Sunday, 18 January 2015

Wini, the Wild White Man of Badu

     It must have been about 1958 or 1959 that Ion Idriess' book, Isles of Despair was republished, and it created a stir. One of my teachers at primary school told us about it. There was an article about it in The Woman's Day. A few years later I was able to read the book myself: the well-written, gripping true story of Barbara Thompson, who had been adopted by a tribe of Torres Strait headhunters. Equally intriguing, the book described how she met, and narrowly evaded Wongai, a ruthless escaped convict, who had been accepted on another island as a chief, and the incarnation of a god.
     A few years later, another of the same author's books was republished: The Wild White Man of Badu. Here we were presented with the gripping account of this same character. It told how, on escaping from Norfolk Island in an open boat, the convict killed and ate his companions and then, fortuitously negotiating the reefs of the Coral Sea, landed on Badu Island at the most opportune time. The natives were celebrating the wongai, or wild plum, totem when he arrived at the same time as the lightning flashed behind him. Shouting "Wongai!" which he had heard the natives shout, and which he assumed was a war cry, he slew the first warrior who attacked him. Thus, the natives concluded he was their god in human form, and so commenced his climb to power.
     Of course, when I was a boy I assumed that anything on the printed page was the truth. Fifty years later, I have developed some critical faculties, but all that time I have been wanting to learn the full story of this enigmatic character who once dominated the western islands of Torres Strait for a quarter of a century. I don't suppose I ever will.

Friday, 26 December 2014

Why Columbus Didn't Write Italian

     Although it is as well established as anything can be that Christopher Columbus was born in Genoa, there has been a lot of foolish speculation about his nationality, particularly by those hoping to claim him for their own. In this debate, the question is often raised: why didn't he ever write anything in Italian?
     Well, for a start, most of his most important correspondence was when he was resident in Spain, and writing to people who spoke Spanish. However, one commentator has pointed out something that would have been as obvious to his contemporaries as it is forgotten today: his native language was not Italian; it was Genoese! Genoese is not a dialect of Italian; it is a dialect of Ligurian. It is as different from Italian as Occitan/Proven├žal is from French.
     Over the last few centuries the centralisation of political power has also meant the centralisation of national languages, leaving the regional languages to wither on the vine. However, they were still very much alive five centuries ago. Indeed, Italy itself did not exist then as a political entity. Genoa in those days was one of many independent republics which patterned northern Italy at the time like a big jigsaw puzzle.
     Genoese is not dead yet, but it is withering on the vine. In a couple of centuries it will be forgotten, and people will still be asking why Columbus never wrote in Italian.

Reference: Paolo Emilio Taviani, Cristoforo Colombo, Genius of the Sea (2nd edition, 1991)

Monday, 22 December 2014

Do We All Have a Double Somewhere?

     The Prisoner of Zenda by Anthony Hope (1894) is, of course, the classic novel about a protagonist who closely resembles a stranger. The genre has been done to death; I don't know how many stories I've read or watched with this as the theme. But could it happen in real life? There are people who make a living impersonating celebrities. Mostly, the resemblance is very close, but not perfect. However, one of those doubles, Janet Brown was the splitting image of Margaret Thatcher, so much so that she was able to take part in an elaborate practical joke in which Joan Rivers thought she was meeting the British Prime Minister. Logically, the variety of human facial features is not infinite; duplicates must turn up at times. Do we all have a double somewhere?

Thursday, 18 December 2014

Of Course There Is Such a Thing as Race!

     In my younger days I enrolled myself in the bone marrow registry, as a part of which I was asked to state my race, or ethnicity. An impertinence! you may say, so they provided a reason. Matching marrow types is much more complicated than matching blood groups, and the various types are not spread randomly throughout the human race. If a patient requires a marrow donation, a search will first be made among members of those races where the required match is more common; it might not be the patient's own race.
     The major races of mankind are as obvious as different breeds of dogs. So why do so many people insist that there is no such thing as race, that it is merely a "social construct"?

Saturday, 13 December 2014

What You Didn't Know About Shaving

     There are so many things we just take for granted, but never question: like men shaving themselves. We've always done it, haven't we? Well, at least since we decided we didn't like our beards? Not exactly. In ancient Rome, men didn't shave themselves; they went to the local barber (from barba, a beard), who wielded his razor at a streetside stall while the crowds jostled around. They also went only every second day, which meant that most males sported a five o'clock shadow - something Hollywood never cottoned on to. So why didn't they shave themselves?

Friday, 28 November 2014

Why I Didn't Wear a White Ribbon

     I see that another special day and another good cause has come and gone: the United Nations' White Ribbon Day, 25 November. People were encouraged to wear white ribbons to protest violence against women. T-shirts bearing slogans like "Stop Violence Against Women" were worn at demonstrations. Groups of men were encouraged to get up and swear never to offer violence to women, and to speak out if they ever heard of it from others. The statistics quoted were quite frightening: 52 women murdered per year - one a week - by a current or previous partner, amounting to three-quarters of those women who had died by homicide, with one in three women a victim of violence in their lifetimes. I myself know women close to me who have suffered horrifying violence from their husbands. This is obviously a very good cause. So why do I refuse to get involved?

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Ned Kelly

           [Little] John smote off the monk's head;
    No longer would he dwell;
                   So did Much [the Miller's son] the little page,
    For fear lest he would tell.
               (Robin Hood and the Monk, verse 52)

     This tale of the cold-blooded murder of an unarmed man and boy, presented with modernised spelling, is an early illustration of society's tendency to glamourise criminals. Of course, the best-known example today is the way we whitewash those drunken, foul-mouthed cutthroats known as pirates. (A realistic pirate movie would be R-rated for the filthy language alone.) In modern times, of course, America has Billy the Kid and Jesse James. And Australia has Ned Kelly.
     The image of Ned Kelly with his guns and armour (which he wore only once) has become iconic in Australia. To many people he is a hero, even a victim. In reaction, there has been a tendency for some others to regard him as a black-hearted villain with no redeeming features. As for myself, I prefer a more nuanced assessment. A truly evil person presents as pathetic in his depravity. To be an effective villain, it is necessary to possess a certain ration of virtues, of which courage is the most important. Ned Kelly was the sort of man who, under different circumstances, and with different life choices, would have become a model citizen and a pillar of society.

Wednesday, 29 October 2014

The Science of Sexual Morality

There are some things which sound good at the time, but many generations of experience have shown that they don't work.
     That was a comment made by my mother when I was a teenager, with a veiled reference to sexual morality. There is a tendency is some circles, I have noticed, for what is termed "traditional sexual morality" to be regarded as some collection of irrational taboos, or at least something no longer applicable to modern circumstances. Sometimes it is called "Christian sexual morality", but that is a misnomer. It would be better to call it "human sexual morality", for it is the basic default system from which individual cultures tend to deviate. What Christianity introduced is a add-on: the idea that what is sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander. Committed as it is to sexual equality, Christianity has always been negative towards polygamy, divorce, and the major exception to the default system practised by civilisations: the idea that it is acceptable to have a pool of degraded, low status women ie prostitutes, as an outlet for otherwise "respectable" men. However, the desirability of chastity before marriage and fidelity afterwards is the general rule of all human societies.
     Some cultures, believe it or not, have sexual moral standards stricter than ours used to be, and attempt to restrict nearly all communications between the sexes. Where their standards are slacker, it usually means carving out exceptions to the general rule - exceptions which, as the proverb explains, imply that the rule exists. The unusual exceptions - the ones which titillate anthropologists - tend to disappear when we leave the small tribal societies and examine the major civilisations, and the reason is obvious. These are the successful societies; they have been around a long time, and each occupy a large section of the world's area and population. They have discovered, as we are now having to relearn, that if you don't keep sexual relations within the bounds of marriage, things start to fall apart.

Saturday, 27 September 2014

Murder Most Ineffective

Ten minutes later I knocked on the door of his stateroom.... He lay dead, sprawled face-downwards on the floor, and a dark patch of blood oozed up through his dinner-jacket, round the knife that was buried up to the hilt in his back. (Dennis Wheatley, 1939, The Quest of Julian Day)
    The evening after I read those words, I watched a TV program in which a person was killed - instantly - with an arrow in the back, apparently in the lower part of his ribcage, in the middle of a crowded park.
    This is typical. Writers of novels and films deal in violence with which, fortunately, they have no practical experience. What makes them think you can kill a man so quickly using such methods?
    Warning! Anatomical descriptions coming up.

Wednesday, 10 September 2014

Geert Wilders Speaks

     Geert Wilders is a member of the Dutch Parliament. In fact, he is the leader of the fourth largest party in that admittedly fragmented chamber. Yet his parliamentary office is located in a remote area of the building, accessible by only a single corridor, all the more difficult for assassins to reach it and for his bodyguards to protect him. He must leave in an armoured police car to a safe house especially designed to be bullet proof. He can meet his wife only once a week. When he wants to go out, even for electioneering, he must give his protectors one day's notice, and then wear a bullet proof vest and be accompanied by six plain clothes policemen. So why do so many people talk and act as if he were the villain, and not a victim?