Wednesday, November 29

The kids we try to help

WE'RE gathered around a table in the high school library, the small group of volunteer tutors who help out once a week, and we're sharing sandwiches and a cuppa. As I join the conversation, I 'm also thinking about some of the kids we've helped – or tried to help – over the past few years. What will become of them?

There was one lad, three years older than his classmates, brought up by his grandparents because his parents were drug addicts. Both grandparents had just died, and I think he would have benefited from counselling.

I was disturbed it took a volunteer to discover his needs. Perhaps a chaplain would have helped. But why a chaplain? Why is the Prime Minister offering public schools $20,000 to hire chaplains?

Is it to break down the secular foundation of public education, which has served us so well? Or is it to raise the moral values of Australians? That would be a bit rich, coming from a leader who tells lies and scratches up xenophobia to achieve his ends.

And I know many of the kids I've tried to help will get regular Es on the compulsory A-to-E grading system to be introduced by prime ministerial diktat. For what purpose?

For my full diatribe, click to my grumpy old tutor page.

Monday, November 20

Now our fig is feeding more wildlife

Well folks, the sulphur-crested cockatoos haven't been back. You'll remember from a recent post how they flew away, screetching vile abuse at me, after I battled flu and rain to put a tent of bird netting over our heritage fig. Since then we've enjoyed three or four ripe figs a day, and there's many more to come.

But we're still sharing the crop. Blue-tongue lizards live under our house, and we've just found a big one inside the netting, munching away at unripe figs on very low branches.

We're not going to disturb any blue-tongues.

At their own pace, they find their way under the netting. Startled, they're likely to hit the net fighting. Disentangling a big, snapping blue-tongue from bird netting is one of life's more interesting experiences.

Anyway, they don't eat much.

Monday, November 13

A grumpy old pedant, perhaps?

Following that terrible shark attack in Western Australia, I winced many times as news reports said the unfortunate surfer had lost his leg. The surfer, of course, lost a leg. Or, if it was the case, his right leg.

Pedantic? Possibly. But I remember myself more than forty years ago, a bright young fellow from Perth taking a place at the legendary horseshoe-shaped sub-editors table of Sir Frank Packer's Daily Telegraph in Sydney. I was in awe of the veteran subs sitting around the table, and with reason. If I'd let "lost his leg" through in copy, they would have mocked me mercilessly.

Another lesson quickly learned was to recognise passive voice and shoot it down. The Daily Telegraph of those days banned it totally, a ruling attributed to a former editor, Brian Penton. Today, I still dislike "Smith was hit by a runaway truck," preferring the active voice, "A runaway truck hit Smith."

Any sub-editor of my vintage would strike out "onto", making it two words (although an authority like Fowler's Modern English Usage does allow one word in some cases). The News Ltd style book that I half-inched when I retired says simply: "The style is two words, but only one is usually needed."

Yet I notice the Sydney Morning Herald invariably uses "onto" these days. Perhaps that august journal has adopted one word as style. And perhaps there's another explanation.

About a year ago, the SMH offered generous redundancy to its older journalists, and many accepted. When the older guys quit, did the newspaper lose those people who knew the difference between "onto" and "on to"? Perhaps a consistent grammatical style, once an important part of a newspaper's presentation, has become too expensive.

Usage does change, of course, and newspapers have to keep up. A few years ago, "e-mail" was common; today that hyphen has disappeared, although it's often still to be seen in e-commerce.

Nobody quibbles at "media" and "data" as singular nouns these days. "The media is to blame" and "the data has been released."

Later, perhaps, this blogsite may discuss the way newspapers reflect changing English usage, and even whether they still play their former role in setting public standards of literacy.

Wednesday, November 1

A pit boy's progress

For some years, I've collected information about the noted unionist and coalfields historian Jim Comerford, a longtime resident of the Hunter coalfields town of Kurri Kurri, in the hope I could write some sort of biography.

Mr Comerford passed away on November 2, and I think it's worth republishing excerpts from an article he wrote for the union magazine Common Cause of September 27, 1997, seventy years after the day he went down the pit as a 14-year-old boy:

In August 1927 I was withdrawn from High School at the age 13. This blow was softened by an office boy's job at the Kurri Times, thanks to the recommendation of Mr J. Henry, Headmaster at Kurri Primary School. The job paid $1.50 a week.

I had dreams of a brilliant career as a journalist and writer. These were soon shattered when I arrived home from work at the Times on my 14th birthday. My father told me that I was to start the next day on afternoon shift at the Richmond Main coal mine.

Only strict parental control kept me from rebelling. There was a dread in me about coal mines. Too often we had gazed out of school windows as miners slowly marched by to bury their dead.

* * * * * *
My parents' decision to send me to work in the mine was driven by family hardship. We lived in a poor rented place. On the north side of town, a new home was being built for us. Richmond Main would pay me 78 cents a shift, against the Kurri Times's 30 cents. Every cent was needed to pay for that beaut new home.

So, on Wednesday 27 September, clad in black shirt, pit boots, old pants and a cloth cap, carrying my crib tin and water bottle, I was taken to the company train at Pelaw Main Colliery terminal. In its austere carriages were the 250 men and boys who would follow the 1000 men on day shift at “Baron” John Brown's super mine, Richmond Main.

* * * * * *
All that night the off face blokes came to talk to me. In their friendly way they explained what those underground workings were all about. So did my four wheelers as I opened and closed the doors for them.

Early in the shift I was startled by what I was sure was the sound of an explosion. But it was the face miners and shot firers at work.The powder fumes drifted back to mix with the other humid pit smells I was absorbing.

The worst experience that night was to see the axe-dismembered body of a dead pit horse being sent out of the stone drive.

Nobody called me by name. They called me “trapper”. Every child-worker on ventilating doors in the pits was called trapper.

By shift's end, this trapper, tired and dirty, had already changed from the fearful one who waited at the brace earlier that shift. The change was completed on pay day when I was led to the Stump cabin and impressed with the imperative about being a Union boy.

The photo shows Richmond Main as Jim Comerford would have seen it from the train:

photo shows Richmond Main as Jim Comerford would have seen it from the train

Jim Comerford remained a staunch unionist all his life – understandable for the son of a Scottish miner who brought his family to Australia in 1922 to escape victimisation on the East Fife field. From pit boy, Jim Comerford rose to be general secretary of the Miners' Federation, and he represented his union on overseas delegations and many government inquiries.

But he was more than a unionist. He typified what historian John Hirst has called the self-improving working class, involved in adult education and a wide range of welfare and cultural causes in the tightly knit mining communities.

I encountered his writing when I picked up Mines, Wines and People, published in 1979 by the Greater Cessnock City Council. In it, WS Parkes gave a detailed history of the landholders of 1821 to 1856 and Dr Max Lake offered a history of local wine-making.

For me, however, the section which stood out was Jim Comerford's account of the dramatic rise and decline of the South Maitland coalfield around Cessnock and Kurri Kurri, its disasters and disputes, and the social cohesion of its mining communities.

After the Mines, Wines and People section, he wrote Coal and Colonials.

In Mines, etc, he gave just over four pages to the coal industry's worst dispute, the lockout which began in March 1929 and ended 15 months later – a dispute which included the Rothbury riot, where police (Comerford is adamant it was police) shot dead the young miner Norman Brown and injured many others, some by gunfire and some by bashing. He said the lockout deserved a book to itself.

As a 16-year-old, Jim Comerford witnessed the Rothbury riot. And this year, three-quarters of a century later, he delivered that book – Lockout.

A lifetime Kurri resident, Mr Comerford seems not to have achieved much recognition outside the Hunter Valley. He did, however, receive an Order of Australia, as well as an honorary MA from the University of Newcastle for his lifetime of scholarship.

Perhaps it's drawing a long bow, but here's a thought – his father's ordering young Jim down the pit may have deprived Australia of a journalist, writer and historian who would have grown to the stature of C.E.W. Bean.

A recent check with ABE Books showed secondhand booksellers offering Mines, etc from $29.30 plus postage and a lone US seller with Coal and Colonials at $40.55. Lockout can be ordered from the CFMEU union (02 9267 1035) for $35 including postage.

Jim Comerford also gave a short reminiscence of his first day at Richmond Main in Beneath the Valley, a collection of mining stories, poems and memoirs published by Newcastle's Catchfire Press.

Richmond Main is preserved as a heritage site, and it's a great place for a family outing.