Wednesday, December 29, 2004

Tu's first Birthday- Tu has two

Tu's first of two birhdays

The Silly Season at The Spotted Cow

The Silly Season at The Spotted Cow

Tuesday, December 28, 2004

Starvn - The Window Cleaner

The true miracle of Joseph Conrad’s "Heart of Darkness", and there are a few in there, is that he wrote it, not in his first language, but his ninth. Language was something he was a bit of a marvel at and he got around to mastering four and dabbled in five others. The fact that he then went on to write one of those few literary classics still enjoyable after roughly a century in print, in his non-native language is stupendous.

He's not alone of course. Nabokov wrote some novels in Russian that were translated into English then others in English which he self translated into Russian. "Lolita”, with its subtle dexterity of language that earned its own somewhat fairy kingdom title of "Nabokovian language", was written by a man who could have quite easily done so in three different tongues. He also found time to discover some previously unknown species of butterflies while he did so. That thought alone conjures dexterous images of him scribbling nasty pen portraits with one paw, while thrashing the rose bushes outside his study window with the other.

Few born holding the language write in English as exceptionally as those two and the list undoubtedly goes on. Tolkien after all invented a language to write parts of his novels in, then he went on to insist that the whole thing was pronounceable, grammatical and, in a fanciful moment, useful.

Perhaps I think it’s so spectacular because of the problems I am having teaching children the basics. I think it would have been easier at times to have written my own autopsy, or at least help out in some ways. I doubt if there has been a moment in the last two years where I have had a complete grip on the situation and, if honesty is truly a worthy characteristic, I confess to more than one time within there where the situation was almost entirely ungraspable.

Words in the English language flap about like mudskippers drunk on cherry brandy, driven by a system that seems perverse or cruel or worse. They total a huge number I'm told, perhaps 60% larger than most other languages. Semantically, they borrow from just about every source, manipulating and mangling the ones they don't understand and completely inventing others when they need to infuriate the French.

At any rate when English stands up at important gatherings it claims a structure and a reason based on solid rules. Nothing is true in that however, and so teaching it has taught me. English is the largest single addendum page in history. It did after all invent the phrase the exception is the rule, and what a twisted piece of work that one is. A self-negating piece of mental shrapnel. In fact there is not a rule that is a rule. There is not a rule that isn't more of a guide in the loosest form, the sort that lose their way and the boat they’re in charge of, damming all, drowning the worst. For example (and I only want to give one of these or we'll be here all day) think for a moment about when to add 'the' to a place name in a sentence.

Got a rule in your mind.

Does it go something like this? 'The' goes in front of places that don't have a capital, in order to tell your friend what you are talking about. You don't use it for names, unless of course it’s a big thing like the Pacific Ocean or the San Andreas Fault, or the Moon or the Sun as there is only one of these. But, once again, not for Jupiter or Mars even though there is only one of each of them and when you think about it they’re both pretty big. I guess it's there for the Earth, but only if you seem to want it to be, not in sentences like "Earth has made some terrible mistakes". Rivers have a 'the' and mountains if there are rows of them like the Alps or the Pyrenees, however not if they just want to hang out on their own looking cool like Everest, K2 or Kilimanjaro. Buildings get 'the', however they then drop it if they have a capitalised title as in the sentence "Lets destroy Sydney Opera House." However you can just as well get away with saying "I'm going to destroy The Sydney Opera House" and nobody is going to take you to court for it. You can go home, but not go to the home, unless it’s for the aged, and you can go to court of course, but you just can't go to police station unless you have a bit part in All Creatures Great and Small. You go to sea as a sailor, but live near the sea if you’re a seasider. You go to prison after court to serve time, but go to the prison after church to serve lunch to the prisoners, unless you go to the church after prison to hide out when you break out. The Cape Tribulation isn't a place and neither is Cape of Good Hope. The North and South Poles are there but not The North and South Americas. Big boats like the Bismarck have 'the' off the forward bough, but not little boats like Brindabella. The Sudan is a place but not The Wales. The West Indies but not the West Germany. The Hague, not the Paris. The Yemen but not the New Zealand.

And let’s just stop there, shall we?

I did cheat a bit because I looked up some of these things in a grammar dictionary but solely because I spent a fruitless hour and a half trying to explain them all to bemused students who expected their teacher to know something. More fool them. I guess you get the bombastic point though, the rules of English are bursting with whimsy, caprice and other words my thesaurus knows. As a rule a little like a romance novel. Characters full of bluster, situations without reason, circumstance and chance seemingly determining everything. But then again rules are made to be broken.

Anyway Conrad wrote fulsome literary worth in five languages and I found a window cleaner called "Starvn" today.

Saturday, December 25, 2004

Stay Gold, Ponyboy

You are Gold!

The Kris Kringle theme was gold for under 50,000. That's dong, not dollars.

Christmas Day, Tu and two Marks

Christmas Day, Tu with two Marks

Wednesday, December 22, 2004

The German

The German has a shop on the corner down from our house. In children’s book fashion he is a peculiar man. Round faced and self-amused he keeps a cat tied to a string under the tree in front of his shop.

He sells us water from time to time and, by the looks of things, makes his living from drinking whiskey. He is Vietnamese but speaks to us in German because, well, we don't know Vietnamese. The poor animal he has mews sad notes to accompany the traffic and in turn looks either forlorn or abandoned. In a place where there are no shortage of ways to diminish your personal space and life’s processes are all carried out within elbows distance of everyone else, the squeeze on a lowly cat gives little room for stately dignity.

In fact the night before last we saw another cat at a party on the roof of a friend's house. The party was small but had three musicians playing in a corner, one had a flute the width of a pipe, one a short square guitar and the third hit a strung box with small hammers. They needed shoes with curling toes and bluish hair teased up into space to become the Dr Seuss characters their instruments meant them to be, but they sounded spectacular. In a corner of the roof was a cage the size of two dishwasher boxes with another cat in it. Dr Seuss, Dr Seuss, Dr Seuss.

The cats though are all thin and meatless like birds. There is not a loose fitting coat amongst them and though there are enough rats for an army, I haven't seen a cat with a paunch yet. The size of the rats might in fact be the problem. I've seen rats that I can only describe as medieval in size and a smart cat who took one on would be wise to do so from a distance, using a rocket launcher.

Cats get taken for walks around here but seem to clamber no human attention. Dogs always look for a meal but never for a pet and chickens are just chickens same sense as anywhere. The traffic blindly hurtles about like sheets of tin roofing in a hurricane, yet you catch chickens that wander through the middle of it, seemingly oblivious to the cascading chaos, imminent death or onrushing dissection in moped form that is pelting towards them.

Sweeping animals aside for a moment, the traffic statistics that I've read are monumental. They speak of fatalities that would blanch a coroner, occurring with the regularity of ad breaks during the cricket. Some of the newspapers print them on the back pages along with pixilated and blurry black and white photographs of the scene. Seeing as how the photographs often include bodies or smears of dark grey matter leading from a spot on a road to under a bus, it is a blessing they are not in colour or distinct. They don't publish the causes, but I'm sure a significant number of them are chickens.

Wednesday, December 15, 2004

Roses at the flower market

New Year's Eve roses at the flower market

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Hanoi flower market

When I lived in Lismore I liked those moonless nights that would cover the sky in stars. A moonless night free of clouds was always spectacular. The nights seemed vast and deafening. I saw specks of meteors flaring over the hills trailing greenish tails that would wink out of existence moments before reaching some distant hills. It was something only possible where light was sparse and time slow.

The stars and sky were vast, something I had never encountered before. Beyond the dome of light that always covered the cities they had been there but always invisible and occluded, distant and ineffectual.

In Hanoi I marveled at the noise. It would wrap around my ears and cloud the air, as dense as a swarm, coming in ceaseless waves. Then at night, riding home drunk with beer, the road empty and welcoming, the sounds would have all left. The city would feel empty and solitary as though everyone had packed up and left the stage. Then the sound of my own engine could fill a street, the drop of my feet onto the path bounce around inside the walls of the alleys.The scrape of metal when the gates heavy lock gets pried from the wall could seem immense and warning. In the same sense that the stars had remained hidden by the lights of the city, I got to feel that this silence had always lain hidden behind the noise that crowded the air. In that late night emptiness you get a sense of ownership over the world. You can stand alone in it and feel peacefully happy.

When parties would spring up, the local Hanoi Vietnamese in turn spring from their chairs at 10 o’clock and unanimously leave. Meals get eaten early and lights turned out before 11. Most often the gate to the laneway is shut before this even and lingering in the bars beyond always involves a spell of sitting in darkness while the bar feigns emptiness to patrolling police trucks. Early to bed is the rallying call.

Mornings in contrast are exasperatingly active. Badminton courts spring up on sidewalks and in parks, as masses of shuttlecocks dive about through the air. Bowls of soup and noodles in oceanic proportions get divided and conquered from footstool like chairs on the concrete while shoe shine boys send flurries of brushes rising and falling, the bows of an energetic black polish orchestra intent on removing scuffs, scrapes and scars from footwear.

I felt compelled at night. Somehow the emptiness drives you towards a goal you have no secure impression of. Too drunk or tired to actively participate in conversation or actions, I would often find myself willingly being coerced into late night forays to the flower markets, out on the major Dyke road far from home. Here at 2.30 or 3am the day seems to have its beginning. The motorbikes and bicycles would arrive straddled with vast bundles of flowers and in the weak streetlight of the Dyke road weave in amongst each other searching for space to prop and stand, allowing their owner to wander off in search of beer or food.

Roses come in vast quantities with their petals singularly clasped in a newspaper hood tied with grass. The reverent look they then possessed delicately contrived to prevent damage on the long journey here. Irises and Gladioli’s come in bundles thick as the trunks of trees, heavy enough to send bicycles weaving in to a stop. Here before the day can really begin and night still holds sway in darkness their colors are muted and dim, yet by day they break through the static roadside chaos of the stalls, and the traffic, to draw in buyers with sudden flaring colors. Color it seems begins here as well, in the muted streetlights from the Dyke.

At night we always arrived before the market could begin in earnest. At the times we would be there, you could watch the market being constructed, the space of what by day turned into an empty parking lot for the motorcycle market that slept next door. We seemed to always arrive before selling had begun, the earnest business of trade would begin after we had left. We saw the edge of the torment and got to enjoy the breeze that stirred the night. We were spared the later flurry of blusterous energy, when the real buyers came in to cut and quarter the price of each petal down to a fine bone. When we went we bought armfuls of flowers for a pittance and drank watery icy beer from the stalls between mouthfuls of rice cake or noodles.

There where the city seems to begin the noises are low, the conversations muted by tiredness and darkness. The hustle would flow out from here gaining strength from the day and the throngs of people rising to meet it, till awakening sober and aching next morning you can see the bounding chaos of noise and activity that had been born in the emptiness of a parking lot along a near empty road at the edges of the city.