LISTENING TO THE SILENCES

 

CHAPTER 3 PAGE 1

"When I use a word",
said
Humpty Dumpty,
"it means just what
I choose it to mean,,,
neither more nor less."

"The question is,"
said Alice,
"whether you can make
words mean different things."


In my narrative I have already taken you back to 1946. In the interest of exploring some further ideas I am sure you won't mind going the extra mile to arrive at 1939, and the beginning of World War 2. When the utter seriousness of the situation became so starkly visible, the great majority of people of all ages were determined 'to do their bit'. For teenagers like me, there was salvage collection 'for the war effort', fire watching, and in my case, at weekends and in the holidays, farm work and a forestry camp; then, later on, joining one of the cadet forces. My father was too old to take up again his rifle and bayonet put down at the end of WW1, so he became a Special Constable.

The combination of wartime diet and many miles of beat pounding produced a leaner, fitter Dad than we had seen for a number of years, while 'The Law' took on a different image when its face was that of your own father. Of the few accoutrements that he brought home, one was his police whistle, surreptitiously tried out, and another was his police manual or handbook, which defined just about everything. It provided fascinating reading to a fourteen-year-old, particularly the descriptions or definitions of deviant or sexual crimes. One phrase that stood out was 'unlawful carnal knowledge'. Any sort of carnal knowledge was eagerly sought, but the unlawful sort was wide-eyed imagination stuff.

Quite recently, a friend has suggested that when someone was arrested 'for unlawful carnal knowledge' the initial letters became the standard abbreviation in police notes, and, in turn, became the word which many people still abhor and never ever use - in spite of being told by 'alternative' comedians and TV programme makers that it is an adult world. Humpty Dumpty would have a field day with modern TV 'thinkspeak'.

It was an even more reprehensible word in 1939; and so, picture the dilemma of many of the young men joining the forces from then on, and finding themselves in a totally alien culture and vocabulary. I served on the lower-deck of the Navy and encountered such a variety of words - genital, copulatory and excretory words - used alone or in such 'poetic' combinations - largely to try to give some colour and emphasis to an otherwise very limited vocabulary. The dilemma that presented itself was, essentially, how to appear manly, one of the lads, without resorting to the all-pervading obscenities. Some found the answer in back-slang - i.e. the reversal of the offending word. Thus "Chuff it!" - "Oh dear, I have hit my finger"; "Chuff off!" - "Please go away"; "Chuff me!" or "Well, I'm chuffed!" - "Gosh, how surprised I am!".

The euphemisms and service slang returned to Civvy Street as we all became ex-servicemen - though we continued to hear them in context in 'The Navy Lark' and 'Much Binding in the Marsh' et al. But gradually Kilroy wasn't everywhere and Chad no longer demanded "Wot no....?" - totally meaningless concepts to most readers I am sure. Individuals continued to use their service slang, however, and gradually origins were lost and meanings changed as they were taken up by wives, girlfriends, work mates. And so it was that 'chuffed' was demobbed and achieved a different connotation - one of approbation. Thus, to be "Dead chuffed" is to be highly pleased - although I still get an odd reaction when an attractive young woman tells me that she had been "very chuffed"!

How many times and in how many ways do words and ideas undergo such metamorphosis without any serious help from Humpty Dumpty? Words that have a legitimate and specific meaning in their original creation and context are taken up and fed into the common vocabulary because they may 'sound right' or appear to give verve to an unimaginative vocabulary. Take a simple sounding expression such as 'negative feedback' - as originally coined in the terminology of electronic and control theory there was a specific meaning, namely that of taking a small part of the output from an electronic circuit or a control system, reversing it and feeding it back to the input end of the circuit or system and as a result, producing stability. Because it sounded meaningful in the instant-speak of the media or the City, the expression was taken up, lost its original meaning, and became yet another easy-come-easy-go bit of jargon. Just as 'black box' emerged also from the world of electronics design, where it is applied almost without exception to any innovative electronic device. Thus, when aircraft flight recorders were first used in planes, the boffins, when talking to the media, inevitably used the jargon and referred to the recorders as 'black boxes'. Not knowing any better, the media people assumed that the device was indeed a Black Box, and some even to this day refer to it as such - even Black Box Flight Recorder - which is rather like continuing to say "Gee-gee horse" when you've actually grown up. Someone even purported to have located the Professor Black who had invented the Black Box!

How often has history been re-written or myth created because someone who wasn't even there, who only knows half the story, or wants to impress with his instant 'knowledge', or, having good access to the media of the day, wants to 'say his piece'? Constantly, for example, so-called 'documentaries' are shown on television where someone is putting an entirely new slant on the last war - rubbishing the accepted version of events, denigrating the leaders or Service heads of the time, calling into question decisions, plans. Obviously much information was kept back or propaganda disseminated, either to fool the enemy or to encourage domestic morale. But how can someone today, reading from the records, possibly think that they can construct the actual situation as it then was? I can say, without fear of contradiction, that they can never recapture the ethos of the time, a feeling or mood or determination that has to be experienced to be understood. When you look at newsreel of London on VE night, how can anyone who wasn't there, capture the thrill and the joy and the exuberance of that day and night? And yet, I can look at the scenes in front of Buckingham Palace or in Whitehall as Winston Churchill addressed the crowds, and still recall with a shiver, and know that I was somewhere in those seething rejoicing masses. But how could I convey to anyone that thrilling mood, the laughter, singing and dancing? Impossible! How can any history be truly written to represent the totality of an event, occasion? Having lived through some events and seen how they are now, even less than sixty years after their happening, depicted and analysed, I despair at finding any history of any time or event with much more than an outline or sketch of the actuality or truth. Everything is subjective in the eyes of the participants, and even more so in those of the subsequent analysts. When, as often happens, a history is deliberately rewritten or misrepresented, where is truth?

Take one Naval event that has gone down into popular perception - part myth, part history - the Mutiny on the Bounty. Unless you have been living with the pygmies in the deepest Amazon forest, you cannot fail to have seen on television at least one of the many re-runs of the film featuring Charles Laughton and Clark Gable. I saw it in 1938, the year of its first release, and like everyone else, I have lived with the belief, yes, belief, that Cap'n Bligh was a vile, cruel tyrannical man who drove his crew to mutiny by ceaseless flogging, keel-hauling and other nastiness. Mea culpa! How wrong I had been. Total character assassination in the interest of popular writing and cinema box-office. The film was based upon a book by Nordhoff and Hall, who seized, like many authors, upon the unhealthy and prurient fascinations that physical and capital punishment have for many people. Thus, what an opportunity to dwell at great length on the detail of flogging, the making of the cat o' nine tails, the way the man was triced up, flogging round the fleet, keel-hauling and the rest, not to mention the Press Gang! And what good cinema it made - the repulsive Laughton as the vile Bligh, and the handsome, plausible Gable as Mister Christian!

Sorry to disappoint you. There was no Press Gang, no flogging round the Fleet, no keelhauling. In the whole of the twenty-seven thousand miles of the voyage to Tahiti, there had been, and reputable historians accept this, just two floggings, the normal punishment at that time for the offences committed. HMS Bounty was not a man o' war, she was an armed transport, purchased for the express purpose of taking breadfruit plants from Tahiti to the West Indies. Lieutenant William Bligh had sailed twice before to the South Seas as Sailing Master under Captain James Cook. His character would have been totally known, and he was recommended by Joseph Banks the botanist and explorer who had voyaged with Cook. Thus, unlike Cook who carried a party of marines on board for protection, Bligh had none, for no trouble was anticipated. Following a practice introduced by Cook and learned from him, Bligh, in fact, took considerable care over the health and well being of his crew. Amongst the enlightened practices were the feeding of the men with anti-scorbutic foods such as sauerkraut and a type of marmalade; below decks, he introduced a form of fumigation and 'sweetening' by burning charcoal in iron pots. His big mistake was to allow the men total laxity in Tahiti, many of them taking native 'wives', and it was the enforced leaving of these and the idyllic island life that were the chief causes of the mutiny.

Bligh had been chosen to command the voyage because of his exceptional reputation as a navigator, surveyor, cartographer and naturalist, and his skills as a navigator were tested to extremes when he was cast adrift with eighteen others in an open boat just twenty-three feet long. (The very same size as the boat in which I, myself, learned to sail). Sailing principally from memory, with no friendly land near, he successfully navigated a mainly unexplored ocean, covering over 3,600 miles - much further than Southampton to New York - and reaching Timor in forty-seven days, without the loss of a man, placing it high in the list of epic small boat voyages - and mapped and surveyed as he went. I do not class him as a personal hero, but I admire his courage and skill, and was glad to read his own account in a re-issue of his log and narrative to mark the bi-centenary of the voyage.

This is just one, and probably a minor one, of the many instances of truth being stood on its head and history being re-written, for financial gain, personal power, national pride - it is happening all the time. As communication is so rapid and wide-ranging nowadays, the fabrication is often seen and exposed in a very short time, but it does not undo the harm already done, and people are very slow to eliminate the misunderstanding, the misconception, the lie from their minds. (I'll bet that you will have the greatest difficulty in accepting that Bligh was not tyrannical and cruel; Hardy, Nelson's Captain at Trafalgar is recorded as inflicting far more severe and frequent punishments than Bligh ever did). If you use or are in touch with scientific literature and other people's research, you must be aware of many cases where results have been 'massaged' or even falsified to achieve the outcome that the researcher wanted in order to promote an idea or enhance a personal reputation. The problem can be that, even when the falsification is exposed, there will still be people who will have taken on board and continue to accept as true, the originally published conclusions - as in the case of cot deaths. There are still some who accept that a proportion of deaths are due to 'breathing apnoea', in spite of the fact that it is now known that the five siblings upon whom the research conclusions were based, had all been murdered by their mother. Not, however, deliberately falsified results, but incredible naïveté on the part of the researcher, and only brought to light 25 years later by a very perceptive District Attorney, the mother then confessing.

 

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