Sundry matters

A prophecy fulfilled

When the American people get through with the English language, it will look as if it had been run over by a musical comedy.

— Finley Peter Dunne, 1938

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.

Read more…

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.

Just keep reading

There are three kinds of men. The one that learns by reading. The few who learn by observation. The rest of them have to pee on the electric fence for themselves.
Will Rogers

Why typography matters

Returning from a shopping expedition on the bus, two old ladies were enjoying a chat.”I always buy the Bushell’s tea because of the lovely Garamond typeface on the packet,” one of them observed.”Yairss,” agreed her companion. “I’d have bought that bloody soap if they hadn’t set the body copy in 9/10 Bembo.”

Play it again

Knocklofty maintains researchers in far-flung and barbarous parts of the English-speaking world. For example, one of our younger field officers is still under sedation following her return from a study of the use of the apostrophe by Tasmanian signwriters.

Today we received a message from a member of our undercover team in Washington, a body of stalwarts who keep us informed about the cataracts of linguistic slime gushing from the White House, Congress and the more grotesque think tanks within the Beltway.

An elderly lady he knows went into one of Jerry Falwell’s luxurious whited sepulchres today and asked for an appointment with The Reverend.

A neatly-tailored young receptionist with a more than normally pious expression explained to her that The Reverend had been obliged to keep an unscheduled appointment with his Maker.

“I’m so sorry,” the old lady said, dropping a dollar into the donation box as she left.

An hour later she returned and repeated her request for an audience.

Patiently, the receptionist explained to her again that the Rapture had snuck up on The Reverend without the involvement of the Soviet nuclear arsenal and that she would have to wait for an appointment until they found out what the Book of Revelations really means.

“I’m so sorry,” said the old lady, depositing another dollar on her way out.

Another hour passed and she was back, with the same request.

“Ma’am,” said the receptionist with an expression pious enough to relieve Martin Luther’s constipation, “I have already explained that The Reverend Falwell’s soul has been gathered to the bosom of Abraham.”

“I know,” said the old lady. “It’s worth a dollar a pop just to hear it again.”

About Keats

Not all the good stories are new stories, but there are few good stories about poets. Knocklofty has in its library a small store of such treasures and the board has decided that it might be of benefit to this scurvy and disastrous world if they were retold, merely to lift the spirits of literary folk and remind everyone that literature is, thankfully, not always as serious as it likes to pretend.

In the deserts of North Africa in World War II, Private Spike Milligan was a member of an artillery unit. Their war was characterised by very short periods of intense and confusing action between extremely long periods in which absolutely nothing happened.

Milligan relates that commanders became concerned about the effect of boredom on morale and feared outbreaks of what the French Foreign Legion called cafard – a condition best described as terminal boredom which led its victims to commit compulsive acts of spectacularly intemperate violence just to break the monotony.

To distract the troops and in the hope of giving them something to think about, the commanders of Milligan’s unit decided that the junior officers, most of whom were university men, should deliver a series of talks on cultural subjects after the evening meal.

Milligan’s sergeant paraded his men to announce this innovation thus: “Right, you lot – tonight Lieutenant Wilson will be giving a talk about Keats – and I bet not one of you ignorant bastards knows what a Keat is.”