‘Behold, O Lord, for I am in distress: my bowels are troubled’. Indeed they are and my arteries are also hardening and my brain softening. I am a clapperless bell, a reed swept away in a tsunami of change. My Honey Bee thinks that I live in the PAST but I’m actually living in the FUTURE. I was either abducted by aliens who rendered me unconscious for a hundred years before re-awaking me or, more likely, I fell into a Black Hole as I was driving through Artarmon on my way to Bunnings, then travelled through some time-warp and emerged a century later in Erskineville. I know I am still on Planet Earth as Sydneysiders are still recognisable as humans, although they appear to have organised themselves into several distinct tribes. One tribe is recognisable by their hard, yellow plastic hats, luminous orange jackets and steel-capped boots; another is distinguished by its uniform of singlet, board shorts and rubber thongs. There’s also a tribe that prefers wheels to legs. Members are identified by figure-hugging Latex worn from neck to just above the knee, a plastic helmet (modelled on Ridley Scott’s Alien monsters) and shoes with the heel located, oddly enough, under the toes. The ancient religions of C of E and RC have been replaced by a new, universal faith called PC; Churches still exist, but Matins and Evensong have been abolished in favour of Blessing of Pets and Sausage Sizzles. Instead of Orwell’s ‘Big Brother’ the World is micromanaged by a triumvirate of faceless Dictators known only as ‘O’, ‘H’ and ‘S’.
..and so I called Vodafone and a voice answered saying if I was calling about my contract, press 1, if I was querying a bill, press 2, if I was paying a bill, press 3, if I was setting up a new number, press 4, but by then I had forgotten the nature of 1 and 2 so I had to start all over again and, as no option seemed to cover my particular situation, I pressed 1and was given a further grid of possibilities from which I randomly selected option 3 which immediately triggered a warning that my conversation may be recorded for training purposes and I’m thinking what if I was trying to launch a missile strike with my i-phone to save the human race from an incoming meteor and had to go through this rigmarole first and then a human came on the line, was I calling about the number that I was calling from, yes, and what was my date of birth and what was my billing address and being a bit of a trivia buff I was able to get the answers right but then she threw me a curve ball – what is the 4 digit Pin I was given when I made the mistake of buying an i-phone, and I said of course I didn’t remember, you are talking to a man with more Pins than a Bowling Alley and so the Vodaperson said she couldn’t talk to me and I had to check a sudden surge of anger I mean what if she was a new Australian from the Indian sub-continent, still disorientated by two years in Nauru and struggling with English and, besides, I didn’t want to ruin the poor woman’s contribution to her company’s training program by being rude, but then it struck me that she wasn’t just FROM the sub-continent she was probably IN the sub-continent, talking to me from some industrial suburb of Mumbai with instructions to make my life as difficult as possible, but when I insisted on talking to a Supervisor I was cut off so I redialled and a voice said if I was calling about my contract, press 1…..
Hmmm…what’s in the news today? I see the Queen has granted an audience at Buckingham Palace to a brace of Daleks from Dr Who; a Russian performance artist has nailed his scrotum to the cobblestones of a Moscow street and, if you are interested in running up a Sponge cake, London University has introduced a course in Baking Technology Management. On a more serious note, 80 North Koreans have been executed for watching a South Korean soap opera on television. To die for such a cause surely over-inflates the quality of the entertainment. To read that North Koreans preferred to face a firing squad than watch a soap opera would make a more plausible headline.
Not all books are for reading from cover to cover and then passing on to Oxfam; those large format books featuring blown-up photographs of pasta dishes or the Amalfi coast are useful for resting your plate of Singapore noodles on while watching television. Others are there solely for taking out of the bookcase on a whim to handle, to inhale the delicate perfume of ancient, foxed paper and to dip serendipitously into the contents. One of my favourites in the latter category is Gargantua and Pantagruel, or, to describe it properly:
The Works of Mr. Francis Rabelais, doctor in Physick containing five books of the lives, heroick deeds & sayings of GARGANTUA and his sonne PANTAGRUEL together with the Pantagrueline Prognostication, the Oracle of the Divine Bacbuc, and response of the bottle. Hereunto are annexed the Navigations unto the Sounding Isle and the Isle of the Apedefts : as likewise the Philosophical cream with a Limosin Epistle all done by Mr. Francis Rabelais in the French tongue and now faithfully translated into English.
London : Grant Richards, 1904. Two Quarto volumes, the first of 377 pages, the second of 350. Original full cloth binding with gilt lettering design on front boards and spines. Translation as that of the original of 1653.Copiously illustrated by W Heath Robinson. Minor soiling to cloth. Slight foxing of Pictorial endpapers.
This is a road book about father and son giants, a Renaissance carnival of grotesque fantasy, vulgar and exuberant, a mixture of Gulliver’s Travels, Mark Twain’s 1601 and Little Britain. Underneath, I understand there is a deeply satirical and humanistic study of the times, but just enjoy it for the bawdy brilliance of the writing, its orgy of debauchery, inventive insults and Heath Robinson’s marvellous illustrations. Catholic Monk and eminent physician, Rabelais succeeded in lampooning the very hands that fed him. He died censured but unpunished and his one line will reportedly stated ‘I have nothing, I owe a great deal and the rest I leave to the poor.’ The book was written between 1532 and 1564 in Classical French but it contains many words of Rabelais’ own fabrication, either in literal translation from the Latin or of his own invention. How did the book’s translators, Sir Thomas Urquhart and Peter Motteux, translate words that had never existed before? I can only guess that they invented new English words thereby enriching the English language as Rabelais had the French.
“Trinc, Trinc, By Bacchus, let us tope,
And tope again; for now I hope
To see some brawny juicy Rump,
And tickle’t with my carnal stump.”
“Thou, who canst Water turn to Wine,
Transform my Bum by Pow’r Divine
Into a Lantern, that may Light
My Neighbour in the darkest Night.”
A curious postscript occurred in 1995 when the four editors of ‘Rabelais’, the La Trobe University student magazine, published an article satirizing the distribution of wealth entitled ‘The Art of Shoplifting’. According to Green Left Weekly, Simon Crean, then Federal Minister for Education, was persuaded by the easily outraged John Laws to cut funding to the magazine and to refer the matter to the Victorian attorney-general. As a result the editors were charged with issuing an ‘objectionable publication’ and faced a maximum of 6 years in jail and fine of $72,000. Other student magazines from Australian Universities supported the editors of Rabelais by reprinting the article without prosecution. It was only after several appearances in the Federal and High courts and five years of campaigning between the morally outraged and the defenders of free speech that the Victorian Director of Public Prosecutions finally dropped the charges. Quel gaspillage!