Category Archives: culture

Requiem for scholarship in a world of designer barbarism

Three pieces of news in recent weeks convince me that scholarship is being devalued faster than last year’s smart phone. The first was the fullsizeoutput_cd0claim that hate sites are gaming Google so that mundane searches return results that reflect right-wing extremist views. The second was that the Australian senator who flabbergasted the noted physicist Professor Brian Cox with his climate change denialism is to travel to the US to confer with President-Elect Trump’s advisors. And the third was an Australian cabinet minister who declined to express confidence in the government’s own Chief Scientist.

Perhaps the news about Google is the most distressing. Forget the extremist views: The crucial point is that the more we click on a specific topic, the more our supposedly neutral social media tools will feed similar stuff back at us until we are drowning in a pool of our own distilled personal opinion. Worse still, despite the teaching of critical literacy in our schools, the internet seems to have gained the authority of the encyclopedias we used to have on our shelves.

Remember that encyclopedias contained curated knowledge based on scholarship; social media contain knowledge curated by popular opinion and algorithms. I am constantly staggered by the recycling of discredited pseudo-knowledge through sharing, tagging, liking, and emoticonning. This way lies designer barbarism.

My career as academic was based on the notion that knowledge was built on the foundations laid down by the scholars who preceded me. The crucial tool was falsificationism – the technique by which you stress-test existing knowledge with the aim of disproving its validity or improving on it. You gather evidence. You evaluate it. You weigh up competing models. You make the best-informed conclusion that you can. That’s why we have cancer drugs, mass transport, clean water, and of course the internet.

And that’s why stunts like sideswiping our top scientist and claiming that NASA is faking climate data devalue the scholarship that separates us from the barbarians.

 

Emeritus Professor Stuart Campbell is a novelist and higher education governance expert.

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Should I rewrite history to make it fit my novel?

Arthur or Martha? © Sara Campbell 2015
Arthur or Martha?
© Sara Campbell 2015

I’ve got a problem.

I’m writing a novel* that includes episodes set in London in 1975. I want one of my characters to go to a concert by Ravi Shankar and Yehudi Menuhin at Southwark Cathedral.  The concert actually took place – I was there, and I remember that it was very long and I was very uncomfortable on the cold stone floor.

Trouble is, that concert was in 1972, not 1975.

Or was it? According to a website that catalogues Ravi Shankar’s tours from 1964 to 2012, the maestro didn’t play any concerts in London at all in the seventies. But then I found a copy of the concert program for sale on Italian eBay, and it’s eerily there in black and purple – 1972.

Should I rewrite history? All my  instincts tell me ‘no’ – I was, after all an academic researcher for years of my life, and  fiddling with evidence was on a level with shoplifting.

Is that particular concert so important to the book? Well, yes, but I suppose there is some other emblematic event that I could replace it with.

I’ll keep you posted.

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*The sequel to Cairo Mon Amour (to be published in London in 2017). The working title is Bury Me In Valletta.

Note on the portrait: I call this my querulous guinea pig picture, but somehow it acquired the title of Arthur or Martha?. For non-Australian readers, the origin of the phrase can be found here.

Australian Indigenous languages: A white linguist looks back.

Stan Grant’s account in The Guardian of his relationship with the Wiradjuri language jolted me back forty years to the language work I did as a Masters student at the Australian National University. For my major assignment, I was handed a box full of field notes and audio tapes collected by the American linguist Ken Hale. The box was marked ‘Wambaya, Barkly Tablelands’. My job was to write a grammar of the Wambaya language, which I was told was on the verge of extinction.

‘Jolt’ is an apt word: Stan Grant’s article left me feeling unsettled about my own relationship with Indigenous languages in general, and about the nature of the work I did four decades ago. I’ll come back to this later.

More generally, it made me reflect on how non-Indigenous Australians might respond to Grant’s argument. The comments following the article give us at least a preliminary answer.

I counted 121 actual comments, with 53 ‘removed by a moderator because’ they ‘didn’t abide by our community standards’ By way of comparison, an article on housing affordability with 123 comments had only two removed.

I roughly categorised the 121 unremoved comments as follows: About half were facetious, trivial, or off the point; some of these presented good arguments about the link between language and culture but didn’t address Stan’s argument.

On the positive side, about a quarter supported the thrust of the article or praised the quality of the writing, while the nay vote was represented by thirteen percent who rejected Stan’s argument without being rude about it.

Finally, there were half a dozen people who scolded Stan for ignoring his British heritage, two who argued that although they weren’t Indigenous their pain was equally valid, and seven who were personally insulting to the writer.

The verdict? My suspicion, based on the wording of the comments, is that opinion on Stan Grant’s article falls into two distinct camps, with attitudes pretty well entrenched on both sides. Let’s guess that half of the 53 removed responses opposed the article (and the other half were irrelevant insults or ravings): My tally is that only a minority of an admittedly small and imperfect sample are sympathetic to Stan’s views.

This is hardly surprising given the vast gulf of understanding about Australian language issues among non-Indigenous Australians. I count myself among the ignorant despite the fact that I know a little more than the man on the Toorak tram or the 440 bus to Leichhardt.

My acquaintance with these languages began at seminars at The University of London given by the celebrated linguist Bob Dixon. I had been trained to analyse the grammar, sound systems and vocabulary of exotic languages and, boy, these Australian languages were fine specimens: Weird ‘genders’, sets of consonants I’d never seen elsewhere, and sentence grammar that was ‘ergative’, i.e. not observing the ‘normal’ subject-object distinction. A year later in Canberra I’d had further training and I was let loose on Wambaya.

I am still tremendously grateful for that chance that I was given to boost my knowledge and skills as a linguist. What bothers me in hindsight is that the only human connection I had with the speakers of Wambaya was the scrapy voice of an old man saying words and sentences onto a reel to reel tape in some spot in the Barkly Tablelands that I could not begin to imagine. I did no fieldwork. I was a young white linguist in a hurry.

As I moved up the academic career ladder, I advocated for the teaching of – or about – Australian languages in my university, but all attempts failed. The lack of support from the Indigenous side was especially puzzling; language just didn’t seem to be a priority. It was around this time that I began to use the metaphor of the sliding door to characterise my experience with Indigenous life on campus: The door opened enough to give me a glimpse, but closed too quickly for me to see what was really going on.

Years later, I found myself with an entire Indigenous education centre in my management portfolio as a Pro-Vice Chancellor. The sliding door began to stay open longer, especially during the very long meetings that I spent with Indigenous colleagues thrashing out submissions for funding. I was warmly welcomed when I decided to work in the centre for a day a week rather than in the stress-filled senior management area where I belonged.

My best memory is being taken by a Wiradjuri senior colleague to a huge annual picnic on the outskirts of Sydney, where I witnessed the amazing depth and diversity of the Indigenous community of the region. There couldn’t have been a starker contrast with listening to that recorded voice decades earlier.

I’m happy to report that Wambaya had 89 speakers according to the 2006 Census – not exactly a big crowd, but at least the language is not extinct. Stan Grant would no doubt be very pleased.

Stuart Campbell is a former Professor of Linguistics and Pro-Vice Chancellor. Nowadays, he writes quirky novels about love, betrayal and redemption.

Edward Said’s ‘Out of Place’ – a window into the mind of one of the world’s great thinkers

orientalismIt would be no exaggeration to say that Edward Said has been one of the major influences on my intellectual life. I’ve waited sixteen years to read his 2000 memoir Out of Place, which deals with his early life in Cairo, Palestine and Lebanon, and his education in the US.  Said began the book around the time of his leukemia diagnosis, which he explained as the impetus for the writing of this extraordinarily intimate account of his lifelong sense of dislocation. For me, Out of Place provided a key to understanding the emotional foundation of Orientalism, his entirely unemotional and razor-sharp critique of Western conceptions of the East.

I completed my early degrees in Arabic and Linguistics  just before Said’s  Orientalism  turned on its head the very concept of Oriental Studies, and I’ve spent many years pondering the intellectual upheaval that the book triggered in me. Looking back at my research career and my academic writing,  it is now obvious to me how heavily I was influenced by Said’s work – even if that was not particularly clear to me at the time. His ideas have also never been far from my mind  in my later life move into writing fiction.

I’m especially fascinated by the Cairo chapters in Out of Place given that I lived in Cairo in 1973 and 1974 and have just finished my novel Cairo Mon Amour set in that era.

I’m also struck by Said’s ultra-dry irony. Here’s a delicious example from his description of the stuffy English school he attended in Cairo  in the early fifties (along with Michel Shalhoub, later known as Omar Sharif):

“The incarnation of declining colonial authority was the headmaster, Mr. J. G. E. Price, whose forest of initials symbolized an affectation of pedigree and self-importance I’ve always associated with the British.”

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Learn more about Stuart’s books here.

Diners of the world unite!

with gusto coverHere’s a story of mine from With Gusto! 

Diners of the World Unite!

I had misgivings at the first whiff of Worcestershire Sauce. My order of Cypriot Mushrooms, as it was called, comprised overcooked fungus drowned in half a pint of the sour liquor.

During my English childhood, every pantry had a bottle of Worcestershire Sauce in the larder. The old-fashioned label suggested colonial gents in the era of the Raj, sprinkling a few drops of the brown elixir on their breakfast chops. But this brute of a dish was knocked up in a restaurant in the Troodos Mountains, where Mount Olympus watches over ancient Byzantine monasteries. And there was the main course still to come.

This and many other meals have helped frame my view that attitudes to national cuisines are as much to do with politics as with alimentation. Let me go back a few decades.

In the early seventies, a shop in London called Habitat started selling little kits of curry spices. You could buy the same spices in Indian and Pakistani grocers if you cared to enter such a store, but people like me – white people – didn’t. Habitat was the precursor of the cool homewares stores that are nowadays ubiquitous. It was one of the first shops to sell a lifestyle of lightness, quirkiness, ultra-modernity, pop art colours, brushed aluminium. The curry spices were emblematic of the Habitat lifestyle: Adventurous but safe, the Orient without the runs.

If I’d been a clairvoyant I’d have known that in 1978, the Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said would publish his Orientalism, in which he theorised that Europeans had invented the notion of the Orient as a means of asserting the cultural dominance of the colonisers over the colonised. I’d have considered with foresight – in 1973 – that in cooking up a Habitat Chicken Korma, I – along with people like me – was one of a new breed of colonialist. We were remodelling a cuisine using a limited range of ingredients, cooking methods and named dishes; we were turning the gastronomy of a vast and varied land into three curries: Korma, Madras and Vindaloo, with a spoonful of Sharwood’s to garnish. The depressing thing was that Habitat curry was tasteless. You’d get a much more satisfying feed at the local Paki with its maroon flocked wallpaper, Bombay Duck, and cold lager.

But the taste of culinary conquest was on my lips, and those of many of my friends: Over the decades we colonised new cuisines: South Indian, Thai, Vietnamese, Egyptian. Our spice racks were full, our veggie plots sprouted galangal and coriander. Our kids learned to use chopsticks before they enrolled in school. When we travelled we learned new variants, discovered pockets of cuisines we hadn’t conquered, rooted out new stinky delicacies to surprise our dinner guests back home.

My finest moment was, I think, in about 2002, when I cooked Indonesian food for twenty guests at my house in the Blue Mountains. Perhaps it was the big Mudgee reds being sloshed back that night, but I didn’t see the irony of a table of Australians eating Javanese street food while they competed to read the verse of William McGonagall in their best Scottish accents.

It was when I lived in the Blue Mountains that a critical light was shone on my immature postcolonial sensibilities. If you look at census figures for the Blue Mountains, you will discover that the area has a minuscule Asia-born population. From a culinary point of view, this was brought home to me when I found that the waiters in a local Chinese restaurant were Europeans. My first reaction was that I had been cheated; shouldn’t Chinese restaurants be staffed by Chinese people? How could the food be authentic?

And this from the white guy who had mastered – or perhaps remastered – half a dozen national cuisines ranging from the Atlas Mountains to the Yangtze River. This was the white guy who was just beginning to understand that eating is political. I hadn’t learned those Oriental cuisines; I’d invaded them, pillaged them, and brought them home as trophies.

I’ll go a little further with my postcolonial analysis, and claim that white guys like me only conquered the cuisines of the colonised world, or of the bits that we would have liked to colonise. I am persuaded of this by the fact that the acquisition of French culinary expertise is seen as difficult, and part of the learning of high culture; indeed we talk about haut cuisine. Anyone can make Indian food, but French – that takes real art, n’est-ce pas?

And so I found myself in Cyprus, yet to taste Cypriot Mushrooms, travelling with a companion who had lived there as a child and still cherished sweet memories of the food. We started our journey in the southern Greek part of the island where, my companion told me, we’d wander the beachside food stalls in the evenings seduced by the fragrance of lamb kebabs grilling on charcoal braziers. The tender pink meat, singed at the edges, would snuggle up against yoghourt and mint in warm pocket bread.

Perhaps that was the case then. Now there was pork, lots of the stuff, white and fibrous and dry, tasting of almost nothing. And there were cappuccinos topped with aerosol cream and powdered cinnamon. It was time to go north.

We crossed the border by car and meandered through the northern part of Cyprus, enjoying delicate pastel tinted Turkish food as well as robust tourist grub. The fourth day found us crossing back into the Greek south; we would cruise down the Troodos Range and end up at Paphos, where we were to stay with family. It was the end of the tourist season and the fragrant pine clad hillsides were still pleasantly warm. We stopped to look at exquisite little churches – squat and rough-walled, interiors painted with glorious two-dimensional depictions of saints. The roads were empty.

Our accommodation – a tiny hotel carved into rock walls – had been booked long in advance in our usual neurotic fashion. We were the only guests, we were told in the troglodytic reception niche. And the restaurant was closed for the year. Try down the hill. They’re still open.

Taking the winding cobbled lane past shuttered windows, spilling geraniums and sleeping cats, we met a sweating couple passing us on the climb up – English, middle-aged, underdressed and red. A single scooter clattered by and was gone.

The restaurant was one of those sadly anachronistic places, a faded faux Swiss chalet, out of place, out of time.

“I bet there’s a huge menu,” I said.

There was. It was half a yard across, cracked and stained, the plastic coating having given up the fight against greasy fingers. There was a large ‘local specialities’ section, a small burger-and-chips list, and unexpectedly, a standard Indian selection of Korma, Vindaloo and Madras. We were the only diners.

“Does it get busy later?” my companion asked the waitress.

“Not really. It is not so full this time of year,” she replied. What was her accent? Not Greek, I thought.

“I’m famished. I’m having an entrée first,” I said to my companion.

“You might regret it. I’ll just have the fish.”

My culinary antennae were bristling: A Greek restaurant, notwithstanding the curry and burgers. Might I get something resembling honest Greek grub of the kind my companion remembered from her girlhood?

When the waitress brought me a pint of lager (“You’ll be full up before the food comes,” my companion said) I asked the young woman if she was from the village.

“I’m from Romania.”

“How interesting,” I lied. “Is the chef from round here?”

“He’s from India.” Aha, that explained the curries.

A little more questioning revealed that the regular Greek chef had finished for the season. The Indian guy in the kitchen was filling in till tomorrow.

“What happens tomorrow?”

“The restaurant closes for the season.”

“What does he normally do?”

“He cleans the place. He drives the van.”

And so I found myself with two pints of lager on board, and before me a bowl of mushrooms braised in Worcestershire Sauce. It was as vile as it looked and smelt.

“You’d better eat it. You’ve got to pay for it,” my companion sniggered.

I consumed the solids.

My companion’s fish arrived – light and reasonably edible, she reported. But there was no so sign of my ‘Cypriot Meat Platter’. I had another pint of lager.

When at last the dish arrived – enough for four diners – I guessed that the ‘chef’ had cleared out all the remaining meat in the freezer, laid it out on a zinc slab – lamb chops, pork cutlets, cowboy steaks, sausages – and run a blowtorch up and down the row.

I miserably picked at the charred edges of something.

“Serves you right. Why don’t you send it back and ask for something else?” Did I detect the mildest hint of schadenfreude?

Later I said, “Next time we’ll find a Greek restaurant with a Greek chef.”

“You know that’s nonsense. Half the Italian restaurants in Sydney are run by Anglos, not Italians.”

She was right of course.

“Why don’t we just find a restaurant with a chef?” I said.

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You can buy With Gusto!  here, a collection of stories and essays by the Write On! writers group in Sydney.

Learn about Stuart Campbell’s books here.

 

Being British in Australia: No joking matter

Arthur or Martha? © Sara Campbell 2015
Arthur or Martha?
© Sara Campbell 2015

What happens when a planeload of Poms lands at Sydney airport? What I’ve always found intriguing about this Australian joke is that it only seems to have one punch line: When the engines stop, you can still hear the whining. It’s a model joke: Concise, based on a neat double meaning, and it delivers an ethnic slur with devastatingly effective understatement. Even better, it isn’t offensive. You can quickly test this proposition at your next dinner party: Replace ‘Pom’ with ‘ Chinese’ and watch the eyebrows shoot up in alarm and confusion.

I was prompted to think about this by a Guardian article[1] that proposes that British jokes about Australians are more to do with the Poms’ attitudes towards their own class system than about Australia itself. But back to my airport joke: The reason that this potentially productive joke stem only has one ending may be that British Australians (as opposed to British visitors) occupy an indistinct zone in the Australian ethnic spectrum, and putting aside the standard stereotypes about whinging and personal hygiene, aren’t particularly joke worthy.

I felt a twinge of doubt when I threw in the term ‘ethnic slur’ just now. I’ve lived permanently in Australia since 1977, or for more than half of my life, and I’ve never been described as belonging to an ethnic group in the way that Armenians, Thais and Somalis might be categorised. So, what kind of insult is it that the Poms are supposed to suffer if the airport joke isn’t an ethnic one? I’ll come back to that in a moment, but I’ll firstly make some remarks on the nature of being a British Australian … or is it an Australian Brit?

The essence of being British in Britain is the negotiation of social diversity along class and geographical lines. Like exotic beetles, the Brits develop – metaphorically speaking – huge antennae, which they wave around when they meet a new acquaintance, sniffing for clues about where this person was born, where they are in the pecking order, and what they are worth. To complicate things, the class signalling system has been subverted over the decades, so that the British are happy to accept the irony of concert pianists who sound like scrap metal dealers. Britain revels in all of this, egged on by a comedy industry that is supercharged by the exploitation of class differences.

Fresh Poms arrive in Australia with antennae flapping, but can’t tune into the signals. The huge things are as much use as an extra pair of nipples, and they soon shrivel. Adrift, the recent arrivals resort to crude judgments linked to their memories of Britain; when I arrived in 1977 I soon decided that Australians were very much like people from British council estates – just about the most damning class slur available to someone whose childhood was spent in such places. Homesick and disoriented, I immersed myself in the novels of Thomas Hardy for a few months, bathing my violated sensibilities in the bucolic balm of an invented rural England. I was saved by Australian literature; authors like David Ireland, Hal Porter and Patrick White helped me draw the social blueprint of my new home. At the same time I was writing the grammar of an Aboriginal language for a Masters thesis at the Australian National University, getting the first real clues about another way of seeing Australia. Like my fellow migrants I was gradually absorbed into the land of Arthur and Martha that is Australian Britishness.

So back to that joke. It’s obvious that a British ethnicity in Australia is difficult to pin down: A common language softens the definitional edges; millions of Australians have British forebears just a  generation or two away; the UK is still on the pilgrimage route for Australian travellers; and the ABC often seems to function as a southern branch office of the UK TV drama industry. There isn’t really a clear ethnic target at all, so there’s no incentive to make jokes.

I’m inclined to think that the airport joke survives simply because it’s very well-constructed and therefore worth retelling. I spent some time trying to create some alternative punch lines such as ‘The soap factory goes onto overtime’ and  ‘Australia’s average IQ goes down ten points’.

You’re right – they are lame, and you might also agree that they look much more like ethnic slurs than the original, because of course they could be applied to any ethnic group. There’s a fondness about the whining joke, a self-deprecating acceptance of British cultural roots, an irony in the joke’s lack of sting.

Now I wonder what colour socks go with these sandals?

[1] http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2013/jul/08/what-british-jokes-australians-mean . Downloaded 29 May 2014.