The Great Spanish Coffee Swindle

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Spaniards drink a lot of coffee—and I love their café cultura, it is central to life—but, Christ, is their coffee rough! Not every taza in every cafetería in every ciudad, but the overwhelming majority of coffee experiences in Spain are trials to be endured, the flavour bitter and burnt and retaining little that is recognisably coffee. And I just found out why: a diablo by the name of torrefacto.

Any half decent coffee has this in common: it is 100% coffee. Torrefacto coffee is only 80% coffee, or less. It’s like the way Australian chocolate is not all chocolate; I mean, there has to be some allowance for a percentage of cockroach, right?

Torrefacto refers to the process whereby sugar is added during the coffee bean roasting process. This is a Spanish practice going back about 80 years, when sugar began to be added to the roast of the beans for one very special reason: it gave the final product a long shelf life (by embalming the beans in a caramel sarcophagus) and ensured no wastage. An added bonus was that the cheaper sugar bulked out the coffee, like the way the British pump their meat full of water.

The problem is that torrefacto coffee tastes like … how would the Spanish put it … mierda, caca, popó? Which is to say, like someone has very carefully coated some green coffee beans with liquid faeces and then roasted it to a crisp, ground it, prepared it with an espresso machine and served it with a snappy vale. Oh, and apart from the fact that it tastes like shit, it may also be cancerous (the lesser of concerns here).

So, in short:

  • Coffee in Spain normally means torrefacto coffee –> means bitter shit-flavoured coffee.
  • When it isn’t torrefacto coffee, the beans in Spain are still burned to a dark char –> means bitter shit-flavoured coffee.

Silly Spain.

Loco Spain!

Ahh, Spain …

The Professional Sceptic

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

*A version of this article first appeared on Stumbling Through the Past.

The historian is two things above all else: a sceptic and an explainer.

Whatever the subject, the ultimate goal is explaining what happened, how it happened and why it happened. But reaching that goal requires enormous scepticism: suspiciously examining the sources, which will deceive in every imaginable way, and suspiciously examining the explanations other historians have offered.

This latter requirement of the historian—professional scepticism of fellow historians—is something seldom emphasised to the layperson or student. If it is in a book, especially one written by a credentialed scholar, then it is history, it happened. It can be added to, maybe interpreted through another lens, but the core stuff—when, what, where, how and why—is established. It doesn’t need to be raked over.

That is the misconception, sometimes willingly gilded by our profession. Now here is the unadorned truth of the matter: historians make a surprising number of errors, mostly small, occasionally monumental. The trick is not to be surprised, but to expect error, seek error and to celebrate it when found, even when it is your own work that has been set ablaze.

The warmth of that fire—of his and her and my hard work turning to ash—means understanding has been advanced. After all, that is the goal, for history is not like mathematics with its proofs, chiselled out on stone tablets. It is like science, with its method centred on falsifiability and incremental gains in knowledge.

It goes something like this: the historian makes a claim they believe is true or might be true and corroborates the claim with all the evidence and argument they can muster. Then they wait for someone to further corroborate their work, or to point to a piece of evidence or argument that brings the whole edifice tumbling down. A new theory/argument/interpretation is advanced; the cycle repeats.

Hence, at the core of all this is one thing: sources—original sources.

My own experience must have been echoed by countless others. When I was a new PhD candidate and very naive about what historians did and how the practice of history worked, I wanted to tell the story of the imagined Australian Inland Sea—the sea that explorers like Charles Sturt figured existed in the Australian interior.

I realised that, first, I needed even earlier background information about what Europeans expected from southern hemispheric lands they might encounter. Hence, I read widely on the history of Terra Australis Incognita, the mythical continent imagined for the southern hemisphere. An obvious question came to the fore: how had the idea of Antipodes arisen?

Numerous books told me the answers, so I thought I knew. I’ve dug out my earliest notes from that initial research, a tad cringe-worthy, but early ideas set in writing often are:

The ancient geographical theory of Ptolemy of the second century A.D. … lent itself to deceptively scientific ideas about the globe being like any gravity-governed body: stability of the earth’s rotation on its axis was dependant on balance, and therefore the distribution of land mass above and below the equator was assumed to be equable. Hence, the southern continent could be expected to be a reflection of the Eurasian land mass, located behind the mirror of the equator.

Ptolemy, symmetry, continental balance: I had lapped up what other authors had written and figured it for erudition. But I remember the unease I eventually came to feel, a sick sort of feeling, because the scholar deep inside me was sceptical. Why? Because none of these books cited original sources. Because not one of my own conclusions cited original sources.

I was taking everything and everyone on the basis of authority. And supposing everyone before me had likewise taken it purely on authority, I wondered what might be at the bottom of it all—tortoises all the way down, perhaps?

In a perfect world, a historian would check the original sources for everything. If you have not checked the original source, don’t put it in your history, because you just don’t know.

But historians do not have infinite time, resources or sanity, so the second-best option is to rely only on other authorities who have checked the original sources and demonstrate rigour. Even historians citing their evidence sometimes make errors of interpretation, translation and context, and something so seemingly minor as a misplaced word can have major ramifications. Small errors can compound into significant misunderstandings, major mistakes or even lead to the creation of full-blown myths that sweep a discourse.

In the third-best option, you are willing to rely on those who cite nothing original and—well, neither they nor you are really historians at that point. You are writers, possibly of fiction. I realised all those years ago that that was me—writing a story, not a history.

So, driven by a healthy dose of self-loathing for how lazy I had been, I went to the original sources (to the extent that was possible). What I found was this: not Plato, not Aristotle, not Ptolemy nor any other of the dozens of ancient scholars I was able to read mentions symmetry or the need for the hemispheres to contain equal quantities of land to provide the earth with its poise—a concept I refer to as equipoisure.

The popular understandings about symmetry and balance are unadulterated myths. It really was tortoises all the way down!

As for the many modern writers and historians who state that the ancients did believe in Antipodes because of symmetry or a theory of balance—not one cites a jot of evidence. They don’t because there is no evidence (I say this to the best of my imperfect knowledge—this is one of my core claims awaiting corroboration or falsification; ego prefers corroboration, but both options get the job done).

This was a major revelation, for me if not broader humanity. The implications are huge. Take away the old chestnuts about symmetry and balance, and one of those fundamental questions historians are compelled to ask has never been fully answered—the why question.

That is, why did people in the past construct the idea of a massive southern continent and then choose to passionately believe in something that didn’t exist?

To answer that required evidence. I buried myself in treatises of natural philosophy, journals of explorers, old geography texts, proposals and memorials, letters, histories and maps—lots of maps. Luckily, researchers both amateur and professional have done a superb job of digging up innumerable artefacts that tell us something about the imaginary southern continent.

Though I am sceptical by nature and by trade, there is no denying the incredible work of these historians who precede me—and I fully acknowledge that my own work rests entirely on theirs. But…

I check their sources whenever I can, just to make sure. Sometimes—more often than most historians let on—something doesn’t quite add up. Perhaps a misinterpretation, perhaps an omission, perhaps a mistake. Sometimes it is mere minutiae, and sometimes it changes everything.

The result of my research is Antipodes: In Search of the Southern Continent (available from Monash University Publishing and select book stores). I chart the European idea of a mythical southern continent, an idea so potent in the minds of its fanciers that it helped shape early modern history. I ask a lot of why questions, and provide a few answers. Some of them may turn out to be right.

F**k the Oxford Comma

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

A minor quibble, not a matter of international import, merely enough to provoke the occasional fit of inappropriate rage: I am sick of well-meaning people, unaware of their own blinkered knowledge of the many standards of global English, pointing out what they believe is the grammatical howler of a writer having omitted the Oxford comma.

What is the Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma? It’s a little thing, like half a pig’s tail. In a list of three or more items, most Americans and some of the British include a comma before the “and” (or “or”) preceding the last item. For example, if such a person wanted to list “rage”, “apoplexy” and “sadness”, they would write rage, apoplexy, and sadness. The difference is merely that comma before the “and”.

Use it or don’t use it; for the most part, it’s mind-numbingly unimportant. Neither form—with or without the extra comma—is more or less correct. It is a custom, and only a custom, that differs by country, by institution and by person. It is not some rule of usage prefaced upon inviolable linguistic laws discovered once the human genome was decoded. Dealer’s preference.

And yet it is so very common to receive straight-faced correctives, often from Americans, telling one they have erred for want of an Oxford comma. Such mindless prescriptivism is maddening. It shouldn’t be, but the contradiction inherent in the act just sets off a certain kind of person (that person would be me).

As for what the conscientious writer should do—that is, a writer not bound by custom and merely looking to maximise clarity and readability—there tend to be two main arguments put forth, one from each camp.

Those who discourage use of the Oxford comma point out that it is normally redundant. They are right, from the perspectives of both syntax and prosody. The “and” that comes before the last item in a list alerts the reader that it is the last item in the list (this is the syntactic function, concerned with arranging the units of meaning in a sentence). Likewise, the “and” encourages, or arguably necessitates, some sort of pause or change of rhythm as the sentence is read (this is the prosodic function, concerned with regulating the rhythm and melody of a sentence).

In this sense, then, the Oxford comma is heavy-handed. Writers are often encouraged to eschew surplusage, and the Oxford comma is nearly always, strictly-speaking, surplus to the minimum required to convey one’s meaning.

But not always. Sometimes a list becomes confusing without that extra comma. If I want to list the big boys, Jack and Jim without using an Oxford comma, you cannot tell whether I mean three things (big boys, Jack, Jim) or if I’m just referring to the big boys, who are named Jack and Jim. No such problem with the trusty Oxford comma in the mix: the big boys, Jack, and Jim. So, there is no doubt, an Oxford comma should be in every writer’s arsenal.

However, to say that just because it is useful once in a blue moon every writer should use an Oxford comma in every list they write across their lifetime—we’re talking tens of thousands of lists, tens of thousands of redundant commas—is silly. It’s just getting suckered into the prescriptivist mentality: we have to have a hard and fast rule! There can be no discretion! Man and woman are not responsible enough to make their own decisions about when a comma is necessary! Yes, dammit, we will have hundreds of millions and very soon billions of redundant commas to ensure no one misses that rare occasion when it is actually needed!

Dear oh dear, the grammar nanny state, the most minor of all the dystopias.

My suggestion for those who can’t just live and let live, who are seeking some sort of guidance on this pressing matter of comma security: go with discretion. Trust the writer to use that comma when and only when it is required for clarity.

I work as an editor for living, and that’s my policy. Mostly no Oxford commas, but I’ll throw one in every blue moon when it means the reader does not have to slow down too much or reread the passage to be sure of the author’s intended meaning. And if a writer does get the exercise of their discretion wrong—if they write a list without an Oxford comma and that causes some sort of confusion—point it out and put one in. Otherwise, shut up, piss off and leave me and my commas alone.

Hitchhiking Died With The Hitchhiker

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

On the articles page of my website I have just put up “Hitchhiking Died With the Hitchhiker”, an essay on hitchhiking I published in The Lifted Brow a few years ago. It recounts some of my personal experiences hitchhiking and tries to make sense of the decline in the practice. It’s meant to be an entertaining read, but hopefully offers a little illumination, too. An excerpt of what I’m calling “illumination” follows, and the full article can be found here.

***

So what does driving past a hitchhiker say about us?

What it doesn’t say is that we lack charity or good-will. Australian individuals donate around four billion dollars to charities each year, and something like five million Australians volunteer their time. But while our intentions remain good, what has changed is the nature of that charity and good-will: simply, ours is no longer a society willing to directly help the stranger.

There is a term for this—cosmopolitanism: the extension of hospitality, offered without coercion and without any expectation of something in return, to those people who are not part of our immediate community. It is the person stopping to help someone with their bonnet up on the side of the road; it is offering a bus seat to an old lady, or help to someone struggling with their shopping bags; it is saying hello to strangers, it is stepping in when someone is being abused or assaulted, it is helping to pick up the embarrassed student’s dropped bundle of books, it is asking someone in distress if they are okay.

At times we still see this cosmopolitanism, conspicuous and reassuring, but nearly always it takes a disaster to bring it out—the 2009 Victorian bushfires, for example, when scores of people banded together to offer assistance to the stricken. Or the 2011 Brisbane floods that saw people come from all over to help clear strangers’ yards and wash down muddy walls and pile debris on the curb, some even lodging dispossessed strangers in their own homes. So, yes, at important times people still rally to help strangers, and this is laudable.

But what if the important times are also the seemingly insignificant moments between the disasters: the moments when most of our living is done? Much as we may wish it were otherwise, life is rarely about the few big events that help push us in new directions. It’s about the fabric of everyday experiences that weaves these events together. It’s about the unexceptional, and unnoticed, and seemingly unimportant. If community and cosmopolitanism are intangibles that germinate and grow through our everyday interactions, the question becomes, how many of us embody these values in the moments when no one is watching, when there is no big psychic pay-off, when there’s no media and no ambassadors to tell us we should be helping? Because that’s when community and cosmopolitanism matter—if they matter at all.

Physical and not psychic distance is the true barrier separating two strangers. The barrier that determines whether someone is community or outsider, us or other. Breach that barrier—if only for a second—and strangers suddenly become party to an ill-defined but potent kinship. The instant two people connect in person, the altruistic impulse evolved in our species fights its way to the fore. It explains why the most successful hitchhiking is also the most proactive: approaching drivers at servos and truck-stops, anywhere you can have a brief conversation to remind people you are a normal person, just like them.

Every time I unholster the thumb, I see this quirk of nature at play. On the return-leg of my first hitchhiking trip, I was struggling to get a lift near the SA/NSW border. A truckie at the rest stop was having a meal before he turned in for the night, but he promised that if I was still there in the morning he’d help me out. Pete was his name. I was still there in the morning, bowling rocks at trees (0/0), so Pete gave me a ride, disregarding his employer’s no-hitchhiker rule. He took a bigger chance the next night when we parked at a popular truck-stop on the Nullarbor. Being in his cab was one thing; I sure as hell wasn’t meant to be sleeping on the deck of a dinghy lodged on the spine of his road-train. But Pete wanted to see me safe.

In fact, I can only think of one lift which was a bit unforgiving. I was a few hundred kilometres south of Canberra, taking a shortcut over the Snowies. Cars were few and far between. It was getting towards dusk when a leathery-looking miner stopped. I thought he said he was going to Tumut, which was good for me. Apparently he said Tooma. So about an hour later when he told me this was it, I was thoroughly discombobulated. All I could think to say was, “Thanks. Bye.”

Moments later the sun dropped behind the horizon. I scrambled to put on every article of clothing I had, which didn’t amount to much. Shivering in the dark atop a stark mountain tundra of grass and snow—yes, snow—I pondered just what use I could make of my hammock. Then along came some kindly semi-locals and rescued me, curious to know what a hitchhiker was doing at the turn-off to skiing fields in jeans, at night. I wasn’t sure myself.

Of course, most lifts are the opposite of that experience. In fact, earlier that day a couple and their son had picked me up, taken me to their home, given me a cuppa, offered me a bong, and then invited me to make use of their granny-flat. Maybe I should have accepted, I thought, watching my backpack roll out the back of their wagon as we did sixty down the main drag en route to dropping me off.

As it was, I had accepted a similar offer a few days before. A feller picked me up on the way to his mate’s place where he was set to go fishing, then watch the rugby and drink some beer. He asked if I’d like to come along. I said sure—sounds good. So we went fishing. I drank his beer. His mate gave me a bed. Next morning I was dropped at the turn-off to somewhere, while the driver headed to another mate’s for a bit of target practice. Yes, he did have a high-powered rifle on the back seat. No, I found nothing unusual about that.

The fact is, when people stop, or when you stop people, they want to help.

The only thing is, most people don’t stop.

[Full article here]

IV Reasons “Antipodes”, My New History Book, Shouldn’t Exist

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Like any virgin author, I’m excited to see my first history book ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT in stores. It has been a long and at times difficult road to publication. The truth is, it very nearly wasn’t so. Here’s how the book, mimicking the southern continent about which it muses, sputtered into and out of existence.

1: It started with an inland sea

The book is about the European idea of—then relentless search for—a massive continent in the southern hemisphere, particularly from the 16th through 18th centuries. So, first things first: I never intended to write a single word about Terra Australis, which is what this imagined land came to be known as.

When I began research for a PhD at the University of Queensland, my topic was the 19th century idea of an inland sea in the Australian interior. Great topic (was then, still is now, and I encourage any budding PhD students to tackle it). But, before I did any research on the non-existent Australian inland sea, I brushed up on the broader and longer history of what Europeans imagined for the entire southern hemisphere.

A year later I was still brushing up… and realised that there were so many interesting avenues of inquiry, so many things still to be said and so many maps to ponder that I was now in the Antipodes business (apologies to my PhD supervisor who must have thought I was utterly insane).

2: I did not know anything about anything

How does one become an expert? Decide you need to become an expert then read everything you can get your hands on, think about the subject constantly and have the audacity to both put your own ideas out there and be willing to tell others they are wrong (preferably when they are).

It was a truly daunting prospect having to learn all that had to be learned—completely from scratch. My subject covers two thousand years of history, from antiquity to the modern era. It involves all manner of sources from many different places (try communicating as a non-Italian speaker with Italian libraries for a fun experience), and covers multiple fields of scholarly inquiry.

Had I appreciated the true size of the subject and how unreasonable it was for a young scholar to try to understand it all, I would never have started. I had no idea I would need to translate ancient Greek philosophy! Or understand symbols on Medieval maps! Or grapple with the mental state of Christian explorers!

What may have looked like arrogance on my part, tackling such a broad swathe of history, was in fact pure naivety. I didn’t know what I didn’t know, much like many of the explorers who set out in search of knowledge in the Age of Discovery and after. Luckily, I didn’t end up as a pile of sun-bleached bones in a desert, though at times it felt like I was as lost as Leichhardt.

That is why it took me 5 years to finish my research and complete my thesis—that, and the presence of a bean bag in my office.

3: Based on a PhD that was based on the book that didn’t exist

When I was a graduate student I was not shy in my disdain for the manner in which many research theses are executed at universities. My opinion on the matter has only firmed now that I work professionally as an academic editor.

That is, theses are often obscure and preposterously narrow in their focus (I used to joke to new people I met that I was researching the history of beer bottle caps, or the history of chip-board in Australia; no one ever quibbled).

They often focus on intrinsically uninteresting and unimportant content (but then everyone thinks what they are doing is important, yours truly included).

And, worst of all misdemeanours, they are often written as if the scholar is functionally illiterate and has relied on a random word generator—or hates readers and wishes them to suffer as much as they did writing the monstrosity.

So, I said to hell with literature reviews and other such wastes of everybody’s time, to hell with fusty academic phrasing and credential establishing, I’m writing a damned book and that is going to be my PhD. So I did, with informal language (sacrilege), a less than reverent tone (scoundrel), no literature review (fool) and so on (again, apologies to my supervisor; there was more than the odd raised brow and cautionary word over my caper).

It was all a bit iffy as to whether my examiners would throw me out of the academy or welcome me with open arms. In the end, I was lambasted for my attitude, and applauded for my content. The book is now considerably different to that PhD thesis, but the same heart beats in both.

4: My first publisher dropped me

In academic publishing, promising work is sent out to academic reviewers for their opinion and to give a yay or nay for publication. Some academics do this reviewing in a straightforward and fairly objective manner. Others are rooting for the writer; they know how hard it all is and choose to see the positive.

And then others—far too many others—seek to flay the writer no matter what, in the act that I heard Australian historian Tom Griffiths aptly describe as boundary riding. They seek to protect what is theirs, and with some academics what is theirs is all of academia—so get out of my territory!

To be blunt, they can be complete and utter miserable bastards. The whole process is notoriously bruising and disliked by just about everyone who has ever written a manuscript that must be signed off on by academics.

So, I was very pleased when after more than six months of messing around a respected English publisher received their reader reports and told me they wanted to publish. Many months more down the path, they unceremoniously dropped me—over email.

Their Australian agent had finally told them my book would not sell enough copies in Australia (we shall see). Unfortunately, these processes don’t take months, but years, and so I was set back so badly I very nearly decided not to bother trying to find another publisher.

I could not let it go, and finally I did find a good home at Monash (thanks to Nathan Hollier at the Press for not messing around in the least when it came to expressing interest and deciding to take it to print). But the book took 5 years to write, and then 6 years to publish. 11 years!

No, the book should definitely not exist.

But I’m glad it does. It is not boring and it is not pointless and it is not written to frustrate readers. In that sense, it should exist. Many said the same about Terra Australis, and they made that exist, too.

To see how, you’ll need to read the book. It won’t take 11 years. Unless you are my wife. She still hasn’t read it, but I am assured it is the very next history book she will read.

Trump Supporters and the Modular Mind

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Now that it’s done—Trump is President—the question becomes, how did it happen? How did all those people see his misogyny, sexual lechery, crassness, and willingness to lie and still decide he was the one to lead America into the future? The answer is the modular brain.

Pundits like Bill Maher would have us believe that Trump supporters are simply vile and stupid people, filled with hate and xenophobia. That does not go far to explaining it, though. So often, when a Trump supporter was engaged—quietly, not in a screaming match—they proved to be sympathetic, even appealing, humans. They were striving to understand a confounding world, they listened to those who had another viewpoint, they seemed to just want good things for people. Many had very difficult lives from which they simply sought the hope of better prospects for self or the next generation.

And, many acknowledged Trump’s enormous character flaws. They recognised the sexism and his bestial approach to women, his erratic behaviour, his love of name calling and fudging facts. For liberals, all that was simply grist for their established position: it gave them perfect reasons not to vote for him (which they weren’t going to do anyway). But they also thought they should be reasons for others not to vote for him.

And yet none of it mattered because, as Professor Robert Kurzban explains in Why Everyone (Else) is a Hypocrite: Evolution and the Modular Mind, different parts of the brain take over for different tasks. So, when potential supporters assessed Trump as a personality—assessing him the way we assess every person we meet in a social setting—the social part of their brain completely understood that he was a dubious character. There are so many interviews and clips with supporters where we see this.

But when it came to making a political decision, a decision seemingly about much bigger things than personality—we’re talking things like the economy and immigration and international relations—different modules of their brain kicked in.

These are the modules that were concerned in our evolutionary history with basic survival. Getting an advantage over competitors. Securing enough food. Securing a stable community that protected you and which you protected. In evolutionary times, did it matter that the most powerful members of your tribe were crass cave-men who grabbed their crotch and the crotch of their fellow cave-women? No, there was no time to worry about such niceties when survival was paramount. And that, in the eyes of many Americans, is what was on the line: survival.

When survival and prosperity is at stake, what mattered way back then in evolutionary times, and what matters now whether people wish to believe it or not, is power and projected power. Leaders in evolutionary times had to fight and kill or, at the least, dominate. That is the module—or set of modules—of the brain that were engaged to make the political decision to vote for Trump. Not the module about niceness, personality, or abstract values. It was the modules about threats and survival, and it didn’t matter whether those threats were illusory or real.

For people in America lacking prosperity, whose communities had suffered from job and infrastructure losses while they saw foreigners continue to enter their country and chase the dream that had seemed to escape them, Trump was power and he was promise.

America ended up with President Trump because the decision-making modules in millions of brains simply didn’t care that Trump is a repulsive character. He promised them things that they wanted—bring back the coal industry, make America great again, secure borders, kill unfair trade agreements, all vague things without a plan behind them—and he seemed like the sort of powerful man who could make it come true.

Hillary Clinton? She just promised decency, or at least that is what Trump supporters heard. Decency in a time of national upheaval and during a fight for survival—who cares, thought the brains of the Trump supporters?

And that is why there was so much said about Clinton’s emails. People who held decent values in one module of their brain but wanted to vote for Trump according to a different module experienced dissonance. Their brain sought to resolve that disagreement, and did so with confabulation. ‘Oh, I mustn’t like or be voting for Hillary Clinton because of the emails.’

The brain of the evolutionary beast won out, and so now Chief Cave Man Trump is President.

Is ‘Discovery’ Really an Evil Word?

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

It seems like the debate over the word ‘discovery’ has been going on forever now. It looks something like this: when talking about the exploits of European explorers, you should not use the word ‘discovery’ because all the places they ‘discovered’ were already known by the indigenous people who lived there for hundreds or thousands of years.

Well, sure, absolutely! But that’s not the way in which any half-sensible historian or writer uses the word. In fact, I drop the ‘d’ word over 500 times in my new book, ANTIPODES: IN SEARCH OF THE SOUTHERN CONTINENT.

When someone who is not a nutter (or a woefully misinformed individual) talks about ‘discovery’ in these sorts of contexts, it does not mean they were the first person to encounter a particular place or thing. It refers to their learning about the existence of something and then sharing that knowledge with others. To be honest, I have never seen a modern historian or writer use ‘discovery’ in the ridiculous sense of being first to encounter something already known to exist by others. There must be one or two examples out there, but for the most part the whole debate is a strawman argument—people simply aren’t that misinformed or  wilfully wrong.

As for how this all came up, I stumbled upon an article by Paul Daley in The Guardian discussing criticism of changes to a guide on appropriate indigenous terminology at the University of NSW. We’re talking mostly sensible thigs like writing ‘elders’ and not ‘chiefs’, ‘Aboriginal people’ not ‘blacks’. But it also covered the terminology of ‘discovery’.

First, I was struck by Daley’s comment in which he writes in relation to the example of James Cook: “Cook mapped the east coast of this continent [Australia]. But he hardly discovered it.”

That’s right in the narrow sense, and wrong in the sense that historians and writers actually use the word. The UNSW guide Daley is referring to inadvertently tells us how Daley has missed the point. Here’s what the guide says:

More appropriate

  • Captain Cook was the first Englishman to map the east coast of “New Holland”.

Less appropriate

  • Captain Cook “discovered” Australia.

Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people were in Australia long before Captain Cook arrived; hence it was impossible for Cook to be the first person to “discover” Australia. Most Aboriginal people find the use of the word “discovery” offensive. However, it can be noted that the word “discovery” can mean finding something that one as an individual did not know was there. This meaning should be stressed if the word is to be used. One reason why so much had to be “discovered” is the fact that Indigenous knowledge was discounted and disregarded for so long.

That is pretty much on the ball. Anyone who suggests Cook was the first person to encounter Australian or even eastern Australian shores is a sure-fire lunatic (or an undergrad student destined to be swiftly disabused of this notion at their respective universities; it’s no coincidence that it is exactly this group at whom the UNSW guide is aimed). I don’t know of any of these people who have been published in the last 30 years making such outrageous claims in print. Do they exist?

To be clear: Europeans did not know land existed where Cook encountered it, and it is in that sense that Cook can be fairly said to have discovered that land (to Europeans). It is not meant to deny indigenous presence or knowledge, and to construe it that way strikes me as miserly and needlessly contrarian. Indeed, why fight that fight when there are more important and worthy fights to be fought?

So, having essentially agreed with the UNSW guide up to this point, I do have to aver on one point. Where it says the following I’d suggest it has gone completely off the rails:

More appropriate

  • “… since the beginning of the Dreaming/s”

“Since the beginning of the Dreaming/s” reflects the beliefs of many Indigenous Australians that they have always been in Australia, from the beginning of time, and came from the land.

Less appropriate

  • “Aboriginal people have lived in Australia for 40,000 years”

Forty thousand years puts a limit on the occupation of Australia and thus tends to lend support to migration theories and anthropological assumptions. Many Indigenous Australians see this sort of measurement and quantifying as inappropriate.

Well, many peoples have many beliefs. But when you are talking about facts you really need to use facts and not feelings or beliefs. Unless the claim is a serious scientific/historical claim that humanity has existed forever(!) and began in Australia (completely rewriting the history of evolution and a million other things), then you have to put a figure on it, just like the Beyoncé song says.

For the record, I think that the article by Stan Grant that came out in The Guardian the day after Daley’s was spot on. Read it here.

 

Rhodes Must Not Fall

Avan Judd Stallard - Author

Edwin Stanley Brown was a rugby player from the early years of Australian sport, and it was for him that a Toowoomba sportsground named a section of seating the “E. S. ‘Nigger’ Brown” stand. It was a sporting memorial. A tribute. An honour—that happened to include the word “nigger”.

It was around the time WWI began; whoever gave Brown that name—his family, his friends, his sporting community—they weren’t denigrating him. More than likely they were commenting on his whiteness. It was like calling a redhead named Frank “Bluey”, or a short guy named Tim “Big Tim”. It’s merely pointing to something striking about a person through the dim wit of antithesis.

And, of course, the opposite of being unusually white is being black, like a deep well or a dark night or… an aboriginal person… so the thinking went. Only, back then, it would have been outright strange to call a bloke Edwin “Aboriginal” Brown or Edwin “Indigenous” Brown. “Nigger” and various other terms were the accepted lingo, so that’s what they called him. It was no big deal.

But it is a big deal now. To continue to use that name in an unconsidered way, as it was on the “E. S. ‘Nigger’ Brown” stand, is to say: “It’s a joke, it’s funny,” or “No one gets hurt by seeing that name on something that is meant for the community”, or “It’s ok if we use that word in the right way”.

When a few years ago the Australian government decided to change the name of that stand, it went beyond knee-jerk political correctness. It was the right thing. It had nothing to do with Brown being unworthy of remembrance, and everything to do with a desire to reshape the present. People might be justifiably upset to see “Nigger” in stencilled lettering on a rugby stand and to have acts of past casual racism become acts of present casual racism. It was important then, and it’s important now because it has helped shaped now.

The question is, how far do we go in sanitising the present from the invidious legacies of the past? Across the globe there have been a litany of instances where people have campaigned for the removal of memorials of historical figures who were slave owners or who subscribed to racist precepts or supported colonial ambitions, or were sons of bitches in any number of ways. The most prominent current campaign is: Rhodes must fall! Hashtag.

I have at times been accused of being a historian, and until five seconds ago I knew next to nothing about Rhodes. He was merely the name attached to the Rhodes Scholarship, which in my mind is and has long been the most prestigious scholarship in the world, given to up-and-comers with great scholarly or political potential. They are sent to Oxford, one of the best universities in the world. Presidents and prime ministers and Man Booker Prize winners litter the ranks of Rhodes scholars.

Knowing next to nothing, my initial reaction to the campaign seeking to remove the Rhodes statue at Oxford was: largely pointless. The campaigners are focused on elements of Rhodes’ past—his colonial mindset and “achievements”—that are not particularly well known by your average person and thus cannot be said to be exalted. And there’s definitely no one out there saying that because Rhodes was a colonialist maybe there’s something to be said for colonialism.

There’s also the broader point about a present-centric sanctimony. Scratch the surface of any historical figure and not a single one can possibly escape unscathed from a thorough accounting of their beliefs and practices from the beautiful clarity and moral hegemony of current perspectives. Not one—if we had perfect evidence of their entire life.

That was my initial reaction. But not being fond of ignorance, I’m compelled to ask: so who was this cocksucker, anyway? It took about four seconds of reading to understand the depths of Rhodes’ colonial mindset. He was a great believer in empire—in the British empire. He believed in expanding and consolidating that empire at the expense of any and all others, but especially at the expense of those who were ripe for dominion, like the Africans and South Americans and south Asians and the Arabs. Any place filled with the uncivilised, that wasn’t already white or powerful.

Rhodes was a very rich man, and so upon his death he was able to bequeath a set of scholarships for manly men of a British persuasion. He wanted to incubate new colonialists in the British way. That’s why the scholars were to go to Oxford.

This got me to thinking: all those Rhodes scholars I already knew about, they have something in common. They are powerful white men. I thought about Australia and our Rhodes scholars who became politicians. Prime Minister Bob Hawke, almost-Prime Minister Kim Beazley, Prime Minister Tony Abbott, current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull who is doing such a fine job of shitting on his liberal credentials. What do they have in common?

They’re white.

And men.

From wealthy backgrounds.

Who support policies that fuck refugees.

Me cago en la leche!

Now, does this mean that these politicians support or supported policies that fuck refugees because of the Rhodes Scholarship? Perhaps not. But it is enough to prompt one to think about their commonalities and the broad set of conditions they share that would allow them to become the sort of men who are willing and able to fuck refugees. That is, it’s prompted me to think about privilege and institutional racism.

Right, then, back to the point. Rhodes was a decent bloke in some respects, and a motherfucker in others. Even in his own time he was a motherfucker: we’re not talking about Bartolomeu Dias and 1488, we’re talking about the years leading up to WWI. About yesterday. About the period that turned Africa into the terrible mess it is right now.

Rhodes is worth knowing about if you are the sort of person who wants to know about such things. Indeed, it is much better to know about Rhodes and his achievements and legacies and what drove him, than it is to rid him from our consciousness. There’s understanding to be had.

Which is to say, I think Rhodes’ statue should stay. For ignorant bastards like myself who might nevertheless pause to read something edifying, a plaque or something of the order should be installed beneath Rhodes’ statue, pointing to his legacy. Allow people to remember that such men were important men, and important men achieved important things, and many of those important things were fucking terrible. We need to know, not forget and not place the burden of remembering onto the shoulders of a few eager history and politics students.

I think we should let Oxford wear its colonial and racist past on its lapel. Turn this into something good and useful. In the future, tens of thousands of influentiable young students will walk before that statue. Some will gaze at it. Some would read my imaginary plaque and learn. Such a plaque could be free of heavy-handed judgement. It could merely quote Rhodes and let the reader think about it for themselves.

I know! A little juxtaposition, a favourite at universities. Start with the actual words of Rhodes’ bequest:

My desire being that the students who shall be elected to the scholarships shall not be merely book-worms, I direct that in the election of a student to a scholarship, regard shall be had to:

  1. His literary and scholastic attainments.

  2. His fondness of and success in manly outdoor sports, such as cricket, football and the like.

  3. His qualities of manhood, truth, courage, devotion to duty, sympathy for the protection of the weak, kindliness, unselfishness, and fellowship, and

  4. His exhibition during school days of moral force of character and of instincts to lead and to take an interest in his schoolmates, for those latter attributes will be likely in after-life to guide him to esteem the performance of public duties as his highest aim.

Then, to shed further light on what might at this point appear to be anachronistic thinking and nothing more, juxtapose the following quotation from his formative years, from when he was a young man with a fire in his belly, keen to remake the world:

I contend that we are the finest race in the world and that the more of the world we inhabit the better it is for the human race. Just fancy those parts that are at present inhabited by the most despicable specimens of human beings what an alteration there would be if they were brought under Anglo-Saxon influence, look again at the extra employment a new country added to our dominions gives. I contend that every acre added to our territory means in the future birth to some more of the English race who otherwise would not be brought into existence.

Me cago en la leche!

Enough to spark minds, I contend. A few of the influentiable would read that and find out more and—being of course from Oxford and destined to be very important themselves—would become men and women of influence who understand this world a little better and seek to make it a little better thanks to what they know.

Oxford would be acknowledging their history. A colonial history. It’s better than forgetting, or constraining such knowledge to those who have the time or money or inclination to take a history course on colonialism.

Don’t tear down. Repurpose. Make it a statue that shames us, or them, or… just makes you think “well some-fucking-body should be ashamed!”

Make it mean what you think it should mean in this moment. That’s the truly postcolonial, postmodern thing to do.

Tearing down is not teaching, not opening minds, not ameliorating wrongs. Its sanitising for the sake of forgetting. As I understand it, forgetting is the opposite of what the Rhodes Must Fall campaign is about. So make the means match. Repurpose Rhodes. You could even put a hashtag on that.

Misadventures in Design and Grammar: I

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

I’m an editor. This doesn’t mean I make no mistakes with grammar and syntax, but it does mean I see most of the mistakes other people make. I’m also a pretty keen consumer of book design—and, holy shit, if that ain’t a cemetery of broken dreams and failed visions.

Anyhow, I thought I’d start posting things I see—things I can’t help but see. Things that just aren’t right. Like The Four Fingered Man. Do you see the problem?

For want of a hyphen, one wonders if this is a cute kids’ book, or the sexual romp of a gang of four obsessively fingering some poor bloke’s ringhole to satisfaction, or fingering the ringholes of all men (man as a noncount noun) they come across because, well, I’m not sure why—and that’s the exact sort of hook you need to get someone to read your book. Why did the gang finger so many ringholes? What a great premise. Like Rumblefish  and A Clockwork Orange, except with more ringhole fingering.

For the record, it should be: The Four-Fingered Man. Nice cover, though.

Australian Characters

No Learning No Hugging, the blog of an author, observer and misanthrope

I recently finished writing an article on male readers of romance novels. I interviewed one particular Australian named Len—a real character.

I’ve lived in London for a year now, and though I continue to have contact with Australians, it’s mostly with the sort of urban or middle-class sorts likely to travel through or live in such a sprawling, cosmopolitan metropolis. Which is to say, there’s not an enormous amount of variety in the Australians here. They—we—mostly sound the same, look the same, talk the same, think the same.

But Len—he’s a different beast. Born, raised and made a life in rural NSW. When he greeted me over the phone from the other side of the world it was like I was listening to a crude Australian film where the director insists his actors ratchet up the ocker accent for the sake of playing to an international stereotype. A guttural, almost crow-like timbre that comes from the bottom of the throat washed every of Len’s words; the cadence was broken and sentences trailed off into…; and there were silences—long thinking silences that might roll into the rest of a thought or might just as well remain a silence. None of this is to suggest Len was anything less than articulate, well considered, and engaging—only that his idiom and his persona were so very different to what most people know.

I suppose I have been thinking about this—about the fact that there are so many interesting sorts across Australia, away from the lights and the cities—because my Mum reminded me in a letter how lucky she has been (and I have been being the child at her side) in the vast array of characters that have passed through her life. The cities have their own benefits, but true diversity of personality, traits and experiences is something that the country produces, par excellence.

The passage from my mum’s letter is worth sharing:

“Sweating like a pig.” These hot days had me thinking. I’ve worked and raised pigs—never seen them sweat; (but must) so asked Big Steve. “Never seen ‘em sweat,” he said. “But I saw an old boar rooting for a solid hour once and he never raised a sweat.” I decided not to ask Steve why he watched for an hour.

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