The Worlds of Claudio Véliz (Part II)

Through the 1960s Claudio Véliz had grown sceptical of the ability of centralising, statist systems of government, so typical of South America, to deliver social advancement and national wealth. Such systems were incompatible with modernity, which is about flexibility and individual freedom. Though statism generally provided order, even that disappeared when, as sometimes happened, centralising governments lost control of radical expectations encouraged by their theories—Peronist, for instance, or Marxist as in Chile from 1970 to 1973. Experience had reinforced his changed attitudes, but now, ironically, he found himself by invitation at Melbourne’s most radicalised university, where a hundred theories bloomed.

Why not remain in Chile and await the inevitable turn-around or coup? Because having been so close to Allende and Neruda as well as to Admiral Ismael Huerta and General Fernando Matthei, all founding members of Claudio’s Institute of International Studies (and Matthei later a member of the military junta), he could have been targeted by extremists from left and right. His Institute, hated by extremists, was supported by thoughtful individuals across the political spectrum, support that found eventual expression when the military government offered him the Australian Embassy (declined), and when some years later the government of socialist President Ricardo Lagos appointed him Gran Oficial of the Orden al Mérito Docente y Cultural Gabriela Mistral, the nation’s highest distinction honouring academic, intellectual and artistic work. With the benefit of hindsight, perhaps he should have stayed at home, for the Chilean military, traditionally statist in the best Prussian tradition, unexpectedly adopted Friedmanite policies, creating the best economy in South America, while the Institute thrived, walking the tightrope and maintaining a liberal tone after 1973.

He was now second professor at La Trobe’s Department of Sociology—the first was Jean Martin, who would retire in 1974, leaving Claudio as departmental head and dean of social sciences. His appointment represented a sharp professional decline for him. Not a trained sociologist, his chief interests were in the areas of history and political economy. It was clear that few people of international significance would be visiting his department, so goodbye to the Chatham House tradition he had taken to Chile, with its international collegialities.

The best appointment he made at La Trobe, in his view, was Agnes Heller, a two-times expellee from the Hungarian Communist Party, student of György Lukács and leading member of the Budapest School. Hard-working and charming, she and her husband Ferenc Fehér brought much-needed intellectual cultivation to the university before leaving for New York’s New School of Social Research. The department included the moral sociologist John Carroll, perhaps its only non-Laborite, certainly one of its principal authors, closely associated with Claudio in the latter’s Seminar (or Conversazione) on the Sociology of Culture (1982–88) until they fell out. It also included Ron Wild, aficionado of black leather suits, later revealed as a plagiarist.

Along with so many other liberal arts departments in Australian universities during the 1970s, this one voted to have an elected head. The push came from a senior lecturer, “a nice guy” (as Claudio described him to me) who now boasts his own commercial website selling all kinds of stuff. Claudio, as head, had voted against the proposal. He remembers how it went next.

“You will of course stand for election, Claudio?” they asked.

“No, I will not be standing for election. I disagree with the concept, as I explained, so how could I stand, except in bad faith?”

There was obvious disapproval, and follow-up questions: he would, of course, continue to run this? … and look after that?

“No. I will take my classes and continue with my research.”

Years later Robert Manne told me how badly Claudio had behaved, then and later—very badly, very inappropriately.

Not long after his arrival at La Trobe, Claudio initiated a Wednesday series of relaxed lunchtime meetings in his office. There was always one outside guest, and attendance was by invitation only. In Oxbridge terms it was a kind of mini High Table. Sandwiches and wine were on offer, and coffee followed. Regulars included John Carroll, and Robert Manne from Politics—the latter, unlike other invitees, “was never seen to wear a tie”, Claudio recalls with amused affection. Both were statists, though Manne’s conservatism (or right-wing social democracy?) had a populist edge—as editor of Quadrant in the 1990s he would be advocating protectionist economics, with Carroll following suit. Guests from outside included people in business and commerce, the law, government, administration and diplomacy, among them friends from the Australian Institute of International Affairs—that category included the AIIA’s then-director Victor Prescott, Bruce Grant, Hedley Bull, Heinz Arndt, Oskar Spate and Peter Coleman.

Word got around, beyond the confines of an already suspicious department. What were these private meetings, exactly? And why were they not open to everybody? Who pays for the sandwiches and wine? It seemed to be another example of inappropriate academic behaviour.

The suspicion of anything elitist went with mateship, Claudio decided, but other aspects of Whitlam’s Australia came as real surprises. At meetings of faculty in the early 1970s it was often said that La Trobe University was not for the well-off but for those who, without the free tertiary education Whitlam was providing, would never have been able to be there—and yet parking was a big issue, because most students arrived in cars. Then there was the packed meeting in the Agora Theatre, with the vice-chancellor, deans and professors on stage, and the speaker asking the audience, “Does anyone know how much it costs for one person to go through university?” A student called out “It’s free!” It was obvious. Who pays? No one. “It’s free”. “Same thing with Medicare,” Claudio added. There are striking similarities, he thinks, between Whitlamism and Peronism (he analysed these in a 2005 article[1]). “The nanny state, the Peronist state, the Whitlam state: ‘it’s free’. So your colour TV is more important to you than your health, because you’re willing to pay for your colour TV.”

By 1980 Claudio was thinking of taking his Wednesday meetings out of his office and into a bigger venue with more participants, preferably within the university, where suitable rooms would be available in the evening. He was nostalgic for the seminars he had run at his Institute of International Studies at the University of Chile and the Royal Institute of International Affairs (Chatham House). The downside was that La Trobe University was so far from almost anywhere—half an hour from the city and an hour from many of the suburbs. The venue decided on was the university’s autonomous Glenn College, which agreed to provide a suitable room for an occasional “Seminar on the Sociology of Culture”, three or more a year. There would be no cost to Glenn College. Each seminar (or conversazione as it came to be called) was to consist of a lecture by an outside guest, sometimes two, followed by a dinner provided from within the college for thirty or more paying participants seated around a large oval table purpose-built by a generous friend. The first of what would turn out to be a long series was scheduled for April 1982, three weeks before the appearance of Claudio’s demolition of Manning Clark in the May 1982 issue of Quadrant.

Peter Ryan, who headed Melbourne University Press, publishers of Clark’s multi-volume History of Australia, was looking for someone to review Volume 5, which had recently appeared. Several people had been approached, all of whom had declined, not wishing to give offence to a living legend or to academic friends, so somebody (perhaps Heinz Arndt) suggested Ryan try Véliz. Claudio knew next to nothing about Clark, though he’d met him at the ANU in 1969. He had also glimpsed the great man across the waters of Bithry Inlet, the mouth of Wapengo Lake, south of Bermagui on the far south coast of New South Wales, when the Vélizes were staying there in the early 1970s with Sir Roy and Betty Grounds on their grounded houseboat. Sir Roy had pointed him out. “There he is! See that man walking way over there, Claudio?—across on the other side of the inlet? That’s Manning Clark!


When Ryan approached him to do the review Claudio had not read much Australian history, apart from Geoffrey Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance, A.G.L. Shaw’s Short History of Australia, and a few other books. So he started reading Volume 5 of Clark’s A History of Australia and had not got far before asking himself, “How come he got published?” A few more pages and he was thinking, “No one edited this thing”, and then, by about page 30, “He’s a fraud.”

Claudio’s review, incisive in his best early style, sparing of adverbs and adjectives, was titled “Bad History” and focused on the portentous, religiose prose, innumerable repetitions, clichés, and obsession with a constantly threatening social violence that had never materialised (alas, Australia has one of the most peaceful histories of any country). “Blood will stain the wattle”—if only it had, Clark seemed to lament, over and over.

“It is important not to dismiss this book for the wrong reason,” the review concluded:

Many will be tempted to regard it simply as the longest pamphlet ever published in the Southern hemisphere. Others will be inclined to shelve it as a private document, as one would the intimate diary of an ageing hippie, intended for friendly eyes only, in the confidence that the distortions, the lack of restraint, the plodding irony, the endless repetitions and the pathetic pseudo-biblical turns of phrase will all be overlooked in good humour for the sake of some forgotten cause.

These temptations must be resisted. The book is inadequate because its portrayal of Australian society between 1888 and 1915 is contextually implausible and lacks verisimilitude. It will stand, possibly not for long, as an irresistible challenge to historians to write a history worthy of those formative years.[2]

By way of thanks for this overdue service to Australian historiography he was attacked by people at La Trobe, all left-wing, asking him, “How could you do this? He’s a distinguished man!” From Clark himself there was no apparent response, direct or indirect. His radical demotion has since become broadly accepted.

The following year Claudio’s essay “A World Made in England” appeared in Quadrant to wide acclaim and won him the 1983 George Watson Prize for the best political essay published in an Australian journal.[3] Its central argument was that English popular culture and its American offspring had affected the sensibilities and cultural preferences of the wider world, particularly the world of youth, in ways no other culture could match since the Hellenic world of antiquity. The “world made in England” included sport, popular music, modes of dress, and much else, and of course above all the English language, displacing the previous and less influential lingua franca. This essay was the seed-bed for his 1994 book The New World of the Gothic Fox.[4]

The La Trobe Seminars on the Sociology of Culture ran from 1982 to 1988 and were unique in the Australian context. They took place within the university but were not predominantly of the university. Speakers and audiences came mostly from outside—from the worlds of politics, business, diplomacy, the press, the arts, religion—though a few members of faculty would come along too. Attendance was by invitation, the lists of participants constantly changing at this time, though retaining a stable core to provide an institutional memory. The seminars were financially self-sustaining. The organising and seeking-out of speakers and guests was largely Claudio’s work, though he welcomed advice and suggestions, working closely with John Carroll and Robert Manne to make these events the success they were. There was secretarial help too.

The contribution the seminars made to the intellectual life of their audiences can be judged by reference to the speakers, but also depended on the interaction of the participants with the speakers and one another—conversations in the Oakeshottian sense:

A conversation does not need a chairman, it has no predetermined course, we do not ask what it is “for”, and we do not judge its excellence by its conclusions; it has no conclusion, but is always put by for another day. Its integration is not superimposed but springs from the quality of the voices which speak, and its value lies in the relics it leaves behind in the minds of those who participate.[5]

A very incomplete list of speakers across the period 1982–88 would include Geoffrey Blainey (on immigration policy), Roger Scruton (on conservatism), Dame Leonie Kramer and Sam Lipski (on the ABC), the Earl of Harewood, Richard Divall, Patrick Veitch and others (on opera), Richard Searby, Ranald Macdonald and others (on the press), Bruce Grant, Sir Claus Moser, David Williamson and others (on patronage and the arts), Philip Rieff, Sheldon Rothblatt, John Silber and others (on universities), Li Shenzhi (from Beijing, on socialism with Chinese characteristics), Ehud Olmert (on Israel and the occupied territories), and Rabbi John Levi and Bishop George Pell (on religion). This list omits more than it includes.[6]

On February 16, 1983, the Vélizes lost their ocean-side house to the Ash Wednesday bushfires. When they returned the following day from Lorne, where they had gone for lunch and from where they watched the flames descend the hills, nothing remained. What was lost included most of the notes and preliminary chapters for Claudio’s economic history of Chile, a project that went back over twenty years, one he would never complete, and four chapters of The New World of the Gothic Fox.[7] Even given that setback, had he not chosen to devote so much time to his conversazioni in their various forms in Melbourne, Boston and Oxford, he could have completed the economic history years before. I asked him about this. Had he spent too much time being what his friend John Silber called “the greatest intellectual impresario I have ever known, persuading individuals of widely different points of view to meet and to engage each other in a series of splendidly revealing Conversazioni”?[8]

His answer placed scholarship well down on the list of life’s desiderata—not even second or third.

“I discovered a kind of academic Gresham’s Law,” he told me. “Just as bad money [with a face value higher than its metal value] drives out good money [because the honest silver or gold coins are hoarded away], in the same way, the lesser currency of academic scholarship on which universities put such a high value drives out the gold currency of human fulfilment.”

He took a greying piece of paper from under a host of others attached to a clipboard on his desk. “Here—read that.”

What he’d handed me was a typed-up poem by W.B. Yeats, “The Choice”. I was ashamed to admit I’d never read it before.

The intellect of man is forced to choose

Perfection of the life, or of the work,

And if it take the second must refuse

A heavenly mansion, raging in the dark.

When all that story’s finished, what’s the news?

In luck or out the toil has left its mark:

That old perplexity an empty purse,

Or the day’s vanity, the night’s remorse.

All your waking hours spent pursuing academic kudos instead of enjoying the company of your lover or your spouse, your children and grandchildren, your friends and all your other interests—sacrificed for what? “The day’s vanity and the night’s remorse.”

“I like the good life,” he told me. “I like the opera, I like travelling, I like spending lots of hours each day in the company of Maria Isabel. And across the years the various conversazioni have been a means of meeting people—people whose conversation is illuminating, enjoyable people whom otherwise I would not have met. Simple as that.”

His interest in the civic sphere was reflected in his conception and organising of Australia’s Birthday Beacons Bicentennial Celebration for the evening of June 18–19, 1988, when a sequence of bonfires was lit, starting at sunset on the southern shore of Botany Bay and proceeding one after the other southward to Victoria and Tasmania, back up to Victoria and westward around the coasts of South Australia, Western Australia, the Northern Territory, across to Queensland and then south again until the final bonfire was lit on the northern shore of Botany Bay as the sun rose over the Pacific—a rolling circumflagration of the continent involving over two million people in a celebration redolent of ancient modes of cross-country communication and the fire-culture of Australian Aborigines.

In October of that year, 1988, Claudio ran a three-day conversazione on “The Idea of a University”, at Glenn College, commencing on the evening of Friday October 7, continuing through Saturday and Sunday, and including an introductory reception, two dinners and two luncheons. This was as impressive as any such event he had organised at Chatham House or the University of Chile. The speakers were Sir Claus Moser, Warden of Wadham College, Oxford; the historian Sheldon Rothblatt from the University of California at Berkeley; John Silber, President of Boston University; David Caro, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Melbourne; Sir Alan Peacock, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Buckingham; Sir Bruce Williams, former Vice-Chancellor of the University of Sydney; and Dame Leonie Kramer from the University of Sydney. Perhaps the most interesting of these was the ruthless and successful John Silber, who had pulled Boston University (originally a small Methodist institution, and now one of the largest private universities in America) from its very mediocre ratings up into America’s top twenty, a stunning achievement.

Towards the end of the weekend conversazione Silber took Claudio aside for a long talk. He admitted he had never before heard of this place. Claudio said he wasn’t surprised—La Trobe University was entirely off the radar for most guests at these conversazioni.

In that respect, Silber replied, it was like Boston University. Everyone had heard of Harvard and MIT, few of Boston University. He’d been trying to rectify that, and had set up a “university within the university” which he titled “The University Professors Program”, appointing outstanding scholars including Nobel prize-winners, and paying them considerably more than he was paying the rest of the university’s full professors. Many in his university, he admitted, hated him for that, as well as other things, but he was there to lead, not defer to committees. Would Claudio be willing to come to BU for a few months the following year, 1989, the university’s sesquicentenary, and organise a celebratory conversazione on any topic he liked?

One thing could have prevented Claudio from saying “Yes”, his wire-haired terrier Fellow, who would have required quarantining in both directions, but Fellow had recently succumbed to the fangs of a tiger snake, so the answer was affirmative. Claudio took leave from La Trobe for the relevant period and I agreed to look after South Main for the interim—I love the place, and at that time I wanted the ocean handy. I completed the Fraser biography there, while in Boston Claudio organised a major conversazione on the theme “A Metaphor for Our Times” (September 18–19, 1989). Speakers came from within the United States (Arthur Schlesinger and Walt Rostow), from Britain (Hugh Thomas, Bernard Levin and Ernest Gellner), from France (Emmanuel Le Roy Ladourie and Cornelius Castoriadis), and from Australia (Leonie Kramer and Claudio himself).

Silber, who chaired some of the sessions, had been encouraging Claudio to develop a tripartite series of “rolling conversazioni” involving triennial sessions at each of Boston University, Wadham College, Oxford (the Claus Moser connection) and La Trobe University (other Oxford colleges, Lincoln and Magdalen, came in later); this 1989 Boston conversazione was in fact the first of these.[9]

Following this event, over lunch at the Algonquin Club, on Commonwealth Avenue, Silber made an offer: “I want you to stay, and I want you to be our dean of Arts.” This would have involved much administration and fund-raising (not Claudio’s strengths), so on that ground he declined. Silber then said, “I’ve got a better idea: run the University Professors Program”, and Claudio accepted on the spot. This would also enable him to organise, in addition to the rolling Boston–Oxford–Melbourne conversazioni, a regular series of local conversazioni under the auspices of the University Professors, four a year, attracting high-profile international speakers to help put BU on the map—at least for those speakers, who would spread the word.[10] And he would have a chair of history into the bargain, Silber added, and be on the Council of Deans. This arrangement lasted thirteen years from 1990 to 2003, when he retired at the age of seventy-three.

His BU contract, which he negotiated on his own terms, did not include the three-storey house he and Maria Isabel occupied at 75 Bay State Road, but it did include two return first-class tickets to Australia twice a year. The man in charge of BU’s finances told me in 2001 he thought the deal Claudio had negotiated with Silber was outrageous.

“Well, Maria Isabel insisted on that,” Claudio told me. “She loves South Main, and she wasn’t going to be uncomfortable while flying there and back twice a year.”

Their time in Boston coincided with Silber’s golden period. By 1990 most senior faculty members concurred with his development of pathways to excellence, and there was little opposition. Not that the BU scene lower down was devoid of internal conflict, but the President was no longer being constantly challenged. As for the University Professors section, while there was outside resentment at its existence, there was no criticism from within. Why would there be? As Silber’s baby it was highly privileged. Its elitist image was its biggest problem in a university conceived for “the common man”. Admission to its programs depended on SAT scores around the 1400 level, and it granted its own interdisciplinary degrees. Only the brightest BU students were accepted. I taught with the University Professors through 2001 so I have some knowledge of it. The students loved it because they were treated as special, which they were. They were even better, I thought, than the students I had taught at Vassar College in 1993, which is saying something. Claudio would reserve a half-hour every academic year to talk one-to-one with each student in his office, asking him or her how the courses were going, how the teaching was, whether there was anything he could do to make their time there more enjoyable. Among numerous examples one could cite of later achievements, Jhumpa Lahiri won the 2000 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction a few months after graduating, while Diana Chapman Walsh (also a University Professor) became President of Wellesley College (one of the Seven Sisters).

After a month in the new job Claudio saw Silber on some issue that was worrying him. As the University Professors was Silber’s baby, Claudio wondered what Silber thought about this particular problem and how it might be resolved.

“Claudio,” Silber replied, “why are you asking?”


“Why the hell are you bothering me about this?

“Well …”

“You know that as President I can’t possibly handle everything. You’re dean, you have the authority and you’re responsible. You handle your own problems. This is a private university. Here we can hire and fire. You face and overcome your challenges, and if your boat sinks, it sinks. It’s up to you.”

There were no elected deans, they were all appointed, and the consequence was that they had true responsibility, but if any of them did something seriously wrong the moving van would be outside their door next morning, literally. Claudio decided that meetings of the faculty of the University Professors were a waste of time. No one much wanted them. Instead, he told Silber, who supported him in this, he would be reserving a whole morning each semester to talk with each member of his faculty, which numbered thirty-four scholars and a student body of just 124 undergraduates but thirty-six doctoral candidates in 2002–2003. Its faculty at that time included three Nobel Prize winners (Sheldon Glashow, Elie Wiesel and Saul Bellow) and the brilliant English poet Geoffrey Hill (later knighted). The conversazioni organised under its auspices included among the speakers Stephen Breyer of the US Supreme Court, the Nobel Prize-winning writer Mario Vargas Llosa, historians Alan Bullock, Hugh Thomas, Richard Pipes and Francis Fukuyama, literary critic Christopher Ricks (later knighted), academic lawyer Alan Dershowitz, sociologist Peter Berger, conductor Christopher Hogwood, and many others of equal calibre.

Members of the University Professors I met all appreciated the way Claudio ran the show, and people in other departments of the university to whom I spoke, who had addressed some of the many conversazioni he organised, thought he handled the job well. That included Christopher Ricks, who was too intelligent and abrasively witty to be tolerated by the perverse English department, which, incredibly, had blackballed Geoffrey Hill. Ricks had moved sideways and formed “The Republic of Letters” with Bellow and Hill. I liked and admired him and his work—except for his book on Bob Dylan, though even that has its good bits—and lunched with him on several occasions. He was not fond of Claudio or his style and told me so the moment we met, adding “but he’s very good at what he does”.

In early 2000 La Trobe University pulled out of the tripartite arrangement. The Vice-Chancellor, Michael Osborne, wrote to Claudio on January 11 dissociating himself from “The Vice-Chancellor’s Lecture”, an integral part of La Trobe’s participation in the triennial. He found it hard to explain to others the designation of that lecture, as he had little or no say in the choice of speaker, which, like the concept itself, was “essentially the initiative of others”. Moreover, “I am not entirely sure that the linkage with the tripartite conversazione has been successful. The key issues are that it is seen as part of the [local] conversazione and thus is of a relatively restricted nature, and that the speakers appear to reflect the predilections of the conversazione group more than those of anyone else.” Few academics at La Trobe, he thought, were being involved in the seminars, and there was criticism that the audience of (mainly) outsiders did not seem to change much. Moreover, the Melbourne venues were often not at La Trobe.[11]

Osborne had identified genuine issues with the La Trobe conversazioni. Whereas at Boston and Oxford the tripartite arrangement involved senior and internationally prominent academics at those universities, La Trobe, by contrast, was just a suburban Australian university. Its inclusion always looked odd, and Osborne was right in saying that at most of “its” conversazioni the speakers and audiences were almost entirely from elsewhere. More might possibly have been done to involve its faculty. Again, audiences of the conversazioni in Boston and Oxford were more diversified year-to-year than in Melbourne, and younger. But when Osborne complained about “the predilections of the conversazione group”, meaning its Melbourne committee, which admittedly had a conservative majority, he was denying its right to a nature of its own in an intellectual world dominated (at least within the social sciences and humanities) by a leftist consensus.

Former Governor of Victoria and former Chancellor of La Trobe University, Richard McGarvie, was at this time chairman of the Melbourne committee of the Conversazione, and wrote to Claudio to say “that history might regard the break as primarily due to the inability of an Australian university in the year 2000 to accommodate the organisation which, more than any other, articulates criticism here of the ‘political correctness’ which inundates most parts of most of our universities”.[12] That was perhaps the central factor. The Melbourne Conversazione committee subsequently developed a connection with Trinity College at the University of Melbourne, but sessions in Melbourne were no longer under the aegis of a university as such.

La Trobe University had a history of dissociating itself from anything remotely “elitist”, as for example in its rejection of the possibility, brought to its notice by Claudio Véliz in late 1982, of leasing the beautifully restored Medici castle Il Trebbio for use as a postgraduate residential college in convenient proximity to Florence. Although the costs, both capital and ongoing, were modest, the university turned the offer down on the ostensible grounds of cost and quibbles about the accommodation. The real concern on La Trobe’s Council and within the vice-chancellor’s office, however, seems to have been with the “elitist” nature of a venture unsuited to the “average-man” character of the university.[13]

For most of her beneficiaries Fortuna’s ultimately a wrecker, and the first decade of the new century continued inauspicious for the Conversazione in its international aspect. In 2003, the same year Claudio left Boston University, John Silber retired from the chancellorship and interim presidency. Almost at once his enemies struck at key legacies. Within a year Boston dropped out of the tripartite Conversazione arrangement. There was a short-lived attempt to replace it with conversazioni at the University of Vancouver but only one was ever held there, relegated by the authorities to an inappropriate facility. BU’s University Professors section, perhaps Silber’s proudest achievement, was phased out from 2009 and ceased to be in 2011. Its enemies claimed it sent the wrong message, that its very excellence devalued the other 95 per cent of the university.

Thus from 2004 the Conversazione existed only in the city of Melbourne, its activities overseen by its Melbourne committee, which continued to organise one or two conversazioni each year on important topics with notable speakers. Venues were all within the central business district. Without a doubt the most impressive of these was that held on October 22 and 23, 2005, on “Judicial Activism: Power Without Responsibility?” The audiences were refreshingly younger than they often have been. Two of the nine US Supreme Court justices, Stephen Breyer and Antonin Scalia, were among the speakers, who included Justices Dyson Heydon and Michael Kirby of the High Court of Australia, historian Andrew Roberts, writer Renata Adler, journalist Melanie Phillips, and academic lawyer Michael Coper.

Richard Searby told me, around 2010, that he thought Claudio should retire the Conversazione concept before time and age forced the issue. I agreed. But, from Claudio’s point of view, though he might be eighty-four he still feels strong. The Melbourne committee is under the chairmanship of Lady Southey, and in consultation with her and other members he spends much of his time devising possible topics, approaching suitable speakers locally and overseas, securing necessary funding, arranging venues, and expanding the lists of possible participants. This work is what keeps him focused and sharp, it’s part of his life as a historian, and he’s not yet letting go of it. When he does, it’s hard to see anyone taking it over.

From the outset, for him, history was something lived, with affective affinities running left-to-right, and he’s disinclined to repudiate any part of his past. Opinions shift with experience, but one’s varying directions in politics and life are choices on a continuum, each valid and perhaps inevitable in context. The one person signs off on it all.


[1] Claudio Véliz, “Perón, Whitlam, Argentina and Australia”, Quadrant, 49, 6 (June 2005), 7–14.

[2] Claudio Véliz, “Bad History,” Quadrant, 26, No. 5 (May 1982), 21–26.

[3] Claudio Véliz, “A World Made in England,” Quadrant, 27, No. 3 (March 1983), 8–19. The George Watson Prize was named after its creator and financer, George Watson of St John’s College, Oxford. Heinz Arndt was Quadrant’s co-editor (with Peter Coleman) at the time. For a sustained application of these ideas to Australian culture see Véliz’s article “The Gothic Mode of Australian Culture”, Quadrant, 31, 3 (March 1987), 8–20.

[4] Claudio Véliz, The New World of the Gothic Fox: Culture and Economy in English and Spanish America (University of California Press, Berkeley, 1994).

[5] Michael Oakeshott, The Voice of Liberal Learning, ed. Timothy Fuller (Yale University Press, New Haven, 1989).

[6] There is a complete list in the booklet for the Autumn (8 May) 2014 Conversazione (The Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne, 2014), pp. 20–24. This booklet also has a complete listing of the Boston Conversazioni from 1990 to 2003, as well as for the rolling Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society from 1989 to 2004, and for Conversazioni held in Melbourne from 1992 to 2014.

[7] Some of this work, along with much of the work for The Centralist Tradition in Latin America, had been undertaken during his Guggenheim Fellowship in 1974 and his period as Visiting Professor at Harvard University in 1979–80.

[8] John Silber, in The Melbourne Conversazioni and the Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society 1982–2012, ed. Jenny Zimmer (Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne, 2012), p. 54.

[9] Others over subsequent years included “The Public Face of Architecture” (1990, Melbourne), “Schools and Society” (1991, Oxford), “The Worth of Nations” (1992, Boston), “Progress and Its Discontents” (1993, Melbourne), “Health, Wealth and Happiness” (1994, Oxford), “The Idea of Education and the Culture Wars” (Melbourne, 1995), “Monuments for an Age Without Heroes” (1995, Boston), “Who Makes the Law? The Judges or the People?” (1996, Melbourne), “The Future of the Past” (1997, Oxford), “Post-Modernisms” (1998, Boston), “The American Century from Afar” (Melbourne, 1999), “China and the West: One World or Two? (Oxford, 2000), “Responsibility and Historical Inevitability” (2001, Boston), “People on the Move: Legal and Illegal Immigration” (2002, Melbourne), “Making States Work: failing States and Benevolent Empires” (Oxford, 2003), and “Power Without Responsibility: Was Kipling Right? The Press” (Boston, 2004). Most of the papers presented at these conversazioni were subsequently printed under the auspices of The Boston, Melbourne, Oxford Conversazioni on Culture and Society and widely circulated. See also The Melbourne Conversazioni and the Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society 1982–2012, ed. Jenny Zimmer (Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne, 2012), pp. 25–137.

[10] These conversazioni, of which there are too many to list here, were mostly one-speaker affairs and included topics on war and peace, European and American history and politics, science, religion, ethics, the law, music, the visual arts, the media, museums, and much else. Speakers were all internationally prominent in their fields. There is a complete listing in the booklet for the Autumn (8 May) 2014 Conversazione (The Boston, Melbourne, Oxford, Vancouver Conversazioni on Culture and Society, Melbourne, 2014).

[11] Michael J. Osborne to Claudio Véliz, 11 January 2000. Claudio Véliz archive.

[12] Richard E. McGarvie to Claudio Véliz, 27 March 2000. Claudio Véliz archive.

[13] There is a folder of related correspondence in the Claudio Véliz archive.

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