In high school English class, we learnt about the idea of a “classic” novel, and discussed what made something a “classic”. One characteristic that might not have stood out for me back then, but certainly stands out for me now, is the notion of “timelessness” — that a novel becomes a classic because it is timeless in its themes, ideas and moral messages.
Part of me thinks that it was probably a bit pointless for the teachers to discuss timelessness with teenagers. I mean, we weren’t daft, but we were young, and as much as we probably believed we knew everything about the world, there was undoubtedly a lot that we didn’t know the half of. Besides, even back then, there was a quick succession of crazes and fads and fashions — there’s not much appreciation of “timelessness” when one day everyone’s watching this show, and playing this game, and then next month these things are barely a memory.
Even so, I’d like to think that I had some grasp of this idea of “timelessness”. In high school, I began reading a lot of “classics”, particularly Charles Dickens. It was also during high school that I discovered I really like Jane Austen’s writing. To my younger self, these books were classics because they were beautifully written, the stories and characters were exquisitely constructed, and they were simply captivating. Then there is all the usual stuff about love and friendship and family — the things that people throughout history have always valued.
This morning on the news, there was an interview with a small business owner. The news I watch is fairly objective and informative, but they seem to really like doing these random interviews with random people. Usually I see these at the start of lockdowns in different cities around the country.
There was one time they interviewed a celebrant to ask her about how many weddings had to be postponed because of lockdowns. Another interview I saw was with a winery owner who talked about the impact of reduced tourism on his business. The other day they spoke with a bakery worker who was willing to give up his savings in order to help save the business.
In these interviews, the interviewer asks the usual questions about how the people are dealing with the situation, whether they had been able to receive government support, what their outlook for the future is like, and so on. I sort of get the feeling that these are just fluff pieces to break up the dreary headlines.
This week I got up to Volume III, Part II in War and Peace, and at the start of this section, Tolstoy enters into a bit of philosophising — or I should say re-enters, as he sort of went over this in an earlier section. In this part of the novel, Napoleon is invading Russia. His army is far superior to that of the Russians, which appears to be in comparative disarray as they are lacking a strong leader.
Tolstoy posits that everyone involved in that war believed they were acting for themselves, according to their own will, but, in reality, they were all “involuntary instruments of history”. In an earlier part of the novel (I forget where, and the book is much too big to go searching for this one particular chapter), Tolstoy wrote something about the great cascade of events that must take place for a war to start, and claims that it cannot be pinned on any one event or person.
If I remember correctly, the main gist of it was that no matter who insults who, or who wants to go conquesting where, there cannot be a war if great masses of people don’t enlist to become soldiers, and there is a great deal that must happen to lead to that.
It was only last week that I learnt that Australia Day has only been celebrated on January 26th since 1994. The public holiday started when I was too young to have any concept of dates and months, let alone public holidays and why they’re there.
The discovery left me quite shocked. I’d always thought it had been celebrated for many decades, and that the date had been picked well before people had any idea about cultural sensitivity. But, no, it was just 1994 — a mere 27 years ago.
In school, we were taught the history of the First Fleet, and Captain Arthur Phillip, and how the British came to Australia. It seemed like there was some logic behind choosing January 26th for Australia Day. But, of course, there’s only so much we are taught when we are really young.
It was probably not until high school that I started learning about the genocide and dispossession. The history of Australia is nothing short of barbaric, and it seems cruel to celebrate the anniversary of when it all started.
Every year for the last however many years (I’m not sure exactly how many), there have been protests to “change the date”. It is a day of mourning for indigenous Australians, not a day of celebration. And it always seemed strange to me that it was so hard to change the date, but it’s even more strange now that I know how young this public holiday is.
Astounded by my own ignorance, I did some browsing of the internet to see what else I didn’t know. I found this article, which I think is a good summary of essential information: https://clothingthegap.com.au/blogs/blogs/8things-you-need-to-know-about-january-26
Worth a read, especially for anyone who’s got the day off because of the public holiday.
Last week-end I finished reading Margot Lee Shetterly’s Hidden Figures, a book about the African American women who helped launch America’s first astronauts into space. If you’ve seen my previous posts, you’ll know that I’ve been quite engrossed in this book, which is about something that I thought I had next to zero interest in.
Don’t get me wrong — I have a reasonable interest in maths, science and historical events; and the age-old question of what is really out there? has some portion of my curiosity, but space exploration has never rated very highly on the list of things I’m interested in enough to actively and independently research. (What would be on this list? Sounds like it could be a whole other post on its own, but probably stuff that affects my day-to-day, or stuff about why things are how they are. But in truth, I don’t think I’ve done much non-fiction reading, web browsing or other “research” since finishing formal education.)
I guess space exploration, to me, was always something a bit pie in the sky compared to immediate problems like climate change and poverty in developing countries. Shetterly even mentions in the later chapters of her book that the space race left some African Americans of the time quite disgruntled, wondering why their country was so concerned about getting into space (and spending millions of dollars on it) when there were Earthly troubles to be addressed, like why they were still being treated as second-class citizens.
So why did I read this book?
Some time ago (has it been weeks or months? I’m not entirely sure. Timelines have become something of a blur, and perhaps not always relevant), my department was granted access to a new lunch room at work. We have been segregated from the main pharmacy since April (?) so we cannot use the kitchen space there. This new lunch room has the added perk of having a TV, so in my lunch breaks I sometimes watch TV.
Sometimes I watch the news, or a random cooking show, or some snippet of a random movie (SBS shows “world movies” during the day). If I can’t be bothered watching anything, I just put on the radio (ABC Classic, of course). Initially I browsed a lot, and I discovered that ABC have a channel dedicated to educational shows for primary and secondary school students, covering a broad variety of topics from physics and chemistry to history and social sciences. Often I watch this channel because I find it is more informative, interesting and useful than the news.
The other day, the program that happened to be on while I was having lunch was Lest we forget what? — a short show about the WWI Gallipoli campaign. I almost didn’t watch it because it is something that I was taught a lot about throughout school …or so I thought.