He should have been a spy

A Bigger Picture, Malcolm Turnbull, Hardie Grant.

Political autobiographies are not exactly renown for impartiality and humility, so don’t expect them in A Bigger Picture. You may be forgiven for thinking the size of the book has some relationship to the author’s opinion of himself (though Kevin Rudd’s was in two volumes. Then again, Rudd was prime minister twice), though the book also says something about the fractious nature of recent politics.

Turnbull’s life before politics has a steeper-than-average trajectory. He is an eastern-suburbs boy, but doesn’t have a privileged boyhood. His father has nothing in common with his mother, who is from a theatrical family, and who flees to New Zealand when Malcom is young (we never hear about her again). But Malcolm is ‘one of the brightest’ at school. He is athletic on weekends, but bookish during the week, with, apparently, interests in historiography and Thucydides (not to mention a ‘lifelong interest in the history of medieval Spain’. He also likes an ‘occasional dip into the Talmud’.).

He muscles his way into political journalism (and thinks he can do better than those he reports on in the NSW parliament). One of his early scoops is interviewing Rupert Murdoch in New York. He wins a Rhodes scholarship, studies law, impresses his father-in-law with his bravado. His ambitions are met in a high-profile career, which includes the Spycatcher case, where he defends a British publisher from the charge they shared state secrets, and extricating Kerry Packer from all sorts of jams. According to Turnbull, he saves Packer from suicide. While Packer is beside himself, from contemplating where his shady dealings might land him, Turnbull is a calm Mr Fix-it (and of course squeaky clean himself).

Throughout the book we are assured by Turnbull that he is calm in a crisis, while business partners and politicians, including his nemesis Kevin Rudd, fret and rant.  Ironically, Rudd says the same things about himself in his autobiography – that he is calm in a crisis while everyone else panics.

Turnbull negotiates Packer’s TV station deal with Alan Bond, making Packer a fortune, then, when Bond flounders, helps Packer buy it back again at half the original price. Turnbull eventually falls out with Packer over money.

After making lots of money, what else is there to do but make more money? He goes into investment banking, pioneers investment in email in the 90s. He’s keen to let his readers know just how much money is involved. He tells us, later on, not once but twice, that he spends $1.75 million of his own money on a Liberal election campaign. Yet he’s remarkably balanced. He reassures us that despite his fortune he ‘always’ has time for family.

At 47 he decides he’s made enough money and enters politics with the Liberal Party, enticed by their spirit of entrepreneurialism, even if he has some sympathy for Labor. Howard is delighted, others less so. Tony Abbott, another nemesis, calls him an obnoxious ‘filthy rich merchant banker’. His profile rises even higher in the Republic campaign.

He revels in campaigning because, despite his image as ‘Mr Harbour-side Mansion’, he is a man of the people. One of his many properties is a rural retreat in the Hunter Valley, so he understands farmers and their problems too. (He kindly explains the ways of country folk to Tony Burke, who is, in contrast, just ‘a city boy’.) His substantial talents are a boon to the party. He has exemplary knowledge and experience. (He’s ‘always had a deep interest in signals intelligence’.) He is decisive but considered – alleged equivocation is merely ‘apparent’. He has a handle on ‘minutiae’. With his legal background, he is ‘always’ prepared to roll up his sleeves to draft communication or legislation (which is probably why he was accused of micromanaging). But he always sees the ‘big picture’. He loves solving complex problems but is also visionary. Colleagues and competitors can’t match his good ideas. Indeed, when Kevin Rudd is prime minister and Turnbull opposition leader, Rudd rejects all Turnbull’s good suggestions, out of sheer spite.

The self-praise and self-justifications begin to pile up like the interest in his bank accounts.

While Rudd undermined Gillard, it was different for Turnbull, who was commendably open with Abbott about why, when Abbott was leader, Abbott should make way for Turnbull. Abbott, though, is ‘literally crazy’ and a ‘political Dalek’ intent on destruction. (Rudd and Turnbull agree on this point.) Peter Costello is timid and ‘gloomy’, Mathias Cormann is ‘treacherous’, Scott Morrison a ‘leaker’, like all his colleagues except Turnbull himself. Bill Shorten is duplicitous, ‘shameless’, has no convictions and stoops to personal attacks (on Turnbull’s money). Turnbull only gets personal when forced to and because his Liberal colleagues expect it.

Turnbull is, despite this, Mr Positivity. (‘There has never been a more exciting time to be an Australian.’) His vision of Australia ‘has always been a positive one’. He says Abbott had good intentions when visiting remote Indigenous communities, but the visits were ‘counter-productive’, focussing on the negatives. Unsurprisingly, Turnbull thinks what Indigenous people need is entrepreneurialism.

‘My instinct is always to be constructive,’ he says. (That ‘always’ again – he is nothing if not consistent.) So, he champions the environment (he has ‘always’ been interested in sustainable forestry), the NBN and better cyber-security (immersing himself in the minutiae, and labelled ‘Mr Broadband’ by Abbott), same-sex marriage (he has ‘always’ supported same-sex couples). ‘All my life I’ve loved language,’ he says, and so he takes an interest in Indigenous languages. A nation-wide revival of Indigenous languages is partly due to him, he thinks. And did I mention he’s always calm in a crisis? Being nervous is ‘very unlike me,’ he says. (Maybe he should have been a spy.) Lest you think he’s blowing his own trumpet, he says he’s ‘always’ objective about himself.

Despite this objectivity, there is some rose-tinted vision. While he recognises concern over China, regarding Beijing’s approach to cyber-spying and territorial expansion, against ‘hysterical’ and ‘frenzied’ responses from colleagues and the media, he (calmly) suggests we can just get along for the sake of economics. After-all, so many Australian business leaders rely on China for profits, so it’s not our place to criticise. (And he doesn’t have much to say about human rights abuses.) He says he has learnt from his career of dealing with billionaires that one must stand up to bullies, so he stands ‘toe-to-toe’ (by phone) with Trump and wins him over (though the transcripts suggest he is about as effective with changing Trump’s mind as he is with China).

The final pages of the book are like a CV introduction. He is a paragon of inclusion and good sense. He is of ‘good character’ and his only fault is that he is ‘too trusting’. (Perhaps he wouldn’t be a good spy after-all.) You may get the impression Turnbull thinks he is the best prime minister we’ve had, or at least would’ve been, had it not been for the vanity of his knuckle-headed colleagues. (Turnbull, of course, only had the good of his party and country in mind.) Which prompts the question, why was he gotten rid of? In fairness to Turnbull, recent politics allows little space for moderates like Turnbull, for long-term vision and for conciliation. Tribalism, even within parties, is rampant, which explains the revolving door of prime ministership. And Turnbull highlights, as does Kevin Rudd, the toxic influence of the media, especially the Murdoch press, over national debate and who’s in charge. (The book contains a rather incredible episode where Turnbull begs Rupert Murdoch to tell his papers to stop agitating for a change of prime minister.)

When Turnbull is ousted, he is, of course, (unlike the frantic Morrison) calm and of ‘clear mind’, as ‘always’.

Forgetting

Truganini: Journey through the apocalypse, Cassandra Pybus, Allen and Unwin.

This Whispering in our Hearts Revisited, Henry Reynolds, Newsouth.

Reconciliation Week reminds us of the hidden history of Indigenous Australia, something dealt with in these two books, important in their own ways, by Cassandra Pybus and Henry Reynolds respectively. Pybus tells the story of Truganini, the so-called last Tasmanian – not Cook or Bradman, but a notable Australian nonetheless – in the context of the tragedy of Aboriginal dispossession and death. Reynolds, as he does elsewhere, writes about these things, but he also writes about a minor part of the tragedy of theft, massacres and cover-up – the forgetting of acts of humanitarianism by courageous advocates for justice.

Truganini’s Nuennonne people lived in Tasmania’s south. She witnessed her mother murdered and her sisters kidnapped by sealers, and much more besides. She fell under the ‘care’ of George Augustus Robinson, controversial and idiosyncratic Chief Protector of Aborigines, who established a spectacularly unsuccessful mission on Bruny Island. She participated in Robinson’s also failed attempt to save Aborigines by relocating them to Flinders Island, and travelled to the newly established Melbourne, where she was caught up in a murder trial. In the later part of her life she lived in Hobart as something of a curiosity. After death she remained so – her skeleton was displayed in Tasmania and Melbourne until 1969.

Pybus tries to rescue Truganini from being the symbol of a dying race, but she remains something of a symbol for the suppression of Indigenous history. As Pybus says, it is hard to reconstruct a rounded psychological portrait of Truganini because most of the information about her comes from Robinson’s journals, and we get glimpses of her in the forest of Robinson’s self-importance. In fact, much of Pybus’s book could be titled ‘The Outrageous Adventures of George Augustus Robinson’. In an effort to help protect Tasmanian Aborigines he dragged his long-suffering companions, including Truganini, up and down the country, making contact with reluctant tribes, in order to ‘civilise’ them and remove them from the main island before the white settlers wiped them out, though nearly all died after the round-up anyway.

Pybus sees both Robinson’s faith and mission as follies, and his character as duplicitous, arrogant and bitter. But he did understand the tragedy that was unfolding, the injustice of dispossession, and his blundering attempts at salvation of Aborigines were driven by the knowledge that the majority of white settlers regarded the original inhabitants as vermin to be exterminated. (This is not hyperbole – settlers used this language.)

Robinson also features in This Whispering in our Hearts, and Reynolds is kinder, while still acknowledging Robinson’s many faults. Robinson, as with others such as John Gribble, an Anglican missionary in Western Australia hounded out of Western Australia for pointing out the immorality of perpetrators of violence and the indifference of most of the rest, could be meddlesome, rigid and humourless, but the faith of such people who feature in Reynolds’ book told them that all races were ‘one blood’. Their first-hand experience with Aborigines told them of Aborigines’ intelligence and relationship with country. Conversely, these humanitarians witnessed – outraged – frontier violence, slavery, theft, indiscriminate massacres of tribes.

I find it odd that the assertion that all these things occurred widely in Australia is controversial – there is much evidence from missionaries and government investigators. Many whites, including police, admitted to atrocities, happily so. As disturbing as the atrocities are the on-the-record justifications by whites for violence and outright hatred of Aboriginal people who many settlers thought, increasingly with the rise of Social Darwinist ideas, were the inevitable losers in the battle over land, and the sooner they were rid of, the better.

At the same time, Reynolds shows that there was recognition of Aborigines as traditional owners unfairly dispossessed. The departing and disenchanted Governor King told his successor Governor Bligh that Aborigines were the true owners of the land (and, by implication, the colonists, interlopers). The issue of compensation came up frequently, if ultimately to no avail, in the nineteenth century.

Reynolds says that although Australians are traditionally reticent about discussing moral issues, these discussions were there right at the beginning of Australian colonial history. Even as violence against Aboriginal people spread in some parts virtually unchecked, there were colonists who were deeply troubled by the fact. But they were perhaps in the minority. To read Reynold’s vital book is to be given hope that even in the face of dire opposition, there are those who stand against injustice. Yet it is also to be unsettled by the scope and veracity of the injustices, still under-acknowledged.

Pybus’s ancestors lived on Bruny Island, and her book is partly an attempt to come to terms with the fact that Truganini’s dispossession paved the way for Pybus. But, as she points out, most white Australians live on land stolen from its original inhabitants (who, contrary to the stereotype, were deeply attached to their patches of country). Both Pybus and Reynolds show how much violence that dispossession involved. How do we deal with this? I guess at the very least reconciliation should involve trying to remedy this extraordinary collective historical amnesia.

Flatworms grow new heads

The Demon in the Machine, Paul Davies, Allen Lane.

What is life? We can see what life does, but definitions are harder to come by and agree on. In The Demon in the Machine Paul Davies tries to make sense of the fact that life seems to work in opposition to the second law of thermodynamics. Life tends to move towards more complexity, so maybe we need to think about it beyond the laws of physics as we normally understand them.

In this book Davies argues that we can think of life in terms of information systems, and this is different to the reductionism that comes with whittling explanations down to the quantum level, in much the same way that if we want to understand our computer’s programs, looking at the hardware inside the computer won’t help. Of course, information is something of a buzzword at present, in the same way that in the 1980s and beyond the concept of mind was supposedly explained by analogies with computers. But there is some sense in Davies’ analysis.

Davies steers towards the realm of the metaphysical, as he did in his early, famous book The Mind of God, where he argued that the emergence of mind was not incidental but suggested that the organisational properties of the universe meant it might have been heading in this direction (guided by some unseen hand, perhaps?). Similarly, he argues now that the universe’s laws might favour life through informational complexity, which may spook the nihilists for whom human beings are not the pinnacles of creation but mere accidents.

But Davies also argues that although life might be a natural emergent property of the universe, it also might be unique to Earth, and he cautions those who assume that the discoveries of many other planets in the galaxy subsequently demonstrate the universe is teeming with life. (Interestingly, sometimes underlying the assumption that it is teeming with life is the desire of some cosmologists to prove that human beings are nothing special.) Extraterrestrial life, as he has argued elsewhere, is pure speculation, especially because we don’t know how easily life arises. He thinks that because life is so complex Earth could easily be the only place in the universe with life; after-all, despite headline-grabbing attempts, the cleverest scientists have not been able to create life in the lab. We don’t even know how life starts – how do molecules self-organise into systems that create growing informational complexity? It’s as if the alphabet decides to write War and Peace by itself. If we look at the atomic level, atoms don’t contain information, so where does this informational complexity come from?

‘Even the simplest known life form is already stupendously complex’, writes Davies. And the engine room of this complexity is DNA. I don’t claim to understand everything he writes about DNA, and indeed the process is not fully understood. He describes the copying process, the switching on and off of genes and the specialisation of cells, the ways cells use mutation and even quantum properties to advantage (in bird migration and photosynthesis), but he says that we still don’t understand exactly what drives these processes.

He reports on weird phenomena – flatworms that, cut in half, will grow new heads and tails – the cells seem to know somehow where they are situated in the body. (Biologists can, with Frankenstein-like powers, make flatworms grow two new heads or two new tails.) Deer grow new antlers each year, but if the old antlers are injured, the new antlers will, spookily, include the old wounds. Where, asks Davies, is the memory of these wounds kept? It has been discovered that there are stronger electrical fields in more specialised parts of animal bodies (laboratory frogs, for example), indicating that genes work not in isolation but in some sort of network that shares information via electrical currents.

All this can seem at times more description than explanation, which is a criticism often levelled at mind-as-computer theorists who point to electrical currents in the brain and say, ‘See? Now we have explained the mind’. But Davies doesn’t claim to have necessarily solved the question of what life is exactly; he is merely highlighting this strange and humbling new world of inquiry.

God comes barging in

The Book of Job: A Biography (Lives of Great Religious Books), Mark Larrimore, Princeton.

The Book of Job seems apt for our times. Then again, it seems apt for any time. The question of suffering is perennial, not just in the matter of Job’s woes, but in the general state of a flawed world. Job throws up more questions than answers: where is God in the midst of suffering? Is suffering part of his plan? How much can we understand his plan? Is God omnipotent? Does God reward the good and punish the bad? Where does evil come from?

The Lives of Great Religious Books series focusses not just on a book’s content but also on how it was originally written and how it has been received over centuries, including in art and other literature. In the case of biblical books, the series takes them somewhat as stand-alone entities, and indeed the Bible is a collection of books of different ages, genres and emphases, but one of Mark Larrimore’s points is that Job should be read in dialogue with the rest of the Bible. This has been normal Christian practice, to interpret books in the light of other books. Medieval glosses helped readers read Job simultaneously with other books. The Christian Church has generally seen the Bible as a web of connections. The earliest interpreters read Job in minute allegorical detail, though in the case of Job’s mention of a redeemer, the Church has generally thought of this as more directly pointing to Christ.

But within Job itself there appears incongruity, more clash than multilevel harmony. The scholarly consensus is that Job had more than one author, which explains, among other things, why God ‘comes barging in’, as Larrimore puts it, and doesn’t answer Job’s questions. On the other hand, a minority of interpreters see it as the work of one genius author who has encapsulated the fact life can seem disjointed and, at times, lacking meaning.

Job of course is part of the wisdom collection, which contains a certain pessimism, or realism, depending on your point of view, about the ways of the world. Job in particular is a spanner in the works of the Israelite idea that one can trace a clear line from the faithfulness of a person to their material riches. For Elie Wiesel, the (happy) tacked-on ending where Job is restored is a cop-out. Even for the faithful, life simply sucks sometimes.

Robert Frost said lack of meaning was the book’s meaning. Similarly, G K Chesterton, characteristically, found paradox in Job being enlightened by his acceptance of his incomprehension of God’s ways. The philosopher Immanuel Kant said that Job shows that the world can’t make sense on its own (a sentiment sometimes backed up by the observations of evolutionary theorists), and being honest about a lack of clarity provides philosophical clarity. For the Romantic movement, God’s unknowability is part of his sublimity and grandeur (a point God himself makes in Job). These interpretations are not limited to modern times. The earliest Christians took seriously the message that bad things happen to good people and got on with the job of helping the poor and widowed, instead of philosophising.

But central to Job’s story is a struggle against the seeming injustices of life; he is not simply passively accepting. Simone Weil memorably described Job as like a live, struggling butterfly pinned to the page. Larrimore notes that the idea of ‘the patience of Job’ is not always borne out in a reading of the text, unless rage at things is somehow patience. William Blake, in his extensive illustration of the book, sees Job’s trials as necessary for his understanding – perhaps not deserved but helping him to see through to deeper realities.

For Kant, and for much modern ethics, Job initiates the idea that empathy for one’s fellows is more important than meaning, and the lack of predictability or sense of where evil strikes is perhaps a prompt for more ethical behaviour. This is traditionally what the Church does. Sure, theologians work busily on the problem of theodicy, sometimes sounding like Job’s friends, but more important is to accept suffering as an inevitable part of the world, and at the same time not accept it by finding practical ways to alleviate it.

Which America prevails?

Rick Perlstein has, for the past two decades, been building up an unparalleled series of volumes (totalling well over 2000 pages) on the growth of conservative politics in the US since Lyndon Johnson, beginning with a book on the failed presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, and followed by books on Nixon’s presidency and Reagan’s failed 1976 bid to run for president as the Republican candidate. Later this year we will see the concluding volume (another 1000 pages) on Reagan’s resurrection and successful 1980 presidential bid, Reaganland.

The series is unparalleled partly because of the rhythm of Perlstein’s style. His writing contains paragraphs of riveting detail punctuated by sentences such as ‘Investigators, undaunted, kept investigating.’ He doesn’t divorce top-end politics from what was happening in popular culture, and another reason his writing rips along is that he has taken what one can only assume to be a gargantuan amount of time checking TV schedules, reading newspapers from the times, including the cartoon pages, checking what movies were screening. Yet another reason is that he is alert to the comic element. Punchlines recur. And certainly, with Nixon, whom he covers in (volume 2) Nixonland, and in the opening 300 pages of 800 in The Invisible Bridge, the deadly serious was mixed with the surprisingly amusing.

Perlstein recounts not only the trauma of Vietnam, but the nuttiness of what was happening at both ends of the political spectrum, and in the White House and in homes. Watergate jokes even made it into Sesame Street. Nixon was inadvertent comic material. Richard Reeves relates how once, after a rough landing in Air Force One, Nixon pronounced, ‘That’s it! No more landing at airports!’ Perlstein describes how the perennially clumsy Nixon dropped his ballot paper on election day and stopped to pick it up, prompting a flurry of photographs and Ron Ziegler, Nixon’s press secretary, saying, ‘Stop that!’ to the press. The Oval Office tapes report (somewhere, I forget where) Nixon asking John Ehrlichman (aid to the president) to bring Gordon Liddy (organiser of the Watergate break-in) in for a chat…

EHRLICHMAN: I can’t. He’s in jail.

NIXON: Oh.

When John Dean, White-House-lawyer-turned-informer, went to get his hair cut during the Watergate hearings that riveted the nation, the barber cutting his hair said he couldn’t wait to see ‘this Dean guy’ get his butt kicked on TV. Dean, unsurprisingly, didn’t reveal his identity.

The Invisible Bridge, says Perlstein, is about how America thought of itself as the greatest nation on Earth and yet simultaneously was ripping apart, with both sides of a cultural and political war fearing the worst (a situation hardly improved in 2020). And one of the ideological, but not purely ideological, arguments was over whether patriotism was assent or dissent. Supporters of Nixon were happy to suspend the constitution to prevent protests and what they saw as the immorality of the 60s culture that carried over into the 70s. Protestors were sometimes willing to do whatever it took to stop what they saw as the immorality of the Vietnam War. It took a ‘smoking howitzer’ to finally prove to the majority of Americans that Nixon had to go, although (and this is one of the themes of the early part of the book) Ronald Reagan to the end thought it was an over-reaction. (Nothing in it, this stuff happens all the time. Nixon’s a good guy and he would’ve resigned if he’d really done something wrong.) And Watergate didn’t resolve the fundamental issue of the divide between competing versions of America: melting pot, freedom of expression, government as problem versus one nation under God, homogenous culture, support the president. Although even here there were contradictions. The Right supported Nixon, but ultimately favoured government leaving them to do their own thing. (Reagan: government is the problem, not the solution.) Which America would prevail? asks Perlstein. Of course, neither would, though a resurgent conservatism, ending finally in Reagan’s election, would help swing things Reaganward.

Henry Kissinger once said to Nixon that the idea of Reagan being president was ‘inconceivable’, though Kissinger sought Reagan’s advice, and the Nixon White House was ‘obsessed with’ Reagan. (It was also obsessed with the Kennedys, protestors, the press, other enemies…) Reagan was described as a ‘cheerleader’ and ‘too dumb to be cynical’. It would’ve been funny if it wasn’t so serious. Reagan wore a cultivated persona of boyish optimism but he was ‘in essence a divider’. The good guys wore white hats and the bad guys wore black hats, and good guys would always be good guys even when, like Nixon, they resorted to the illegal tactics of the bad guys. There is, of course, topographical similarity in Reaganland and Trumpland.

The promise of salvation

Trump and the Puritans, James Roberts and Martyn Whittock, Biteback.

In our quest to understand Donald Trump’s presidency, many are looking at his significant support amongst evangelical Christian voters, and why on earth (and in heaven) a man with such moral laxity has been embraced by them. Trump is far from puritanical, that much is obvious, but James Roberts and Martyn Whittock draw a line from the Pilgrims who landed on America’s east coast in 1620 (the 400th anniversary of which is being celebrated this year – expect a lot of new histories) through American historical developments and the way Americans think of themselves to Nixon’s silent majority and Reagan’s ‘light on a hill’ to Trump’s self- and nation-boosting.

At the core of Puritan identity was a sense of rightness and special favour from God mixed with insecurity at threats from outside. The colonial experiment was prompted by intolerance from the established church in England, but this bred in the Puritans not an easy-going attitude to religion but a determination to hold rigidly to their particular sectarian religious outlook. (You’re either with us or against us.) On the other side, literally, in a geographical sense, were (perceived and actual) hostile Native Americans. Added to these were threats from within, from those who were not as morally upright as they should have been, hence the moral patrolling. So the Puritans were besieged from all sides, and a significant portion of Americans still feel the nation is exceptional, in a godly sense, and besieged by a hostile world without and traitorous liberals within. (These are generalisations of course, but particular to the American nation, and the authors, being British, are attuned to the ways American Christians differ from, and are even perplexing to, Christians elsewhere.)

Not unassociated is the selective use of the Bible. The Puritans (unlike Trump) were highly biblically literate, but they used the Bible in a particular way to justify their sense of exceptionalism, arguing that, for example, Native American deaths due to disease were a sure sign that God wanted them to take over Indian lands. We can link this way of reading the Bible, of selectively seeking signs, to the widespread belief that Trump is sent by God (prophesied in the Bible even, according to some extremists).

As the American colonies grew, the sense of favour from God was reflected in American talk of providence (a word used heavily by Puritans), and in the nineteenth century idea of manifest destiny, notions that can and did justify much dubious behaviour, including the extermination of Native American tribes. But Puritanism was also diluted, leading to, in the remnant godly, nostalgia for an earlier age of purity, a sentiment similar to Trump’s ‘Make America Great Again’ (a slogan, as historian of American conservatism Rick Perlstein notes, not of Trump’s making but borrowed from Reagan’s 1980 campaign – the idea of a lost American heyday is not new to Trump).

The old idea of going forth (westward) and multiplying explains a general antipathy to environmentalism (even if there is a lengthy parallel tradition within the States of needing to preserve the God-given beauty of the continent), seen by many as literally a tool of Satan because it is a challenge to the idea that God has given the American land to exploit to the full (which, it was claimed, Native Americans weren’t doing).

For many Americans in the middle states, Trump holds these ideals – not apologizing but proud of the US (or a narrow definition thereof), unlike Hillary Clinton who (conservative thought has it) with the use of the word ‘deplorables’ betrayed her contempt for the quiet (but angry) mass in the centre, and lost her the election. For those who thought of themselves as hard-working but oppressed morally and financially, Trump promised not only economic but also religious salvation, the restoration of Christianity (the religion of the previously dominant and ordained tribe) to a more prominent place, and they were happy to put up with Trump’s obviously unchristian personal moral failings. After-all, God can use the ungodly for his purposes.

Mundane stone and wood

Building St Paul’s, James Campbell, Thames and Hudson.

Michelangelo, God’s Architect, William Wallace, Princeton.

St Peter’s and St Paul’s are two of the world’s best-known churches, symbols, respectively, of Catholicism and Anglicanism. The books Michelangelo, God’s Architect and Building St Paul’s cover the geniuses behind them, Michelangelo and Christopher Wren, and the monumental processes of their construction, where, as historian James Campbell says, the grand business of art joined the practical considerations of manipulating huge quantities of mundane materials such as stone and wood.

Campbell’s is a small book but is packed with details of demolition, stonemasonry, paper making, scaffolding, cranes, drawing, city politics and the difficult issue of raising funds, and historians such as Campbell are helped by the unusual proliferation of still-existing documentation for the cathedral’s rebuilding.

Wren was a polymath – not only an architect, but also an astronomer and mathematician, with an astonishing range of innovations in the fields of medicine, geometry, printing and music to his name. He designed what was to be the dome of the old cathedral, but the Great Fire intervened, and despite the devastation and loss of life, this was something of an architectural blessing, as the old St Paul’s was a hotchpotch of Classical tacked onto Gothic added to Romanesque. Wren actually drew up plans for the rebuilding of the whole city, but was in the end restricted to St Paul’s, a big enough job, one would think.

As with St Peter’s in Rome, there were a number of earlier, competing designs, and, as with St Peter’s, major changes would be made along the way. It was normal, says William Wallace, for designs of churches to change during construction with the whims of fashion (and church) and engineering problems. Unlike at St Peter’s, Wren was in charge almost the whole time, something rare, says Campbell, for such a big and long-winded job.

Michelangelo didn’t have the luxury of Wren’s clean slate. Wallace’s book focusses on the later stages of St Peter’s construction, when Michelangelo took over – in his eighties, mind you – and boldly modified the frankly ponderous models of his predecessors. It is a myth, Wallace writes, that Michelangelo’s best work was done in his youth – David, the Sistine Chapel ceiling. The reworking of previous architect’s designs and the design of the dome were, says Wallace, Michelangelo’s greatest masterpiece and greatest responsibility.

Then again, Wallace says that in his old age Michelangelo was frustrated at sculptural failures and commissions from popes – frescoes, urban planning projects – that distracted from the massive St Peter’s undertaking, as well as, more personally, the impediments of an ageing body, the loss of old friends and the prevention of an easy retirement in his hometown of Florence. Wallace is empathetic and understanding of Michelangelo’s lot and his spiritual yearnings.

The whole process of building St Peter’s, which Wallace really only gets to halfway through the book after building up a picture of the multiple pressures on the ageing Michelangelo’s time, took 40 years and half a dozen architects. Michelangelo was keen to get the design back to the original design of Bramante, after Antonio da Sangallo’s bloated extravaganza. In the process Michelangelo had to justify his plans to various popes (he outlived several) and negotiate with builders still loyal to Sangallo, but he was convinced that God had given him the job to make St Peter’s what it should be.

As with St Paul’s, the dome was Michelangelo’s greatest challenge. In both buildings, piers supporting the domes were inadequate and began to shift already during the years of construction. (London’s notoriously dodgy soil didn’t help with St Paul’s.) In St Peter’s, Michelangelo reinforced and rebuilt the supports, allowing the vast, crowning structure (which includes some of Michelangelo’s architectural innovations, such as paired pillars). Wren had to be more engineeringly creative, in order to lighten the load, managing a dome that gives the impression of greater solidity when the outer dome is a simple wooden structure. (The piers showed further signs of instability in the 1920s but the building has now settled and all is well, apparently.)

Both historians emphasise the continuities of building practices – and problems – with today. Architects then, as today, had to wrestle with complex engineering, sourcing materials, scheduling, management of large teams and budgets and finding solutions on the run. But when we look at the technology available 400 and 500 years ago, the achievements of Wren and Michelangelo, and their underlings, can only seem more astonishing, testaments to the desire to praise God. Indeed, in both, the internal spaces are celebrations of harmony and magnificence, irresistibly drawing the eyes heavenward. But whether God would’ve approved of the expense of such astonishing creations is another matter entirely.