Instead of complaining to my family, I'm going to complain to you - about language of course. My word for today is "enormity".

It does not mean "great size" - that's "enormousness".

"Enormity" means "great evil". e.g. We shudder at the enormity of his crime. 

10.2.15 The preceding word will soon be lost to its original meaning. So will "disinterested" meaning "impartial". A judge, for example, should be disinterested in a case. If he finds the case stimulating, he could well be both interested and disinterested. You can see why words do change.

But I am a luddite in these matters, and change comes slowly. 


THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME by MARK HADDON. When your 92 year-old mother recommends a book (actually, she would never be so pushy, but she doesn't have to be. Her mild suggestions have a lot of force) one could be forgiven for thinking this one might be not one's cup of English Breakfast tea. So when I spied "The incident of the dog in the night" I was not too hopeful. The first pages were a little off-putting, being in that naive style apparently aimed at the young. But the first parson narrator is a high functioning autistic who explains his situation and his methods. He wants to solve a nasty little mystery, and in doing so is handicapped by his view of the world, which is rather literal. He doesn't lie, will not allow anyone to touch him, and trusts only numbers. The story is a fascinating detective tale with many excursions into the realms of numbers and logic. I didn't follow all of it, but picked up many fascinating observations and games, which I shall use in my own good time. The author is rigorous in obeying the parameters of his character, and shows great imagination and empathy in this fascinating story. I shall have to ask Mum if she has read any other good books.

I did a couple of things last year which I have never done before. One was to join a book club. I thought it might propel me out of my reading comfort-zone into new, and perhaps rewarding, areas. I was right. Here are some thoughts about the first book proposed for this year, "The unusual life of EDNA WALLING" by Sara Hardy.

This is a biography. Most Australians will have a kind of sepia awareness of the famous garden designer, but I feel that awareness declines sharply with the passing of time. An “Edna Walling garden” is a well-known phrase, but I have never known exactly what it was supposed to mean, other than a naturalistic look, perhaps with judicious use of native plants.

“The unusual life of Edna Walling” by Sara Hardy, is a thorough exploration of Edna’s life. She was born in Dorset and came to Australia with her family in. I wondered why we pronounce her name, Walling, as if it were “Wolling” to rhyme with the first part of Collingwood. English usage would appear appear to rhyme with “calling”. I have decided to go against the flow until I find evidence one way or the other. We seem to call “Calder” and “Maldon” “colder” and “Molden” respectively – and that is certainly incorrect.

The book is good. The prose style is informal and even chatty, with generous conjecture and speculation, always respectful of its subject. We follow the young Edna, and get a sense of developing purpose in her life. It is even easy to see that her modern TV and cable equivalents have absorbed much of her style, updated of course.

This begs the question of period, and it is here that the book is so valuable. It is a fine social history, integrating this well-researched life into the fabric of early Melbourne. It is notable that so many of the early movers and shakers were English, bringing skill and expertise in the various arts of civilisation to a land which had so recently been a colony.

Although the evolution of Edna’s professional life is interesting, it is only part of the story. The other part is Edna’s personal life and the story of those who shared it. It is in this area that Sara Hardy shines. Chapter 6, “Love”, in particular is a sensitive and thoughtful analysis of female friendship at this time. In doing so, Hardy draws a well-judged picture of the social milieu allowing us to better place Edna’s own place in it. From this point the biography unfolds in a way we can understand, without being coerced to any particular point of view.

Such letters as survive are presented with an even-handed approach, and occasional brusqueness or pique are likewise admitted. The photos are excellent and form a good supporting narrative. The result is a portrait missing quite a few details, but where the main outlines are clear enough to enable us to fill them in. All in all, a nice surprise and a warm reading experience.

THE INVENTION OF WINGS by Sue Monk Kidd (Pub. Viking)

My new book club had recently read The Invention of Wings and I decided to catch up. The author’s name was familiar to me as the writer of “Bees”, which I had enjoyed without comment some years ago.

There were similarities here, as the protagonists are southern black Americans but in the case of “Wings”, it is set in ante-bellum. Yes, we are talking Slavery, and this is an exploration of the issue in the 1830s, based on the lives of the Grimke sisters . The story is told in the first person, but by alternating characters.

Sara Grimke’s sensitive attitude is at odds with the long-established routine of a slave state, using slave labour as a staple. Her relationship with her family is a good device to explore individual and societal attitudes to “the peculiar institution” (as slavery was sometimes known). Her account alternates with that of Handful, the daughter of an indentured slave with considerable spirit. These passages are lively and provide a rich contrast to the dutiful and earnest thoughts of Sara.

A friendship grows between the privileged daughter of the house and her personal slave, with the narrative examining the thoughts and attitudes of both women as they grow into their respective roles. Sara and her sister, driven by reforming zeal, finally succeed in their quest by virtue of personal effort, finding that even the world of Quakerdom has let them down.

Handful, too, refuses to be bought, and endures much to realise her dream of independence, inculcated in her by her rebellious mother, particularly through her familial story (in both oral and quilt form) of people who fly.

The issue of slavery and its tragic outcome, the Civil War, will no doubt continue to haunt and fascinate us, just as each generation learns of the Holocaust. But as each new Holocaust book or film emerges, more earnest, sincere and dramatic than the last, I find that I am ‘all Holocausted out’.

Similarly, I think I shall avoid well-meaning books on the topic of American slavery, no matter how well-written.

A "coming out” book says the blurb for "Fairyland" by Sumner Locke Elliott. It was written in 1990 when the author was in his 70s . That would seem rather late in the struggle for recognition, but again, it is one of those lives which span a number of eras, and is valuable not least because of the light it shines on the past.

Certainly Sumner Locke Elliott has a way with words, and his descriptions of life in pre-war Sydney are rich and evocative. He manages to peel away various social strata with only the faintest shadow of humour. Much is painful, but also insightful. Without labouring the point, it is easy to see the chain of knock-on events encompassing the First World War, the Depression and the Second World War affecting the life a small boy and his development.

Both the writing style and the character of the writer are curiously passive, and ultimately, the book turns into a chain of sexual encounters which are sometimes relationships and sometimes not. His range of experiences of this type are interesting in themselves and generally seem to hinge on his physical appeal to other men.

His relationships with women are, almost predictably, two-dimensional, and the girls seem fated to die or marry into obscurity. There seems little doubt that the material, though cast in the third person, is autobiographical. In many ways the book is a revelation, and is certainly interesting with many fine passages. It works as a social history and even sheds some light on corners of our past.

His depiction of the war-wounded of all sorts, and of the male pub culture of the time, is painfully accurate. If there is any humour here, it is on a level which escapes me, unless it is to be found in the bleak observations of hypocrisy running through our society.

AMNESIA by Peter Carey, is a book I had marked out to read. I had enjoyed a couple of other PC books, and looked forward to this one, especially as it seemed to promise insights into “the dismissal”.

It was lively and colourful, also fast-moving, attributes which I had come to expect from this author. There were powerful vignettes of colourful characters, half-recognisable from identities of that time. The filtering of these personalities through the eyes of the narrator (who seems to become more Peter Careyish as the tale progresses) has a surreal quality which is probably intentional. This quality eventually becomes rather testing as was the attempt to place the protagonists in a real historical setting. There is much obliqueness and allusion which eventually had me confused and irritated. The character of the narrator also becomes progressively more obdurate and inflexible until the only morality left is that of an honest journalist – one who will tell a story as he sees it, no matter what the consequences.

A reader made of sterner stuff than I will probably hang in there and find more to enjoy. Some awareness of the history of the time would seem to be necessary and would also limit readership. I would be curious to know what younger readers make of it.

THE NARROW ROAD TO THE DEEP NORTH is another Australian novel, and a prize-winning one at that. It’s by Richard Flanagan, whom I’ve never read before, but who is such a perceptive and engaging guest on TV book discussions.

Here is powerful and meaty writing, but what is wrong with me? I flagged in a short time. Once again there were vivid scenes of Australian life, powerfully evoked with great control of language. The imagery is superb, but again, the harsh Australian literary light bleached the story line, leaving photographic images of the sepia variety in this reader’s small brain.

There is a quality here, not unlike the Peter Carey novel, which is muscular and uncompromising, a take-it-or-leave-it approach which I prefer to leave. I gave up some way in, and am prepared to be accused of a pusillanimous approach.

THE INVISIBLE WOMAN by Claire Tomalin, published by Penguin, gave me no misgivings at all. Nor, it seems, the makers of the film based on the book. It should have everything – passion, scandal and mystery as the life of Charles Dickens, comes in for a thorough examination.

Dickens was a giant of nineteenth century literature, and was much admired for his espousal and championship of “family values”. Queen Victoria was a great admirer and found Dickens’ writing to be in tune with her own need to raise the standing of the royal family with the wider English public.

The “invisible woman” in question was Ellen (Nelly) Ternan, one of three talented sisters devoted to each other and their actress mother. Their individual stories are all remarkable, but the least well-known, Nelly, had the most remarkable story of all, being the mistress of the famous man from 1857 to 1870 when he died.

Although our generation has become used to startling revelations about famous people, there are some whose reputations have seemed as solid as Santa Claus’. Surely, we say, if Dickens did behave in this way, there must have been people at the time who knew about it. And, indeed, Ms Tomalin addresses this very issue, in great detail and in a completely convincing fashion. Hers is a highly detailed social commentary in which she shows just why so many would connive to keep the affair completely private.

The reputation of Charles Dickens, family man, takes a beating, as the story of his subterfuge and deception is built up. Dickens’ wilfulness and determination in getting his own way, and in disposing of Catherine, his wife, make fascinating reading...though far from uplifting.

The connivance of certain friends and the inertia of an established reputation ensured that the affair was swept under the carpet for many years. This account is a fascinating piece of detective work with much colour and interest derived from the various social strata of Dickens’ time. It is very well written and organised and it is easy to see why it has provided material for a gripping film.

ARTHUR AND GEORGE by Julian Barnes. Where did it come from? I don 't know. It just appeared and hung around for ages. I ignored it of course. Rather plain of wrapper and thick of girth, it didn't look like light reading. Why I eventually picked it up I don't know. Margaret obviously bought it, but this can involve a multitude of sources. Some come in plain brown parcels from afar. Some are smuggled in with the shopping. Some are played as a trump card, a virtuous bargain. At $3, this could hardly do much damage, but could one expect anything much. Shortlisted for the Man Booker in 2005, it had attracted some laudatory comment and I peeked. Arthur is Arthur Conan Doyle, of Sherlock Holmes fame. George is an introverted, unassuming junior solicitor, son of a minister of religion, but of Parsee origins. George is the victim of a nasty practical joke which lands him in jail. The famous author applies his detective methods to clearing George's name, but finds that George wishes to be exonerated only on his own terms. George's logic is impeccable and provides a fascinating foil for the swashbuckling Doyle method. The separate portraits of the two men, and the picture of late Victorian society make fascinating reading. This is rich and engrossing material with a satisfying conclusion.

So, I'd like to talk about language. So, there are some things which get my goat (and not "get on my goat"). 

So, honestly, where are the grade 6 teachers of yesteryear?

So, it's been bugging me for some time now, but just what is it?

So, funny how it's slipped my mind, and I can't think of that thing which was annoying me. So, I know that it was just another fashionable affectation which has sprung up from nowhere (or America actually) for no good reason.

So, I imagine it will come back to me sometime (when I least expect it).

So, tell me if you think of it first.

So, thanks.


There are many people in Australia who have trouble with the English language. Some of them were not born here and more surprisingly, some were.

The first requirement for improving language is a desire to do so. Much can be done for anybody with that desire. Many people have poor role models or little interaction with the English-speaking community. Others have begun to realise they are acquiring an accent which does them no favours and would like to improve it.

The illogical, non-phonetic nature of English does not help. It has to be admitted that the attitude to English in Australia is not helpful. Those who do not agree that “near enough is good enough” and who like to do things properly, with some dignity and style, will find these lessons helpful.

Commonly stated problems are

“No-one seems to understand me – I feel I am speaking English well, but they say my accent is too strong.”

“I feel people are laughing at me and do not take me seriously.”

“I am not sure that the accent I am copying is a good one.”

“Will my English be  understood in other parts of the world?”

“I cannot find a definitive way to pronounce words.”

“Some words which I want to use I can't find in a dictionary, and I can't understand the dictionary pronunciation guide.”

“The rules of language in my native land are very strong, and much of the English language just feels wrong.”

My method is based in an understanding of phonetics. First we learn the basic sounds of English – how to shape the mouth and make the sounds. We learn a symbol for each sound and build our own dictionary from it – from here on the process is logical and cumulative. This means that we add sounds little by little, and practise a lot. We will learn that any sound can be written down, and reproduced just by reading it.

We practise normal, everyday phrases and greetings. Each scholar brings their own special questions to each class. This course is not just to teach English, but to acquire a good accent. Lessons are in a delightful home environment close to Camberwell Railway Station

Contact Paul Williams madmusicfinewords@gmail.com 


Paul Williams has extensive performing and teaching experience on all his woodwind instruments, but has brought an unusual, holistic approach to that work. He has informed all his teaching with historical and cultural context, all of which is sadly being lost. He is an experienced concert presenter and announcer, and it is this skill, coupled with his writing skills, which provides the framework for these lessons.