Good Reading : February 2015
GOOD READING FEBRUARY 2015 19 BOOK BITE 1 Un-Australian How do we get to be un-Australian? There are several answers. Entrepreneur John Singleton’s remains the most succinct: ‘It is un-Australian to drive past a pub’. Former politician Fred Daly’s is, I’m afraid, rather dated: ‘I suppose there is nothing more un-Australian than a tea-bag’. I have sympathy for this point of view. While I don’t go so far as to swing the billy around my head at every morning tea-time to settle the tea leaves, I do prefer the old-fashioned pot with leaves in it to the tea bag. But I am conscious of being surrounded by battalions of tea bags claiming the support of middle Australia so I would be hard put to call them un-Australian. I also realise that the term leaf tea has come into existence precisely because tea bags are now the norm. The Howard dictum was that we were un-Australian if we didn’t have ‘Australian values’ (and I dread that ter m almost as much as un-Australian itself ). Peter Costello lined up Australian values with the rule of law, democracy and a secular state, and that got us off to a flying start. Then John Howard derailed the word by linking it to what was taught in schools. Private schools apparently had Australian values in spades, Islamic schools had none and public schools were ‘value-neutral’, or, in other words, valueless. It all makes the debate on Asian values versus Western values relatively straightforward. It did lead to a rethink of the dictionary entry for un-Australian. In its early 19th century use, this term carried with it the notion that the person tagged had primary loyalties that did not attach to the Australian nation but to some other country or institution. Thus communism was suspect because it was too international. Catholicism made one a servant of the Pope in Rome. Any ethnic background led to the suspicion that one’s heart belonged to the country of one’s birth. Australians were loyal to Australia. To be un-Australian was to be potentially capable of disloyalty. In its later appearance in the 1990s, un-Australian degenerated to a smear word that could mean almost anything. The Macquarie Dictionary has difficulty with words that have zero denotation while being full bottle on connotation but the definition that tries to capture this reads: ‘violating a pattern of conduct, behaviour, etc., which, it is implied by the user of the ter m, is one embraced by all Australians’. So if you think that the people who eat spinach are beyond the pale, then you can label spinach-eaters un-Australian. This car ries with it the assumption that all Australians think the way you do and line up beside you in their loathing of the detestable spinach-eaters. What makes you un-Australian changes with the times and with the speaker. It is almost too difficult for the dictionary to pin it down. Typos The bane of every wr iter’s life! The problem is that we see what we are expecting to see, not what is actually there, particularly if we are caught up in the wr iting process and most of our brain is preoccupied with the meaning of what we are writing. It takes a particular style of reading to pick up typos, a reading in which you confine yourself to the surface of the page and not engage in the meaning of the text. Oddly enough, the bigger the type, the harder it is often to spot errors, as the Victoria Police Commissioner discovered when he unveiled a plaque at a new police station at Mooroopna, a small town near Shepparton. Unfortunately the plaque had Moorpoopna. Typos can be very amusing (‘scared cows’ for ‘sacred cows’) or appear to have a significance (‘The Awful Government of Russia’ as opposed to ‘The Lawful Government of Russia’). They are fun in someone else’s text. I just don’t want them in my own. The Aitch Factor by Susan Butler is published by Macmillan Australia, rrp $24.99.
December January 2015