Friday, 30 September 2011

Whom Are You Looking at Part II?

Ben Pobije's response to the whole silly saga made me laugh a bit more, which is always a good thing.

It's Not Just Me

The Australian Broadcasting Corporation is about to launch another of its expensive, shallow television series - we are still serving time with the twenty-two hours of Crownies they've decided to inflict on us (do they really think this glamourfest of drinking and one-night stands and four-parent pregnancies is providing anything that the commercial channels aren't better at doing?) Now we are to be treated to a dramatisation of the novel The Slap. In the run up to this great event, we are being subjected to long interviews with the novel's author, (who seems like a pretty nice guy, actually - it's just the interviewer, with her gurning and wriggling and general St Vitus Dance carry-on, who sets my teeth on edge) and a general frenzy of hype for the whole project.

When it first became well-known, I bought The Slap and tried to read it. Unfortunately, I got fed up before I finished. Although I think that Christos Tsiolkas writes very good prose and although I thought the 'concept' was intriguing, I found the way he told the story tedious. I thought I was the only one who reacted in this way, which is why I was so pleased just now to come across this old article about it from the Guardian. The phrase in the article that particularly resonated with me was this one:

'The characterisations are thin and the endless sex and swearing become boring.'

I thought it was just because I was a prude that I found myself getting so tired of these aspects of the book. Now that I've been vindicated by the Guardian, however, I realise that my initial reaction - the sense that I was out of step and should shut up about it - reveals an interesting aspect of modern cultural life. I have the idea that I will be hectored for small-mindedness and lack of sufficient liberation if I voice my discomfort about the amount of vulgarity that seems to be included in many contemporary television programmes and novels, even though it seems to me that inserting this sort of stuff is just a lazy way of trying to keep a viewer's or reader's attention.  Thanks to Mr Skidelsky, I've discovered I'm not entirely alone.

Thursday, 29 September 2011

Whom Are You Looking at?

I would be happy if 'whom' disappeared from the language - it almost always introduces a kind of stiff pomposity to any sentence. Of course, there are situations where it is necessary but, even if you are fond of it, you'd have to agree that using it as if it were the nominative is utterly wrong. All the same, I'm glad that someone did so, because it means I have an excuse to provide a link to this quite funny story.

Nasty Foreigners

There is an avenue of oak trees that leads from my house up through the park to the local shops. Each year, the trees produce an almost absurd amount of acorns:

I used to wonder why nature was so profligate. But then one day I walked up to buy the paper and saw the ground under the trees covered with cockatoos.

Someone at the Sydney Morning Herald took this absolutely brilliant picture. It captures the essence of cockatoo, I think.

They were using their claws to pick up the acorns, which they shoved into their beaks and ate, all the time rolling their eyes at anyone approaching. As I drew nearer, their bright yellow crests all began flattening and rising, flattening and popping up again, like some kind of clown's apparatus. Finally, when I got too close, they rose in a shrieking mob, scattering acorns as they flapped away.

There are people in Canberra who object to introduced species like the oak tree. Although the cockatoos clearly love the food the trees produce and by being distracted by acorns are prevented from doing the kinds of thing they're being accused of in Sydney -

- these people argue that our area's delicate eco-machinery has been disturbed and, despite the cockatoos' pleasure - and the pleasant shade the trees provide in summer - they should never have been planted. Of course, if you follow that argument to its logical conclusion, this whole city should really be swept away.

Tuesday, 27 September 2011

Words and Phrases that I'm Getting Worried About

The word 'incredulous' is the word that I'm concerned is losing its sense of identity today. I've heard three different people use it in the sense of 'incredible' recently. I know English is a constantly evolving language and we must all relax when this sort of thing goes on. The problem is, when a word like 'incredulous' gets railroaded into meaning something that it doesn't, what will we do when we want to express its original meaning? 'Disinterested' has already been almost bludgeoned into abandoning its own role and taking up a double act with 'uninterested'. I wish I could say that I would be incredulous if  'incredulous' joined 'incredible' to perform the same kind of vaudeville turn, but it wouldn't be true.

PS I've just realised that I regard as extremely hard to take seriously any communication that includes the phrase 'but hey'.

PPS But hey, that's just me, I guess.

Waves of Beautiful Nonsense

I recently had an exchange with someone about Adam Curtis, in which I said that it seemed to me that he doesn't think clearly and his ideas cannot be crystallised into anything, and I was informed that this was wrong and his ideas are crystallised, it's just that he argues in 'a non-linear fashion'. What is arguing in a non-linear fashion, I wondered - something very much like this, I suspect.

Anyway, after this exchange, I decided to watch one of Curtis's recent programmes, to get to grips with his non-linear but crystal clear propositions. The programme I chose was the first in the series titled, 'All Watched Over by Machines of Loving Grace'. It was called 'Love and Power', and this was the blurb about it:

"This is the story of the dream that rose up in the 1990s that computers could create a new kind of stable world. They would bring about a new kind global capitalism free of all risk and without the boom and bust of the past. They would also abolish political power and create a new kind of democracy through the Internet where millions of individuals would be connected as nodes in cybernetic systems – without hierarchy."

The programme began with a message printed in capitals, over images of a man in an early computer lab; a man in red satin academic robes, holding up a handwritten card with an internet address on it; an image of a young woman, who might possibly be Hilary Clinton; and on and on. The printed message on the screen repeats in part the blurb above. This is what it says:


It is followed by this:


Emerging from beneath this caption we see the peculiar image of Ayn Rand appear on the screen.

It turns out that Ayn Rand, who preached a kind of every-man-for-himself philosophy that Curtis tells us is called objectivism, was much admired by many in Silicon Valley. This Curtis proves by wheeling out for interview a couple of people who apparently were internet entrepreneurs of some kind. They admit that they've given their kids middle names inspired by Rand.

We are then told that objectivism led to something called the Californian ideology and an international priesthood attached to this grew up. This is illustrated by tiny clips, probably taken out of context, showing Alvin Toffler and various other people I've never heard of (Kevin Kelly, Stewart Brand, Peter Schwartz).

The idea behind this ideology was, supposedly, that government should no longer regulate. Bill Clinton didn't agree with this but, according to some old codger who Curtis interviews, Greenspan, when young, was persuaded to move from a belief in 'logical positivism' to Rand's view of the world, after being introduced to the Rand collective by Nathan Branden, where Greenspan read Rand's novel 'Atlas Shrugged'. With this in mind, the newly Randian Greenspan told Clinton that the deficit he'd inherited was too large for Clinton's promised social reform and persuaded him to cut government spending and let markets do the job.

While this tale is being told, we are shown pictures of Clinton looking thoughtful, of city streets, of offices with huge computers and of frantic stockmarket floor traders. We are told that computers equal maths which equal complex financial instruments, and so something called the New Economy emerges. Meanwhile, Clinton picks his teeth, Greenspan looks creepy, industrial plant drifts on and off the screen.

Then, in 1996,  Greenspan warns of irrational exuberance and another bubble. He changes his mind, however, and tells Clinton that the effect on the economy of computers is going to be like discovering a new planet. While this is going on, Clinton plays happily with a cat and Rand pops up, looking particularly batty, her eyes darting all over the place.

Time magazine asserts that lethargy descended on the White House during the cat playing days. At this point, slow motion shots of Monica Lewinsky looking at Bill Clinton are reeled out while the Asian Economic miracle is explained away as a result of  US bullying of Asian governments to let the US invest in their markets. Joseph Stieglitz is given the rare privilege of being allowed to air his views on this subject without any random images of smokestacks or presidential cats or stock market traders to distract the viewer. He claims that Rubin, the former Goldman Sachs man who became Secretary of the Treasury, would not let him or his theories near the president.

Computer networks, Curtis informs us next, in sombre tones, hadn't distributed power but rather had merely shifted and concentrated it. The web rather than being a new democracy is merely a way of exercising power over individuals in new ways. Going online is a kind of commodification of self in which users sell themselves as entertainment (ooh, look, I'm doing that now, except that I'm getting no money, and I'm entertaining myself rather than waiting, passively, for someone else to entertain me, but perhaps that's an argument for another day). Everything is transformed into spectacle by the new order. All the while more pictures of Lewinsky - and of her friend Linda Tripp -  are unfurled before us.

And, gosh, while all this commodification and spectaculisation is going on in the West,  in Asia the property bubble bursts. Thus, the supposed dream of the stable world is assaulted by love (Lewinsky) and power (the bursting bubble [?]). The IMF is wheeled in to deal with the power side of the equation, but it tells the Asians they need to be more Western and less corrupt.

In Indonesia, noble Suharto refuses to bow to this appallingly mono-cultural attack (presumably not because he wants to protect his own corrupt interests, perish the thought). The IMF turns to Rubin who argues that corruption is no good in Indonesia. Disgustingly, as Curtis explains, 'Treasury was determined to force Suharto to their will'. Appallingly, they succeed. Rubin claims Suharto had threatened the global economy, but in fact Indonesia and all the other IMF bailouts collapse, so he must have been wrong, mustn't he?

As Curtis tells it, the IMF really paid off only the Western investors in the Asian countries and then told them to get out, knowing the Asian economies would crash - he doesn't produce evidence for this claim and he doesn't mention the possibility that the internal corruption of the Asian countries in question might possibly have made any contribution to the crisis at all. The huge unemployment in Asian cities that ensues is the fault of the West, Curtis implies, giving us that fine and admirable statesman, Mahattir Mohamed of Malaysia, to express this view in full and frank terms.

And the bad deeds of the West are clearly tied up intimately with Rand - otherwise why would Curtis return to her at this point, teasing out the details of her rather complicated and unhappy personal affairs, which don't, on the face of it, appear to have much bearing on anything, even if you do buy into the theory that she was hugely influential on Greenspan and thus the modern world?

Or am I being too linear in my thinking? Is the tale of Rand and the mess she made of her life just something to fill the screen until we can get on to 9/11, which Curtis characterises as an attack on radical individualism, segueing from there to Enron, throwing in Greenspan en route, as he cuts interest rates, in his wicked plan to use consumers as machines to bolster the economy by borrowing and spending, which, sadly, creates inflation and instability instead.

Hang on though - everything is saved by the Asian countries, particularly China, who, deciding never to be at the mercy of the US again, deliberately keep their exchange rate low and buy government bonds, thus lending to poor people who are like an internal developing country within the United States. All seems to be well, the dream may yet become a reality, except that then, just as the US through the IMF had done to the Asian economies, China calls in the money. Wrapping everything up, we understand at last that, although everyone had thought everything would be okay because unnamed people believed computers would make everything okay, it turned out they were wrong. The end.

Had there been a shred of proper evidence offered to connect Ayn Rand to anything that went on in Silicon Valley, beyond a couple of semi nonentities saying they liked her and had chosen names influenced by her (I have a daughter called Anna and I like Anna Karenina but it doesn't mean I am an adherent of Tolstoy's loopier ideas), had the Rand-Greenspan connection been properly established rather than merely insinuated strongly without actual proof, had the whole China thing been convincing (how exactly is China getting revenge when its entire economy is hideously bound up with the US, so that, if the US collapses, China loses vast amounts of money?), this non-linear load of mashed up images and wild assertions might have had some value, rather than being patent nonsense.

Not that it matters to most of Curtis's audience. This nonsense understands perfectly the seductive power of images. It doesn't matter that during his artfully compiled hour-long parade of retro-postcards, Curtis does not offer a single solid fact. It does not matter either that his very premise is nonsense - who did actually articulate this supposed dream of a stable world through machines; who ever suggested that this was going to come to pass? Through the skilful use of pictures Curtis captures his viewers' imaginations (and, in this case, it is no coincidence at all that' imagination' and 'image' share the same root - that connection is something he understands better than almost anybody else).

Curtis's film, in fact, is not merely non-linear; it is practically non-verbal. It works not at a reasonable but at an almost subliminal level, which to my mind is not playing fair. As the stream of glimpsed scenes washes over viewers, a succession of fleetingly evoked emotions is stirred within them. Meaning is replaced by wisps of gossip and half-baked notions, truth and reason are replaced by vapour . In that sense then, it is non-linear; it is non-linear like smoke

Saturday, 24 September 2011

What Happened?

Yesterday I put on a jacket I hadn't worn for seven or eight years - yes, that's right, I don't agree with the boring get-rid-of-anything-in-your-wardrobe-you-haven't-worn-recently school of making you waste stuff: my theory is that, if a piece of clothing stays there long enough, it might become vintage, or possibly, given enough time, (and no moth infestations), an heirloom.  Maybe, if not well dry-cleaned, (the clothes, that is, not me), I might even one day open a cupboard and find a treasure trove of living national treasures.

Anyway, there was a bit of paper in the pocket of the (vintage? not quite yet, I think) jacket that I put on, and on the bit of paper I read a list written in the handwriting of an earlier incarnation of me. It was a 'to do' list, and among the things I had told myself to do was this:

'Wipe down skirting boards with lavender oil.'

I looked at the list and then at my skirting boards and realised that perhaps I hadn't always been a person who blocks out anything unpleasant. I must once have actually noticed that the accumulation of dust on most flat surfaces in my house could now be swept up in armfuls and used as parcel wadding - now there's a business idea. When did the change happen? When did I become a slattern?

I remembered then that the plumber who'd come to fix the washing-up machine the other day had congratulated me on the fact that ours was the first house he'd been to in eighteen months where he hadn't found mouse droppings behind the appliances. Presumably then I could forget my panic about my failing housewifely qualities. It would appear that my new slobbish approach to household maintenance was having no ill effects. Or was it actually the case that all those years of neurotic lavender oil scrubbing had built up a  protective barrier against invasion and that in fact nothing but its last and fading echoes were keeping the rodents of Canberra at bay? Once the very last vestige of the lavender oil decades finally evaporates from my skirting boards will we be eaten alive by mice and rats and fleas?

More importantly, liberated as I have become from kneeling at the altar of spotlessness, how have I been using all my newfound spare time? Writing blog posts like this one mainly. It's difficult to say which activity is less useful, even if it is pretty obvious which is more fun.

Friday, 23 September 2011

I Haven't Quite Finished

Sorry to bang on, but I'm still thinking about how much I love learning languages and I think I forgot to mention these things earlier:

a) how the study of another tongue makes you realise that all human communication is a feat of interpretation - trying to discover what the tone is, the intention of a statement, the mood and convictions and character of the being behind any set of words. Even communication that doesn't use language - a stop sign, for instance - has to be translated, so that one understands that it means, 'Stop the car, but don't turn it off', rather than, 'Stop talking or driving or even breathing', Stop, turn round, go home and do something else instead'.

b) how, as Elberry points out, limited knowledge sometimes makes thinking, if not easier, certainly different - and therefore you could argue that learning a language is as good for mind-altering as drugs, but not illegal (yet - knowing my prescriptive local government, it will probably soon be banned [before long living in Canberra will be like a perpetual Sunday with the Wee Frees]).

c) how there is an unexpected pleasure in finding words that seem much better fitted than your own to their meanings. Sometimes the words of another language seem to possess a kind of onomatopoeia of meaning (although not literal onomatopoeia, since a lot of the words in question refer to abstract concepts). Here are a few I am particularly fond of:

i: exigeant - for some reason this strikes me as much more 'demanding' than demanding does;

ii: Tocka,  which Nabokov claimed was untranslatable, although I think he was very inclined to make such remarks about Russian's superiority of expression. For me, it means longing and it is a better embodiment of that emotion than 'longing'. For those who like that kind of thing, here is Nabokov on the subject of its real meaning:  "At its deepest and most painful, it is a sensation of great spiritual anguish, often without any specific cause. At less morbid levels it is a dull ache of the soul, a longing with nothing to long for, a sick pining, a vague restlessness, mental throes, yearning. In particular cases it may be the desire for somebody of something specific, nostalgia, love-sickness. At the lowest level it grades into ennui, boredom.” The problem for me is that I think our word 'longing' also expresses all these gradations. As I've said,though, I do think - as he obviously does - that the sounds and letters and everything about tocka expresses longing better than 'longing' does.

iii. körülbelül - this is the Hungarian for 'approximately' and I think it sounds all muddled and approximate itself.

iv. beborult az ég - this means, I think, 'it's overcast' in Hungarian, and I like it because there is something almost cheering, like a fizzy drink, about the phrase which goes some way towards removing the gloominess of the thing it is describing. 

v. gyönyörű - this, again, is Hungarian, and it means marvellous; to my ear there is something much more generous about the word than there is about any of our adjectives covering the same ground.

vi. разочарование and Enttäuschung - both these words somehow speak to me of disappointment in a way that our word doesn't. If I had to pick one, I think the German option would win the day, disappointingly, (ha ha), for the Russian.

Possibly I have already described the other enormous joy of language study - when you go to university, you have to do a translation every week in any language you study. When you've done the translation, and the teacher has marked it, you gather together with your classmates for an hour and you go through the text you've translated, picking out phrases, turning over possible tenses you could have used,  being shown little idiomatic expressions that fit perfectly but that you would never otherwise have heard of. Frank Morehouse once wrote a story that I've never been able to find since I heard it read out on the radio in 1979 called The Girl who Loved Tutorials. I sympathised with that girl, but my passion wasn't tutorials. It was prose classes. Forget book clubs (ugh) - if I could go to a prose class or two each week I would be just as happy as a bean.

Thursday, 22 September 2011

Skipping around Girlishly

After reading a post where Umbagollah described going to see a 3D movie, which annoyed him or her (I presume you are one or the other, Umbagollah, unless, like me, you are merely fluffy), because the decision about what to focus on was made for him/her by the technology, I walked to Dickson, a local shopping centre that I have always associated with the idea of chronic and incurable depression.

At Dickson, I bought some things - what, I can't remember: objects I thought were extremely necessary at the time, but which are probably, even as I write this, niggling away, together with all the other bits of pointless rubbish I've lugged home and cluttered up this house with and now realise I neither like nor need, at the back of my mind, contributing to my ever present sense of low level but unfocused mild anxiety - in a shop that, when I first knew it, was called JB Young's.

In its JB Young's incarnation the shop was part of a chain that used to advertise on local television, ending each advertisement with a frenzied reeling off of the names of the stores where the things it was promoting could be bought. These were: John Meagher, Yass; Hain and Company, Cooma; and all JB Young's stores, (just in case anyone actually cares).

The most memorable of the products offered by these establishments was a comb which had a razor concealed within it, so that you could cut your hair while combing it. It seemed a peculiar and slightly alarming concept to me. The actor in the advertisement looked as if he agreed with this assessment.

Although he was shot from the back (shot by a camera, I should point out, before anyone gets too excited; this is Canberra, not Chicago, remember), he was facing a bathroom cabinet with a mirrored door. This meant, as my brother pointed out with great delight one day, that, if you looked carefully, you could see his expression in the mirror's reflection. Far from being thrilled by the results the comb was producing, which is what the natty gent in the voiceover promised any purchaser would be, the man's grimaces suggested he was growing more and more alarmed by the effect the gadget was having on his rapidly decreasing crop of hair.

How we laughed - well, let's face it, you took your fun where you could find it in Canberra in 1972 (some things never change).

Anyway, JB Young's - yes, all its stores, even the one in the city centre where I once had a very pleasant conversation about the difficulty of finding really good white material for making shirts with an elderly man who worked in the fabric section and had almost mystical views on the subject - has gone, and so has John Meagher, Yass, I think.

In the years since the demise of the JB Young's empire, however, the erstwhile JB Young's at Dickson has survived through several reincarnations, most recently transforming itself, somewhat misleadingly, given the absence of the smallest trace of Harris tweed from the premises, combined with a fairly limited supply of anything remotely resembling scarves, into 'Harris Scarfe' where, apart from the disappearance of the haberdashery section (haberdashery is becoming increasingly endangered throughout the modern world), almost nothing at all has changed.

Thus, although it might just as well have been for all the difference it made (barring the lack of haberdashery), it was not in JB Young's, or its immediate successor, Allen's, or any of its other iterations (have I used that word correctly - I'm trying to be dashing by flashing vocabulary like that about, even though I'm way out of my depth really), but in 'Harris Scarfe' that I bought the objects I can no longer remember - and, while I was buying them, I wondered about Umbagollah's proposition that we like to see everything, (or, to quote directly from the post in question:, "... eyes want to roam, and the senses fly like eagles, picking up details"). Was he or she correct, I asked myself, standing at the counter, and just at that moment the boy behind the counter let out an exasperated sigh.

'This bloody cash register', he said. I looked over and saw him thump the side of the object he was referring to with his fist. I realised then I hadn't even noticed the register until that moment, even though it was a great big, dark grey, bulky thing made of plastic and almost impossible to miss. Far from wanting to pick up this particular detail - the existence of the cash register - I'd chosen not to take it in at all.

Looking round, I saw that there was lots of other stuff that I was also deliberately ignoring. It occurred to me that, far from picking up details, I was actually rejecting them - and not just in that shop but everywhere I went. While I understood what Umbagollah meant, of course - I hate watching a filmed version of a theatrical production, for example, because it is the director who decides what part of the stage I'm going to be looking at, not me; I can't choose to look to the left, unless he lets me - in daily life, far from drinking in everything with eagle like observation, it turns out that I filter out most of the stuff that I don't like.

Almost by reflex, it seems, I am regularly deliberately ignoring all sorts of ugliness, both in the present and in my memory. When I'm away and I'm missing Australia, for example, it is scenes like these that I recall:

while all this stuff gets forgotten:

I choose not to see the cash registers or housing commission flats or semi-industrial shopping areas. I also manage almost all of the time to filter out the unhappiness, poverty and horror of the lives of most of my fellow human beings. I'm Fotherington-Thomas really. It's all 'Hello clouds, hello birds, hello sky' - let's forget gas stations and factories, misery and brutal pointless warfare - almost all the time for me.

Wednesday, 21 September 2011

While on the Subject of Melbourne

Here is something else from last year, looking at a somewhat less cosy place than the State Library reading room:

Hanging Too Good for Them?

The Old Melbourne Gaol is a forbidding looking place – which I suppose is as it should be. It is built from bluestone, a material that, in my view, (and I apologise in advance to Melbourne Grammar School, [the world's leading bluestone educational establishment?] for saying this) rarely inspires a sense of cheer.

The interior of the jail, although partly painted, (thus concealing to some extent the sombre blueness of the bluestone), is at least as gloomy as the exterior. It consists of a long stone corridor, flanked on either side by low doorways. A metal staircase at one end leads to the galleries that encircle the two upper floors. Little light reaches through the cells' small windows and there is no visible means of heating. It was freezing the whole time I was inside, and it rained ceaselessly. The steady sound of falling water only increased my sense of gloom.

I should point out, before anyone gets the wrong idea, that I did not go to the jail as an inmate, (the building has not actually functioned as a jail for many years); I went as a visitor to what has become a museum. Instead of prisoners, the cramped cells of the former institution now contain detailed displays that tell the story of Victoria's early penal history.

Melbourne Gaol, it turns out, was built in the mid-nineteenth century – hence, presumably, the archaic spelling. It was modelled on Pentonville Prison in London, which was the template for penal establishments throughout the British Empire at the time. The Pentonville design was based upon the "Pentonville method", which favoured long periods of isolation, silence and constant surveillance – designed to break the spirit so that reform could be effected. During recent repairs at the Melbourne Gaol, a subterranean, windowless "punishment cell", where inmates could be left for up to four days, was discovered, evidence that the isolation principles of the Pentonville method were enforced here with more gusto than previously thought. This does not come as a total surprise once you've seen the dreadful calico hoods that prisoners had to wear in solitary confinement – and the even worse iron masks, inflicted as punishment for outrageous behaviour, such as, horror of horrors, whistling in your cell.

What does seem astonishing though is the information that the jail's youngest inmates included: in 1859, a three-year-old called Michael Cummins, incarcerated for six months for being idle and disorderly (fairly difficult to be anything else at three, I would have thought); Robert Hall, a four-year-old, imprisoned for vagrancy; his brother, Charles, a seven-year-old, also a "vagrant"; and Thomas McNamara, aged nine, charged, once again, with vagrancy. It is details like these that prove the past really is another country: a world where children could be locked up for having nothing to do seems a very foreign place indeed.

Of course, there were far worse fates than isolation and the “Pentonville Method” awaiting prisoners at Melbourne Gaol. Not to put too fine a point on it, 135 of them ended up swinging from the jail’s gallows—which the visitor can still view on an upper level of the museum, along with the dreadful contraption called a lashing triangle. In the cells on the ground floor, the stories of some of these individuals are told. In each separate room, the death mask of one or other of the death sentence victims is displayed, along with information about their convictions.

Among the 135 who were punished by hanging, there were some who were unarguably bad. Martha Needle is one such. Also known as the Richmond Poisoner, she discovered how easy it was to make money from insurance by knocking off family members with arsenic laden food. She managed to poison her husband, three children and a future brother-in-law, before being caught and hanged on 22 October, 1894.

Frederick Bailey Deeming, the famous Windsor Murderer, is another. Deeming, whose death mask is accompanied by a cast of one of his hands, (and what a dreadful hand it seems, once we learn what deeds it did), was once considered a suspect for the crimes of Jack the Ripper. He travelled between the United Kingdom, Australia, South Africa and South America, with his wife Marie and four children to begin with, and later with his second wife, Emily. He arrived with Emily in Victoria in December 1891 and rented a cottage, calling himself Mr Drewin. In March 1892 when the landlord was showing someone through the cottage, (presumably after the departure of Deeming), he noticed a horrible smell. Police were called and dug up Emily's body, encased in cement and buried beneath the hearthstone. Subsequently, English police found the bodies of Marie and her four children beneath the hearthstone in Deeming's house in Liverpool. Deeming, having now promoted himself to the peerage – he was calling himself Baron Swanson—was caught in Western Australia, where he was about to marry again. Despite a plea of insanity, he was executed at the jail on 23 May, 1892.

Sadly most of the other hanging victims we are introduced to seem, at least on the face of it, less deserving of their eventual fate. In the first cell we go into we find the masks of two Tasmanian Aborigines—Bob "Smallboy" and Jack "Tummunperway". In 1839, they travelled to Victoria from Tasmania with the Chief Protector of Aborigines. When a female amongst their party (the famous Truganini, as it happens), thought she recognised a whaler who had abducted and murdered her husband, they killed him as payback. In sentencing them, the judge declared, "the punishment that awaits you is not one of vengeance but terror… to deter similar transgressions." They were hanged on 21 January, 1842 and, possibly because it was the state's first execution, the job was horribly bungled, one observer describing it as a "disgusting execrable scene."

The next cell tells the story of George Melville, a highwayman, hanged for robbery with intent to murder on 3 October, 1853. He was involved in a hold-up of the “gold trip” in Bendigo, and after his execution the prison released his dead body to his wife, who took it, decorated it with flowers and put it on display in her oyster shop, attracting large crowds. Whether or not she continued trading in oysters with him in situ is, disappointingly, not revealed—I like to think she laid him on a bed of the things and picked them out from under his corpse to serve to ghoulish clients. Whatever the truth or otherwise of that grim tableau, it was decided from then on that the bodies of the hanged would no longer be released to their families but instead would be buried at the prison itself.

An ex convict called Weachurch was the next to go to the gallows—or the next we are shown at least. He was first transported from Britain to Tasmania for theft, and it seems pretty clear from the stuff on display about him that he was either mad or driven mad by the penal system and was in need of treatment rather than execution. On the wall in his cell is a long, somewhat deranged letter that he wrote to his parents during his incarceration. It makes poignant reading: he assures them that he is certain he will soon be released, writing of his "humbel, hearnist, heartfelt prayer" in a script far more beautiful than most of us today can muster. Two thousand people are said to have gathered in Melbourne’s Royal Park to protest against his sentence, which suggests that even in 1835 there were plenty of decent people around.

Weachurch is followed by: an Italian named Bondietto, who was convicted on trumped up circumstantial evidence and spoke no English, so that, horrifyingly, he didn't even realise what was happening until two minutes before he was put to death; an Indian called Fatta Chand, a 24-year-old door-to-door salesman who was supposed to have killed his mate but protested his innocence to the end—the public's attitude to him, sadly, was rather less enlightened than it had been toward Weachurch: in fact, his hanging resulted in nothing except renewed calls for restricted immigration (how things change eh?); An Gaa, a Chinese about whom there was never any doubt that he killed his mate nor about the fact that he was utterly insane; and another 24-year-old, Fred Jordan, an ex-slave from Maryland who, although sweet natured when sober, killed his wife when drunk and whose last words were, 'No, I have nothing to say. It is no use now".

And with the story of Fred Jordan we reach the end of the row of cells on the ground floor, but not the end of the prisoners' stories. In fact, the museum curators have saved us the best for last. Coming out of the final cell doorway, we are confronted with one more deathmask, a more familiar one, belonging to the prison’s most famous inmate. It rests in a glass case at the end of the ground floor corridor–a position that captures what light there is and suggests an altar rather than an exhibit - and it belongs to Ned Kelly.

Kelly's execution took place at the jail on 11 November, 1880. Pitifully, his mother, who was also a prisoner at the time, was working in the prison laundry only a few yards away, aware of what was happening but unable to witness her son's death, (I am not suggesting she would have wanted to attend the event as a spectator, but I think any mother would have wanted to lend emotional support, if that doesn't sound too "new agey" in the circumstances.)

I never really know what I think about Kelly. The times he lived in were hard, but he was a violent man and a threat to authority in the new colony, and I am far from being an anarchist. His mother, (of whom there is a startlingly clear photograph from 1911 on display,) was, I suppose, partly to blame for his downfall, given that it was she who suggested he apprentice himself to a bushranger in the first place—Harry Power, who also spent time at Melbourne Gaol, although he escaped the gallows, dying instead by falling in the River Murray some time later. On the other hand, Kelly was not merely a thief, if the information provided about him by the museum is to be believed. According to that, he was also a kind of revolutionary, with a plan of some sort to declare the north-eastern part of Victoria an autonomous Republic. I don't know whether this legitimises his activities, but it does suggest he was a thinker of some description, as well as a crook.

Many relics of the Kellys can be seen in the jail, including two suits of the armour the gang fashioned from ploughshares (although not Kelly's own, which, in what may be a stroke of irony or merely a nice reminder of the fact that his nihilistic efforts might have prevented the establishment of such a civilised institution, takes pride of place at the State Library, which was set up by Redmond Barry, the judge who sentenced Kelly to death.) It is almost pointless looking at them anyway: like chocolate box alpine scenes, the things are so ubiquitous as images that it is actually quite surprising to view them in the round and realise that they really do exist. They are overflowing with symbolic meaning - although what they are symbolic of exactly, I am far from certain - but it is nearly impossble to see them simply as what they are.

One item of Kelly's on display in the jail that did touch me a little though, setting up some sense of a link between the man and the present, was a green velvet sash that Kelly was given when he was about 10, after he leapt into a fast-flowing river, without any thought for his own safety, and saved a boy from drowning (given Harry Power’s eventual fate, he might have done well to keep Kelly by him longer, in the circumstances). Kelly was wearing the sash at his death which struck me as rather poignant—I’m probably getting carried away with sentiment here (this is what the Kelly myth does to you, if you don’t watch it) but I couldn’t help wondering if the object reminded him of what he might have been, rather than what he had become.

Strangely though, resonant and almost overpowering as Kelly's story is for Australians, it is not the most powerful or upsetting tale in Melbourne jail–not by a long chalk. That honour is reserved, at least in my mind, for the account of what happened to Colin Ross, which can be found in a large room right at the top of the building.

Colin Ross was convicted in 1922 of the murder of a young girl and sentenced to hang. He insisted he had not committed the crime, going so far as to persuade his warders to give him, illegally, a pencil stub, with which he scrawled the following note on the back of an envelope:

"Dear Friends outside, a few words from Colin Ross, who is going to hang an innocent man, I appeal to the people of Australia to see that I get justice. My life has been sworned away by police and wicked people. I ask you this because if they will do it to me they will do the same to you. Take this to some paper office for me please, I am an innocent man."

The note, now on display in the jail, was somehow thrown over the prison wall and found by a passer by. The guards who had supplied the means of writing it were punished. Then it was discovered that, after all, Colin Ross had been telling the truth all along. He had been framed by police anxious for a quick result and by someone with a grudge against him. Forensic evidence proved his innocence and he was pardoned. Sadly, he was already dead by then, having been hanged on 24 April, 1922. His vindication came on 27 May, 2008, almost 100 years to late

But, if Ross's tale is not enough to give the most keen devotee of hanging pause for thought, there is always the issue of whether it is fair to ask someone else to carry out the deed. Next to a room in which the only thing on exhibit is an extremely lifelike human figure with its back to the viewer, the canvas hood worn by all condemned men over its head and a leather covered hangman's noose around its neck, the stories of the first people who were given the unpleasant task of being hangmen are laid out in considerable detail.

The first we meet is Alexander Green, originally the New South Wales hangman, who completed 409 executions before going mad. After him comes Michael Gately, a convict whose claim to fame, apart from being generally hated, was that he converted from Roman Catholicism to the Jewish faith while in jail, because being a Jew brought an entitlement to Passover cake. While in life Gately seems to have retained his equanimity better than most of his colleagues, he now, supposedly, haunts the jail.

Gateley’s replacement was Elijah Upjohn, a criminal from the UK whose offences included "drunkenness" and "indecent exposure" plus, mystifyingly, "carting night soil without a license." (was this what they did before telly?) It was Upjohn who hanged Ned Kelly, but accounts from the time suggest that he had to be wound up to the act with large amounts of alcohol. After Kelly's execution, Upjohn apparently lost what little nerve he had, bungled the next hanging he presided over and retired a broken man. William Walker succeeded him but, when faced with the first hanging of a woman in Victoria, he cut his own throat instead. The man who followed him fared no better, descending into madness and ending his life convinced naked girls were chasing him down the street abusing him.

These stories suggest that, whatever we may think of the criminals who are being punished, hanging is not merely a risky business for those on whom it is practised but also a destructive enterprise for those who have to carry out the deed. There is always another victim, it seems—and that is the hangman. Of course, the leaders of some countries would advocate a sharing of the burden instead—a collectivisation of responsibility via the practice of stoning—but all I can say to them is, “Off with your heads.”

Tuesday, 20 September 2011

My Idea of Hell

Walking up Collins Street behind two businessmen at lunch time, I heard one say to the other, "What I really like about it is the continuous flow of feedback that everyone is getting all the time now."


Monday, 19 September 2011

Home Sweet Home

As I'm down in Melbourne at the State Library of Victoria for a bit and won't have time to blog much for a little while, I thought I'd repeat an earlier post, headed 'Made to Last', which I wrote about a year ago, when I was last in this lovely place:

"I love working at the National Library of Australia but I love working at the State Library of Victoria even more. Both institutions embrace the public and demonstrate an eagerness to help us use the collections we have helped pay for. This is in stark contrast to the British Library, which, despite being funded by the nation's taxpayers, seems so keen to prevent citizens accessing its reading rooms you begin to wonder if it is run by the committee of Brooks's Club.

The reason I prefer the State Library of Victoria to the National Library has nothing to do with the service or the collections available though. The thing that makes it my favourite is simply the fact that the building it is housed in was built before 1960. Even though the National Library is one of the nicer late twentieth century buildings I know of, it still does not contain the things I most love about pre-industrial/pre-Modernist/pre-Niemeyer architecture: the countless little signs that the edifice was put together by highly-skilled individuals, who made things carefully, by hand, with the intention that they should last.

The desk I am sitting at, for example, is constructed from solid wood. Its surface has tooled green leather insets. It has a flat, brass-hinged central panel with a flush brass handle that you can pull up so that the main part of the desk becomes a slope. The lamp that shines above the desk is protected by green glass, to match the desk's leather, and set in a gleaming brass collar which hangs from a decorative carved wooden pole topped by a redundant but aesthetically pleasing wooden globe. My chair is also wood. The seat is wide enough to fit the most obese of today's readers and has been planed to slope at each side, with a slight rise at the middle of the front. Its arms are formed from a semi circular piece of wood which has been carved to form a shape a bit like a minim at each end. There is a pretty wooden back rest with a pattern cut into it and an attractive backward curl, and there are two P-shaped carved supports for the arm rests. The whole thing is set on four legs, which form two semi circles, meeting underneath the seat, at its centre, where a heavy cast iron mechanism provides springiness and allows the user to move the thing up and down.

Everything about these objects reminds you that someone - an unknown but living person who cared about doing their job well and took pleasure in getting things perfect - was engaged in every moment of their making. This, it seems to me, establishes a connection between us today and the people who created this place, thus giving us a link with the past in which they lived as well. Somehow the mass-produced formica and chipboard tables and tubular alloy and foam padded chairs of today do not manage the same trick. All human connection is absent from the streamlined sleek chrome and glass structures we are erecting in our cities now.

But clearly not everyone sees things my way. The La Trobe reading room in the State Library of Victoria was once thought of as a sort of poor man's version of the reading room at the British Library in London, whereas now its rival has been swept away. The shell remains in Norman Foster's Great Court at the British Museum, but nothing of its interior is left. This strikes me as vandalism. Aesthetically, no-one could argue that the exhibition space that now occupies the old reading room is an improvement. Furthermore, a place of historical significance - the room where Karl Marx wrote Das Kapital - has been destroyed. After all, whatever one may think of Marxism, his work is without any doubt the single most influential piece of writing in the whole of the last century. While the workplaces of other writers - Jane Austen's house in Chawton, Thomas Hardy's cottage in Dorset - are now places of pilgrimage, Marx's has been systematically destroyed.

Before I descend into whingeing and grumbling, however, I am reminded of a report I saw where some of the surviving old fellows who had worked at the reading room when Marx was a habitue were interviewed. When asked if they remembered him, they frowned and scratched their heads. They'd never heard of him or read anything he'd written. But then one of them remembered: 'Oh yes, he was the one who always wanted the really heavy books from right on the top shelves. We always had to get the ladders out for him. He was a real nuisance.' Now I think about it, that's not a bad description for Marx really - a real, real nuisance."

*PS sitting on my desk in the reading room today, in September 2011, is a book labelled 'New Book', called Why Marx was Right by Terry Eagleton, so perhaps my attitude will be altered, if I read it. Up until now I've been very happy with the impressions formed from reading Francis Wheen's biography of the old bastard - what emerged from those pages, in my view, was a picture of an ogre and a destructive bully, despite what Amazon claims.

PPS Here is the view from where I'm sitting right now:

Friday, 16 September 2011

More of that Great Island

A country that promotes itself through its poetry can't be all bad:

She's in Fine Voice Tonight, Captain Haddock

Steerforth referred to me extremely kindly in a post the other day and now, by referring to him referring to me, I am setting in motion something that reminds me of the endlessly repeating reflections you sometimes get in changing-room mirrors, a phenomenon that I first noticed when, aged about six, I was trying on a party dress in a cubicle in the children's department of  Peter Jones, Sloane Square, while above my head the terrifying sales lady and my mother discussed the sad fact that I wasn't the kind of girl to carry off frills (and, even now, while I am aware that they were tactlessly but absolutely right, I still wish I were a frill-carrier-offer,[but we all have our crosses to bear in life, don't we?{and have you noticed by the way that these brackets within brackets are, in their own way, a kind of mirroring of the mirroring effect I'm talking about?}])

Anyway, the substance of that post of Steerforth's was his attitude to opera and how he'd thought he didn't like it but in fact he found he really did.  His story reminded me of a similar experience I had about a decade ago when I was driving along the road that runs by Schwedenplatz in Vienna. I have no idea where I was going but I'd come from Nussdorf, passing the Hundertwasser recycling station, hurtling along without hindrance until I reached this point. But now I'd arrived at a traffic jam, which I'd become deeply stuck in. Outside, it began to rain.

To pass the time, I turned on the radio. From the speakers came the sound of a woman's voice. It was uncannily beautiful. I no longer cared that I was in a traffic jam. I'd become mesmerised by the music.  When at last it ended, I listened carefully, determined to note down the singer's name, so that I could buy some recordings of her. It was Joan Sutherland. I couldn't believe it. My immediate thought was, 'It can't have been, because I don't like Joan Sutherland.'  But, of course, I'd never given her the benefit of listening to her without  prejudice. There was the way she looked, to start with, and there were the stories I'd heard told by embittered rivals about how she'd blotted out the chances of her contemporaries among the ranks of Australian female singers.

But now, in the absence of knowledge about who I was listening to, I'd discovered the most important thing about her of all. Her voice was wonderful, she was a woman who had an extraordinary soaringly beautiful talent. None of the rest mattered; in fact, most of it was completely wrong.

Wednesday, 14 September 2011

Social Solution

Have you ever given a party and then wished all your guests would go away? Have you invited people for dinner and found yourself, after a few hours in their company, yawning and longing for sleep, while all around you your companions are uncorking further bottles, dancing, singing and generally settling in for a long and noisy night?

Of course, you can choose to leave your guests to it and retire upstairs. The problem is that, when you come down in the morning, you never know what you will find (in the early eighties, for instance, an artificial leg left on the stairs by a Canadian diplomat who had spent most of the previous evening telling me he'd hated me when he first met me but now he'd discovered I wasn't stuck up at all [the background music of my youth that one - people discovering they liked me only when they got really, really drunk] very nearly resulted in my tipping headlong to an untimely death).

Far better therefore to nip the problem in the bud and make sure all carousers are off the premises before you turn in. But surely that is easier said than done? Not now, thanks to the ZMKC surefire method for ending a party. There is no need for complicated equipment. Training is unnecessary. All that is required is a single recording of this man:

His name is Chad Morgan and his effect is miraculous. Five or ten bars into any of his songs and a hush falls over proceedings. Sometimes a few feeble protests - along the lines of 'What the hell is this' and 'Can't you turn off that horrible noise' - erupt, but these are followed inevitably by an understanding that retreat is the only option. Coats are found, farewells are made and people stumble out into the night. You close the front door and breathe a sigh of relief. At last, you are alone.

Travel Broadens the Mind

The other day George at 20011 wrote about the various media through which the Washington storm could be viewed. Although the pictures on the television screen were great, he said, the rain looked even better from his porch.

This reference to seeing things actually or seeing them through a TV screen reminded me of a story a Dutch friend told me years ago about arriving at the start of a three-year posting in a country very unlike her own.

The house she and her family were allotted was right beside a beach, which seemed terrific, until she entered the play room one afternoon to find her three children all lined up, gazing out the window, agog. What they were looking at, she realised, was an execution by firing squad, which was taking place on the sand below.

In panic - and completely uncharacteristically  - she hustled the children away from the window towards the huge television that was supplied as part of the furnishings in the house. 'Come on, darlings, come and watch television,' she yelled, trying to sound enthusiastic rather than hysterical. The children, almost more shocked by their mother urging them to watch television than they had been by the sights on the beach, swiftly assembled in front of the big screen.

Sadly, my friend,who was usually inept with technology, managed, for once, to master the row of buttons on the remote control and persuade the television to turn on.  She almost immediately wished she'd been less competent:  live pictures of the execution going on out there on the beach behind them emerged onto the screen in lurid colour and greater detail than anything available through the window. She scurried through the channels, hoping for something more wholesome, but there they were, the same ghastly images, on every single one.

Not all the people I've met in foreign service shared my friend's horrified attitude to the sight of firing squads, however. When a new administrative officer arrived at the god forsaken place we were stationed many years ago, direct from a posting in Saudi Arabia, we asked him round for a meal. During the course of the evening, he revealed that his apartment in Saudi had had a balcony that looked directly over the nation's principal execution ground and that he had found this a great social advantage. He'd deliberately organised lunch parties, he explained, around the schedule of executions that went on down below.

According to him, these occasions were extremely popular. 'If you timed it right', he told us, 'you could take your drinks out and watch 'the action', and then, when it was all over, you could come in and sit down to a lovely lunch.' We nodded mutely, neither of us able to think of a sensible response to this, 'After all', he continued, 'it's not often you get the opportunity to see someone die.'

A few weeks later, when the same man offered to drive my husband to the airport, as he was going to pick someone or something up from there at around the same time my husband had to catch a flight to the provinces, it was impossible to think of a civil excuse. The road to the airport was a busy one and driving in that country was always dangerous. The whole way there, my husband told me later, all he kept thinking was 'What if an accident happens and I am injured? Will Ron call an ambulance or simply stand watching as I lie beside this dusty foreign road, bleeding and moaning? Will he view it as simply one more of those very rare opportunities to see someone gasp their last?'

Monday, 12 September 2011

Country Mates

I've been spending quite a lot of time in Yass just lately. It's a country town just outside Canberra and at the moment, with the trees in the main street all in blossom, it is looking particularly nice.

There was a girl I went to boarding school with who came from Yass and I've always remembered the absurd conversation I witnessed between her and another girl's mother. 'So where do you come from dear,' oozed the glossy woman, who'd cruised down in the Merc from Sydney's North Shore. 'Yass', said the Yass girl. 'No, dear, where do you come from?' 'Yass,' the Yass girl replied again. 'No, dear, I was asking you where it is you come from?' 'I come from bloody Yass, Mrs, it's a country town in New South Wales.'

Perhaps you had to be there.

Anyway, it was good to see some furry friends perched on top of the building where my mother's doctor operates a practice that combines all the best of Dr Cameron's modus operandi with 21st century medicine. He (my mother's doctor) is a very rare gem.

Policies that Might Make Me Vote for the Greens: No. 2

I might vote for the Greens if they banned the automatic fans that switch on in hotel bathrooms as soon as you turn the light on and continue whirring for several minutes after you've turned it off and gone away. It would be an 'energy saving' measure after all - and it would also make the modern world slightly less annoying (something the Greens haven't shown much of a commitment to as yet, I have to admit, but without hope what is life really?)

Sunday, 11 September 2011

I Laughed, I Cried

My mad French neighbour - actually, that's inaccurate: she is Belgian, not French, and mad only in the sense that she expects life to be heaven and rails against the world when it is not - was complaining a while ago that her children hadn't had any children yet and therefore she was no longer in touch with what was going on.   Her argument was that having kids about the place stops you from being a stranger in your own lifetime, wandering supermarket aisles baffled by new products like liquid soap, leafing through weekend newspapers, unable to recognise the faces of anyone featured.

Being her, of course, my neighbour remains dissatisfied, even though her daughter has since produced a baby; the source of dissatisfaction now is  the fact that the father her daughter has chosen for her baby is wealthy and successful and they live very comfortably in Sydney whereas, 'I wanted my daughter to go bush walking and camping and carry her baby in a backpack, not live in a house with a Jacuzzi and own one of those pushchairs that looks like a tank.'

All the same, the fact that nothing ever pleases her doesn't mean my neighbour doesn't sometimes have a point. This week, for example, the truth of her argument about being made aware of things by the young struck home particularly forcefully for me. Without a child to point it out to me, I would never have known the novel called One Day by David Nicholls existed. Instead, having been told about it by my younger daughter - thank you, Lucy - I've been able to spend the past two days immersed in its pages, if not unable, certainly very unwilling, to put it down.

The action of One Day takes place over twenty years and follows the lives of two characters - Emma and Dexter - who spend the night together at the very end of university, but remain relatively chaste during the experience, thus setting up that acronymic situation that LA scriptwriters are apparently taught is vital to a TV show's success - MUFT, SMURF? - in which two people made for each other somehow keep not quite falling into each other's arms.

It is evidence of what a good writer Nicholls is that he manages to persuade the reader - or this one anyway - that on that first night Emma and Dexter do somehow control themselves. Even greater evidence of his skill is the fact that the novel does not, as so many do these days, start off engaging and hilarious and then disappoint, but remains throughout its full 435 pages extremely funny, observant and utterly engrossing.

Moreover, although the book is to a large extent a remorseless satire of the eighties and nineties - and the portrait of his own society that Nicholls gives is every inch as masterful as Franzen would like his to be but provided without any apparent pretensions on the part of Nicholls to the mantel of 'important writer' - and although one of the main characters is at times almost nightmarish in his self-absorption and self-destructiveness, astonishingly Nicholls never loses our sympathy for the two protagonists. This is largely because his insight is so acute (his rendering of the dangers that the gifts of good looks and charm can bring an individual struck me as particularly original).

I cannot recommend this book highly enough. I do not remember the last time I was so captivated by a novel - my only criticism might be that my desire to keep reading was almost too intense; I found myself wishing I could get away from my friends and family in order to return to Dexter and Emma. The fact that somehow as well as being moving and full of romantic suspense the book is also exceptionally funny only adds to its attractions. I have nothing more to say apart from: read this book.

STOP PRESS: I have just come back from seeing the film, which isn't worth seeing unless you've read and liked the book. Viewed without that preparation, the film is just a flimsy rom-com. Actually, even if you have read and liked the book, you might want to think twice about going - or at least look away when the Ian Whitehead character comes on the screen. Emma was going out with someone who was a compromise, not Lou from Little Britain, although that seems to have been the model the actor chose for his portrayal. I think it would have been better if they'd cast the man who plays the tall sports teacher in the TV series Teachers in the part. Ann Hathaway does a very good job though, I think.

(Coincidentally, as I was walking up the street on my way home just now, who should I meet but my mad, [not mad] French, [not French] neighbour. 'Hello, ZMKC, what have you been doing?' was her greeting. I told her I'd been to the cinema. She sniffed. 'You should not be in a stuffy cinema on a Sunday afternoon,' she told me, 'you should have been out in the fresh air planting trees, like me.' As usual, she was probably right.)

Saturday, 10 September 2011

Animal Magic

The anecdote Nick Cohen told about Hilary Mantel in a recent Spectator:

reminded me of a wonderful man I used to know who, by a strange coincidence, was a high school French teacher (but a really nice one).

After graduating, he was sent to teach at a big school in a country town. Before he left the city to take up his new position he was warned by everyone in the education department that the establishment he was going to work at was one of the worst in the state and that the students there regularly ate teachers - and sometimes even each other - alive.

Not surprisingly, given what he'd been told, when my friend approached the classroom door to front up to his first class, he was feeling pretty nervous. Which was why, when the door burst open and a girl with wild hair and tattoos up her arms came hurtling out, he very nearly turned and ran.

Instead, he stared in terror as the girl pulled something out of her pocket and lunged towards him. It must be a knife, he thought. What was she going to do with it? Did she just want him to know that she had it or would she plunge it immediately into his arm or leg? And, if he was lucky and she spared him this time, how was he ever going to assert any kind of authority, when this was the way that he'd let things get going at the start?

Then the girl spoke.  'Hello, sir,' she said, and before he could stop her, she'd shoved the thing from her pocket into his hand. Instead of steel, he felt crumpled cardboard between his fingers. 'Would you like to see a picture of my horse?'

Thursday, 8 September 2011

Mutual Admiration

As I said in my last post, I am not a very good student of languages. When I encountered my French teacher shortly after I left school, I realised that she agreed with this assessment. It was just a few days before university started and we were both standing waiting at Canberra's very first ATM, (this encounter took place back in the 1970s).

Out of an inability to think of any way to avoid talking to her, I greeted my former teacher, for whom, since her method of teaching had been the one Montaigne describes - "The usual way is to bawl into a pupil's ears as if one was pouring water into a funnel" - I had almost total contempt.

As I had never completed a single piece of homework for her or, in fact, done any work at all (I preferred the time honoured strategy of all lazy and arrogant young students - swotting for 20 hours a day for the four days immediately before the final exams, so that for a very brief interval, ideally including the exact scrap of time occupied by the exam itself, each piece of information necessary to answer the paper's cunning questions would hang with uncanny clarity in the empty cavern of my mind, ready to be deployed at a moment's notice before evaporating forever from my consciousness) - she wasn't exactly in love with me either.

Which was why I wasn't that surprised when her face didn't light up at the sight of me.

'Hello, ZMKC,' she said. She looked as pleased as if she'd discovered she'd just stood in dog's poo. 'What are you up to?'

'I'm about to start university,' I told her, 'I'm studying modern languages - in fact, one of the languages I'll be studying will be French,' I said.

She couldn't help herself. Her face convulsed.

'You - studying French', she said. The words almost choked her

 I smiled. I decided it would be wise to change the subject. 'What are you doing?' I asked, congratulating myself on my grace and charm in the face of her appalling rudeness.

'I'm getting married tomorrow,' she answered, with a simper.

Her - she must be at least 30. And she was so unattractive. And annoying. Before I could stop myself, and even while my mind was still awash with my own moral superiority in the face of her lack of civility and tact, I heard myself saying, 'You, getting married,' with exactly the same tone of utter amazement and horror as she had used to me.

Tuesday, 6 September 2011

The Joy of Babel

I love learning languages. This seems to surprise lots of people - not the fact that I in particular love learning languages, but the idea that anyone at all would enjoy such a task. Many English speakers appear quite content to remain within the gilded cage of their own language's confines. To them it seems to be a pointless effort to bother learning some foreign Johnny's lingo. After all, most people in the world understand some English, so why make the effort to learn to speak anything else?

Amazingly there are even a few foreigners who share this view. Certainly  the sub sub-Zsa Zsa Gabor I met soon after arriving in Budapest gave every sign of doing so: when I told her I might try having a bash at learning Hungarian, she seemed genuinely shocked. Raising her perfectly tended eyebrows and grasping my wrist with her manicured, heavily jewelled fingers, she asked in a shrill voice, 'Darling, whatever for?'

In fact, there are many very good reasons for learning a foreign language, not least avoiding experiences like the one Shaun Tan, the Oscar winning illustrator, recounted in the newspaper the other day:

Of course, balanced against the advantage of understanding what is going on around you when you go to a foreign country - or even avoiding making unnecessary trips to that country, because you have understood that you have not in fact been invited - is the considerable hard work involved in learning another language, at least for me.

Because saying I love learning languages is not at all the same as saying I am good at learning languages. I'm not at all. I have heard of - although I've never actually met - people who have a gift for picking up languages, mastering strange grammars and vocabularies in a matter of days. I'm not one of them.

And if I were, I don't think I would actually love learning languages, for it is the never-ending, day-in-day-out, slow-acquiring-of-a-complex-skill element that is part of the delight of learning a language for me. I like activities involving steady perseverance. In fact, I believe it is those kinds of activities that actually provide the greatest satisfaction to humankind.

And, useful though being able to communicate and understand communications is, the ability to speak and understand on a daily basis is the smallest of the pleasures that learning a language holds, in my view. Apart from anything else, I find conversation somewhat harrowing in any language - even my own mother tongue. I am hopeless at gathering my thoughts, finding the right words to formulate them, remembering what I want to say while at the same time listening to what others are telling me and thinking of ripostes while actually on the spot rather than two days afterwards, when it is too late.

This partly explains why, while some people enjoy the opportunity a new language offers for self-reinvention, I would never want to be taken as a native speaker (not that I could probably ever manage it anyway, except in my own on a good day).While Nicole Diver in Tender is the Night observes, 'In French you can be heroic and gallant with dignity ... in English you can't be heroic and gallant without being a little absurd', I am unwilling or unable to shake off my English sense of absurdity and throw myself wholeheartedly into the new identity that goes with a new language.

What I like more than talking a new language is the discovery of the language in a more abstract sense. I enjoy encountering new approaches to grammar, which reveal subtle shifts in the way different nationalities view reality - the odd Hungarian verb form variants that depend on whether the object of the verb is definite or indefinite, the Slavic languages' aspectual system, which focuses so surprisingly on whether actions are completed or not, the mystery of why so many languages retain a formal and an intimate second person and why we Anglos chose to dispense with that, and, when we did choose to do so, what made us decide to get rid of the warmer, more friendly, 'thou'.

I find the different vocabulary available to different nationalities equally intriguing - when we saw, for instance, in a visitors' book in a country museum in Austria that the people before us had written under the heading, 'Reason for visit', the single word, 'Kulturausflug', I wondered whether it was the Germans' innate pomposity that had led to the creation of such a word or whether they were led by their language to have to express themselves with such solemnity.

I also enjoy the certainty that grammar and its cast-iron rules provide for me.  I like the fact that there is no need to formulate original and complex argument when learning a language. Instead, all you have to do is memorise structures and bang words into your head. You do not need to question - in fact, it is best if you don't do any questioning. You just need to understand the relationships between the various components and also to remember how the various components are spelled.

Which is not to say that there aren't intriguing questions to be asked - who set down these rules, who decided that these particular sounds would henceforth designate this thing? These are fascinating and mysterious lines of enquiry, However, they are destined to remain ultimately enigmatic. There will never really be any satisfactory answers to be found to them and so, instead of asking them, it is wiser to spend your time accumulating vocabulary, heaping it up in your mind until you have a trove of different, sparkling words, which you can run like jewels through your mental fingers (I think there is a case for the New Yorker cry of 'block that metaphor' at this point.)

Learning a language is also a very inexpensive means of travelling. Without leaving the comfort of your home, by learning a language you can get a lot of the pleasure that comes from actually visiting a foreign place. Just as when you go abroad, everything becomes suddenly interesting by virtue of its novelty - even the milk cartons look different and therefore ever so slightly exotic - so, when you embark on the study of a new language, all objects become fascinating and foreign, by virtue of the new names that you discover exist for them. Clad in their new labels, each spice in your kitchen cupboard, each piece of furniture in your sitting room, each whitegood, each ornament, all your possessions acquire the allure of strangeness for a while, just as a new place does until you get to know it well.

And later, as you penetrate further into a language, there is the pleasure of reading its literature, using a dictionary if necessary, so that the meaning emerges like treasure being dragged up and out of water, at first blurred and dim and then finally coming into the bright clear sunlight. And there is also the pleasure of translating into the language you are learning - for, in the same way that trying to play a piece of music is a good way of really coming to comprehend its structure and trying to draw an object or scene is a good way of really seeing it, so trying to translate a text is a marvellous way of gaining a thorough understanding of it. The reverse is true also - if you ever want to truly clarify your thoughts, try expressing them in a foreign tongue. Nothing crystallises the mind quite like it.

Finally, if all the other attractions of language learning fail to entice, there is the joy to be found within the language textbooks themselves: each one contains countless sentences of startling strangeness. Whole novels could be based on many of them.

To find an example of what I mean, I open 'Introducing German', completely at random and immediately I discover this surreal single phrase - Er hat die Tauben im Park vergiftet. It stands there quite alone, this profoundly odd and entirely unexplained statement. Who he is, why he did it, what happened next, what had happened before he decided to poison all the poor birds, all of this is left to the - in my case, possibly over-active - imagination.

Opening another textbook - Russian this time - I come upon a set of exercises that together might well qualify as a found poem:

A cool wind was blowing
Lightning flashed
It is snowing
The first snow of the winter falls
A lesson is in progress
The decisive minute arrives
Silence falls
The lime trees blossomed

Last of all, in my high school French book, the page falls open at this sequence, which I imagine in a voice over to a Jean Luc Godard movie, or possibly discarded in a wastepaper basket belonging to TS Eliot:

He spends a lot of time in the mountains
The road is lined with beautiful poplars
There are no flowers in the garden
You always make too many mistakes
He wore a silk shirt and cotton trousers
The palace was surrounded by green lawns
The swallows have not returned this year
The clock stopped at midnight last Wednesday
A shot was heard
The curtain rises
Where do the Orlovs live?

Even those who don't care about tenses or vocabulary must also find themselves drawn in by these odd and haunting passages. You may not want to learn French but can you honestly say that you won't lie awake tonight at three in the morning, repeating that age-old unanswerable question: 'Where do the Orlovs live?'

Monday, 5 September 2011

Wimbledon Here We Come

Also on the first Saturday of spring, Canberra's throngs of aspiring tennis stars got busy at the local tennis club:
Unlike other capital cities around the world, if you stand in Canberra's suburban streets, you often get the impression that you are in a ghost city. During the Reagan years, when the idea of the neutron bomb was first taking off, I remember cycling home about 11. 30 p.m across the Commonwealth Bridge after seeing a film in 'Civic', and wondering if they'd let one of the things off. Then, down on the lawns near the National Library, I saw a huge crowd of galahs playing in the arc of a sprinkler. They took off as I passed by, a huge cloud of grey and pink rising into the air.

Canberra has got bigger and a bit busier since then, although it is still virtually impossible, if you go into 'Civic' on a Saturday night, to find anywhere to eat, apart from in the great noisy caverns in the big new shopping centre they've built there. In any case, most activity after ten o'clock is now focussed around the bus interchange, which the government in its wisdom has chosen to situate right in the middle of the few nice old buildings in the area. Sadly, what goes on usually involves drunkenness, violence and drugs.

During daylight hours, walking still seems to be considered an odd activity in Canberra, unless it is conducted along bush tracks. Cycling has become more fashionable than it was when I first arrived - but to be credible you need to invest in lycra.

(Here is a typical Canberran cyclist):

The only place you will ever see crowds is in the city's increasingly numerous shopping malls. I read somewhere that shopping malls are the new cathedrals. If that is so, the people who pack the so-called food courts within these new cathedrals are presumably taking some form of sacrament as they cheerily munch through whatever it is their polystyrene or cardboard containers hold. 

(On a positive note, I suppose I have to admit that it is usually pretty easy to find a parking space in Canberra.)