Saturday, April 13

A Variation on ‘Succession’

You probably know that Logan Roy, in the popular series ‘Succession’, is based on several super-rich tycoons, one of whom is Rupert Murdoch. The fictional Logan Roy died, but I don’t know that Rupert will pop off any time soon: his mother was 103 when she passed on. 

The person I’m writing about here, however, is another Murdoch, and the one who’d have been familiar to people in Australia and New Zealand when Rupert saw the light of day in 1931, and who was the latter’s great-uncle. Walter Murdoch lived to nearly 96, being born in 1874 and surviving to 1970. Just as he was dying, he was told that a university in Perth was to be named after him – so if you’ve ever come across Murdoch University, it has nothing to do with Rupert…. Walter Murdoch had been founding Professor of English and then Chancellor at the existing university in Perth, the University of Western Australia. 

Yet Walter Murdoch had likely been more influential as a much-published essayist, from the second decade of the twentieth century to within a couple of years of his death. He had been active initially writing on books for the Melbourne Argus, and then went on to produce newspaper essays on a wide variety of topics and for a range of outlets, eventually being syndicated through much of Australia and New Zealand. After World War II, he embarked on and Q & A format in print, called ‘Answers’, with one of the first questions being about the morality of bombing Japanese cities. In his last years, he produced ‘Afterthoughts’, by now in the Australian newspaper which had been set up by Rupert and is still with us as an increasingly right-wing entity. 

The ‘Murdoch press’ was by the ‘60s hard to avoid in Australia, with the ventures from the 1920s onwards on the part of Rupert Murdoch’s father Keith, starting with the Melbourne Herald and extending through papers in various states: this empire was taken over by the young Rupert when Keith died in 1952. Walter Murdoch was sympathetic to his nephew Keith, who’d had to overcome major problems with stammering and shyness, but Walter was, according to his biographer John La Nauze, ‘constitutionally apprehensive about what men of power might do’. 

Walter and Keith were in any case only 11 years apart in age, as Walter was the youngest of 14 children and Keith a son of the oldest, Patrick. The Murdochs had fetched up in Melbourne in 1884 because several of those 14 children had already died back in Scotland, and they were hopeful that the Australian climate would be more healthy. ‘Succession’, incidentally, gives Logan Roy a Scottish background. The father, James Murdoch, was a Presbyterian minister, and so was Patrick. Walter Murdoch himself had convictions which were strongly Christian, without being strongly denominational, but his background made him especially aware that he as a newspaper columnist risked becoming too preachy.

In his newspaper pieces, Walter Murdoch tried different approaches to engage readers. Sometimes he focused on the incongruous – such as in an account of wandering around Rome with a carton of milk, repairing in formal dress to a Papal ceremony – and inadvertently leaving the milk there when he exited. Or there were fantastical stories designed to make a point. An example is one about an island where the original, shipwrecked, inhabitants had each had part of a leg cut off to be eaten, with the aim of averting full-on cannibalism – but then members of later generations still had to lose part of a leg for the sake of not abandoning tradition. On the other hand, some judgments are difficult, as Murdoch finds when reading a biography of George Mallory, who disappeared in June 1924 on his third attempt to conquer Everest. Murdoch is admiring and respectful but wonders whether this risky intrepidity is worth it. (Mallory’s remains were not discovered till 1999, 800m from the summit.)

But more often, Murdoch aimed to lead in with a paragraph about something ordinary and familiar, and to develop the idea so as to raise a more serious issue. So ‘On a Threepenny Bit’ takes the low-value coin (2c today), and the moniker on the King’s portrait ‘F. D.’ (Defender of the Faith), to question whether England or any other nation has ever really been Christian: they are all in Murdoch’s view governed by self-interest. Indeed the words of ‘Rule Britannia’ – ‘Wider yet and wider / May thy bounds be set!’ – imply that ‘we cannot set our bounds wider without setting somebody else’s bounds narrower’. ‘On Being Natural’ starts with the arbitrary shifts in fashion over the centuries as to whether or not men grow beards, with each generation thinking their practice ‘natural’, in order to canvass whether men are also ‘naturally’ given to fighting. 

Reading the essays does bring to mind the 1930s, when many of them were written. Having lived through one world war, Murdoch was fearful of another, so Hitler and Mussolini make their appearance as men obsessed with power and with impressing others. But more generally, he weighs the pros and cons of social and political activism. He certainly believed that inertia and mindless policy-making were dangerous, as he noted when a garbage bin near where he lived in Perth was left lying around for days till it tipped over and spilled its contents all over the street. Unfortunately, this kind of ‘amiable amateurishness’ is reflected in the state of Perth’s water-supply, Murdoch goes on to say, where suburbs were divided into ‘those where the water was insufficient, and those where it was undrinkable’. He also registers with some annoyance that the kind of people who would have condemned really radical activists in the activists’ own lifetimes, only to find themselves later on the wrong side of history, then avidly invest these movers and shakers with ‘posthumous respectability’. 

Yet something is to be said for moderation as well. Murdoch’s essay ‘The Pink Man’s Burden’ is not about ethnicity, but positions the ‘pink man’ haplessly between the ‘red’ communist and the Tory (whose colour back then was white). In the 1930s, Murdoch was interested in the communist experiment in Russia, but was fed up with being considered ‘red as a pillar box’ by those leaning right, and a ‘wretched parasite and a traitor to the cause of humanity’ by the leftists. By the early 1950s, revelations about Soviet Russia had disillusioned some about communism, including Murdoch, but the conservative government in Australia saw the movement as a threat, and held a referendum about banning the Communist Party. It was lost, but only narrowly. Murdoch himself had been quite clear: if the Australian Government outlawed the Party, then it would be doing exactly what communism itself had been doing after attaining power. 

Finally, many of Murdoch’s essays, unsurprisingly, focused on books and writers, and their value to contemporary readers. In ‘Hamlets All’, Murdoch explains the longevity and popularity of Shakespeare’s play by the fact that all readers / audiences have something of Hamlet in them. Although they don’t acknowledge the Hamlet in others, they recognise him in themselves. ‘We cannot express our deeper selves’, Murdoch says, ‘and the reason why we are endlessly drawn to Hamlet is that he finds words for us; that he puts our questionings into speech, and finds utterance for our coiled perplexities’; hence we are ‘less lonely’. 

Murdoch ends ‘Hamlets All’ by declaring that, given the common humanity that Hamlet discloses, ‘How strange, in the cosmic picture, seem our squabblings, our back-bitings, our international rivalries and our racial hatreds!’ This is a topic worth pondering, but in my particular context, I’m ending my essay differently. Earlier, Walter Murdoch had contrasted the self-questioning human – such as him, such as you, such as me – with another creature, the cat. The cat lacks, he contends, ‘the troubled mind that broods over the tangle of frustrations and bewilderments that we call life’. This creature is ‘self-satisfied’ and ‘imperturbable’. Insofar as this temperament has its good points, yes, for me it is a cat. Insofar as it’s worrying, it’s Rupert Murdoch….