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Longchamp | Smoke and mirrors | Island life

Long distance racing

On the first Tuesday in September, the day that students returned to school in France, the horses came back to Longchamp in Paris. They had been racing by the Atlantic at the resort town of Deauville. All along that coast and in the Mediterranean the French had sunned themselves in the hottest summer. Now it was time for la rentrée. Back to town they came. Businesses reopened. At Longchamp, the greatest race in France, the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, was only a month away.

There had been a Group One sprint at Deauville on Sunday, won at 25/1 by Whipper, but for the programme in town no stars were out. Nonetheless, for this mid-week meeting at the world’s most imposing track, there was a nine-race card. The prize money ranged from $27,000–$80,000. There were two listed races and—Australian authorities please note when whingeing about the dearth of local stayers—all eight races were 1600m and up in distance. The first was designed to be the biggest betting event, with a field of 18 guaranteeing huge returns for anyone who could pick the first four or five home.

It was a September Sunday 28 years ago since I had last been to Longchamp. Then we saw a very good staying filly, Ivanjica. Immediately I tipped it to win the Arc, which it did, but a year later. Since it had been so long ago, I sought directions from a couple of desperates in Jean-Louis’s L’Autre Bar in Montmartre. They tried to get me on a bus from Clichy to Porte Maillot. In the end I took the metro to Sèvres-Babylone, changed for Porte d’Auteuil and took the 241 bus to the track. My companions were mostly older than I am, withered veterans of the hazards of the track.

Longchamp has a commodious, sweeping straight. The woods of the Bois de Boulogne run along the back of the course. In front groups of cyclists pedal ceaselessly. The Eiffel Tower pops up behind them. At the turn out of the straight there is a large windmill and a small chateau. The first race was run over a horseshoe 2000m course (the Sydney way) on improbably plush green grass, considering Europe’s drought. Cantering to the post, the jockeys’ colours looked brighter when the sun picked them out on this dull day. In Le Parisien, the ‘dernière heure’ (or late mail: racing language is the same everywhere) picked Le Cure. In the same paper, ‘Gentleman’ fancied Roger Fontenaille. I took Aravis and Verdi and sooled the former on to win by a neck for Thierry Jarnet. He was interviewed sitting down after the race, gaunt from a hard ride.

I followed Jarnet in the next race for two-year-old fillies, but he could only run third as the battling sheiks Maktoum and Mohammed took the quinella with Banksia and Silent. Round the back of the stands at Longchamp there are elegant billboards to explain what goes on, from stabling to saddling to the race. A statue of 19th-century champion Gladiateur meets incoming punters. Further along is Suave Dancer which, in 1991, took the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) and the Arc. The vast course was nearly empty. As in Australia, the crowds only come out at carnival time. The race call echoed around, sounding like one from Australia until the genteel pause after every couple of furlongs and the collapse into calling horses by numbers not names in a tight finish.

There was no need for that when Bago dashed away with the colt’s race. Running in the interests of the Niarchos family, he may go on to Group grade. The next race produced a French farce. The unraced colt Sunspot broke through the barriers. No clerk of the course set off in pursuit. Eventually the horse relented after 2000m, having reached the top of the straight. Then it was remounted, cantered back to the start, underwent no vet’s examination and was allowed to run—20 minutes late. And it came second, the greatest certainty beaten since—well—the previous one. I headed away, missing the Grand Steeple Chase of Flanders, run in Belgium, but televised and listed as race seven on this card. Open to ‘gentlemen-riders’ and ‘officers’ who had won at least three races, it went to Herculaneum. Folly and grandeur, mixed in the French way, prevailed at Longchamp this early autumn afternoon.

Peter Pierce

Smoke and mirrors
Conspiracy theories never die

Forty years ago this month, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated in Dallas, Texas, by a lone gunman … the Mob … the Cubans … the CIA … a magic bullet … the FBI—take your pick from the conspiracy smorgasbord.

The JFK killing has endured in the public imagination because the US establishment was so evasive about its version of events. And wasn’t the playboy president supposedly a progressive politician—a natural target for the Cold War rednecks at the heart of the military industrial complex?

This is the conspiracy guessing game that everyone can play. After all, conspiracies do happen. Powerful people do plot behind the scenes. Occasionally they get caught—think of the succession of ‘gates’, spawned by the daddy of them all, Watergate.

Yet people who will happily speculate on bullet angles from the grassy knoll instinctively edge away from those who earnestly argue that the moon landing was faked, that the US has covered up visits by UFOs, or that 9/11 was organised by the CIA and Mossad.

Where is the border to be drawn between justifiable suspicion and crackpot theory? When does prudent questioning become paranoia?

Why are so many of us prepared to believe that a section of the US establishment had JFK killed? It’s because we know that the CIA assassinated hostile political leaders. Did it do so in 1963 in Dallas? We can’t know, but the idea is not manifestly impossible.

Why do people believe in alien abductions and official cover-ups of UFO visits? It is because governments are secretive about the mundane, let alone the astounding. It is because we grew up in an era where we were told that ‘the Russians are coming’ and an era of nuclear tests in the deserts and satellites above.

Why do some people swallow variations of the mother of all conspiracies—that the world is being run by a cabal, whether Illuminati, Jews, Masons or the Vatican? It’s because it’s obvious to most of us that if someone is running the world, it certainly isn’t us, or anyone we know.

There are small numbers of wealthy, powerful people. They do make decisions that affect our lives. And they do so in ways to which we are not privy, with motivations which bear little relation to the priorities of our private and community lives.

Rather than adopt a rigorous and sociological analysis of why this is so, some of those people who feel both powerless and afraid are willing to seize on the glib and the superficial—an ideological comfort blanket.

Writing half a century ago, Theodor Adorno dealt with this phenomenon by discussing conspiracies’ half-siblings, the horoscopes. In his essay ‘The Stars Down to Earth’, he examined the inanities printed in a Los Angeles newspaper. Why, he asked, did people whose daily lives were shaped by the products of science accept the irrational?

His answer was that:

 The “system” under which most people feel they work has to them an irrational aspect itself. That is to say, they feel that everything is linked up with everything else and that they have no way out, but at the same time the whole mechanism is so complicated that they fail to understand its raison d’être.

There was, he argued, a pervading sense of crisis which he dated to World War I but which was fuelled by the threat of nuclear war. The result was a ‘feeling of being “caught”, the impossibility for most people to regard themselves by any stretch of the imagination as the masters of their own fate’.

Fifty years on there is no let-up in that sense of crisis; indeed it has taken on new forms, not least environmental. The ‘system’ is no more comprehensible. There is still, for most, no obvious way out.
We are surrounded by problems both concrete and fantastic. Until we are masters of our own fate, is it so surprising that many assume that the real masters are ordering our fates for us?

David Glanz

Island life
Bishops, Butlers and gay Tassie

It has been an interesting few months here in Tasmania. There have been many stories worthy of commentary but perhaps the fattest headlines reported same-sex-related legislation, the allegations against a senior Catholic priest and that Richard Butler would be our next governor.

Tasmanian news, for those not familiar with it, reflects interesting elements of national and international import, but writ small. It’s as if Tasmania is the full stop beneath the exclamation.

Hobart Catholics awoke to a shocking front page of The Mercury on Saturday 11 August. Previously unscathed by major abuse allegations, the Archdiocese reeled with claims by a former altar boy and seminarian, Mr Derrum Kearns, that he had faced repeated sexual assaults 20 years ago from a priest. Mr Kearns had approached Archbishop Doyle two years ago seeking  the removal of the priest from parish and pastoral ministry but was unhappy that meetings and correspondence did not elicit this response. According to The Mercury, the priest was only removed from ministry after a threat of legal action, leading Mr Kearns to go public on A Current Affair and ask for the archbishop’s resignation.

On 29 August, headlines of The Mercury were dominated by the passage through our upper house of the ‘most progressive relationship laws in the world’. Gay rights activist Rodney Croome praised the reforms for allowing registration of newly termed ‘significant’ relationships, the removal of ‘de facto’ from Tasmanian law and the eligibility for same-sex couples to adopt the child of their partner. A campaign against the laws by the Catholic Church had described them as an attack on marriage. One correspondent to the Archdiocesan newspaper The Standard suggested that Mr Kearn’s claims of sexual abuse were deliberately timed to undo the church’s campaign against the same-sex laws.
In August Tasmanians learned that Richard Butler (and his partner Dr Jennifer Gray) would be moving to Hobart to live in the governor’s mansion on the Derwent. The highly regarded previous resident Sir Guy Green had recently served the nation by standing in as governor-general after the resignation of Dr Peter Hollingworth.

Some aspects of the story that excited interest were as follows: the premier, Jim Bacon, was beside himself at having appointed such an internationally prominent personage to act as a de facto ambassador for Tasmania. Some people were concerned that Richard Butler was unmarried and intended to foist his de facto partnership on morally upright islanders. The fact that he is a ferocious republican played in a number of interesting directions. There was outrage expressed by some at the oxymoron of a republican governor, to which the premier tantalised with ‘he won’t be the only one’.

Others, like Greg Barns, the Australian Republican Movement’s former campaign director, were concerned that by accepting the position His Excellency had shown he wasn’t republican enough. David Flint, leading monarchist, was reported by The Mercury as detecting a ‘certain conversion’ in Mr Butler. His Excellency intends to do away to the reference to his excellence.

Many islanders asked why it was that the premier had failed to appoint an eminent Tasmanian to be Governor of Tasmania. Was this further evidence of our lingering self-doubt or backwardness? Discussion of home-grown candidates tended to nominate champion footballers, legendary axemen or Reggie from Big Brother. I thought Margaret Scott, poet and national treasure, might have been a deserving appointment. Not only is she widely loved by Tasmanians, she’s been living in a shack on the Tasman peninsula since her house burnt down and certainly needs better accommodation.

Nevertheless, Richard and Jennifer got the mansion and were married the day after the swearing-in.
There were certainly more vital stories for the future of the island and its islanders than these. Spirit of Tasmania III found a berth in Sydney’s Darling Harbour, our population soared with a third of house sales going to ‘mainlanders’ and the Tassie Devils footy team got a home final in the VFL. But the bishop, the Butlers and gay Tassie claimed more than their share of headlines and
exclamation marks.

Tony Brennan

This month’s contributors: Peter Pierce is Eureka Street’s turf correspondent; David Glanz is a Melbourne-based writer. He remembers where he was when JFK was shot; Tony Brennan is a teacher at a Catholic school in Hobart.



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