Saturday, September 06, 2003

And Now For The Bottom Ten

Recently, Scott Wickstein called on Oz Bloggers to

nominate 10 Australians that you think had the biggest impact on our country in the 20th century.

I think enough time has elapsed that I can decently propose a follow-up without stealing Scott's thunder. A listing of the ten least influential Australians of the twentieth century is out of the question; no-one knows who they were. Instead I'm going to call for your nominations of the 10 greatest bungles in Australian history, from the First Settlers to the present day. Feel free to name the guilty parties as well.

Like Scott, I'm going to withold my list until results are in, firstly because I don't want to prejudice the results with premature suggestions of my own, and secondly because I can't be buggered doing the research right now. My one stipulation is that naming the event and those responsible isn't enough to get a guernsey in the final aggregated list; each nominee needs at least a short justification to get in. Results Monday week.

Update: Rob Schaap has an extensive list of candidates up at his blog.
Here's a thought provoking piece from Bernard Slattery

Grandma Trotsky's Mandolin

Until a few years ago I used to think that I grew up in an ordinary neighbourhood and that my family and I were ordinary people. I lost this illusion quite by accident.

It was on the last of three overseas trips I took with my ex. The first was to New Zealand which really only counts as overseas because it's separated from the Australian mainland and, unlike Tasmania, you need to get a passport before you go there. As we all know, New Zealand has produced our best Australian actors, film directors and films or, at least, the ones who win Oscars.

Our second overseas trip included a visit to Manchester, the city where I was born. The ex was there to visit, and consult with, a Mancunian academic she had met at a conference. They had similar research interests. I was there to do that silly emigrant thing of revisiting your roots. For some reason it's considered am important rite of passage to go back to that secret place that only you and around fifty other neighbourhood kids knew about, and discover that Tesco's have built a supermarket over it.

The ex's visit with her Mancunian colleague, Steve, was cancelled the day we arrived; his wife went into hospital to deliver a baby. We had known that this was possible; the Manchester visit was slipped in as an opportunistic stopover between New York and Nice. Steve did insist that he would take us out for dinner the first night he could make a chance. When the night came he suggested that we go down to "Curry Mile" for an Indian meal and arranged a time to pick us up at our hotel.

We'd already discovered Curry Mile for ourselves. It was a stretch of street a few bus-stops away from our hotel, with Indian restaurants on both sides. In Manchester, as in most of England, if you're looking for an affordable meal, you either go to one of those roadhouse cafes where everything - including the desserts - comes with spam, or you go to an Indian restaurant. We went to Curry Mile on the first night of our hotel stay, after the hostess told us they didn't do dinners, "only breakfast for the guests and lunches, love. The 'Happy Chef' up the road might be open or you can try Curry Mile if you like Indian."

We liked the idea of a second visit to Curry Mile, with the benefit of Steve's local knowledge. The only other restaurant we'd found in Manchester was a rather pricey, and totally inauthentic, Italian place, which would have been pushed to give Pasta Plus any competition.

Steve's route to the restaurant was a circuitous one, which included a quick tour of Manchester's city centre, the Manchester Ship Canal and other local landmarks. Steve provided an informative historical commentary on each of the locations we visited. It was obvious that if he paid us a return visit to Melbourne, I would be hard put to match it, especially when it came down to putting dates to major events associated with the landmarks. Steve was very proud of his home town.

Thanks to our previous visit to Curry Mile, I wasn't fazed by the Mancunian accents of the staff at the restaurant Steve had chosen. It wasn't the same one we'd visited ourselves, it was a little more up-market. Besides that, I was glad not to go back to the place where I'd nearly made an ass of myself when the waiter, of very obviously Indian descent, saw me reading the drinks list and asked "Would'st like a lager wi' y'r curry, then?"

Naturally enough, the fact that I had lived in Manchester until I was ten came up in the conversation. I asked Steve what had happened to Belle Vue, the amusement park Dad and Mam had taken us kids to a couple of times. Both visits were at Christmas for the circus and the fireworks display which followed it. I'd seen buses with Belle Vue as their destination, but the park wasn't shown on my map of Manchester and Districts. Long demolished and built over with houses, Steve told me.

Steve asked whereabouts in Manchester I'd lived; when I answered, he said, with typical Mancunian tact: "So, you're from the slums then." I was shocked and hurt. Obviously it showed, because there was one of those awkward silences before Steve picked up the brick he had inadvertently dropped by remarking "I can understand why your parents decided to go to Australia." And, probably for the first time in my life, I really started to understand it myself.

If my parents hadn't taken the ten pound assisted passage, I would have found out much earlier that I was growing up in a slum. This may have proved character building but I think the resulting character would be even less likeable than the one I've acquired through living the soft life here in Australia. I wasn't privy to any of the discussions between my parents and our adult relatives over their decision to emigrate, but I find it difficult to imagine that anyone urged them to stay on the grounds that growing up in the arse end of Manchester would be character building for us Trotsky kids. My parents saw an opportunity to make a better life for us all and, very sensibly, took it.

The afternoon of the last Saturday before we set off for London, where we would catch our aeroplane to the Land Down Under, Dad took my brother and sister to the local park, for one last chance to play in the playground there, and to feed the ducks. He took along his Russian 8mm camera to get some footage for his home movie collection. I couldn't go; I had finally caught the chicken pox that someone them had brought home from school the week before so I spent the afternoon with Grandma Trotsky instead. I can't remember if she asked me to "Give us a tune on't piano lad," but I suspect she may have. It might be a long time, if ever, before she got another chance.

I'm not sure where the piano came from; I haven't heard another like it since, except perhaps on an old recording of Meade Lux Lewis playing Honky-Tonk Steam Train Blues. It's a lot better than my barrel-house version of Greensleeves ever was. The piano was an upright, of course; there was no room in Grandma Trotsky's kitchen for a Steinway grand.

The kitchen was where she and Granddad Trotsky spent most of their time at home; the front parlour was the best room, reserved for family special occasions and watching television after six o'clock. There was no point turning on the television before then; all you could get was two channels of test pattern.

Their kitchen was also their bathroom; when either of them wanted to take a bath, they used a tin bath which was stored, if memory serves, in a small cellar-come-larder off the kitchen. There was a kitchen table where Grandma would prepare their meals (or ours, when us kids were eating with them) and serve them once they were prepared. The table was also where she taught me to play patience (Klondike and Clock) and where she taught us all the game of Monopoly, using a very old set with wooden houses and hotels. Tucked between the kitchen table and the wall was Granddad Trotsky's billiard table. It had no legs; it was designed to sit on top of another table. I never saw it used; there simply wasn't enough room to wield a cue properly.

Grandma Trotsky had a lot of character building experiences in her life and occasionally she would give us a glimpse of them. Most of these glimpses I didn't understand at the time.

My early childhood was haunted by my father's older brother. When the Trotsky clan got together at Christmas, relatives would frequently remark on how much I resembled him. When I asked who he was, my mother told me that he was my father's brother who had died in the war. That closed the subject without doing anything to satisfy my curiosity.

Once, I succeeded in pestering Grandma Trotsky into showing me his medals - medals were a big deal at school and all the boys liked to boast about the medals Dad had won in World War II, or Granddad had won in World War I. As well as showing me the medals, she showed me a photograph of his grave. The grave was in France and I don't think she had ever been able to visit it; her only sight of it was in the photograph she was sent by the War Office.

There were actually five or six graves in the photograph, each with a standard headstone bearing RAF insignia. One headstone for each member of the crew of the Lancaster bomber on which my uncle had been tail-gunner. He was a sergeant in the RAF; all tail-gunners were. Many years after Grandma Trotsky showed me the photograph, I met someone at University whose father had served in RAF ground crew during World War II. He told me how Lancasters would sometimes come back from a mission with the tail gun turret so badly shot up that the only way to dispose of the tail-gunner's remains was to hose them out.

It was Grandma Trotsky herself who first told me the story of her mandolin; at the time I didn't know what a mandolin was. She told it to me when I had just started piano lessons, to encourage me to persist with the five finger exercises and scales which you have to master before you're ready to take on even the simplest melody.

The story is a very plain, simple one: when she was a girl, she had a mandolin and her father would often come home from work and say: "Gi' us a tune on your mandolin, lass."

So she would play her mandolin for her father to make him happy. It made her happy too; she smiled at the memory, every time she told the story. Her smile was more or less a permanent feature; she had smiled so often in her life that it was thoroughly worn in. Her face didn't lend itself to severity.

It wasn't until after she died that I started to piece together a more complete version of the story of Grandma Trotsky's mandolin but there are still a lot of details missing such as what became of the mandolin between the time she was a girl playing tunes for her father and the time she was telling her grandchildren the story of how much she loved playing her mandolin and how much her father loved hearing her play too.

The first hints were general remarks about how she'd had a hard life and a hard time with her father. I learnt that his route home from work usually included a stop at local for a coupl'o' pints before he went on home for his tea. How he would react if it were not ready when he got there. There were the hints about the severity of parental discipline in my grandparents' time and the use of the buckle end of the belt when serious punishment was merited. From a sparse collection of such small clues, I picked up an inkling of why she mighttreasure the memory of playing the mandolin for her father so much.

But it is no more than an inkling and, for now, I'm going to leave it at that, even if it is tempting to confabulate a little and slip in a few reminiscences about the cardboard box my parents started their married lives in. That particular Monty Python sketch is one of my favourites. It's one of my dad's too; I think it might be the only Monty Python sketch he actually likes. It shouldn't be too hard to work out why he does.

Friday, September 05, 2003

And the Search Requests Keep Bringing Them In

No matter how tragic you might be, you're still someone's idea of Mr Right.

His mother might not agree.

Another lover of the classics.

Anyone care to try the steamed haggis in Black Bean Sauce?

Looking for a good time Down Under.

This might rate well as a sequel to The Love Boat ...

... but this definitely wouldn't.

Drivel Pundit of Dumb

Arthur Figgis: Well I feel very keenly that the idiot is a part of the old village system, and as such has a vital role to play in a modern rural society, because you see ... ooh ar ooh ar before the crops go gey are in the medley crun and the birds slides nightly on the oor ar ... Ooh ar thankee, Vicar ... There is this very real need in society for someone whom almost anyone can look down on and ridicule. And this is the role that ... ooh ar naggy gamly rangle tandie oogly noogle Goblie oog ... Thank you, Mrs Thompson... this is the role that I and members of my family have fulfilled in this village for the past four hundred years... [my emphasis]
From Monty Python's Flying Circus, The Attila the Hun Show

I think it's about time to extend a warm, Tug Boat Potemkin welcome to Ozblogistan's very own Arthur Figgis, whose writing, both on his blog and in the comments threads of other bloggers, is as incisive as his chosen cognomen is modest. Ooh aar, bogle wumpy.

Blog Challenge

Someone left a copy of The Hun on the tram I caught home from the trivia quiz last night. With no better reading material on hand, I decided to dip into the comics pages, then succumbed to the temptation to check out whether accidental humorist Andrew Bolt had written anything new. I wasn't disappointed.

In his latest column, Andrew once more takes up the cudgels on behalf of impressionable young minds. This time the object of his ire is the Pixar Film Finding Nemo, in particular:

the too-easy, no-pain, nature-worshipping New Age-ism being pushed by this hit animation.

There's plenty more where that came from, including enough coverage of the film's major plot points to ensure that Bolt's readers won't be unpleasantly shocked, or even surprised, by the way the story unfolds when they take their own rug-rats along to see this insidious little piece of greenie/vegetarian agitprop.

Here's the challenge: check out Bolt's article and write a plot synopsis for a responsible version of Finding Nemo which avoids the errors Bolt identifies in his article:

For many viewers, these messages in Finding Nemo -- that humans are vile but nature noble, that killing is always wrong, that eating meat is mean, and that parents should ease up with the rules -- will seem very true, or at least harmless.

Harmless? How harmless is it for children to be taught a morality that is so impractical or shallow that it soon becomes a game of pretend?

You might, for example, decide that barramundi, tuna or dolphins would be more appropriate villains for the film than sharks. Where you go with the narrative is up to you, as long as you send the right messages about parental responsibility, filial obedience and the need to face up to life's hard choices. I can't offer a valuable prize, or even cumulative points in one of those on-line writing challenges so all there is in it for you is a bit of fun and the kudos of a link from Tug Boat Potemkin. And we all know what that's worth.

Afterthought: if I were still doing "Snob of the Week", this article of Bolt's would be a shoo-in.

Thursday, September 04, 2003

Time for a Little Gander Sauce

I see that last week's dummy spit in the general direction of The Hun's only on-line columnist didn't escape the notice of John Ray, who remarked:

The Tugboat Potemkin has once again emitted a few angry sparks from its aging Leftist chimney in the form of a great huff over the fact that Andrew Bolt mentioned the psychiatric problems of a children’s book author. Frankly, if I had a child that was being given books to read that were written by a mentally disturbed person, I would want to know about it. Impressionable minds and all that. The Tugboat may stand for censorship of relevant information in the name of political correctness but I think the right to know trumps that every time. As a libertarian, I am against ALL censorship.

I'm not sure how one can be against all censorship on libertarian grounds and maintain that parents have a right to screen their children's choice of books on the grounds of "Impressionable minds and all that." It must be one of those distinctions between public policy and private (or familial) conduct that libertarians rely on whenever their beliefs lead to an obvious contradiction between precept and practice.

Still, credit where credit is due; perhaps if the school librarians at my various schools had paid more attention to the disorderly lives many writers lead, the young Gummo Trotsky would not have had his mind twisted by reading books written by an avowed Fabian and freethinker, an openly homosexual Irishman, a declasse English radical of dubious sexual conduct, a sexual pervert with a fondness for a good spanking or an alleged paedophile whose hobbies included taking nude photographs of pre-pubescent girls.

Update: Geoff Honnor takes issue with my description of Oscar Wilde as "openly homosexual" in the comments thread. He's probably right.

Update Too: John Ray has posted a brief retort here. But nothing at his PC Watch site about Bolt's recent bucketing of Finding Nemo for its political agenda. Odd isn't it?

Bread on the Water or Pearls Before ...

Wayne Wood of Troppo Armadillo has posted an extended, thoughtful and thought-provoking piece under the title Fathers and Sons. Reading it prompted disturbing recollections of Trotsky family history, and Trotsky family legends such as that of Grandma Trotsky's mandolin, which played a similar role in her family life to that of David's Lyre in another context.

However, Wayne's post is sui generis and in this case imitation would merely be the sincerest form of imitation. So for now, I'll leave the big life issues to him and stick with the fluff for a couple of weeks. Or at least a few days, anyway.

Wednesday, September 03, 2003

This Looks Like It Could Take A While

Responding to Scott Wickstein's call for bloggers to nominate the 10 most influential Australians of the Twentieth Century, Jack Strocchi has posted his list of the 10 greatest Australians, with the tag my un-docile decile. I have no idea how big a decile of all Australians who lived during the twentieth century would be, but I'm sure it's a few orders of magnitude more than the mere ten Jack lists. Off-hand two million seems a reasonable guesstimate, leaving Jack with only 1,999,990 more to get through.

There's no doubt that Jack has begun the most ambitious series in the history of Australian blogging: if he keeps posting ten names a day, it will take the best part of six centuries to get through them all. Could this be the beginning of a Strocchi family tradition?

And Now For Something Completely Different ... Etymology Wars!

As if the History Wars weren't enough, Gregory Melleuish of the University of Wollongong has opened a new front, taking Stuart MacIntyre to task for a failure of etymological correctness:

Now, as he extends his ambitions to control the past of the historical profession in this country, one must ask: Just how reliable and accurate is [MacIntyre's] history.

For starters, he gets the origin of the word history wrong. He says that it comes from the Greek word meaning to know. Actually, to know in Greek is gignosco, hence cognisant (via Latin) and gnostic in English. Historie in Greek means research or inquiry. Perhaps while the rest of us engage in inquiry, Macintyre, like a true gnostic, just knows.

Chris Sheil dismisses this as a nitpick. Chris' opinion isn't shared by Bernard Slattery; in Bernard's eyes this is pretty clear evidence

that above all Macintyre is a dill who can't accurately define the word for his chosen trade.

Thanks to the availability of the Macquarie Dictionary on-line, it's an easy task to shed a little heat on this issue with perhaps more than a little accompanying light. First, let's look at the Macquarie definition of history:

noun 1. the branch of knowledge dealing with past events. 2. the record of past events, especially in connection with the human race ... [Middle English, from Latin, from Greek: a learning or knowing by inquiry]

And here's gnosis:

noun a knowledge of spiritual things; mystical knowledge. [New Latin, from Greek: knowledge]

I'd suggest that anyone with a bit of nous will now be cognisant that both "history" and "gnosis" originate from Greek words for knowledge (or learning) albeit of different forms. As does "epistemology". "Science" on the other hand, is a more modern word, its antecedents tracing back through Old French to a Latin word for knowledge (but not the only one apparently - there's also the Latin root which gave us "cognisance" to consider).

To wrap this post up, I grabbed a hard copy of The MacQuarie Concise Thesaurus, where I found the following list of words related to "KNOWLEDGE":

n cognition (Obs.), enlightenment, illumination, information, ken, knowingness, light, science, technology, wisdom ... See also UNDERSTANDING

By the way, I'd be interested to know a little more about this section of Melleuish's article, where he dishes up the dirt on Manning Clark:

Clark wrote in his first historical work that the "minority who refuse to conform [to "progressive" forces] . . . must be compelled to conform . . . This may mean imprisonment or exile, or at least a prohibition on their right to express their opinions in public in either speech or writing." He appears never to have renounced that passage.

I don't recall reading anything like this in Clark's History of Australia (although I have a fair idea where I might find it if I went back to my local library and picked up Volume 1). I'm wondering if it's anything like John Maynard Keynes' proposal that the British Government bury jars containing five-pound notes in various locations and issue the unemployed with spades so that they could go dig them up, thus generating an improvement in economic activity.

Monday, September 01, 2003

Get Out of There Rover!

I don't usually post jokes on my blog; of all the jokes that I've ever heard, there are only about two or three that I still find funny. A comment by Bargarz here reminded me of this one about a young man who is invited to dinner with his girlfriend's family.

During the soup course, the new boyfriend suffers the embarassment of Abu Hassan, hero of one of the tales from the Thousand and One Nights. His girlfriend's father (Dad) looks under the table, where the family dog is lurking, and says "Get out of there Rover!" The new boyfriend is doubly relieved: his social blunder has been blamed on the dog so there is no need for him to slink out to the stables and ride off into the night to spend the next ten years in self-imposed exile.

Instead, he takes Dad's order to the dog as a licence to relieve himself ad libidem; twice more during the main course he gives Dad reason to look under the table and say "Get out of there Rover!" Finally, when he lets rip during dessert, Dad says "For Gawd's sake Rover, get out of there, before the bastard shits on you!"