November 2010

Arts & Letters

Lest we forget

By Peter Conrad
Mrs Austin and son visit the butcher in 1951. Courtesy of the National Archives of Australia
Hugh Lunn’s ‘Words Fail Me: A Journey through Australia’s Lost Language’

Hugh Lunn, vegging out as he sunbakes in his popularity, has come up with an unstrenuous new method for manufacturing a book: why not anthologise your fan mail? In Lost for Words (2006), Lunn assembled a chatty glossary of Australian lingo or ‘slangwidge’ that has died out, only to be replaced by a world where everyone speaks a glib, streamlined Americanised English. His book summoned up memories of happier days, a time when Australia was white and its rich, ribald, demotic language was blue. Readers began sending supplementary lists of sayings used by their elders; all Lunn had to do was copy and paste. The result is Words Fail Me: A Journey through Australia’s Lost Language (ABC Books, 352pp; $35.00), which is more of the same – a digest of cosy drivel and mothballed proverbs, unthinking and, deep down, a little sinister in its fulminations against modernity.

Lunn was born in 1941, and his natural constituency is Australians who are in their anecdotage. The short-term memory of his readers may be failing but they enjoy doddering back to childhood, and Words Fail Me is a guided tour of the twilight zone they inhabit. In this antediluvian era, Dad applied a slick of California Poppy Hair Oil before he sloped off to the RSL, and Mum toiled in the washhouse, dabbling in a copper or concrete tub as she swirled the sheets in blue rinse before putting them through the mangle; you got gravel rash on your knees after falling off your bike and cuts on your open palm when you played up at school. The scenario is, in its regressive way, appealing. Infancy and eating are synonymous, and what I liked best about Lunn’s book were the cakes and lollies it recalls – stickjaw toffee, all-day suckers, Arnott’s Iced VoVos and (I salivate as I type) Hoadley’s Violet Crumble bars.

I am old enough to have a past about which I sometimes feel nostalgic, and I cheered Lunn’s brief paean to the string bag, “a fabulous item” that was eco-friendly without knowing it. I am also dyspeptic enough to share some of his gripes – his hostility to bureaucratic jargon and consumerist clichés, his impatience with teenagers who talk like sitcom characters, and his hatred of ugly and ignorant American neologisms: I yelped aloud with pain the other day when I heard the American TV shrink Dr Phil say to a couple of sobbing patients on his show, “Folks, I’m gonna be efforting on behalf of you-all.” For a while, I even thought I agreed with Lunn’s celebration of Australia’s “secret languages”, derived from the criminal argot of the convicts. Then I stopped smiling: I realised that what delights his fans in the superannuated suburbs is his praise for a time that was blinkered and bigoted, impoverished both economically and linguistically, when Australians spoke their own idiosyncratic language because in their empty, distant continent they were unreachably isolated from the global conversation.

“We once lived,” Lunn says, “in a world where overseas travel, non-stop celebrity gossip and television didn’t exist”; he adds that we also got along without McDonald’s and IKEA. This sums up his conservative attempt to reverse history and the linguistic changes that have accompanied it. Overseas travel, he implies, is as bad as burgers, and there is a moral equivalence between such evils and the bland, blond furniture in imported Swedish flatpacks. The trouble is that the cowed, introverted country he remembers from the 1950s had little that was nationally authentic about it. It was a disregarded outpost of Britain, though for Lunn this seems preferable to membership of a wider world whose inland sea is the Pacific. He pines for the playing of ‘God Save the Queen’ in cinemas and the pledges of allegiance to a non-resident head of state at school assemblies round the flagpole; lest we forget, he even fills up three pages with a list of British imperial measurements – hundredweights, furlongs, perches, pecks and noggins among them – and regrets that in his thirties he had to decimalise his addled head. Even the slang that for him is so rooted in our sunburnt soil often proves to have been shipped out from England. He mentions ‘brum’ and ‘brummy’ as terms for goods that are cheap and cheery, apparently unaware they refer to the tacky manufacturing industry of Birmingham.

The more fondly Lunn fantasises about an Australia hunched inside its rabbit-proof fence, the more unidyllic it seems. “Most people in Australia kept chooks,” Lunn authoritatively declares. Yes, my parents did; that’s exactly why I am happy to buy eggs from the supermarket, confident that the chooky cack has been washed off them in advance. Lunn includes a snapshot of a man “enthroned” in an outdoor dunny, no doubt delighting the blowies. Sorry, but I effetely opt for a functioning sewage system inside the house. Is it really so much fun to be reminded of a time when we were needy enough to bundle up used newspapers and sell them to the butcher, who used them to wrap his kangaroo patties? Were children (or ‘kiddies’ as they were called) better off before electronic gadgets, when a used matchbox – as Lunn declares when extolling the “joy … found in little experiences” – was a precious plaything, and wet afternoons were spent engrossed in sorting fancy buttons stored in a biscuit tin?

Back then, if you used a polysyllable you were accused of having swallowed a dictionary, and if you dressed a little differently from the mob you could be jeered at as a ‘Woolloomooloo (or Fitzroy) Yank’ or told that you were ‘got up like a Christmas tree’ or, even worse, ‘a tuppeny ha’penny fairy cake’. Taciturnity was compulsory: if you had too much to say, you behaved as if taking part in a ‘galah session’. It was a miserable, miserly world, inured to scarcity. Bent nails were straightened out for re-use; rainfall was hoarded in tanks. Australia lived in fear because its destiny depended on the geopolitical whims of the remote Northern Hemisphere: one chilling phrase recorded by Lunn has a woman, when asked why she hasn’t thrown away some useless scrap, reply “I’m saving it up for the next war.” Clucking tongues enforced prohibitions as fantastical as the Victorian abhorrence of chairs and tables with bare legs. Schoolgirls, according to Lunn, were warned against eating ice-creams in the street “because you should never expose your tongue to the public gaze”. If you misbehaved you were called a “mongrel” – a slur with a nastily racist bite. Reading Lunn is like being housebound in Patrick White’s Sarsaparilla with only Sandy Stone for company.

In a critique of windy American hyperbole, Lunn remarks that “the US is the land of the great overstatement while Australia is the land of the great understatement.” True, if I ask an American how he or she is, the reply I get will almost certainly be “I’m grrrreat!!”, whereas if you ask me how I am, I will grudgingly answer: “Not too bad.” But isn’t the habit of understatement ultimately responsible for underachievement? Lunn remembers the disdainful outcry from supporters of the Wallabies during a game at Twickenham when Australia got a free kick: “Fair enough, fair enough. They’ve been doing it all day.” Self-woundingly ironic is what I’d call this, a habit of belittling excellence that led to decades of contented national mediocrity. So many of the phrases Lunn admiringly tabulates are disparagements: “I’ve seen better heads hanging out of cattle trucks/on boils” or “She’s got a face like a half-sucked mango/a boiled boot/a train wreck” or, most intolerant of all, “The things you see when you don’t have a gun!” In meanly egalitarian Ockerland, it was not only the tall poppies who suffered decapitation.

Queensland, Lunn’s native state, has declared him a cultural icon, installing him in its pantheon beside the Bee Gees. He has written a biography of Joh Bjelke-Petersen, and has taken on the persona of a philologic Pauline Hanson. Many of the fans he quotes come from Australia’s upside-down version of the Deep South, and at the very end of his book he protests on their behalf about a metropolitan snobbery that derides “BAPH states” – an acronym for the provincial backwaters of Brisbane, Adelaide, Perth and Hobart. Backed by the gangs of helpers who have supplied material for Words Fail Me, he is leading a peasants’ revolt against multiculturalism and its dilution of Australian integrity. But there is no such thing as ‘one nation’ anymore, and as many languages are spoken in Australia as at Babel. The past is not our lost homeland but a foreign country, pale-faced and uniformly blank-minded, and I don’t want to go back and live there.


PLEASE NOTE: Hugh Lunn has complained that this review describes him as racist, anti-immigration, intellectually lazy and regressive. We accept that it was wrong to portray Mr Lunn in this fashion and we apologise for doing so.

Peter Conrad

Peter Conrad’s most recent book is How the World Was Won. His Myths of the Day, based on a BBC radio series, will be published in 2016.

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