While clearing our cellar recently my wife and I came upon a compact printing press which her late father had used not just to keep in touch with his local sea scout troop in Holland during the second world war but also to print material hostile to the Nazi forces which occupied his homeland. For much of the war Willem lived hidden under the floorboards of his parents’ house in central Holland where his father was a dentist.Willem by contrast had trained to be a concert violinist and one of his older brothers was already a prisoner of the Japanese at Changi. Like other Dutch boys of his age, if Willem had been captured he would have been forced to work as a prisoner-of-war in one of Germany’s munitions factories making bombs or other weapons used to fight against the Allies.
I was a small child during much of the second world war and when not evacuated witnessed quite a lot of the war from the garden of my parents’ house in East Kent: the mass daylight raids on London by German bombers, for instance, which flew up the centre of the Thames estuary to avoid anti-aircraft fire from both shores. But then Britain built so-called Churchill towers bristling with guns in the middle of that estuary – used after the war as the first offshore pirate radio stations. Who remembers any of that today? My memory remains full of such images along with recollections of the everyday courage and kindness of citizens during times of horrid happenings and fear. During the war scaffolding was built into the sea 30 or 40 metres out from the coastline near where we lived to repel German landing craft from running up our beaches during the dangerous early days of 1940. In fact when I first saw such scaffolding in use on building sites following the war I concluded this was a very clever use of purely wartime materials in a peacetime context. War plays some fairly funny tricks on the immature brain.
As a wartime child and former front-line serviceman I must admit to being utterly amazed and highly unimpressed by the way certain states of Australia are currently conducting themselves. If this typifies present-day Australia I no longer feel proud to be a citizen or happy to have put such a long-term effort alongside my half-Dutch wife into making our lives here.
Recently we experienced large-scale thefts of electricity from a corner of our garden where we run a substantial pond for rare species of frogs. Our local police in the Blue Mountains have been models of courtesy, effort and care but significantly perhaps do not wear the near-black uniforms observed recently in other states. If age had not prevented me I would once have been proud to serve in Australia’s armed forces during an emergency. But is this any longer the country I came to voluntarily quarter of a century ago? Journalists I have always read with respect – such as Terry McCrann –are certainly no less astonished than I am. My long-honed instincts formed formerly from working around the world suggest several alternative scenarios to the one being pushed.
For some reason I recently remembered attending a very lavish party outside Tbilisi in Georgia at the end of the Cold War. The villa belonged to a notable local sculptor and when the time came to go a veritable posse of police cars filled the lane outside. Such sights alert me quickly to danger which may even explain why I still seem to be alive. In the event the cars were there to make sure we returned safely to our hotels yet only a few months earlier several political protesters had been shot in Tbilisi’s main square. A week later I was back home in England, a country I seem presently unable to visit until Christmas at least although a citizen from birth of that land.
The ABC has censored and re-edited an episode of the popular children’s TV show Bluey to remove the expression ‘ooga booga’ claiming it’s racist. But is it? It seems that ‘ooga booga’ was originally coined as an undergraduate joke. It began life as a comic way of representing the way cavemen might have talked. Anyone in on the joke could say ‘ooga booga’ and mean hello, good-bye, how are you, what’s up or, in fact, any range of things depending on the intonation and expression employed. Nothing very racist so far. From this jokey, adolescent origin it was used as the title of a 2013 movie. The plot is about a clean-cut young African-American man who is at a convenience store shopping for his girlfriend when the store is robbed and the shop assistant shot. Two racist white cops mistake the young man for the shooter and kill him. Reincarnated into the body of a doll called Ooga Booga (well, it is a very silly movie) the man and his girlfriend seek revenge and justice. So ‘ooga booga’ is on the side of the good guys, not the bad guys. Not looking all that racist yet, is it?
Mind you, there are also claims that ‘ooga booga’ has been used as a label for Ebonics—the name for Black American English. If the term is new to you: Ebonics is a portmanteau word—a combination of ‘ebony’ and ‘phonics’—and has been used since 1973 to name African-American English. But does that make it racist? Black English has been the source of some of the trendiest words around including ‘woke’, ‘bro’ and ‘hood’ (as in neighbourhood). So does that mean that ‘ooga booga’ is (in reality) a cool meme, and the only people who think it’s racist are those who are not in on the joke?
But now a group of American teachers think that Ebonics should be the only dialect of English taught in the classroom and that teachers ‘abolish standard English,’ which it calls ‘anti-Black linguistic racism and white linguistic supremacy.’ So, according to this thinking, anyone who dares to teach Shakespeare, Dickens, Longfellow or Mark Twain is both a racist and a white supremacist. This is more than woke madness—this is ignorance. Linguists these days don’t talk about ‘English’ but about ‘Englishes.’ David Crystal’s masterful book is called The Stories of English (note the plural) because the world is full of Englishes—all of them interesting and valid as topics of study.
Occasionally politicians are seized by the ambition to create a new word. It’s an urge they should resist. Scott Morrison recently succumbed and told parliament he hoped the issue of aged care would not be ‘partisanised.’ Ouch! ‘Partisanised’? Really, Scott? ‘Partisan’ is a perfectly good word recorded in English from 1555 meaning ‘an adherent or proponent of a party.’ Clearly Morrison was hoping aged care would not become a blunt instrument in the hands of the party opposite. His hopes were rapidly scuttled. But, dear Mr Morrison, there are two parts of speech that ‘partisan’ can occupy: as either a noun or an adjective. It is not a verb. And attempting to make it a verb only succeeds in making it ugly. Now write out a hundred times: ‘I will not neologise when addressing parliament.’
We think of ‘bandwidth’ as an internet word, but it’s been around since 1922 (originally applied to what was called in those days, ‘wireless’). Originally ‘bandwidth’ named the limitations applying to frequencies or wave-lengths. Today ‘bandwidth’ has become the go-to metaphor to describe any limitation. Ask a busy person to tackle a task and you may be told, ‘Sorry, I don’t have the bandwidth for that today.’ And Miranda Devine, writing in the Daily Telegraph, inventively talked about Joe Biden’s lack of ‘mental bandwidth.’
As for what the Democratic party is doing to Joe Biden, I’d file that under the heading of ‘elder abuse.’
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