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Jeder macht eine kleine Dummheit

The Knocklofty dialect laboratory has been listening to Australian radio and television journalists struggling with the pronunciation of the name of John Boehner, Republican Speaker of the US House of Representatives.

This varies along a spectrum from ‘Beener’ to ‘Bainer,’ indicating the Australian media’s usual uncertainty with anything that isn’t phonetically manageable English (not that they always succeed even when it’s that simple).

Given its Germanic origin, the correct pronunciation for this name ought to be, says the laboratory, something closer to ‘Burner,’ although the majority opinion among our dialect consultants favours ‘Boner,’ which they feel is more apposite as it is homophonic with the American slang word, which means ‘an egregiously stupid mistake.’

A case of anachronologia

The Knocklofty journalists’ consulting service was established not to provide ways of manipulating the inane, wretchedly pliable and disgustingly venal media to which they are enslaved, but to help to make life a little easier by providing information which will help them get past that deadline and into the bar that little bit faster.

Requests are frequent and often somewhat recondite; for example, the timing of the Italian spaghetti harvest, what was Joseph Stalin’s favourite brand of underwear or George W Bush’s inside leg measurement. These we take in our stride, but recently a very prominent journalist contacted us wanting to know the Latin word for chainsaw.

Our consultant did point out that such things were at best extremely uncommon in the Roman Empire but the questioner was so persistent that eventually our semiotics laboratory concocted a suitable word.

Keep an eye on your local media — it’s going to crop up one day really soon.

Mau-mauing the awkward squad

Knocklofty’s outreach counselling service deals with many harrowing cases of authors, editors and designers bedevilled by intractable clients.

This one, from the bizarre and exotic island of Tasmania, arose from a client — a caving organisation — insisting on being awkward just once too often by requiring the acceptance of material by an unacceptable means. We were able to intervene and create an outcome characterised by renewed amity rather than extreme prejudice. This is the edited correspondence between the client, identified here as AJ, and the victim, who chooses to hide behind the unoriginal pseudonym of Jim Crint:

AJ: I don’t do FTP for many reasons which can be explained if necessary, including Tasmania’s crippled ‘broadband’; none of the printers I deal with here and overseas do it any more — too much trouble and confusion, especially with replace versions of files. Physical media — CD or DVD — are preferred, as is transmission of files by email. It may seem to be a time-saver but it ain’t.
 
Sorry to seem awkward, but this is experience speaking. — Jim Crint

JC: I’m used to you being an old curmudgeon pain in the arse, so no worries. I can’t see it being any harder than email (with the bonus of not having emails rejected for being too big, or having to split stuff up and send it over 10 emails to keep size down). I was mainly hoping to use it for the initial glut of info (save me burning a cd and then driving to West Hobart – save the planet and all that).

I don’t just sit at home (when I’m not at the pub) like you so I thought being able to transfer stuff this seemingly quicker way would be much easier for me (who cares if it’s easier for you?) — AJ
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Didactic Pastoral and the Authentic Australian Ratbag

Review: The Woman on the Mountain

Sharyn Munro • Exisle Publishing • ISBN 9780908988770-9

sharynbook.jpgIt’s easy just to take this book at face value and see it as the slightly unusual autobiography of a decidedly odd woman who turned her back on civilisation to live alone in a frightening wilderness, battling unruly weather, the vicissitudes of love and family, wildfire, recalcitrant machinery and the aches and pains of advancing age to achieve an ascetic solitude with only quolls and wallabies for company.

Australians display a marked ambivalence about the bush. The huge majority of the people, tightly huddled on the coastal fringes of this empty continent, rarely think about it despite the bush paintings adorning so many loungeroom walls. The bush is a vast and threatening place which only intrudes into the urban consciousness as alarming reports of huge bushfires, droughts, floods and helicopters winching hapless stray walkers to safety. Only a ratbag would want to live there. She wrote this book to tell us why.

Most reviewers so far have looked no deeper, but books like this one are so rare they can hardly be blamed for that.

Its underlying context is a long tradition of radical dissent that extends past Thoreau, Tom Paine and David Hume, all the way back to Diogenes – but we need go no further back than Thoreau to show that this book carries on that tradition and does so magnificently. Sharyn Munro’s life has been one long act of dissent and being a full-time dissenter is far from easy; if you are looking for the path of least resistance, you would be ill-advised to follow her.

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At last: a book to make you laugh

museum-cover240The Museum
by Julian Halls
ISBN 978 0 9805482 0 4

This is a most unfashionable book: it’s funny, it’s well written and constructed — and it has a happy ending.

It’s that rarest of things in an increasingly sad and troubled world: a comic novel, a genre which has almost disappeared under the weight of political correctness, post-modernist claptrap and the self-regarding seriousness of far too many authors.

Julian Halls has created an unlikely assortment of oddball characters — and they’re all people we’ve met or close to it — and placed them in and around a mouldering, half-forgotten regional museum in Tasmania.

The complex main plot concerns the relationships between two same-sex couples, one male, one female, and the whole thing is set in motion by a blowfly; it gets even more bizarre after that, although it’s never incredible—just like real life. Several curious sub-plots emerge and they are skillfully woven into a surprising conclusion.

The story is replete with intrigue, passion and downright skulduggery, as well as the finely observed petty tyrannies and bureaucratic absurdities of life in a museum.

A central theme is that things are never what they seem to be; questions of forgery and authenticity are the mainsprings of the novel, and they apply as much to the people as to the exhibits in the museum.

Halls, author of a well-received collection of short stories, Death of a Drag Queen, has a good ear for dialogue and bitchy banter, as well as the ability to drive an elaborate story along at a cheerful pace.

The Museum will appeal to the general reader as well as to those interested in another of the book’s themes, the need for same-sex marriage to be recognised as being as valid a way of life as any.

Available from bookshops in Tasmania and from The Bookshop in Darlinghurst, Sydney.

A pardonable act

The tranquillity of the writers’ wing at Knocklofty Towers was disturbed the other day by what we later discovered to be the emanation of an overwrought spirit.

A loud crash of breaking glass was followed by the sound of a rather large wireless set landing on the cobbled courtyard below. The apparatus was over fifty years old and was acquired before the transistor was little more than a wriggle in Shockley’s trousers, and the bursting of all those vacuum tubes made a noise that our resident composer described as worthy of Stockhausen at his most dissonant apogee.

Our security and medical staff responded quickly and discovered one of our older writers about to light a bonfire of old Hansards in his room, from which the wireless set had been hurled.

Putting him under mild sedation, they learned from him that he had been working on an analysis of parliamentary language when he decided to pause for a cup of Knocklofty’s Bodhisatva’s Own Extra Fragrant Lapsang Souchong tea (an exclusive blend the firm has imported from a very remote part of Asia for more than two centuries) and switched on the wireless hoping to hear some news of a game of cricket.

His timing was poor. Instead of the murmur of the crowd and the well-worn wit of the commentators, what he heard was a statement by one of the more bulbous and aggressively voluble members of Her Majesty’s Loyal Opposition in the Parliament of Australia.

He asserted — and our use of modern technical means verifies it — that this was what he heard:

‘At the end of the day, when the rubber hits the road, the bottom line is that working families…’

It was the fourth in this concatenation of cliché that proved too much and that was why the wireless went through the window. The Board, at an extraordinary meeting to consider what action might be taken, agreed that they would all have done the same.

Knocklofty’s technical staff are now hard at work on systems designed to detect and eliminate that sort of political talk from the airwaves and the web, and they predict that when they succeed there will be more bandwidth for everyone.

Ambrose Bierce on capitalism

The author of The Devil’s Dictionary always got it right. This quotation should be flashing in forty-foot high red neon letters over Wall Street, the City of London and other panic-stricken bourses around the globe which seem to have been less well managed than the average Saturday night poker school:

“The form of gambling known as business looks with austere disfavour on the form of business known as gambling.”

The Knocklofty Catechism of Cliché

Everyone knows what a cliché is: a tired old phrase or expression dropped in thoughtlessly by speakers or writers who are either too lazy to express themselves properly or, much worse because it is intentional, so cynical that they know exactly what button it will push in their ignorant audience.

Take, for example, just elected or re-elected politicians who claim to be ‘humbled’ by their success. They have been selling their almost always aggressively ordinary personalities with a bag of catch-phrases, denigrating the opposition and generally bamboozling the electorate into polishing their hypertrophied egos with their votes.

This requires a more than usual degree of arrogance, hypocrisy and bumptiousness. The prize of power for which they have connived, plotted and overspent finally falls into their slavering jaws — and they’re humble? Always suspect anyone who makes a public virtue of humility.

Politics and journalism are the factories of cliché – Fox News is only the most egregious — and the history of the word itself is telling. In nineteenth-century France, when newspapers were even more astonishingly venal than they are today (hard to believe, we admit), the compositors who set the type by hand, letter by letter, would save time by reaching for a phrase or expression which, because of its familiarity, they had caused to be set against inevitable need in a single slug: a cliché, from the verb clicher, to cast, in this case appropriately in lead.

Technology has done little to battle the cliché, as a cursory glance at most blogs will show. But there is some hope. Editors of the Tasmanian Hansard, the reports of parliamentary debates, have developed a set of macros which will eliminate such expressions as ‘at the end of the day’ (voted most annoying cliché of 2006) with very few keystrokes.

Knocklofty intends to keep an eye on fashions in cliché. Many Australians will recall a period in which politicians, prominent usurers and other dubious public figures would regularly ‘refuse to resile’ from whatever position they had felt it expedient or profitable to adopt for the nonce. The expression fell out of fashion round about the end of the day.

Language, language!

mrs-grundy1“You take the trouble to construct a civilization…to build a society…you make government and art, and realize that they are, must be, both the same…you bring things to the saddest of all points…to the point where there is something to lose…then all at once, through all the music, through all the sensible sounds of men building, attempting, comes the Dies Irae. And what is it? What does the trumpet sound? Up yours.” — Edward Albee, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?

At Knocklofty we are well aware of the immense diversity and excitement of the web. Ideas and information, both dazzling and brilliant, as well as stupid and meretricious, flow freely. It is a wonderful resource and will become a true mirror of humanity.

It is in the process of developing a new language and it is one of the largest contributors to our stock of words; some are the embodiment of wit, expressing complexity with brevity, and remain. Others arrive and fade away as slang fashions continue their inevitable change.

But there is one depressing feature of language on the web that seems to endure, and that is the use of a couple of dozen common offensive words. We all know what they are — sexual, anatomical or excretory, used as nouns, adjectives, intensifiers or just as plain expletives — so there is no need to list them here.

Their too-frequent use, especially in otherwise well-conducted weblogs, robs them of any impact they may have had in the bad old days of taboo and prudery. Those who do use them are demonstrating not only poverty of thought and imagination but also contempt for their readers; in effect, they are saying ‘I can’t be bothered to find a word to explain what I mean, so I’ll just drop in a dirty word to show how cool and smart I am.’

In doing that, however original their thoughts might be, they have the effect of signalling that here is yet another dreary, foul-mouthed, semi-articulate ranter and that it is probably not worth the effort to read further. These over-used, worn-out and essentially stupid words will drive readers away even more effectively than cliché, muddled grammar and slipshod punctuation.

If you are stuck for a word, there are plenty of resources at hand without leaving the keyboard; find a thesaurus, a dictionary or an apt quotation on the web. If you show a little respect for your readers, more of them will come back.

A case of coprolalia

tantrumFew nations can do the storm in a teacup style of controversy better than the English. The loathly Giles Coren, long a restaurant reviewer for The Sunday Times in London, recently threw a tantrum over the removal by a sub-editor of an indefinite article in one of his reviews.

As we eschew coprolalia at Knocklofty, we aren’t going to quote from such an intemperate vomit of bile and arrogance, but you can read it here and follow a number of links and comments through this silly and delightfully trivial spat.

Our Department of Literary Taxonomy classifies restaurant reviewers as a parasitic form of life very low down on the food chain of journalism; the most complimentary description it could come up with is ‘a salaried glutton employed to write thinly disguised puffery, usually as part of a commercial conspiracy with the advertising sales department.’

The point missed by nearly everyone who jumped into the tiff sparked by Coren’s outburst is that most newspapers these days are full of the sort of highly mannered tosh he writes; it is often hard to distinguish where journalism leaves off and advertising takes over in the welter of so-called ‘lifestyle’ sections, which occupy far more space than serious news and opinion.

If the print media are serious about reducing their carbon footprint they might contemplate giving narcissistic trendoids like Coren the bum’s rush and save readers the chore of having to dispose of three quarters of the great slabs of newsprint that newspapers have become.