Sunday, 7 June 2015

A Week of Wonders

This week I discovered Georgian polyphonic singing. A group of men - these are they - wearing black tunics with white trimmings, (some of which looked as if they were designed to hold spare gun cartridges), plus glossy black leather boots and metre-long curved swords tucked into their belts, (don't worry they were sheathed - in beautifully tooled scabbards), appeared at a Georgian party and started belting out strange, beautiful songs. Their voices were flawless, and the music, in that peculiar way that music can, managed to convey inarticulable, haunting things about huge swathes of empty countryside, steep bare slopes and icy gales.

Before making the acquaintance of this cultural wonder, I went on a long car journey, always a good way of provoking myself to engage in pointless speculation.

My first speculation was provoked by looking out the window during long intervals stuck in slowly moving traffic in various provincial towns. It was about skateboarding - I found myself wondering whether there is an age beyond which it becomes totally ludicrous to hurtle down pavements using your skateboard as a mode of transport. I didn't reach any firm conclusion on this, (possibly nought years old - unless you wear a baseball cap backwards, in which case maybe, at a squeeze, twelve and a half?)

My second speculation was a recurring one - I wondered yet again about why I didn't choose linguistics as a subject to study. It would make sense, since I am almost perpetually wondering, (not always in the foreground of my mind, but the questions burble away somewhere in the background rather a lot), why different languages express things in different ways.

For example, why, in Dutch, if you want to say that you are cold or hot, do you need to use a construction that states that you HAVE cold or warmth? Why in Hungarian do they have different forms of the verb to distinguish whether the sentence refers to something definite or indefinite? Why do most European languages have an intimate and a formal form of "you" when English only has the formal, (actually that one is easy according to French friends of mine - we are cold people [we do not merely have cold, please notice, we ARE cold] and thus we do not want an intimate form.)

I did actually reach a conclusion re my wondering about whether I should have taken a linguistics kind of path. I decided, as I think I may have done all those years ago, when I was choosing what I wanted to study, that these questions are fascinating but that they can never be answered.

Another question that can never be answered is whether we white Australians ought to have left Australia and its Indigenous people completely alone, establishing no settlement on that land mass, leaving them be, as sometimes happens now when a new people are discovered, (there is a tribe somewhere in the Amazonian rainforest that has been spotted from the air but a decision has been taken not to make contact with them, for the tribe's sake, which is another thing I often wonder about).

It is certainly true that many of the consequences of white settlement have been very bad for Aboriginal people - and, yes, I do know that not all of them have been intentional and that over many years the government has made huge efforts to try to put things right. I'm not assigning blame; I'm simply stating the facts.

Anyway, on Tuesday it was impossible not to wonder about the condition of Australian Aboriginals and what might or might not have been had history been different. On that day, I went to Harelbeke Cemetery, not far from Oudenaarde, in Flanders, to visit the grave of  Private Rufus Rigney.

Poor Rigney. He was terribly young, (only 17 when he died - presumably he lied about his age, and at that stage in the war, [1916], possibly the authorities were inclined to turn a blind eye to such things). Having got mumps on arrival at Plymouth, been deployed upon recovery and then wounded by shrapnel at Trones Wood, taken back to England to recover and then returned to the front and the first battle of Passchendale, where he was again wounded, he was captured and treated by the Germans, but died four days later, (on 16th October, 1917). He was buried in Iseghem, a German military cemetery. In 1924, his body was moved to Harelbeke, a British cemetery.

Who knows what inspired the boy to become part of the war in Europe. It may have been patriotism or the thought of adventure or the prospect of good pay. According to the Department of Veterans' Affairs in Australia, the army was one of the few places that Indigenous Australians were treated as equals at the time - and paid as equals. Whatever the reason for his decision, I felt very sad, standing in front of his gravestone on a cold, grey, windy day so far from where he was born.


  1. Back when skateboarding was suddenly popular, about thirty years ago, an acquaintance professed to have heard from a friend, an orthopedic surgeon, about the injuries in skateboard accidents incurred by different ages, which were correlated with the speed of the reflexes. Children of ten or under injured their hands; teenagers broke their wrists; twenty-somethings broke their elbows; those in their thirties hurt their shoulders. I suppose those in their forties may have suffered concussions, but at that point in my life I didn't retain much information about the problems of those over forty.

    On the other hand, I did trip and fall today while out running, and the abrasions were on right hand--suggesting the lightning reflexes of youth--left shoulder, suggesting the sluggish reflexes of maturity, and left knee, suggesting I guess a simple neglect to wear the knee pads skateboarders wear.

    Within the last hundred years some Quakers maintained the use of "thee" and "thou"; and for all their many good qualities, one does not think of them as having Latin warmth. I believe that there was one American Quaker who managed in the 1930s to tell Adolf Hitler, accurately to be sure, "Thou art not a kind man." It is also the case that the intimate second person can imply that it delivered to an inferior.

    1. I have broken my arms several times, plus my collarbones. My arms I always broke between wrist and elbow. On one memorable occasion I fell out of a window, on another I was a passenger in a car accident, but mostly it was falling off swings and other minor mishaps. All these breaks took place before I was 12, so I may not have had very good reflexes - or bones.
      Yes, you are right, in plays thou does not necessarily suggest intimacy now I come to think of it. Hungarian, heaven help it - or us - has more than two forms, one at least of which is beyond my understanding. I'm sorry you fell. I shall resist the temptation to ask, as someone I know always does in these circumstances, 'Did you have a nice trip?' Clearly not.