Thursday, 6 April 2017
HOW LONG SHOULD YOU CARRY A GRUDGE?
If you hit me with a brick I’ll still be angry about it five minutes from now. On the other hand, I don’t care that your Cro-Magnon ancestor stole a bone from my Neanderthal forbear. Somewhere in between those extremes of time lies the point at which a sensible person will say “There’s no point in obsessing about this any further. I am more than the sum of my ancestors’ resentments.”
Some examples are worth preserving for the amusement they provide. The fanatical Protestants of Northern Ireland who make such a cult of their hatred for the Bishop of Rome need to be aware that England only invaded Ireland in the first place because Pope Adrian IV said it was OK. I always get a chuckle out of that one.
Unfortunately a whole industry has grown up to encourage people to carry historical grudges past the point of common sense. A related phenomenon is the habit of identifying ourselves and others by one strand of our mongrel heritage as if it were the only one. In a country like Australia people choose to say that we’re Irish or Greek or Spanish or Tongan or whatever. But the truth is that even if my ancestors had all been Irish back to the Dark Ages I would still be a mongrel, just like you.
My great-grandfather was a convict. He and his brother were transported to Tasmania in the mid-nineteenth century for giving a bloke a hiding in a dispute over the ownership of some potatoes. By our standards the laws under which he was sentenced were monstrously unjust. That doesn’t mean that I automatically take the side of any opponent of the British Government (then or now). It doesn’t incline me to favour the IRA ( I despise it). I don’t think of Ireland as “the old country” (sorry: I mean “ould”). I don’t know all the words to “Mother Machree” and if I did I wouldn’t admit it. I’m not Irish. In fact if you count percentages I’m more Pommy than Irish and I’m not proud of that, either.
When I was young people with convict ancestors used to keep quiet about it but now it’s regarded as something to boast about. Both positions are absurd. When it was a disgrace it wasn’t my fault. Now that it’s fashionable it reflects no credit on me.
At the turn of the eighteenth century Daniel Defoe highlighted the dubious ancestry of the English in “The True Born Englishman”. What he wrote then is still true. It is equally true of everybody else. To classify people by nationality is ridiculous.
The wonder which remains is at our pride,
To value that which all wise men deride.
For Englishmen to boast of generation,
Cancels their knowledge, and lampoons the nation.
A true-born Englishman’s a contradiction,
In speech an irony, in fact a fiction.
A banter made to be a test of fools,Which those that use it justly ridicules.
Tuesday, 7 February 2017
"So difficult it is to show the various meanings and imperfections of words when we have nothing else but words to do it with."
Certain words or phrases induce in me an instantaneous apocalyptic rage. Partly this is because I’m a choleric old bastard but it is also the case that words are important. Kipling said: “Words are, of course, the most powerful drug used by mankind.” and he was dead right. He went on to say “Not only do words infect, egotize, narcotize, and paralyze, but they enter into and colour the minutest cells of the brain. . . “ So it seems uncontroversial to say that the correct use of words ought to be a matter of public concern, though whether this is still the case in a world where pharmacists’ shelves are overflowing with quack remedies might be debated. There are fashionable linguistic quackeries as well and here are a few examples.
It is what it is. What sort of conversation includes such nonsense? How can one respond to it? “Oh, really? I thought it was something else.”
…...gate (referring to a scandal). Like so many of these abominations this has its origins in the United States of America. It’s a good example of how slavishly non-Americans imitate the worst aspects of that unhappy country. In the 1970s one of its previous criminal presidents hired some fifth-rate stooges to burglarize an office building named Watergate. Since then every scandal has been named “xgate” by newspapers and broadcasters. Journalists, when they are being more than usually pretentious, boast that they speak truth to power. In fact they are more likely to be speaking cliches to mediocrity, as in this example. Of course you can understand why they do it. It’s a signal, common to author and reader, which enables them to communicate information without either of them having to know what they’re talking about.
Gift as a verb. Quite inexcusable. I can only guess at the motivation behind it. Probably “give” sounds a bit too commonplace when the speaker has delusions of literacy. Incidentally I’d like a beer for every time I’ve tried to explain this to someone only to elicit the response “What’s a verb?”
Alternate when you mean alternative. Two things are alternate if they happen one after the other. Night and day are alternate. Two things are alternative if the occurrence of one excludes the other. You can call either heads or tails - they are alternatives.
Quantum does not mean “amount”. It just doesn’t. Stop using it in that sense unless you want everybody to know you’re a wanker.
Likely as an adverb, as in “The Atlanta Falcons will likely win the Superbowl” or “Kevin Rudd will likely be remembered for something other than eating his ear wax in Parliament.” This is one horror that I can actually remember encountering for the first time ( the usage, not Kevin). I have a lot of respect for the mystery novels of Elizabeth George. They are well plotted and, most of the time, well written. I was reading one of them a few years ago and came across this abomination (“Something will likely happen”.) Fortunately the ambulance arrived within the day and I wasn’t on life support for long. I would like to tell you which of her many novels was the offending one, but unfortunately all her books have complicated titles that I can never link to any aspect of the plot so I can’t remember which ones I’ve read and which I have not. Many a weary minute have I spent looking at a row of them on a library shelf, scratching my head until forced to turn away from G for George and trudge back to the dependable S for Spillane.
There are several current idioms - again, mostly copied from US sources - which mean, as far as I can tell, exactly the opposite of what they say. Thus “I could care less” means “I couldn’t care less” and “double down” replaces the perfectly adequate locution “double up”. “Entitled”apparently means “not entitled, but thinks he should be”.
The annoying expressions I have listed here are merely stupid. There is another category that are sinister and deliberately aim to deceive. They will be dealt with in a later post.
Tuesday, 17 January 2017
AN ANTIDEMOCRATIC RANT
The basic principle of our political system is that every idiot’s opinion is as valid as mine. We’ve all heard the condescending line that what we call democracy is “the worst system except for all the others”. I’m sure it’s a coincidence that the people who mouth this cliche are always those who profit by the present arrangements.
Our present political system is not a democracy. It is an oligarchy chosen by manipulation of the brainless majority. John Reith, the first boss of the BBC was once asked what he thought was the ideal form of government. He replied “Dictatorship, tempered by assassination.” I’m sometimes tempted to agree with him.
I have a recurring nightmare every time a general election is imminent. Having been exposed to too many political advertisements before retiring, I wake screaming at a hellish vision of the endless queue of nitwits who, having fallen for one absurd political slogan or another, rally to crush by weight of numbers whatever vestiges of scepticism and good sense survive in odd corners of the Commonwealth. Unlike most awakenings (in which the dreamer gradually realises that the dream was an illusion) in this case the accession of consciousness only brings:
- the realisation that the dream was true and, in consequence:
And just look at the range of dingbats who are allowed to vote: Scientologists, archbishops, anti-whaling activists, child molesters, creationists, television celebrities, evangelical Christians, Manly-Warringah supporters. They are all incapable of carrying on an adult conversation yet their political views carry as much weight as yours (or, more importantly, mine). As Philo Vance once remarked “The democratic theory is that if you accumulate enough ignorance at the polls, you produce intelligence”. It’s hard to believe that even the American electorate could be guilty of electing Donald Trump. Here we had a candidate so bad from every point of view that a vote for Hillary Clinton must have seemed almost rational by comparison. Astonishingly, not only did several people actually vote for him, but some of them have not yet done the decent thing and jumped off a cliff.
Naturally I don’t want to appear too negative. So I thought it only fair to present some concrete recommendations for how we could improve the political system.
- Every vote in Parliament should be secret (all the arguments in favour of a secret ballot at the polls apply with equal validity in Parliament). This measure would crush the party system at a stroke. I acknowledge that the new system would not be perfect but at least any member of parliament who possessed a vestigial conscience would be able to take it out for a bit of exercise occasionally.
- Any politician responsible for the provision of public services should be dependent on those services. So the Minister for Transport should not be provided with a car and a driver (never mind the chartered helicopters that are so popular these days). The Minister should be obliged under pain of dismissal and imprisonment to make all journeys by train, bus or tram. Similarly there should be a law forbidding the Minister for Health from receiving any medical treatment anywhere except in the Casualty Department of a public hospital. The children of the Minister for Education should all attend government schools. You get the idea?
- All political advertising (newspapers, television, internet, billboards) should be limited to black letters of a specified size on a white background saying “The xxx Party’s candidate for the electorate of xxx, (name of candidate), will hold a public meeting at (time, date and venue) to discuss the forthcoming election. This advertisement was paid for by a donation from xxx.”
- It should be forbidden to publish the results of public opinion polls for a period of six months before an election. If that means that longer notice of the election must be given, all well and good.
And, lest you think I have nothing good to say about politics, I will end by quoting HL Mencken:
“I confess I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing.”
Thursday, 22 December 2016
I wish to confess a favourite fantasy. I have always dreamed of having a huge wall-mounted neon sign that could be programmed to flash the word “Bullshit!” whenever it heard certain words or expressions. Naturally the triggers would be chosen and pre-loaded by me. I call them (unimaginatively) bullshit indicators. No bullshit indicator is infallible but some go pretty close.
I first developed this fantasy in the late 1970s when I worked in the Victorian Public Service. It was the word “community” that first got my goat. It began appearing in the titles of lobby groups which exemplified what has been defined as the arrogance of the social worker: “I’m here on earth to help others. What the others are here for I don’t know.” Reflecting on the usages of “community” led me to generalise about language usage in public discourse and I concluded that to find the intention behind public language go first to its opposite. “Corrections” in the title of an institution means, inevitably, “punishing while making no effort to correct”. “Community” pretends to describe a grass roots movement. In fact it almost always refers to something imposed on the grass roots by elements of the half-educated middle class. My favourite American, HL Mencken, said “The urge to save humanity is almost always a false front for the urge to rule.”
These days I think the most blatant and widespread bullshit indicator is “natural”. It is used to describe everything from laundry detergents, to quack remedies and is always a lie if only because it implies an absolutely false distinction between “things produced by human agency” and “things produced by non-human agency”. Thus today’s Greenshirts are guilty of the same anthropocentrism that they accuse everyone else of. More guilty, in fact. Cholera is natural. Leprosy, cancer, anencephaly, malaria, murder, rape, the Liberal Party, AIDS, Redcraze’s defeat in the 1956 Melbourne Cup - all occurred in nature. In fact nothing can occur out of nature. If it exists it is part of the natural world.
My own list of bullshit indicators, of course (I nearly wrote “naturally!”) reflects my own prejudices. I would be interested to know what words serve as similar triggers for other people.
Thursday, 15 December 2016
BOOK REVIEW: Skagboys, by Irvine Welsh
Some years ago I saw the film of Trainspotting. Subsequently I read the novel and much preferred it to the film. Now I've just finished reading Skagboys, a prequel to the earlier book.
These novels are written mostly in Scots dialect (a term that is probably ideologically unacceptable but who cares). One effect of this is to force an Antipodean reader like me to read slowly and carefully, almost sounding out the words in my head. Partly for that reason and partly because Irvine Welsh is a very fine writer the events of the novel are heard almost as much as read. The result is a vivid account of the lives of junkies - unjustified optimism, degradation, euphoria, false hope, disillusionment, betrayal and more degradation.
When I was young many of my friends and acquaintances were heroin users. I never tried it myself: whether that was from cowardice or good sense I no longer know. Perhaps I just preferred alcohol, a foible which was viewed with tolerant condescension in those circles. In any case, the memory of that time gives me an interesting perspective on Skagboys.
I was always amused by the degree of snobbery that was characteristic of junkies. Many heroin users looked down on people who restricted themselves to acid or dope. “At least heroin’s a physical drug. It only affects the body. I’m not going to take something that stuffs up my mind.” As Monty Python would have said, “It’s all this Cartesian dualism that’s to blame!” It was the same kind of snobbery that was apparent, in wider social circles, in music styles or clothing brands. Interestingly, the junkies in Skagboys don’t mix with potheads or acid freaks so the phenomenon that I observed isn’t visible here. Neither is the unspoken degradation competition that resulted from junkies measuring themselves against famous musicians or, less commonly, writers. “Great artists are tormented souls, alienated from conventional society. I’m tormented and alienated; therefore I’m a great artist. However I’m more degraded than you so I am the greater artist.” The closest to this in Welsh’s novel is that some of the characters fancy themselves as musicians, though their musical careers don’t amount to much. I must also say (to prove that junkies aren’t the only snobs) that the main character’s taste in music is deplorable.
One of the saddest things about junkies - in real life and in Skagboys - is the degree to which their moral sense becomes subordinate to their addiction. In life I knew one or two honourable exceptions, but the characters in the novel are more typical. They hold out on their colleagues, steal from their families and pimp out their girlfriends. And yet, both in life and in fiction, I never found myself able to condemn them totally. It’s as if we make two simultaneous moral estimates of them. “Nice bloke, bad junkie.” “I like him, but I wouldn’t turn my back on him.“
Anyway, read the book. Some scenes will make you laugh aloud, though most will make you cringe. A lot like life, really.
Friday, 2 December 2016
Some years before my father died a document circulated among some of his friends from the Second World War. It was a transcript of a radio programme from early 1943, a series of interviews with members of his unit, including Dad himself, recorded after the horrendous Buna - Sananada fighting in which they had participated. Because of wartime secrecy, the unit - the 2/12 Australian Infantry Battalion - was not identified. For a link to the transcript scroll to the bottom of this post.
As well as my father, some of the men interviewed here were intermittent characters in my childhood and youth. It’s a strange feeling to read this text and come across familiar names and idioms. In a prefatory note to The Middle Parts of Fortune (the best novel of the First World War) the author, Frederic Manning wrote “...in recording the conversations of the men I seemed at times to hear the voices of ghosts.”
|Leo Gardner (1918-2004)|
There are army terms used in the transcript that might be unfamiliar to some readers. “MT” is “Motor Transport”, “sig” is “signaller”, “draw the crabs” means “attract enemy fire”, “C O” is “commanding officer”. If anybody has any questions on this or any other aspect of the transcript I will happily attempt to answer them.
Reflecting on these interviews leads me to try and clarify my thoughts about how we remember various wars and the men who fought in them. That is a matter for a later post. For now all I will say is that I am scornful of ill-informed and mawkish displays of public sentimentality. I can hardly do better than to quote Frederic Manning again.
“War is waged by men; not by beasts, or by gods. It is a peculiarly human activity. To call it a crime against mankind is to miss at least half of its significance; it is also the punishment of a crime.”
Thursday, 17 November 2016
THE JOYS OF PARANOIA
Here goes for the second day of my blogging career. And they said it wouldn’t last.
I’m still feeling my way about the process and as I learn to grope my way around the design site I’ll be making a number of changes, some of them intentional.
As a guide to my own obsessions I’ve added a list of other blogs that I follow. If that is a breach of ethics convention blogiquete good manners I’ll be happy to apologise.
Please feel free to leave comments in the space below. My aim is to reply to them all.
There is no idea so stupid that nobody will believe it (although, as George Orwell said, there are some things so ridiculous that only an intellectual will believe them). Have a look, for instance, at the Flat Earth Society http://www.theflatearthsociety.org/ . Now whether these people genuinely believe what they say or are only pulling our legs, I don’t know. One piece of evidence that they are genuine loonies is the word “globularist” that they toss around so blithely. It’s my opinion that if you want to be a genuine fanatic it helps to have an “...ist” word as an all-purpose term of abuse meaning “a person whose opinions differ from mine”. Some words ending in “ism” or “ist” may once have had a meaning (“racist” for example) but mostly they have been so contorted by years of bubbling out of the mouths of imbeciles that they no longer serve any good purpose. When I become dictator I will announce my own coined word: “ismist”, meaning “a person who coins a word ending in “ism” or “ist” to foster the illusion that his opponents are dickheads. What’s more, I’ll make my word compulsory. Don’t say you weren’t warned.
As well as becoming the scourge of the ismists I have plans to come down heavily on the use of the word “denier”, meaning not a unit of measurement for nylon stockings but - you guessed it- “a person whose opinions differ from mine”.
Do you know the Young Earth Creationists? Have look at ‘em at http://youngearth.com/ !!! The examples they use to prove their point are hilarious. And while they don’t, as far as I can see, have an ism word (a serious blow to their credibility) they do have a catch phrase which can be dropped into every ritualistic denunciation of their opponents. It is “biased old-earth”. So we have “biased old-earth Wikipedia” or “the biased old-earth community”. This reminds me of the good old days when the Communist Party split into two factions: on the one hand the Communist Party of Australia (Marxist Leninist), which was essentially Ted Hill and three blokes from the pub; on the other the Communist Party of Australia (everybody else). Ted Hill could never utter or write the official name of his tormentors. To him they were always “the Aarons revisionist clique”.
There are a few good indicators that a theory is bunkum. They are not infallible but they are a pretty good guide.
- When a theory is no longer able to appeal to a rational mind it changes its name. Thus creationism becomes intelligent design; global warming becomes climate change.
- When the number of pop singers and film stars espousing a cause reaches a critical level (it’s three, by the way) the cause deserves to be laughed at. It will come as no surprise that I’m a big fan (or as my mate Donald would say, “A yuge fan”) of the Chinese occupation of Tibet.
Posted by PG at 15:12