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Tying off the threads of doubt



In times of unexpected or inexplicable crisis, humans all over the globe regardless of race, religion, lineage or historical evidence, will often turn to myth, the occult, each other, to their until then untested and unimpressive leaders, or to a hoped-for apparent miracle to explain what seemed otherwise beyond explanation.

Take the 1956 Melbourne Olympics for example. By means too intricate and complicated to detail here, the task of organising the journey of the Olympic Flame into and round the MCG was hijacked in 1956 by a small group of university students who shall remain nameless to ensure their anonymity even after all these years. The plan was that a hoax torchbearer would greet the Mayor about ten minutes before the genuine runner, Ron Clark, arrived.

This ring-in’s ‘torch’ was a broomstick-like rod with an empty plum-jam can mounted on it stuffed full of ‘smoking’ kerosene-soaked rags. As the real torchbearer approached, however, the phoney stand-in, already tortured by nerves as the crowd grew, succumbed to cold feet and refused to move.

With only minutes to spare before the whole scheme would collapse, one of the original ‘plotters’ grabbed the spluttering ‘torch’ and set off. And the crowd applauded and cheered, ignoring the tin can, the shoddy stick, the outlandish looking torchbearer (he was wearing ordinary street shoes and jeans gaping at the knees) … It was a remarkable demonstration of how people’s expectations will override explicit evidence to the contrary. They’d come to see the torch arrive and they were bloody well going to see it … or invent it.

When it comes to invention, Prime Minister Scott Morrison famously claimed the influence of the occult: ‘I have always believed in miracles’ he declaimed — to explain his party’s against-the-odds 2019 election victory.

It’s unlikely that Morrison, though a self-described man of faith, really believed that miraculous divine intervention won the election, any more than Diego Maradona was certain beyond any possibility of doubt that ‘the hand of God’ had intervened to help decide the 1986 World Cup of Football in Argentina’s favour. In both the election and the match, hard, incontrovertible evidence — numerical in 2019, clear and photographic in 1986 — establish the case for common sense against … well, against the ‘insights’ of Nostradamus, Baba Vanga, Craig Kelly, Alan Jones, Pete Evans, Peta Credlin …

In electioneering mode, John Howard once remarked that ‘the times would suit’ him: he meant that things were going badly for the incumbent government (e.g. a faltering economy, the news polls, a dithering administration) but this gnomic remark could just as easily have been interpreted as his salute to the strange forces so often seen to be governing our fate and our leaders. It should be remembered that Sky News does presumably come from ‘the sky’.


‘Like the progress of the Olympic flag in 1956 or the Hand of God in 1986 the story of Nero’s encounter with the great fire of Rome is threaded with doubt, invention and political manoeuvring.’


Coming from the sky as well are the winds. One night we heard new noises everywhere through our venerable rented house in the Provencal village of Ménerbes. Boards creaked, a door downstairs blew open, shutters flapped loose from their locks. Next morning, when I lit the fire, billows of smoke erupted from what had been until then a very efficient chimney as strange wind gusts barrelled down it and through the living room like heedless gatecrashers at a party.

All night the wind, driving intermittent rainstorms before it, thumped at doors and windows, shook, screamed and roared as if, somehow, the house had drifted out to sea in a gale. We didn’t know it then, during a sleepless night, but this was the Sirocco, the warm, usually dust-laden, but sometimes rainy wind that, at its worst, blasts its way out of North Africa and across the Mediterranean into southern Europe.

For locals in Ménerbes and environs during that autumn night of 1993, the invading wind was profoundly disruptive but not new — they’d seen it all before as had their forebears over many centuries. For example, it wouldn’t have been a shock at Actium (the present-day Sicilian port of Anzio) in the summer of 64 AD.

By July 18 of that year, the Sirocco had been blowing fiercely for days on end and when news reached the pleasant coastal retreat of Actium — the birthplace of the Emperor Nero and one of his favourite refuges from the cares of office — that the winds were fuelling a fire near the Palatine Hill in Rome, Nero set off at once for the capital.

Like the progress of the Olympic flag in 1956 or the Hand of God in 1986 the story of Nero’s encounter with the great fire of Rome is threaded with doubt, invention and political manoeuvring: did he serenade the flames, encouraging their work of destruction to make way for his own grand redesign of Rome? Possibly — he had a massive and opulent rebuild planned as his personal legacy. Did he play the lute, since the fiddle didn’t exist in 68AD? When some brave soul (risking his head and entrails) chided Nero for his failure to fight the fire, Nero may have replied: ‘Quia non a caligarum, amicus’ [‘I don’t hold a hose, mate’].

But he probably didn’t.



Brian MatthewsBrian Matthews is honorary professor of English at Flinders University and an award winning columnist and biographer.

Image credit: Australian athlete Ron Clarke, holder of the junior mile record, carries the Olympic torch into the stadium during the opening ceremony of the 1956 Olympic games in Melbourne. (Photo by Keystone/Getty Images)

Topic tags: Brian Matthews, doubt, Olympic torch, Nero, myth, occult



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Existing comments

When Vesuvius erupted in 79AD the good citizens of Pompeii and nearby towns would have faced an inexplicable reality. No amount of risk, discovery and explanation could save them. Many bodies turned to stone have been discovered holding each other. In this present day we have instruments to detect volcanic eruption. However we have no way of predicting the workings of human conceits.

Pam | 05 August 2021  

A delghtful tour de force, Brian. Feels particularly good at this grey Covid moment.

Joseph Castley | 05 August 2021  

A provocative and beautiful piece Brian. When I was at Melb Uni, Dinny Ahearn ruled supreme, and the tutors wore black polo necks and hailed from Washington.
When the fires erupted before Covid, Scomo was swanning in Hawaii. When he first came back he suggested that the devastation problems could be fixed with a hug. I wonder how that sat with the farmers who had to shoot their stock?

Now Hillsong seems to greatly benefit its directors the Houstons and Coleman. Not only have they had grants, Servgate, Coleman's vehicle (he's a director), got $43m in contracts to assist Indigenous homeless housing. Servgate is also a registered charity like Hillsong. No evidence so far of any housing projects but no doubt these are in the offing.
Of course Houston has just been summoned to appear on charges of concealing paternal historical child sex abuse and he had no trouble getting a leave pass to preach in Mexico thus avoiding the investigation.
If you have mates in high places. Say no more!
And speaking of the Sirocco, in Egypt they have the Khamsin.
"Africa, the blue Nile weeps, its springs rise in the mountains";
"Graceful dhows spread snow white sails from Cairo to the ocean":
"Khamsin’s blade is sharp as steel, its moan sounds like a dying";
"Howls around the ancient tombs, into the cracks a prying."
Of course the Khamsin with its sand and dust storms would have snuffed Nero's fire out before it took hold of Rome.

Francis Armstrong | 09 August 2021  

I believe the story about Nero is a canard. So many are. I remember, years ago, listening to a now-deceased Javanese sage, whose spiritual movement still continues. He had an explanation, which sounded slightly strange to Western ears, on everything. Absolutely everything. He was a nice chap, and, once you got him away from his admirers, very insightful and helpful on interpersonal problems. He was a bit like George Fox, the founder of the Quakers. Fox was sometimes wrong. We all are.

Edward Fido | 10 August 2021  

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