Tuesday, 27 March 2012

Do Not Go Gentle

A letter in the Washington Post a couple of days ago went like this:

'In the March 17 Style article "In tails and cuffs," reporter Aaron Leitko described "watching a former Batman get tossed into a paddy wagon." One would think that a newspaper of The Post's reputation would be sensitive to the offense that this term would cause to Irish Americans. While there is some dispute as to the origin of this word, the Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins states that "paddy wagon" is a "nickname for the police patrol wagon used to tote lawbreakers off to jail [and] is a carry-over from the days when the Irish were low men on the social totem pole and hence fair game when a roundup of miscreants was needed to create favorable publicity for the law enforcers." In light of this article being published on St Patrick's Day, it is the right moment to criticize the continued acceptance and use of this offensive term.'

Even if one leaves aside the fact that this original meaning of the complained of term is so obscure that it is necessary for the letter writer to quote his chosen dictionary's statement in full, to explain his grievance to otherwise mystified readers, even if one leaves aside the fact that it is just as likely that the term actually derives from either the fact that police vans once had PD written on them and this got elided into paddy or the fact that so many American police officers were of Irish descent, this letter seems completely misconceived to me.

The thing is words change their meanings. Indeed, many people believe that the very reason English is such an enduring and dominant language is precisely because it is so adaptable. There is barely a page of the dictionary that does not contain words that have lost their original significance and sometimes even changed so utterly that they convey the opposite of what they originally did. Flippant, for example, used to mean nimble. Silly once meant blessed. 'Informal' formerly signified that something was unformed and irresolute. More recently, slow - as in slow food, the slow movement - has shifted from being something one avoided into a quality one admires.

Therefore, to dredge up a meaning that no-one ever thinks of and insist that a writer has cast a slur on a group of people by using it, when that association no longer has any relevance to the word in question, is to provoke oneself into outrage where there are no grounds to do so. Sadly, it seems to me, this is an all too common pastime, not just for letter writers, but for all sorts of chat show/panel discussion/column writing whingers.

Of course, no-one should go round making racist remarks or taking cheap shots at women or minorities or the disadvantaged. However, by the same token, occasionally the various groups who live side by side in society might choose to hesitate before rushing to embrace a sense of grievance. Self-pity is a pleasure that it is usually a good idea to avoid.

Monday, 26 March 2012


I am embarrassed to admit that, despite my attempt at a veneer of sophistication, I take tourist buses to orient myself in new places. It isn't something you're supposed to do, unless you are a very inexperienced, gauche kind of person, but I find it often helps me figure out the lie of the land and also supplies bits of (sometimes, I'll admit, somewhat useless) information that I'd never discover any other way.

Anyway, enough of the self-justification. The point is, yesterday, in Washington DC, while on one of these shameful excursions,I heard an exchange that made the whole thing worthwhile. After the tour guide had told us about Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice of the Supreme Court and the lawyer behind the Brown v. the Education Department case and explained that the Brown case ended segregation, I heard the small boy in front of me ask his mother, 'What's segregation?'

(I also learnt that the cup cake shop near my hotel - the one with the permanent queue - is a cult, thanks to a TV programme, so bang goes my theory. Or perhaps not.)

Sunday, 25 March 2012

Life's Necessities

It is fairly obvious that Georgetown is a very wealthy area of Washington DC, (think Toorak/South Yarra for an almost perfect parallel). However, had I been in any doubt about the matter, the long queue I passed this morning - 15 or 20 women all waiting for the cup cake store to open - would have proved the case once and for all.

Having said that, my daughter's just pointed out that, were they truly wealthy, they'd have a maid to do that stuff for them. Which is true, but I still think my cup cake wealth indicator has a place in the pantheon of socioeconomic theory.

Thursday, 22 March 2012

Looking-Glass Love

I have never paid much attention to Abraham Lincoln, and so I hadn't really understood just how spookily accurate Bob Carr, Australia's latest Foreign Minister, was being when he said he was the reincarnation of the man. Only now, having stared at a series of photographs of Lincoln, which are part of the display at the Philadelphia Independence Visitor Centre, have I realised that, at least physically, the two men really are uncannily similar.

The resemblance might not be quite so uncanny, if either of them were remotely usual looking, but they are, in fact, very peculiar specimens. And what I can't help wondering, given Carr's professed extremely close affinity to Lincoln, is whether his admiration isn't really just a rather grand form of narcissism:

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Not Especially Beautiful Bandar

A few more pictures of Bandar, to save anyone the trouble of actually going (actually, that's quite unfair - it was charming in a sleepy, peculiar way). The water villages -

- are picturesque, but pretty hellish to live in, I suspect (they are the great tourist attraction, so far as I could tell, along with the promise of a glimpse of a proboscis monkey; I was not clear whether the proboscis monkeys inhabit the water villages or live separately and I hadn't time - or, to be honest, enough interest - to find out).

The rest is perfectly nice in a shopping mall kind of way. There were a lot of dull high rise buildings with odd triangular pediments and odd little mini turret things stuck on them to try to make them look more interesting, although they ended up just looking tackily Disneyesque, if that isn't a tautology:

 I was a bit shocked to see that the Colonel and his delicious but dangerous chicken seemed to be making headway - I'd have thought that exactly the sort of thing a really benevolent dictator might use his powers to draw the line at:

History was barely detectable except in one or two street names -

and a genuinely ancient thing called Raja Ayang -

- a 15th century tomb obscured almost entirely by the modern building in which it has been housed. There was a carved stone beside it that purported to explain all about it, although having read it I was scarcely the wiser, (mind you I now had many lurid ideas and unanswered questions to fuel my thoughts for the rest of my walk). This was the text of it:

"According to history, there were two beautiful and handsome Brunei Royal family members, who committed unlawful acts, which contravened Islamic laws. The female member was popularly known by the name of Raja Ayang. Therefore, by the command of Sultan Suleiman (1432 to 1485 AD), a well-known devout Brunei Sultan who strictly adhered to Islamic principles - that is to say, if anyone contravened Islamic laws, he or she would be subject to appropriate punishment - thence they were punished according to Islamic laws, but in their case their punishment differed from others, in that arrangements were made for them to stay at a place characterised as an underground house and provided with sufficient provisions, including a chimney for ventilation. Their departure to the place set aside for them was paraded around with all due pomp and ceremony befitting their status according to Brunei ceremonial laws. Hence the Sultan's firmness in carrying out the sentence and their attitude to accept freely the punishment was therefore forever recalled in Bruneian society. Society's opinion of them is inscribed on the South side of a special stone near their tomb, namely: From the example (of the crime committed) there has been enough retribution exacted, having undergone their punishment on this earth rather than in the hereafter, and underneath lies the bodies of those who had sinned, by the Grace of Allah. Whereas on the North side of the stone there is inscribed: O Allah, almighty God, heap Your mercy and blessings on them and forgive them their transgressions for mundane sins and pleasures for which they once thirsted."

The thing that shocked me out of my musings about what exact form Raja Ayang's sinful pleasures took was this sign outside the Brunei Radio and Television building:
It would certainly come as quite a surprise to see anything similar outside Bush House or ABC headquarters in Harris Street, Ultimo.

Wednesday, 14 March 2012

One Man's Fish is Another Man's Poisson

I just spent a night in Bandar Seri Begawan, Brunei, which was fascinating, partly because bits of it - like this one, for instance:

- reminded me more than anywhere else I've been of Tirana in Albania in the deep days of Communism. This led me to wonder whether there is something about countries with unchallenged and unchallengeable leaders, however benevolent, that produces a particular kind of style.

But I did no more than wonder, because I don't really have enough knowledge of the subject and, in the immortal words of Michael Palin as Hugo in Murder at Moorstones Manor, I am almost certainly "too dim". Also I came upon a food market and was distracted by the fascinating and mysterious food stuffs on offer and just the general exciting colourful display, which was, so far as I could see, uninhibited by any notions of health and safety et cetera:

Imagine lemongrass in such abundance.
I thought this might be turmeric, but there was turmeric elsewhere in the market and this was something else.

What on earth can these muddy things be?
At first I thought these were a kind of underripe tomato but further on I saw one cut open and realised they were something else entirely (see photograph lower down)

The unlucky one - or a soon-to-be delicious lunch, depending on your perspective.

These looked like tiny Jerusalem artichokes, but I presume weren't.
These were a more vivid orange. in the flesh.
Lemongrass envy, once again.
There's some turmeric. The tiny limes were delicious - I had some at breakfast.

And yet more bundles of lemongrass, when back at home lemongrass costs a lot per single stalk.

What can these be?

More turmeric.

This is the kind of thing I usually see on our compost heap. I wonder what it's for.
I loved the matching clothes of the little girls.
What are these?
Even the shoppers wanted to know - and they were local. They seemed unimpressed by what the lady told them.

This man's wife was making fresh grated coconut.

These girls were taking tiny mussels out of the shell by hand and bagging them up - very fiddly, dull work.

Very Day of the Triffids - or even Alien - I thought.

Those eggplant look familiar.

These are really intriguing - for some reason, I'm convinced they'd be delicious. The colour is so lovely.
At first, I thought someone had carved these, but it turns out that they grow like this.

They were selling a lot of things that looked like sticks. When I asked, I was told they were all 'ladies' medicine'. I don't know whether this was true, I was having my leg pulled or there was a mistranslation.

The fan biscuits have pretty patterns on them.
Can these be radish crisps?
Best of all, to reach the market, most people came by water taxi - they look much more fun than the average Canberra bus (and they run more frequently):

 This one went so fast, I only caught its wake.
 This nice driver was very keen I made use of his services. But I said, 'No, no, no':

And, oh, look, Julia Gillard ("moving forward") appears to have been here before me, labouring under the misapprehension that votes might be involved. Like me, she must have been in ignorance about the way things are done in Brunei. It was only when the taxi driver from the airport pointed out the parliament (modern, Classical Greek mixed with motorway motel style) and I asked how often they had elections that I discovered that they don't have elections: "The sultan chooses the government, and they just hold meetings there from time to time."