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A Letter

8 Jan

It has been a long time indeed since I wrote a letter.

From time to time, I receive mail. Typically, it consists of bank statements, advertising, or propaganda from the Church of Scientology, who have sent me fortnightly correspondence upon attaining my address. Sometimes, if I am lucky, I receive a card.

I was fortunate enough to receive a thoughtful letter a few weeks ago. It was not composed by a computer program, nor laden with effulgent images imploring me to buy something. It was two pages long. My subsequent reply was set in 12-point Hoefler Text and the address in American Typewriter.

I stuck on a pre-Euro Dutch stamp because it was far more aesthetically appealing than the floral garbage Australia Post sells. That meant I would need to deliver it myself, but it was worth it.

The use of a seal made it all the more authentic (although I did burn the first letter with which I tried this).

A letter published in Friday’s Sydney Morning Herald: “What’s Australia Post?”



5 Jan

They dined on mince, and slices of quince,
Which they ate with a runcible spoon;
And hand in hand, on the edge of the sand,
They danced by the light of the moon,
The moon,
The moon,
They danced by the light of the moon.

l. 27-33, The Owl and the Pussycat, Edward Lear, 1871

The word runcible is remarkable for a singular reason – namely, that has no meaning whatsoever. Our friend Mr. Lear quite liked his nonsensical creation; his verse talks also of runcible cats and geese, and a dashing runcible hat. As one Guardian reader plainly put it: “Runcible objects exist no more than pobbles or feline-hiboutic matrimony.” And he is correct. Nevertheless, the word has earned itself a Wiktionary entry. Lear’s nonsense word is but a part of a fine tradition of nonsense words and wit-smitten wordplay that has coloured the English language. His contemporary, Lewis Carrol, penned a fine example of nonsense poetry with Jabberwocky, a text which lovers of language have cut their teeth on ever since.

’Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe;
All mimsy were the borogoves,
And the mome raths outgrabe.

l. 1-4 (and, for that matter, l. 29-32), Jabberwocky, Lewis Carrol, 1872

Wordplay is found throughout languages, cultures and time periods; Virgil and Homer used wordplay in their poetry and the complexities of Mandarin have lent that language to wordplay. As a result of the strong traditions of wordplay in English, however, the use of nonsense words is rather more common in English than in other languages. The century since has certainly not been lost to this tradition – in literature, the best example might by Joyce’s Finnegans Wake, in which language plays a pivotal role in developing the text’s esoteric subtleties.

…while kinderwardens minded their twinsbed, therenow they stood, the sycomores, all four of them, in their quartan agues, the majorchy, the minorchy, the everso and the fermentarian with their ballyhooric blowreaper, titranicht by tetranoxst, at their pussycorners, and that old time pallyollogass…

III.3, Finnegans Wake, James Joyce, 1939

A Bit of Fry & Laurie, The Two Ronnies and the work of Monty Python all provide examples of nonces, nonsense and wordplay in television; after all, whoever could forget the Cheese and Tommy-to Toastie, or Eric the half-a-bee? But now it is bed time.

A most runcible new year to you all.


Good Bones

28 Sep

Margaret Atwood’s 1993 accomplishment Good Bones is an organic, raw and infinitely witty set of assorted thoughts and creations. The composition consists of some 27 short pieces, ranging from streams-of-consciousness to one-way dialogue to descriptive prose. Atwood’s criticism of society is iconoclastic and her perceptions of the human condition are unrelentingly harsh and honest. The book is sprinkled with unabated feminism and criticism of how humans behave in relation to animals, the environment and each other.

Good Bones concerns itself largely with gender identity and divides. Atwood illustrates the contrivances in how male and female are perceived by society through the highly effective and oftentimes shocking use of humour.

The female body has many uses. It’s been used as a door-knocker, a bottle-opener, as a clock with a ticking belly, as something to hold up lampshades, as a nutcracker, just squeeze the brass legs together and out comes your nut. It bears torches, lifts victorious wreaths, grows copper wings and raises aloft a ring of neon stars; whole buildings rest on its marble heads.

It sells cars, beer, shaving lotion, cigarettes, hard liquor; it sells diet plans and diamonds, and desire in tiny crystal bottles. Is this the face that launched a thousand products? You bet it is, but don’t get any funny big ideas, honey, that smile is a dime a dozen.

The piece’s use of allusion ranges from incidental remarks such as above to entire stories being warped and well-directed mutations of fairy tales, Shakespeare or Bram Stoker. Atwood’s subject matter becomes bleak and somewhat morbid in compositions such as Hardball, where she depicts a dystopic society: “What wonders it contains, especially for those who can afford it!” Despite this, “breathing is out of the question” and rats and humans are considered staple foods. Such morose topics do not prevent Atwood from colouring Good Bones with insightful witticisms and a humorous tone.

The most prevalent and consistent feature of the texts in Good Bones is its ever-present disgust and the unjustified beliefs, poorly formed preconceptions and façade surrounding the absurd that society entertains at its peril. The responder is the victim of a panoply of intellectual deceptions that challenge the values of society at large.

Good Bones is a fascinating and highly creative text. It moves between dark and funny with immense ease, and everything is something else turned on its head. Irony is the watchword of the book, and postmodern prose its war cry. A reader can only be advised to remain prepared for anything.

I always thought it was a mistake, calling you Hamlet. I mean, what kind of a name is that for a young boy? It was your father’s idea. Nothing would do but that you had to be called after him. Selfish. The other kids at school used to tease the life out of you. The nick-names! And those terrible jokes about pork.

I wanted to call you George.

I am not wringing my hands. I’m drying my nails.