Diary of an organ-playing nobody

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R. J. STOVE reflects on life as an antipodean performer on the King of Instruments

‘“What?”, said [piano manufacturer] Herr Stein. “A man like you …  wants to play on an instrument which has no sweetness, no expression, no piano, no forte, but is always the same?” “That does not matter,” I replied. “In my eyes and ears, the organ is the King of Instruments”.’ (Mozart)

Disheartening to report, Bismarck never uttered the epigram so often attributed to him: ‘Laws are like sausages: it is better not to see them being made.’ But each time I undertake a commercial recording – and I have undertaken three such now, all devoted to organ music – I am painfully reminded of this misattributed quotation.

Because if you contemplate classical music in recorded form (as the vast majority of journalists discussing it do contemplate it) through a haze of aestheticism, assuming that nothing ever happens in front of the microphone without the loftiest and most disinterested of motives, then the best cure for such kumbaya soft-headedness is actually to make recordings yourself. The procedure is death to entitlement culture, death to the near-enough-is-good-enough mindset, and death to all romanticist whimsies about artistic ‘inspiration.’

Among didactic processes, only an obligatory course in obstetrics would strip away more illusions from the novice, and strip them away faster, than recording production does. I cannot help musing over how much polysyllabic Marxist verbiage Walter Benjamin and Theodor Adorno would have spared us – how much Teutonic vamping about ‘the aura of mechanical reproduction’ and ‘bourgeois commodification of ritual’ they would have eschewed – if they had experienced for themselves, which they did not, the perils of needing to perform as flawlessly as possible within seconds of a producer turning a red light on. Not to mention the still greater perils of needing to keep one’s temper each time a producer is obliged to halt a take because of extraneous noise issuing from (i) seagulls overhead, (ii) a helicopter overhead, (iii) a passing ambulance siren, (iv) revving-up from a motorcyclist, or most frequently (v) all of the above.

A producer of classical recordings, if he (and, whether we like it or not, it remains a male-dominated profession) wishes to survive, has to be part surgeon, part electronic engineer, part Cecil B. De Mille, part Grand Inquisitor, part concierge, part therapist, and all musician. His role entails some of the attributes perceptible in the great symphonic conductors: notably an X-ray ear which can descry faults in even the most imposing wash of sound. When an orchestra gives its all in the mightiest of Respighian climaxes, the producer must be able to detect the third oboist who, amid the hubbub, mistakenly played an F sharp instead of the score’s indicated F natural: and to call out that oboist – politely, one trusts; rudely, if trust be impossible – over the error.

Yet that is almost the least of what the producer needs to do. He requires a retentive memory not for various takes’ musical contents alone, but for various takes’ volume levels. Should consecutive takes differ from each other in this regard, or in regard to the venue’s atmosphere (known among the cognoscenti as ‘atmos’ for short), he has to minimise those differences. No surprise that, even before the compulsory post-production chores, his copies of the sheet-music will have become so scribbled-over in red Texta as to resemble Jackson Pollock’s action-paintings. 

Physical strength is a prerequisite as well. Especially if confronted with an unfamiliar site, he will be expected to lug prodigious quantities of cords, plugs, microphones, power sockets, monitor speakers, and computer hardware from his vehicle, before he assembles them: only to carry out the whole boring process in reverse when the session concludes. In this assembling and disassembling, he cannot and must not be rushed. It is hard for even the most arrogant performer to demand, with a clear conscience, additional haste from someone who can accidentally electrocute the entire dramatis personae if an exposed cable proves insufficiently earthed or a wire has worn through its sheath.

Therefore it is understandable that for every thousand good classical musicians out there, scarcely a single good classical recording producer can be traced. The best ones – they have included Walter Legge, Brian Culverhouse, and John Culshaw among the dead, and my own brilliant producer Thomas Grubb among the living – can charge whatever fees they like. Although COVID might have decluttered their timetables, it has not reduced (nor should it reduce) their invoices. Sir George Martin, at a period when the Beatles’ fame had yet to transcend Liverpudlian city limits, produced many a classical recording for EMI. He entertainingly recounted this function’s more bizarre aspects in his 1977 memoir All You Need Is Ears.           

Nevertheless, whilst the good classical recording producer is as rare a bird as a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian, the good classical recording producer who can skilfully capture organ music is analogous to a left-handed red-headed Christadelphian who can do five hundred consecutive push-ups. With an orchestra or a chamber ensemble, after all, a producer has the luxury of operating in a more or less conventional studio. The designers of that studio will have taken some pains to soundproof it. In that studio he will be visible, albeit behind his desk, for at least some of the time to at least some of the musicians involved. He can rely on none of these advantages when recording organ music.

For as all organists – but all too few non-organists – know, pipe organs are not just musical instruments. They are, by definition, musical instruments ensconced in particular buildings, and habitually irremovable therefrom through any methods less radical than Semtex.

Many church instruments are installed in such a way as to force the organist to play with his back turned not only to the altar, but to the producer. Rear-view mirrors at the organ console possess limited efficacy. (During my own most recent sessions – cooped up as I unavoidably was in the loft – the worst thing which I could have done was the thing which all halfway decent musicians, by default, do: constantly listening to fellow performers. Instead, I needed as a deliberate procedure to play well ahead of the beat, purely so the final product’s hearers would have the aural impression of my keeping time with the five singers. All five, for balance-mandated rather than COVID-mandated reasons, remained invisible to me in the nave below. It took a crucial half-second for the organ sound to reach them from the loft’s phalanx of pipes.)

Whether a pipe organ be sacred or secular, its tuning will be always expensive. Rapid tuning is downright impossible. In a climate as manic as Melbourne’s, where two consecutive days will often enough be respectively 32 degrees or 14 degrees (not to mention vice versa), even the best-built instrument can unexpectedly acquire several out-of-tune pipes: without fail, the pipes most suitable to the music’s content. Ten times more worrying is the organist’s greatest dread: a cipher, whereby a particular keyboard note or pedal-board note sounds and cannot be switched off. Imagine the most persistent ambulance or police-car ululation which you have ever heard; then imagine such an ululation in an ecclesiastical context, when the nearest organ-tuner is unavailable through being hospitalized, or on holidays, or repairing an instrument in a different church, or simply drunk.

But you have not yet supped full on organ-related horrors. The 1970s Anglo-Saxon mania for carpeting what had been perfectly acceptable wooden or stone floors ruins many a church’s acoustics. Beautifully manufactured though a pipe organ might be, ubiquitous carpet will frequently make it sound like a Casio burp-box vended below cost price on eBay. Even churches free from carpets are apt to be located on main roads, their architecture dating from an epoch where internal combustion engines were largely unimaginable. However impressive their stonework, they offer almost no insulation from modern traffic noise. Factor in the tendency of churches to support church schools, and the aural complications are aggravated threefold. If you have never attempted to record a beautifully soft, French impressionist organ prelude while shrieking infants gallivant in the playground during their lunch break, your personal acquaintance with existential anguish is automatically limited.

Given these and other nuisances, you could be pardoned for asking why anyone would wish to record organ music in the first place: let alone to record three CDs’ worth of it, as I have done, with a fourth CD currently awaiting issue. Speaking as a middle-rank Melbourne organist with twenty-one years of remunerated public playing behind me – neither enjoying the rarely-conferred benefits of sustained cathedral employment, nor suffering the griefs of the overworked tyro frantically having to pad out an exiguous résumé – I find myself caught in not one but three perfect storms.

First of these storms is, naturally, COVID. Useless, and redundant, for me to expatiate here upon the damage which Wuhan’s most renowned export has done to live classical music performance in general; live classical music performance in Australia especially; and live classical music performance in Melbourne above all. 

The second among these storms is one which foreigners will be able to predict with a little thought: Australian churches’ continuing sex abuse crisis, primarily (though not exclusively) afflicting Catholicism. Every dollar which dioceses are ordered to spend upon paying off an abuse victim’s lawyer, is a dollar which dioceses cannot spend upon professional musicians. Australia’s Catholic parishes were in demographic free-fall long before front-page headlines screamed about the pandemic.

As far back as 2011 – in other words, not solely pre-COVID but pre-abuse scandals too – 87% of Australia’s Catholics could not bestir themselves to attend Sunday Mass. We all know the only branches of Australian Christianity where the churches are full: the Pentecostal brigades, of which Hillsong is the most celebrated. Anyone gullible enough to believe that Pentecostal jamborees are likely to include organ-playing, or any musical contributions whatever except those supplied by sub-Hendrix guitarists and gyrating Taylor Swift wannabes needs (to borrow a felicitous, long-ago phrase from Esquire) not merely his head but his entire anatomy examined. 

One much-loved hymn tells us: ‘There is a happy land, far, far away.’ There are in fact several such happy lands where university posts can, and do, recompense organists for the uncertainties of ecclesiastical occupations. Unfortunately, these happy lands do not include my own. In any analysis of today’s antipodean academe, the third perfect storm afflicting organists can be at once recognised. Australia’s ever more shambolic federal government has added, to its widely-shared record of COVID-related ineptitude, a malice all its own when it comes to higher education.

The most vituperative surviving Khmer Rouge commissar, and the most frenziedly anti-intellectual Mississippi Klansman, might well blanch at the overt hatred towards humanities departments that routinely emanates from Scott Morrison and his Canberra colleagues. These legislators expend their hatred not specifically on left-wing and/or spendthrift humanities departments, but on humanities departments per se. For all their mismanagement when it comes to public health, they have demonstrated impressive populist cynicism on pedagogical issues. They discern the absolute monetary dependence upon the welfare state which has characterised Australian academe from its beginning; which is certain to characterise it until Judgement Day; and which has resisted four decades’ worth of libertarian think-tanks’ harangues about the private sector’s alleged enthusiasm for acting as Maecenas. More and more, the very concept of private universities for Australia is proving as mythical (indeed, in its bogus promises, almost as pernicious) as those other nostrums propounded by fantasising savants: The Classless Society; Sex With No Strings Attached; Exporting Democracy To The Third World; No-Fault Divorce; and – who can doubt the essential illegitimacy of this doctrine likewise? – COVID Zero.

Last year I had the privilege of an academic post, necessarily casual in nature, under Sydney University’s auspices. Having written earlier about the pleasure which I took in this post (and about how gratified I would be if the post continued into 2022, which perhaps it will), I obviously must not repeat myself here. But I would be crazy to nourish sanguine hopes that Australia will permit for me an academic – dare I even employ so ‘elitist’ a noun as the following? – ‘career.’ My sixtieth birthday fell shortly before last Christmas; and quite apart from my innate lack of youthful cred, it is hard to envisage any status less welcome to modish Human Resources departments than my own Google-aided identifiability as a white straight male Catholic.

No individual, therefore, will be more delighted than I to gain further academic emolument. Equally, no individual is less prone than I to take any such emolument for granted. My research background has been the opposite of fashionable: last year I completed my doctoral thesis on Sir Charles Villiers Stanford’s organ output. In any contest between a candidate who has specialised in Sir Charles Villiers Stanford, versus a candidate who has specialised in transgendered rappers from Bali, no prizes are offered for guessing the probable victor.

This all explains, ultimately, why I find myself investing greater and greater sunk costs in the project – which is, I concede, a First World problem – of capturing my organ-playing on record. By so doing, I might (I repeat: might) convince university employment’s arbiters to overlook my chronological, ethnic, and religious disadvantages.

Going to the effort and expense of issuing no fewer than four CDs indicates, at least, exceptional dedication and single-mindedness. So, of course, does becoming a kamikaze pilot. Time will pronounce whether the former occupational choice supplies any better long-term prospects than did the latter.

Meanwhile, in defending my own gramophonic incontinence, I am tempted to quote Maurice Chevalier’s brusque retort to a question about how much happiness he experienced in old age. What (the straw-hatted Gallic divo inquired) is the alternative?

Unfinished symphony in Oz

R. J. STOVE says reports of the death of Australian classical music education have been greatly exaggerated

The most satisfying paid regular employment that I have ever experienced concluded on 11 November 2021. For a twelve-week course, I worked as a sessional tutor under the University of Sydney’s auspices. The tutorials – overarching title: ‘Music in Western Culture’ – catered not purely for first-year music majors, but for first-year majors in other fields too. (As I write this paragraph, there remains some essay-marking for me to complete.)

Initially, I felt overwhelming panic, thanks to the requirement for near-Lisztian virtuosity in the Zoom-PowerPoint combination. ‘Have I turned the sound on?’ ‘Have I turned it off?’ ‘Have I accidentally shared the answers to tutorial questions?’ Of the course’s first two weeks, almost no memories remain except my visceral technophobia.

Besides, what (I wondered) if my students turned out to be a monstrous regiment of snowflakes, merrily toppling the nearest Queen Victoria monument, when not ululating into their smartphones about being ‘triggered’ by my own ‘Eurocentric’, ‘cisgendered,’ ‘heteronormative’ ‘microaggressions’ and ‘cultural appropriations’ upholding ‘the patriarchy’? Could my restricted didactic aptitude ensure those ‘safe spaces’ that Homo Snowflakiens considers indispensable?

My fears proved excessive. Zoom’s malfunctions and eastern Australia’s draconian lockdowns notwithstanding, I received from students consistent politeness. Whether this resulted from good luck – or from, instead, some antecedent administrative colander by which the palpably woke had been strained out, before they could contaminate the main dish – others must determine. Possibly a third cause prevailed.

All in all, my first salaried academic occupation gave me intense pleasure. The moment when everything clicked occurred as I replayed one of the tutorials’ set pieces: a Haydn piano sonata scintillatingly performed by L’viv-born, Manhattan-based Emanuel Ax. Suddenly I realised: ‘I’m receiving federal subsidies for listening to this marvellous stuff.’

Last summer’s dirge from a prominent British musicologist, who has huffily left the discipline (short version: ‘Goodbye, cruel world’), inspires not the faintest empathetic echo in my bosom. The musicologist achieved a full professorship before he had turned thirty-eight; maybe therein lies his whole trouble. 

Yes, my job had its nuisances, principally an exasperating holdup in my wages’ arrival, plus a nasty bout of mid-term illness which required my hospitalisation (and which complicated my already overworked colleagues’ timetables). About these nuisances I shall say little, partly because I crave further university employment, but chiefly because such irritants come with fallen human nature. Erstwhile Esquire boss Arnold Gingrich cherished a magnificently orotund sentence redeeming, circa 1947, one otherwise humdrum epistle to the editor: ‘I find no fault in Esquire that I do not find with the age that produced it.’ Mutatis mutandis, this encapsulates my response to Australian academe.


What straightaway impressed me, regarding the ‘Music in Western Culture’ course, was its predominating old-fashioned decorum. The main textbook, A History of Western Music, is but a revision – by Indiana University’s J. Peter Burkholder – of an identically named volume known earlier as ‘Palisca’ and even earlier as ‘Grout’ (after the previous versions’ respective authors: C.V. Palisca and Donald J. Grout, who died in, respectively, 2001 and 1987).

We who grew up with ‘Palisca’ and ‘Grout’ found much of Burkholder’s tome familiar. True, Burkholder cites hip-hop and sexual identity politics, as Grout would never have done; true, feminist considerations now compel coverage of female composers – Hildegard of Bingen among them – whom Palisca and Grout either underrated or omitted. These are incidentals. Aesthetic detachment marks all three musicologists: their audiences, happily, will find no clues as to which genres are the authors’ own favourites.

It scarcely requires accentuating how objectionable this dignified scholastic model is within Critical Race Theory’s snake-pit, which one Philip Ewell now inhabits. Ewell (of City University New York) bears the same relation to a conventional apparatchik like Norman Lebrecht that Wilhelm Reich bore to Freud, Foucault to Sartre, and Pol Pot to Brezhnev.

The Wuhan market, as it were, which first disseminated Ewell’s ‘thinking’ was a 2019 lecture to the blandly named Society for Music Theory, where Ewell demanded that Western music’s ‘white racial frame’ be ‘decolonised.’ (He nowhere condescended to explain who would do the decolonising. R. Kelly?) Ewell cast special opprobrium upon theorist Heinrich Schenker, a Jewish thinker never previously charged with white supremacism. Ordinary teaching of Western staff notation, teaching liable to necessitate such elitist hierarchical signifiers as ‘dominant’ and ‘subdominant,’ goaded Ewell to rage.

Timothy Jackson, a white liberal at the University of North Texas, organised a firm but courteous refutation of Ewell. This refutation – involving fifteen writers – occupied an issue of the magazine that Jackson co-edits, the Journal of Schenkerian Studies. The issue’s appearance activated frenzied calls for Jackson’s dismissal. At his references to racial slurs among Ewell’s beloved rappers, the anti-Jackson brigade took particular offence. One touch of (inadvertent) farce emerged from Ewell’s champions, when a female Canadian pundit treated the world to its least felicitous  recent neologism: she derided Schenker’s white female adherents as ‘SchenKarens.’

Throughout my own work contract, I heard not a syllable of Ewell-advocacy. This argues for some inherent common sense within the Australian university system.


The system had other merits. On average, each of my online tutorials contained twelve students. This was (apologies for sounding Panglossian) the best of all possible class sizes. Too small a group, and a single garrulous individual can monopolise the whole hour. Too large a group encourages dumbed-down populism. The latter hazard could well plague all vast programmes aiming to save the world through one colossal music lesson.

Of the Orff and Kodály instructional methods’ details, I lack the competence to speak. Alas, no such mitigating circumstances characterise the Suzuki method, which its founder’s fake doctorate and bogus claims to Weimar Republic tuition make hard to stomach now. Nor do they characterise the Venezuela-derived El Sistema. Once viewed as the ultimate in pedagogical chic, El Sistema prompted in 2014 a devastating book-length exposé by Geoff Baker, left-wing musicologist and Guardian correspondent. Baker’s harrowing disclosures incorporate accounts of El Sistema’s explicitly erotic corruption.

So much for the New York Times feature on El Sistema (16 February 2012) with a banner typifying the method’s longstanding media hype about proletarian empowerment: ‘Fighting Poverty, Armed With Violins.’ The perfect modern validation, surely, of William Dean Howells’s acerbic epigram ‘Americans want tragedies with happy endings.’


Naturally ‘Music in Western Culture’ was spared all carnal predators and all holders of counterfeit PhDs. My largely congenial experiences engendered my quiet, healthy scepticism towards anti-intellectual harangues from Fox News’s talking heads. Had I believed apocalyptic rhetoricians so obsessive that they could probably detect woke outrages on the planet Saturn, I would have been too scared to do my job.

Unlike those talking heads, I acutely recollect Australia’s higher education during the Cold War. This had its joys, above all Sydney’s Dr Andrew Riemer – specialist in Elizabethan-Jacobean drama – who gave the clearest, most fair-minded lectures which I have heard on any topic. (He subsequently produced memoirs as readable as, and striking deeper than, Clive James’s.)

Yet no milieu is less apt than my undergraduate youth to provoke my predispositions, themselves infinitesimally sparse, towards Golden Age nostalgia. Is woke craziness in 2021 truly more malevolent in its effects on academe than was Martin Bernal’s craziness (the briefly modish ‘Black Athena’ phantasm) in 1991? Or Sandinista craziness in 1981? Or anti-Vietnam-War craziness in 1971? Or D.H. Lawrence’s craziness in 1961? Or – lest we forget – Freudian craziness in 1951? Frankly, I doubt it. (I speak as one who, when a small and always fearful child, repeatedly wondered whether my father would get home alive after his daily encounters with draft-dodging, vandalising mobs who shrieked ‘Ho, Ho, Ho Chi Minh! / The NLF is gonna win!’.)

Against several benchmarks, Australian humanities departments have improved. A trivial but significant amelioration: I marvel at how attractive their latter-day recordings of medieval music are.

Students no longer gain their formative exposures to the Middle Ages’ sounds, as I gained lots of mine forty-one years ago, through the Historical Anthology of Music  series (surface-noise-infested American LPs supplementing a primer that dated from 1946). There, every second track seemed to comprise bleating from three Teutonic nonagenarians with vibratos almost wide enough to march a platoon through. It was, furthermore, mandatory to capture the nonagenarians in an acoustic resembling someone’s broom-cupboard. Today, anyone trawling through music schools’ libraries (to say nothing of Spotify or YouTube) can find more abundant and beauteous early-music renditions inside an hour than we in 1980 could have located inside six months.


More momentous are universities’ newish regulations for conduct. I think of those Australian academics in the 1980s – wielding influence disproportionate to their limited numbers – who at best channelled Lucky Jim Dixon, and at worst channelled Walter Mitty. Thanks in part to online packages like Turnitin, sanctions against plagiarism (whoever commits it) have teeth now, whereas in the 1980s no such sanctions existed. Admirers of that classic 1948 film The Red Shoes will appreciate the impunity with which unscrupulous teachers once thieved pupils’ material, in music as elsewhere.

Heaven knows, present-day Australian students are susceptible enough to the pernicious worldviews expounded by Peter Singer. That said, I – unlike those students – am conversant with the equally pernicious worldviews expounded by the University of Sydney’s 1927–1958 philosophy professor John Anderson: militantly anti-Christian demagogue and long-time Communist Party fellow-traveller, with compulsive unwillingness to differentiate the ontological concept of ‘female undergraduate’ from that of ‘sex toy.’ Nor was Anderson’s unwillingness unique. While the worst predation flourished amid the Age of Aquarius, as late as 1984 our juvenile gossip included a pervasive wisecrack concerning the relevant transaction: ‘a lay for an A.’ And this taxpayer-funded bonking  was, be it emphasised, entirely legal.

Some outstandingly toxic teacher-student relationships encompassed no physical acts. Wherever degrees are both rare and esteemed, opportunities for students to levy emotional blackmail against teachers (or vice versa) proliferate. Joyce Carol Oates’s short story ‘In the Region of Ice’ frighteningly depicts the inexorable persecution of a teaching nun by her male protégé.

‘Well, for good or evil’ – I here quote Chesterton’s Autobiography – ‘that is all dead.’ Manipulative teacher-student interactions will seldom eventuate when each participant is a mere flickering Zoom image to the other. Moreover, with the nation’s 1989–1992 university reforms, the droit du seigneur over female students (not to mention over female secretaries) disappeared from Australian tenured life’s fringe-benefits.

This tenured life itself – like its British counterpart – has dwindled to a rarity which in the USA is unimaginable. In 2006, one Australian lecturer told Inez Baranay, a Sydney-based novelist-essayist: ‘the area I teach in has not appointed any tenured academics in ten years.’ Undoubtedly, entrenching casual labour carries risks; in Sydney’s and Melbourne’s higher education systems, wage theft has reached alarming levels. But likewise undoubtedly, the pre-1989 antipodean routine of near-automatic tenure mollycoddled so many layabouts that it just had to be scrapped.

Australia’s sustained Cold War prosperity facilitated tenure’s abuse. The abolition of student fees in 1974, by Gough Whitlam’s government, merely reinforced the long-extant system whereby eighty per cent  of local undergraduates avoided paying fees anyhow (the University of Western Australia, in Perth, charged no fees at all). Nor, in that profligate epoch, did stringent selection criteria for staffers invariably operate. Thank goodness, arbiters of Australian students’ destinies no longer include that frequent pest from my young manhood: the rancorous idler who had not published a solitary article or, indeed, drawn a solitary sober breath since around 1960.


Another, and unexpected, modern improvement concerns religion. Current Australian academe has got ninety-nine problems, but Freemasonry ain’t one. (Read the 1997 biography of Australia’s classics scholar F.J.H. Letters, by his widow Kathleen, if you dispute local lodges’ former influence over universities.) Whatever my attire’s shortcomings, no-one has commanded me to rectify these by procuring a leather apron.

Neither have any university personnel weaponised against me my Catholicism, shared with Letters himself, and discoverable through five minutes on Google. To Australians my age or older, such newfound tolerance of ‘papists’ is mind-boggling. We recall the longevity of a tabloid, The Rock, which for half a century after 1944 spewed Klan-style vilification against Catholicism (it greeted sponsored Italian immigrants with headlines like ‘450 Human Wogs Arrive’).

Hardly anyone admitted to reading The Rock, but that fact indicates how many liars Australia had. Because at the tabloid’s pre-Vatican-II apex, it sold 30,000 copies per issue: a remarkable total in a country with under eleven million inhabitants, and quite adequate for coercing numerous politicians into servility. Witnessing The Rock’s diatribes and their parliamentary counterparts, Scottish newspaperman John Douglas Pringle – an unbeliever – lamented: ‘Anti-Catholic feeling is extremely strong in Australia. From time to time it bursts out like lava from a sleeping volcano, burning and destroying everything it touches.’

Of course, as the mendacious campaigns against Cardinal Pell showed, this emotion has not vanished from Australia’s midst. It still governs our state police forces and schoolteachers’ unions; all of our gutter media (what are our surviving non-gutter media, pray tell?); much of our medical establishment; and much of our judiciary. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, anti-Catholic wrath now leaves New South Wales’s universities undisturbed. Without this welcome change, I could never have attained academic emolument.

Decades back, my late Sydney chaplain friend Father Paul Stenhouse once parked his car on campus, having left visible his dashboard’s Virgin Mary statuette; he returned to find the windshield smashed. These days, comparable sectarian malevolence incurs serious penalties, Twitter castigation included. Back then, had Father Stenhouse formally submitted a complaint, campus officials would have all but laughed in his face.

Cardinal Sir Norman Gilroy, Sydney’s Catholic archbishop from 1940 to 1971, had discouraged his flock from university attendance in general. What with Marian figurines being punishable by smashed windshields – and what with Anderson the bellicose Christophobe on the prowl, sizing up the female talent – the Cardinal was conceivably on to something.


Altogether, therefore, I remain as conscious of Australian universities’ past defects as of their present ones. Whilst the latter are undeniable, I question the novelty and the immediate nature of their threat.

Incontrovertibly, it is dreadful that various full-fee-paying foreign students now graduate despite their limited spoken and written English. But even that vexation, albeit new in degree, has a prototype in kind: the Colombo Plan’s late-1950s zenith. This zenith placed academics like my father in loco parentis to numerous young Southeast Asians, who too often secured Australian degrees while insufficiently Anglophone to request a train-ticket unassisted, let alone to grasp my father’s lectures on David Hume’s metaphysics. In Dad’s own weary but eloquent aphorism: ‘the challenge is to fail.’

As for the reckless dream of higher education for all, surely the pandemic dispelled that dream faster than any libertarian think-tank could do. COVID has intensified our established dependence on couriers, cleaners, nurses, postal clerks, supermarket clerks, warehouse workers, slaughterhouse workers, aged-care workers, truck-drivers, and garbage-collectors, all of whom can acquire their specific proficiencies with not the slightest collegiate force-feeding. No First World polis can cope without these persons for twenty-four hours. Any First World polis can cope evermore without my musicological and organ-playing functions, though my school crossing function has retained since 2016 (in coronavirus-afflicted Melbourne at that) its utilitarian efficacy.

I wish to declare only this: however Augean academe’s stables might be elsewhere, my colleagues and I kept our own minuscule domain really rather neat. Hereabouts, to update Mark Twain, the death of music teaching has been greatly exaggerated. For outsiders, combating this exaggeration will rarely matter much. But if televisual pundits grew rich from proclaiming that you yourself were dead, publicising the truth would urgently matter to you and your loved ones.

Sadly, perhaps my age (I am 59) will preclude further academic employment. Yet if offered it, would I accept it? Verily I say unto you, ‘Bring it on.’

The God that failed – Fanny Trollope’s America

Credit: Wikimedia Commons
R. J. STOVE remembers a classic work of anti-travel literature

So far as Anglo-American relations are concerned I have always felt that they would probably have been better had the two nations spoken different languages. In the latter years of the eighteenth century there was a school of thought which held that German, rather than English, should be the official tongue of the new state, and on many grounds it is to be regretted that their views did not prevail. Because the Englishman and the American speak the same language they are inclined to take it for granted that they mean the same thing, with the result that misunderstandings arise. (Sir Charles Petrie, 1895–1977, Anglo-Irish historian)

Now that COVID has made us all empathise with Macbeth’s complaint ‘I am cabined, cribbed, confined, bound in / To saucy doubts and fears’ – unless of course we have the privilege of political office enabling us to swan around G7 meetings – maybe we can take special pleasure in that healthy, much underrated sub-genre of travel literature: anti-travel literature. Any halfway competent Public Relations Officer for a tourist bureau can make foreign lands seem attractive; it requires much more exalted authorial aptitude to make foreign lands seem repulsive. The foundational masterwork of English-language anti-travel literature must be Frances ‘Fanny’ Trollope’s 1832 Domestic Manners of the Americans. One hundred and eighty-nine years after it exploded upon the consciousness of British and American readers alike, it can still be hailed with the aphorism once coined about a truly great library: it ‘contains something to offend everyone.’

Imagine a quaint little period piece, endurable only by vigilant exercise of the historical imagination, and you will acquire a near-perfect idea of what Mrs Trollope’s chronicle is not. It remains one of those books which makes the centuries roll back. Goodness knows what a present-day reader of it who had never visited the USA would make of it. But for those of us who have repeatedly spent time in the States, usually in unglamorous capacities – who have performed work for American enterprises, had American clients, seen America itself at its awe-inspiring best and at something like its hellish worst; whose own experiences range from Detroit at its slummiest to Los Angeles at its sleekest and Washington DC at its most patrician – the overwhelming sensation derived from the book is that of plus ça change. To reach Mrs Trollope’s final pages is to ask: can there be any country in the world, except perhaps for Russia, where the national character’s fundamentals have changed less than America?

Mrs Trollope really knew how, as youngsters now say, ‘to push people’s buttons.’ The chief reaction among Americans themselves to her exposé consisted of disgust mingled with fear. As she herself archly mused:

 Other nations have been called thin-skinned, but the citizens of the Union have, apparently, no skins at all; they wince if a breeze blows over them, unless it be tempered with adulation.

A new verb, to trollopize (meaning ‘to revile others’ etiquette’) briefly entered American English. American cartoonists ransacked their armoury of visual invective to portray her as a goblin and a harridan. One ambitious versifier, coyly hiding under the pseudonym ‘Nil Admirari, Esq.’, made her the target of an epic poem entitled The Trollopiad. Within seven years Domestic Manners of the Americans had already achieved a fifth edition, guaranteeing protracted affluence for its hitherto impoverished author, who had embarked on the project mainly because of financial need. American readers railed against the book but, for whatever obscure psychological reason, could not bring themselves to ignore it. (Which would have been the sensible response for those existentially affronted by it.)

Not all American readers joined the choruses of vituperation. Washington Irving found much merit in the travelogue. So did Mark Twain, who clearly recognised in Mrs Trollope a fellow scourge, and who knew better than anyone how much scourging depends for its lasting effectiveness on a strict (albeit usually implied rather than stated) moral code. The author of The Innocents Abroad paid fitting tribute to the English non-innocent abroad:

She lived three years in this civilization of ours; in the body of it – not on the surface of it, as was the case with most of the foreign tourists of her day. She knew her subject well, and she set it forth fairly and squarely, without any weak ifs ands and buts. She deserved gratitude … Nearly all the tourists were honest and fair; nearly all felt a sincere kindness for us; nearly all of them glossed us over a little too anxiously … but Mrs Trollope, alone of them all, dealt what the gamblers call a strictly ‘square game’. She did not gild us; and neither did she whitewash us.   

Without naming any obvious names, let this be said in 2021: the political phenomena which have dominated America over recent years, the last five years especially, were unimaginable to our Eisenhower-revering, Reagan-liking, and Nixon-tolerating parents. Were these parents still alive to witness post-2016 America, they would have concluded that the ‘land of the free and the home of the brave’ – in which they themselves had invested so much allegiance, and so much deserved allegiance, during the Cold War – increasingly resembled one vast insane asylum.

Mrs Trollope’s chief literary assets include her unconscious ability to make us perceive how much a departure the (mostly) fortunate happenstance of Cold War decorum represented from the national default mode. She had the historiographical benefit of seeing America at something like its pre-Civil-War societal nadir: during the 1829–1837 presidency of Andrew Jackson, whose iconoclastic wrath against what are now called ‘elites’ (pronounced, Stateside, ‘eeleets’) has in 2021 a familiar ring. Through another far-sighted strategy, Jackson revealed exceptional enthusiasm for making local non-Caucasians wish that they had never been born. The ethnic cleansing of Native Americans which Jackson did so much to carry out, and to which history has accorded the name ‘the Trail of Tears,’ inspired some of Mrs Trollope’s most caustic paragraphs.

Young America, by Thomas Le Clear

Nothing in Mrs Trollope’s pre-American life led her to expect an overwhelming allergy to the USA. In her world-view, there lurked the acrimony of a cultural love-affair gone hopelessly wrong. The truest parallels to her experience can be found in those subsequent authors – George Orwell, W.H. Auden, Arthur Koestler, André Gide – who at first welcomed communism in theory at home, recoiling from it with justified terror when they saw it in practice abroad: Gide through his direct experience of Stalin’s USSR, the others through their direct experience of notionally independent but actually communist-ruled Spain.

Neither Moscow nor Barcelona seemed more exotic to 1930s foreign travellers than America did to foreign travellers a hundred years earlier. To cross the Atlantic at all in 1827, let alone to live for three years on the other side of the ocean, presupposed steady nerves coupled with an almost deranged optimism about one’s prospects. These advantages the forty-eight-year-old Mrs Trollope abundantly possessed. She had planned to join the Neshoba Commune in rural Tennessee, which a friend of hers, Frances Wright, had established with the aim of educating former slaves. Her own husband, Thomas Trollope, had already shown much greater talent at running up debts than at contributing usefully to his household. When, seeking relief from his disabling headaches, he became habituated to a mercury-based drug, his already few credentials for the paterfamilias’s role became still fewer. Much asperity can be forgiven a woman with children to feed, when she has been yoked to such an unreliable spouse.

After a fashion, the marriage (which produced not just the great Anthony Trollope but another novelist, Thomas Trollope Junior) survived. The friendship with Frances Wright – one hitherto much deeper than Mrs Trollope’s cryptic published allusions to it would imply – did not. No prizes are offered for guessing what Miss Wright thought when she read Mrs Trollope’s printed observations at her expense:

 … it was my purpose to have passed some months with her [Miss Wright] and her sister at the estate she had purchased in Tennessee. This lady, since become so celebrated as the advocate of opinions that make millions shudder, and some half-score admire, was, at the time of my leaving England with her, dedicated to a pursuit widely different from her subsequent occupations. Instead of becoming a public orator in every town throughout America, she was about, as she said, to seclude herself for life in the deepest forests of the western world, that her fortune, her time, and her talents might be exclusively devoted to aid the cause of the suffering Africans. Her first object was to show that nature had made no difference between blacks and whites, excepting in complexion; and this she expected to prove by giving an education perfectly equal to a class of black and white children. Could this fact be once fully established, she conceived that the Negro cause would stand on firmer ground than it had yet done, and the degraded rank which they have ever held amongst civilized nations would be proved to be a gross injustice.

Already we can discern how Miss Wright has become a trial run for Mrs Jellyby. It should be stressed that Dickens himself grew to cherish Mrs Trollope’s account (having initially deplored it), and underwent a similar metamorphosis in his attitude to America.

At home when young, Dickens had raved about the country for the same reasons which many of his most voluble compatriots ever since George III’s time – from Charles James Fox and William Cobbett, to Kenneth Tynan and Christopher Hitchens well within living memory – have raved about it. They have rhapsodised over its democratic institutions, its freedom from chip-on-shoulder class warfare, its fundamental egalitarianism, its self-confessed global obligation as ‘the city upon a hill.’ (This phrase originated, not with Woodrow Wilson in 1917 or with George W. Bush in 2001, but with Massachusetts Puritan John Winthrop as long ago as 1630.) All these American characteristics are most readily detected from that distance which proverbially lends enchantment; all, when sought in America itself, are less immediately conspicuous, and, when conspicuous, less charming. Such starry-eyed pro-Americanism among Englishmen – it almost never afflicts Englishwomen – moved Mrs Trollope to the following acidulous verdict:

 … the theory of equality may be very daintily discussed by English gentlemen in a London dining-room, when the servant, having placed a fresh bottle of cool wine on the table, respectfully shuts the door, and leaves them to their walnuts and their wisdom; but it will be found less palatable when it presents itself in the shape of a hard, greasy paw, and is claimed in accents that breathe less of freedom than of onions and whiskey. Strong, indeed, must be the love of equality in an English breast if it can survive a tour through the Union.

Dickens’s own love of equality failed to last the distance. Once on American soil, he wailed to his actor friend William Macready: “I am disappointed. This is not the Republic I came to see. This is not the Republic of my imagination”. When he wrote Martin Chuzzlewit, he took his revenge. Yet somehow the American reading public found Dickens’s wild anger forgivable, in a way that it never found forgivable Mrs Trollope, with her profound belief in revenge as a dish best eaten cold. To this day, mentioning Mrs Trollope to all Americans outside the ranks of one’s closest friends can be a risky gesture; sometimes one almost feels as if one is recommending them to enthuse over pornography or Mein Kampf.

Frances Trollope, by Auguste Hervieu

Perhaps she amounted to collateral damage in the sex war. Rightly or wrongly, her portraits make her look both aristocratic and somewhat cunning, in a very English fashion that even now many Americans could well dislike. Certainly her rather small eyes and mouth accord with no American criterion, past or present, of physical pulchritude. She can easily be envisaged administering rat-poison amid an episode of Midsomer Murders, while murmuring banalities about the weather in a refined BBC voice.

Routinely Mrs Trollope laments what she views as the inferior social position of American women, ‘guarded by a sevenfold shield of habitual insignificance.’ This finding will seem odd to most non-American readers nowadays, who all too reasonably dread the surrender of our media, administrative, and academic institutions to America’s forever unhinged viragos, among whom the moaning maenads of #MeToo are simply the latest example. Still, Mrs Trollope knew better than to ignore the emotional depths below the American female surface. Not for nothing was she a novelist, and in her own day a much appreciated one. She devotes to American womanhood one of the book’s most penetrating and clairvoyant sentences:

 There is a great quietness about the women of America (I speak of the exterior manner of persons casually met), but somehow or other, I should never call it gentleness.

Any suggestion that Mrs Trollope’s anti-American sentiment precluded pro-American sentiment needs to be halted forthwith. Repeatedly in her book, she praises individual Americans. She marvels at the natural beauty that so often surrounds her (however much she insists that she lacks a descriptive pen, she manages to describe this beauty with great effectiveness). New York City and, to a lesser extent, the national capital prompt her to open delight. In her age’s American literature she takes a serious, and periodically an admiring, interest. She congratulates American painters and sculptors for their diligence and craftsmanship in economic circumstances more burdensome than anything which their European counterparts usually faced.

What she always refused to do was to pretend that black was white – an apt metaphor in the American racial context – concerning America’s amour-propre. She would have been much readier to grant America’s contributions to liberty and human progress if the locals themselves had not thrust these contributions down her throat, in season and out of season. We can witness from her account the cheap demagogic trick which any number of Third World Marxists have exemplified since, and to which any number of Americans resorted in Mrs Trollope’s day: the trick of adopting the first principle ‘I must be judged by my intentions, which are glorious; my enemies must be judged by their results, which are atrocious.’

Naturally this comprises the perfect method of making oneself look good and one’s foes look bad. It turned Mrs Trollope’s stomach. Her entire volume may be legitimately viewed as a full-length sequel to the unanswerable question with which the great Dr Johnson, in 1775, taunted American revolutionists: “How is it that we hear the loudest yelps for liberty among the drivers of Negroes?”

Or, for that matter, among the drivers of Amerindians. Here is Mrs Trollope on the latter theme:

Had I, during my residence in the United States, observed any single feature in their national character that could justify their eternal boast of liberality and the love of freedom, I might have respected them, however much my taste might have been offended by what was peculiar in their manners and customs. But it is impossible for any mind of common honesty not to be revolted by the contradictions in their principles and practice. They inveigh against the governments of Europe, because, as they say, they favour the powerful and oppress the weak. You may hear this declaimed upon in Congress, roared out in taverns, discussed in every drawing-room, satirized upon the stage, nay, even anathematized from the pulpit: listen to it, and then look at them at home; you will see them with one hand hoisting the cap of liberty, and with the other flogging their slaves. You will see them one hour lecturing their mob on the indefeasible rights of man, and the next driving from their homes the children of the soil, whom they have bound themselves to protect by the most solemn treaties.

Sometimes she changed her mind. When she could be shown to have committed an honest mistake, she conceded the mistake and, in later editions, regretted it. On no issue did she more clearly avow an alteration of her assessments than on the issue of chattel slavery.

Never did she openly defend that ‘peculiar institution.’ But at first, not least when exploring Louisiana and Virginia, she extenuated it as the lesser of two evils. Initially she shared the belief – articulated by Cobbett, although she nowhere mentions him – that chattel slavery in domestic environs had its merits compared with the conscienceless sweatshops and dark satanic mills of Industrial Revolution England, inimical as those were to any save the most utilitarian and transactional family ties. (Brazil retained chattel slavery long after Jefferson Davis’s downfall, without thereby inspiring hysterical rage generations thence, least of all among Brazilians.) Over the passing years, her limited forbearance towards slavery deserted her. By 1839 we find her writing:

I have had the pleasure of receiving acknowledgements from many who at first raised their voices to contradict me, that my statements were essentially correct, and that in many cases they have been useful; nor have American voices been wanting to confirm this judgement … I should have no fear of meeting anything but a friendly reception from the educated classes were I to revisit America. But this must not be till slavery be abolished, OR, till that part of the Union which has a right to call itself free, shall separate for that whose fame and whose history rests, and will forever rest, more on its reputation for slavery, than on its claim to freedom. Till then, indeed, the Union must be a negative one; it is life and death bound up together.

There was Mrs Trollope, a Cassandra predicting the Civil War two decades before it broke out. Few Americans shared her prescience; fewer still imagined that by the time an exhausted peace could reign (peace which Mrs Trollope, dying in 1863, never saw), 600,000 of their fellow Americans would have forfeited their lives, and that a further century and a half would not avail to eliminate the bitterness of the vanquished or the evangelistic hubris of the victors. In one of her deadliest passages, she holds up to the most thorough derision Thomas Jefferson’s mixture of tireless libertarian ranting with the most shameless sexual predation upon his slave-girls.

Illustration from the first edition of Domestic Manners of the Americans

This is but one area where Mrs Trollope’s analysis seems to have been ripped from today’s newspaper headlines. Another is her treatment of American religion. Do you find yourself, gentle reader of 2021, contemplating with mingled disbelief and nausea the shrieking, bellowing, gibbering brainlessness which distinguishes several hundred thousand of the USA’s church services each Sunday? Does these services’ unexamined equation of Christianity with American world conquest instil in you a passionate desire to vomit? Fear not: Mrs Trollope was there before you, marvelling and blanching. And whilst she would later attain considerable popularity by writing not one but two explicitly anti-Catholic novels (to write one is a misfortune, to write two seems like carelessness), she found American Catholicism something of a relief after the local brands of Protestantism:

It is impossible, in witnessing all these unseemly vagaries, not to recognise the advantages of an established church as a sort of headquarters for quiet unpresuming Christians, who are contented to serve faithfully, without insisting upon having each a little separate banner, embroidered with a device of their own imagining. The Catholics alone appear exempt from the fury of division and subdivision that has seized every other persuasion. Having the Pope for their common head, regulates, I presume, their movements, and prevents the outrageous display of individual whim which every other sect is permitted.

She supplied a glowing commendation of Edward Dominic Fenwick, Cincinnati’s Catholic archbishop from 1822 to 1833. ‘I … have never known in any country,’ she insisted, ‘a priest of a character and bearing more truly apostolic.’

Yet an entire episcopal conference’s worth of Fenwicks could not have made her amenable to her American hosts’ curious ideas of what constituted adequate schooling. Now that almost every month newspapers and current-affairs websites notify us of yet another American school massacre – invariably perpetrated by males on government-run premises, and usually perpetrated by white males – we can consult Mrs Trollope for proof that already, in her epoch, such evils lay in the womb of time. They required for their eventual parturition nothing more than changed external circumstances, four in particular: mindless affluence; the likewise mindless ascription to Freud, John Dewey, and suchlike grotesques of a moral wisdom which threescore Father Damiens would be hard-pressed to reach; a mass-media and social-media culture without the slightest residue of a conscience; and the quaint belief in the salvific operation of antidepressant-dependence upon the adolescent brain.

Mrs Trollope’s painter friend, the Frenchman Auguste Hervieu, voiced with fascinated dismay a finding which has echoed down the ages: ‘American parents never reprimand their children.’ For her own part, Mrs Trollope comments on whatever occurrences of sensibly conceived tuition she can find in the USA, if only because of their rarity value. She is likelier to issue such grim warnings as this:

I have conversed with many American ladies on the total want of discipline and subjection which I observed universally among children of all ages, and I never found any who did not both acknowledge and deplore the truth of the remark. In the state of Ohio they have a law (I know not if it exists elsewhere), that if a father strike his son, he shall pay a fine of ten dollars for every such offence. I was told by a gentleman of Cincinnati, that he had seen this fine inflicted there, at the requisition of a boy of twelve years of age, whose father, he proved, had struck him for lying. Such a law, they say, generates a spirit of freedom. What else may it generate?

What indeed? Try the following varieties of pseudo-intellectual garbage, Mrs Trollope. An American campus gulag archipelago purporting to offer something called ‘higher education,’ where grown men hourly tremble in dread of the latest outrage by hormonal yahoos against insufficiently sycophantic visiting speakers and even against insufficiently woke statuary. Police forces so terrified of having another George Floyd on their watch that they must stoically indulge every form of Oregonian rioting, and every type of obscene abuse from every ululating pubescent with a Twitter account. A milieu where each American adult with two functioning brain-cells will admit in private that only the most comprehensive program of enforced military service can possibly stave off – at least in the interim – endless, still bloodier repeats of last January’s insurrection; but where no such adult will dare hint at the need for this program in public, because the usual suspects will Get Offended. The elementary political will needed to impose such military service on American youth (modern America being an unmistakable embodiment of Chairman Mao’s notorious epigram ‘Political power comes from the barrel of a gun’) is as non-existent after four years of presidential rule by an alleged conservative, as it was in the heyday of Herbert Marcuse and Ho Chi Minh.

One could continue citing Mrs Trollope’s gifts as a seer. She exhibited remarkable insight into the hideous isolation that had already come to differentiate America’s backwoodsmen – about whose supernal virtue Jefferson loved to fantasise – from even the most ‘solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short’ lives of communitarian rural England:

These people were indeed independent, Robinson Crusoe was hardly more so, and they eat and drink abundantly; but yet it seemed to me that there was something awful and almost unnatural in their loneliness. No village bell ever summoned them to prayer, where they might meet the friendly greeting of their fellow men. When they die, no spot sacred by ancient reverence will receive their bones – Religion will not breathe her sweet and solemn farewell upon their grave; the husband or the father will dig the pit that is to hold them, beneath the nearest tree; he will himself deposit them within it, and the wind that whispers through the boughs will be their only requiem. But then they pay neither taxes nor tithes, are never expected to pull off a hat or to make a curtsy, and will live and die without hearing or uttering the dreadful words, God Save the King.

J.D. Vance, for taking several hundred pages to say less than Mrs Trollope here says inside four sentences, is regularly hailed as a genius. Might not Mrs Trollope’s own ‘hillbilly elegy’ receive its due meed of praise?

But enough. One day the pandemic will abate; America will regain some kind of tourism industry; and we might discover for ourselves the relevance or otherwise of Mrs Trollope’s reportage to a post-COVID polis. The chances are that this reportage will require little revision, and that what little revision is needful will concern outward and visible signs alone (just as improved public health has already rendered socially unacceptable a particular aversion of Mrs Trollope’s: the constant spitting and tobacco-chewing to which most American males of 1827 were addicted). Meanwhile – for however many years the only two political movements maintaining traction in the USA can be summed up as, respectively, the 1619 Project and the 1776 Project – the cool sardonic voice of Mrs Trollope the European Tory realist can continue to work its magic.