Tag Archives: The Monthly

Overland 204

Jeff Sparrow, editor, Overland 204, Spring 2011

At a time where the terms of Australian political debate are set by the self-styled ‘centre-right’ Australian to the extent that vehemently anti-Communist Robert Manne is seen as left wing, everyone who’s more socialist than Ghengis Khan should subscribe to Overland. It has been appearing regularly for more than 50 years as a journal of ‘progressive culture’, unashamedly of the left from its beginnings, creating a space where dissenting voices can be heard (arguing with each other as often as not), and staying for the most part readable by people (like me) who wouldn’t know Althusser from a hole in the ground. Unlike the Australian, it has no Rupert Murdoch to prop it up. You can read most of every issue online. The point of subscribing is to help sustain it.

In this issue, in no particular order:

  • ‘The birthday boy’, a short story from an early Overland updated and retold in sequential art (ie, as a comic) by Bruce Mutard. While the story here stands on its own merits, I’d love to read the original, by Gwen Kelly, so as to follow the process involved in the updating (who were the 1955 equivalents of 2011’s Sudanese students, for instance?). I couldn’t find it on the Web. Maybe I’ll make a trip to the State Library …
  • John Martinkus, in ‘Kidnapped in Iraq, attacked in Australia’, tells the story of his capture and release by Iraqi insurgents in 2004 and the attacks on him by the then Foreign Minister and rightwing ‘journalists’. There’s nothing new here – I wrote to Alexander Downer’s office at the time and received a boilerplate reply – but it’s very good to be reminded of this shameful moment just now when Downer has been on the TV denouncing David Hicks again and one of the ‘journalists’ has been wailing about free speech after being held to account by a court
  • an interview with Afghani heroine Malalai Joya. I was glad to read this after attending a crowded meeting in Marrickville Town Hall where the acoustics and sight lines made her incomprehensible and invisible to me. The interview gives a sharp alternative to the mainstream media’s version of what’s happening in Afghanistan and it’s a great companion piece to Sally Neighbours’ lucid ‘How We Lost the War: Afghanistan a Decade on from September 11‘ in the September Monthly
  • some splendid, almost Swiftian sarcasm from Jennifer Mills in ‘How to write about Aboriginal Australia‘: ‘First, be white. If you are Aboriginal, you can certainly speak on behalf of every Aboriginal person in Australia, but it is best to get a white person to write down what they think you should be saying.’
  • Andy Worthington’s When America changed forever and Richard Seymour’s What was that all about? reflecting on the damage done to democracy in the USA and its allies by the ‘war on terror’
  • Reading coffee‘, a short story by Anthony Panegyres that reminds us of anti-Greek violence in Western Australia during the First World War (and is also a good oogie boogie yarn)
  • Ellena Savage’s ‘My flesh turned to stone‘, which I may have misunderstood (it quotes Lacan, and refers at one point to gender-based torture, which may or may not be how the academies nowadays refer to torture of women), but seems to be putting the eminently sensible proposition that terrible experiences have lasting after-effects on individuals and communities, and expecting people to just get over them isn’t realistic
  • A number of poems, coralled off together in a section up the back, printed in white on pale green, which is either a cunning way of making us read the poems slowly or a case of a designer for whom readability isn’t a priority. The ones that spoke most to me are Jill Jones’s ‘Misinterpretations /or The Dark Grey Outline‘ and John Leonard’s ‘After Rain‘. Jill Jones discusses the former on her blog here. You may have to be fascinated by swallows to enjoy the latter – which is very short – as much as I did, but who isn’t fascinated by swallows?
  • Peter Kirkpatrick’s ‘A one-man writer’s festival’, a hatchet job on Clive James’s poetic aspirations. I found myself asking why. The poor bloke’s got cancer. Leave him alone.

I didn’t read everything, which is pretty much a hallmark of the journal-reading experience. You can skip things because of an annoying turn of phrase on the first page (as in a reference to Sydney’s western suburbs as perceived as ‘some bloody hell, beginning somewhere around Annandale’ – Annandale! I doubt if that would have got past the editors in a Sydney-based journal). You might be put off because something looks too abstract, or promises a detailed discussion of a book you plan to read. Or you might be pre-emptively bored by anything about publishing in the digital age, even while admitting the subject is important.

I read this Overland in a grumpy post-operative state. And enjoyed it.

Words words words

Ammon Shea, Reading the OED: One man, one year, 21,730 pages (Viking 2008)

Ammon Shea set himself the task of reading the entire Oxford English Dictionary – those thousands of pages mentioned in the subtitle – over a year, and writing a book about it. He spent between eight and ten hours a day for most days of a year in the basement of a library on the actual reading, ruining his eyesight, not doing his health much good, wreaking havoc with his social life. I hope for his sake the resulting book earned out its advance, but I’m sorry to report that I just didn’t find it very interesting. Perhaps inevitably, the actual story of the reading lacks drama, especially as Shea conscientiously avoids distractions, including anything other than dictionaries that might cast light on his reading. The interspersed short essays on things dictionary-related have their nuggets of shiny information, but are generally Lexis Ultra Lite.

What might have been the book’s sustaining backbone is the annotated listing of words that took Shea’s fancy. But the vast bulk of his chosen words are of the polysyllabic latinate or hellenic variety – mataeotechny, materteral, matrisate, matutinal, mediocrist, microphily, micturient, to cite all but one of the words on a spread opened at random. Such words have a scholarly aroma to them, which doesn’t make them uninteresting (though matutinal and micturient are pretty pedestrian), but it does make them same-ish, and many of them show the workings of their construction. The remaining word on that spread is mawworm, meaning ‘a hypocrite with pretensions of sanctity’, and it too smells of the midnight oil: it’s a literary invention (a dead eponym from a forgotten 1768 play by the largely forgotten Sir Isaac Bickerstaffe). If the words themselves are mostly less than enthralling, the comments tend to forgettable persiflage, often of an unpleasantly misanthropic hue. Mediocrist, defined (by Shea) as ‘A person of mediocre talents’, gets this: ‘Nobody wants to be mediocre, but someone has to be. In fact, by definition, most people are.’ H. L. Mencken he ain’t. As the book progresses, in fact, the misanthropy comes to seem less like failed wit and more like confession of a deep malaise in the writer. There’s definitely a sour taste to comments such as this on xenium (‘a gift given to a guest’): ‘Unless you are one of those unbalanced individuals who actually enjoys company, I would recommend giving a xenium such as a pair of used socks, something that says, “Here is a gift – please go away.”‘

Given that one of the appeals of the OED is that it meticulously notes the point at which each word entered the language and the way its meaning changes and develops, it is particularly disappointing that Reading the OED mostly refrains from giving us that sort of information, even giving Shea’s own definitions rather than those of the dictionary. All the same, I was still in there trying to enjoy the book until I reached the chapter on N , which begins, ‘One of the things that has been painfully apparent as I read through the enormity of the English language is just how very little I know of it.’ He’d read the OED but doesn’t know the meaning of enormity. I wish I could believe the irony of that sentence was deliberate. I did finish the book, but with little pleasure.

By sheer chance I started on this book just after reading ‘Infinite Anthology‘, the 2010 British Poetry Society’s annual lecture delivered by Les Murray in May and reprinted in the August Monthly (reprinted, I note grumpily, without any apparent editing to acknowledge that Monthly readers are by and large Australian, as distinct from the lecture’s original audience). Like Ammon Shea, Les Murray describe himself as a collector of words, but when Les talks about words, you can hear his passion for language as a window opening onto truths about class, regionality, history … the whole of humanity. His pleasure in any given word is bound up with where it comes from, what it’s used for, who used it. He’s not impressed by latinate constructions – give me his doosra, camel toe and deadly (meaning ‘excellent’) any day in preference to quisquilious, quomodocunquize or supervacaneous.

One word – petrichor – is mentioned by both writers. Murray’s lecture opened with a list of sixteen words he has submitted to the Macquarie Dictionary over the last couple of years. The list ends:

Petrichor – aggregate of natural oils and terpenes on dry ground; gives off an exhilarating loamy smell when wetted by rain. Said to trigger reproductive cycle in aquatic creatures, fish etc. Discovered by Drs Joy Beard and RG Thomas at the Australian National University in 1964.

Evidently the OED beat the Macquarie to the punch on this one. Shea’s entry, longer and more personal than most, reads:

Petrichor (n.) The pleasant loamy smell of rain on the ground, especially after a long dry spell.
is a fairly recent word, having been coined by Isabel Joy Bear and R. G. Thomas for an article they wrote in 1964. I first came across this some six or seven years ago, thought to myself, ‘What a lovely word,’ and then promptly forgot what it was. I have spent far too much time since then wondering vainly what it was. When I found it there, buried in the midst of P, it was as if a kink in my lower back that had been plaguing me for years suddenly went away.
also see: impluvious

For Shea, petrichor is memorable because it is ‘lovely’, whatever its meaning. For Murray, it’s a word – that is, to call it lovely without reference to its meaning would be absurd. Shea is fairly slapdash in his definition, and goes on to talk about himself; Murray is more precise, and gives us the part of the world the word illuminates, throwing in a pinch of national pride and a dollop of ‘look-it-up’ non-condescension (definitions of terpenes abound elsewhere, after all). It’s worth mentioning that Shea got the second scientist’s name right – it’s Bear, not Beard. On the other hand it seems that Dr Bear is generally known as Joy rather than Isabel Joy, so Murray gets a point for that. Les Murray’s error indicates, it seems to me, that he is writing, not from a written source, but from the extraordinary reservoir of knowledge he holds in his head. (It may also indicate that his editor at The Monthly was less on the ball than the people at Viking.)

Back to Shea: he concludes his introductory section, ‘I have read the OED so that you don’t have to.’ Well, heroic his reading may have been, but that sentence is salesman’s bulldust.

The Monthly

When I collected my subscription copy of The Monthly from the letter-box yesterday, I had an irrational impulse to drop it in the bin on the way back into the house. Yet again the cover features a photo portrait of a public figure – a politician like the majority of the other cover photos. Here are the last 12 months’ covers:

August 2009: Nick Cave (not a politician, but a media personality, which is the other frequently occurring category of citizen)
September 2009: A photo of the fence at Christmas Island, one of two covers that’s not a portrait
October 2009: Julia Gillard
November 2009: James Murdoch
December 2009–January 2010: Nicole Kidman
February 2010: Tony Abbott
March 2010: Germaine Greer
April 2010: A couple of cherries – the only cover of the twelve to display something like metaphor
May 2010: Tony Abbott again (on a bike this time)
June 2010: Barack Obama (at least he’s not an Australian politician, but it is his third appearance on the cover in 18 months )
July 2010: Bob Brown
August 2010: Julia Gillard again, this time with make-up

If you can recycle your cover ideas so blithely, I can do some recycling of my own, was my unbidden thought.

As it turns out, I’m glad I restrained the impulse to recycle, because in particular of Mark Aarons’ piece which explains in words I can understand how the current approach to polling and policy-making in the ALP is different (and more cynical and strikingly less successful) than in the past, and for David Malouf’s wonderful essay, ‘States of the Nation’, on our Federation. I love this paragraph:

Federation may have established the nation and bonded the people of the various states into one, but nations and peoples, unless they arise naturally, the one out of the other, rather than by referendum or by edict, are likely to be doubtful entities, and the relationship between them will be open to almost continuous question. Of course when they arise too naturally – that is, when they claim to belong to nature rather than human choice – they are dangerous.

How good it is that David Malouf’s sharp, engaged, generous mind is gracing The Monthly‘s pages – and grace is something that Malouf has in spades. What a relief that Louis Nowra’s grumpy ad-mulierem pieces are not to be the dominant voice.