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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.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

79. These are a few of my Favorite Things 2 William McGonnagall

The fumes of gas: McGonagall’s Legacy
A Primer in the writing of bad verse

Based on the inestimable work of William McGonagall – Poet and Tragedian
© Barry Carozzi, 2007

My copy of The Railway Bridge of the Silvery Tay, a collection of the poetic gems of William McGonagall, has a gold and red tartan cover. It has seen better days. It was published by Sphere in 1972. These days the edges of the pages have faded to a dun yellowy-brown.

The back cover blurb tells the reader that McGonagall was born in Dundee, in Scotland, in 1830, and goes on to say:

During his lifetime he wrote hundreds of poems – unanimously reckoned the worst poetry ever published! Nonetheless, McGonagall is widely read, his immortally execrable verse enjoyed by thousands of devotees.

I’m one. Spike Milligan was another. Since they were first published McGonagall’s poems have rarely been out of print. Google “McGonagall” and you’ll find thousands of entries; collections of most of his published poems are there for the reading.

Why is McGonagall’s poetry so popular? And why is it universally regarded as being so terrible?

Perhaps the following will help to answer both questions. The poem below comes from the conclusion of McGonagall’s ‘Brief Autobiography’ – which includes an account of how McGonagall tramped from Dundee to Edinburgh in order to offer himself as Poet Laureate to Queen Victoria.

I earnestly hope the inhabitants of the beautiful city of Dundee
Will appreciate this little volume got up by me
And when they read its pages, I hope it will fill their hearts with delight,
While seated around the fireside on a cold winter’s night;
And some of them, no doubt, will let a silent tear fall
In dear remembrance of

Where do we begin? McGonagall’s rhymes fall into two categories: they are either highly predictable – for example: delight / night, Dundee / me - or they are overly contrived: for example, a silent tear fall / William McGonagall.

Contrived rhymes of this kind can be used, of course, for comic effect; Byron creates quite a few in his epic poem Don Juan, my favourite of which is the following:

Now all ye lords of ladies intellectual,
Tell us the truth now – have they not hen-pecked you all?

In this case, the writer intends to make us groan; with McGonagall, his intent is serious – which is why it’s so funny.
Another feature of McGonagall’s rhyming schemes is best demomnstrated through an example. His poem, THE DEATH OF FRED MARSDEN THE AMERICAN PLAYWRIGHT, begins with the following quatrain:

A pathetic tragedy I will relate
Concerning poor Fred Marsden’s fate
Who suffocated himself by the fumes of gas,
On the 18th of May, and in the year of 1888, alas!

The only apparent reason for including the word ‘alas!” is in order to complete a rhyme with ‘gas’– it has no other function beyond that. And that is not a sufficient reason to include it.

Using the Mortein principle – ‘When you’re on a good thing …’ - he repeats this rhyme in the fourth stanza:

But when morning came his daughter said she smelled gas,
Then William, his servant, called loudly on him, but no answer, alas!

This is the other noteworthy feature of his rhyming: he repeats, both within poems, and across the range of his poems, the same terrible rhyme. Perhaps his favourite is Edinburgh / sorrow. In one of his best known and best loved poems, The Tay Bridge disaster, he writes:

When the train left Edinburgh
The passengers’ hearts were light and felt no sorrow

That’s enough about rhyme; on to rhythm! Every now and then, McGonagall surprises you by producing a whole poem in which the rhyming scheme is consistent throughout; it both surprises and disappoints, so used do you become of the limping, shambling, uneven rhythms of the majority of his verse. Read his … I earnestly hope … piece aloud. It’s always promising to adopt a regular rhythm, but it rarely does.

The next outstanding feature of his poetry is the almost total lack of metaphor or simile; these rhetorical devices were not part of McGonagall’s repertoire, it seems. Throughout the collection, the language style is (almost) unerringly literal.

More of that in a moment. On the rare occasion when McGonagall ventures into the dark jungle of metaphor, he inevitably returns with a cliché of the most banal kind. The opening stanza of A Tale of the Sea goes:

A pathetic tale of the sea I will unfold
Enough to make one’s blood run cold
Concerning four fishermen cast adrift in a dory
As I’ve been told, I’ll relate the story

McGonagall often provides details of time, place and dramatis personae. Here are some examples:

‘Twas in the year of 1815, and on the 18th day of June …

‘Twas in the month of October and in the year of 1889 …

‘Twas on January 22, 1901, in the evening she died at 6 o’clock
Which to the civilised world has been a great shock

This commitment to the literal is equally evident in both his narrative pieces (which usually deal with his disasters of one kind or another) and in is ‘celebratory’ poems ( often paeons to people or places). The Disastrous Fire at Scarborough is an example of the former:

‘Twas in the year of 1898, and on the 8th of June,
a mother and six children met with a cruel doom,
in one of the most fearful fires for some years past –
and as the spectators gazed upon them they stood aghast.

The fire broke out in a hairdresser’s, in the town of Scarborough
And as the fire spread it filled the people’s hearts with sorrow;
But the police and the fire brigade were soon on the ground,
Then the hose and the reel were quickly sent around,

Oh! it was horrible to see the flames leaping up all around
While amongsth the spectators the silence was profound,
As they saw a man climb out to the parapet high,
Resolved to save his life, or in the attempt to die!

There are also the poorly chosen words and phrases. In the ‘Dedication’ above, he writes that he hopes the people of Dundee:

Will appreciate this little volume got up by me

The ‘got up’ grates, doesn’t it? (I need to be careful here. For a long time I thought Dickens was guilty of grammatical incorrectness when he had characters saying ‘Don’t he?’ instead of ‘Doesn’t he?’, only to find that ‘Don’t he?’ was regarded as a perfectly acceptable construction in the 19th century.)

For those unfamiliar with McGonagall, I’ll quote the final stanza of The Tay Bridge Disaster. By this stage of his writing career, the poet is in full swing, and we see his artistry in almost pure form:

It must have been a terrible sight,
To witness in the dusky moonlight,
While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay.
Oh! ill-fated Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay,
I must now include my lay
By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side by buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses,
For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

The final two lines are worth noting; they are an example of something McGonagall manages to do with impressive regularity – he often concludes his poem with a moral injunction. They are his equivalent of the moral that comes at the end of a fable.

He concludes his epic poem, The Disastrous Fire at Scarborough, with the following:

Oh, Heaven! it is cruel to perish by fire,
Therefore let us be watchful before to our beds we retire,
And see that everything is in safe order before we fall asleep
And pray that God o’er us in the night watch will keep.

So that’s McGonagall:

* Insistent predictable rhymes (bray / Tay / lay / dismay / way / say );

* Poor rhymes that draw attention to themselves because the poet has failed so dismally and so transparently in his attempt to (buttresses / confesses);

* Sentence construction mangled in order to serve the requirement of rhyme:

While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray;

* Sentimentality, cliche and melodrama;

The fire broke out in a hairdresser’s, in the town of Scarborough
And as the fire spread it filled the people’s hearts with sorrow;

* Repetition that seems to serve no real purpose:

At least many sensible men do say
Had they been supported on each side by buttresses,
At least many sensible men confesses;

* A limping, staggering, slipping and sliding pattern of ir-rhythm;

* Unconvincing uses of personification:

While the Storm Fiend did laugh, and angry did bray,
Along the Railway Bridge of the Silv’ry Tay;

* The predominance of literal uses of language, and an almost unerring avoidance of metaphor and simile:

By telling the world fearlessly without the least dismay
That your central girders would not have given way,
At least many sensible men do say,
Had they been supported on each side by buttresses ;

* Banality clothed in the cloak of wisdom:

For the stronger we our houses do build,
The less chance we have of being killed.

This list of features constitutes a primer in ‘How to write very bad poetry’ – by courtesy of William McGonagall, Poet and Tragedian. One final piece of advice:

Choose your topic carefully. Deaths and other natural disasters and major accidents provide good starting points. Alternatively, choose a worthy person or place as the object of your poetic Muse. Then do as McGonagall did: allow the Muse to take over your being, and – Write! Write!

How do you do this?

Well, here’s McGonagall’s account of how he became a poet. It is extracted from ‘A Brief Autobiography’, which was ‘got up’ by him, and from which we could all learn a thing or three:

The most startling incident in my life was the time I discovered myself to be a poet., which was in the year 1877. During the Dundee holiday week, in the bright and balmy month of June, when trees and flowers were in full bloom, when lonely and sad in my room, I sat thinking about the thousands of people who were away by rail or steamboat, perhaps to the land of Burns, or poor ill-treated Tannahill, or to gaze upon the Trossachs in Rob Roy’s country, or elsewhere wherever their minds led them. Well, while pondering so, I seemed to feel as it were a strange kind of feeling stealing over me, and remained so for about five minutes. A flame, as Lord Byron has said, seemed to kindle my entire frame, along with a strong drive to write poetry; and I felt so happy that I was inclined to dance, then I began to pace backwards and forwards in the room, trying to shake off all thought of writing poetry; but the more I tried the more strong the sensation became. It was so strong, I imagined that a pen was in my right hand, and a voice crying, “Write! Write!” so I said to myself, ruminating, let me see; what shall I writer? Then all at once the bright idea struck me to write about my best friend, the Reverend George Gilfillan; in my opinion I could not have chosen a better subject, therefore I immediately found paper, pen, and ink, and set myself down to immortalise the great preacher, poet and orator.

A Poet’s Bad Verse Checklist


 Highly predictable rhymes
 Forced/ contrived rhymes
 Rhyming words included ONLY to complete the rhyme
 Repetition of the same rhyme


 Inconsistency of pattern
 Limping, staggering rhythms

Language features

 Uncommon/unusual sentence structure to serve the needs of rhyme
 Avoidance of metaphor and/or simile
 Use of literal language
 Unconvincing use of personification
 Regular use of cliché
 Melodramatic treatment of theme
 Sentimental treatment of emotion
 Banal moralism
 Repetition of lines within the poem, to no apparent artistic purpose

Heroic Themes
 Heroic themes or characters

The Bad Verse Checklist should assist poets in producing poorly written poems, in much the same style as McGonagall. Whilst it’s unlikely that we can emulate the achievements of the acknowledges master of bad verse, we can but try.
I’ll end with McGonagall’s ‘Farewell Address’:

Fellow citizens of Dundee.
I must now bid farewell to ye.
For I am going to London far away.
But when I will return again I cannot say.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

78. "These are a few of my favorite things... 1. SMUTTY THINGS

Among my favorite things is witty smut – or, if you prefer it, smutty wit. There’s something about the very word itself - smut – that I like. Smut, the computer dictionary informs us, refers to ‘dirt’, and goes on, in poetic vein, to say:
‘Lewdness and rudeness, immorality ...’

Smut is generally seen as ‘schoolboy’ humour, involving an immature preoccupation with farting, naughty parts of the body and vulgarities of various kinds. It has much in common with sleaze – which is also defined in terms of ‘baseness, sordid details and unpleasantness’. Smut is not everybody’s cup of tea. It often meets with ‘tut-tutting’ and with a pursing of lips. But to me there is a certain healthy earthiness about smut.

And in these days of rampant political correctness, smut is especially on the nose. Sometimes I feel great nostalgia for those days of simple pleasure, when the mildest of expletives were greeted with a drawing of breath. Back in my Methodism-dominated teenage years, during the early- mid 1950s, we used to sing a song about three wise men:

They all went down to Jericho, They all went down to Jericho
Jeri – Jeri – cho –cho – cho, Jeri – Jeri – cho –cho – cho
They all went down to Jericho

They should have gone to Amster-Shh, They should have gone to Amster-Shh,
Amster – Amster – Naughty word, Amster – Amster – Naughty word,
They should have gone to Amster- DAM!

I recall the frisson of pleasure that accompanied the singing, nay shouting of that final word. Oh we were such radicals in those days! Forget about four letter words – you know the ones I mean. Words like bum, dam and bloody were swear words. The moment in Pygmalion when Eliza is at the races and screams at a horse to ‘Move yer bloody arse!’ was considered a serious breaking of barriers, a radical breach of decorous behaviour – and even when the film My Fair Lady was shown in the late 1950s it created a stir.

For those were the days when there was no sport on Sundays, when pubs were required by law to cease serving alcohol at 6 o’clock, when it was unacceptable to use ‘bad language’ or to tell ‘off jokes’ in the presence of women, and when the Deputy Premier of Victoria judged the suitability of books for public consumption in terms of whether he would want his teenage daughter to read such material!

As the ‘My Fair Lady’ incident suggests, by the late 50s things were starting to move – but very slowly. We considered ourselves to be pretty radical when we recited the poem The Bloody Orkneys:
This bloody town’s a bloody cuss
No bloody beer, no bloody bus,
And no one cares for bloody us
In the bloody Orkneys.

In the early 1960s the TV presenter Graham Kennedy was banned from television for a period of three months because he impersonated a crow’s call on national television.
‘I heard a crow calling as I came here tonight ...’ said Graham.
‘How did it sound?’ asked his straight man.
‘It went: Farrrrrrrrrrrrkkkkkkkkk!’

And then, of course, there were limericks. Smut and the limerick are willing bedfellows. As some sharp witted observer once sharp wittedly observed: ‘There are two types of limericks: the ones that are smutty, and the ones that are not. And the ones that are not smutty are also not funny.’

This is not actually true. There are some very funny limericks that were also quite free of vulgar allusion. I recall sitting with my then wife in a tent in the camping grounds of Buchan Caves in East Gippsland. We were on our honeymoon, and it had been raining all night. It was wet and cold and miserable. We were listening to 3LO - the ABC morning program – hosted by Peter Evans at that time. Evans was a very funny man, and often shared jokes and ditties and limericks with his audience. The limerick that day remains in my memory today, almost 45 years later:

The Lord of Thunder went out one day
To ride on his favourite filly,
“I’m Thor,” he cried
And the horse replied
“You’ve forgotten you thaddle, thilly."

Not all limericks were fit for the ears of older Methodist ladies, however. For years my favourite smutty limerick concerned a certain plumber:

There was a young plumber from Bree
Who was plumbing a made by the sea
Said the maid, ‘Cease your plumbing.
I think someone’s coming.’
Said the plumber, still plumbing, ‘It’s me.’

As a child, of course, I was expected to be seen and not heard; that was the way of it in those long gone days. We were expected to be respectful and respectable. When I was around 11 I used a forbidden word and suffered the consequences. We had two men who boarded with us through most of my childhood and adolescence: Mr Pearson, whom I liked, and Mr Pitfield, who was stand-offish and whom I didn’t much like. They shared a tiny bungalow at the back of our house. On one memorable occasion when I was feeling put-down by Mr Pitfield, I expressed my displeasure. Not to his face, of course; just to my parents:
‘He’s a POOFTER!’ I exclaimed.
Now, I had no idea what the word meant – or rather, I had no idea of it’s homosexual connotation; I thought it was a word you used to describe somebody you really didn’t like. My mother washed my mouth out with soap and water; and it was Velvet soap, at that – the soap she used for the clothes washing.

There was much about the adult world I didn’t really understand. We used to go to parties in the home of a friend of my parents; I think their name was Miller, and they lived in the newly settled suburb of West Preston. At some point the adults would start singing. Their favourite was a popular song of the time:

Oh dear – what can the matter be?
Dear, dear, what can the matter be?
Oh dear – what can the matter be? Johnny’s so long at the fair.

He promised he'd bring me a bunch of blue ribbons.

He promised he'd bring me a bunch of blue ribbons.
He promised he'd bring me a bunch of blue ribbons.
To tie up my bonny brown hair.

Which seemed a harmless enough song. They would then move on to a parody. We children were allowed to stay for the chorus only, and then we would be told to leave, to ‘go outside and play’. Which, of course we did. The chorus went:

Oh, dear, what can the matter be,
Seven old ladies were locked in the lava'try,
They were there from Monday till Saturday,
And nobody knew they were there.

I was in my 40s when I finally discovered why we were excluded. It turns out that this was a bawdy ballad. I discovered some 20 or more verses in a collection of bawdy ballads. A couple of the less vulgar went …

The first old lady was 'Lizabeth Porter,
She was the deacon of Dorchester's daughter,
Went there to relieve a slight pressure of water,
And nobody knew she was there.

The third old maid was old Ms. Humpfrey,

She sat so long she could not get her bum free,
She said 'I don't care for I am quite comfy',
And nobody knew she was there.

Needless to say, some verses were very vulgar indeed. A simple google search these days will turn up hundreds of verses.
In my late 30s I came across a collection of Australian smut entitled ‘Snatches and Lays’, which drew together some of the legendary items of smut: The Good Ship Venus, Eskimo Nell, The Woodpecker Song ...

None compare, however, with the earthy humour of Chaucer – in particular The Miller’s Tale. For those who don’t know The Miller’s Tale, it is a farce concerning sex and deceit and farting. The narrator’s introduction to The Miller’s Tale provides the best apologia for smut and bawdiness. He warns us:

And of this Miller, what more can I say
He would not spare his words for any man
He told his churl’s tale in his churlish way
And I regret I must repeat it here
And therefore if you do not wish to hear it
Turn o’er the leaf and choose another tale
And do not blame me if you choose amiss
The Miller was a churl – I’ve told you this
And I would ask – on me don’t place the blame
For after all these tales are but a game

I make no excuse. I like earthy humour, and if – dear reader – you fear that what follows might cause you distress, read no further. Like the narrator of the Canterbury Tales, I have warned you. Read on at your own peril.

I would like to share TWO poems that I count among my favourite things. I discovered the first only recently. It is by the Australian novelist and poet Peter Goldsworthy. This poem comes from his book, New Selected Poems, published by Duffy & Snellgrove, 2001.

What Little Boys are made of

In the beginning,
God finished

Wiped His Hands
On a damp cloud,
And breathed Life into Man

Man didn’t breathe back
Worried, God checked
the Instructions,
found he’d left the tail
inside the box

Hastily, recklessly
God glued it
On the wrong side

Man was born
His tail wagged
at the sight of Eve
and God was already forgotten.

My final poem, Jabberwocky Revisited, is by Ralph Tyler, and appears in a fine collection called The Ecstatic Moment , edited by Marianna Beck and Jack Hafferkamp and published by bantam, 1997.

Jabberwocky Revisited

Twas brillig in that cheap hotel
The looking glass had cataracts
All mimsy were the bureau drawers
The paper was a glimpse of Hell
“Come to my arms, my beamish boy,”
Her scarlett mouth invited him
He felt it to his slithy toves
Now hidden by his jocket shorts
She fell upon the lumpy sheets
And took his vorpal sword in hand
He chortled in his joy.
He found her frumious bandersnatch
O frabjous day! Callooh! Callay!
They gyred and gambled in the wave
Of sweat-stained sheets and coverlets
And burbled as they came.

Friday, July 8, 2011

77. Reflections on the process of Writing

Analogies of the Writing process

Alluvial gold mining

Sighting a terrain that was potentially gold bearing, the miners would ‘test’ their theory; they’d pan for gold in the nearest creek. If there was a sign, they would stake a claim and begin digging a shaft. They often worked in pairs, taking turns; one would dig in the shaft, and fill the bucket with the soil and gravel; the other would operate the windlass, winding up the heavy bucket and tipping the dirt onto a pile. It was hard work, digging deep in the ground, in that claustrophobic space. Once they’d dug a large quantity, they would start sifting through the dirt. They would take the dirt, one pan full at a time, down to the water, and pan for gold.

They was a great deal of dirt that would be useless – especially the dirt that came from above the gold bearing strata; that would be simply left behind, forming a mullock heap. (Mullock is one of my favourite words; why, I don’t know, except that I used to enjoy wandering around mullock heaps in Ballarat when we visited Uncle Gordon. I recall, too, finding an old, abandoned windlass in the scrub near Ballarat, when I went on a Scout camp there in the mid 1950s.)

The analogies with writing are clear enough. The writer mines his mind, digging up the contents of memory and imagination, and then sorting through the pile in search of the gold. Writing, like alluvial gold mining, takes place in two major phases. First, there is the collection of the raw materials, as the writer digs up all she can. This can be demanding work; it can be heavy going at times. But once a sizable mass of material is collected, the second phase can begin: the sorting and refining phase that we call editing. Here, the gold is separated from the mullock.

The Water Bore

The second analogy is the water bore. At Sandy Point, where we owned a holiday shack back in the 1970s, the Hendersons came and “put down a bore”. It took them a day to dig the bore. They had to dig down until they had found the water table: that level where water is readily drawn out of its surrounding shale environment. Once the bore is in place, a relatively small pump will provide sufficient energy to draw up all the water you might need. Once the bore is put down, and a pump is in place, the water flows. Each time the bore is stopped, it needs to be primed; the flow needs to be re-established. If the bore lies idle for a lengthy time, it can become blocked.

Again, the analogies with writing are clear. The underground source of material – memory, imagination, the unconscious – is almost infinite. As Malouf once observed, the first twenty years of our lives provide us with sufficient material to fill three lifetimes of writing. We have lots to write about. Once we get underway, once we tap that huge reservoir, once we have flow, the writing simply emerges. The trick is to establish flow each time we put pen to paper, or set our minds and fingers working on the keyboard of our computers.

The Mullock Heap/ The Storage Tank

The dirt and gravel gets piled up on a mullock heap. The water from the bore can be stored in a tank.

Once you've dug up the gold-bearing ore - once you've got the flow of water established - you have to store the stuff somewhere.

That's where the Writer's Journal comes in.

The idea of the Writing Agenda is to provide us with a storage area for our writing - for our false starts, our snippets of conversation, our plot outlines our outlandish ideas.

It's also a place where we can keep notes about OTHER PLACES where gold might be found.

I keep a WRITING AGENDA, and keep adding to it, as possible topics and projects slip into my mind. My WRITING AGENDA provides an endless supply of things to write about. And each piece we write throws up more items for our Writing Agenda, so that the growth is exponential.

Sample from my Writing Agenda

  • The Boy Scout camps I attended: left handed hammers and tartan paint

  • The hike to Arthurs Creek with Tom

  • The fog in Melbourne – coming home from Scouts

  • Moments of embarrassment: somersaults; farting in cubs

  • Working at Royal Park

  • Geology classes at Taylors, 1959

  • Dutch classes at Taylors, 1960

  • Uncle Ken’s house

  • Aunty Iris’ house

  • Aunts, Uncles, Cousins, Neighbours and Friends of the family

  • Swimming with the Kippings

Springs and Alluvial Gold

Whichever analogy, whichever metaphor we use to characterise the writing process, the notion is fairly clear: the writer taps the flow of consciousness, dips into the stream of consciousness and works with what emerges. It is not simply a “taking from”; what is drawn out is also changes in the process. Image, snapshot, memory, misty feeling/ thought, vague recollection is reworked. The idea is formed at the point of utterance; that was how John Dixon put it, yet that is not right either. The idea does “exist” in some form; indeed, part of the business of writing is to match the words on the page with the thought in the head, while asking the question: Have I said what I meant? Have I said what I seem to have meant, what I think perhaps I meant?

Our writing emerges out of the swirling currents of thought and feeling and intention, and takes form on the page or screen. This is Klauser’s Ariel in operation. Out of the Right Brain comes a seemingly endless stream of images, ideas, memories, speculations, all feeling-laden and motive driven … once we have tapped the stream and got them down on paper, we can then bring the Left Brain into operation. We bring our critical intelligence to bear. We can “interrogate” our own text: Does this make sense? Is it well ordered? Are our conclusions supported by evidence? Do our characters seem real?

Klauser argues for “writing on both sides of the brain” – for clearly recognising when we are in imaginative mode, and when we are in editing mode. She presents writing as a product of both sides of the brain working in cahoots. First Right, then Left, the Right and so on…

Writers march to a different beat: Left, Right, Left, Right ... and so on until the manuscript is finished and edited and sent off for publication...

76. On Bill Bryson

Bill Bryson is one of my favorite writers.

I found this extract in my journal for 2004. At the time I was reading Bryson's A Short History of Everything. Bryson was relating the story of a fellow called Midgely who was a great inventor who was possibly the most dangerous scientist/technologist of the 20th century. His first achievement was to add lead to petrol. It stopped engines from knocking, but killed hundreds. As Bryson observes, the removal of lead from all petrol was legislated in America in 1986.
Almost immediately lead levels in the blood of Americans fell by 80 per cent. But because lead is forever, Americans today have about 625 times more lead in their blood than people did a century ago.

Midgley’s other great contribution – as Bryson points out, Midgely's “instinct for the regrettable that was almost uncanny” – was the inventions of chlorofluorocarbons, which have done enormous damage to the ozone layer, thus ushering in an era of global warming that could compromise the planet’s capacity to sustain life.

Bryson on the quantum world is no less fascinating. He has this to say about the size of atoms:
Half a million of them lined up shoulder to shoulder could hide behind a human hair. On such a scale an individual atom is essentially impossible to imagine, but we can try of course.

Start with a millimetres, which is a line this long: -

Now imagine that line divided into a thousand pieces with equal widths. Each of these widths is a micron. This is the scale of micro-organisms. A typical paramecium, for instance – a tiny single-celled, freshwater creature – is about 2 microns wide, .0002 millimetres, which is really very small. If you want to see with your naked eye a paramecium swimming in a drop of water, you would have to enlarge the drop until it was twelve metres across. However, if you wanted to see the atoms in the same drop, you would have to make the drop 24 kilometres across.

… That’s the scale of an atom: one ten-millionth of a millimetre.

Add to that observation the fact that atoms are composed largely of empty space – that the nucleus of an atom is equivalent in size to a pea in a huge cathedral (or, to use the other analogy I picked up somewhere: the size of an orange, suspended in a cube that is 60 kilometres in each dimension). Atoms are, in fact, a whole lot of nothing; they are composed largely of empty space. How do “we” know this? When scientists fired particles at a sheet of foil, most went straight through, but some bounced back.
Bryson also refers to Sagan, another of my favourite science writers:

Carl Sagan in Cosmos raised the possibility that if you travelled downwards into an electron, you might find that it consisted of a universe of its own, recalling those science fiction stories of the 1950s. ‘Within it, organised into the local equivalents of galaxies and smaller structures, which are themselves universes at the next level and so on forever – and infinite downward regression, universes within universes, endlessly. And upward as well.’

For most of us it is a world that surpasses understanding.

And yet? And, so? Where does leave us? What does that mean for meaning? What is the point of our consciousness, of our knowing these things are possible? Would we be better off without our cerebral cortex, living our lives as dogs live theirs, driven solely by various drives – to eat, to procreate, to bury bones to make them more edible…? And if all this is possible – if this world of quarks and such is at least possible, even likely, why not reincarnation, past life regressions, crystals that change the vibes?

The 21st century is the century of doubt, like most of the 20th century.

75. Going to the Saturday Flicks

The Grand, The Plaza and the Progress

During the years of my childhood – from the mid 1940s until the early 1960s - Coburg supported four picture theatres: The Grand, The Plaza, The Tasma and The Progress. The Grand and The Plaza were both in Sydney Road, and less than one hundred metres apart. Of the four, the "Grand" was the most impressive. It offered the choice of "Front Stalls", "Back Stalls", "Dress Stalls" and "Lounge" and a “Mothers’ Room” where mothers could take their crying babies so as not to disturb the enjoyment of other patrons, but still be able to see and hear the movie. Like the city theatres, The Grand had a kiosk. And it had lolly-boys, who took up their positions just before interval. At one stage, it even had an organ playing prior to the film.

The lolly boys were clad in red uniforms and military hats; they carried trays held around their necks by a leather strap on which were displayed a range of ice creams and lollies.
"Ice - dixie ice", they called. Dixies were small cups of vanilla ice-cream with a small wooden spoon, produced by either Peters (“The health food of a nation”) or Sennits, whose trademark was a polar bear.

"Lollies - choc................ lates," they called. There were Jaffas, Violet Crumbles, Cadbury's Dairy Milk, Milk Shakes, and, of course, Fantales. The Plaza, like the Grand, was also of the standard of the city theatres.

Suburban theatres like "The Grand" and "The Plaza" were entertainment centres for families in pre-television days. My parents had a permanent booking at the "Plaza" each Friday night, for quite a while, despite the fact that we were quite poor; this was perhaps the one small luxury of our lives.

Brunswick was served by at least three theatres: "The Padua" - which was a truly grand and impressive theatre, and two lesser theatres, "The Empire" and "The Alhambra". Of Coburg's two other theatres, I never actually went to the "Tasma"; on the other hand, I regularly frequented the "Progress" theatre. The Grand, The Plaza and The Progress were all within ten minutes walk of our house in Reynard Street. Much smaller than the other two, the Progress was also considerably less luxurious, and was given more earthly appelation of either "The Flea House" or "The Bughouse". Whether these names were deserved or not, I don't know, but whilst the Plaza and Grand boasted lush carpet, the Progress had bare boards; whilst the Plaza and Grand could each house over five hundred people, the Progress was bursting at two hundred; there was a small kiosk at the Progress, where you were shoved and jostled in your quest for Fantales, a cup of cordial, and a dixie, as compared to the orderly that which waited patiently for service from the resplendently dressed lolly-boys.

In those days, films took well over a year to reach Australian circuits after their release in Hollywood or in England. Then, they would be shown in one of the major city theatres: the State, the Capitol, the Odeon, the Regent ­ and would then do the rounds of the major suburban theatres, like the Padua, the Grand, and the Plaza. After that they would be shown in the lesser suburban theatres, like the Progress and Tasma - so that the Progress showed only either the fifties equivalent of re-runs of repeats, or very low grade films which none of the more reputable theatres would show.

As I approached adolescence, the pictures were the highlight of the week for me, especially the Saturday afternoon matinee. The queues outside the Grand and the Progress, ­ the two theatres which ran matinees, would begin to form at one o'clock, and by opening time, at two, hundreds of children would be there. If a popular film was on the bill, it was not uncommon for large numbers to be turned away.

I recall the bitter experience of being only three places from the front of the queue for a tremendously popular film­ - I don't now recall what it was - when the "Sorry – Full House" sign went up. At least one hundred kids were turned away that day - such was the popularity of the matinees.

They were good value, too. For your sixpence you got to see a full program. To begin with, there were always the Val Morgan and Sons advertisements, which were flashed onto the screen to the accompaniment of the Wurlitzer organ. Organists were regular featured at all of the larger theatres, and they would play prior to the program, during the ads, and during interval. Then came the cartoons: usually three or four, with Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse, Goofy, and so on. The full-length supporting film came next, followed by the serial. I think it was the serial, more than anything else, that kept me attending week after week; they were certainly as important as the main features, as far as I was concerned. The formula for each episode was, I now recognise, very simple:

They would begin by repeating the final minute or so of the previous episode, which showed our hero (Superman, or Batman and Robin, or Sir Galahad – whoever …) in an inescapable trap, facing certain death. A car plummeted from a cliff top to the rocks and sea below, and our heroes tied hand and foot inside; or Superman, weakened by kryptonite; or - the great suspence cliche' of those times: ­ Batman and Robin trapped in a room by some mad scientist, and the walls closing in to crush the life from them.)

Their incredible escape, usually not terribly convincing, was then enacted, after which the plot would gradually unfold for ten minutes or so, building up at the very end to a new suspenceful conclusion - invariably facing our hero yet again with certain death!

"Is this the end for Batman? And what of Robin, trapped in the snake pit by the dreaded Black Fang? Don't miss next week's spine-tingling episode "

Then came interval, and after interval, one or two cartoons; and then the full-length main feature. Alan Ladd and Zacchery Scott still ride across the prairies of my childhood reminiscences, for that was the era of the cowboy westerns: Hopalong Cassidy and his aide-kick California; Tom Mix; Gene Autry; Roy Rogers and Trigger; and of course, The Lone Ranger and Tonto - with a hearty "Hi. - Ho Silver". These were the hero figures of my childhood.

In a way, they were all like Superman; they all fought for Truth, Justice, and the American Way; and if they couldn't leap tall buildings at a single bound, or be faster than a speeding bullet or more powerful than a locomotive, they certainly "came to earth with powers far greater than mortal man." For then, there was none of today's moral ambiguities - there was Right, and there was Wrong. Before our eyes, on the magical silver screen, the eternal struggle between Good and Evil was enacted, with Good ever victorious. Apart from the Westerns, comedy films, usually with "dynamic duos" such as Laurel and Hardy, Dean Martin and Jerry Lewis, and Bud Abbott and Lou Costello were great attractions.

Equipment breakdowns were quite common, especially at the Progress, and would be accompanied by a tumultuous stamping of feet, and the rolling of jaffas down the aisles. This, in turn, would prompt the ushers to move around, their flashlights on, looking for the worst offenders. The advent of television all but destroyed the local suburban picture theatres. The Tasma disappeared altogether, as did the Grand –it became an office building. The Grand was transformed into a ten-pin bowling alley, and rode that fad until bowling lost popularity. It then became an Italian Community Social Club.

Only the Progress survives, a tiny suburban theatre which has managed, somehow, to stave off what seemed inevitable. Partly its survival stems from the fact that it is the home of the Coburg Film Society. It didn’t really seem to change much in thirty years. Even now, as I write, in 2004, the Progress is alive and kicking – a relic of the 40s and 50s, a gigantic piece of memorabilia.

74. Autobiography: The Drains 2

I started teaching in 1965. In my second – perhaps third – year of teaching I came across the Stephen Spender poem: My parents kept me from children who were rough. The poem resonated with me; I had that frisson of recognition, that Eureka experience. The boy in the poem was me.

My parents kept me from children who were rough. They rarely allowed me to play in the streets of Coburg. Ours was a rough area. The boys in the streets around our place were tough. I spent my days in our back yard or indoors, playing my solitary games, and envisioning achievements: being the first man to walk on the moon. I built intricate road systems around the tomato and the rhubarb bushes, for my Dinky cars.

I knew from an early age the superiority of the rough boys. Eddie Fennell had done me out of sixpence. The Scarletts had made it through the drain, while I sat by the entrance, paralysed by questions: What if?

What if there were a sudden storm, and a wall of water surged through the drain? What if I caught polio myelitis? I knew that term almost as soon as I could walk: polio myelitism. They were words my parents pronounced very carefully, always according that disease respect, giving it its full title.

“Never play in gutters – you could catch polio myelitis.”

Two diseases held me in awe as a child: polio and whooping cough. My parents dreaded both. There had been a polio epidemic a few years before; it had claimed the lives of many children, and left others – like the writer, Alan Marshall – permanently crippled. My parents had already experienced the pain of child death on two occasions; their fear was powerful, gargantuan.

Polio and whooping cough were high on the list of my childhood fears, up there with the Boogeyman, who lurked behind trees in the dark of night, and Ching-Chong Chinaman, and the old woman who pushed a pram around the streets of Coburg and Moreland, collecting treasures from other people’s garbage bins. All threatened, though in a vague, undefined way. But I was full of fears. I knew nothing of the character of polio myelitis, its cuases, its consequences – I simply knew it was to be feared. The smell of the drain was sufficient to tell me that here lay danger, that this place was alive with disease and with germs.

There were rats there, too – long, sleek, ugly rats that lived on the offal and waste that was carried in the slimy waters.

Another danger lurked in the drain, a threat more potent than the rats, or the smell or the potential disease. The underground portion of the drain ran beneath Pentridge, the high walled prison that housed the worst of Victoria’s criminals. The back portion of the jail contained the farm area and acres or uncultivated land. What if some prisoner were to hide in the paddock? What if there were a manhole or grill into the drain? What if some prisoner had found it, and was hiding there, in the drain, waiting for night?
The walls of Pentridge were a stone’s throw from the low cyclone wire fence that ran along the back of the school playground. During little play and big play small knots of children would stand along the fence line, under spreading peppercorn trees, and gaze across the road at the bluestone walls, wondering what they held.

There were stories, whispered in the shelter sheds and the boys’ dunnies, or out under the peppercorns, that the drain was a secret escape route. To our boyish minds, it seemed very possible that such a thing could happen – indeed, had happened. These imaginings were fuelled by a film of those times: The Third Man, with its haunting theme music, its narrow, ill-lit streets, and its pies carrying out their work beneath the city, in its sewers and drains.

But none of the “What ifs” was the real cause of my lack of adventure. What compelled me to sit outside while others ventured in, and through, was the sure knowledge that my mother would not want me to go there, would not approve of my entering that foul smelling drain.

How many drains did I avoid as a child?

I was wandering home from school one day. My route took me past the Coburg Railway station. Beside the path was a stand of shiny leafed, gnarled and stunted trees. I was later to learn how you could fold the almost round leaves in two, then blow through one end, to produce a high-pitched, buzzing sound. Among the trees I saw someone squatting; a bare bottom was clearly visible. It was a child, someone around my own age I guessed. He – or more intriguingly, she – was squatting to do a poo. (That is what I would have called it then; the word “shit” was not yet part of my vocabulary).

The body moved uneasily at my foot tread, waddling a little deeper into the undergrowth and the dark shade. I was drawn by curiosity, by the faint pull of an undefined sexual inquisitiveness. But the censor in me won out, the mental embodiment of all of the “Do nots” and “Should nots” of my nine or ten years. I did not find out whether it was a boy or girl. I walked on, out of the bushes, embarrassed and a little guilty. I walked down the underpass, along beside the railway line, down Loch Street, and around the corner to my house in Reynard Street, Coburg, there to play with my dinky toys, and dwell in my mind on what I had seen, and wonder about what I had not seen.

73. Autobiography: Down the Drain

The gullet trap at the back of our house smells. It is like the open earth drain that runs down Dorset Street, Pascoe Vale, where my aunt and uncle live. Or like some of the lockers at the Brunswick Baths after someone has left wet bathers or a wet towel for a couple of weeks. The odour is stale, pungent, insidious.

The oval at McDonalds Reserve smells like that too.

(It no longer exists, but it was a huge, open stormwater drain, perhaps ten metres wide and more than a metre deep. The drain ran in a north/south direction, emerging from its subterranean course at Bell Street. It was open for a distance of perhaps two hundred and fifty metres, then disappeared under the walls of Pentridge. There were many such drains around Melbourne in the 1940s and 1950s, but they have gradually been replaced by underground drains. The McDonalds’ Reserve drain usually carried only a trickle of water, except after a heavy downpour. Some twenty metres outside the bluestone wall of Pentridge, the drain went underground. While the exposed section was paved with bluestone, the underground section was concrete – concrete base, concrete walls, concrete roof. The drain swept in a wide arc under the Pentridge “farm”, and eventually emerged – perhaps 500 metres away – and discharged its contents into the Merri Creek.)

How many times have I sat on the rocks beside this drain, too afraid to enter, waiting for my more adventurous friends. Once I ventured into darkness, but only briefly. I preferred to return to the rectangle of light behind me than to go on into the darkness that lay before me.

What is it that enables some kids to explore cliffs and water holes, old houses and drains, while others sit outside, afraid to enter, afraid to climb, afraid to venture in?

Graeme and Peter Scarlett – the twins –and Eric Wardley had not only entered the drain, and stayed inside; they had emerged from the other end. They had travelled its length, in the darkness, without torches, and had emerged, triumphant, from beneath the threateningly high back wall of Pentridge, emerged onto the banks of the foul smelling Merri Creek.

Eddie Fennel, too. I remember Eddie Fennell. Sometimes I wonder what path his life has taken. In Miss Corrie’s class, I always sat in Row 1, with the bright children. Eddie sat at the very back of Row 6. Eddie was probably backward; he was certainly slow at his school work. Our seating in the class was determined on how well we performed on the monthly tests.

For the whole of my grade 6 year, the back row seat was occupied by Marion Davis, and by either Jacqueline Callaghan or a slight girl with whitish hair named Louise. These three invariably topped the tests. We would be tested on spelling, punctuation, dictation, arithmetic, mental arithmetic, composition, reading aloud … For most of the year I sat in Row 1. I spent a month in the first seat of Row 2, sitting next to Coral Williams.

The tests gave Miss Corrie the information she needed. We were seated according to our relative position in the mark hierarchy of the class. It stared with Marion Davis, in the No. 1 seat at the back of Row 1, UP Row 1, down Row 2, up 3, down 4, up 5, down 6 – to Eddie Fennell and Katrina Kurley. Most of the ones who sat in between have been lost to my memory, although a few remain there: Ian Cann, who broke my front tooth when he pushed my head down onto the drinking tap; Eric Wardley; Graeme and Peter Scarlett, who were to remain friends through school and beyond; Graeme Foo, who was “top boy” in our grade 6, and who went on to Coburg High, and from there became a motor mechanic; Laurie Ferguson, who was the son of a bookmaker; Coral Williams, who became a school teacher; Marion Hall, Rosalyn Blencowe, Joan Jenkins…

I wonder what became of the rest of Miss Corrie’s Grade 6 class of 1954. how many are living, dead, happy, mad? How many have had ulcers, cancer, heart attacks? How many beat their wives and children? How many murderers, playrights, plumbers, nuns, accountants, PhDs in Chemistry?

Eric Wardley is dead now, and so is Eddie Fennell. Eddie’s sister told me of his death at the 150th anniversary reunion of Coburg 484, in 2003. The Scarletts are alive. Marion Davis went into teaching, as did Coral Williams.
I recall one day when I had just moved from the Little School, on the south side of Bell Street, to the Big School. I was in Grade 3; Miss Browning was my teacher. I had found thruppence, maybe sixpence, in the sawdust and rubbish swept up outside Moran and Cato’s. I saw it shining there, in the dust, and claimed it as mine.
I found six pence
Jolly, jolly sixpence
I found sixpence
To last me all my life
I’ve got twopence to spend
And twopence to lend
And twopence to take home to my wife…

Foolishly, I told my school friends of my find.
“Whered’ya find it?” asked Eddie Fennell.
“Outside Moran and Cato’s,” I said, too naïve to see what was coming.
“That’s mine,” he told me. “I lost it there last night.”
“True dinks?” I asked. I didn’t know whether to believe him or not.
“Yeah!” he said, firmly. “You’d better give it to me.” His voice was menacing.
I gave Eddie Fennell the coin.

Eddie Fennell had been down that drain. He was afraid. I ventured maybe twenty metres, then turned back.

72. The Joys of Writing: Some Quotes

From: Wim Kayser A Glorious Accident

Sacks – on writing
“… I write by hand. Never computers. I’m computer illiterate. I’m afraid I might erase everything. I do like the mechanical heaviness of this typewriter, but most of all I like to write by hand… I often do little pictures as well, and I write in different colours. Sometimes little diagrams … basically I travel everywhere with pen and paper. All my books were written like this. In my house you’d see a whole roomful. I have my notebook with me now…”

Sacks: “The brain is not a computer, it is an orchestra of a thousand musicians; it is a work of art.”

Haldane: “The universe is not only weirder than we ever imagined it, it is even weirder than we can imagine.”

Dennett: “We are all faced with the baffling phenomenon: how could anything be more familiar and at the same time more weird than the mind? .”

Sacks: “… we are not blanks at birth’ we are really a billion years old.”

Matthew Arnold: “Have something to say and say it as clearly as you can. That is the only secret to style.”

And a final joyful puzzle for people who like unlikely sentence constructions:

What are you like on stringing prepositions together? Could you manage to write a grammatically correct sentence using nine prepositions consecutively?

“…There was a little boy who, it is said, disliked a book about Australia that his mother was fond of reading to him at bedtime and (who) finally demanded, ‘What have you brought that book I don’t like being read to out of about Down Under up for?’”

71. Autobiography: Long and lanky, skinny and cranky

Long and lanky, skinny and cranky
That’s how my mum used to describe me when I was 11 or 12 or so, and shooting up like a beanstalk. You don’t hear the word cranky these days. It was a word of the 1940s and 1950s – a word of a bygone era. You don’t hear lanky much these days either. Or cobber or bonzer.

They’ve gone, or all but gone. Like zac and bob and two bob and florin and quid and twopence and ha’panny and tray and deena – all words that have lost their currency.

Should I add the once obligatory ‘If you’ll pardon the pun’? As if there is something unseemly about puns. Critics of puns would inevitably trot out the old injunction: ‘The pun is the lowest form of wit’. For as long as I can remember, I’ve long loved puns and punning. Where did that come from, I wonder? I recall that it was my father who introduced me to puns. One of his favourite jokes concerned Johnny and the teacher:

Teacher: Johnny, I want you to use these three words in a sentence: delight, depot and defender.
Johnny: Sure, Teacher. De light was out, de pot was full, so I did it in de fender.
Dosh and spondoola have also gone, and no one calls anyone a bot any more. For a time bots and botting were transformed into scabs and scabbing, but they too have disappeared – slid out of the language like a kid slipping out of side gate to wag school for the afternoon. Nowadays, if I want to read Kay Arthur’s story Wagging to a group of kids I have to explain what the term means; they understand the concept, of course; it’s just the term they don’t know. Kids don’t ‘nick off’ or ‘play hookey’ or play truant any more. I never once wagged school – I was never game, never had the guts to wag school.

Wag also had other connotations too that no longer have currency. Once you might say of someone: ‘He’s a bit of a wag’ – meaning that he’s a card, or a trick. A wag was someone who could make you laugh at their antics – a practical joker, a trickster.
Then there was chin wag. – or as my dad called it, jawing. A chin wag was a chat, a talk.
I was born in 1953, and grew up at a time when Australians spoke of Japs and Krauts, when the only kind of spaghetti you could buy in a cafe was Kiaora brand tinned spaghetti’ – spaghetti in a thick tomato sauce, and usually served on toast.

I was certainly lanky. At 14 I was already taller than both my father and my mother – the second tallest boy in my class at school. My mother was five foot two ... Being five foot two – petite – was fashionable back then.
Five foot two, eyes of blue
But oh what those five feet can do
Has anybody seen my gal?
Five foot two – I don’t even know what that is in metric.
Dad wasn’t much taller; five foot four.

Linda Robina May Kipping was born in Casterton, and raise in Hamilton, in the Western District of Victoria. She left there in her twenties, and travelled to ‘the city’ as it was then called – or more precisely, The City – Melbourne. She had left school at fifteen, at the end of grade three.
Dad was 14 when he left school. His full name was Herbert Garibaldi Carozzi. When Dad left the Catholic school in Coburg he was in Grade 5. He’d been ‘kept down’ several times, and could neither read nor write when he left.

When I had my growth spurt and ‘shot up’, my mum started saying, ‘We’ll have to put a brick on his head!’ My parents worried about me. They worried a lot, because they were scared that they might ‘lose me’.

They had had a lot of trouble conceiving a child. Over the years I picked up snippets of information. By rights I should have had two siblings - an older brother and a little sister; however, my brother was still born and my sister died within a couple of hours of birth. Mum had also had numerous miscarriages.

Sometimes I think about those little babies, one dead at birth, all blue and limp and lifeless, and what it must have been like for my mother to see such a sight after the nine months of hope and longing and dreaming. And for it to happen a second time.

I witnessed at first hand the births of four of my five children. Back in the 1970s that was a relatively uncommon thing. The stereotypical father paced the waiting room until a nurse emerged to tell him ‘It’s a boy!’ But in the 70s, ‘modern’ men were wanting to be present, and provided you had the doctor’s approval, you could be present – although you were required to be quiet and keep out of the way. You were allowed to hold your wife’s hand and speak quietly to her as she went through the pain of labour and birthing. You weren’t allowed to watch any of the actual birth; you weren’t allowed to see the baby crown, and to watch your child emerged from its mother, all wet and covered in mucous and blood.

70. On chatter

  • Chatter, Silence and Focus

    Our lives are full of chatter, full of the noise of human voices, a constant chattering that not only comes from all around us, but that emanates from within our own heads. Radio and television provide a constant barrage of idle chatter, of small talk. Take talk back radio: It’s hardly ever a discussion we’re hearing - simply the sound of people who like the sound of their own voice. The airing of someone’s usually poorly articulated view.

    We chatter to each other to fill the silence, prattling on about this or that, and it is, to quote the Bible – Paul’s Letter to the Corinthians – ‘ a clanging gong or a sounding cymbal … signifying nothing’. And therein lies the nub of the thing: the lack of significance.

    In a wonderful line in his poem Australia, A D Hope writes:

    The Chattering of apes that passes as civilization over there …

    And let me be clear – I am as guilty of this ‘idle chatter’ as anyone.

    There is a scene in the film “As Good As It Gets” when the Jack Nicholson character attempts to express what it is that attracts him to the Helen Hunt character. He is an anti-social misfit, a writer of romance novels whose only pleasure in life is to insult and upset other people, an isolated, alienated, desperately lonely, thoroughly unlikeable man. But he sees something in the Helen Hunt character that others don’t see: that she only says things that she means, that she only talks about things that really matter, that when she speaks, it is about things she cares about deeply; she is honest, she is not putting on a show, a front, a façade. She speaks from the heart.

    There is distinction between ‘chatter’ and ‘conversation’. Conversation requires engagement: we engage with each other, we talk of things that matter. In one of his earlier songs, ‘The Dangling Conversation’, Paul Simons writes:
    And we speak of things that matter
    In words that must be said:
    Can analysis be worthwhile?
    Is the theatre really dead?

    And we sit and drink our coffee
    Couched in our indifference
    Like shells upon the shore
    We can hear the ocean roar.

    Simon gives us a brief glimpse of a couple whose relationship is drained of all meaning and life. The talk of ‘things that matter’ is, in fact, superficial chatter; each is actually ‘couched in indifference’, they are ‘shells upon the shore’ – no longer living creatures but empty shells, capable of seeming to produce the sound of the life force – the sea – but in fact lacking in substance, in life. The heart has gone from their ‘dangling conversation’.

    In his analysis of language, linguist M A K Halliday identified a wide range of functions – uses we put language to:

  • To represent: to ‘name’ things

  • To control others

  • To express emotion

  • To establish social contact

  • To maintain social contact

  • To include or exclude others from groups

  • To inform or instruct

  • To think ideas through

Interestingly, he also included ‘to fill time’, to fill the silence. Chatter is a way of breaking the silence.

I know of households where the TV is never off; it provides constant background noise – the chatter of voices and the sound of music. Many young people walk around with earplugs from their CDs, listening to their favourite music. They switch them off, though, when they are SMSing their friends. Of mobile phones, one 14 year old said, “I’d be lost without my phone. How could I talk to my friends.’

A young friend of mine set off on a journey around Australia recently. She and her friend took an I-pod with them - a little electronic gizmo that save you the problem of carrying large numbers of CDs. The I-pod carries literally hundreds of CDs on a silicon chip. The device is about the size of a cigarette box.

What is this need for the comfort of chatter? What is it about silence that makes us uncomfortable?

Throughout my adolescence and early adulthood, I craved company. I hated being alone – in part because I had grown up a lonely little boy with few friends. I recall a time when I was in my 20s. I was a teacher, as was my wife. We were living in Glenroy. If I arrived home from school and she was not there, I would become agitated and uncomfortable, and would go out and visit neighbours or friends. I hated being alone. It was as though I needed the reassurance and company of others to feel as though I existed. That’s the way I thought of it then: I lacked a strong sense of a self; I was defined by my social relations. I needed other people to tell me who I was.

I think I see it differently now. I think my ‘core self’ was always there, and it frightened me, because it was lonely, isolated, worthless. Give me the chatter of friends and acquaintances rather than the empty lonely shell that I feel when I am alone.
I think we chatter to fill the silence and to evade the truth. Chatter is a cover up, a time filler, a distraction from the deeper, significant things that trouble us. Silence frightens us – or at least some of us.

When Freud first developed psychoanalysis it was called ‘the talking cure’. These days there is a booming industry in talking cures of various kinds, psychotherapies of various persuasions. Our faith in the power of the spoken word to heal has a long long history. In the Catholic Church, people go to confession: “Forgive me Father for I have sinned”. They go through the ritual of confession, and they are given absolution; in the confession box, the sinner is cleansed, freed from the burden of sin. In Christian scriptures, Christ’s words can achieve miracles: the lame can walk again, even Lazarus can rise from the dead; it simply takes the words of Christ to achieve these things.

When couples are having trouble, they talk it over. They clear the air. The talk needed to ‘sort things out’ is, however, not chatter. It is the kind of deep conversation in which we say only the things that we mean, in which we only talk about things that really matter; when we speaks, it is about things we care about deeply; we are honest, we are not putting on a show, a front, a façade. We speak from the heart.

Not that that is always easy. And often, what we do have to say is painful both to ourself and to the other.
Silence is another possibility. When the spiritual seeker and writer, Thomas Merton, visited the giant statues of the Buddha at Polonnaruwa he saw them as standing for a way of life that “needs nothing” and can therefore “afford to be silent, unnoticed, undiscovered.” They have “seen through every question without trying to discredit anyone or anything – without refutation – without establishing some other argument … For the doctrinaire, such silence can be frightening.”

Spiritual traditions - whether Christian, Buddhist, New Age, whatever – have established silence at the core of the spiritual experience. In prayer, in silent meditation, we are able to ‘get in touch’ with god, with the spiritual.

Of meditation, Stephanie Dowrick writes (The Age Good Weekend Magazine, July 31, 2004):
There is a wonderful story told about the Buddha, who was once asked, “What have you gained through meditation?”
“Nothing at all,” he answered.
“Then, Blessed One, what good is it?” he was asked.
To which he replied, “Let me tell you what I have lost in meditation: sickness, depression, anger, insecurity, the burden of old age and the fear of death. That is the good of meditation, which leads to Nirvana (freedom from selfish and useless desires).”

She goes on to quote the Stoic philosopher, Marcus Aurelius:

Are you distracted by outward cares? Then allow yourself a space of quiet, wherein you can add to your knowledge of the Good and learn to curb your restlessness. Many of the anxieties that harass you are superfluous: being but creatures of your own fancy, you can rid yourself of them and expand into an ampler region, letting your thought sweep over the entire universe.”

69. Obsessions: A Short Story?

In his sixty first year Simon became a new man.
“I am the focal point of the universe,” he wrote in his journal. “Gamma rays from distant quasars have been concentrated on my brain. The molecular structure of my synaptic networks have been rejigged.”

His friends thought it was a passing phase, like the religion he had adopted when 17, or the atheism he wore like a coat of many colours when he approached 30, or the adolescent hedonic lifestyle he launched into when he went through his early mid life crisis, when he was 38. It was then that he discovered sex and the female orgasm. He began to experiment, setting impossible targets and achieving them.

“Tonight, my sweet, you will experience twenty orgasms, each incrementally more intense than the one before, culminating in an orgasm of such insane intensity that your body will become one with the universe, and you and I will meld into a single being.”

Another passing phase,like his jam making when he turned 41.

“Stolen fruit is the secret. Stolen fruit makes the best jam.”
He would go on late night fruit picking expeditions to neighbouring houses and local parks, scrabbling around in the dark, and returning home scratched and bruised at one in the morning with a bagful of quinces or crab apples or apricots or nectarines. He made dozens of pots of jam, rich and sickly sweet, and gave them to friends. He didn’t have what it takes to become a economic baron of the jam world; he wanted to spread the sweet taste of jam…

He wrote a song, plagiarising the sentiments and some of the words of Leonard Cohen…
“And this jam, my loved ones, will pour like honey in the valleys of the lonely,
It will sweeten your breath, it will seduce your taste buds, it will bring joy to your very soul…”

Then there was the era of his psychiatric explorations, when Freud and Jung became twin gods in his spiritual universe, and he ignored Freud’s dictum – “Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar” – and found deep meaning in the most transitory of superficial comments, and archetypal insights in the most ephemeral of his dreams.
At fifty five he became an obsessive poet, writing a poem a day: sonnets, limericks, villanelles, free verse flow from the dark creases of his brain matter, a sweet liquid flow of poetic lines that coursed their way through the catacombs and tunnels of his memory, following a course that seemed to him to represent truth.

“A poem a day. If I write a poem a day I will be a poet. A poet is one who writes poems; I am a poet.”

For days on end he would speak only in measured lines, forcing himself to create, at the very point of utterance, sentence after sentence cast in the sad rhythm of the iambic pentameter.
His days began and ended with a song,
with words that flowed like honey through his mind,
He held there, for the briefest moment, truth.
He saw the world transfigured to his sight,
the universe within a grain of sand,
eternity confined within a hour,
infinity he clasped within his hands.

But at sixty one he found his life’s purpose in a moment of epiphany. He suddenly saw how limited his life span would be. That he had, at the very best, ten thousand day left.

His obsession had become the writing of his lifework, his autobiographical work, which he entitled: The Encyclopaedia of My Life. His obsession had become the daily writing of this opus. He set himself the goal of writing, at the very least, a thousand words a day. Ten thousand days:
He tried to do the sum in his head, but his normally sharp arithmetical skills betrayed him, and so he wrote down the numbers, and labouriously calculated the answer:
10000 X 1000 = 10,000,000
Ten million words. Simon drew breath. Ten million words! 365000 words a year for twenty odd years.

Then his mind felt a slight shudder of recognition. In the past his left brain, segment A, Arithmetical calculation would have eaten that sum for breakfast. Simon prided himself on the simple enough task of multiplying 10000 by 1000. Perhaps his faculties were beginning to slow down , to crack up, to deteriorate; perhaps one of the great fears of his life – of a gradual sinking into senile dementia, into mental oblivion, into the loneliness of Alzheimers.

A joke twitched at the edge of consciousness. He’d read it just that morning … he scrabbled through his short term memory to find it…

But try as he might, it would not come out of hiding. He heard the echoes of its laughter, but could not for the life of him work out where the laughter was coming from.

That was when he realised he must cease with these obsessions. Obsessions, he now saw with the utmost clarity, were the sad, pathetic, doomed attempts of mortals to hang on to the ephemera of their lives. ‘Life is passing through our fingers like air, and we think we can grasp it!’ It was all pointless. All pointless. Who remembered his jams, still tasted the tart sweetness of his crab apple jelly? Did his lover recall the orgasms that melded them into a single being? And who could be bothered reading his endlessly repeated pentameters? And as for jokes, who would be there to tell his joke to anyway who would want to hear it? Even if he could remember it!

And then it was there, in its entirety. The whole joke. He could remember it. his faculties weren’t totally shot. He took out his notebook and began scribbling furious:
“There were three elderly men in an old people’s hostel. The 70 year old complains: “Ohh, aging is a terrible thing. You know, everything is starting to break down. I’m regular as ever – go and have a piss at 7 am every morning. But slow … it just keeps dribbling out for ten minutes….”

His 80 year old mate says, “I know….”

He paused briefly. Yes, he thought to himself, that’s what I’ll do.

And he stopped, took a new lined notebook from his desk draw, and wrote on the outside:
The Joke of a Lifetime
Encyclopaedia of the life of Simon D.