I was pretty shocked a few months ago, when I went to a performance of Antony Jay’s and Jonathan Lynn’s stage play Yes Prime Minister. I loved the wittiness of the original series, the caricatures of politicians, the comic timing and the fact that in a program that aired at 6.30pm at night, you could be assured that the humour was fairly PG.
While Jays and Lynn’s wit was still there, the European view of what people find funny appears to have shifted significantly from what is acceptable here in Australia.
I think most things one can have a good laugh about – illness, loves lost, social awkwardness, death, even dementia. Black humour, when things can’t get much worse has allowed people to come through some pretty awful situations – I’m sure there was plenty of joking going on in the trenches and even in prisoner of war camps.
I certainly don’t share people’s idea that church institutions should be spared from ridicule. I don’t think comedy programs set in church contexts are usually mocking God or even true religion, but they can poke fun at our flawed expression of it, our funny institutions and sometimes quite illogical and puffed up attitudes towards outsiders. The Barchester Chronicles and Rev are good examples of each type of ‘camp’ in my denomination, the Anglican Church have points that can easily be criticised in a humorous way.
One thing I think that is never funny is the prospect of using children for sex. And that is what the Yes Prime Minister stage play was using as its awful scenario. Some eastern bloc politician, at Chequers for the weekend, would only sign the ‘deal’ that was required, if the underage daughter of the Prime Minister’s cook was procured for him for sex. The rest of the farce was based around whether to allow the request and how to procure the daughter if nothing else could be done. OK, it was trying to be a criticism of utilitarian ethics, but it was still in poor taste.
The thing is, I don’t know why the scriptwriters even needed to go there. Had they completely run out of ideas? Surely some witty avenue could have been explored, without having to even put the idea in everyone’s head. It wasn’t what I remembered, and I really hadn’t prepared myself for an evening of smut. I went with a work colleague and her elderly parents. I’m pretty sure none of them was very impressed by the plotline.
A few weeks after I saw this, one of the actors of which I was the most fond of as a child, from the ABC TV series Blinky Bill, was extradited from the UK to face child sex allegations on behalf the child actors that he used to work with. This made me feel ill.
After this came the BBC Jimmy Savile scandal, a man who was given access to hundreds of children in British hospitals and at the BBC, not to mention the unfolding scandal in the Catholic church in Australia.
It saddens me that the utilitarian quandary in the play was even considered a quandary in the first place. It would have boded much better for a modern Britain if Mr Hacker had charged the pervert up for attempting to procure a minor the first moment it was suggested. I would have found it much less uneasy. And everyone who turned up at the play with some prior childhood sexual abuse trauma, wouldn’t have had it unnecessarily triggered during what was supposed to be an enjoyable evening at the theatre. I still find it disturbing that even in light of all the awful abuse that has come to light recently, we still think it acceptable to indulge a taste in more than slightly dodgy humour of this type.
PS. It appears that a new season of Yes Prime Minister has been commissioned for the BBC, but it seems in the light of the Jimmy Savile scandal, the plotline with the underage prostitution issue has been removed. The Daily Star quoted Lynn as stating: ‘The Jimmy Savile thing has made the whole subject so unpleasant, we decided to change all that’.
The potential sexual exploitation plotline was always unpleasant and much more than unpleasant for communities who have friends or family dealing with the trauma of it. Jay and Lynn should have known that well before they put pen to paper.
Yes Prime Minister runs at the Drama Theatre of the Sydney Opera House until 2 March and the Melbourne Arts Centre from 6 - 10 March 2013.
Reading "Old Man's War" last week prompted me to immediately revist Robert Heinlein's "Starship Troopers". Written in 1959, this book is considered by many to be the seminal work of military science fiction, and it usually ranks highly in "greatest sci-fi" lists. It won the Hugo in 1960.
Starship Troopers is set in a future where humanity ("The Terran Federation") has colonised the galaxy, but is at war with two alien species, known as the "Bugs" and the "Skinnies". It follows Johnnie Rico, a young man who joins the Mobile Infantry, an elite military combat service equipped with powered armour. We follow Johnnie's story from boot camp, through several combat missions, and finally into Officers school and leading his own platoon. Johnnie is a very sympathetic character, and his adventures are fascinating. A page-turner.
Interspersed with the action are long slabs of intriguing monologue, where Heinlein expounds his views on politics, history and military science. His most radical proposal is that only those who have done military service should be entitled to vote. The book has been accussed of promoting a kind of militaristic, fascist utopia, though in real life Heinlein was a liberal (with increasingly conservative views as he grew older).
In 1997 a movie version of the book was released. The director, Paul Verhoeven, was actually appalled by the book, and turned his film into an anti-fascist satire, albeit one featuring pop-corn space opera. It bears only a superficial resemblance to the book, but it's still one of my favourite films. And, of course, I immediately fell in love with Dina Meyer.
Overall, this is a fascinating and influential book, and I've read and re-read it many times, and I've no doubt I'll be returning to it again before too many years have passed.
One of the most famous stories about Richard Johnson tells that future Governor Arthur Phillip, after hearing him preach, asked him to "begin with moral subjects" in his preaching, as opposed to doctrine and gospel. In this short piece, I want to share the sources and context of this famous incident.
The First Fleet began assembling in Portsmouth in early 1787, and departed on May 13th of that year. Johnson's movements during this period are not precisely known. He was married in December 1786, and spent some time with friends in Lymington, and we might also presume he visited family in Yorkshire. He also spent some time visiting the Bishop of London, the Archbishop, the SPCK (Society for the Propogation of Chrisitan Knowledge) and SPG (Society for the Propogation of the Gospel), as well as gathering his own supplies for the trip.
Records suggest that he had joined the fleet at Portsmouth by early April. His practice then, and whenever the ships were in port during the voyage, was to preach on two different ships every Sunday, and so work his way through the fleet. Arthur Phillip most likely heard Johnson first preach aboard the HMS Sirius, the flag ship. It seems most likely that Johnson would conduct the service from the quarterdeck, though I haven't been able to find anything to confirm that yet.
Sadly, we have no records of Johnson's sermon - we don't even know what he preached on. Yet something in his sermon triggered Phillip to make his famous comment, that Johnson should "begin with moral subjects" in his preaching, as opposed to "dry doctrine". It should be noted that this caused Johnson some anxiety!
Let's dig a little deeper. Although this little comment is often quoted, no-one ever gives the primary source. That's because it's rather rare and difficult to find - Bonwick's 1898 book "Australia's First Preacher". I have a copy before me now that I picked up for $150 in an antique book store. Worth every penny!
It turns out that we learn of the encounter not through the pen of Phillip or Johnson, but rather through two letters from John Newton - yes, the fellow who wrote Amazing Grace. He was a close friend of Richard Johnson and had been instrumental in securing him the chaplaincy. Indeed, he was more than a friend, acting in the role of mentor and advisor.
Bonwick records the two letters from Newton in his book - that is the only place they have survived. Johnson must have written to Newton about the matter just before the fleet departed. Newton penned this response on May 13th, 1787 -
But however justly Captain Phillip may be disgusted with hypocrisy, I trust you will be able to fix in his mind a conviction that, however others may do, you are yourself an upright man; and this persuasion, as I have before hinted, will stand you in more stead than many arguments. I hope what has happened will not so confine you to moral subjects, as to tempt you to suppress the grand peculiarities of the gospel. I am conscious of a manner of preaching, which I hope the Lord will lead you into, that is a medium betweeen a dry detail of doctrines and a dry enforcement of moral duties. (Bonwick p.63-64)
From Newton's wise counsel (and it *is* wise counsel - I wish we had a few more Newton's today!), we learn a few things. Phillip expressed his disgust at the hypocrisy of certain people, who were most likely religious figures, and maybe evangelicals. It also seems that Johnson got into an argument with Phillip over this matter. Finally, we see that Phillip criticised Johnson for preaching "dry doctrine", and encouraged him to preach morality instead.
May 13th was the date the Fleet departed. It seems that Johnson must have received the letter and managed a reply, possibly from a port on the way. The long delays between letters meant that the conversation was still continuing over two years later, when Newton sent this letter on June 24th, 1789 -
It would have been rash and imprudent to have paid no regards to the Governor's desire to begin with moral subjects, though you and I know it was like requiring you to cut down a large tree with a wooden hatchet. (Bonwick p.67)
At last we've found the famous phrase "begin with moral subjects". To our surprise we find that they belong to John Newton words rather than Arthur Phillip. Perhaps Newton was quoting him precisely, but taken with the previous quote, I think it's more likely that Newton is paraphrasing the Governor.
So, how did Johnson respond to this directive from Phillip? There are some clues in the above quotes, and also some information in other sources. But this post is already too long, so it will have to wait for another one - or for my book!
"John Perry did two things on his 75th birthday. First he visited his wife's
grave. Then he joined the army."
So begins "Old Man's War", a military science fiction novel that has made it onto "best of" lists next to "Starship Troopers" and "The Forever War". It's not as good as those books, but it is still pretty darn good. It follows the adventures of John Perry, a 75 year old man who joins the Colonial Defence Force to fight aliens. Lots of gadgets and guns, and all told with a Seinfeld-ian sense of humour.
Interestingly, the novel began life as a blog, was picked up by a major publisher and went on to be nominated for a Hugo. It's a tasty serving of light sci-fi toffee. Recommended.
Eternity have published a piece by me on the above topic. It's going to form a chapter in the upcoming book "The Promise of Sydney Anglicanism". Due soon, right Peter??
My very talented friend Ben has just started up a web comic called "Lamington Drive". It's really good! This one made me chuckle...
This Sunday is the 225th anniversary of the first Christian service in Australian, led by the Reverend Richard Johnson. A lot of churches will probably be talking about this on Sunday, so I thought I would put up the facts to facilitate the discussion.
Yes, I should have done this earlier...
The first Christian service in Australia took place on the 3rd February, 1788 at Sydney Cove. Our most detailed source of information about this event is from Capt. Watkin Tench, who wrote -
On the Sunday after our landing divine service was performed under a great tree, by the Rev. Mr. Johnson, Chaplain of the Settlement, in the presence of the troops and convicts, whose behaviour on the occasion was equally regular and attentive. (source)
Not very much, is it? But it's the most detailed account we have. He says the service was performed beneath a great tree by Johnson, and that most of the troop and convicts were present, and that they behaved themselves.
To find out what text was preached on, we need to look at a published extract from a journal by the sailor Richard Williams - "Sunday, February 3rd - The first sermon was preached from the 116th Psalm, 12th verse, 'What shall I render unto the Lord for all His benefits toward me?" (source)
Capt. James Campbell's Orderly book has the following instructions for soldiers on that day -
The Church Drum to beat at 10 O'Clock tomorrow morning for prayers, the convicts are to assemble for Divine Service on the left of the Encampment and they are expected to appear as clean as circumstances will admit of...
The Battalian to be under arms tomorrow morning at 10 O'Clock to attend Divine Service, the troop is to beat at the usual hour but the battlain is not assemble on parade until the Church Drums beat and no man to be absent on any account whatever. The Commanding Officer expects that the woman [women?] will be clean dressed and attend Divine Service at the same time.
The guard to mount tomorrow morning at seven o'Clock in order that the old guards may have sufficient time to clean themseveles before Church time. (source)
We have a couple of other sources, though they add little to our knowledge.
Lt. Ralph Clark wrote - "Feb 1788... Sunday 3rd... 'had a very Good Sermon' " (source)
Surgeon Bowes Smyth wrote - "Sunday 3d. This day Revd. Mr. Johnson preached on Shore for the first time" (source)
There is one additional primary sources that I haven't been able to eyeball. Johnson's register says - "February 3rd, first Divine Service". I still have to check that out at St Philips York St.
Some quick questions and answers. Where was the tree? Wood plausibly argues it was "at the corner of Barton St [Alfred St] and George St". (source) What was it? Probably a gum tree! How many people were present? The female convicts were not yet disembarked, so if we take soldiers, convicts and officers, we get a figure upwards of 700.
Oh, and we know that the weather for the day was cloudy, with an easterly breeze. Temperature 73, Barometer 29.90. (source)
That's it - happy anniversary!
A friend recently encouraged me to revisit The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant, The Unbeliever by Stephen Donaldson. I read these when I was a teenager, and I was intrigued to revist the first book, Lord Foul's Bane, after this 25 year gap.
Many people hate this book, but it is loved by even more. After a few pages I found myself once again under it's spell, and finished it in a few days.
Now, I admit that it's faults are many. The occasional run of really clunky prose keeps reminding you that this is the author's first novel. There's also a bit of stuff that is clearly derivative of Tolkien (the Woodhelvennin are like the elves, the Stonedowners are like dwarves, the Giants and Forestals both bear more than a passing similarity to the Ents, the Ramen with their horses are like Rohan, etc). This all grates a bit at times.
For all that, there is much that is good. When Donaldson is a little less self-conscious, he can produce prose of startling clarity and beauty. The pace is slow, but this serves to create almost unendurable suspense, and gives the setting a vast and epic feel. The characterisations are also strong, none more so than Covenant himself, the leper-rapist-pessimist on whom the future of the world depends. I can't decide who is the greater Fantasy anti-hero, Covenant or Elric.
Over 40 years ago, Dr Kenneth Cable began an index of Sydney clergy, covering the period 1788 to 1890. He was soon joined in his endeavour by his wife, Leonie, and his old friend, Rev. Neil Pollard. The scope of the project increased too, until it covered *all* Australian clergy between 1788 and 1961. The final index covers more than 6,500 clergymen and runs to nearly 3,000 pages. It was never formally published, possibly because of it's mammoth size.
However, to the delight of Australian church historians everywhere, the Index (formally known as the Cable Clerical Index) is now online!
Click here to download the Cable Clerical Index (15 MB).
This should be just the first step, of course. What we really need is an online query tool, such as the Clergy of the Church of England Database. I've already created a little program to help me query the Index on my own computer. If copyright issues can be sorted (if there are any), I can create a web-based query tool. My ever more scarce time will be a bottleneck, though. Any web programmers out there who would like to tackle this (gratis, naturally), please Facebook me.