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Sunday, October 28, 2012

Illusion, truth and reality (Part 8)

On 15 March 2011, I began a series of blog pieces. I knew it was ambitious but didn't think it was overwhelming. I was going to explain my personal philosophy based on what I taught at the university, including my views on religion. Put incredibly pompously, a sort of personal unified field theory.

   Nothing like placing oneself next to Einstein, is there? And yet, he whispered into my shell-like ear just now, "Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler."

   That’s where crunch point came, because I do hold to the view strongly that there's an interconnectness amongst all things. Not to understand the significance of this is to get locked into illusion, which is what the highest forms of Hindu philosophy try to get across when they speak of maya. I won't return to that here.

   This series was not intended as a guru piece to enlighten the world. Gurus or their equivalents in other cultures have been doing that for at least three thousand years with not a lot of success, in my opinion. In religion, we've ended up with an appalling mess of conflict that would make most of their founders, where there were individual founders, weep with despair at the travesty their noble ideals have ended up. They would have kept their mouths shut if they could have seen into the future the misery has been inflicted in their name. The newspapers and history books are littered with the bloodstains.

   In philosophy, while there's little actual blood on the floor, it's nearly all got lost in a mishmash of jargon that only the specialists dare use, and they often end up playing with words that confound the tale they are supposed to be telling.

   My idea was to use the series to crystallise my own thoughts and end up with a coherent statement that might even have some meaning for anyone interested enough to plough through it right to the end.

   Well, the road to hell... and all that. I got to a certain point by 8 November 2011, and then stopped.

   It wasn't that I couldn’t go on or didn't know what I wanted to express, but that it became an exercise in the very thing I hoped to avoid – preaching. Even my recent posting was preachy. 

   People don't usually like to be preached at, unless they're in awe of the preacher or looking for a saviour. Some are. Count me out. At least, don't count on me because I'm sure to let you down. Preaching assumes superior knowledge and wisdom by the preacher, and in my case there's no guarantee of that.

   I got hung up on the notion that I was reinventing the wheel, and maybe not one that fits the cart it should be on. They're wonky old wheels of different shapes and sizes, but there they are. As I said, I'm no saviour. But what I can say is that I can tell you why my views on God, the Universe and Everything leave me feeling as comfortable as I can be, given what's been happening to me over the past 34 months.

   Well then, let me put an end to it.

Jesus and the Buddha weren't preachers, although the term is often applied to them by later commentators, critics and devotees. They taught using parables, as did Lao Tzu. Parables have the advantage of myth; they can teach the lesson without getting caught up in unimportant details. They can be adapted to new circumstances without someone screaming that not a word can be changed or the message will be lost. The truth is that the message is stifled when it's placed in a straitjacket.

   The only problem arises when the writings with a mythic quality are taken as literal truth. We all know where grim clinging to dogma ends up.

   Let me dispense with the religion side of it. Better still, let me call on an old battler to help; a man who died forty years ago. His name is Alan Watts. He had what I regard as a special gift for explaining eastern philosophies to westerners.
It might seem, then, that our need is for some genius to invent a new religion, a philosophy of life and a view of the world that is plausible and generally acceptable for the late twentieth century, and through which every individual can feel that the world as a whole and his own life in particular have meaning.
   This, as history has shown repeatedly, is not enough. Religions are divisive and quarrelsome. They are a form of one-upmanship because they depend upon separating the "saved" from the "damned," the true believers from the heretics, the in-group from the out-group. Even religious liberals play the game of "we're-more- tolerant-than-you."

   Furthermore, as systems of doctrine, symbolism, and behavior, religions harden into institutions that must command loyalty, be defended and kept "pure," and—because all belief is fervent hope, and thus a cover-up for doubt and uncertainty—religions must make converts. The more people who agree with us, the less nagging insecurity about our position.

   In the end one is committed to being a Christian or a Buddhist come what may in the form of new knowledge. New and indigestible ideas have to be wangled into the religious tradition, however inconsistent with its original doctrines, so that the believer can still take his stand and assert, "I am first and foremost a follower of Christ/Muhammad/Buddha, or whomever."
And he goes on to write one sentence that I find too sweeping, and doesn't take into account thinking people of faith:
Irrevocable commitment to any religion is not only intellectual suicide; it is positive unfaith because it closes the mind to any new vision of the world. Faith is, above all, open-ness—an act of trust in the unknown.
The last sentence I can only agree with wholeheartedly.

   Unfortunately, because this has been separated from its context, I'll probably lose anyone used to thinking only of the God of the Abrahamic faiths – Judaism, Christianity and Islam, but I have no choice.
...[W]e think of God as the King of the Universe, the Absolute Technocrat who personally and consciously controls every details of his cosmos—and that is not the kind of God in my story. In fact, it isn't my story at all, for any student of the history of religions will know that it comes from ancient India, and is the mythical way of explaining the Vedanta philosophy.
   ...Sophisticated Hindus do not think of God as a special and separate superperson who rules the world from above, like a monarch. Their God is "underneath" rather than "above" everything, and he (or it) plays the world from inside.... What is more, no Hindu can realize that he is God in disguise without seeing at the same time that this is true of everyone and everything else.

   In the Vedanta philosophy, nothing exists except God. There seem to be other things than God.... The universe of seemingly separate things is therefore real only for a while, not eternally real, for it comes and goes...

   But Vedanta is much more than the idea or the belief that this is so. It is centrally and above all the experience, the immediate knowledge of its being so, and for this reason such a complete subversion of our ordinary way of seeing things. It turns the world inside out and outside in.
So let me return to my own view, for the last time. I am not a pantheist, a polytheist, a monotheist, nor an atheist. I am not any 'ist' with a 'the' in it. I am a monist, which goes beyond most limits that words impose. I don't look for a Heaven as described in the Semitic faiths, whatever attractions it may hold for others. Nor have I the least fear of a fire-and-brimstone Hell. To me, the latter represents in mythic form the hell we make for ourselves and others.

   I take both to have a vital mythic quality suitable to the great tales of humanity, but we shouldn't cajole or frighten children with them. To me they mean a fulfilment or realisation that we are all of the same essence, as Watts describes is the message of the Vedanta.

   It's the Möbius strip. The inside and the outside are the same – but who would have thought it?

   Some may call that atheism. They are wrong, but that’s OK. It's non-theism, or as I said elsewhere, monism. In a way, it's recognising the relative world we live in within the absolute. Once you have this awareness, just about everything falls into place.

   I accept that others see it differently and it would be presumptuous of me to deny anyone their perception of why they are here and how to spend the short time we all have on this earth. As I've said many times before, when people say they pray for me, I'm sincerely grateful, just as I am for the kindly wishes of the agnostic or the atheist. Good-heartedness is a characteristic of humanity completely separate from religious or philosophical outlook.

   Should this blog end here, then that’s OK. I've said enough, I hope, to make people aware that I accept where and what I am, with no fear of what's beyond the last breath. Between now and that point? That's the terra incognita.

   Let my old friend Alan Watts have (almost) the last word:
As a human being it is just my nature to enjoy and share philosophy. I do this in the same way that some birds are eagles and some doves, some flowers lilies and some roses. I realize, too, that the less I preach, the more likely I am to be heard.
   I apologise for the preaching. How much better this would have been if told as a myth in Harry Potter style. Words are good servants but bad masters.

These quotes all come from Alan Watts The Book on the Taboo Against Knowing Who you Are 
Search for it on Google; You may be in for a pleasant surprise if you do.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

Cuba on our parade ground

Fifty years ago, almost to the day, the students of our entire high school were ordered to go to the school parade ground. We stood silently in rows, wondering what would happen, and why this unprecedented event.

   I was in sub-senior year, which means the one before leaving high school if we got as far as the senior school. Most didn't, and were out earning a living. I was fifteen.

   The school radio was connected up to the PA system, and the Principal told us to listen closely. We were there just three minutes, and then ordered back to our classrooms. This is what we heard.

Most of the kids had no real idea of the significance of the ultimatum. As we went back to our classrooms, some were intrigued, others excited and joking. "The world is going to end in three days," someone said and the response was laughter.

   We really didn't have a clue, as we went back to the Chemistry lab to complete our interrupted experiments. Little did we know how close the world was to a devastating nuclear exchange, where the superpowers, the USA and the USSR, had enough missiles each for what they called "assured mutual destruction."

   Nevertheless, the broadcast made a deep impression on us when we discovered how close we had come to that disaster. For those post-superpower babies, here's the real story:

   "JFK was good enough to prevent nuclear war but some people aren't smart enough to realize it," is the first youtube comment I notice when I see this video.

   It's one way of looking at it. If playing a poker hand using the world as the stakes is "prevention", you might say that. The truth is that no poker game to see who blinked first should ever have had a couple of billion people's lives and the future of the world as the stake.

   It was unwise of the USSR to test the US resolve by sending missiles to Cuba, no doubt. That was a poor gambit, but the USSR rarely backed down on threats. In the end it was Krushchev who made the sacrifice his generals urged him not to. He ordered the missile-carrying ships back to their bases, knowing that he would lose his leadership of the USSR in return, leaving the USSR in the hands of the generals.

   If it was success, it had its terrible consequences. It encouraged the US to take on the mantle of world's policeman in its Indo-China venture. That turned out to be the price the US was going to pay, apart from millions of Indo-Chinese still doing so.

Thursday, October 25, 2012

The Tao of electrical goods

Because of the division of labour in our farm household when I was a child, ironing was one job I never had to do. I had three sisters, and they were always ironing dance dresses or school uniforms with box pleats. Girl stuff like that. I know about box pleats only because of how much Lyn and Kay hated ironing their school uniforms, which were loaded with them. "Box pleats" with additional adjectives often came up, and the adjectives tended to be colourful.

   The time came, eventually, when I had to do my own ironing. It was a novelty and I didn't mind it. One day I was in a hurry, and was ironing furiously, but it wasn't going to well.

   Stop. Think. Understand the nature of the thing you are trying to do, Mr Ironing Man. The iron is set to iron cloth at a certain temperature. Go too fast and you're always trying to iron cold cloth. Cold cloth doesn't iron, or at least if it's not up to the right temperature, it's going to take twice as long to do, and not look even half as good.

   So, it's a classic case of "more haste, less speed." I quickly learned that there was a perfect speed which created optimal efficiency, something that experienced ironers knew almost by instinct.

   Instinct? No, it's not that. It's using their intelligence, observation and experience. The old "ironing lady*" understood perfectly the nature of the job, and from the outside at least, it seemed effortless. 

   In that sense, she was using Taoist principles. In Buddhist terms, it can be a meditation, like walking meditation, attending fully and understanding the task every step of the way.

   "Washing the dishes while washing the dishes."

   Many would call it plain common sense, but as often has been noted, common sense isn't always as common as it should be, or the world would be in better shape.

   This principle applies to everything really, but in a society always trying to make things "easier", it can produce exactly the opposite result. A lot of electrical things make good examples. There's a right speed to use a power drill. Forcing it only damages the motor and the drill bit. No point racing along your teeth with an electric toothbrush – just ... slow down ... and let the brush do what it's designed to, in its own way. An electric shaver? Take it slowly and allow it do its job as designed.

   Polishing shoes. Churning cream to make butter (not a lot of call for that these days, admittedly, but if you've ever churned cream, it's surely a case of "softly softly makee butter".) Everything has its own correct mode and rate.

   It all comes back to one thing. Understand the nature of the thing we are trying to do, and it will look effortless, and there's a chance may even feel that way.

   Doing ordinary things this way will also be a meditation. If it's prayers, they are meditation too. Racing through them doesn't seem to be quite what it's all about. 

   None of it is fundamentally about religion. It's about wisdom based on knowledge. Would that I had more wisdom.

   It's what the Taoist calls "non-action", and this is very far from doing nothing. Yes, I've written about this before, and discussed it with decades of students. It's knowing the discipline needed for the task, and applying it effectively, and that takes away all the frustration. The right outlook can even make the hated job pleasant.

*No outraged snorts of indignation please. When was the last time you sent out stuff to an "old ironing man"?

Monday, October 22, 2012

My preshussss... my books

My study at the University of New England had an entire wall of bookshelves behind me, and a large bookshelf on the other wall facing me.

   I occupied that same room for thirty-one years. Several times I was offered more spacious accommodation but I declined, because I quailed at the thought of transferring decades of books, journals and other archives anywhere else.

   Besides, that was my room, and everyone, including decades' worth of past external students who came to call on me when in town knew where I was.

   The problem came when I retired. This is not a big house. I already had a library here of English literature, classics and European history; two bookcases, one very large and of necessity, two layers deep. Tracey had her history, religion studies and law books in another large bookcase.

   What was going to happen to my professional library when I left the university? I made a decision. Well, we did. We would buy one more bookcase, and whatever couldn't fit in that from my university office had to go. Ninety percent of my library.

   Would you like a peek at the shelves at what remains from my cruelly culled 'work' collection? This isn't all that I was able to salvage, but it's most. You won't be able to read all the titles of course, not that you'd want to, but let me show you a glimpse of what's left. These are my (mainly Asian) treasures – the ones I can't part with while I'm alive.

   They are out of order just enough to be comfortable (books having been taken out and put back in the wrong place), and I apologise to Professor Wu for leaving him upside-down.

   The last two pictures, up to Coomaraswami's wonderful The Dance of Shiva, are of ones I've written, edited or have chapters or articles in. If you're wondering why some are stacked horizontally, it's that more of the smaller books can fit. Of course, the one I want is always on the bottom. That variation on Murphy's Law strikes again.

Friday, October 19, 2012

Fearsome tales in our Readers 8


Gelertan impressive hound!
I didn't know it was a fable but even if I had, it wouldn't have mattered anyway. It was another favourite of Old Jim's and I heard it a hundred times. You probably know the story – how Llywelyn goes out hunting leaving his favourite hound Gelert solely in charge of the household, including the baby [yeah right....] and when he returns he finds evidence of carnage everywhere and Gelert looking very pleased with himself, blood all over his teeth and most of the rest of his body.
   This hothead Welshman jumps to the immediate conclusion that Gelert must have got bored and, with (alleged) pit-bull-terrier-like enthusiasm, has ripped the kid to shreds. So, cursing and raging, he plunges his sword deep into Gelert's side. We listen as the poem describes the dying process in fair detail, and then Llywelyn goes to the nursery to see if there's anything left of his one and only heir to scrape up.
   Of course he comes across his kid sleeping like... well... a baby; totally undamaged goods, and a monstrous great wolf dead beside him. Gelert had fought the wicked wolf for I don't know how long but I'll bet it was hours, and finally despatched him. And now we have reams of verses, or so it seems, describing Llywelyn's anguish at what he'd done to the faithful Gelert through not bothering to take a peek into the kid's room first.
   See, I could imagine our faithful old cattledog Ted protecting my younger sister from ahhhh... dingoes... while we all went out to the Saturday night dance. I thought of Ted, and it was the sheer injustice of poor Gelert's death I couldn't stand.
   If I'd have known Llywelyn was a Welshman at the time I would have been annoyed at the Welsh for decades, but fortunately I've met some nice Welsh people in my time and they aren’t all bad. (Hi, Avril and Jerry!)
   But Llywelyn… it's a silly name anyway, isn't it? What's with Aberystwyth and Betws-y-Coed, and llanfairpwllgwyn-gyllgogerychwyrndrobwll-llantysiliogogogoch? The Welsh language is ... interesting. Lucky we stuck mainly to Ten Pound Poms of the English sort as immigrants in the 1950s. At least we could spell their names.
   I had no idea where Wales was anyway. Probably next to where Mazeppa came from.
   I guess, looking back, we did learn a vast amount from those Readers, and every story and poem had some sort of moral lesson in it, including these horror tales I detested so much. There is a common element in all but one, and I'm sure you can see what it is. 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Fearsome tales in our Readers 7

A Tale of Two Cities

I wasn't exactly horrified by the extract from this novel, but was morbidly fascinated. In this Dickens classic, Charles Darney is in jail in Revolutionary France, awaiting execution for exactly what I can't recall, but he's a nobleman and that's bound to be crime enough. Sydney Carton, impelled by what I thought was a pretty crazy but extraordinarily grand impulse, visits Darnay in the jail at the last night before the execution, takes his place by swapping clothes with him, and gets the Citizens' chop.
   All this is from a memory of the extract from fifty-five years ago, so I'm hazy about the full context. It's from the scene in the jail where the clothes-swapping occurs, and I was gripped by the highly charged atmosphere it invoked.
   I couldn't quite imagine at age nine or so being that noble myself, though I did think people would be impressed afterwards when they found out how incredibly generous of spirit I was. The only real drawback to that is that I'd be dead, and not really be able to bask in the sacrificial glory. So it would be a waste, really, and I don't think my family would be all that thrilled by it either. It seems I have very little trace of true martyrdom in me.
   I always thought "Greater love has no one than this, that one lay down his life for his friend[s]" came from this novel, but it turns out the Bible [John 15:13] got there first by a country mile. It was a beautiful thing for Sydney Carton to do, but I couldn't imagine how Darnay could live with the swap for the rest of his life.
   I think they were both in love with the same woman, which may explain why Darnay accepted the offer, but it makes Carton's gesture a bit silly. Even at the age of nine I would have gone for the girl, and hoped that she didn't mind which of the two of us she ended up with.
   But that was soppy stuff, and when I was in Grade Five I'd much rather have seen a picture of him at the precise moment the guillotine did its thing, Madame Defarge knitting away busily in a front row seat.
   And, finally finally, the one I detested above all.

Gelert [343 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Fearsome tales in our Readers 6

Mazeppa's Ride

At the time, I didn't have a clue who Mazeppa was, nor what he did to deserve such a dreadful fate, but a black and white illustration is all I have to remember it by, though not this Delacroix one. There was more agony for horse and rider in the one in the reading book, I'm nearly sure, but I can't find a reproduction of the exact copy. It may be an etching. Maybe too, my childhood recollection exaggerates the torment, but I suspect not. (You know, the one in the Reader could even be a black and white reproduction of this very painting, the more I think of it. How deceptive is the brain!)

   For some reason, Old Jim didn’t let us read this poem aloud, ever, and I didn't like the picture, having had numerous escapades on horses, but never one being bound so uncomfortably on a gingered-up crazy horse for what must have been ages.
   Oh, OK, Now I think I get it! Now I know why Old Jim, a stern and sober Methodist, wouldn't let us near Byron's poem, set in the Ukrainian wilderness. According to one version at least, Mazeppa was having it away with some young countess called Teresa, and the old count discovered the affair, so bringing this terrible punishment on Mazeppa.
   What happened to the countess I have no idea, but from the count's point of view there were bound to be plenty more where she came from. She was probably sixteen or so, and he would have been much older – an old geezer, about... oh, never mind. Ahem.
   I was worried about the horse too. I thought that was a rotten thing to do to it. Whatever crime Mazeppa perpetrated dallying with the dame, it wasn't the nag's fault. In my illustration, it looked horribly distressed.
   Of course none of that sexy wickedness with the countess would ever have been revealed in the Grade Eight Reader, and we wouldn't have had a clue what it was. No-one in Calliope ever would do such a thing ho ho, but you can see now why we didn’t want real foreigners from places like the Ukraine, wherever that was, in our beloved land. Oh, and that scrap of cloth conveniently covering Mazeppa's genitals, that wouldn't have been appropriate from Old Jim's perspective either – it wasn't decent not to be properly clothed, even while being punished for such a grave offence.
   Old Jim, bless his strong old heart, wouldn't stand the faintest whiff of corrupting our morals, and if we read the poem, some child was bound to ask what in blazes Mazeppa had done. Old Jim, who never told a lie in his life I'm sure, would have had to make a choice he didn't want to risk. So the story remained terra incognita for me until now, but that painting didn't.
   I was completely innocent in such matters. I had more than enough trouble trying to figure out what Louis XIV was up to with those pretty ladies in The Three Musketeers when he had a perfectly good Queen in the Versailles boudoir, and The Man in the Iron Mask left me totally bamboozled about the amorous stuff, even at the mature age of eleven when I was almost on the brink of knowing nearly everything. I didn't have the foggiest how many boudoirs there were at Versailles, and, so I discovered much later when reading European history at university, many other places dotted all over France.
   Frenchmen – what could you expect, eh?
   No Cossacks allowed either. The British were about as foreign as we could cope with in Calliope. At least they didn’t do that sort of thing, did they? Of course not.

Next: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Fearsome tales in our Readers 5

Escape from the wolves
This is the tale that comes from Hans Andersen country or somewhere just as alien to the experience of the Sons and Daughters of fair Central Queensland. A cooper, who I'm sure I don't have to tell you makes wooden barrels and vats (or did, when they made them out of wood, eons ago) and his young son were taking a wooden vat by horse-drawn sleigh to a client across some vast expanse of ice. (OK, they do still make lots of barrels out of wood, but who makes wooden vats now – those large, open cylindrical containers for liquid?)
   They set off on the sleigh, and they first hear and then see a pack of wolves chasing them, slowly but surely overtaking them even though the horse knows it's in its interest as well to clap on the pace.
   They aren't going to get to their destination before that happens. The cooper stops, releases the horse so it can escape (and maybe draw the wolves off themselves by the pack going for the pony). He overturns the heavy vat on the ice and they get under it.
   It wasn't a bad plan in a wolf emergency, but it failed to persuade el lobos to go for the horse. They settle for the humans they know are under the vat, surround it, and stick a paw or two under the edge to try to get at their dinner inside it.
   His iPhone is out of range (hang on.... I might now be embellishing this tale a tinsy bit – no iPhone!), but the boy remembers that in his bag he's got a shiny new tomahawk, so every time a wolf's paw comes far enough under the vat to be a threat, he chops it off. Thus the wolf, expecting to have its full quota of paws for the whole session, emits chilling and terrible howls of pain that I remember vividly. Wolves after human flesh they may have been, but I felt their pain.
   Yes, I know, I would have been less sympathetic if it were Dad and me under our large milk vat, and would have been as enthusiastic with the little axe as he was. I had a tommyhawk too, you know, but in Calliope, wolves were few and far between.
   This goes on for some time with the enraged, hungry and frustrated wolves continuing to attack. More of them lose at least one paw, though I really doubt, if they'd lost a paw that was on the end of their leg a moment earlier, that they'd be keen to come back for another try. That wasn't made clear in the tale, so I won't swear some of them didn't do the Black Knight trick and fight on till they'd lost them all.
   The horse finds its way to the destination and a search party rapidly returns to disperse the wolves, and the story ends very happily with the boy having some thirty or so paws to take to the sheriff's office and get a handsome reward.
   Somewhere in the deep frozen northern forests there must have been a pack of three legged wolves for quite a while, unless the able-bodied ones turned on the handicapped and ate them until supplies ran out. That also was left to the imagination of the reader, and I being the reader, was admirably up to that task. I say they got torn apart and eaten.
   Poor old wolves. They got very bad press in those old tales and still do. No wonder people were terrified of them, and many still are. With an M16 from her helicopter, Sarah Palin would have sorted them out in a jiffy.
   Just three more items from the Readers to complete my broad sweep of examples, none of them prose. In fact, the next one's just a picture.

Next: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

Fearsome tales in our Readers 4

The crocodile and the bull

I loathed this intensely because I was reared with cattle and I knew they had feelings too.

   In this one, a bull is drinking at a river when a croc flashes up from the depths and latches on to the bull's nose with a terrible vice-like grip. Thus begins a deadly tug of war, recounted in grisly detail for at least a thousand words. The bull bellows lustily in agony as its blood gradually colours the otherwise clear waters of the stream.

   He is weakened by the effort and blood loss after what always seemed ages to me, and sinks to his front knees, and each stage of the struggle is recounted in the most colourful of detail. I think there was a black and white drawing of that, although I may have created it in my imagination. I thought of poor El Torito, our jersey bull, in the same pickle, and even though he could be a mean little devil, I wouldn't have wished it on any critter.

   Finally, this bull succumbs, but not without some valiant last-ditch efforts creating a veritable river of blood, is dragged into the water by what's left of his nose, and consumed by this impressive specimen of the Crocodylus family.

   I think we were spared the detail of a large domestic animal being eaten alive, but really, they may as well have finished the story off good and proper, don’t you reckon? We would have understood from that not to swim in croc-infested waters, unlike a few game swimmers in Australia's northerly regions recently who should have been read that story several times a year for five years at school, and might be alive today as a result.

Next: Escape from the wolves [644 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Fearsome tales in our Readers 3

The Little Match Girl

This was regarded as an admirable Christmas story, being so near New Year and all, and just about everyone knows it well, I'm sure. A little girl, a street seller of matches, is afraid to go home, because she's going to get a beating for not bringing back the grog money for Daddy. 

Its only redeeming feature was the bit at the end – where the little seller of matches was slowly freezing to death and seeing weird visions – when her grandmother took her off to Heaven at the last moment, and "they were with God." It sounded much better than being found next morning looking like a side of mutton in your freezer. But that happened anyway.

   Still, I couldn't help wondering why God chose her, trying to make a little legitimate money, over some rascally starving street kid who picked the pockets of respectable, decent middle class gentlefolk like you and me.

   Oh, and that strange hallucination she had as her end was nigh, with that poor roast goose stuffed full of fruit jumping down with a knife and fork still in its back.... that was plain weird. 

   Whatever Hans was on when he was writing that part of the story, I don't want any of what he was having.

Next: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Fearsome tales in our Readers 2

The Daisy and the Lark

That's what it was called, but it should have been entitled "The Harrowing and Painful Description of the Agonising Death of a Caged Bird through the Really Idiotic Stupidity of an Idiot Kid" because the idiot boy who owned it was so idiotic that he couldn't see the lark in the cage had no water, and instead cut with a pocketknife a square of turf containing a daisy and stuck that in the cage so the lark might be refreshed, and entertain its stupid master with a pretty song.

   Do you get my drift?

   Lorraine Brown was a very good reader, so Old Jim would usually call on her to read this one aloud, which she did with tremendous expression and pathos as the bird, no doubt pining for the fjords,* slowly dropped off its perch, stuck its beak in the 'cool, green turf' as a last desperate gesture to sentience, and its soul, eventually, painfully and mercifully, was flit.**

   Old Jim seemed particularly fond of that story. I heard it a hundred times, and indeed was called on to read it myself, which I did in a flat monotone or as near as I could risk that without getting caned.

   Old Jim, you must understand, had heard me read aloud many times, with great expression and glee, "Mr Winkle on Ice", from Dickens's Pickwick Papers, and he had the strong suspicion I was not performing "The Daisy and the Lark" to the standard demanded by Dickens. He didn't seem to know why I hated it.

[Next story]
* Thank you, Monty Python
** Thank you, C J Dennis
The original stories (in this case, by Hans Christian Andersen) were often heavily adapted for our readers, as with this one.
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]

Fearsome tales in our Readers 1

The not-at-all-fearsome Introduction
The love of field and coppice,
Of green and shaded lanes.
Of ordered woods and gardens
Is running in your veins,
Strong love of grey-blue distance
Brown streams and soft dim skies
I know but cannot share it,
My love is otherwise.
   So begins Dorothea Mackellar's poem, more recognisable no doubt by most Australians for its second stanza, beginning:
I love a sunburnt country,...
   What the hell has that to do with the title? Relax, I'm just setting the scene, and you'll appreciate it in the end. Let me retrace a few steps into my past, and guarantee you that the promise I made in the title will be honoured.

   "Grade Six, get out your Readers and turn to Page 88."

   A flurry of activity under desks would follow, green Reading Books would appear, and Grade Six would sit, ready to go.

   "Now, read 'My Country'."

Grade 1 Reader with colour illustrations: SOURCE
   Before I go on, I should explain that this is 1955, and I am in that Grade Six class, and I'm nine years old, going on ten. We're in a little two-roomed school, the "Big Room" housing Grades Four to Eight. 

   Poor mathematicians will whip out their calculators and they'll take 4 from 8, and get 4. 

   Wrong. You just jumped straight in there, didn’t you? There are five grades there. Count them on your fingers, assuming you've got the regulation number on each hand. See?

   This meant that when Grade Six read "My Country" aloud, all five grades had the benefit of Ms Mackellar's poetry. In fact, every grade had the benefit of every other grade's Reading Book contents, and I'll come to that in due course. The point is, by the time we got to Grade 8, there was little we didn't know about what was in every grade's Reader.

   So what did we know about from them, word for word?

   This explains it rather well, but don't go there right now. It's probably of interest only to those who have been through the experience, but those who did will never forget it. You'll see why later.

    Most of the Readers reflected the ambiguity to which "My Country" alludes. I knew all about the sunburnt country because I spent half my childhood milking cows in its sunburnt bit, but that first stanza fascinated me.

    The paradox sprang from the fact that the literary adaptations were chosen to give us an attachment to and love for the "Old Country" that our parents and grandparents had fought for in two World Wars, and simultaneously to cater for the 1950s brand of Australian nationalism, which was as monochrome as most of the illustrations in the Readers.

    From these Readers, there were dozens of illustrations from Great Britain etched into our consciousness – Westminster Abbey for example, which to me seemed supremely ugly, but the villages in the English countryside seemed wonderful.

    Exotic and powerful images they were, of an alien chocolate-box world I was drawn to. What was a coppice? I had no idea. We didn't use the term "field" except to play cricket on; to us, they were paddocks. Nor did we have "woods". No, we had "the bush", or "scrub". We didn't have villages; we had... what? "Townships."

    I rather wish we'd had villages – a much more attractive notion than "township", which seems like something just waiting to grow into something bigger, like a town. Let's face it, some of our townships weren't all that pretty.

    But how easy for us "village" kids it was to identify with:
When the voices of children are heard on the green
And laughing is heard on the hill,
My heart is at rest within my breast
And everything else is still.

Then come home, my children, the sun is gone down
And the dews of night arise;
Come, come, leave off play, and let us away
Till the morning appears in the skies.

No, no, let us play, for it is yet day
And we cannot go to sleep;
Besides, in the sky the little birds fly
And the hills are all cover'd with sheep.

Well, well, go & play till the light fades away
And then go home to bed.''
The little ones leaped & shouted & laugh'd
And all the hills echoed.
Songs of Innocence (William Blake)

   [Oh Mr Blake, for a brilliant poet, that last rhyme is unworthy of you. Of all the things that rhyme with "bed" you settled for "echoed", which meant we had to pronounce it "echo-wed". Can Do Better.]

   In those Readers, we had joyful poems from our own experience to which we could also relate, those of us who knew something of the tropical and subtropical rainforests, or even our little creeks and rivers:
By channels of coolness the echoes are calling,
And down the dim gorges I hear the creek falling:
It lives in the mountain where moss and the sedges
Touch with their beauty the banks and the ledges.
Through breaks of the cedar and sycamore bowers
Struggles the light that is love to the flowers;
And, softer than slumber, and sweeter than singing,
The notes of the bell-birds are running and ringing.
Bellbirds (Henry Kendall)

   In the higher grades, the content darkened. We were being prepared for real life, with no illusions, kiddies. Even the choice of English poems reflected this:
The curfew tolls the knell of parting day,
The lowing herd winds slowly o'er the lea,
The ploughman homeward plods his weary way,
And leaves the world to darkness and to me.

   It's not the poetry so much I wanted to talk about; not the pretty stuff. It's mainly the prose extracts and adaptations that were served up to us to improve our minds, to instil solid values derived from Victorian England and the early twentieth century. Some of them were vividly and starkly painful for sensitive children.

    Dare you go on? Dare I? Of course I will, and so should you. I'll give you some examples of what we heard over and over for five years. It's a wonder some of us didn't end up as psychopaths or emotional wrecks.

Next: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words]
Fearsome tales in our Readers 1: Introduction [1000 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 2: The Daisy and the Lark [256 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 3: The Little Match Girl [206 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 4: The Crocodile and the Bull [280 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 5: Escape from the wolves [444 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 6: Mazeppa's Ride [438 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 7: A Tale of Two Cities [336 words] 
Fearsome tales in our Readers 8: Gelert [343 words]