured) and the cast included the now ubiquitous spruiker, John Wood. It also told me this:

If I were ever to write a great work on dramaturgy, I would use as my starting point the idea that spending the evening at a theatre is a punishment . . .

The sinner is required once a week at a set hour, at a set moment, suddenly to drop all his business, and in good weather or bad, to hasten to a large hall. This will be darkened at once, and the sinner conducted to a narrow seat. Here he will sit in the dark for three hours, rigid and motionless . . .

This human being banned to darkness and prevented from exercising any function is called a theatregoer: thanks to the humanitarian movement of modern times he enjoys the relief — but not always — of being allowed out for a few minutes every hour to rest from his physical torment and recruit his strength for fresh torments.

What then is dramaturgy? Dramaturgy is that charitable science which has gathered all the rules for ameliorating the situation of this condemned victim of bodily torment by tearing down one wall of the hall and showing him something in the gap. And this something must be so attractive that the above-described bodily torment becomes first bearable to the victim, then imperceptible, and finally desirable; so desirable that the victim is even ready to spend his hard-earned money for it, and indeed to scramble for the privilege of sitting inside.

This would be the introduction to my dramaturgy. After it would follow the chapters telling the low and exalted, superficial and profound, vulgar and noble methods that exist for transmitting this anaesthetic effectively through the gap in the wall to those suffering martyrdom.

Dramaturgy, an essay (1907).

The program note did not specify the author of this essay and, because I was interested in Wodehouse’s theatre work connected to the “trio of musical fame”, I thought it possible the quote was his. Wodehouse was a journalist for the London Globe newspaper in 1907 and also writing about and for the theatre. While I thought “dramaturgy”, as a topic and as a word in itself, was something young Pelham Grenville even then might have considered suitable for relentless ridicule, I was conscious that he turned his hand to just about anything respectable that would bring in a bob or two. Molnar, though, it seemed to me, would have been unlikely at that time to have command of English in such an assured and gently humorous way. So I began to look around on the internet, as you do these days. I also contacted the Melbourne Theatre Company and quickly discovered they had no archive from the 1970s. Notwithstanding, at the end of July 2014 I e-mailed an inquiry anyway and their publications co-ordinator, Paul Galloway, responded:

I would say that the quote is not from Wodehouse but from Molnar. Firstly, the cited year 1907 is well within the time Molnar was operating, but Wodehouse had barely started as a writer. I think it unlikely that any publisher would be interested in his thoughts on drama at that time. Secondly, the quote refers to the conventions of theatre and their apparent absurdity. This was one of the subjects Molnar’s play discusses in a self-referential way. Thirdly, the style is more Molnar – European, urbanely flippant – than Wodehouse – English, light, irrelevant – but that might just be my reading. Fourthly, MTC would more likely print a quote from the playwright rather than an adaptor.

I did not find this satisfactory, given what I knew about Wodehouse’s activities in 1907, and I bridled a bit at the word “irrelevant”. I fired off another longish e-mail to Mr Galloway who put me gently in my place:

I would never claim Wodehouse is irrelevant (if only we can convince more people of his importance). I merely said that Wodehouse’s style plays on irrelevance – treating side issues as if they were important and taking a lot of words to explain something straightforward. This passage seems far too much to the point for me.

And he signed off “what ho!” . . . showing me that not only was his heart in the right place but he knew his Wodehouse and I should think a bit harder before firing off bridling e-mails, especially to people I didn’t know. I discovered later along the trail I’m not the only one in the Wodehouse world prone to a spot of bridling.

By this stage I’d come across on the net a couple of references that were to prove keys to this tale of a man with too much time on his hands. One was a website called Madame Eulalie (a name that might suggest certain altogether non-Wodehousean behaviour but I can assure you it is totally innocent and, for those of you who have a couple of hours to spare, I’m happy to explain). The happy people at Madame Eulalie were busy tracking down and collecting the young Wodehouse’s journalism and other pieces of writing by which he made his living while working towards becoming a full-time author. (This project is now complete and a book published.) The second reference was a bibliography of dramaturgy compiled by a Geoff Proehl and others at, believe it or not, the University of Puget Sound in north-western USA. Why this is important begins to be seen within the note I sent to one Raja Srinivasan, to whom I was referred by Madame Eulalie:

I have searched the internet with as much ingenuity as my aging faculties can muster but have not been able to find the source [of the dramaturgy quote]. The closest I came is a bibliography of the literature of dramaturgy compiled by an academic at the University of Puget Sound . . . This list claims the Louder and Funnier [Wodehouse essay] collection of 1932 includes a piece called The Science of Dramaturgy. My copy contains no such thing – the nearest being a plea for audience rights . . . We know what Plum was doing in 1907 and it’s entirely likely that this piece, Dramaturgy, was one of his many contributions to the London newspapers and magazines of the day. The question is: which one?

Mr Srinivasan passed my query to Wodehouse expert, John Dawson, who replied (cc Tony Ring, another aficionado who has featured in these pages before):

I’ve never heard of the The Science of Dramaturgy or simply Dramaturgy. I’ve checked McIlvaine [the definitive Wodehouse bibliography] and the addendum, Tony Ring’s Second Row, Grand Circle and find no mention of it. It doesn’t appear anywhere in my various research notes and databases. For what it’s worth, the 1907 article purportedly written by Wodehouse doesn’t sound a thing like him, in my opinion, and I’m inclined to doubt it’s PG’s. As with the Louder and Funnier reference, it looks to me like someone’s made a mistake somewhere. The article itself is printed in two books I can find (but since they are “limited preview” at Google Books I can’t open them up to see the attributions: Dramaturgy in American Theater: A Source Book Susan S. Jonas, Geoffrey S. Proehl, Michael Lupu; Companion in Exile: Notes for an Autobiography Ferenc Molnár.

Mr Dawson suggested that if I could get my hands on either volume a clue might be found as to authorship. I should have taken the hint. But I was in full, wrong-headed flight by now. I sent back to Raja, John and Tony, the following:

May I take a gentlemanly opposite stance on the tone (sound) of the Dramaturgy quote? Given that it is a fragment and a lot older, I actually think it fits quite well with PG’s later effort Fair Play for Audiences (from Vanity Fair, published before 1923, in Louder and Funnier). Against this view is that, even in 1907 when he was still struggling to find his “voice”, I can’t imagine PG using the word “dramaturgy”, except to lampoon it . . . Let’s see what the formidable Tony can do.

Tony Ring duly added his little all:

I don’t feel formidable at all, I’m afraid. I do not recall the word “dramaturgy” or its close cousins in connection with PGW, either describing him (although I know it has been applied to Jeeves) or written by him in his theatrical commentaries. Personally, I hate the word!! It sounds like a “dirge”, and seems to be used in any context that the writer or speaker wishes, as long as there is some connection to the creation of a theatrical production. I am sure that with that built-in reaction, I would remember if I had come across it in a Wodehousean context.

John Dawson told me Google Books previews of both his references provided “just enough of them to see several sentences containing identical language” to that in my original quote. He then did a bit of bridling of his own about my apparently questioning his opinion:

By  1907 [PGW] had published over 500 verses, stories, articles and books, as well as another 400 verses from the Globe and thousands of paragraphs in BTW and NOTD [columns]. So I don’t believe it would be accurate to say that he was “struggling to find his voice.” He hadn’t yet developed the mature comic style he’s best known for, that wouldn’t come for years yet, but as far as his “voice”, he was expressing well-drawn observations of the theatre as early as his first theatrical review in 1902.  I still maintain that based on content it’s doubtful that he wrote your piece, there is simply zero forensic evidence in it, and unless I can see it published somewhere originally in 1907 with his by-line I have to remain sceptical!

So I responded to John, and Raja and Tony:

Thank you all for your efforts . . . although steady on a bit, John old bean, not questioning your knowledge or your authority . . . just venturing an opinion, which doesn’t seem to be worth very much. I had an exchange with the Melbourne Theatre Company. I expected nothing and that’s what I got. I looked up the Molnar references and the dramaturgy bibliography (good grief, what a combination of words!) Nothing much doing there, either. So now, totally frustrated, I am pondering whether I should give it one last shot by contacting the dramaturgy expert, Prof. Proehl, at University of Puget Sound, to ask him where he got his reference and could I have a look at it please. Haven’t wanted to do that, right from the start. Like staring into the abyss.

That was on 1 August 2014. I put the matter aside. The experts had spoken – and I mean that totally unfacetiously: they are experts with far greater Wodehouse knowledge than I’ll ever have. But I didn’t let it go. It rankled – like billy-oh, as Old Plum might have said, only with maybe a meticulously mangled bit of Shakespeare to back it up.

So after three years of rankling, on Saturday, 24 June 2017, at 7.29pm, I finally approached the abyss:

Dear Mr Proehl/Dr/Prof/Geoff [I e-mailed],

I came across the UPS Dramaturgy Northwest website (and consequently your name and address) while I was searching for the source of a quote. The site’s “bibliography of books, articles and essays on dramaturgy” included the following: Wodehouse, P.G. “The Science of Dramaturgy.” Louder and Funnier. London: Faber, 1932, ???. My copy of Louder and Funnier doesn’t have this piece in it and the several Wodehouse authorities with whom I’ve corresponded confirm their copies don’t have it either (it is quite common for various Wodehouse editions to have slightly different content). I am hoping you might be able to clarify this, as it would help this totally obscure Wodehouse freak with time on his hands to clear up a very small but nagging mystery.

At the same time I took to Google Books with John Dawson’s references. Both came up readily enough. But I had to rely on the preview pages, as I’m not prepared to shell out my super funds simply to find couple of words. The treatise by Proehl et al produced no more than I already knew but several searches of the Molnar Notes for an Autobiography using different key words and phrases produced . . . exactly what John Dawson told me the preview had provided for him three years ago. The theatre program quote I started out with belongs to Ferenc Molnar.

Well, I won’t lie to you, my faithful readers (both of you), the confirmation was deflating. I was happier not knowing and bandying words with the likes of Messrs Srinivasan, Dawson and Ring. All I wanted to do was add my little something to the vast store of Wodehouse wisdom . . . and, I’ll also confess, maybe score one for the little man. But this is what it’s come down to: the experts were right and the cocky upstart from Down Under was, er, amiss, astray, awry, inaccurate, misguided, mistaken, off-target, wide of the mark, and a thousand other synonyms for w-w-w-w-wrong. Aagh! There, I’ve said it . . . the awful “w” word.

Meanwhile what of Mr /Dr/Prof/Geoff Proehl? He actually got back to me. Out of the electronic blackness from the shores of Puget Sound, he said he’d “check on this”. A footnote on his e-mail informs recipients that, inter alia, he is a member of Literary Managers and Dramaturgs of the Americas, and has been since 1990. So he knows his stuff. A few days later came this note (with a certain plaintive tone, I think, probably because I’d forgotten it was summer in the Northern Hemisphere, a time when academics like to wander off for some R&R):

I went to look for the piece in my files, which I should have, but that part of the office is being reorganized. I have a note in to our office admin, but am about to leave town. I will follow-up on this and either find the piece or remove it from the bib. I also sent a note to the person who was the original source for the citation, so I thought, but he has no memory of it. In brief, will pursue this at least to the point of checking my files for the piece and get back to you, but it may not be until mid-July, since I am soon out of town for a couple of weeks.

I didn’t have the heart to tell him I’d already solved my little mystery, so I let him go off in peace chasing grizzlies or whatever it is that dramaturgs in the Pacific North-West do on hols. Eventually, he shook the dust off his hiking boots and provided the following:

The Wodehouse piece was incorrectly identified, as you know and I now realize. It should have been entitled, “Fair Play for Audiences”. Thanks for bringing this to my intention [he means “attention”, I’m sure]. I will correct it for future editions of the bibliography.

PGW, the non-dramaturg

I’m not sure I did “know” his bibliography was wrong, and anyway I was not really concerned about that. I wanted to pin down my quote. Sigh. I said here that I should have known his focus would be on his database and not really on the substance of my inquiry. It was, I thought, enough for him to be able to correct the bibliography. The rest didn’t matter.

Well, it’s in keeping with this yarn that I was wrong about that, too. A few days after posting this piece for the first time, I received an e-mail from Geoff Proehl with the relevant extract from his database, including the Melbourne Theatre Company quote and proving beyond doubt that John Dawson et al were correct. The file was headed with the following note, about Molnar’s original commentary on dramaturgy and Wodehouse’s much later essay on Fair Play for Audiences :

Molnar and W intro 2

That’s what’s called closure, I suppose. But I have one more hand-held fan to challenge, that of the Wodehouse Society convention in Washington DC in October when I shall finally meet many of my fellow Wodehouseans, and be able to spin them this humbling and utterly pointless story in person.

Inland on the Grand Junction

The commitment of our political masters in Canberra to the 1700km, Melbourne-Brisbane Inland Rail project, after only 21 years of thinking about it, could not have been more timely. It’s given me the perfect excuse to delve more deeply, for the amusement and information of my small but perfectly formed audience, into the marvellous little book, Freeling’s Grand Junction Railway Companion, that Victoria Madden discovered on the internet.

Freeling second ed coverIn my piece Oh, what a Freeling! a couple of weeks ago I was more interested in the Companion as an ancestor of the Bradshaw’s railway guide books that Michael Portillo has been clutching to his breast these many years on TV. But now, in the context of Inland Rail, I’d like to take you on a journey through Freeling’s Companion and try to discern what bearing its descriptions of a brand new railway, one of the world’s first, might have on a new railway 180 years down the track in vastly different conditions on the other side of the world.

Inland rail mapInland Rail is an exclusively freight line being routed along 1200km of existing rights of way through Victoria and south-west New South Wales and 500km of new alignments through north-west NSW and south-west Queensland, which, amazingly, are yet to be settled although the project has been under study and restudy, debated, accepted and rejected for, as I say, two decades.

The Feds are proclaiming Inland Rail to be the Commonwealth’s biggest rail undertaking since the east-west Trans-Australia railway was completed 100 years ago this October. [It is beyond me why Canberra thinks this is something to be proud of, having left the States and private enterprise to link the country coast to coast, east-west and north-south, only putting in when politically expedient.] This 2017-18 Federal Budget has committed $6.4 billion of taxpayers’ money to be sent after the $900 million already scattered along the Inland Rail route. The first trains are supposed to be rolling along it by 2024-25.

Well, I won’t be camping by the line any time in that year waiting for the first double-stacked container train to come rumbling past, nor will I be expecting any change out of our 6-plus big ones. On the contrary, the record of governments building anything anywhere is one of delays and cost blowouts. If it happens in Switzerland, and it has, you can bet on it happening here.

But I don’t wish to add my voice to the naysayers. The Inland Rail project is clearly A Good Thing and should be pushed along. Indeed, the Federal Government-owned Australian Rail Track Corporation has already started on a couple of tricky bits of the line aimed at getting around the southern outskirts of Brisbane. The whole project is laid out in admirably simple detail at

double stack train

Meanwhile, the Canberra bureaucrats and politicians might like to get a feel for what it’s like to release the brakes on a new major railway – given that this has been an infrequent event in Australia in their lifetimes – by reading Freeling’s Grand Junction Companion, which can be downloaded from Google Books at that always politically popular amount, “no cost”. It is less than two centuries old and therefore relevant to a Government that thinks 100 years between projects is all right.

GJR statementPage 16 provides the mind concentrator. Here is set out a “Statement of Receipts and Expenditure to June 30th, 1837”, which details the capital structure and expenditure for building the 82½ miles of line between Birmingham and the junction with the Manchester-Liverpool railway, via Warrington [hello, Victoria]. A consortium of local businessmen, including George Stephenson, raised £1,512,150/0/4 and spent £1,472,811/4/5, if my additions and subtractions are correct. (I grew up with £sd but haven’t dealt with them since 1966, so I might be the odd penny or two out.). That is a cost per mile of £17,850, leaving the pence to take care of themselves.

By one method of calculation, based on per capita GDP, those costs today represent an expenditure of £1.64 billion, or £20 million per mile. Translated to today’s Australian dollars, that’s about $3 billion and $35 million per mile, or $22 million per kilometre. Compare that with Inland Rail’s $7.3 billion for the 1700km, or $4.3 million per kilometre. It’s a snip really – and unrealistic.

In Victoria last year, the Regional Rail Link between Melbourne and Geelong opened for business. This 47.5 km of double line track took seven years to build and cost, according to the State Government, $3.65 billion, or $77 million per kilometre. That’s right, nearly four times the cost per kilometre of the Grand Junction and nearly 20 times the committed expenditure on the Inland Rail line. I can hardly believe it myself.

One other comparison might be interesting. According to the authority I consulted, the £1.64 billion spend on the Grand Junction would have been worth about £5.6 billion (or nearly $10 billion) in today’s money to the British economy – i.e. about 3.4:1. The Victorian Government reckoned in 2010 the Regional Rail Link investment (then costed at $4.3 billion) would be worth $6.2 billion to the economy – or 1.44:1. Inland Rail is expected to boost the Australian economy by $16 billion over the next 50 years (yep, 50) – a ratio of 2.2:1.

These numbers are offered only as indicators. They are derived from British-based modelling for the Grand Junction, other unspecified models for the Australian projects and my always dodgy economic and arithmetic expertise; and of course, none of these projects is comparable one with the other, for a whole host of obvious reasons. But as my then 4-year-old grand-daughter told me: “Watch and learn.”

gjrmapIn 1837, the Grand Junction Railway traversed ancient populated territory with all the attendant vested interests that implies, encountering engineering problems railway builders were still learning about – the whole industry was only a decade old – and in 21st century Australia, Inland Rail is also crossing populated country – maybe only lightly for long distances but owned by someone nevertheless – and encountering logistical challenges, rather than engineering surprises.

Mr Freeling notes in his Companion that the 31 miles of the original Liverpool-Manchester railway – the first such main line in the world, it needs to be restated – in 1830 cost more than two-thirds of the expenditure on the nearly three times longer Grand Junction. He adds with evident feeling: “. . . an expenditure, be it recollected, not recklessly or carelessly incurred, but one which was necessary to obtain the experience and information which will now enable others to execute similar works at so great a reduction of cost. Every railroad company which may in future exist is infinitely indebted to the Liverpool and Manchester Company; and if the feelings and principles which regulate the actions of individuals towards each other, when their own affairs alone are concerned, could be brought to bear upon their operations when incorporated in public bodies, committees, boards, &c. &c, the proprietors of every railroad would contribute handsomely to a compensation fund, to repay some of the enormous expense incurred, in their experimental outlay, by the shareholders of the Liverpool and Manchester Railroad.” Now there’s an idea!

Inland Rail has taken 21 years of lobbying; the men behind the Grand Junction campaigned for 10 and built for four. According to Freeling’s account, the idea was first proposed in 1823 as the Liverpool-Manchester project got going. That bid failed. Other backers tried again in 1826. That failed, too. More hopefuls revived the effort in 1830 as the Liverpool-Manchester line opened, took the project to Parliament finally in 1832 and on 6 May 1833 the legislation received Royal Assent, astounding Mr Freeling with the fact that this last push had cost nothing in lawyers’ fees. The line carried its first paying passengers on 4 July 1837.

This is a tremendous feat. In only four years the Grand Junction company built 82½ miles of railway, using principles and techniques pioneered over little more than the past decade and developing some of their own as they went. It can’t be emphasised enough – this was all new to the world.


Lawley viaduct, Grand Junction Railway

Freeling’s Companion provides “a few facts”: “The reader who has accompanied us in our journey will, perhaps, scarcely be aware that he has passed one hundred excavations and embankments – yet such is the fact. In the formation of these, five millions five hundred thousand cubic yards of earth and stone have been cut and removed, three millions of which have been employed in the embankments; the remainder has, for the most part, been laid out for spoil, as described at page 26. In the Line there are about one hundred and nine thousand distinct rails, which rest on four hundred and thirty-six thousand chairs, which are supported by four hundred and thirty-six thousand blocks of stone. The Railway passes under one hundred bridges, two aqueducts, and through two tunnels; it passes over fifty bridges and five viaducts, the latter are stupendous erections. In the formation of the line upwards of forty-one million four hundred and forty thousand pounds of iron have been used for rails and chairs, and upwards of six hundred and fifty-six thousand nine hundred and forty cubic yards of stone for blocks to support them.”

As an example of the engineering difficulties, consider the case of the embankment in a bog 28½ miles from Birmingham: “Vast quantities of material disappeared at this spot, the men being employed six weeks in throwing in ballast. As it disappeared in the bog, the ground in the neighbouring field was observed to rise until, after a time, it exhibited the appearance of a huge fungus, of perhaps 200 yards circumference at the base. Perseverance did, however, overcome this difficulty, and I believe the bed of the Railroad is here as firm as any portion of the line, although the work men almost despaired of it; frequently, in the progress of the work, having finished an apparently firm and straight embankment at night, which in the morning had either totally disappeared or materially sunk.”

Every page of Freeling’s Companion carries a good story. The Grand Junction railway crossed lands occupied from prehistoric times, scenes of battles from the Britons to the Wars of the Roses and the Civil War, established estates of the nobility and the humbler properties and activities of the hoi polloi. Vested interests were strewn densely across the path, and Freeling is consumed with the value of property all along the line.

Everald Compton, who first proposed the inland freight line, might recognise Freeling’s account of the lobbying for the Grand Junction project. It exhibits, he says, “the difficulties which invariably attend the promotion of a public good, when opposed to private interest. It is too often to be regretted, that the chief opposition to the efforts of those public-spirited individuals who originate such works, arises from persons whose real interests are not affected, but whose temper or caprice raise up a host of evils which exist only in their perverted imaginations.”

Freeling also makes an acute observation about the changes railways were making in human perceptions and, allied with that, he foresees today’s major concerns: “At the 63rd mile post, when the river Sow is again seen approaching the railroad, and, by its quiet, silvery, slow meandering, contrasted with the rapidity of the carriages, forcibly reminds us of the singular change which a few years have made in our powers of migration.


Aston viaduct, Grand Junction Railway

“In the landscape, however, a railroad is not so pleasing an object as the stream; and there are some who believe that for the conveyance of heavy merchandize, the question is still to be answered – will it ever be so economical a means of transport as a canal?”

About 11 miles out of Birmingham, “a fire has been burning in the earth for upwards of fifty years; it arises from a stratum of coal, 30 feet deep, and 4 thick, and it arose from the main strata having been cut from under it, which admits the air, and thus feeds the fire, which has defied every attempt which has been made to extinguish it”.

A little town in Staffordshire called Stone, Freeling says, has a curious origin: “Wolferus, king of Mercia, embraced Christianity after the death of his father, but relapsed to paganism; in which religion he educated his two sons, who, however, were converted, and became disciples of St. Chad, a zealous Christian ecclesiastic, Bishop of Lichfield, (afterwards canonized), which so incensed the king that he put them to death. The Saxons, as usual, formed a caern, by heaping stones over the bodies of the two princes, in commemoration of the dreadful act. Wolferus, after some time, was reconverted to Christianity, when he founded a monastery to expiate his crime; and his queen, Ermilda, the mother of the murdered princes, erected a nunnery over their tomb; a town gradually arose in the neighbourhood, which, in commemoration of the event, was called Stone.”

Crew old hall

Crewe Hall circa mid-19th century

Then there’s a sad and salutary tale of Crewe Hall, about 53 miles from Birmingham. The Hall is “a fine specimen of the singular style which prevailed at the commencement of the 18th century” and is “well worthy of a visit from the tourist”. However, the lord of the manor is not often in residence and the estate’s extensive grounds and woodlands [designed by Capability Brown] are overgrown and unkempt, for a reason “whereof popular tradition has not failed to ally with the marvellous”.

“Thus sayeth the peasantry, the truth whereof this deponent voucheth not,” Freeling writes. “The late Lord Crewe, it would appear, was addicted to the noble vice of betting, and laid so enormous a sum on a race between two grubs, that on losing it, this estate was obliged to be mortgaged for the payment; on his death, the present noble occupant did, with filial chivalry, allow the remaining portion of the debt to be paid out of the estate, which has hitherto caused him to live in comparative seclusion, without such an establishment as this pre-eminently English mansion would appear to demand.”

Will Inland Rail, as it proceeds along its leisurely Outback way, pass by similar tragic stories of certainties beaten, of flies crawling up a wall, of pennies flashing in the firelight? Maybe, but chances are there won’t be an Arthur Freeling sitting in a loco cab counting every kilometre post, noting every point of interest and telling the stories of the plains and hills, the towns and farms being crossed by Inland Rail’s massive trains of double-stacked containers carrying the goods of a world Freeling could not have imagined.

Perhaps there should be, so that when a latter-day Freeling encounters a significant place like Handsworth, 2½ miles from Birmingham, home to the Boulton & Watt steam engine plant, he could write in similar valedictory tones: “In the Church are two elegant monuments . . . to the memory of Mr. Boulton and Mr. Watt . . . whose fame rests . . . in the usefulness of their lives, and in the benefits their intellectual ardour has conferred upon mankind. As long as science is dear, as long as the steam-engine exhibits its gigantic powers to an admiring world, so long will their names be in the mouths and minds of mankind.”


  1. Crewe Hall still exists today, as a hotel. Its history can be found here.  Crewe became one of the great railway junctions of Britain, and of course it should be recognised that much of what Freeling describes is now underneath or incorporated in the great conurbation of Birmingham. Wolverhampton, Walsall and Stoke are football clubs. Warrington (pace Victoria) belongs to the now combined cities of Liverpool-Manchester.
  2. English manufacturer Matthew Boulton and the Scottish engineer James Watt formed a partnership in 1775 to exploit Watt’s patented steam engine. This featured a separate condenser, which made much more efficient use of its fuel than the older Newcomen engine. The firm grew to be a major producer of steam engines in the 19th century and had a major role in the Industrial Revolution.
  3. There’s even a little something in Freeling’s Companion for the Wodehouseans among us. Fourteen miles west of Wolverhampton station, it notes, are the towns of Shifnall and Bridgenorth, in the county of Shropshire. Much later, followers of the Blamdings saga will have read that it was in the Bridgnorth, Shifnal and Albrighton Argus, with which is incorporated The Wheat Growers’ Intelligencer and Stock Breeders’ Gazeteer that the third successive victory of the Empress of Blandings at the Shropshire Agricultural Show was recorded, in verse no less.