Perspective needed: one death in many

 

On Friday 9 April 2021, a certain gentleman died. His full name/title was:

His Royal Highness The Prince Philip, Duke of Edinburgh, Earl of Merioneth, Baron Greenwich, Royal Knight of the Most Noble Order of the Garter, Extra Knight of the Most Ancient and Most Noble Order of the Thistle, Member of the Order of Merit, Grand Master and First and Principal Knight Grand Cross of the Most Excellent Order of the British Empire, Knight of the Order of Australia, Additional Member of the Order of New Zealand, Extra Companion of the Queen’s Service Order, Royal Chief of the Order of Logohu, Extraordinary Companion of the Order of Canada, Extraordinary Commander of the Order of Military Merit, Lord of Her Majesty’s Most Honourable Privy Council, Privy Councillor of the Queen’s Privy Council for Canada, Personal Aide-de-Camp to Her Majesty, Lord High Admiral of the United Kingdom.

That’s 133 words. In the time it takes you to read it, at least 100 people will have died somewhere in the world. For the average daily death toll around the globe is 150,000 people. How many of their names will we know? How many of them will attract the media feeding frenzy that the passing of certain 99-year-old gentleman did?

How much media or other scrutiny will fall on the 800+ women who died on that very same day from what the World Health Organization describes as “preventable causes related to pregnancy and childbirth”? How many pub conversations about that particular gentleman’s legacy will pause to consider that in high-income countries a woman’s lifetime risk of maternal death is one in 540; in low-income countries it is one in 45?

We don’t know exactly what the 99-year-old gentleman expired from, though old age is clearly a suspect. We do know he suffered heart problems. That puts him in strong company – nearly one third of the other 149,999 deaths on 9 April resulted from cardiovascular disease.

The gentleman’s family, especially his wife—a woman of some renown—will mourn him deeply. That is as unremarkable. Will their sorrow be any more heartfelt, any more profound, than that of all the other wives, husbands, children, mothers, fathers, siblings, friends, companions who lost a loved one on Friday 9 April 2021?

 

Scomo banks on denial

PM:     Did you do it?

MINISTER 1:     No I did not!

PM:     Atta boy, but there’s room for improvement. Let’s try again.

Do you do it?

MINISTER 1:     I definitely did not.

PM:     Only definitely? Can’t you do better than that?

MINISTER [taking a deep breath]:     I absolutely, categorically deny I had anything to do with it.

PM:     That’s more like it! Take a break and we’ll polish it later.

MINISTER 1:     Um, sorry PM, what was I denying?

PM:     Come on, I explained it all in Cabinet! I want blanket denials from every minister. We’re bound to need them so I’m stockpiling.

MINISTER [smiles broadly]:     You’re a thinker Scotty. That’s why we made you PM.

PM:     Send in the next one, will you?

MINSTER 1:     Sure thing.

PM:     Right. Did you do it?

MINISTER 2:     I am offended to the core that you could even ask that question. Never in a month of Sundays would I ever contemplate action so vile in spirit and horrendous in application that it would leave decent people everywhere shuddering with revulsion. If you persist with that malicious line of enquiry I will not hesitate to be very upset to the point that I might cry.

PM [laughs]:     You’ve been practicing! Great work, though you might need to look at the word count. A bit long for a 30 second grab.

Send in the next one will you?

MINISTER 2:     You got it, El Scotto Supremo.

PM:     Okay, you know the drill. I explained it before.

MINISTER 3:    Did you now?

PM:     Yes, I did. Oh, bugger, you got me. I answered in the affirmative.

MINISTER 3:     I didn’t mean to embarrass you PM, just to show that we can all slip up.

PM:     I know, I know, a good lesson too. Forgot my own rule: always deny until it’s certain the media are all at the pub.

MINISTER 3:    Or move to hypotheticals. “You have just asked me if I assaulted that woman. I have never responded to hypotheticals and don’t intend to start now.”

PM:     Yeah, that’s a great line. We can thank Christian for that one. He’s the gold standard.

MINISTER 3:    Just one thing though. What will we do about Julie Bishop?

PM:      That flirtatious sow. You saw what she said? That we should actually know the substance of allegations before we deny them. Outrageous, pedantic nonsense. It’ll undermine our whole system of open government.

MINISTER 3:     That’s what happens when you get the wrong lawyers in Parliament.

PM:     Or the wrong women.

 

 

Palace Letters – the Queen’s Hard Quiz

We interrupt this repeat broadcast of the 2019 Sydney to Hobart yacht race to bring you exclusive coverage of the Queen’s preparation for her New Year appearance on Hard Quiz, hosted (how could anyone forget?!) by Gold Logie winner, Tom Gleeson.

A courtier is putting the Queen through her paces on her special subject:

How One definitely knew nothing  whatsoever about the plot to sack Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary and any suggestions otherwise will be regarded as treasonous slurs, prompting aforementioned One to pursue maximum redress through legal channels.

COURTIER:    May it please Your Majesty to start?

QUEEN:         Yes, Thomas, please be as frank as you dare.

COURTIER:    Thank you Ma’am, though if I may beg your indulgence I will observe in passing that my name is other than Thomas.

QUEEN:         So many years, so many faces, so many names, all so bothersome. Please clarify the situation at once.

COURTIER:    The name of the individual bent before you, Ma’am, is Alexander.

QUEEN:         Are your new?

COURTIER:    Yes, Ma’am, I was formerly His Excellency the High Commissioner of the Commonwealth of Australia to the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

QUEEN:         One forgets so easily those who One has no call to remember.

COURTIER:    Indeed so, Your Majesty. Perhaps we best continue.

QUEEN:         One consents.

COURTIER:    Begging your further indulgence, Ma’am, may I point out that the special subject Your Majesty has nominated is of such extensiveness in the nature of its description that it may not actually leave sufficient time for meaningful answers.

QUEEN:         That, Alexander, is precisely the point.

COURTIER:    Yes, Ma’am, of course, Ma’am, a wise strategy indeed.

QUEEN:         One does not require grovelling compliments from One’s staff, Alexander. Now get to the questions, so One may practice not answering them.

COURTIER:    Of course, Ma’am, of course. True or false:

Her Majesty had no inkling that Sir John Kerr was planning to sack a democratically elected Prime Minister?

QUEEN:         Such impertinence. Next question.

COURTIER:    Without delay, Ma’am.

Is there a smoking gun?

QUEEN:         Of course. Many of them in fact after the Royals have been out in the fresh air blasting away at pheasants and grouse and other wonders of nature.

COURTIER:    Brilliant deflection, Ma’am. Now, multiple choice:

When did Her Majesty first learn that Prime Minister Whitlam had been replaced. Was it—

QUEEN:         One so looks forward to clarifying this, once and forever. It was 1977. One’s Silver Jubilee. With One’s consort occasionally by One’s side but mostly trailing rearward, One visited Awstralya. One could not help but observe that the Prime Minister looked quite different to the one One encountered on an earlier visitation. Only when One queried One’s staff did One learn they had forgotten to advise One of the change. Very sheepish they were. One assured them that such a trivial matter hardly required One’s attention.

COURTIER:    Multiple choice again, Your Majesty:

When Sir John Kerr—

QUEEN:         Oh, him again.

COURTIER:    If I may, Your Majesty.

QUEEN:         Proceed.

COURTIER:    When Sir John Kerr sacked Prime Minister Whitlam for being a Labor Prime Minister—

QUEEN:         Oh, so that was the reason! One always thought it had something to do with the constitution. Sir John’s was never very good; drank far too much poor man, stress of the job, that sort of thing.

COURTIER:    If I may continue, Your Majesty;

What were Sir John’s stated reasons:

  1. Your Majesty had ordered abovementioned dismissal
  2. Sir John could not recall why he had done it
  3. Sir John could not recall when he had done it
  4. Sir John could not recall if, in fact, he had done it at all.

QUEEN:         Tricky question this one. One thinks it was 2) but cannot be certain. Could One possibly phone a friend? Well, acquaintance actually, One does not really have friends in One’s exalted position.

COURTIER:    With your Majesty’s permission I will contact Mr Gleeson and ensure a phone is readily to hand on the great occasion. May it please Your Majesty to be informed that I would be delighted to fulfil the role of “acquaintance”.

QUEEN:         Good boy, Alex, it seems you can play at almost anything!

COUTIER:      Begging your indulgence yet again, Your Majesty, may I offer a final thought.

QUEEN:         If you must.

COURTIER:    Play hard!

QUEEN:         I always have. Remember Diana.

 

The Australia-China trade war explained

From a special correspondent

A senior Chinese official has finally revealed the real basis for the country’s trade war with Australia.

 

The official, identified only as SO, said, “Even by the standards we’ve come to expect”,  Australian commentary to date had demonstrated a “shocking ignorance”.

“Portraying the trade management measures we’ve taken as retaliation for Australian criticism of vital land reclamation programs in our maritime domains, or as a response to Australia’s childish behaviour over the origins of Covid-19 is simply absurd. In reality, it all comes down to a question of understanding customer needs and being truthful.”

Pointing to the bottles of Australian wine arrayed on the table in front of her, SO continued. “Take wine, and I do a lot. White wine is meant to be just that. So listen to this.” She picked up a bottle of white wine and read aloud: “Combining honeysuckle yellows, vanilla, peach-kernel and chicken stock, the dry yet buttery characteristics of this blend are sure to delight any palette.”

Her faced flushed with anger, SO just managed to go on: “When we pay over the odds for so-called white wine, which we certainly do now that we’ve imposed a 200 per cent tariff, we don’t expect to be quaffing chicken stock. And just how are our poor customs officials expected to categorise such a product: fruit, dairy, manufactured foodstuff or what?

“The reds are just as bad”, SO continued. She reached for a bottle. “Black current, pepper, grassiness! Just what are they putting into it?”  Staring at the label, she spat, “Yellow tail? That’s a fish, and not a very good eating one at that!

“I could on on”, SO went on, picking up another bottle: “A beautiful purplish hue with a long, silky finish.

We invented silk”, she snapped, “I’m wearing it right now, then lo and behold it turns up in Australian wine!

“Until Australians can tell the difference between red, white, yellow, purple and so on, no Australian wine will enter the country, except the ones I like to drink with my colleagues after a hard day in the office.”

Asked about the ban on Australian lobsters, SO momentarily looked awkward. She took a deep breath before answering. “Actually, we have nothing against Australian lobsters. We love the way they switch instantly to red with the simple addition of boiling water. It was just a typo in the instructions. We actually meant mobsters. We get quite a few of them from Australia too.”

Shaking her head, SO added, “If only other countries would own up to their mistakes as openly as we do.”

“Now to coal,” she continued, sounding ominous. “It presents us with a different problem. We’re sick and tired of black smoke. Quite frankly,  it’s boring us to tears. Why can’t we have some green smoke, my favourite colour incidentally, or maybe orange, though that colour is a bit on the nose at the moment. Red would make a nice, patriotic, change. Is it too much to ask that Australian exporters are sensitive to their customers’ preferences?”

At this point I plucked up courage and asked, “It seems there’s a straightforward explanation for the current tensions, so why won’t you talk to the Australian Trade Minister? He’s been trying to phone you for weeks.”

“Has he?” SO responded with what could have been mistaken for a genuine surprise. “He must be using one of those inferior western mobiles. I’ll send him one of ours. All he has to do is phone me on the latest model Great Call and I promise you he’ll get through in a flash.”

 

 

 

The first Tuesday of November: think like a horse

I’ve just watched a short, award-winning play about three horses, locked in their stalls and bickering about their lot in life (no pun intended). One of them is a self-satisfied champion, the two other horses feel deprived and exploited. It all sounds very human.

That’s entirely reasonable. The play, Fabio the Great, was written by a woman, not a horse. Even the most subtle, incisive mind within a human head will never know what it’s like to be a horse. Or a whale, a rocking chair, or any other animate or inanimate object. That shouldn’t stop us imbuing them with human qualities and characteristics in the wonderful grown-up game of pretence many of us like to play.

Rarely will anyone contemplate what it’s like to be a baked bean. Still it would be an interesting exercise to set for children and adults: you are a baked bean who keeps a diary: write an entry for one day. Note that you are not allowed to be eaten at lunch time to save imagining how baked beans while away their afternoons.  

But leave baked beans aside. It’s early November in Australia and there are bound to be a few people wondering what it’s like to be a horse in the Melbourne Cup.

A giddying mix perhaps of fitness, sleekness and nervousness?

Do the animals give each other “may-the-best-horse-win” neighs of encouragement? Or are they conscious of all the money riding (no pun again) on the outcome and determined to stay “in the zone,” just the way a champion human athlete would. Do they have their own favourites, encouraging the young, or maybe deliberately giving an older runner a last hurrah? Do the horses themselves ever fix the result, knowing they won’t be held to account? Do they contemplate the horror of an accident, talking in hushed whinnies about what happened last year or the year before and why some contenders will be forever absent. Do they bridle (alright, that one is intended) at the fact that injured jockeys are rushed to the hospital while injured horses often end up in the knackery.

And just what do horses think of their jockeys: do they like some more than others, making more of an effort for them? Do they resent the hypocrisy of rules which allow riders to whip them while society at large decries animal cruelty?

What’s truly going on in a horse’s mind will forever remain a mystery, as much as the mysteries of being a baked bean or whether an apple feels discomfort when it’s pulled from the tree.

Still, “I wonder what it’s like to be a …” is a critical question we should ask every day. If we can’t or won’t imagine how others see the world, and us, we can’t expect much understanding or sympathy from human beings, or animals for that matter.

Exercise: you are a wombat; write a short play about three humans sitting near your burrow and discussing their lives. (Remember: a group of wombats is called a wisdom.)

Why we have diplomatic language

For many years I have introduced new entrants to the diplomatic service to the archaic language of third person notes or notes verbales. Some are enchanted by the trappings of their new profession; others scornful of the use of phrases like:

‘avails itself of this opportunity to renew the assurances of its highest consideration’.

I explain this usage as part of the toolbox of diplomacy which, along with protocol, can serve to contain heated emotion and temper hostilities. These have been the tasks of diplomats before and since the French coined such elaborate phrases centuries ago.

Now, when the talk is of a new Cold War, Australia’s Foreign Minister – some people call her our chief diplomat – prefers the TV cameras to the conventions devised to maintain lines of communication even during times of heightened tension. On 28 March she gave the Russian Ambassador what the media calls her ‘death stare’. Logvinov seemed to take this in his stride. He has even appeared to relish his on-screen performances.

This tit for tat isn’t over. Russia’s Foreign Minister had already reacted to the expulsions by Western governments of Russian diplomats by saying that Moscow will not tolerate Western countries’ crassness. ‘Rest assured, we will respond’, Lavrov told the Russian news agency, TASS. ‘The reason is that no one would like to tolerate such obnoxiousness and we won’t either.’

These slanging matches are bad for international relations. If we start to call people out before we have the facts* and prefer to conduct the business of foreign policy in the public glare, we abandon the professional foundations from which to prosecute for peace not war. That’s serious stuff.

*For more on what we do or don’t yet know about the Skripal attack, see http://johnmenadue.com/scott-burchill-on-the-russian-gas-attack/

and

https://www.irishtimes.com/opinion/unlikely-that-vladimir-putin-behind-skripal-poisoning-1.3425736 

Image: the Russian ambassador, Grigory Logvinov, with the foreign affairs minister, Julie Bishop Photograph: Mike Bowers for the Guardian

Gobbled-up articles

A-an-the-definite-indefinite-article-testI’m just back from Islamabad, where I trained several enthusiastic groups of Pakistani professionals. Their English was good–one introduced herself as a fan of ‘Orwellian’ English, meaning plain-speaking language not the Big Brother type. The participants’ thinking and their expertise was impressive. Perhaps their brains respond well to all the articles they ‘gobble up’, as another participant put it. I tried to help these Urdu native speakers work out when to use ‘the’ or ‘a/an’, articles that their own language doesn’t have, but which in English do matter. Proper use of the definite and indefinite article can add important information to a sentence, such as whether you want to go to the movie that wins the Oscar or any movie that’s showing right now.

One way — not infallible, because English is so complicated — to decide which article to use is to ask:

is this noun one of one or one of many?

The movie that wins the Oscar is one of one; the movie showing right now is one of many. The first movie needs a ‘the’; the second an ‘a’.

For what it’s worth, my choice for the best film is one about the power of the printed word [these two ‘the’s‘ refer to all power and all words, something that is most certainly definite] called Spotlight [no article because you can’t quantify light].

 

 

A plea for a gutted-free New Year

GuttedWith 2016 soon upon us I challenge all sportsmen, sportswomen and especially sportswriters to promise that they won’t use the term ‘gutted’ for a whole year.

Australian families have enough stress to deal with already; the threat of terrorism and falling behind in the mortgage and having to use public transport all their life. They’re stuck with that. Why inflict the linguistic and anatomical laziness of gutted upon them?

The way we’re headed, four-year-olds will soon be arriving home from pre-school to announce they came second in the colouring in competition and ‘feel gutted’. If only they could just use a word like devastated, downcast, done-in, perhaps even defeated? But even at that tender age they’ve heard far too much sports commentary and their parents, also victims, don’t know better. Otherwise they’d reach for the castor oil.

And pity the medical profession. When Wallabies star David Pocock was injured in 2013 a breathless Canberra Times reported: ‘A gutted Pocock ruptured his anterior cruciate ligament … and needs a knee reconstruction.’ The surgeon wouldn’t know where to start.

Or take the case of English cricketer, Joe Root. He hurt his hand, couldn’t play in an international Twenty-20 competition and declared that he too was gutted. He was lucky he wasn’t taken to hospital for a finger stall and end up with a new liver. Come to think of it, though, that might have encouraged him to choose his words more carefully.

 

Does bad English matter?

Education Minister Christopher Pyne has announced a pilot for a literacy and numeracy test for teachers in Australia to be introduced in 2016. This won’t be the solution to problems of poor grammar and spelling that abound among school and university graduates but it will perhaps help to change the mind set that bad language doesn’t matter.

Dont’ get me started on ‘organic’ food!

I have just spent a month conducting training for public servants. The day-long course includes a session on apostrophes. Yes, I am in the camp that believes in apostrophes because they add meaning and clarity and, really, are not hard to learn. I fear I have chosen the losing side. More and more people are arguing the apostrophe is not necessary .  On the Kill the Apostrophe website, the author asserts that apostrophes ‘are wasteful. Tremendous amounts of money are spent every year by businesses on proof readers, part of whose job is to put apostrophes in the “correct” place’. That really worries me, especially when I hear similar views from participants in my course. One person, who has two degrees, dismissed checking spelling and grammar as a waste of time.

English has many, many irregularities. That’s part of its richness, as is its extraordinary vocabulary. The problem seems to be that teachers of English to native speakers have lost the art of making learning our own language interesting. Let’s hope that if they have to pay more attention to their own English skills, they’ll start to think about how to inspire their students.

A new spirit of sledging

sledgingI’ve just been visiting a parallel universe called the ‘Spirit of Cricket’. It’s Cricket Australia’s good conduct guide for players and it’s hilarious. According to the CA the spirit involves respect for—wait for it—your opponents. What a hoot!

It’s against the spirit to ‘direct abusive language against an opponent or umpire.’ I guess that means when Michael Clarke warned Jimmie Anderson to ‘get ready for a broken fucking arm’ it was medical advice, nothing more (though given the sentence structure I’m left wondering if Anderson fucks with his right or left arm). More recently, when David Warner suggested that Rohit Sharma ‘speak English’ it can only have been a timely reminder to the Indian cricketer of the universality of the language.

When rules, laws or ‘spirits’ are not enforced they become a farce. That’s what we have now.

The solution is simple, update the spirit. Celebrate sledging for what it truly is: cricket’s unique contribution to international relations and intellectual suppleness. Here’s an example from the 1982-83 Ashes series worth thinking about: Rodney Marsh to Ian Botham: ‘How’s your wife and my two kids?’ Botham to Marsh: ‘The wife’s fine but the kids are retarded.’

It’s high time we lauded such repartee. From now on umpires should award sledging style points. Let’s replace the boring old best player award with sledger-of-the match honours. Let’s adorn cricketing venues and equipment with the musings of past sledge artists: ‘This ball’s headed for yours’; ‘You’d bowl better underarm’; ‘Lend me your brain, I’m building an idiot.’

Do that and once more Australia will lead the way. Finally, the spirit and the practice of cricket will be in sync.