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Wednesday, 26 February 2014

How I won the war

Well, one of them, and it certainly wasn't the war you were thinking of. As you will see, if you read on, it was a war that was vitally important to the preservation of sanity and due decorum. Please note: I am not anti-military.  I write military history from time to time, but my heart is with the troops with their laconic humour and their sense of the ridiculous, Put me among the officers, and my Puckish side will come to the fore.

Because I was bullied as a child (probably no more than any other physically small but articulate boy got and still gets, but it was still no fun at all!), I learned guerrilla tactics early.

Those who bullied may not have known where it came from, but things often went wrong for them. I was never caught or accused, and my lips are sealed as to what I did, though one or two of the hoaxes I pulled off at school would be well-enough known, at least to those who assisted me. People who shouted at me always paid a penalty of sorts. The more they shouted, the more they suffered.  That was my rule.

I assumed that nobody had ever penetrated my masking activities, my guise of mild-mannered geniality, but at university, one of my friends was an elderly Czech who was always "Dr Racek", and in his papers, "A. A. Racek", though as his name was pronounced "Rahtsek", his students often called him "Dr. Ratsak" after a commercial warfarin product. He was a delightful, courteous, middle-European scholar.

I think he took me on as a friend because I was the outdoorsy type and could be persuaded to bring back mud from the edges of salt lakes and stuff, from which he could hatch and study obscure crustacea.  Or maybe he saw something of him in me. I think that was probably it.

I don't know his back story, but he would have been of military age in World War II.  For some reason best known to himself, he lent me a copy of a translation of Jaroslav Hasek's The Good Soldier Švejk, although, as he pointed out, it was Germanised as The Good Soldier Schweik.

I had, a few years earlier, read Catch 22, and I had been for three years a public service clerk in lowly orders who observed his fellow underlings with the eye of an anthropologist. I had learned to swim like a fish in the sea of the clerk-people.  I had an unerring eye for opportunities to make the self-important look ludicrous.

So I had mastered the art of the anarchist (without the bleak bad humour of old-style anarchists — I was, and am, a conservative anarchist who doesn't like blowing things up).  Now, I learned that there were other ways to manage the authoritarian mind, the military mind, the bullying mind. Švejk became my guiding light.

Jump forward a few years.  I had graduated, I was teaching, I was married, and we were not all that well paid.  Anything and everything that offered money was worth doing, even quiz shows — but that's another story.

I was inveigled into becoming an officer of cadets. The NSW Cadet Corps in those days was a sort of military operation. One wore proper army uniforms and insignia, one got pompous, one saluted, one marched, one stood at attention.  Well, one was supposed to try.  This one faked it.

In short, this one became Švejk. I dreamed of subverting the route marches into nature rambles and other tricks. They didn't come off.  I will pass over most of the details, and refer only to army camp at Singleton. There, the cadets were under canvas, but we officers were in barracks, except when we went into the field.

That was when the cunning Good Soldier came into his own.  The cadets did something called lantern stalks, which involved two platoons setting out from two lanterns on two ridges. Somewhere in the gully between the lanterns, they would meet and try to "kill" each other by taking a strand of wool that was around each cadet's arm.

Each encounter brought mighty swearing, and in the silence immediately after, they would see me standing there as I said quietly "When you make noise like that, you are drawing in the rest of the enemy — learn to move and fight in silence."

Recalling the swear words they had spoken, one would always ask me how long I had been there.  "I just came over when I heard the noise," I would lie. They never twigged that I had been there in a shadow, masked by a blanket to change my outline, waiting for them to arrive.  I got a reputation that I did not merit as some sort of Ghost Who Walks, but I truly enjoyed.

It also helped that I was (and probably still am — I haven't fired a rifle in more than 45 years), a crack shot.  On the rifle range, when two Cadet Under Officers decided to give "Mac" a helping hand. They took up their positions either side of me, and opened up on my target instead of their own. As a consequence, the result of my ten shots was 28 bulls and two inners.

On hearing this result, I called them over and told them that they had both probably missed on their first shot, but whatever the case, they agreed that the assistance was unnecessary.  The CUOs were senior cadets and clever boys, so they had me better sussed than most, unlike the "real" officers, but at least I kept them guessing.

Now about the "real" officers: the second camp I attended was all in barracks, and that entailed going to the officers' mess at night. Back then, a number of the officers were World War II types who were crashing bores, full of how they single-handedly Won The War.

I considered spiking their drinks, but there wasn't anything to use, and that was what led me to the Regimental Aid Post — or as We Military Chaps called it, the RAP.

They had no powerful laxatives that might fit the bill, but I got chatting with the third-year medical students who staffed the RAP, and told them how boring the officers' mess was. These people in the mess, I opined, must have made military history by Winning The War from the Catering Corps.  We explored Napoleon's maxim that an army marches on its stomach, but discounted that as an explanation.  We found common mind sets.

Now here was the situation: I had a car, and a uniform with a First Lieutenant's pips on it, so I had Authority. I also had a good command of the language of authority, and an excellent set of skills in hoaxing, but no refrigerator, and I could hardly walk into a pub in uniform to buy a case of beer.  The RAP students were in civvies, they had no car, but they had a refrigerator, ostensibly for storing medicines.

Together as a team, we were invincible. There was no security on the camp.  I could drive one of the students into town, he could go into the pub and buy some beer, I could drive it back in, and in the unlikely event that a sentry had been posted in our absence, none would question me.  I even had a cover story ready for having one of the medical students with me in the car, but it was never needed. I was, after all, An Officer.

And that, children, is how we won the Bore War.  I would arrive back at the Officers' Mess, late in the evening, and the Colonel, and old stager, would see me, still bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, and murmur "There are very few of us left..."

Note: certain parts of this tale may (or may not) have been adjusted and/or embellished to make a better story. Other parts may (or may not) be entirely false and misleading. That caveat applies equally to everything in this paragraph, including this sentence.

* * * * * * *
This blog covers quite a few different things, so I tag each post. I also blog about history, and I am currently writing a series of books called Not your usual... and the first two have been accepted by Five Mile Press, The offcuts appear here with the tag Not Your Usual... . For a taste of Australian tall tales, try the tags Speewah or Crooked Mick.   For a miscellany of oddities, try the tag temporary obsessions. And language us covered under the tags Descants and Curiosities, while stuff about small life is under Wee beasties.


Thursday, 20 February 2014

Kangaroos in the top paddock

This charming piece of Australian vernacular denotes somebody who is doolally or barking or crazy. Of course, that's subjective, as the old irregular verb has it:

"I am an original thinker, you are eccentric, he has kangaroos in the top paddock."

The thing that got me started was finding a reference to a work called The Friend of Australia, which attracted brief notice in the Australian colonial press in 1831.

The author was identified only as a retired officer in the East India Company, but he had elected himself as an expert on how Australia ought to be explored..

I went looking for a copy of the book, but there didn't seem to be one at first glance.  I later located several copies in Mitchell Library.

Part of my mistake was that I thought the Mitchell copies were only in microform, which gives me vile headaches, so I went seeking a PDF, and found this one, available through Google Books. Luckily, Mitchell is a bit of a second home, so I will track the book down in due course,

Above and/or to the right, is how the book was advertised in The Times, November 11, 1830, column 1, page 1.

To give the reader more of a taste for what passed for literature then, at least in the house of Hurst and Chance, I have left a bit more in place.

I am now busily reading the book, because the local press reaction was rather amusing.  He wanted explorers to carry a ninety-foot (27 metre) mast in three segments, so that a lookout could be posted, high enough to see any marauding "Indians".

Mind you, this mast also gave the intrepid explorer a chance to see further, something that most Australian explorers from Cook onwards, achieved by climbing a mountain, a hill or even  a tree.

 But the author, whose name I now know to be Thomas Maslen, was by no means done.

My reading is incomplete as yet, but one of the Australian press comments was that Maslen thought elephants would be a useful addition to the equipment of the explorer.

And to turn away the spears of the Indians, he proposed armour. He referred to it as chain mail, but his description gives a different sense.

If you fire off enough mad ideas, one or two  may prove to have merit. Maslen wanted us to use camels to explore.

The picture on the right above shows John Horrocks up a tree in the mid-1840s, but if you look closely enough, you will see the hump of Harry the Camel, lurking behind a bush.

Camels, as many explorers found later, were a good idea, though Harry wasn't a good idea, because just a few days later, he shot John Horrocks — but that's another story.

Anyhow, Maslen gave us an image of how the camels might look in Australia, where the soldiers wear top hats and march, while the officers (I assume) ride in howdahs on a giant camel that clearly had taken its steroids that morning.

Nowhere in Maslen's book do we see any truly Australian scenery, and there are no Australian animals, because even if he had kangaroos in the top paddock, Maslen had never seen a kangaroo.

page 216 (book pagination)
When the second edition came out, the one that Google Books have, the Preface, dated March, 1836, said that he was in the Siberian Wilds.
page 218

I had thought the elephants completely excised from the second edition, but no, they are still there, starting on page 214 (chapter 12, p. 247 in the PDF file).

You can't help laughing, can you?

Some part of this will appear, at some future time, in one or another of the Not Your Usual series, probably as a side note to Not Your Usual Explorers...

Tuesday, 11 February 2014

Comments policy

A few scammers have been trying to get space on my pages.  Please don't waste your time posting links here which don't relate to the page you are commenting on.  I review all comments, and if your comment is generic, or if I don't know you, or if the link you have added looks even the tiniest bit dodgy, I discard the comment.  This is to be a safe place, a no-wasted-time place.

Here are some examples of notably unacceptable posts.  Each has been flagged as spam, with a view to getting the sender thrown out. If enough people do this, they will be forced out.  In each case the post has nothing to do with the blog entry that it is attached to. As a rule, the comments are also either or both of illiterate and incoherent.

"It is truly a great and helpful piece of information. I am satisfied that you simply shared this useful information with us. Please stay us informed like this. Thanks for sharing.", followed by links.

"PLEASE DONATE, INVEST, MAKE PUB TO FINANCE MY SECURITY START-UP Hello, Can you read,link ? and pass..." followed by details and links.

"Nice post and New Home Builders Sydney Specializes in all types of Builder Services..." and links.

Get the picture?

Monday, 10 February 2014

Two pleasing reviews and a nice thing

The first review was a brief blog entry that tells me a Montessori person has found Australian Backyard Naturalist.  That pleases me lots, because it means catching more young minds.

The nice thing: By an odd chance, I have also, this day, had an email from Harry Allen, an Auckland academic who had found a reference to my book Curious Mindsand wondered if it was out yet.  This was delightful, and to see why I think so, you need to read my comments about Harry Allen in an earlier blog entry that related to Curious Minds: it is called A Slap in the Face With A Dead Fish. Before you draw any conclusions, don't judge that essay by its title!

The second review is for Curious Minds, which came out about 16 months ago. Academic publishing has long lead times, but this was worth waiting for.  I have taken the liberty of amending an error in the spelling of my name at one point.

Colour me chuffed.
Source: Journal of Australian Colonial History, Vol. 15, 2013, pp. 230-231.
Peter Macinnis, Curious Minds: The Discoveries of Australian Naturalists, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 2012, pbk, ISBN 978 806422 754 1, 213 pp, $39.99. With Curious Minds by Peter Macinnis, the National Library of Australia has produced yet another masterpiece of colour illustration, as if to demonstrate by example that the death of the book has been greatly exaggerated. The book is beautiful to the feel: its 213 pages in soft but durable covers can be bent and flicked through like a good field naturalist's guide, revealing startling illustrations from the best nature artists of each era, and also striking portraits of some of the main characters discussed. A solemn elderly Joseph Banks stares out of one page, followed by pages of the equally knobbly Banksia plants named after him, and after these, some of the many eager but often unworldly botanists that he sent out to carry on his work.
The main text is made up of thirty seven biographical sketches of the men and women whose minds engaged with the strange nature of Australia, who then went on to describe and illustrate its flora and fauna and present their discoveries to the world. These bio-sketches in turn are inserted between several hundred reproductions of species and landscape paintings, floral and beastly drawings, human portraits, and maps, averaging two to a double page, itself a history of illustrative art over 300 years. The account is arranged more or less consecutively, which is to say historically, beginning in the late seventeenth century with Willem de Vlamingh and William Dampier, Dutch and English respectively, but both presenting a very negative initial view of the Great Southland. Vlamingh comes across as an unimaginative and bored bureaucrat-seaman, forced against his will to inspect and survey a long coastline of tedium. With Dampier, the Johnny Depp-style pirate who gave occasional papers to the newly formed Royal Society, the new geekish sensibility can almost be seen struggling out of the monotonous shipboard log entries. To cut open a shark at Shark Bay and find a newly devoured 'hippo' inside (in fact it was a dugong) and think it worth reporting, heralds the re-emergence of tabloid science from the good start made by Herodotus thousands of years previously. For if there was one attribute that all this 300 year long cavalcade of nature reporters had in common, it was an eye to publication. This reached its peak, in the mid-nineteenth century with the Goulds (of Bird League fame), husband and wife, making a commercial success of bird painting and, incidentally, helping Charles Darwin's big ideas on matters of detail. The appetite for publication often involved some interesting skulduggery as to whose work it really was being published, and who could get their work to the publishers first across perilous seas in faraway London or Europe (for the Germans and French were active in the game of pursuit of curiosities). Macinnis makes some interesting points about the nation-building influence of the wide publication of Australian naturalist accounts, and how these in turn morphed into the Blinky Bills and Snugglepots of children's literature, which created a virtuous circle of national pride and environmental awareness. Beginning with the versatile Mrs Meredith, many of the compilers did not hesitate to join the fight to stop the senseless destruction of many of the wonders that they described, though it was obviously a lonely battle at times. One objection I would make to the text is that the author seemed to be a little dismissive of Ludwig Leichhardt and his bush skills. Leichhardt was willing to learn from and greatly appreciated the Aborigines, unlike most of his men, always excepting the gentle John Gilbert. It was unfortunate that these two were probably killed as a result of actions of members of their parties, actions of which they almost certainly had no part. I had to read the translated diaries (edited and translated by Arousseau) of poor old Ludwig at one stage of my career, and came to appreciate how the man was almost the type of the neglected and misunderstood nerd — totally brilliant in all things of the mind, but pretty hopeless at the lesser social skills such as leadership of an exploring party. Probably not uncoincidentally, Dampier had the same character failing, as did the brilliant but unstable Polish-German William Blandowski, and probably many others discussed in Curious Minds. It is not unreasonable to think that many of these investigators turned to nature because many of its prospects were more pleasing to them than human company.
 The more successful built enduring careers out of their passions. The celebrated Ferdinand von Mueller laid the foundations of Australian bioscience: as with his compatriot Leichhardt, he championed the local over the imperial. Prolific writers such as Louisa Ann Meredith also encouraged the transformation that many settlers underwent, 'from a dislike of the Australian bush to an appreciation of its wonders'. Full references are given at the back of the book so that all the art reproductions presented can be followed to their source, a very welcome service to the reader. The author is a former science teacher, whose students were very fortunate to be taught by someone with the obvious knack of bringing complicated ideas, events and people to life. Robert Haworth
Oddly enough, I didn't think I was being dismissive of Leichhardt, though I had been in an earlier draft, until a reviewer pointed me to some research that showed I was wrong. It's a matter of taste, I guess.

Monday, 3 February 2014

Making pics for young people

I am flat out like a lizard drinking, pitching two manuscripts today, so the last thing I needed was distraction from Book Chook, but that's what happened.  Curses on you, Book Chook!

I lost the best part of an hour , but I had loads of fun.

Here is the sort of thing I achieved.

The Book Chook page is about sites where kids can create pictures, so being a hopeless artist, I just had to give it a try.

It was dead easy! So I had to share it.

Warning Sign Generator
My recommendation:

Go to 
Book Chook Favourites - Online Image Makers 
 and have a play for yourself.


And now I'm getting back to work.