The phrase ‘many grandparents ago’ is a brilliant way of defining time for Australian descendants of immigrants. For me, it’s a great opener to an unsettling story.
The Rabbits is a fable about two things multiplying prolifically in this country: rabbits and non-Indigenous people. John Marsden is cryptically commenting on the coincidence of the human and rabbit population explosion since the arrival of the British in 1788. The illustrator Shaun Tan produced quite disturbing images for the award-winning book destined for older children but for us adults too.
This week, I read two conflicting things. I read The Rabbits with my adult student who has come here from across the seas, and explained to her the problem caused by introducing these cute fluffy creatures into Australia. And also this week I read this advertisement near my house:
Dennis Aubrey at Via Lucis commented that his favourite opening line is this one from the short story Red Wind.
It’s somewhat relevant today with the wind howling outside my window. Not that’s it’s a desert wind. More of an inland mountain wind blowing dust over our city from the drought-stricken west, blighting our mountain view with a grey haze.
Chandler’s opening continues grimly:
“It was one of those hot dry Santa Anas that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen. You can even get a full glass of beer at a cocktail lounge.”
Has he got your attention? Philip Marlowe, private detective, is going to a bar for a beer, but someone has to die.
Thanks Dennis for introducing me to Philip Marlowe. I liked his references to the hot wind through the narration. ‘Outside the wind howled’; ‘… he looked cool as well as under a tension of some sort. I guessed it was the hot wind.’; ‘The wind was making enough noise to make the hard quick rap of .22 ammunition sound like a slammed door…’; ‘The wind was still blowing, oven-hot, swirling dust and torn paper up against the walls.’
Confession: after the third chapter, I couldn’t go on. Too many guns.
Tuesday, July 23rd. – Am aroused by violent knocking at the door in the early gray dawn – so violent that two large centipedes and a scorpion drop on to the bed.
First line of A Hippo Banquet by Mary Kingsley, 1897
This is the first line of the first story in a small book, A Hippo Banquet, published by Penguin as no. 32 of 80 Little Black Classics. The line certainly drew me in, fearful as I am of bugs dropping down on me in my bed. Quite the contrast is this fearless English woman, Mary Kingsley, who lived in West Africa in the 1890s and wrote of her life there in Travels in West Africa from which this little black book was made.
The hippo banquet occurs at night when hippos graze on hippo grass. Mary has gone for a canoe ride alone in the middle of the night because she can’t sleep (mosquitoes and lice in the bed…), and it’s then she comes upon five hippos feasting.
The first line of the whole work, Travels in West Africa, is much longer but equally compelling and worth quoting:
“The West Coast of Africa is like the Arctic regions in one particular, and that is that when you have once visited it you want to go back there again; and, now I come to think of it, there is another particular in which it is like them, and that is that the chances you have of returning from it at all are small, for it is a Belle Dame sans merci.”
La Belle Dame Sans Merci is a poem written by John Keats in 1819, in which the Belle Dame is at once a figure of love and fantasy, death and decay.
It was late, and Holofernes’ guests quickly withdrew. Bagoas closed the tent from the outside, dismissed the attendants, and everyone went to their lodgings to sleep, tired from too much drinking. Holofernes had collapsed onto his bed, completely drunk. Judith was left alone with him in the tent.
Opening of Chapter 13 of the Book of Judith
I like the opening of this chapter, which in many versions of the book of Judith is given the title ‘Judith beheads Holofernes’. Even if this spoiler is present, the opening sentences contain enough intrigue to keep us reading. Holofernes is dead drunk, passed out, and all his guests have been asked to leave, except for Judith…
As an art history student I studied a few paintings of Judith beheading Holofernes, but when I viewed this one at the Dutch Masters exhibition in the Art Gallery of New South Wales last month, I thought I’d do well to read the story. It’s a good one. I recommend it. One thing I learnt is that the maidservant who is most often present in the artworks as a tense witness, was in fact asked by Judith to wait outside the tent. As the opening lines say, she remained alone with Holofernes. Like his fellow Baroque artists, Jan de Bray has included the maid, but I was drawn to this painting because of what he excluded. He portrays Judith in the moment before she brings the sword down on his neck, in contrast to painters who preferred the following moment with all its gore.
Judith was a beautiful Hebrew widow who convinced an evil general of Nebuchadnezzar that she could help him to kill the Jews in her town. She was lying. He invited her to his banquet, and under the spell of her beauty, he drank more than he’d ever drunk on any day of his life, and collapsed. Judith dispatched her enemy and saved her town.
The lines quoted above are my translation of a French translation from a 1997 bible published by the Société biblique française.
I am Patrick, a sinner, most unlearned, the least of all the faithful, and utterly despised by many.
Opening line of St Patrick’s Confession, translated from the Latin by Ludwig Bieler, 1950.
Today is St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, so I looked up St Patrick’s Confession and was surprised to learn in these very first words that he was ‘utterly despised’. And sad as this is, the worst is the last line: ‘This is my confession before I die.’
How hard his life must have been, to have reached its end and written a confession of faith that reveals he had spread good news but was despised, utterly despised. Still, this was Patrick’s belief about himself, and if he was so repugnant then his life story must have been rewritten to make a saint of him within 150 years, by the 7th century AD.
My interest is in the various translations of that first line. The following examples are available on the Internet, though undoubtedly there are many more. The words ‘utterly despised by many’ shocked me, for all I knew of St Patrick was that he did good deeds and was therefore, I assumed, liked. Yet we can all see the word ‘contempt’ glaring at us from within the original Latin phrase:
Ego Patricius peccator rusticissimus et minimus omnium fidelium et contemptibilissimus apud plurimos…
The other three translations I found did not have the same impact.
On www.confessio.ie, the English for contemptibilissimus apud plurimos is rendered ‘I am looked down upon by many.’ Simple and straightforward.
On www.whatsaiththescripture.com, it is ‘most contemptible to many’. Close to contemptibilissimus, but lacks the loathing of ‘despised’.
On bbc.co.uk/religion, it is ‘for many people I am the most contemptible’. Similar to the previous example but twice the words.
And of course there’s now Google: ‘in many contemptibilissimus’. Not very helpful.
I never had a thing for St Patrick until, as a consequence of family history research last year, I met a first cousin once removed (i.e. my mother’s cousin), born on St Patrick’s Day, 17th March, daughter of an Irish Catholic. Her middle name is Patricia in honour of the saint. She’s 91 today! My own name is Patricia, and I too am the daughter of a Catholic mother who chose that name. I’m now wondering…
If an anaconda bites your hand – as, no doubt, one someday will – gulps your fist whole and holds fast, fight the keen urge to yank back. Really.
Opening line, Emergency Instructions: If an Anaconda Bites Your Hand, David Macey
This is the first line of a short short story, perhaps it’s called flash fiction, found in issue 84 of the journal Agni.
I definitely don’t have a thing for snakes, but in this three-paragraph story I saw something humorous, reminiscent of an illustration in Le Petit Prince of a boa constrictor swallowing an animal.
It also reminded me of a rock formation I once saw, with a long snakish snout, a semblance of teeth and a fierce eye.
Like anacondas, and boa constrictors, rock can be dangerous. You can be washed off it, fall from the top, disappear into its midst like Miranda in Picnic at Hanging Rock. But rock doesn’t search for prey, doesn’t coil about those too near, is never hungry. Its jaws won’t open, it won’t bite your hand. My husband is safe.
It was a bright cold day in April, and the clocks were striking thirteen.
Opening line, Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell, 1949
From the last word of the first line, Orwell has us in his hands with not just one clock but all clocks striking thirteen.
I thought about Nineteen Eighty-Four when writing my last post about books discarded by libraries. One of the excuses given by library administrators is the digitisation of books, the physical copies of which can then be sold or given away or thrown into landfill. The trouble is that digitised writing can be altered permanently with quick and simple keystrokes, and if the only printed copy is dead and buried, there’s no way of knowing exactly what its author wrote.
Therein lies the connection with Nineteen Eighty-Four. One of its creepy elements was Winston’s job as a falsifier of records, altering newspapers and books and “every kind of literature or documentation which might conceivably hold any political or ideological significance.” As soon as he had completed the corrections requested for an issue of the newspaper, that issue “would be reprinted, the original copy destroyed, and the corrected copy placed on the files in its stead.”
Is it any different from a handwritten manuscript that hundreds of years ago was copied by monks many times over, and where, like Chinese whispers, the content could change slightly with every new version? Diligent scholars who spent their days copying books might also have slipped in an opinion, misquoted a speech, altered figures. If they did, we’ll never know, in the same way that we’ll never know whether digitised books are an exact copy if the originals are destroyed to make space for computers.
Still, much as I scream NO to book-dumping, I see the logic in digitisation if only there could always be at least one printed copy left somewhere in the world.
An old cemetery is one of the most pathetic and melancholy spectacles in this world, and the pathos of it is deepened when it has been allowed to drift into neglect and ruin, with broken fences, overturned tombstones, fallen railings, obliterated inscriptions, rank weeds, long grass and general desolation.
Opening line, ‘The Paddington Cemetery’ in Truth (Brisbane newspaper), 17th November 1907
In my last post I lamented the discarding of books by libraries of all ilks. Michael Wilding alerted us to the false promise of libraries to put unborrowed books in storage somewhere. What actually happens to many of them is quite different: they are dumped and used as landfill.
Another element of our civilisation has suffered the same fate. While searching for information about two of my ancestors, siblings Eliza and James Burley who were buried in Paddington Cemetery, I found this article about ‘Bygone Brisbane’ written when the town was all of 80 years old! It’s a sad story from the first. The writer’s adjectives are depressing: broken, overturned, fallen, obliterated … Yet I had to keep reading: why had the graveyard been so neglected? Worse was to come. I discovered that a large number of headstones of Brisbane’s early settlers have been used as … landfill.
Paddington Cemetery opened in 1843 for the first settlers and closed in 1875, and over the following years became an untended, weed-infested, goat-harbouring eyesore. The local population sought a solution from the Council, who proposed a children’s playground, kindergarten and pool to be built over the graves!
But what could they do with the headstones? A Councillor offered a suggestion: “Break them up and use them for the footpaths; they make good road metal!”
The author of the Truth newspaper article where I found today’s great opening line compared the councillor to Troglodytes, “men who have the skulls and intellects of cave dwellers who sat in their dark dwelling places and gnawed the grilled bones of even their own parents, when having a special feast. To such men there is nothing sacred.”
The Burley children lie in the Paddington Cemetery, which itself now lies under a huge football stadium formerly known as Lang Park, these days Suncorp Stadium.
An historian, Darcy Maddock, recently let me know that many of the headstones from the Paddington Cemetery were supposed to have been used for road base (!) but in fact were removed to the newer Toowong Cemetery where they were not re-erected for posterity but rather “placed in a gully” where “someone has used a crowbar to break them up. They were covered over and trees planted over them in the hope no one would ever know.” Darcy and an archaeologist are working with the current Council on extricating the headstones from beneath a large long water pipe laid on top of them.
The gravestones of my ancestors are not, so far, among those lifted from the ditch.
Entering the words “headstones landfill” or “books landfill” into Google turns up numerous stories from around the world: burying them in ditches is an old and common practice.
Cemetery administrators make promises to safely remove headstones to new sites, and librarians promise to retain unique copies of books and journals. Yet, sadly, a search too often reveals that the items have “disappeared”.
How briefly we’re allowed to remember people we’ve known and books we’ve read.
Alicia Martin, ‘Biografias’, installation in Cordoba, Spain, Photo courtesy of Toni Castillo Quero, Creative Commons
Over the past decade university libraries have been systematically removing books from their shelves.
Michael Wilding, ‘University Libraries should Preserve Printed Books’ in The Weekend Australian, 23rd August 2017
Last week’s opening line came from a short story by Michael Wilding. Now I’m drawing on him again, but today’s opening line is no fiction. It’s sadly the absolute truth about our libraries. He has written at least three pieces over the past seven years to alert the world to the emptying of its libraries.
Wilding is in some ways a man after my own heart. I’ve been told that my local university library will one day be purged of old French books (among other foreigners), so I’ve been borrowing what I can to prove they are wanted, to keep them out of the book cemetery.
In March 2014 Wilding wrote ‘Libraries Under Threat’ in Sydney Review of Books, and revealed what happened to some books from the University of Western Sydney:
… skip loads of books deemed duplicates, silver-fish infested and surplus to requirements were thrown out and used for landfill.