Thursday, June 3, 2010

Julian Burnside, doublespeak and city crushes

I have a crush on Melbourne, a big, exhilarating crush. Last week when I popped over, ostensibly to visit my darling friends J and E and see their new house and cat, I also wanted to touch on some of the things that make Melbourne a UNESCO International City of Literature.
This status was accorded the black garbed city in August 2008 for reasons as described by UNESCO "a city of extraordinary diversity in literary activity, Melbourne is a vibrant arena for the creation of literary works, home to diverse publishers and publications and populated with an disarming number of diverse thinkers. It hums with wordiness, from low to high. Edinburgh is the only other UNESCO-deemed City of Literature. (see. link below)
Not strangely, my endeavour to savour the city of literature involved books and words. So one morning I stayed in my pyjamas and read the latest Australian Literary Review. In the evening, we drank feisty red and debated the merits of twitter and reading in digital form.

The next day I visited Polyester Books on Brunswick Street in Fitzroy. Polyester's subtitle is 'some weird shit' - and it certainly has had some weird shit on its shelves. Instead of the bookshop's standard biography, fiction, art, health, etc sections Polyester's shelving system runs something like 'drugs, sex and rock and roll, subversive fiction and the banned-do-not-tell-the-federal-police-section'
I was pleased to see both The Anarchists Cookbook and Hightimes displayed, as both of these have been banned at various times in our recent history. I didn't see any snuff films, though did see Hunter S, erotica and street art in abundance.
Polyester is a mutinous hub but there's nothing there that's more outrageous than you'll find on the shelves of a well versed indie elsewhere - there is just more of it. Polyester, may you continue to serve your subversive, slightly titillating role well into the future. Oh, and dust your shelves darlings, the dust is not edgy.
And - the highlight of my visit to my biggest crush city, was to hear Julian Burnside speak as part of the Lunchtime/Soapbox series at the Wheeler Centre.
The Wheeler Centre is the hub of Melbourne's lit-cit status. It is subtitled 'Books, Writing, Ideas' and it is, in their words, "a new kind of cultural institution. The Wheeler Centre. A centre dedicated to the discussion and practice of writing and ideas."

Train, tram and a couple of footsteps got us to the door at the Little Lonsdale entrance, which is on the side of the State Library. We were greeted in the foyer, with a smile, that included the eyes; genuine and lovely, and ushered in to a large, packed room. We nuzzled our way in to a corner and listened to a humourous and incisive talk by Julian Burnside titled 'Mind Your Language'.
Julian Burnside is known to many as a defender of the powerless - notably, asylum seekers under a Howard government. He is a wise, well spoken barrister who has spoken loudly, acted profoundly and caused change for the better in contemporary Australian society.
He talked about the "plague of doublespeak," and how it's not the misuse or erred use of language or grammar that riles him, it is the deliberate obfuscation of meaning that results from doublespeak. Some examples he gave were from the Vietnam war, "energetic disassembly" meaning an explosion and "incontinent ordinance" instead of bombs that hit schools by mistake.
"Doublespeak means that you can smuggle uncomfortable ideas in to comfortable minds," and it is "language covered with an ambiguous figleaf," he suggested, potently. Examples he gave of language used powerfully and honestly included Rebecca West, in her essay 'Greenhouses for Cyclamens" where she wrote about the Nuremburg trials and Patrick Leigh Fermour's "dazzling use of metaphor." "Language like this speaks with force and clarity - the message remains long after the words have faded."

Thanks for having me Melbourne, I am looking forward to seeing you again soon.

UNESCO City of Literature:

Video of Julian Burnside's talk at The Wheeler Centre


  1. Wow, that sounds like my absolute dream weekend, I am incredibly jealous. Seeing Julian Burnside would have been amazing (I'm a solicitor as well) and I seriously want to visit that Polyester shop if I ever get to Melbourne again!

    I found your blog on the Aust Book Blogger Directory and I have become a follower. I love your blog. I am from Sydney and have a blog called Page Turners :-) I will definitely make sure I listen to you book show on the radio!


Paige Turner November

  Edging towards the end of the year and towards summer, towards Christmas and all it allows us to manifest. Good luck and good sleeps to ...