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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

94. One Night the Moon: a poem, a reflection

Over the last couple of days my year 11 class has been watching the Australian film, One Night the Moon. It is a story of a little girl lost in the Australian bush; the girl had wandered from her parents' homestead at night. Weeks later, she was found dead. It stirred within me, this film, stirred feelings to do with my own personal history - and this poem emerged.

She wandered from her mother’s breast
The moon had beckoned her to come
She heard its music on the air
Its strange light lit the wide brown land
And made of it a magic place
In which a child might roam and dream
And some time, in the dead of night
Her mother found her gone.

They took me from my mother’s breast
The nurses at The Haven had assured her:
‘This is for the best’.

And gave me to a childless pair
Who both, for such a long, sad time had dreamed of just this moment.
They took me to their humble home
And made me welcome there.


Days, weeks, months later, when all hope was dead
They found the child, her body curled
Beneath a sheltering rock ledge
Long time dead.
In years that came
Her mother felt, within her womb
Echoes and shadows, memories of a child
That once, for nine months, dwelt within.
She never more could look upon the moon.

My twenty year old mother Gwendoline
moved on.
She left the Unwed Mothers’ Home
And went back to her parents and her son.
For sixty years or more I didn’t know
That she once bore me safe within her womb.
I sometimes wonder if she felt
Echoes and shadows, memories of a child
Who once had dwelt within her
Now long gone.

And when the moon is on the rise
And when it bathes the wide brown land in its strange light
It beckons me to come – to seek
The mother who once carried me
And brought me to his moon-washed land
Where children roam and dream alone and lost

Sunday, August 21, 2011

93. A Family Get Together

Pop - Bill Kipping and Lil Smith at their wedding, 1958.

Monday, August 22, 2010

Creative Writing class

Catching thoughts as they slide through my mind ...

The mind never stops – there is constant movement, a never-ending flow of ideas. The river of words and images and sights and feelings and memories – always memories – goes on, even in my sleep. Sometimes I wake, mid sentence. Or I wake in the midst of a story, a dream that has held me in its thrall for hours, it seems.
Right now, it’s Monday morning, and I am churning out the words. The pump is primed, the words are flowing out onto the paper ...

Yesterday I went to the Mitcham pub to my Uncle Murray’s 90th birthday. Ninety – God, Imagine living that long. And what a life he has had. He was in Darwin at the time of the bombing in 1943. He and Betty Tyres married in the years of the Second World War, and their one child – Faye – was born in 1944.
My memories of Faye are not all that clear. I recall really liking her. She was a little princess, with a face a little like the young Elizabeth Taylor. Curly hair framed her attractive face. She was over-protected and pampered, as we only children tend to be.
Once, back in about 1948 or 1949 I went by train out to Mitcham, where Uncle Murray met me and drove me through the open paddocks that were Mitcham at that time, to Alwyn Grove, a dirt road maybe 600 metres long. There were perhaps three houses in the street at the time; the rest was tall long grass. I stayed overnight at their house. It seemed so large, this weatherboard house in the open paddocks in the newly emerging suburb that would become Mitcham. And it was large by comparison with the working man’s cottage that I had grown up in in Coburg. The house at 82 Reynard Street was perhaps 16 feet across and 40 – 50 feet long – a house of maybe six squares in the old way of measuring house size. Uncle Murray and Aunty Betty's house was twice the size of my house.

What do I recall of that night? Little other than bath time, when Faye and I, both dressed in underpants for modesty’s sake, were bathed together.
Years later, when we were around 15, we danced together, at somebody's wedding. I recall smelling her shampooed hair as we danced a slow foxtrot. I recall that we held each other close, and that I felt some stirring of an attraction that could not, of course, be taken any further: relationships between cousins were taboo.
I can’t remember if Faye was at my 21st birthday party. We rarely saw each other for the next twenty years. Then I heard the news that Faye had suffered a massive haemorrhage in the brain – a stroke that wiped out her memory, her speech, most of her movement, leaving her totally dependent. She couldn’t move by herself or feed herself.
There was a terrible irony, a cruelty, in this event. For all those years when the rest of us had married and settled down and had children, Faye had been alone. She had continued to live in the Mitcham house with her parents, who continued to dote on her. But in the months leading up to her stroke she had commenced a relationship with a dentist, a relationship that looked to have some prospect of ‘leading somewhere’. She and her friend were having dinner at a sophisticated restaurant when Faye experienced a blinding, mind-numbing headache that was the precursor to the traumatic stroke that would leave her in little better than a vegetative state for the rest of her life.
She was 49 when she died, 10 or 15 years after the stroke. For that whole time Murray and Betty cared for Faye: fed her, dressed her, took her to occupational therapists and hospitals and clinics, controlled her intake of medicines prescribed to deal with the myriad of things that were going wrong with her body.
And throughout that time, I often found myself thinking of Faye and what a terrible sadness it was that her life was reduced to this.
On the window of the pub Thelma - or maybe Lynette - has stuck up some photographs - maybe a dozen photos of aspects of Murray's life. There's a photo of a very snappily dressed young man, in an expensive overcoat and cravat, with a very young Betty. There's a photo of their wedding, and another of Murray in his army shorts and army shirt, taken in Darwin. But the most poignant photo shows a beautiful young girl of maybe 11 or 12 years, sitting on a horse. It was Thelma's first horse; the girl is Faye.

The two remaining elders – Murray himself and my Aunt Doreen, now 83 – were there, along with most of the surviving cousins, gathered yesterday to celebrate Murray’s milestone. Murray remembered every one; he still has his faculties. We are all growing old. Thelma, the oldest, is 74 now. Trevor didn’t come down from Newry; he’s busy selling off their cattle, as he and Thelma prepare for retirement. Her sister, Valerie, who is 71 didn’t come down either; she’s celebrating her 71st birthday. But Ray – the third of that Kipping branch, was there. He and I chatted about the disappearance of all the old sayings that were once so much a part of Australian life: bot, ‘Up in Lizzie’s room behind the clock’, ‘a wigmam for a goose’s bridle (or perhaps bridal) ... Ray plays the computer game Hearts a lot; claims to have achieved an 85% + success rate; has played over 20,000 games. At 72, he still lives in his small flat in Northcote, and watches the neighbours come, make a mess of their flat, and then move on. He’s lived there for thirty years or more, the one solid consistent element in the ever-changing parade of short term occupants of these units.
Thelma's daughter, Sharon, is there. I have a flash of memory. I recall a time, 51 years ago, when I was a boy of 17 and she was a new born. I remember nursing her when I went down to Thelma and Trevor's farm at Newry. She was perhaps a month old. Now she has grown children of her own. Her eldest son is a singer; he's in the States, hoping to make it big, but it's hard going. Success is never easily won.

Aunty Doreen is 83 now. Her daughter Leanne and son-in-law Rod brought her down from Hamilton a couple of days ago. They visited her brother Bob Powles up in the Nursing home where he will live out the last of his days. It’s several years since they have seen each other. Thinking of Bobby reminds me that it was he who built the wooden filing cabinet that I still have in my office. It must be almost 50 years old now. He was an excellent cabinet maker, a loner, a heavy smoker. Emphysema will take him in the end no doubt.
Rod and Leanne seem pretty happy. They live out at the Hamilton airport where Rod is caretaker and odd job man. Leanne works for a hospital fund.
My cousin Craig – Doreen’s only son – and his wife Pauline and their four kids were there. They seem solid as ever, one of that rare phenomenon: the happy family. Jessica has grown into a fine young woman – focussed, thoughtful, caring, compassionate, intelligent. Patrick has emerged from the sullenness of his early adolescent and is friendly, cheerful, communicative. Georgia’s in Year 9 now, and Anna in Grade 5, and both are outgoing kids and good company.
And of course, Lynette is there. I ask how her daughters are, whether things have improved. ‘No,’ she says, feigning cheerfulness, or resignation, or a mixture of the two. She seems in good nick, and much less intrusive and attention seeking than she was a few years back. I realise, with slight discomfort, that I forgot to ask her how her relationship with Geoffrey Cox is coming along. Happiness is not easily come by; rarely do our lives live up to our expectations. Life mooches on; we struggle through, making do. I’ve always loved that Christian blessing, the Desiderata: ‘Lord, give me the strength to change those things that can be changed; the forbearance to accept those things that can’t be changed; and the wisdom to know the difference.’
Both Karin and Jordan were ill, so it was just Tanner and me. Tanner was friendly and readily fell in with her older second cousin’s – Anna and Georgia. Tanner is almost as tall as Anna, who is almost three years her senior.
Even Leanne, the youngest of the Kipping clan cousins, is rapidly approaching 50. At moments like this, all the old clich├ęs emerge: What happened to our youth? Where has the last 50 years gone? Doreen is on a walking frame. The two small steps up into the eating area are too large at this stage for Doreen – she needs help to raise her feet the necessary six inches. Murray uses a walking stick to get around. Both he and Doreen have their faculties; they remember their pasts. Doreen speaks of Kip – my Uncle Arthur who died five years ago: ‘I miss him something awful,’ she says. ‘I know he wasn’t the easiest man to live with – with his drinking – but I’d give the world to have him back.’
Thelma makes a speech. She apologises, saying that she is no orator, but her speech is honest and heartfelt. She praises Murray for his longevity, for the way he nursed first Faye and then Betty, through illness and during their final days. He is alone now; has been for – what – four years or more. Reminds us of his love for greyhounds. Says of him (though not specifically in these words) that he has coped with life’s cruelties with dignity and steadfastness and loyalty to Faye and to Betty – around whose lives his own life has orbited; and wonders whether any of the rest of us would have been so committed, so noble, so reliable. Which is a fair point to make.
At Thelma’s instigation we have each contributed toward a new TV set for Murray. He still enjoys watching the horse races.
At one point, Leanne tells me that she really enjoys reading my blog especially when I write about the past, about how things were. The way we were, but can never be again. That part of our lives has passed, and we are growing older.
And so we each find our ways of filling our days and our nights, our ways of remembering and forgetting the past that has shaped and misshapen us, the moments and days and years of our lives. We look at Murray with his paper like skin and his aging body and his walking frame, and remember the passing of Uncle Arthur, Faye, Betty, Linda and Herbie, Pop, Iris, and Ivan, and know that no matter what, that is what awaits us.
At three o’clock we say our farewells, Tanner and me, and head off home.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

92. Did the Beatles have it right? Is love all we need?

Back in the Sixties, the Beatles were on to something in their anthem: ‘All you need is love’. That song, along with Lennon’s later “Imagine’ , combined to project an image of a loving, peaceful world, in which differences are not simply tolerated, but celebrated; a world in which the economic divisions - between the ‘haves’ and the ‘have nots’ - are dissolved through the simple strategy of rejected the personal ownership; a world where the ideological differences are similarly dissolved, through the dissolution of religion; a world in which people live in peace.

Critics of the sixties are quick to point how simplistic and unrealistic this ‘All-you-need-is-love’ agenda is; how this kind of sloganising - Imagine: all you need is love - produced no noticeable improvement in the state of the world.

(Although the 60s and 70s did see some changes. In Australia we saw the introduction of Medicare – a scheme to ensure that everybody had access to quality health care. We saw the introduction equal pay for equal work – replacing the old system in which women were paid much less than men: it was actually built in to the pay scales. We saw the extension of notions of social justice – the notion that there should be programs to assist and support the poor. We saw a shift towards a safety net for the unemployed. And then there was the fact that FREE tertiary education was a reality in those backward days.)

If all if this is ringing bells of recognition in your minds, let me help you ot. It’s a re-run of the scene from the Python film, The Life of Brian, the one that begins with the rhetorical question, ‘What have the Romans ever done for us?’, and ends with: ‘Well, apart from better sanitation, and medicine and education and irrigation and public health and roads and a freshwater system and baths and public order - what have the Romans ever done for us?’ And the answer is, ‘Brought peace’.

The sixties and seventies were the period during which the American civil rights movement and the feminist movement both made deep inroads into social thinking. That period wasn’t a golden age, when everything was so much better than now; but it was an age of significant change – and for the most part, change in the right direction.

But we moved on, didn’t we, to the 80s and 90s, and watched as the gains of the 60s and 70s were whittled away. The anthems of the 80s and 90s seem to have been a whole lot more effective. All you need is ‘economic rationalism’; all you need is ‘user pays’; all you need is to give free rein to the entrepreneurs and all of us will be better off – in the long run.

Well, we’re pretty puffed out after their pretty long run of entrepreneur-ing, and things don’t seem a whole lot better.

One of my major interests is education. In the schools of the sixties we fought to make schools more caring places; we strove to ‘humanise’ schools, to break out of the traditional competitive structures that had seen schooling as a process of separating academic goats from the non-academic sheep. Schools had served as great sifting machines. To modify the metaphor: education dealt in apples. Some apples were ‘windfalls’ – they dropped off the tree before picking time, and disappeared into unskilled, low status jobs – road sweeping, garbage collection. ‘Low grade’ apples – the drop-outs and early leavers, who disappeared as soon as they could – at 15 – went into unskilled jobs. The more able took up apprenticeships, or went to work in the huge typing pools that existed in those pre-computer days. A little higher up the tree were the apples destined for work in banks, or nursing or primary school teaching. And from the top of the tree came the elite few – roughly 9% of all kids – the ones who went on to universities to enter the more lucrative professions.
Then larger numbers of kids began to stay longer in secondary schools. We tried to make schools more hospitable to the wider range of abilities. Pastoral care programs began to emerge. We recognised that schools needed to care for more than just the mind and the intellect. Schools needed to be caring places, supporting young people through the tough years of adolescence. For a time – a short, short time – the destructive philosophy of competitive learning was replaced with a philosophy of growth. Schooling ought not be about the ‘survival of the fittest’, but about the growth of each apple to its fullest potential.

The Progressive movement in education placed the individual child at the centre of the education project. Traditional education had framed its task as separating the high quality apples from those of lesser quality, and ‘rewarding’ the very best; progressive education framed its purpose as nurturing each apple, giving each apple the attention it deserved. At its heart, the philosophy was based – at least in part – on the faith that ‘all you need is love’.

Maybe it’s time to revisit the idealism of the sixties. Can it do any harm to ask the question: ‘Is love ALL we need?’

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

91.I’m so worried about …

In which writer Barry Carozzi laments the sharp decline in correct grammar usage.

Remember the old Monty Python song called ‘Worried’? It includes:

I’m so worried about my hair falling out.
And the state of the world today

Well – me too! Not so much about my air falling out. But I’m certainly worried about the ‘state of the world’ today – very worried. Everywhere it seems to be the way Yeats described:

Things fall apart, the center will not hold
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world.

And nowhere is that more apparent than in the use of language.

Now I know what they say: ‘When you start saying things like “It wasn’t like this in MY day” or “The young people of today …” – it means that you are getting old, that you’re becoming a curmudgeon!

Well, that may be true. However I can’t just stand idly by while our language is ripped to shreds, trampled in the dust and spat upon by linguistic barbarians.

That’s why I have decided to do my best to turn this tide of illiteracy, and to challenge my readers to put yourselves through the following test of your grammatical knowledge. I hope both of you do well.

Complete the test below, and then check your answers against the correct answers that I’ve provided. Don’t cheat.

Grammar Test

Here is a chance to check out what you already understand about grammar:

1. Grammar is an old lady. T F

2. An adjective is:

A an insult
B a word that refers to some aspect of a thing
C a goal or aim
D a person who adjects

3. Is there anything wrong with the following sentence? If so, what:

He wented to the shops to buy some milk..

4. What is wrong with the following sentence:

He completed his work quick.

5. Which of the following sentences is correct:

A The yolk of an egg is white.
B The yolk of an egg are white.

6. Is there anything you think is incorrect in the following sentence?
75 out of every 100 people who study grammar find it boring.

7. Would you want to change the following sentence in any way? If so, how?
I wondered lonely as a cloud.

8. Which of the following contains a simile?

A. I wondered lonely as a cloud. Y N
B. I am as parched as a parrot. Y N
C. Parched parrot rarely sing. Y N
D. He stormed into the room. Y N
E. She rarely laughs when the going gets tough. Y N

9. Can you see anything wrong with this sentence?

Personally, I myself can see nothing wrong with this sentence.

10. And what about this one?
Speeding along the road at least 80 km an hour, I was nearly run down a hoon, and had to step back on to the kerb.

11. Fewer people these days are making less and less money that they did in the past.
Are there any problems here?

12. What word is used to refer to the following kinds of statements?
There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.
Rolling stones gather no moss.
A rich man is everybody’s friend.

13. Does anything need to be done to this sentence?

If I was the Queen, I’d soon pull the Royal brats into line.

14. Anything to correct here?
Whilst you have dinner the tour guide will set out blankets in a good position.

15. From a report on cricket in a local newspaper. Any problems you can see?

Let it be known right now - if Hastings avoids relegation this season, it will be thereabouts in this division again in 2004.

16. The boy showed us his tickets someone gave them to him.
Anything wrong here?

17. At an early age his parents sent him to a preparatory school and this was followed by him attending Harrow School.

Anything wrong here?

18. In 1912, the passenger liner Titanic was struck by an iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Anything wrong here?

19. The beer will be marketed to over one million of the migrants now living in the United States in 12-ounce bottles, 24 to the case.

Anything wrong here?

20. And finally, bring your critical eye to bear on the following sentence. Anything wrong here?

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

And here are the answers

Here is a chance to check out what you already understand about grammar:

1. Grammar is an old lady. TRUE FALSE

If your answer was ‘TRUE’, either:
A. There is no hope for you. You are doomed to a life of illiteracy.
B. You are treating this TEST as a joke.
C. Your pen slipped.
D. The dog ate your homework.

The CORRECT answer is FALSE.
Grandma is an old lady.
Grammar is the study of the structure of sentences.

2. An adjective is: A an insult
B a word that refers to some aspect of
a thing
C a goal or aim
D a person who adjects

If you answered A, you were probably confusing the word adjective with the word INVECTIVE.
If you answered C, you were probably thinking of the word OBJECTIVE.
If you answered D, you were at least being creative.
If you answered B – ‘a word that refers to some aspect of a thing’ – you were correct, and get full marks.

3. Is there anything wrong with the following sentence? If so, what:
He wented to the shops to buy some milk.

ANSWER: Yes, there is. It should read:
He went to the shops to buy some milk.

Wented is not uncommon among young children, who think that you add ED to any verb to make it past tense. Sometimes they say:
I goed to the shops – which is also incorrect. Cut in a four year old, unforgivable in a literate adult.

4. What is wrong with the following sentence:

He completed his work quick.

Here’s the technical answer. ADVERBS are words that qualify VERBS – they ‘add meaning’ to a verb. The verb in this sentence is COMPLETED. An adverb ‘answers a question’ about the verb: in this case, how was the work completed. And the answer to that question is: quick – except that it should be QUICKLY.

5. Which of the following sentences is correct:

A The yolk of an egg is white.
B The yolk of an egg are white.

Don’t you love trick questions? The correct answer is NEITHER. The yolk of an egg isn’t WHITE – it’s YELLOW.

6. Is there anything you think is incorrect in the following sentence?
75 out of every 100 people who study grammar find it boring.

YES! There’s a style rule that says: Never start a sentence with numerals. If you want to get that idea across, you’d write:

Seventy five out of every hundred people who study grammar find it boring.

Numerals are okay in he middle of a sentence, but not at the start.

Eg. Out of every 100 people, 75 say hey find grammar boring.

7. Would you want to change the following sentence in any way? If so, how?
I wondered lonely as a cloud.

It should read:
I wandered lonely as a cloud …

(Mind you – a poet might well use wondered instead of wandered, and claim that it has merit as a metaphorical use of language. I wander? I wonder?

8. Which of the following contains a simile?

A. I wondered lonely as a cloud. YES
B. I am as parched as a parrot. YES
C. Parched parrot rarely sing. NO
D. He stormed into the room. NO
F. She rarely laughs when the going gets tough.

9. Can you see anything wrong with this sentence?

Personally, I myself can see nothing wrong with this sentence.

Well, maybe HE can’t … but I can. This is what is technically called a TAUTOLOGY. A tautology is a piece of unnecessary repetition. Of the following three sentences, the purist would say only the last one is correct:

Personally, I myself can see nothing wrong with this sentence.
I myself can see nothing wrong with this sentence.
I can see nothing wrong with this sentence.

10. And what about this one?
Speeding along the road at least 80 km an hour, I was nearly run down a hoon, and had to step back on to the kerb.

Who was doing the speeding? It sounds like it was the ‘I’ of the sentence. But we know it was the ‘hoon’.
Here are a couple of corrected versions:

Speeding along the road at least 80 km an hour, the hoon nearly ran me down a hoon, and I had to step back on to the kerb.

The car was speeding along the road at least 80 km an hour, and I was nearly run down the hoon driver, and had to step back on to the kerb.

11. Fewer people these days are making less and less money that they did in the past.
Are there any problems here?
NO. Technically this sentence works okay. It means that more people are making more money nowadays. But by couching it in a negative way – ‘fewer’, ‘less and less’ it’s a bit hard to read.

12. What word is used to refer to the following kinds of statements?
There’s many a slip twixt the cup and the lip.
Rolling stones gather no moss.
A rich man is everybody’s friend.
Each of these is a PROVERB – a wise saying or ‘saw’ or ‘adage’.
Did you take a backward step of the mind then – when I used the word ‘saw’. Well, it’s fine… the word saw is archaic, true, but it’s correct. An old saw is a wise old saying.
There you go. You learn something every day.

13. Does anything need to be done to this sentence?

If I was the Queen, I’d soon pull the Royal brats into line.

Lots of people make this error. The sentence should read:
If I were the Queen, I’d soon pull the Royal brats into line.

This is an example of what grammar buffs call ‘the subjunctive mood’. It means: I’m not making a statement about what really happened or happens; I’m making a speculative statement:, which is signalled by the word IF.
And if I WERE you, I’d be careful to watch my use of the subjunctive. That way everyone will be impressed by your literary good manners.

14. Anything to correct here?
Whilst you have dinner the tour guide will set out blankets in a good position.

YES. Whilst and while are NOT synonyms. They don’t mean the same thing – not at all.
WHILE is used in statements about time:
While you were brushing your teeth, I was driving to work.
While the sun shines, the day will be warm.
While I was away, somebody stole my watermelons from the vine.

WHILST in NOT about time. It is a logical device, used to introduce a distinction the writer or speaker wishes to make:
WHILST you vote Democrat, I vote Republican.
WHILST it is easy to be wise after the event, it is harder to come to a good decision in he heat of the moment.

15. From a report on cricket in a local newspaper. Any problems you can see?

Let it be known right now - if Hastings avoids relegation this season, it will be thereabouts in this division again in 2004.

The problem is that the ‘thereabouts’ doesn’t refer back to anything specific.
Maybe the writer could have written:

Let it be known right now - Hastings is at the bottom of the ladder it will be thereabouts in this division again in 2004, even if it avoids relegation this season,

16. The boy showed us his tickets someone gave them to him.
Anything wrong here?

YES. This is called a run on sentence. The writer hasn’t noticed that s/he’s run two sentences together. It should read:
The boy showed us his tickets. Someone gave them to him.

17. At an early age his parents sent him to a preparatory school and this was followed by him attending Harrow School.

Anything wrong here?

YES. It’s easy enough to fix:
At an early age his parents sent him to a preparatory school and later he attended Harrow School.
Now that was easy enough, wasn’t it.

18. In 1912, the passenger liner Titanic was struck by an iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean.
Anything wrong here?

An iceberg on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic? I don’t think so. It was the Titanic that was on its maiden voyage.
And the idea that the iceberg actually did the striking… It’s as though the iceberg was moving at great speed, and ran into the ship.
We would never say: A speeding car was struck by a pedestrian today.

Maybe it would work better as follows:

In 1912, on its maiden voyage across the Atlantic Ocean, the Titanic struck an iceberg.

19. The beer will be marketed to over one million of the migrants now living in the United States in 12-ounce bottles, 24 to the case.

Anything wrong here?
You bet your priceless heirlooms there is! Migrants living in bottles? Bus shelters, maybe. Parks, maybe. Disused pipes? Maybe. But not 12 ounce bottles!

20. And finally, bring your critical eye to bear on the following sentence. Anything wrong here?

The move from a structuralist account in which capital is understood to structure social relations in relatively homologous ways to a view of hegemony in which power relations are subject to repetition, convergence, and rearticulation brought the question of temporality into the thinking of structure, and marked a shift from a form of Althusserian theory that takes structural totalities as theoretical objects to one in which the insights into the contingent possibility of structure inaugurate a renewed conception of hegemony as bound up with the contingent sites and strategies of the rearticulation of power.

This piece of writing comes from a sociological textbook, and is written by a leading academic. It was the winning entry in the Bad Writing Contest in 1998. The Bad Writing Contest ‘celebrates the most stylistically lamentable passages found in scholarly books and articles published in the last few years.’
Good luck with your attempts at understanding tis piece. If enough people COMMENT on this article, I’ll devote a whole article to deciphering the deep meaning contained within this complex 94 word sentence.

90.A Meditation on the momentary origins of language

No matter how closely I monitor my stream of consciousness, no matter how vigorously in focus my attention on the moment-by-moment content of my conscious awareness, I can only begin to record a small part of the rich and constant flow of fleeting images and part-formed sentences and pulses of feeling/thinking that form its content.

An image forms - of a butterfly, cramped within its cocoon, laboriously eating and scraping its way out into the open, there to spread its wings and fly. But that’s not it; my ‘thoughts’ aren’t pre-formed. Just as the universe exploded into existence from virtual nothingness, to become what it is, so my sentences form. Gas clouds of fragments of feeling and intention coalesce to form words and phrases and sentences and paragraphs.

We seem to be a long way from describing this process, this event, with anything like scientific accuracy. Chomsky suggests some of the ‘mechanism’ that might be at work – a capacity, wired-in to our brains, that predisposes us to generate sentences (as embodiments of meaning or thought). But what prompts the ‘grammar machine’ into action. In this materialist view of things, who does the intending? How does this happen? How do I ‘intend to mean’?

You end up with an infinite regression. I can buy the neuroscientists’ account: that chemicals prompt the firing of synapses, that messages are carried to action-centres in the brain. But what sets the chemicals in motion in the first place?

89. Mariners and Wedding Guests

Narrative: the stories that demand to be told

A workshop for the Narrative Working group
September, 2007

IT is an ancient Mariner,
And he stoppeth one of three.

So begins one of the most famous poems in the English literary canon: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner. Three people are on their way to a wedding, when ‘an ancient mariner’ accosts one of them. This wedding guest is impatient to be on his way -he is the bridegroom’s next-of-kin, and he can hear the joyous sounds of the wedding in the distance. The wedding guest is also disquieted – even disturbed - by the appearance of the mariner:

"By thy long grey beard and glittering eye,
Now wherefore stopp'st thou me?

"The Bridegroom's doors are opened wide,
And I am next of kin;
The guests are met, the feast is set:
May'st hear the merry din."

He holds him with his skinny hand,
"There was a ship," quoth he.
"Hold off! unhand me, grey-beard loon!"
Eftsoons his hand dropt he.

The mariner takes hold of the wedding guest, who reacts strongly, demanding to be set free. The mariner lets go, but then ‘holds’ the wedding guest with his ‘glittering eye’. The wedding guest is powerless to move; he is in the thrall of the mariner. And so, the mariner begins his tale…

He holds him with his glittering eye --
The Wedding-Guest stood still,
And listens like a three years child:
The Mariner hath his will.

The Wedding-Guest sat on a stone:
He cannot chuse but hear;
And thus spake on that ancient man,
The bright-eyed Mariner.

The tale is of a journey to the south seas, where

… ice, mast-high, came floating by,
As green as emerald.

An albatross joins the ship, and at first it is greeted and well fed by the crew, who see it as a bird of good omen. It perches each day on the mast.. But then, the ship encounters foul weather, and the crew begin to blame the bird, seeing it as an ill omen.

There is a sudden break at this point in the mariner’s narrative; the wedding guest, in response to the mariner’s changed demeanour, cries:

"God save thee, ancient Mariner!
From the fiends, that plague thee thus! --
Why look'st thou so?" -- With my cross-bow
I shot the ALBATROSS.

The remainder of the tale is a narrative of the consequences of the mariner’s impulsive, destructive act. It is as though the fate of the whole ship’s crew is affected by this wanton act.

But why is it this particular wedding guest who is chosen to be the receiver of the story?

It is only at the very end of the tale that the mariner solves this riddle.

At the very end of the journey, when the ship is steered by supernatural forces, back to it country of origin, the mariner begs a holy man – a hermit – for forgiveness. The hermit demands of the mariner: what manner of man art thou? The mariner must give an account of himself, must tell his story, tell who he is:

"O shrieve me, shrieve me, holy man!"
The Hermit crossed his brow.
"Say quick," quoth he, "I bid thee say --
What manner of man art thou?"

The effect of this demand upon the mariner is dramatic; he is driven by a ‘woeful agony’ to tell his story, and only through the telling is he freed from its power over him. This need to tell the story afflicts the mariner from time to time; the ‘agony’ returns, and he must tell his tale again.

Forthwith this frame of mine was wrenched
With a woeful agony,
Which forced me to begin my tale;
And then it left me free.

Since then, at an uncertain hour,
That agony returns;
And till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.

I pass, like night, from land to land;
I have strange power of speech;
That moment that his face I see,
I know the man that must hear me:
To him my tale I teach.

This theme – that it is through the telling of our story that we find redemption, and inner peace – recurs in the history of literature. It is through the telling of stories that Sherharezade saves not only her own life but that of he husband, the shiek. (

There are two telling moments at the end of Coleridge’s poem. The first comes as the mariner ends his tale; it is the sound of the wedding party; the wedding is now over.

What loud uproar bursts from that door!
The wedding-guests are there:
But in the garden-bower the bride
And bride-maids singing are:
And hark the little vesper bell,
Which biddeth me to prayer!

For most of the time, we – like the wedding guest – have been held in the thrall of the story. Now, however, we are suddenly returned to the ‘real’ world, the world of the wedding guest. The wedding has ended; the other guests are exuberant, the bride and bride’s maids are singing, and the vesper bell has called people to prayer: to silent meditation and contemplation.

The second moment follows close on the first. The mariner’s tale is told, and he leaves. The wedding guest, the one who ‘could not chuse but hear’ the mariner’s tale, is left alone. He has now been freed, can no join the revellers in celebration of the wedding. But as ‘the chosen one’, he is now changed, and turns from the bridgegroom’s door.

The Mariner, whose eye is bright,
Whose beard with age is hoar,
Is gone: and now the Wedding-Guest
Turned from the bridegroom's door.

We can only conclude that he has other things on his mind. It is clear that the mariner’s tale has had a profound effect upon him, and the poem ends:

He went like one that hath been stunned,
And is of sense forlorn:
A sadder and a wiser man,
He rose the morrow morn.

The poem speaks, to my mind, of the sadness and wisdom that comes from a sober, philosophical assessment of the place of the spiritual in our lives. That beyond even those events that we regard as significant – such as the marriage ceremony, regarded as a sacrament, or a holy act, by the church – there are deeper truths, deeper levels of meaning, to do with ‘the good’, to do with ‘spiritual values’ and the ‘meaning’.

It also speaks of the power and importance of narrative, of story telling. There are tales that must be told, because they are at the very heart of what it is to be human. Some of these tales – the stories of the Holocaust, of the stolen generation, of the killing fields of Cambodia – are of deep significance to all humans, although they are also deeply disturbing.

88. A life long passion for Music

I’ve always loved music. Even when I was a little kid. Mrs Coventry lived next to us, her house separated from ours by a brick wall. She remarked to my mum that I was a very happy little boy; told mum how much she enjoyed hearing me sing when I was in the bathroom.
Mrs Coventry even offered to teach me to play the piano. But I was only eight years old, and I found the keyboard intimidating, and her instruction incomprehensible, so I gave up after one lesson. But I still loved to sing.

Get out of here with that BOOM BOOM BOOM
Before I call a cop

I’m looking over a four leafed clover
That I overlooked before

Besides, I wanted to learn guitar. Now THAT was a popular instrument. Every morning I’d listen to hillbilly music on the wireless: Smokey Dawson’s song, Riding, and Careless Love:
Love, oh love oh careless love.

As a young child – maybe 7 or 8 - I’d often wake in the morning to the sound of my father coughing up phlegm into the gulley trap - a result of his life long addiction to roll-your-owns - just outside my bedroom window, and to the strains of Old Shep on the wireless:

Just a boy and his dog
We were both full of fun
We grew up together that way.

I listened to the sad story of Old Shep being put down:

Old Sheppy, he knew he was going to go
For he reached out and liked at my hand
He looked up at me just as much as to say
We’re parting and I understand.

Now Old Shep has gone where all good doggies go
And no more with Old Shep will I roam
But if dogs have a Heaven, there’s one thing I know
Old Shep has a wonderful home.

Is it any wonder that my mornings were often tearful!

I wanted to learn guitar, but my parents could neither afford the instrument nor the lessons. Instead they enrolled me in the Victorian Banjo Club, and bought me a banjo mandolin. From that year of lessons, all I can recall is playing Lady of Spain at a huge concert at the Melbourne Town Hall:

Plunk plunk plunk plunk plunk plunk plunk-plunk

We played note-by-note. I didn’t enjoy it.

I had one more attempt to learn to play guitar. I was teaching English at Glenroy Tech, and asked the Music teacher, Ron Veal, if he could teach me to play. In was 1969; I was 26 and just married. Ron came around to the flat. He explained that I’d need to understand some basic theory. He began with chords, major and minor chords, moved on to fifths and sevenths and ninths. Ron was a lovely bloke, and he tried his best. But I couldn’t take it in. My eyes had glazed over in the first 10 minutes, and his explanation went for over an hour. Then he had me practice the notes, working my way down the strings. I gave up after one lesson.

In 1973 I was working in the Curriculum Branch of the Education Department, as a Technical School English consultant. In those days, all primary teachers were expected to teach Music, and to play a musical instrument. At Teachers’ College, they had the choice between the recorder, the melodica (a sort of wind-version of a piano accordion) and guitar. The Education Department also provided after school classes – at the Curriculum Branch.

Mike Hammerston, Graham Scott and I made enquiries. Yes, we could sit in, as long as we brought along our own guitars. I bit the bullet, and went out and bought a Yamaha G80. We rolled up to our first lesson. There were two or three teachers and maybe 80 learners.

‘By the time we’ve finished today, you’ll be able to tune your guitar, and you’ll be able to play a couple of songs,’ the teacher explained.

They taught us how to tune our guitars, and by the end of the session we’d not only learned two chords, but we’d been given song sheets that we could practice on: Cockles and Mussels, Skip to my Lou, lots of others.

Now THIS was the kind of teaching that I could respond to: hands on, sing along, straight-into-what-it’s-really-about teaching.

‘You need to practice at least 20 minutes every day,’ our instructor told us. I practiced for an hour, sometimes two. The next week, we learned a third chord.
‘You can now play about half the folk songs and half the popular songs ever written,’ our mentor told us.

He gave us more sheets, more songs we knew. I think I attended three lessons. The rest I learned through practice, and through trial and error. I bought songbooks, discovered that they had dozens of chords that I simply couldn’t play. I knew D-G-A7. These book had chords like F, Bb, Gb, Ab, B7 … Then I discovered the magic of transposition: that if the book said the chords were F, Bb and C7, you could transpose them – that is, change them into the equivalent chords that you COULD play. Thus F - Bb - C7 meant the same as D – G – A7. The difference was, I could play D – G – A7!

With three chords, the sky was the limit. All manner of songs became possible: Me and Bobby Magee (my favourite song at the time), Leonard Cohen’s Bird on a Wire, Happy Birthday … dozens – no, hundreds – no, thousands (!) of songs could now be added to my repertoire.

Not only that, I could slowly expand my command of chords. Em, Am, Dm and the like joined the basic chord progression D – G – A7. And I added some of the harder chords: C and F and B7. When you’re learning guitar, one of the hard things is being able to make smooth transition from one chord to the next.

Tom Dooley is a very simple song; it’s just two chords (D and A7). You have to play 12 Ds – that is, 12 strums on the D chord - followed by 16 A7s, and ending with 4 Ds. Once your fingers are in place, both D and A7 are easy to play. Once your fingers are in place!
When I first sang the song, accompanying myself on my Yamaha G80, it went:

Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Hang down your head and ……(chord change)……………………………cry
Hang down your head Tom Dooley
Poor boy you’re bound to …………(chord change)…………………. die.

How do you get to sing it in the same rhythm throughout, and without the long pauses to reposition your fingers?
Practice. It’s the only way. Consolidate the neural pathways through repetition. Practice till it becomes second nature.

I bought lots of song books, particularly collections of folk songs: Australian, American, English folk songs. During the late 60s – early 70s there was a resurgence of interest in folk songs. In America, groups like The Weavers – Pete Seeger was a member - and Peter, Paul and Mary were giving the traditional songs new popularity. In Ireland, Tommy Maken and the Clancy Brothers, and later, The Furies were reviving the Irish tradition. In Australia groups like The Bushwhackers and The Cobbers were riding a wave of interest in Australian and Irish folk music.

I learned to play guitar over 30 years – in 1973. My love of music and of singing haven’t diminished. Quite the opposite. I began writing songs in the late 1970s. These days I write one or two songs a week, on average. But that’s another story.

Monday, August 1, 2011

87. From my Archives: The Clerihew

A Clerihew is a humorous, pseudo-biographical quatrain, rhymed as two couplets, with lines of uneven length, more or less in the rhythm of prose. It is short and pithy and often contains or implies a moral reflection of some kind.

The clerihew was created by a person with the unlikely name of Edmund Clerihew Bentley - who obviously had far too much time on his hands [as well as having parents whose creativity in naming their children cannot be questioned].

The rules for the clerihew are simple enough: a clerihew consists of four lines - and only four. Lines one and two should rhyme with each other, and lines and four should also. There are no stipulations concerning how many beats there are to a line. Line one consists of the person's name; line two involves a generalisation about the person; lines 3 and 4 must rhyme, and further extend our knowledge of the person and their contribution to society.

Marie Antoinette
Is one we should never forget
She made the moral error the rich often make
Suggesting that if the poor have no bread, they should eat cake.

Bentley Clerihew
Undoubtedly understood a thing or two
About the creation of a new poetic form
And thus the clerihew was born

Sigmund Freud
Became more than a little annoyed
By women suffering from hysterial paraysis
Hence: psychoanalysis/

Patrick White
Wrote all right
And to some people’s surprise
Even won a Nobel prize

(Bryce Courtenay
Never gort any)

John Howard
Is no moral coward
It’s just that he’s read the Morgan Gallup poll notes:
Saying “Sorry” won’t win votes.”

John Laws
Deserves applause
Whenever he speaks, you know just where he stands
And just whose dollars he’s grasping in his hands

Alan Jones
Makes no bones
About getting righteously under the collar
If it will get him a dollar

Jesus Christ?
One of the nic’st!
In Jerusalem, Him and his 12 mates, so they say
Started the first YMCA

86. From my Archives: 2002 Writers & Words

I've always been fascinated by words. In 2002, when I was teaching Professional Writing & Editing in the TAFE system, I did a bit of thinking onthe page about words ...

A writer needs a good vocabulary, a huge mental dictionary and thesaurus to draw upon. As Readers Digest has long told us: it DOES pay to increase your word power. The more words we know, and the more we understand about the working of words, the harder it will be for others to dupe us or exercise their control over us; in a sense, our worlds are made of words.

We take our vocabularies for granted, of course, because the business of finding the words we want to use seems to come so easily. We call them up “at the point of utterance”, and – for the most part – we’re rarely lost for words. It is only when we watch young children learning the language that we begin to see the miracle that language is. Read Helen Keller’s account of the dramatic change that occurred in her life when she suddenly grasped the relationship between ‘the word’ and ‘the thing’, and we cannot help but be moved, can’t help but be struck by the huge significance of that first step.

How large is your vocabulary? How many words do you know? It seems a simple enough question – deceptively so. Loook a bit more closely, and you begin to see the complexity of it.

Let’s start listing words we know: cat, dog – two so far. Or is it? Take the ‘word’ DOG for example.

Sat first glance, dog seems straight forward enough. Dog (1) – one word. A noun. Refers to a quadruped mammal. As in the sentence: A dog barked at me this morning.

But what about the expression: to dog (2).
Misfortune seemed to dog my every step.

To dog is the infinitive form of a verb that means to follow persistently, to hound. Dog, the noun, is literal; dog, the verb, is metaphoric.

In another usage, though, dog (3) refers to the foot – as in the expression: My dogs are killing me. Builders use dogs (4) too; they are clamps used to ensure that floorboards are tightly packed when they are laid.

There is a slang usage too: to describe a person – usually a woman – as a dog (5), is to suggest that she is unattractive. Dog men (6) work at building sites, blowing whistles to attract the attention of crane drivers, helping to ensure safety on the job.

Are we dealing here with one word – or six? (Actually, there are many other meanings of the word ‘dog’ – just check out your Shorter Oxford!) Is a word simply a group of particular sounds associated with letters (in the written form): D…O…G together forming dog? What about meaning?

Is DOG one word or six or dozens? In other words, does a word in fact refer to the letters + the meaning. Thus dog (1) noun is one word, dog (2) the verb (as in ‘Misfortune dogs my every step) a second word, dog (5) meaning ‘an ugly woman’ a third word, and so on? Is a word a sound/letter/meaning clump?

And what about the various forms of the word – the various letter combinations that relate to the ‘sound/letter/meaning’ clumps? For example:

1. The dog barked at me.
2. The dogs barked at me.
3. Misfortune dogs my every step.
4. Misfortune dogged my every step.
5. Misfortune is dogging my every step.

Let’s explore this a bit further. By looking at another common word: school. When Mary takes her little lamb to school, we are quite clear about the mental image that the words conjure up: a girl, movement, a woolly mammal, and the school: a building, with teachers, children, desks, chairs, a principal, blackboards or white boards… the usual suspects.

Yet when we come across the sentence: ‘Fish swim in a school’ we certainly don’t conjure up an image of scaly creatures swimming around in a building, and surrounded by teachers, kids and blackboard dusters.

Clearly, there are two sound/letter/meaning clumps here. And if we look at the genealogy of these two words – in other words, if we look at their etymology - we discover that in their origins, they are as different as chalk and cheese.

School (buildings, kids, detentions) derives from Latin, and relates to the word scholar; school (the herd of fish) derives from a Dutch word, schule.

Thus, while their sound and letter elements are identical, their semantic elements – and their origins – are totally different.

It’s all very complicated. If we look back at the various DOG words, we can see that in some cases, the different meanings bear a metaphoric relationship to the original word. Dog began as a noun designating the canine species. Later, by metaphoric extension, dog came to be used as a verb, referring to ‘persistent following (remember: Misfortune dogs my every step). The metaphoric link is clear: just as dogs follow along behind their owner, so misfortune follows faithfully behind its unfortunate owner. Thus, the persistence of the animal DOG drifts into use as a verb. It is possible, too, to see how the dog man usage relates to the original word: just as a dog barks to warn of danger, so the dog man warns the crane driver of danger.

Dictionaries handle this problem of what is a word in a straightforward way. They distinguish between HEAD words, and the various forms of that head word. And the HEAD word (or base word) is the sound/letter/ meaning clump. Hence: dog – noun, quadruped mammal, member of the canine species is a HEAD word. Its derivative forms are: dogs (plural)

Dog – verb – to follow persistently, to hound – is a second head word; its derivatives are:
dogged, dogging, dogs, and so on – verb forms.
Doggedly – an adverbial form: as in- The detective doggedly pursued the criminal.)
Dogged – the adjectival form: as in – The dogged detective pursued the criminal.

This, of course, adds yet another dimension – that of grammatical function (ie. what part of speech the ‘word’ takes.

To know a verb means that we know it in its various forms. Do we count each as a separate word? Take our most common verb, the link form “to be”. Changing its tense gives us a hoard of different words:

I am sick.
I was sick.
I will be sick.
We are sick.
My dog is sick.
My dogs are sick.
My dogs were sick.
My dog isn’t sick.
My dog wasn’t sick.
My dogs weren’t sick.
My dogs will be sick.
And so on.

Do we count each of these various tense forms?
And what of various grammatical forms of words:
Noun imagination
Verb imagine
Adverb imaginatively
Adjective imaginative, imaginary
Dog eared is a separate (head) word. It is an adjective, referring to the turned down corners of a page of a book, which resemble the turned down ears of a dog.

To return to the beginning then. Counting up your vocabulary – the number of words you have available to you – is no easy feat. You need first to define what a word is, a complicated matter in itself. The problem has dogged me for years. Still, I’ve pursued it doggedly. It just goes to show, a writer’s life is a dog’s life!

85. From my Archives: Idiotisms

Idiotisms: howlers, bloopers and silly mistakes
The just plain stupid things we write and say

We’re all guilty of it at some time or other – we open our mouth and put our foot in it. These small human failings go by various names: howlers, bloopers, idiotisms. But whatever name we give them, these not so bon mots give rise to two reactions: embarrassment for the speaker (or writer) and riotous laughter for the listener or reader.

Radio and TV programs devoted to ‘bloopers’ – the name such errors have been given in those industries – chronicle he frailty of the human tongue – the capacity of news presenters, interviewers, actors and the like to get things wrong.

For many years, it was quite common for newspapers to print what were termed ‘schoolboy howlers’. Such articles often appeared in January newspapers, and were gleaned from the examination scripts of students who, in the heat of a two or three hour exam managed to get the pen in motion before properly engaging the brain. Gems like:

The rhythem of the Bible is usually unrhyming Diameters.

A metaphor is a thing you shout through.

And he said “What shall I do to inherit interal life?”

Poetry is when every line starts with a capital letter.

William the Conqueror was thrown from his horse, and wounded in the feudal system, and died from it.

There is sometimes a certain joy in seeing the pompous make fools of themselves publicly. Or almost anybody, really. Especially TV journalists. The well known TV Sports commentator, Sandy Roberts, produced one of the all time greats of the genre. At the Melbourne Cup, in around 1980, he stood up in front of the nearly 100,000 people at the race track, and an audience of millions of television viewers, to introduce the 1980 Miss Australia,a young women with the unfortunate name of Susan Dick. Sandy Robert’s managed to stun the nation, however, when he began:
“May I introduce the winner of the 1980 Miss Australia contest, Miss Australia herself: Susan Cock. "

Politicians, perhaps because they are in the public gaze so often, and are so prone to giving speeches, inevitably blunder from time to time. But Dan Quayle, the vice president of America in the early 1990s, managed to produce idiotisms on almost every occasion that he spoke publicly. Such was his outstanding achievement in this regard that a website has been established devoted to recording for posterity Dan Quayle’s unrivalled capacity to produce inanities. Here are a few:

Mars is essentially in the same orbit... Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.

I have made good judgments in the Past.I have made good judgments in the Future.

Peter Sellars once satirized poli-speak in a sketch which lampoons the pompous, ponderous pointlessness of much Party political propaganda:
“Let me begin by saying that I do not consider existing conditions likely. On the contrary, I regard them as matters of the gravest significance…”

The English language, in the hands – or rather, on the tongues – of non-native English speakers can give rise to some extraordinary word pictures.

84. From my Archives: The Battle of the Titans

Orwell said it in 1946 in his much-quoted article, Politics and the English Language: Most people who bother with the matter at all would admit that the English language is in a bad way …”

The Australian writer, Don Watson, writing in 2004, expresses a similar concern:
There have been signs of decay in the language of politics and academia for years, but the direct symptoms are in business; and the curse has spread through the pursuit of business models in places that were never businesses. Universities that once valued and defended culture have swallowed the creed whole. Libraries, galleries, and museums, banks and welfare agencies now parrot it. The public sector spouts it as loudly as the private does. It is the language of all levels of government ...

The American language commentator and writing guru, William Zinsser (Writing Well, Writing to Learn and many, many more), accuses White House aide to Tricky Dicky Nixon, John Dean, of one of the most significant achievements in the onslaught that bureaucrats have made on clear, concise English usage.

Fighting clutter is like fighting weeds. New varieties sprout overnight,and by noon they are part of American speech. John Dean holds the record. In just one day of testimony on TV during the Watergate hearings he raised the clutter quotient by 400 per-cent. The next day everyone in America was saying "at this point in time" instead of "now."

But John Dean’s achievements pale to insignificance when compared to the outstanding achievements in this field of Language Slaughter compared to perhaps the world’s two greatest exponents of the mangled sentence, the confused phrasing, and the production of meaningless drivel.

Let’s get the excuses out of the way first. Yes, people in the public spotlight for so much of the time are bound to make the occasional mistake. Often the are exhausted from the long hours they work. And even the most articulate person can say some pretty stupid things at times. These fellows are constantly having to think on their feet, constantly under the pressure of journalists’ probing questions. All of us are guilty of producing malformed sentences and the occasional meaningless comment or three. Is it any wonder these fellows make a few mistakes. AS one of our contestants once said:
When you make as many speeches and you talk as much as I do and you get away from the text, it's always a possibility to get a few words tangled here and there.
Dan Quayle

All of which is true. Except that you would think that, with all the practice they have had, with the minders there to feed them lines, and with ‘idiot cards’ to prompt them, they ought to do better.

Let the Battle of the Language Titans begin!

The contestants are:
In the Blue Corner, the ex-Vice President of America, Mr Dan Quayle.
IN the Ultra-blue corner, the current President of America, Mr George W Bush.
The contest is simple. Each contestant is required to provide at least one entry for each category. As readers, it is your task to decide who wins each of the 22 categories. The overall winner will be the one who wins most categories. Good luck!
And away we go:

The short, sharp phrase involving a newly coined word
Dan Quayle: I stand by all the misstatements that I've made.
George W Bush: They misunderestimate me.

Unconscious Irony
Dan Quayle: People that are really very weird can get into sensitive positions and have a tremendous impact on history.
George W Bush: Free nations are peaceful nations. Free nations don’t attack each other. Free nations don’t develop weapons of mass destruction.

The ‘I’m a little confused at the moment’ OR The “What on earth did he actually mean” category
Dan Quayle: Let me just tell you how thrilling it really is, and how, what a challenge it is, because in 1988 the question is whether we're going forward to tomorrow or whether we're going to go past to the -- to the back!

George W Bush: In my State of the … my State of the Union, or state … my speech to the nation, or whatever you want to call it, speech to the nation – I asked Americans to give 4000 years … 4000 hours over the next – the rest of your life – of service to America. That’s what I asked – 4000 hours.

Using a rhetorical principle to emphasise a point
Dan Quayle: When I have been asked during these last weeks who caused the riots and the killing in L.A., my answer has been direct and simple: Who is to blame for the riots? The rioters are to blame. Who is to blame for the killings? The killers are to blame.

George W Bush: The war on terror involves Saddam Hussien because of the nature of Saddam Hussien, the history of Saddam Hussien, and his willingness to terrorise himself.

Simplifying issues to their simplest
Dan Quayle: I believe we are on an irreversible trend toward more freedom and democracy - but that could change.
George W Bush: I made it clear that it’s important to think beyond the old days of when we had the concept that if we blew each other up, the world would be safe.

Largest number of grammatical errors in the fewest words
Dan Quayle: My friends, no matter how rough the road may be, we can and we will never, never surrender to what is right.
George W Bush: The illiteracy level of our children are appalling. Rarely is the question asked: Is our children learning?

Succinct words about illiteracy
Dan Quayle: Verbosity leads to unclear, inarticulate things.
George W Bush: Teach a child to read and he or her will be able to pass a literacy test.

Dan Quayle: The future will be better tomorrow.
George W Bush: I think war is a dangerous place.

Statements of the Obvious … 1
Dan Quayle: A low voter turnout is an indication of fewer people going to the polls.
George W Bush: More and more of our imports come from overseas.

Statements of the obvious …2
Dan Quayle: If we do not succeed, then we run the risk of failure.
George W Bush: This is historic times. I think we agree, the past is over.

Self disclosure
Dan Quayle: One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is `to be prepared'.
George W Bush: I glance at the headlines just to kind of get a flavour for what’s moving. I rarely read the stories, and get briefed by people who are probably read the news themselves. I’m also not very analytical. You know I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about myself, about why I do things.

Poetry and imagery
Dan Quayle: Every once in a while, you let a word or phrase out and you want to catch it and bring it back. You can't do that. It's gone, gone forever.
George W Bush: Families is where our nation finds hope, where wings take dreams.

The importance of emotion
Dan Quayle: The Holocaust was an obscene period in our nation's history. I mean in this century's history. But we all lived in this century. I didn't live in this century.
George W Bush: There’s only one person who hugs the mothers and the widows, the wives and the kids upon the death of their loved ones. Others hug, but having committed troops, I’ve got an additional responsibility to hug and that’s me and I know what it’s like.

Dan Quayle: If you give a person a fish, they'll fish for a day. But if you train a person to fish, they'll fish for a lifetime.
George W Bush: I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully.

Dan Quayle: We're going to have the best-educated American people in the world.
Reading is the basics for all learning.

The Environment
Dan Quayle: It isn't pollution that's harming the environment. It's the impurities in our air and water that are doing it.
George W Bush: We need a full affront on an energy crisis that is real in California and looms for other parts of our country if we don't move quickly.

Basic Numeracy
Dan Quayle: One word sums up probably the responsibility of any vice president, and that one word is `to be prepared'.
George W Bush: It's clearly a budget. It's got a lot of numbers in it.

George W Bush: I understand small business growth. I was one

Scientific Research
Dan Quayle: Mars is essentially in the same orbit... Mars is somewhat the same distance from the Sun, which is very important. We have seen pictures where there are canals, we believe, and water. If there is water, that means there is oxygen. If oxygen, that means we can breathe.
George W. Bush: Natural gas is hemispheric. I like to call it hemispheric in nature because it is a product that we can find in our neighborhoods.

Dan Quayle: I have made good judgments in the Past.I have made good judgments in the Future.
George W Bush: I think if you know what you believe, it makes it a lot easier to answer questions. I can't answer your question.

Use of Analogy and/or metaphor
Dan Quayle: Votes are like trees, if you are trying to build a forest. If you have more trees than you have forests, then at that point the pollsters will probably say you will win.

George W Bush: It's important for us to explain to our nation that life is important. It's not only life of babies, but it's life of children living in, you know, the dark dungeons of the Internet.

George W Bush: I have said that the sanction regime is like Swiss cheese—that meant that they weren't very effective.

Interesting new word uses
Dan Quayle: Illegitimacy is something we should talk about in terms of not having it.
Dan Quayle: We are ready for any unforeseen event that may or may not occur.

George W Bush: I thought how proud I am to be standing up beside my dad. Never did it occur to me that he would become the gist for cartoonists.

George W Bush: Gov. Bush will not stand for the subsidation of failure.

George W Bush: I've coined new words, like, misunderstanding and Hispanically.

To sum up
Dan Quayle: Public speaking is very easy.
The future will be better tomorrow.
I think we agree, the past is over.

83. From my archives: The Punishing Joys of Ambiguity

I've been browsing, of late, through old documents, old back-up discs ... now and then I find something that I wnat to hang on to, and share. This is one. It dates from my years of teaching Professional Writing & Editing at NMIT; I compiled it around 2006. Not all of it is orginal - it's composed of stuff I found here and there. But while not original, it is entertaining.

One of the great joys – and frustrations - of the English language is the way meanings can so easily slide about. In English, two and too don’t always make four. There are some lucky – and some not so lucky – coincidences that enable English people to pun around and find unexpected and pleasurable new meanings and associations hidden in seemingly straight-forward words and phrases.

If we look at just a few of the examples below, we can see all kinds of productive coincidences emerging.

A common comedic formula is the play on words named after the Reverend Spooner. Back in the 50s and 60s there were dozens of word jokes around based upon this confusion with the beginning sounds of key words. A couple of examples will make the point:

Q. What’s the difference between an engine driver and a school teacher?
A One trains the mind and the other minds the train.

Many of us will remember the old child’s rhyme: One potato, two potato, three potato, four. It’s the echo of that simple rhyme, and the unexpected punch line in the last word that makes One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor so appealing.

In the third example – there is a double echo going on. One hinges around the absence of prophets – of people with god-given powers to foretell events. The other, tucked away in there, is the profit/prophet connection, and the perception of profiteering by self proclaimed prophets who dupe people into make cash contributions to further the work of god on earth.

A fourth category arises when the logic or words leads us into an illogic of ideas. For example: If vegetarians eat vegetables, what do humanitarians eat?

1. Don't sweat the petty things and don't pet the sweaty things.
2. One tequila, two tequila, three tequila, floor.
3. Atheism is a non-prophet organization.
4. If man evolved from monkeys and apes, why do we still have monkeys and apes ?
5. The main reason Santa is so jolly is because he knows where all the
bad girls live.
6. I went to a bookstore and asked the saleswoman, "Where's the self-
help section?" She said if she told me, it would defeat the purpose.
7. What if there were no hypothetical questions?
8. If a deaf person swears, does his mother wash his hands with soap?
9. If a man is standing in the middle of the forest speaking and there is no woman around to hear him ... is he still wrong?
10. If someone with multiple personalities threatens to kill himself, is it considered a hostage situation?
11. Is there another word for synonym?
12. Isn't it a bit unnerving that doctors call what they do "practice"?
13. Where do forest rangers go to "get away from it all"?
14. What do you do when you see an endangered animal eating an endangered plant?
15. If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages?
16. Would a fly without wings be called a walk?
17. Why do they lock gas station bathrooms? Are they afraid someone will clean them?
18. If a turtle doesn't have a shell, is he homeless or naked?
19. Why don't sheep shrink when it rains?
20. Can vegetarians eat animal crackers?
21. If the police arrest a mime, do they tell him he has the right to remain silent?
22. Why do they put Braille on the drive-through bank machines?
23. How do they get the deer to cross at that yellow road sign?
24. Is it true that cannibals don't eat clowns because they taste funny?
25. What was the best thing before sliced bread?
26. One nice thing about egotists: they don't talk about other people.
27. Does the Little Mermaid wear an algebra?
28. Do infants enjoy infancy as much as adults enjoy adultery?
29. How is it possible to have a civil war?
31. If one synchronized swimmer drowns, do the rest drown, too?
32. If you ate pasta and antipasta, would you still be hungry?
33. If you try to fail, and succeed, which have you done?
34. Whose cruel idea was it for the word "Lisp"; to have an "S" in it?
35. Why are hemorrhoids called "hemorrhoids" instead of "asteroids"?
36. Why is it called tourist season if we can't shoot at them?
37. Why is the alphabet in that order? Is it because of that song?
38. If the "black box" flight recorder is never damaged during a plane crash, why isn't the whole airplane made out of that stuff?
39. Why is there an expiration date on sour cream?
40. Do baby ducks walk softly because they can’t walk hardly?

Saturday, July 30, 2011

81. Poem: Narcissus by the pool

Lay by the pool. He fell
Instantly in love with what he saw

He saw it was
Himself he looked upon.
He saw at once that it was very good.

A writer, too,
Stares incessantly
Into the pool of his own words

The writer
May well be accused
Of that sad boy’s unfortunate obsession

In truth though
He is watching eels and slimy things
Swimming among the water weeds below

Narcissus frowned
At ripples on the pond
Disturbing the beauty of his universe

The writer frowns
For the mysterious dark writhing eels
In the deep essence of the pool are

What is truly frightening

80. My Reading Life 10: Batavia, Norway and Lord of the Flies

There is a constant interplay between my reading life, my writing life and what we like to call ‘the real world’. Resonances, echoes, parallels.
I first read of the atrocities committed on the Abrolhos islands, off the coast of Western Australia, back in 1980, in a book called Island of the Angry Ghosts. The Dutch ship, Batavia, along with a small fleet of 8 other ships, sailed from Amsterdam in 1629 , bound for the Spice Islands. Their specific destination was the island of Java, and the city of Batavia – what we now know as Jakarta.
The Dutch had discovered that the most efficient way to reach the Spice Islands was to head in a south-westerly direction from Amsterdam – towards the east coast of Brazil, in South America – rather than heading directly south and following the African coast. For the going down the African coast and around the Horn was slow; ships could be becalmed for days, for weeks on end. Instead, the Dutch used the strong winds in those southern latitudes, around 40 degrees south – which were called ‘the Roaring Forties’ – to speed them across the southern Atlantic and then the southern Indian oceans.
Back in 1980 we were setting off on our own adventure – a trip around Australia. I had taken long service leave, and my then wife and I took our three children (aged 9, 7 and 3 at the time) out of school for four months to make the trip. I half planned to write a book about the journey. [My concept – which still seems to me a good idea – was to write a sort of resource book to help parents ‘home teach’ their children as they travelled around the continent – an activity that was quite common back then. As a result, I’d started reading books like Storm Boy, Colin Thiele’s account of a boy and his love for pelicans as he grew up in the Coorong region of South Australia. Parents could read Storm Boy to their children as they explored the Coorong on their long trek around Australia; the experience of the ‘place’ would be deepened and enlivened by reading this piece of literature, and the experience of the literature would be enhanced too. That was my aspiration.] It was this book-concept that led me to read Hugh Edwards’ account, Island of the Angry Ghosts.
So, back to the Batavia: the idea was – you caught the Roaring Forties, and raced along the 40th parallel at a cracking pace (of about 8 knots an hour), then – when the time seemed right – you did a left turn and headed northward to The Spice Islands. Even though boats following this route travelled further, they took something like six months less time to reach their goal. The route, however, did have its problems. The Dutch had already chartered some of the coast of Western Australia, and had maps that indicated that there were dangerous reefs along the coast of Het Zuidland – as the Dutch called the huge land mass that we call Australia. One particularly dangerous groups of reefs and islands were Houtman’s Abrolhos Islands; ships had run aground there before. The captain of the Batavia knew full well how dangerous the Abrolhos Islands were.
The Batavia was laden with gold and jewels worth an enormous amount of money. Francisco Pelsaert was the commander of the fleet, and was aboard the Batavia. He had been placed in charge by the Dutch East India Company (DEIC). The captain of the Batavia, Jacobsz, had begun to conspire with Jeronimus, another high official in the DEIC, to kill Pelseart, take over command, and steal all the gold. But Jacobsz made a serious error of judgement, and before the mutiny could be carried out, the ship ran aground and began to break up on the reefs of the Abrolhos. Around 250 people – sailors, soldiers, families going to settle in Batavia – were aboard the ship.
The Abrolhos Islands are desolate, windswept, and have no permanent supply of water. Jacobsz and Pelseart, along with 46 others set off in the longboat in search of water on the mainland. Finding none, they decided to set out for Batavia – over 1000 kilometres to the north - leaving the other survivors to fend as best they could.
While they were gone - for a period of over eight weeks - Jeronimus and his fellow mutineers systematically murdered dozens of their fellow survivors, in an horrendous reign of terror. A brief account like this cannot begin to capture the brutality and viciousness of Jeronimus and his followers.
One incident will suffice to give some sense of just how bad things were. Some five or six weeks into the ordeal, Jeronimus invited the pastor and his wife to dinner in his tent. The pastor thought this would be an opportunity to persuade Jeronimus to be more ‘humane’. Jeronimus welcomed the pastor and his wife, fed them well, offered them wine, and was a charming and amenable host. And while he entertained these two trusting, religious people, his thugs went to the pastor’s tent and slaughtered all six of his children, and threw them into a pit.
Of the 250 people on the Batavia, over 100 were murdered. The more attractive women were kept as sex-slaves; the older and less attractive women were murdered. Any men who showed dissent, or even independence, were killed. Only men who swore allegiance to Jeronimus, and who were able to work, were kept alive. Babies were poisoned, drowned, beheaded, or had their throats slit – Jeronimus could not stand their whimpering and so ordered their deaths; after all, what good were they? They did no useful work.
Fitzsimons’ book is almost 500 pages long. It seems to have been well researched, and Fitzsimons is dab hand at telling a good yarn. And this is a great yarn. As the cover says: ‘Betrayal. Shipwreck. Murder. Sexual slavery. Courage. A Spine-Chilling Chapter in Australian History.’ It’s one of those books you can’t put down; and the more you read, the more drawn into the story you become.

The initial real world resonance of this tale was with Auschwitz and the gas chambers of Nazi Germany. I recalled Tom Keneally’s book - Schindler’s Ark – and Spielberg’s film, Schindler’s List: there was about Jeronimus the same sociopathic disregard for other human beings. George Steiner once wrote about how one of the Concentration Camp Commandants would spend his evenings conducting dinner parties, where he would be charming company, and before going to bed would listen to classical music – some of the most beautiful music ever created. Then, in the morning, he would oversee the mass extermination of Jewish men and women and children. And Steiner asked, ‘How was this possible? How could the one man both listen to classical music and murder innocent people?’
One of the most striking things about Fitzsimon’s book is his recreation of Jeronimus. He was a man who people looked up to, were attracted to; he was – it seems – always plausible. How else could he have so deceived the pastor in such a cruel fashion.
The other real world resonance was with the horrific killings at Port Arthur in the 1990s, when the lone gunman – another sociopaths – shot dozens of people, and killed 35: Australia’s worst mass killing, in recent times, at least, although falling well short of the numbers of indigenous Australians who were massacred in the 1800s and the early 1900s by pastoralists.
The literary resonance was with ‘Lord of the Flies’. There are many parallels. Jeronimus was very much like Golding’s character Jack. Those who have read the novel (or seen the film) will recall Jack who had many of the qualities of a leader, but who was consumed by sociopathic emotions. Jack exerted his power by a simple process of ‘divide and conquer’, breaking Ralph’s leadership by creating a tribe of his own, and picking off his enemies one by one – Simon, Piggy ...
Perhaps the greatest hero of the Batavia was Willie Hayes, a man similar to Ralph in many ways. He was solid, a man of common sense and decency. His systematic leadership enabled the 50 people on the ‘Large island’ two survive and - though it’s a relative term – ‘prosper’.
Jeronimus’s strategy had been to sent Hayes with the other soldiers to reduce their influence. He also expected them to die there; he believed there was no water on the island. (As it turned out, there was an ample water supply.)
The ending of the Batavia story also has echoes of Golding’s book. Just as Ralph is saved at the last minute by the timely arrival of a boat and adult naval officers, so Hayes and his men were saved by Pelsaert’s return, just as Jeronimus and his thugs were about to storm the island.
Having woken early on a particular Saturday morning, I finished reading Batavia the last forty or so pages of the book. Thoughts of Jack and ‘Lord of the Flies’ and of and Jeronimus and the Batavia and the massacre of a hundred or more souls by this soul-less man were awash in my mind. I turned on the television for the morning news to hear of the massacre of almost one hundred young people on another island.
Donne wrote – ‘Do not send to ask for whom the bell tolls – it tolls for thee’. I’d just spent three days at a school Music Camp, and couldn’t help thinking: ‘What if some sociopathic ideologue, convinced that God had spoken directly to him and told him how he could right the world, had walked into the camp and shot children and teachers at will?’
Andrew Bolt’s immediate reaction was to write in his blog that the murders in Norway were the work of a Muslim terrorist. One can only hope that his discovery that the Norwegian was in fact a Fundamentalist Christian (!) might have caused Bolt to at least falter – for a step or two – in his blind march towards his own ‘truth’ – that the Christians are the good guys, the bad guys are the Muslims!
I’m increasingly convinced that the people we have most to fear are those who are utterly convinced that GOD is on their side. People like this Norwegian maniac. And the suicide bombers who daily trade their life on this earth for their rewards in heaven, and take out two or six or a dozen or more people with them.
For the tolling bell rings with at least two distinct tones. One is the tone that Donne recognised: no man is an island, complete unto himself, and the bell that tolls for the death of another is a reminder that that same bell will toll for us one day.
At the start of this year I showed my year 12 students the opening 20 minutes of Dead Poets Society. The new English teacher John Keating (played by Robin Williams) takes his class into the foyer of the school, where the photographs of the school’s ‘old boys’ are on display. He had Pitt, one of the boys, read a poem by the 16th writer Robert Herrick:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may
For summer is a-flying
And that sweet rose that blooms today
Tomorrow will be dying.

Pointing to the photographs, he tells his class that those ‘old boys’ were once like them, full of hormones, full of dreams and aspirations. But now, he says, they are ‘food for worms’. Because each of us will, one day, stop breathing, grow cold and die. We are all ‘food for worms’; which is why we must ‘gather rosebuds ... while we may’ – we must ‘seize the day’ and ‘make our lives extraordinary’.

But Donne’s bell rings with another tone too. It is the sombre note that underlies what Golding had to tell us in Lord of the Flies: that every one of us, every single one of us, has deep within us the capacity to murder, or to collude in murder – to turn our eyes away and pretend that it is none of our business. When Simon stumbles into the tribe’s wild incantation – “Kill the pig. Cut his throat. Spill his blood.” – there are almost no innocent by-standers. Not even Ralph. The tribe kills Simon, and Piggy and Ralph kick and scratch and tear just like the others. The other survivors on the island that came to be called Batavia’s Graveyard – and there was over one hundred of them – heard the screams in the night, but out of fear for themselves they did nothing. The townsfolk who lived in villages nearby Auschwitz and Belsen and the rest saw the smoke, could smell that human death was occurring, but turned their heads away, and said, in effect, ‘It has nothing to do with me’. John Howard knew that during his time in the parliament of Australia, Australian governments had persisted with a policy that involved taking indigenous children from their biological parents, but he still refused to say ‘Sorry’ to indigenous people because – he claimed- the dispossession of black people in Australia happened long ago. Just as the Labor government took no action when Indonesian troops massacred East Timorese rebels. Just are we allow children to be held in a concentration camp in one of Australia’s most inhospitable regions – Woomera. I think that one of the reasons that Howard does attract such bitterness is because – like Jeronimus, like Jack, like the Holocaust-deniers, like the Norwegian killer – he claims to be speaking while wearing the cloak of truth. When the ‘children overboard’ incident occurred – it was claimed that refugees who were passing their children over the side of a sinking boat to family members already in the water were actually ‘throwing their children overboard’ – John Howard not only insisted that this was so, that these were so inhumane that they were throwing their children overboard, and we don’t want people who would behave like that in OUR country – he continued to insist it was so even after he had been told by naval authorities that it was not true. And why – because he had been behind in the polls, and the polling was turning more and more his way every time he told that story!

The Catholic Church calls it ‘original sin’ – the darkness in the human soul, the capacity to commit atrocities or to condone atrocities, or to turn a blind eye to atrocities. We are, none of us, ‘an island unto himself’; we are all part of the promontory, we are all ‘tarred with the same brush’. Our common humanity, our common inhumanity.

In The Essential Gesture, a collection of essays, the South African writer Nadine Gordimer writes:

All that a writer can do, as a writer, is to go on writing the truth as he sees it ... his ‘private view’ of events , whether they be great public ones of wars and revolution or the individual and intimate ones of daily personal life.

Gordimer’s essays date from the Aparthied days in South Africa. She quotes Nietzsche: ‘Great problems are in the streets.’ She describes the reactions of her own tribe – white South Africans – at that time:
.. the gap between the committed and the indifferent is a Sahara ... Kindly and decent, within the strict limits of their ‘own kind’ (white, good Christians, good Jews, members of the country clubs....), the indifferent do not want to extend the limit by so much as one human pulse. Where the pretty suburban garden ends, the desert begins.
And when anything happens that might cause them ‘discomfort’, cause them to wonder whether ... could it possibly be that ... we are perhaps ... wrong ... the subject is dropped into the dark cupboard of questions that are not to be dealt with.
Now and then, I fall out of the habit of writing. After all, who reads this stuff anyway. Anybody? And if they do read it, what difference does it make?
But for me writing is, as Gordimer calls it, ‘the essential gesture’. It’s the one activity where I am not hiding behind charm or deceit or a mask or a laugh or a story or silence or kind words. It’s where I try to present and confront the truth as I see it. There is always the danger that this 'grappling to speak the truth' might be just another form of self-deceit, itself a kind of mask. And even if is an honest, unsullied gesture towards truth, it can never be any more than a partial truth, a temporary truth, a draft version of an outline of what I think. Like a potter with his clay on the wheel, the object – what I believe, what I think, what is truth - takes shape as I work on it. What sounds like truth at the time. Each sentence comes closer, or drifts further away, from a truthful statement. The pot I am throwing, the shape of the pot I am throwing, emerges as I work, and I know the enterprise can all too easily collapse – the pot’s shape can just fall way, and it becomes ugly, misshapen, not at all what it should be...
But it’s working on it that is the essential gesture.