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September 2017

A pair of micro-budget parodies of big budget science fiction movies that offer more diversion than most of the films they mimic. Indeed while composing these bons mots I (tried) to watch 'Saturn 3' (1980) with Kirk Douglas and Harvey Keitel. It has a big cast, all that hair from Farrah Fawcett, and a big budget and set designs beyond the pale. It is pretentious and portentous. Now if it just had a story, a sense of humour, a purpose....something. I flicked away after twenty minutes. That the screen play was by Martin Amis probably explains all of that. (I tried reading one of his novels year ago, and it felt good when I stopped.) While enduring it I found a review from the doyen of reviewers, Roger Ebert, who mercilessly caned it. Amen, Brother Roger.

The ‘Space Invaders’ are the Z-team from a Martian armada bound for Alpha Centura. This hapless crew mis-read the map (upside down) and missed the fleet rendezvous (awoke too late) and is roaming around (lost in space) trying to catch- up, meanwhile exhausting the fuel. Think of those laggards with the Spanish Armada in 1588 who stormed ashore in Norway to… I was told once that the genetic inheritance from these dimwits explains both the swarthy genes and the stupidity of some Norwegians. It was Swede who passed the word on this.

Spaced Invaders poster.jpg

While tooling around in the flying saucer the spaced-out invaders intercept a broadcast of Orson Wells’s ‘War of the Worlds.’ It being Halloween a local radio station is airing an old recording for the occasion. These dolts from space lock on to that signal and land in…Hicksville Illinois, blasters drawn and ready for a fight. It is Halloween so one and all are decked out as the weird and wonderful; ergo they fit right in. What if the Martians invaded and no one noticed? They did. They didn't. Just as well because a dolt forgot to charge the blasters.

Moreover, the townsfolk are in an expansive mood because an off-ramp from the I-80 has been built which will bring untold tourist wealth to this dying farm town when motorists fill one tank and empty another. (Think about it, Mortimer.) A few odd little guys in strange costumes are most welcome.

The cast of small town inhabitants is marvellous. The wannabe dumb blonde who cannot quite conceal her superior intelligence but irony is not something much noticed. The shy gas pump jockey pines for her but she’s out of his league so he studies advanced physics journals between horn honks for service from the town bullies. The jostling among the local magnates to take credit for the off-ramp goes on in costume. Then there is Royal Dano, instantly recognisable and whose memorable name is never remembered, as a cantankerous farmer who is about to lose his farm to a slimy small-time, small-town developer.

Dano conference.jpg Dano in conference with the Xers.

Vainly trying to keep order in this mix — the farmer has a shotgun or two and the developer has a bulldozer — is the lantern-jawed sheriff whose ten-year old daughter really likes the costumes of the Martians. Upon discovering they are not costumes, she says, ’They’re not bad. just stupid.’ Very.

Sapced invaders the F team.jpg The Z-Team.

Delightful mayhem ensues. The off-ramp is offed. The developer loses his shirt and much else. The dizzy blonde figures it out. The gas pump jockey discovers the inner he-man. The angry farmer has the means to put things right. (Think silos.) With his help the Spaced Invaders might be able to catch-up with the Martian Amanda, or at least get to Norway and enrich the gene pool.

Segue.

‘Dark Star’ started as a student project by John Carpenter who went on to bigger but not always better things.

It is refreshing change of pace from so many portentous and pretentious A and B science fiction films about the meaning of life or the end of the world. Oh hum.

Dark Satr poster.jpg

This entry is strictly working class. Five grunts who share a disheveled and no doubt odiferous dorm room on a space scow go about their business obliterating planets with smart, and talkative, bombs. They are galactic garbage men clearing up the detritus. That the planets may or may not be inhabited is of no interest to them. The planets are in the way of West-Connex and have to be demolished to create a space route. Sydneysiders know all about this mega road project which is consuming whole suburbs in its path. It is the local version of Boston’s Big Dig and has been in the offing even longer than that behemoth.

Cinephiles will think of the later ‘Quark’ (1977), but Quark was not working class. A garbage scow yes, but piloted by the well-spoken, highly educated, very clean, and aspirational Richard Benjamin who hopes for a promotion and a better assignment. None of that fits ‘Dark Star.’ This crew has topped out with Dark Star. Their career and life trajectories are down, not up.

On board Dark Star an industrial accident has killed the captain but head office demands that the remaining crew press on, though the faults on the ship multiply, even as their budget is cut-and-cut again. Situation normal.

To relieve some of the boredom one member of the crew has a pet. Which tickles. Even in elevator shafts. Has to be seen.

Meanwhile, systems on the ship malfunction, but appeals to head office for permission to put in for repairs are denied. Off camera I imagined the suits in the boardroom suppose the ship, Dark Star, is beyond repair and that these working stiffs are expendable. The crew members are contractors, so there will be no payout to beneficiaries. Managers managing.

Indeed most of the events can be explained from the McKinsey management manual, though it is well before the Age of Managers Managing. Shiver! That would make a slasher movie.

It all finally comes to a head …. There is a Silver Surfer at end. Intriguing that.

Apart from the gung-ho talking bombs, and the tickler, another high point is the sound track, most of it written and some of it performed by John Carpenter before he turned his hand to slasher movies with which he made a killing.

Dark Star bomb.jpg One of the smart (-mouthed) bombs.

Roget Ebert liked it and that is all I needed to know.

A low-key science fiction movie about, oh um, the end of the world. The set-up is interesting, but it limps in the middle and reaches a puzzling conclusion.

27Day Poster.jpg A misleading lobby poster. There are no zapping flying saucers chasing Valerie French in a bathing suit.

Gene Barry with his experience in outwitting Martians from the red planet at the height of the Cold War in ‘The War of the Worlds’ (1953) is here, sporting a RAF moustache that looks so fake that we knew it would have to go and it did. Arnold Moss as the alien is so effortlessly grave that … [on him more at the end].

Five individuals from around the world - Chinese, Russian, American, Brit, and Dutch - are plucked from their routine and plonked into plastic chairs in a bland conference room looking very modernistic though not modern. There is nothing special about them, one a villager, another a sentry, a press hack, a sunbather, and a scientist. With gender diversity the Chinese and the Brit are women. The Dutch scientist is in fact visiting the United States, so that gives Uncle Sam two.

After having proven to the gathering that they are on a spaceship, Arnold Moss presents the dilemma. His planet is doomed and the population must relocate. These are planetary asylum seekers. The Third Rock will do nicely, but being pacifists, they cannot conquer though it is evident that their technology is far superior. Even big Gort seems a clumsy relic against Moss’s magic.

27 DAy.jpg You have the power! (An early iPhone advertisement?)

Apparently, neither can they negotiate. Instead Arnie will give each of the five a weapon (the size of an iPhone) that cam destroy their enemies. Note, it destroys only persons and not material. It works by thought control. If these weapons are not used by the end of the 27th day, the aliens will look elsewhere for suitable real estate and leave Earth alone, and the weapons will become useless. The explanation of the weapons is as detailed and as incomprehensible as McKinsey-speak but it covered every contingency the screenwriters could imagine, however, there is no manual for those who were not paying attention.

Knowing Earth history, it seems the aliens assume that some or all of the weapons will be used, and in effect that will depopulate the planet for their immigration. Rather like the Germans in the Franco-Prussian War stopping short of Paris, leaving the French there to murder each other and to save ammunition. Cynical. But then look at the news today.

During the briefing, Gene Barry gets the phone number of the English woman, clad in a bathing suit because she was plucked from the beach (hence the poster above), and then ‘Hey, presto!’ they are right back where they came from. She promptly throws her device into the sea, telephones Gene, and flies to LAX. She certainly has initiative and tenacity.

The Chinese woman, who says not a word and has no close-up, commits suicide. This seems to be in reaction to the massacre of her village which was underway when she was alien-napped. The cadre were practicing on the helots, they way they do.

The Soviet sentry is dumbfounded and keeps his mouth shut.

The Dutch scientist is on his way to a conference in New York City to which he now travels. Thus three possessors of this doomsday weapon and two of the devices are Stateside.

Sitting tight is not an option, because ….. Spoiler.

Because alien Arnold Moss goes on the air around the world on every radio and television channel, he is more of media hog than the Twit in Chief. He tells everyone about the weapons and names the five who possess them. Cover blown! He had not told the five that he was going to rat them out like that!

The Feds latch onto the Dutchman as he lands at La Guardia.

Barry, having peeled off that moustache, thus disguised he grabs the Brit bit at LAX before the Forces of Order spot her, and together they head off to a hideout he just happens to know. (Probably cased it when dealing with those pesky Martians earlier.)

Pause for thought. Five randomly picked individuals have a doomsday weapon in their pockets. What will they do with them? That is one interesting proposition. Some will see parallels with the New Testament; I did.

Individual choice is quickly compromised by the public broadcast of their names. The Soviet grunt is arrested, suborned, tortured, but remains silent for a time. His motivation is left a blank. In the end, rather than see the weapon used he commits suicide by throwing himself out of an upper story window.

Barry and his girl puzzle over what to do in their hideout. The Dutchman, like the Soviet, keeps the secret…for a time. Though he is pressured relentlessly by the CIA operatives, but none of his inquisitors brought a waterboard.

The second interesting proposition concerns how others react. That an alien is at work becomes accepted by authorities and the public at large. The five individuals are then seen in the ensuing panic to be agents of the alien with Rush Limbaugh-like hysteria laid on. Imagine that! A man bearing a resemblance to Barry, remember that mo, is murdered by a mob. Add Faux News to that equation and the lynchings would be general.

Barry’s idea is to sit out the twenty-seven days, and by some miracle he and his squeeze seem to have enough provisions in the two bottomless grocery store paper bags they have to survive for the duration (of the film) undetected. Until….

Yes, the Soviet grunt finally cracks and the weapon is now available to the USSR, which promptly proclaims it to blackmail the USA to pull out of Europe and Asia. Uncle Sam complies.

This turn of events brings patriot Barry and Valerie out of hiding in the hour of need. The Western Alliance of the American Barry, the Brit bit, an the Dutch professor stall but time is running out. The Russkies know that the weapon will lapse at the end the twenty-seventh day so if it is to be used then it must be before then. To prevent a retaliation from the weapon(s) in the USA, the best time to use is just before expiration. The Cold War context weighs heavily throughout.

Meanwhile, Barry and company test the iPhone weapon app and it does indeed work. Ergo the compliance noted above.

But the professor has a trick or two up his academic gown. When Moss handed over the devices he said it has ‘the power of life and death.’ Significant that? He did not say ‘life or death.’ This egghead applies himself to re-programming the devices with his big brain so as to kill only ‘the enemies of freedom.’ Wow!

We all have candidates for that hit list. Think of whom Ayn Rand would put on that list. Try not to think of Rush Limbaugh. Try harder!

Ayn Rand.jpg Ayn Rand

As the clock ticks and the Soviets prepare to activate the weapon app, the professor does his stuff and … that is it. ‘The enemies of freedom’ die! How easy was that! Lots of Russkies pile up in the streets.

In the aftermath at the United Nations there is an expansive spirit of unity of those who made the cut and Barry suggests offering the aliens some help. Maybe they could inhabit the parts of the Earth that are uninhabitable. The Antarctic is mentioned. New Jersey near the Kardashians seems logical? Some nice real estate in the Gobi Desert can be had for a price. This message is broadcast, and on the eighth ring Arnold Moss answers and rather than accept the offer instead welcomes the Earth into the community of 30,000 worlds! Whoa!

Huh? Was this some kind of fraternity initiation? That seemed to be the conclusion invited by Moss's last remarks. Such a test for admission is a common theme in sci-fi but here it is explained no further.

The film drags in the middle with Barry and the Brit in the hideout listening to the radio. The minutes seemed like hours to them and to me, too. The whole exercise would have been much better in a half-hour Twilight Zone or Science Fiction Theatre episode.

A few notes. Two suicides. The voluntary production code that dominated Hollywood at the time forbade suicides in word or deed. Yet there are two here. The Chinese woman early on and the Soviet soldier near the end. Perhaps because they were both commies, they were better dead than red.

Both the women endowed with the weapon reject it. The Chinese throws it on the fire burning the remains of the village before committing Chinese-kari and the Brit throws it into the sea before flying to Hollywood, well, LA. Lesson? Never trust a woman with a weapon of mass destruction.

Moss 27.jpg Arnold Moss (1910-1989)

Moss appeared in ‘The Conscience of the King’ in ‘Star Trek: TOS’ as Karidian the executioner. With his aristocratic bearing, perfect diction, and melliferous baritone voice he always dominated any scene. Something (else) William Shatner complained about. Moss was Phi Beta Kappa with a Columbia PhD who constructed crossword puzzles for the ‘New York Times’ while waiting on sets.

Third in a series of novels about life in the Yorkshire Dales of England: Low key, rural, disarming, and downright charming. The eponymous hero is one Gervase Phinn, school inspector. Some will remember these (in)spectors who were often the object of fear and trembling.

Head over hearls.jpg

Gervase is one of a team of four inspectors presided over by a senior inspector assisted by a secretary. This unit in turn reports to head office at the county. They are employed by the county but work to rules set by the Ministry of Education in distant London. Whatever the organisational chart, they are a small unit within a large organisation, combing the best and worst of each kind of organisation.

The master narrative is Phinn’s life and career. In this entry it is his second year on the job and in these pages he gets married to Christine and they set up house in a 'builder’s delight' of a cottage on the Dales, which are lovingly described.

Yorkshire-Dales-National-Park.jpg

Think of the countryside of ‘All Creatures Great and Small.’ Their efforts to make the cottage habitable are monitored by a neighbour who makes many observations, all of them laconic and most of them ironic, careful always never to lift a finger to help.

At work Phinn visits schools, sits in classrooms, talks to children, and attends one speech day after another. He also participates in staff development exercises at a training centre. The bulk of the novel strings together such episodes, many of which are delightful, as when a five year old girl in a class asks him how to spell ‘sex.’ No spoiler.

At Christmas he sits through four nativity plays in schools as he delivers the end of year reports. Dreary it may sound. Repetitive it may seem. But in the telling it is neither. The four plays are done in different ways, and Phinn, the writer, has the eye and ear for detecting those differences and conveying them to the reader. Wonderful.

At work the senior inspector and head of the unit, Harold, announces that he will take very early retirement in a few months, meanwhile a successor is appointed. In due course a much credentialed new senior inspector is named. Prior to taking up the job he pays several visits to the unit and the county office.

He speaks but McKinsey and talks but key performance indicators.

McKinsey.png

He bristles with changes and more change, and further change. Everything must change from the colour of ink in the reports to the number of rings of the telephone before answering. Everything must change from the time spent on task to the numerical indicators harvested from audits. Bullet points must replace text and text must replace bullet points. He is a very image of the modern major manager. As much as he is caricature he is also reality. In his hours of consultation, where he does all the talking, he never mentions children, teachers, schools, learning, or education. But the generic McKinsey-speak rolls on, and on. [Pause.]

Each of the members of the unit reacts to him. The Irish woman, Geraldine, is the first to realise the news is bad. Later when they catch on, David and Sidney are stunned into silence, an unusual state for either. Julie, the office secretary starts looking for another job. When this McKinsey clone refers to Connie at the training centre as the janitor, she …. and gets her revenge. She is the building supervisor! And proud of it!

The cast of characters is an amusing lot and given plenty of page time in the manner of all those character actors that enliven Frank Capra movies.

Lest it all seem light as air, note that there are serious moments. When David, with his usual insensitivity makes a stupid, sexist joke concerning unwed teenage mothers, both Geraldine and Connie set him straight in a one-two punch combination.

More than once Phinn is confronted by the conundrum of means and ends. The Ministry requires teachers to keep a tidy classroom, plan every teaching activity two weeks in advance, make written records of each class meeting, involve students in activities in prescribed ways, improve students language use and written expression in measured steps, and so on. This is the administrative approach to teaching much favoured by administrators and ostensibly it is the means to the end of education. Most teachers comply and most are adequate, and nothing more. Consider that approach applied to gardening for a moment to see it weakness. The plants are growing all the time in unplanned ways right now, not two weeks from now. A neat and well organised gardner may nonetheless have a dead garden.

But Gervase encounters in these pages two extraordinary exceptions. The first has a chaotic classroom in which the children do most of the talking as they explain things to each other. The room is untidy. Extremely! There is no plan. But there is excitement, curiosity, focus, learning, engagement, interaction, experimentation, argument, and more which the teacher seems to manage with hints and materials. It is all palpable but ineffable on the pages of the pro forma of the report Phinn must complete. Which is the priority? The Ministry standards or the children’s learning, because they are certainly learning, of that he has no doubt. Hmmm. Of the second deviant teacher there will be more in a moment.

Drafted to speak to a ladies’ club. He meets the president at her home where she orders her husband, Winco she calls him, to and fro like a wind-up toy. She blusters and demands and Winco complies with an amiable ‘Righto’ on each occasion. Phinn finds them both pathetic.

Only later does Phinn realise the Winco has every medal the RAF bestows, Distinguished Service Cross, Battle of Britain Ace, George Cross, two Life Saving ribbons, and others and that ‘Winco’ is short for ‘Wing Commander.’ Still later he learns that this woman was a Air Raid Warden with her own set of medals for pulling people from burning buildings while delivering babies in the rubble with the other hand. Never judge a book by its cover contra Bill Byson who never does anything else.

Gervase visits a Church of England school where all the most delinquent and troublesome students are sent within the high walls around it. Most of the teachers are rugby players. Most go through the motions with the sub-verbal, primeval slime they see as their students but are well organised with pristine paperwork. Phinn is shadowing one such amoeba who surprises him by her anticipation for the last class of the day, Religion. Huh? Well, he is not sure. She does not seem the sort to be ironic, but she is also difficult to understand mumbling through lip and tongue studs with a thick accent and three-word vocabulary.

Lo and behold! These students who have been indifferent and hostile in every other class that day, are completely rapt in Religion. The instructor goes at the Bible as though it were a football game, narrating the stories and eliciting reactions from the bleachers, and react they do! With four-letter words unusable for a family blog like this. Pontius Pilate gets a right barracking! At the end, they file out arguing about their reactions of events just unfolded. Engaged they are! Learning they have been, but how to square that with the Ministry pro forma? That is the question.

Gervase_Phinn.jpg Gervase Phinn

The book ends with a school fete and a verse reciting contest which Phinn must judge. His previous experiences at judging were none to happy. However deservingly obvious is the winner, the others have parents with a great deal to say. It is climatic, and great fun.

It is Occupied Paris 1943, and a series of robberies demand the attention of the luckless duo of Louis St Cyr and Hermann Kohler. The robberies are bold, vast, and deft. But this is no mere thief because fatal booby traps have been left behind to discourage police investigation. Stealing millions of francs from a metro safe is of little consequence, but the theft of industrial diamonds bound for the Reich's war machine is a red alarm, and our exhausted heroes are called in. Much has been said about them in earlier posts and will not be repeated here.

Gypsy.jpg

As usual no one will tell the the truth. As usual there are threats. As usual there are misleading clues. What is unusual is the audacity of the crimes, even high ranking Nazis in occupied Paris are been relieved of valuables they had just stolen from Jews! Audacious also in that three crimes were perpetrated in one night alone! Worse the booby traps have claimed victims, a chamber maid come to clean a room, a flic who opened a door, and a bomb disposal squad whose members should have known better. The villain also tries to eliminate St Cyr and Kohler; this a joker who plays for keeps.  

Effiel flag.jpg

The perpetrator, it emerges, is called The Gypsy, because part of his childhood was spent with some Romani people. Though he himself is tall, Aryan in appearance with the blond hair, and piercing blue eyes of a film star combined with multilingual charm and confidence. The irony is that his appearance and the Nazi uniform he wears, supplied by his would-be control, put him above suspension. His gypsy heritage ostensibly explains his preternatural skills as a thief.

Spoiler alert.  

If I have grasped the plot, the Gypsy was in the slammer when the Nazis occupied Oslo. Then some bright Nazi spark had the idea of using him to infiltrate a Resistance network in France by inserting him as though he were an English agent. The connection would be made through a one-time girlfriend. What can go wrong? In return for exposing the Resistance network the Gypsy would be allowed to keep any loot he collected and sent on to Spain. (As if.) The members of the Resistance group he reveals would of course be tortured and murdered. The assumption was that the loot would come from the French, not Nazis themselves. So much for assumptions.

Once released, equipped, briefed, financed, and in France, however, the Gypsy pursues his own agenda. He slips his watchers, he manipulates the girlfriend into the frame and disappears. Then the robberies occur in rapid succession.

Now I may have gotten muddled because Janes’s elliptic style shows no mercy to slow wits. There is never a summation at the end in the Agatha Christie manner. But it seems the Gypsy had an earlier career of theft in Berlin where he stole from Nazis with great success until the Norwegians nabbed him. So far so good.

Meanwhile, the bright Nazi spark who loosened the Gypsy now tries to blame the crime wave onto (1) the Resistance and/or (2) St Cyr and Kohler. To that end this Nazi takes hostages, beats witnesses, and generally shrieks at one and all. If he cannot shift the blame, the axe will fall on him, no metaphor intended. Again I follow.

But what I do not follow is this. The Resistance network targeted was inactive, inert, and consisted of three well-meaning women who had done nothing and were never likely to do so. Nor did they have contact with others in the Resistance. They hardly seem a high profile target for such a far fetched and elaborate effort. That part I do not get.

Nor does the denouement make much sense to this reader. That these three women contrive and execute such a plan once the Gypsy shows himself is beyond my suspension of disbelief. That they nearly spontaneously concocted and implemented the plan is just not credible. They managed to out manoeuvre the Gypsy, the Nazis and the allied goons, and our heroes. If they were able to do that, well, why did they not do more for the Resistance?

Nor did I ever fathom what the Gypsy's agenda was, apart form thieving for its own sake. He is simply a plot device in this outing and denied personality apart from one brief scene in the Metro.

On the other hand, the siege of the hideout is marvellously told as is the evocation of Paris in 1943 when a Nazi victory seemed on the horizon.

As usual our heroes are full of angst! But as usual the reader knows they will somehow square the circle. These two will survive to the next volume in this long running series.

The German has long since retired from the Ministry of the Interior where he was am off-budget fixer. That is, he was a trouble-shooter who dealt mainly with criminal matters. If a baffling case was raising media hysteria, the German would be despatched to see what he could do to put a blanket on the fire.

Accordionist.jpg

Born Ludwig in Alsace, his few friends know him as Louis but his mother always called him Ludwig and he thinks of himself that way. In retirement he retains his network of contacts socially but they, too, are retiring. A man without family, a man without friends, a man without anything but a vocation - investigation - coupled with persistence and ingenuity, that is the German. Retirement offers him little reason to get up in the morning. He passes the time as a translator, currently working on a biography of the Iron Chancellor, which regrettably does not play into the story, as I had hoped.

Then an old friend, Marthe, brings him a problem. Her simple-minded ward seems to be embroiled in two murders. There is backstory of how he became her ward and then they later drifted apart. The ward was hired over the telephone to deliver pot plants to two women, each of whom was soon thereafter murdered with his finger prints on the door, on some furniture, on the pot plant....

While Ludwig is not convinced the dolt is innocent he owes Marthe a lot, which is not specified, and he is obliged to act on the assumption of dolt innocence. Hmmm. He trades on his past as an agent of the Ministry and first digs into the simple-minded youth's past. There are ambiguities and gaps but by and large the lad seems within his mental limits an honest toiler, first as a gardener, but one who needs a lot of supervision, and as a busker with an accordion. That latter vocation supplies the title but again it does not play into the story.

The ward was set up to take the fall, as per the krimi manual. Yes, but why him? Is it all being done to get at this young man, or is it by chance that he was selected to serve as a scape goat, along with the murder victims. What could one so simple have done to earn such multiple, mortal enmity?

Following a parallel train of thought Ludwig ponders the two victims, who seem to have no mutual connection as far as he can determine from his police contacts.

He has the assistance of The Three Evangelists who recur in Vargas's krimis, Mark, Luke, and Mathew. These three perennial graduate students share a house with the uncle of one, himself a retired plod. The three students are men and are students of history, one prehistorian, one a medievalist, the other who speaks only in the language of World War I trench warfare with which he is obsessed.

As the pages turn, each of them adds interpretations, facts, and insights into the mystery. Van Doosler, the uncle upstairs, does the cooking when he feels up to it but is otherwise aloof. Tant pis. I had rather hoped he would figure in the story as more than window dressing.

F Vargas.jpg Fred Vargas, whose books have been purged from ideologically pure women's libraries because of the name Fred. Amusing, n'est pas?

The title in translation places the focus on the simpleton, but the French is 'Quand sort la recluse' which refers to Ludwig stirring, I assume. He certainly is the core of the story. While I gulped it down, as always with a Vargas krimi, I felt it was underdone.

Charles Robert 'Bert' Kelly (1912–1997) was a farmer from South Australia. A Liberal, he served twenty years in the Commonweatlh Parliament, where he waged an often solitary battle to lower tariffs, which he thought kept Australia poor and some in it rich. A 'Liberal' from a farming constituency was a rarity in his day during the agrarian ascendency of the Country Party of Jack McEwan. Kelly did not set out either to be a parliamentarian or to be a Liberal but became both.

Kelly cover.jpg

He became a parliamentarian this way. In his community he kept going to meetings and making ever modest suggestions, until others suggested he chair the meetings, perhaps as a way to shut him up. After making so many modest suggestions he could hardly refuse, so he did. Because he liked people and he liked agreement, he found the basis of agreement and that him popular in a modest sort of way.

All modesty aside, his father was very well connected and some of father's friends saw the potential in young Kelly. In time these elders as well as his peers thought he was the man to nominate as the Liberal Country League candidate for the Commonwealth parliament. That is what the party in South Australia was called at the time, 'Liberal Country League.' He won as was predicted. In 1959 the Australian Labor Party had no chance in any rural constituency. Off he want to distant and foreign Canberra.

There he found the Liberal Pary and the Country Party were distinct entities, each having its own caucus, \ meeting room, and pecking order. Which was he, Liberal or Country? To McEwan any rustic came to Canberra to be his pawn and nothing more, so the Country Party sat back and awaited Kelly's obeisance. Liberals in contrast were nice to him, helped him find his way in the labyrinth of (Old) Parliament House and more. There is no sense that this hospitality was a scheme, it just happened that a couple of avuncular Liberals befriended this young fellow wondering about Parliament House looking lost. What is implied is that the iron fist of McEwan, a man who had dominated Prime Ministers three, alienated Kelly from the zero hour. True or not, it is charming story that makes a point in a modest way.

For much of his subsequent career Kelly was the only Liberal of and from the bush. In time that gave him both an authority and an advantage. The authority was that he became the Liberal Party's expert on agriculture. The advantage was that he represented Liberal wedge in the bush, one that some Liberals wanted to increase so holding on to him was an asset for them. Modest though Kelly was, he played both cards astutely over two decades. Yes other Liberals represented rural areas, but most of them were Bourke Street farmers, who visited the constituency a couple of times a year. Not so Kelly who continued to live on and work the family farm. Accordingly, he had an interest and a knowledge of agriculture few Liberals could match.

He went at being a parliamentarian the same way he went at farming, from an hour before dawn to an hour after dark. He was always a reader, and he found much to read in the parliamentary papers and so he read it. In time he became a self-taught economist specialising on one theme, tariffs and protection. The Great Tariff Wall of Australia did not make sense to him. While he was no advocate of free trade he did question the blanket and often secretive approach to tariffs. Though the words are not used in these pages, it seems he also supposed that the constant lobbying for tariff protection led to graft and corruption both among politicians and administrators.

And who was the dark Master of the Tariff in Liberal hegemony? Black Jack McEwan, that's who! I was told once that the sobriquet 'Black' referred to his temper not his appearance.

From the first weeks when Kelly began to ask about tariffs, McEwan marked his card. Then came the Yellow Card in the form a visit from the then Deputy Leader of the Country Party and a McEwan acolyte. The message was 'Shut up.' Still Kelly kept reading, annotating, and asking. The details were so complex in time he changed his focus to the indirect questions of procedure. How were the levels set and for what reasons and then how were they implemented?

In retrospect the secretiveness of this process is surprising. Special Advisory committees with no tenure and no professional support from economists were created and then set the levels without either publication or justification. Again it is not said, but the inference obvious is that these committees promulgated the levels the minister who appointed them wanted set. That minister, Class, was....? Yes, Black Jack.

Any committtee member who resisted was thanked for service and dismissed. This exercise had flourished from 1949 and McEwan, while he did not invent it, brought to perfection. Then in 1961 the Liberal Country Party coalition won re-election by a single seat where a few hundred votes did make a difference, and Jim Killian made a subsequent career out of winning that seat.

Here is a paradox. That result made the support of the Country Party essential, and McEwan ratcheted up the pace of his demands on Prime Minister Robert Menzies, but it also made the voice and vote of the solidarity Liberal from the bush crucial in parliament and conspicuous in the media.

Comes the hour, comes the man. Kelly discovered his true métier. He had long written for agricultural newspapers and magazines, often about technical matters of crops and machinery. And sometimes when writing about new technology he had run up against the prohibitive cost of importing special machinery thanks to that Tariff Wall. He took to the typewriter with renewed vigour and much more detailed information and and won a national audience. He became a columnist not to be confused with the verboten C word of the era. His columns went under a few titles over the decades but 'The Modest Member' was the most enduring. Hence the title of the book and my several uses of the word 'modest' above.

When John Gorton had his brief moment as Prime Minister he put Kelly in the ministry in large part to silence him on tariffs under the rules of cabinet solidarity. Only that desire for silence could explain why this man from the interior of South Australia became Minister for the Navy. There must be a witty image here of him reversing Odysseus and carrying the anchor to the sea but I cannot grasp it.

In those days when the Royal Australian Navy wanted a new Minister a crash occurred. One night Kelly was woken by a phone call telling him the HMAS Melbourne had done it again and within a few days he got another late night telephone call to tell he was dismissed for letting that destroyer run into the ill-fated HMAS Melbourne. Back to the typewriter he went!

Kelly was an engaging figure, a writer with a perfect pitch for the general reader, a polemicist who argued from first principles when that was appropriate and from down to earth examples when that was the best place to start. He was no ideologue but rather he thought high, secret, and blanket tariffs held back Australia. The high, blanket, and secret tariffs were paid for by the consumer at the start, including farmers, and by would-be exporters, like farmers, in the end. Moreover, the high and ever higher tariffs encouraged sloth in both management and labour practices, affirming the historic compromise between Alfred Deakin and Billy Hughes a century ago. Kelly thought tariffs to shelter embryonic industries that otherwise would not be viable and which were vital made sense, but not five car manufacturers in a market smaller than some European cities! Such tariffs ought to be publicly justified and rationally explained, and not the product of lobbying by gift-giving agents.

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Irony of ironies when the Whitlam Labor government cut tariffs by 25% one of the few voices raised in support of this revolution was the Liberal Kelly. Though many supported the move, few were brave enough to say so publicly. None of the thirty members of Whitlam's cabinet uttered one word of support for this initiative. Kelly was one of the first of the few. One of the speeches excerpted in this book is an address he was invited to deliver to a convention of Labor economists. A generation later when the Hawke Labor government floated the Strine dollar, again he applauded. Again many Liberals agreed but kept silent. Again Labor cabinet ministers, apart from the Treasurer, kept silent.

Kelly-3.jpeg Kelly at work.

Despite the title, this book is not a biography, more is the pity, but rather a string of excerpts from Kelly's many publications with comments and transitions. There are asides about his early life but nothing chronological that shows the man emerging from the boy. Moreover, it jumps around in his career. We see glimpses of the man as rustic, parliamentarian, farmer, Minister, advocate but never the man whole at any stage. It is easy to read but in this respect disappointing. Tant pis.

The short Wikipedia entry on Kelly styles him a passionate free trader, something he spent years denying. in addition that entry mistakes effect for cause in saying he was ousted from the Gorton Ministry because of his opposition to tariffs. On the contrary he was put in the ministry because of disagreement on tariffs to silence him on that subject. Once sacked he was free to say his piece and he did.

He saw freer trade to be a means to cheaper consumer goods like cars, refrigerators, and footwear and the easier export of wheat and beef. Freer trade was a means to an end and not an end in itself as it is for ideologues.

Behind the Great Tariff Wall of Australia the automobiles were expensive and poor quality but many workers were employed in making them. Because of their cost and poor quality there was no export market. The same applied to refrigerators, fans, and every other manufactured product. Moreover, the Australian dollar was vastly overvalued at $US 1.47 in 1974, making agricltural exports too expensive for anyone to buy. A farmer paid high prices for tractors and could not sell any surplus overseas to earn the money to import new agricultural equipment which was over priced by the addition of the tariff. For a time the Commonwealth Government bought agricultural surpluses and distributed it as foreign aid, sometimes to places that did not need or want it, but all of this was a house of cards. Though it goes unmentioned in these pages the Oil Shock of 1973 finally blew this structure down once and for all.

Modest Kelly was but also at times mercilous. Consider Kelly's comment on Andrew Peacock. He 'has all the attributes I envy most: grace, charm, intelligence, and eloquence. But he gives the impression that he is waiting to be called to be Prime Minister' and in the meanwhile he would rather not get involved in anything. Indeed.

There is in this book no account of the war years (1939-1945) except to say agriculture was an exempt occupation and Kelly stayed on the farm. But did he want to join the army at 28 and only reluctantly stay? Many men that age and older joined the army. Did he contrive to stay home? If so, how did he live that down? Later going to Canberra presented no problem to the farm. This defining hour for his generation of Australians is passed over. Gorton was a year older but served, and bore the scars thereafter.

Though later it is said a knee had been injured in youthful sports, there is nothing about that. Yet sports would have been a major social outlet for him.

And what about Lorna? She is often mentioned but we learn next to nothing about her or any children.

Colebatch RGB.jpg Colebatch is a widely published poet.

The book is a guide to some of the high points of his life but not a biography. To make a geologic comparison, it describes the sites but does not explain the geological forces that shaped them.

I was inspired to read this title at last (for a biography of Bert had long been on the assigned reading list) by the Australian Democracy Museum in Canberra, one of the failings of which was to give no recognition to the role and work of parliamentary backbenchers, the focus being almost entirely on prime ministers as though they governed alone. This the only ostensible biography I found.

A novel of some 400 plus pages set at the time of Juan Perón's return from exile in 1973. Half of the story is in Madrid as The General and his entourage slowly prepare for the return to Buenos Aires. As the day of departure draws nigh Perón and his secretary Lopez go over the latest version of his memoirs. Lopez is frustrated by the many inconsistencies in Perón's litany of contradictory and fictional autobiographical statements but the General has no interest in such matters as facts.

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Meanwhile at the airport, Ezeiza, in Argentina a throng gathers, leading the pack are journalists, including our author, who had earlier interviewed Perón in Madrid. Distant relatives of the General have been bussed in by another journalist, who has interviewed them looking for a new angle, and finding none. Others there include the Montoneros and their rivals, all armed. There are also Perónist unions and anti-Perónists, too. There are also urban beggars and impoverished campesinos come from afar for a blessing from the bearer of Evita's fire.  

Finally there is the army that in desperation arranged for the return only now to find the situation out of control. The factions in the army blame each other but none takes action, each checkmated by another.

The clock ticks and the forces gather while Perón's muses on the past, the present, and the future. Perón’s confidence is diamond hard. He will put things to right. The entourage flutters around him reading auguries in his choice of shoes. But those forces gathering at the airport are, as the reader sees, comets following their own trajectories, bouncing off each other. There were about two million people in, at, and around the airport where he was scheduled to land. When the shooting started, as was inevitable, the plane diverted.

Having read a lengthy biography of Perón a few weeks ago, I could navigate many of the names of the actors in the drama. Without that a reader would be lost, as was I the first time I tried to read this novel a decade ago.  

Peron dogs.jpg Perón always kept dogs and could be seen walking them in Madrid.

What's to like? The portrayal of many of the supporting players is good, e.g., the relatives, the buzzing journalists, and some of the entourage. But others are cardboard like President Camorra and Lopez is an invisible man. He is there but has no substance, yet some say he manipulated everything and this is given credence in the pages here when he lip syncs a Perón speech.

I also liked the author as as journalist in his own story, which is done lightly and without making the author-journalist the centre of attention, as too many journalist-authors do.

More importantly, it seems Perón was a post-Modernist avant le mot in his refusal to privilege fact or truth. His easy dismissal of Lopez's worries about consistency or authenticity are well handled. Perón's explanation derived from Alfred von Schlieffen (page 210) made me stop and think. Von Schlieffen was the architect of the eponymous plan of attack on France in World War I. He was never wedded to the plans he made, but generated one after another. No sooner did he perfect one plan than he superseded it with another, because... a better plan is possible, if I thought of it so have my enemies and I have to stay ahead of them, circumstances change and plans change with them. The stereotyped rigidity of the Prussian Army did not apply to him, but then neither did it apply to the Kaiser's army in World War I where junior line officers and sergeants had much more freedom of action than in the British army where blind discipline was enforced by firing squads.

Perón's recollections of Eva ring true. His faults are many but he was devoted to her and she even more to him, and that is given full measure here. No cheap shots, no smart-ass remarks of the Bill Bryson kind. No easy hindsight of an ABC journalist.

Interesting also to see that Perón said that the example of Salvador Allende in Chile meant he had to go slowly. The threat of another coup, the threat even of a civil war is always there.

What is not here is the change in Perón from a man with a mission to the desire to rule period. Goal displacement occurred but there is no sign of it here. The subject and the treatment will remind read of Gabriel García Márquez’s ‘The Autumn of the Patriarch’ (1975), but this novel is much more accessible than the elliptic and, dare one say it, self-indulgent work of García Márquez.

Eloy Martinez.jpg Eloy Martinez

Eloy Martinez has another novel based on Eva, and that is tempting, but I found this one hard going. Maybe because I was only reading a page or two at a time, but much of the early chapters concerns the gathering kaleidoscope of Argentine society which had no interest for me. The Madrid part was more engaging. Once I started reading whole chapters at a time, I connected with it. I read while we tourists toured the goldfields of central Victoria.

The role of the army in Argentina has many dimensions, but one key one is this. In the United States, the Continental Army that defeated the British in the American Revolutionary War disbanded within days of the surrender at Yorktown. In Argentina the revolutionary army that drove the Spanish out remained under arms for forty years in continuing and continuous conflicts with the Portuguese, resurgent Spanish loyalist, Brazil, Uruguay, Chile, Bolivia, Paraguay, French adventurers, the native indians, and so on and on. For two generations it was the only Argentine institution. However much it later debased itself, it was in this way the nation itself.

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