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Wednesday, 30 August 2017

Darwin's error

This is a small excerpt from a new book, probably to be called Background to Science. Drawing on a lifetime of writing essays, articles and talks about matters of science, I am repurposing a lot of old prose, 405,000 words at the last count.  It should be released on Kindle, later this year. I am rewriting most of it, and all so filling in some of the gaps.

It is that work which has led to the lack of posts here. Sorry!

While I always say Darwin’s work has never been shown to be false, there were a few minor errors in some of his examples, mistakes which don’t affect his overall correctness. There was also one major error in his thinking, which also made no difference in the long run, but it has to do with one of my favourite animals, the ant lion, so it gets a quick run here.

In Australia, ant lions are the carnivorous larval stage of lacewings. They make little pit traps in sandy soil and catch ants and other insects (I have seen one catch a small weevil). Their prey fall into the pits the ant lions make, and they are sucked dry.
Ant lions are small. I move them with a small paint brush.

Because there is some rather marvellous physics involved in the way they make their pits, I have often used these animals in teaching and in books, so I know quite a bit about keeping and feeding them.

In the early days of 1836, a young man called Charles Darwin slipped into Sydney on HMS Beagle. Nobody really noticed him, as he rode out to Lithgow, stayed for a while, saw a few animals, returned to Sydney, slipped aboard his ship, and departed.

Temporary guest ant lions.
He left, though, with the key idea that started him thinking about evolution, because he had seen ant lion pits of two sizes, and started musing on variation. Two species, two sizes of pit, he thought, and that was, legend tells us, the start of the whole evolution-by-natural-selection saga.

Jump forward now to the 21st century, when a film maker was planning a doco on the Darwin story. The producer came across the ant lion story, and thought it would be neat to recreate this, but where does one find an ant lion wrangler at short notice?

Because I had written a book on the Darwin story (Mr Darwin’s Incredible Shrinking World, still available as a e-book), a researcher contacted me to see if I had any idea of where a wrangler might be found, able to take ant lions to a suitable site, and get them making their pits.

I said modestly that I was probably just about the best bet they could find, and then explained a few of the realities. The researcher said that all they wanted was the two sizes of pit, and I said that was easy: the photograph at the head of this section shows that much.

But, I said, it was my firm opinion that the two sizes of pit were made by the same species, and would be the result of two lots of eggs being laid in the sand: the older and larger ant lions make larger pits, and the younger and smaller ant lions made the lesser pits.

In short, Darwin had been inspired to think about variation after a false inference. It made no difference to the validity of his later thinking, but it would be difficult to get this across in a short documentary. I offered to help with the wording.

The result was that the producer had a melt-down, followed by a hissy fit, and the whole sequence ended up on the cutting-room floor, even before it was shot.

In this way, I missed out on the chance to feature “ant lion wrangler” on my CV, but at least we side-stepped the risk of giving cherry-picking idiots the chance to shout “Look! Darwin got it wrong, so logically, evolution is wrong!”, all the while ignoring the many other valid examples of variation within a species that might have got him started.

The secret behind evolution is genetic variability that can be passed on to offspring. Fair-haired people mostly have fair-haired children, dark-haired people mostly have dark-haired children, but they are all humans, all part of the same species.

That was the part that Darwin got right, and that was the part that mattered.

Now here's a tip if you are keeping them: ants added as food have an annoying habit of escaping. The outer tub here has water in it, so the ants can't escape.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

Wattle Day

Traditionally, Wattle Day in New South Wales has always been August 1.  A few years ago, the Canberra bureaucracy changed it to September 1, but the true believers, here in New South Wales, will stay with August 1.  By September, most of Sydney's best wattle flowers have died away, and most of the wattles are dropping their seed on the day that some people call the first day of our southern spring.  No matter, there are almost always one or two species in flower.

Wildflowers are normal, the whole Sydney year around.  We have no home-grown deciduous trees in Australia, but we do have flowers all the year around, because our ‘climates’ are less extreme.  In early August, there are easily 40 species in bloom in the Sydney bush, with many more in bud.  At the lowest point in our ‘autumn’ — April and May, there are always between fifteen and twenty species flowering on any given hillside, but if the truth be known, we do not have real seasons, except in south-western Western Australia.

Our local ecosystems have evolved to cope with this lack of true annual seasons.  It gets warmer around Christmas and cooler around June to August, but that is about it.  Tim Flannery, says in his excellent book book The Future Eaters, that Australian farmers should not be made to pay their bills annually to the banks.  Rather, they and their accounts should be tied to the El Niño Southern Oscillation, for our plants and animals, like our present and future economy, are driven by forces far greater than mere seasons.

Because our plants can flower right through the mild year, they do.

This makes evolutionary sense, because the combined plants can then support a rich variety of pollinating insects and birds.  They take it in turn to use the resident pollinators' services, the pollinators stay around all year, and everything gains.  July and August are the time for the wattles to dominate the Australian bushland.  These are similar to the better-known mimosas of the northern hemisphere, though some of the French ‘mimosas’, grown for the perfume industry, are really our Australian wattles.

The name comes from the early colonists' building practices.  Putting up a timber frame, they filled in the gaps with ‘wattle and daub’, interwoven sticks and twigs, smeared with mud and whitewashed to make the whole water-proof.

If you wonder how this would look, think of the ‘Tudor’ style of house so favoured in Hollywood reconstructions, for Tudor architecture was also wattle and daub, usually with willow twigs under the whitewash.  Other trees provided the timbers in Australia, but the abundant wattle shrubs provided the twigs.

Nowadays we value our wattles for their flowers, golden or cream puffballs with leaves that can be a rich dark green or a bright silvery blue-green, leaves which may take the shape of delicate feathers, neat coin-sized circles, or broad straps.  Australia's national sporting colors are green and gold, representing the classic wattle, as you can see if you watch out for the Australians at the Olympics.

The wattle has long been a national symbol: here is part of a poem by Henry Lawson in 1891.  This was a time of social upheaval in Australia, as the trade unions and the Australian Labor Party came into being, and Lawson was looking back to the Eureka Stockade, some forty years earlier, when gold miners at Ballarat took up arms against an unjust government.
So we must fly a rebel flag
As others did before us,
And we must sing a rebel song
And join in rebel chorus.
We'll make the tyrants feel the sting
O' those that they would throttle;
They needn't say the fault is ours
If blood should stain the wattle.

There is more to Freedom on the Wallaby, but that will give you a feel for it.  Cruder Australians have a different chant that they offer up in adoration of the wattle.  It requires a group to stand in a circle, facing in, and holding aloft sprigs of wattle as we chant:
This here is the wattle,
The symbol of our land,
Yer can stick it in a bottle,
Yer can hold it in yer hand.

Well, nobody ever said that Australians had to be easy to understand . . . or couth.

But even if you ignore the cultural significance, the nationalistic symbolism of the Australian wattle, the bush is a delight to look on in August.  Many of the other flowers are small, delicate, and insignificant, but the wattles stand out as golden masses on the hillsides, crowding the roadside edges in country that barely a year and a half ago was a fire-blackened and ash-covered ruin. 

The wattle is an Acacia, a relative of the peas.  This means the fluffy golden flower produces a pod which later splits open, flinging seeds in all directions.  By October, when we start to see the first small bushfires that herald the approaching high summer, the wattle seeds will already be deep in the leaf litter, or blown under fallen logs, waiting for fire to trigger their germination.  Maybe that is why they flower so early.  Everything here is fire-adapted, for our landscape is shaped by fire, and many wattle seeds will not shoot until a fire has passed over them.

Around the world, there are some 900 species of wattle, with 75 in the Sydney region, and more than 700 across Australia.  All of them have roots which make a home for nitrogen-fixing bacteria, and a delicate perfume that many people miss altogether.  Some produce edible seeds, and some of our most delicious biscuits are made with wattle seeds.  Some people even make fritters from the flowers!

Botanically, the wattles are remarkable for the number of leafless species.  While we have no deciduous trees, we have a number of trees which have done away with true leaves altogether, relying on phyllodes, leaf-like stems, to carry out the same task that leaves usually perform, the wattles being among them.

Dry climates make plants do funny things sometimes, and it seems that phyllodes are more efficient in dry areas than the traditional leaf.  The trees with large dark-green strap-like ‘leaves’ are really equipped with phyllodes instead.

Many Australian gardens, and almost all bush areas feature a wattle tree or five.  As often as not, this will be the Cootamundra wattle, but in 1991, I was told that the people who came to Sydney for the Olympics would look in vain for that one around the Olympics site.

The consulting botanist there told me that the Cootamundra wattle is proving to be a nasty weed, away from its home territory, and so it has been banned.

It seems that even a national symbol, a cultural icon, even one that is a botanical oddity, must mind its manners or face banishment.

Soon, though, it will be time for the waratahs.


Thursday, 3 August 2017

A fishy tale

Frank Buckland (Wikimedia Commons)
   Get me down my filling knife,
   Get me down my stock
   Get me down my filling knife,
   We've a big job in the lock,
   — Dominic Behan, Get me down my filling knife.

I'm working on a big job myself, at the moment, so I shall draw on its pages for a bit of amusement (without saying what the job is).   Today's case for treatment is Francis (Frank) Trevelyan Buckland (1826 - 1880).

Science in the 19th century was the play space of the gifted and curious amateur – and “curious” sometimes took on more than one meaning. Frank Buckland is a prime example.

The son of a clergyman, he was ordained as a priest, but became an academic and practical geologist, the first Reader in Geology at Oxford, where his father, William Buckland, had presented a close argument for the way geology demonstrated Biblical truths in 1820.

William was one of those who regarded all fossils as relics of Noah’s flood. Later, the father was swayed by Agassiz’ theories on Ice Ages and modified his stance, but he remained opposed to the idea of evolution, up to his death in 1856.

Frank was memorable, among other things, for eating all sorts of animals: zebra, snake, earwig, puppy, sea slug and even a bluebottle, though he declared mole the most disgusting thing he had ever consumed.

Frank may (or may not, but legend says he did) have eaten the dried heart of King Louis XIV, but on his honeymoon, he identified some bones said to be those of St Rosalia as goat bones, and he investigated the alleged blood of a saint, which appeared fresh on a cathedral floor each morning. He lay on the floor, tasted it, and declared it to be bat urine (with which we assume he was familiar).

They don’t make scientists like that any more, but if he were alive today, Frank Buckland would surely be a leading television raconteur of science, with his own Youtube channel. Gilbert White would today be an environmental blogger, but White is another story for another day.

Here, before I start rabbiting on about  bestiaries and herbals, is the tale of the sturgeon, in his own words:

On Tuesday evening, at 5pm, Messrs Grove, of Bond Street, sent word that they had a very fine sturgeon on their slab. Of course, I went down at once to see it. The fish weighed, I was informed, 212 lbs [95 kilograms]; it measured 9 feet in length [nearly three metres]. I was anxious to make a cast of this fine fellow, but I confess the size and weight rather frightened me; however, they offered me the fish for the night; he must be back in the shop the next morning by 10 am.

Determined not to lose the chance, I called a cab, and we tried to get the sturgeon on the top of it, but he was “too much” for us, and we were obliged to give up all idea of this mode of conveyance of our huge friend from Bond Street to Albany Street.

Messrs. Grove then kindly sent him up in a cart, and we got him out of the cart easily enough on his arrival at my door, but it was with the greatest difficulty we hauled him up the doorsteps. We then thought of pitching him headlong over the railings into the area below, and thus getting him into the little front kitchen, which, though terribly small, I use as a casting-room; but his back was so slippery and his scales so sharp to the hands, that Master Sturgeon beat us again. However, I was determined to get him down into the kitchen somehow; so, tying a rope to his tail, I let him slide down the stone stairs by his own weight.

He started all right, but, “getting way” on him, I could hold the rope no more, and away he went sliding headlong down the stairs, like an avalanche from Mont Blanc. At the bottom of the stairs is the kitchen door; the sturgeon came against it “nose on” like an iron battering ram; he smashed the door open in a moment with his snout and slid right into the kitchen, gliding easily along the oil-cloth till at last he brought himself to an anchor under the kitchen table.


This sudden and unexpected appearance of the armour-clad sea-monster, bursting open the door — shut purposely to keep out the sight of “the master’s horrid great fish “ — instantly created a sensation scene, and great and dire was the commotion.

The cook screamed, the housemaid nearly fainted; the cat jumped on the dresser, upsetting the best crockery; the little dog Danny, with tail between his legs, made a precipitate retreat under the copper and barked furiously; the monkeys went mad with fright, and screamed “Murder” in monkey language; the sedate parrot’s nerves were terribly shaken, and it has never spoken a word since; and all this bother, because a poor harmless dead sturgeon burst open the kitchen door, and took up his position under the kitchen table.

— George Cox Bompas, The Life of Frank Buckland, London: Smith Elder and Co., 1886, p. 200.

Monday, 31 July 2017

Introducing my 'Not Your Usual' series.

I have been a life-long scribbler, and I have been publishing books since 1971, at a rate of better than one a year. During that time, publishers have weathered many storms, imagined or real, and changed their attitudes many times.

Along the way, I have kept on writing about what interested me, and gathering material for future books that I might or might not write, but several years ago, I realised I was approaching advanced middle age, and I set out to get the rest of my back-burner material out there.

Originally, it was all going to appear as e-books, and I gave them all titles that began with Not Your Usual... 

Two of them struck me as being better offered in print, and Five Mile Press took them up. They were duly published, and Not Your Usual Bushrangers emerged on its own, and also in a slip case with Not Your Usual Gold Stories.  That volume, in my estimation, the more important of the two for the fresh look it took an a rather hackneyed Australian history, seems never to have emerged from the publishers' warehouse.

Perhaps if a few people bothered them, they might do something about it: as far as I can work out, the hold-up relates to some sort of internecine political scrabble within the publisher.

My main points in Gold Stories: a lot of people knew there was gold in Australia, and Hargraves never "discovered gold" as he claimed. Rather, he engaged in a conspiracy to force the NSW government to let the gold rush begin. By that time, there had been an aborted gold rush in Victoria, and there had been a gold mine in South Australia for five years: neither of those is mentioned in the school books!

When I get around to it, I shall arrange for an e-book version of the printed book, but I am still (a) finishing off a number of print books and (b) sorting out the Kindle book series which is partly listed below (I'm still working on a number of them).


Freebie for Australian schools!!!

Note that if you are an Australian school library, I have prepared a set of totally free PDF versions, which schools can have on request, containing all of the necessary permissions you will need. You will have to find my email address (which isn't hard), and request the titles below. That doesn't apply to #1 or #2 (Gold and Bushrangers, above) at this stage, but that may change one day.

Now here are the e-books:


Not Your Usual Villains

This is number 3 in the series. It covers Australian rule breakers and represents different Australian history, and there is a sample here. It is available on Kindle, and you can get full details and even a sample look here.

Some of the villains were hardly villainous as we would see it, like the shocking ladies who wore trousers, but there is also a cannibal, and there are a few failed assassins. Few if any of them will be widely known.

Regrettably, it appears that this book has been pirated. By villains!

Not Your Usual Treatments

This is number 4 in the series. It is a history of eccentric and peculiar medicine, strange surgery, weird theories, and out and out quackery.


Here is a pre-taste, and here is Robert Boyle's recipe for convulsions in children:
"Take Earth-Worms, wash them well in White-wine to cleanse them, but so as they may not die in the Wine. Then upon hollow Tiles, or between them, dry the Worms with a moderate heat, and no further than that they may be conveniently reduc'd to Powder; to one Ounce of which add a pretty number of Grains of Ambergrise, both to perfume the Powder (whose scent of itself is rank) and to make the Medicine more efficacious."

Not Your Usual Australian Tales

This is number 5 in the series. It is an Australian social history, covering the period from the white invasion in 1788 and federation in 1901, in 48 essays of around 5000 words each.

In the age of Fake News and Alternative Facts, this book gives you the original sources, mostly as hot-links, so you can ask the important questions:
* what happened before that?
* do you really expect us to believe that? and

* what happened next?


Not Your Usual Sources

This is number 6 in the series, an epigraph mine/dictionary of quotations/verse collection. It is a massive collection of quotations: more than 1800 poems in full, the equivalent of a large paperback of science quotations, and some salient Australian historical comments,

The collection was assembled for my own use as a writer, and these include many of the epigraphs that I have used over the years: now they can be yours. The next three volumes are the three separate sections of this omnibus volume.


Not Your Usual Anthology of Verse

This is number 7 in the series. It is the first portion of #6, and when you look at the pricing, you will see that there is a considerable discount for buying an all-in-one. If you want any TWO, buying #6 will be cheaper!

There are around 1800 poems from the past six centuries, covering 270+ poets, with brief notes.


Not Your Usual Science Quotations

This is number 8 in the series. It is the second portion of #6, and when you look at the pricing, you will see that there is a considerable discount for buying an all-in-one. If you want any TWO, buying #6 will be cheaper! 

This one contains around 1700 pithy and amusing science quotations adding up to about 115,000 words, across all of the sciences and mathematics. In my time, I have mainly written about science, mathematics or Australia, and the intersections of those topics.

Not Your Usual Australian Vignettes

This is number 9 in the series. It is the third portion of #6, and when you look at the pricing, you will see that there is a considerable discount for buying an all-in-one. If you want any TWO, buying #6 will be cheaper! 

This is all good source material, although there is a considerable overlap with #11: anything which is here is probably there in #11 in a more complete form. It contains about 530 short excerpts from Australian historical sources.


Not Your Usual Clever Ideas

This is number 10 in the series. It covers eccentric schemes and began as a look at crazy inventions, but over the years that I was researching it, in between writing other books, I realised that many weird inventions must have seemed like a good idea at the time.



Not Your Usual Australian Voices

This is number 11 in the series. It is a truly massive collection of selected, edited and curated original source material.

This should be in every school, which is why it is available for free.

If you like to make a token donation to the compiler, buy the Kindle version, but you don't have to.





Saturday, 22 July 2017

The Great North Head Calamity



A view of the fall from an area now off-limits.
Philosophers who argue about trees falling in a forest where nobody hears them fall, now have a new conundrum, this one involving a rock falling and nobody hearing it.

At some point, one Wednesday in August 2016, some rock came down off the cliff, between the Hole in the Wall track and Fairfax Lookout. Perhaps somebody heard a bang, or two bangs, but that was it. Nobody seems to be sure about anything, and I don't report rumours, even if I react to them.


I picked up a rumour on the web, and hurried off to gather photographs. I was just in time, because the panic-merchants were already reacting wildly, fearing that Armageddon was upon us, we were all doomed, all of those things that flailing mismanagers love to shout to make sure that everybody else starts to panic. (This is a cunning ploy to hide the fact that they started to panic first.)

Quite a few weeks later, the best access points were still blocked off. The shots above came from those two points, because I beat the authorities to it, assessed the safety, and went in to record an unusual event.

The panic was based on the squeal that “the whole cliff might come down”. It will, one day, but not right now, and they blocked off unrelated bits of coast in any case.

I gave up a promising career as a management consultant in 1990 to avoid dealing with flailing knee-jerk managers like these. To manage risks, you need to understand the facts and the principles.

Rocks are peculiar solids, filled with flaws, planes of weakness called joints, and geologists have a bit of trouble accounting for them. The best explanation is that when the sediment becoming rock is buried deep enough to become rock, it is under pressure, and later, as it rises to the surface when erosion uncovers it, the rock expands and planes of weakness develop.
All rocks have joints in them, so there is something missing in that explanation. Anyhow, joints are there, and rock falls off when a joint is sufficiently undermined. The joints shape our cliffs, keeping them vertical.

Hawkesbury sandstone usually has two sets of joints, more or less at right angles to each other. You could write a book about them, and I'm doing two right now, one for young people, the other for adults).

Some of the sandstone beds are less resistant to weathering, the way that rocks “rot”, some of the beds in the sandstone are more like shale, and erode out, undercutting the beds above. 

Inner North Head has two clear undercuts, as you can see more clearly in the composite shot below. When the undercutting goes right under a joint, the situation is right for a block to fall, and that is what happened.







It wasn’t the whole cliff, just a block weighing perhaps 600 tons (my first, and wildly inaccurate  guesstimate): not nice to have land on you, but not Armageddon, either.

My neighbour Geoff Lambert suspected that it was bigger, and he did the research, using aerial photos, and came up with this:

"It was much bigger than I imagined. The surface area of the rock that fell was about 950m2 and the height (if no overhang), was an average of 33m. Thus a volume of 31000m3 and, at an assumed specific gravity of 2.5, a mass of about 75,000 tonnes."
That's a bit more impressive, but still not a record. The last time we saw a fall like that was in January 1931, and it was called a landslide. The process was slower and better observed, beginning with a fissure or cleft near Dog Face Rock.

This opening went from 2 metres to 4.5 metres over a couple of days, and already, “hundreds of tons” had fallen by 27 January — comparable to the whole fall at North Head. Within 24 hours, an alleged 100,000 tonnes had fallen. That puts our fall in perspective, just a bit.

Sir Edgeworth David knew what was what: this process had shaped the valleys of the Blue Mountains, and it had been going on for millions of years, he told the Sydney Morning Herald in May 1931. (See http://trove.nla.gov.au/newspaper/article/16774630, if you want the full story.)

These events are rare, but inevitable, and for the past few years, I have been photographing likely future fall areas, in the hope of getting a before and after. In geological time scales, they are frequent, but on our scale, such falls are rare. The sky is not falling, Chicken Little!

Almost a year later, the area is still off-limits. I note that yesterday, July 6, was International Fried Chicken Day...

The Corso in winter

There was a river running through Manly once, back when the land was younger, when the sea level had been sucked down as water was drawn into the northern hemisphere glaciers.  The ancient river rumbled its way along from south to north in a deep valley, running more or less parallel to the coast we know today.
From Griffith Taylor, Sydneyside Scenery, p. 86.
In places, the old river approached the sea that lay just to the east, but still it followed the line of least resistance, pushing north through the jointed sandstone until it poured into the ocean via Broken Bay, some thirty kilometres up the coast.  The river was in a rut, a deep rut it had carved for itself, and there was no escape from that rut.

The river would only be set free from its course when the northern ice melted, letting the sea flood in over the low range of hills along the shore, making islands of the higher peaks, and filling the old valley with sand, dividing the river into many smaller streams.

All along the coast, streams that once added to the old river now flowed directly into the sea, washing the salt from the sea sand as it piled up, making a home for the first tough and adventurous plants that were poised, waiting to invade.  The roots of these early plants tied the sand down, more sand blew in, and slowly, beaches and sand spits grew into low sand hills.

These sand hills had to struggle.  As the vegetation built up on the slopes, wild fires would be started by lightning, destroying the plants and giving the howling winds a grip.  At other times, wild storms would drive the sea into the low hills.  The crashing waves would hiss and viper through, drowning the animals, poisoning the plants, pushing the sand before them and flattening the dunes.

In places, the waves would drive all the way through, reopening the old river bed to admit the high tide storm waves which would foam into the harbour on the other side of the dunes, turning the land-locked headlands back into islands again.  Then the storms would ease, and the whole slow process would start over again, building the sand dune communities up again.

All that has changed now.  Civilisation has come to the river bed, human occupation with its massive infrastructure of roads, drains, utilities and buildings that do not grow back again after a storm.  Dour and determined engineers have thrown up walls and barriers to hold back the sea, to thwart it when it attacks.  No sea, they have sworn, will ever again dare poke its nose into the thriving tourist centre of Manly, seven miles from the centre of Sydney.

Manly Cove was a small bay that got its name four or five days before Sydney itself, based on the white invaders summing-up of the local residents when they came looking for a place to settle in 1788.  Then the searchers sailed away to find a better anchorage for ships at Sydney Cove, and they made their town there.  You could sail to Manly in an hour or two, but it was a two-day journey by road, so Manly was left alone until the 1850s.  Until then, the sea was still able to break through into the harbour from time to time.

Then came steam ferries that crossed the harbour in forty minutes, a ferry wharf, settlers, developers, buildings, tourists and holiday-makers, and the beginnings of a seaside dormitory suburb.  ‘The Village’ of Manly was carefully marketed as ‘Seven miles from Sydney and a thousand miles from care’.  People who did not live there dreamed of it, and came to swim at safe harbour beaches.  In this century, they came to surf at the three ocean beach sites that lie along the wide ocean bay, once it was legal to do so, and the final nail in the civikisation coffin came with two new bridges around 1930, linking Manly to the city by road.

The Corso began in the 19th century as a simple street over the flat low sands that linked the roaring ocean and the placid harbour, but soon the sandy path was lined with shops.  Later again, it became a road carrying heavy traffic and trams.  Now it is mostly pedestrian plaza, with people, shops, a few illegal bicycles, skateboards and roller bladers, chairs and tables, trees and shrubs.  Everything that remains is geared to the tourist trade.

The tourists have been here ever since the 1850s, thronging the area in the summer, but when winter bites, the temperature falls to 15° Celsius, and the cold southerly blows in off the harbour, commerce slows, and the locals can outnumber the tourists again.  We come back into our own.

There will still be grandmothers with offspring to mind and days to kill, there will still be budget-conscious Japanese tourists who surf the winter seas in wet-suits.  And when the waves get too rough, they flit around with cameras, excitedly snapping the quaint natives.  All three of my children rode through their first two years in a ‘papoose’ on my back, and all three have been preserved in innumerable Japanese photo albums as samples of curious customs and local colour.

Like any tourist trap in the off-season, the Corso has a certain lonely raffishness in winter, but it also has a certain charm.  My writing cycle leaves me with a large free gap in the morning, every second Friday.  As soon as I can, I get down to the shops to pay bills, post letters,  and generally attend to some minor domestic chores.

A part of my fortnightly ritual now is the outdoor cup of coffee at 9.30.  I relish this time away from everybody, just me and my notebook as I plan the next two weeks.  All along the pedestrian area, there are tables and chairs: sit in one of the chairs, and somebody will come bustling out to take your order.

The coffee is good: it has to be, with so many outlets, and the service is fast, if only to move on the profitless non-customers, thoughtlessly wearing out their seats and tables.  They recognise no ‘regulars’ here, for the staff turnover is too high, but I see many of the same people each time I sit and watch.

The toddler with his grandmother, who always stands in front of the busking flautist, listening intently; the old man in a conservative suit and tie, almost hidden behind a wild white two-year beard; the young girl with pencil-thin legs, dressed all in black who surreptitiously sketches people, probably hoping somebody will notice her working and want to buy the sketches, but they never do; and the quadriplegic newspaper seller in his electric wheelchair; they are always there.

So is the fat skinhead in the torn shirt who nods his head to some distant drummer living in his iPod, nodding so hard that his ear rings sometimes tinkle, and half a dozen other walking wounded and unemployed.  They are the fixed scenery of the winter street.

Then there are the interchangeable Japanese, trotting efficiently to and from the surf beach with their short boards with the wicked samurai-sword-sharp fins.  There will usually be a scattering of Scandinavians wandering through but never stopping, for they are budget tourists, often a five-year-old will confidently sail by on roller blades, too young to be molested by the Council rangers, and sometimes there used to be Manly's famous skateboard riding dog, if the rangers were out of view. I think he's gone, now...

The soundscape is varied, with loud rock music from a sports and surf clothing store, and buskers — the flautist, a banjo player near the pub, a classical guitarist, and further along, there used to be a puppeteer whose puppets dance to the Irish tunes that come from his cassette player (he seems to have died).

The weekends are quite different, even in winter.  With greater crowds, the busking numbers will swell to include bagpipers, a dijeridu player, or a group of Morris dancers,  but on a weekday, the birds and the small children have the area to themselves.

Just after ten, a wave of people rolls up the Corso as another ferry load of trippers washes through from the wharf on the harbour.  I look sourly at the gulls and pigeons, picking over the food scraps, the wrappers and papers that drift along in the winter breeze, and I begin to long for the cleansing ocean waves to roll through once more, from ocean to harbour, sweeping all before them.

Then I know it is time to go.  But I also know that when I return in a fortnight, the old magic will have spread across the surface again, so I can sit in the sun, muse, and drink another flat white in peaceful reverie.

Saturday, 15 July 2017

Australian winters are different

Actinotus minor, the small flannel flower
This is an old piece, slightly freshened. Some of the pictures were taken in the past week, while the others are all species I saw during that time. As I say, our autumns are different, and so are our winters (which begin, officially, on 1 June).

At times, I can be a bit of a stick-in-the-mud.  Once I get to a certain point with a book, I set myself artificial and demanding goals and deadlines.  If I am working on an article or a book, I can be even worse.

Actinotus helianthi, the large flannel flower
So winkling me away from the keyboard can be a bit of an exercise, but after a couple of wet days, I was only too willing to get out in the late afternoon sun, and walk a couple of tracks, a couple of months back.

We stepped out, and walked past the park behind our house where perhaps a dozen kites were flying.  I looked carefully at the kite people, but recognising none, we moved off onto the bush track that runs down to a nearby beach.

Eriostemon, probably.
I may have mentioned that my wife is a botanist, and it has probably become apparent to the reader that I have leanings in that direction myself.  So it should not surprise my readers to learn that we started counting the species of plant that were in flower.

Things did not begin well, for the first hundred metres revealed only five species of proper plant and two weeds.  I like to boast that our native bush can always produce a dozen species in flower, even in the lowest autumnal slough of despond.
 
Grevillea buxifolia, the grey spider flower
Later, we found several pockets of summer carry-overs, taking our total past thirty, but that was later.

We walked on, acknowledging those we passed.  This is an urban trail, a footpath rather than a track, and you can expect to pass maybe a hundred people along the way.  Normally uptight city people would not acknowledge each other, but on a bush track, a different etiquette applies, based on the myth of bush mateship.  Even if it is more of a footpath, it goes through bush , and that changes the normal rules.

Another Grevillea.
At least one member of a party greets at least one member of the other party, and the others at least nod or smile.  It is also acceptable to stop and ask for information about the track ahead from somebody going the other way, or even to draw attention to some feature that might otherwise be missed.  At least this is a step up from the British preoccupation with discussing the weather.

This is fine with us, because autumn weather is usually fine.  Sydney Harbour at this time of year is crammed with boats.  Yachts of all sizes, launches, floating gin palaces and sleek hoon boats all cruise the harbour looking for a peaceful anchorage, out of the wind but in the sun, and the headland tracks reveal glimpses of usually empty bays, crowded with boats.  A kilometre away at Store Beach, five identical floating gin palaces are tied together, and we speculate on their purpose briefly.
Acacia sp., one of thew wattles. We have lots.

Just then we pass an American man in his sixties.  He overhears us discussing a suspicious plant, an aberrant species that we do not recognise, and he asks us whether he can expect to see many more flowers up ahead.  The etiquette of the track is something that people pick up rather quickly, and as he has grasped it, so sensing a fellow human, we take him back 50 metres to see an unexpected orchid, and a sundew.


 A sundew, Drosera spatulata, an insect-catching plant. There was another species there, D. auriculata, which
flowers in spring and summer, but it was in bud already. Sadly, it's impossible to photograph in the field.




Thursday, 6 July 2017

Australian accents

Have you noticed the silence? I have been away in Sri Lanka, travelling with a bunch of Australians in pursuit of snakes. crocodiles, monitors, birds of many kinds, water buffalos, wild pigs, squirrels, mongooses ... and, as you can see from the photograph, making close contact with wild elephants.

Travelling in a foreign clime can be a bit off-putting, but travelling with a bunch of fellow-Australians gave us a solid grip on normality, because we speak much the same language. Perhaps the reader will allow me to offer a short quote from, and hence plug for, my new e-book, Not Your Usual Australian Tales, available now on Kindle.
Sit in a coffee shop in Riga, a wine bar near Rome’s Spanish Steps, a restaurant in Bergen, a Greek café in Banff, a chippie in Glasgow, a tapas bar in Cuzco or a bangers and mash restaurant in Reykjavik, and when you hear Australian tones in the room — and trust me, you will — say in a carrying voice with vowels as flat as a roadkill goanna, one word: “G’day!”.
Then, from the corner of your eye, watch as the Australian heads turn this way and that, seeking their unseen compatriot who may have news from back home. That’s the news we want now, not news from Home, and a single “G’day!” reminds us of where home really is.

Slang, the vernacular, the peculiarly Australian form of English can be difficult to understand.  Slang aside, there are the words that all Australians use in a special way, like ‘bush’.  Even those Australians who speak ‘educated’ or ‘cultivated’ English will talk about ‘the bush’.

There are no forests or woods in Australia, just bush.  When people disappear into the wilds, they ‘go bush’ (or bushwalking), if they stray from the made path, they are bush-bashing.  Thieves who roamed the bush were called bushrangers, and if somebody has come up to the ‘smoke’ (Sydney) from the bush, then he or she probably lives on a farm or in a country town.  So you have to listen to the context.

There are three distinct forms of English that we detect in our own speech.  The ‘general Australian’ is broader, and less ‘English’, and it is more likely to contain references to manufactured products and cultural allusions and clever similes (‘Vegemite’, or ‘as mean as Hungry Tyson’ or ‘as flash as a rat with a gold tooth’).  ‘General Australian’ usually involves less lip movement.

The broad Australian accent involves no lip movement at all (to keep flies out of the mouth, some say), more reliance on tones (carries over longer distances), and many impenetrable slang terms, including rhyming slang, often similar to (but differing from) Cockney rhyming slang.  It is a gross error to see the Australian accent as deriving from Cockney, just because of fancied similarities in one or two vowels.

The ‘cultivated’ style of English is fancied by most Australians to be indistinguishable from English, and it is indeed fairly close, closer than Bostonian English, for example.  After just a few months in Australia, most English people lose the ability to tell whether or not a ‘cultivated’ or ‘educated English’ speaker is English or Australian.

As a user of that style, I have never been mistaken for English in England (though I have been in both Wales and Scotland), and I can also vouch for the problems that north Americans have in distinguishing the ‘educated’ accent from the English accent.  This style seems to be getting less common, if only because most ‘cultivated’ speakers can and do use at least one other form of local accent.

This sort of variation is by no means new.  Henry Cruciform, for example, is the source of most of my information about Crooked Mick, and the stories I tell are actually Henry's reminiscences of his own youth.  The old man usually spoke with me in the ‘educated Australian’ style, but when he was passing on to me a story of his experiences early this century, he would drop naturally into the broad form of speech, imitating the characters he knew and worked with, like Crooked Mick.  Incidentally, I am fairly sure that Cruciform was, in fact, the character called ‘The Professor’ in several of his stories.

The New Zealand accent is common in Australia, and hard to pick, even for an outsider who has been here for some time.  Australians say it is easy: ask the suspected New Zealander to count to seven.  For Kiwis, especially those from the South Island, the number between five and seven is sux, and lists are lusts.  It's a subtle difference, and not really important, except when a Kiwi clerical worker tells you with some urgency that we badly need some lists . . .

Some of the slang terms can be traced to regional English usages, others are of unknown origin.  The correct and safest procedure for any foreigner is to smile engagingly and look agreeable without actually agreeing to anything when slang is used in their presence.

So far as swearing is concerned, Australians use the same terms as other English-speakers, although with different frequencies.  You should have no problem in recognising when you are being sworn at, but context and tone of voice are more important than content.  A poor old bastard is an altogether different beast from a miserable bastard or a rotten bastard.

Then there are the aboriginal words, names for places, animals or things that are used quite unconsciously, like billabong, an oxbow lake in other places, or maybe tucker, which is food, and which may or may not be an aboriginal word, depending on who you ask.

Last of all, there are words that are used in Australia in some way that the scholars of Oxford know not, that you will never find in the Oxford English Dictionary.  Just as the Americans needed their Webster's, so we now have our own Macquarie Dictionary that tells us (and others) what we mean.  Try looking up ‘jam’ in all three!

As a writer, I have an enduring need to know when terms came into the Australian idiom, and I have recorded many of them at a site you can access either through http://tinyurl.com/ozlingo, or as http://members.ozemail.com.au/~macinnis/writing/early-language.htm.

The first resolves into the second, and one day, when I stop writing books and travelling, I will add to the list.

Right now, I am back on home ground, awaiting the edits of Australian Backyard Earth Scientist, and developing the draft of Australian Survivor (working title).