Monday, March 17

Of moonflowers and breaking the rules

There's always a good way to waste time. And sitting here in the early hours, trying to get this Grumpy Old Journo blog back on track, I find myself drawn to the need to make another cup of tea, then take it out into the backyard where I can admire the moonflowers.

This is our original plant, growing from a tub beside the back gate. After we hacked it back, some of the prunings rooted in the compost heap and we planted them out on the other side of the house.

Those creepers have now laced themselves through a rampant bougainvillea pushing out over the roof, as well as climbing up a lemon tree which desperately needs someone with a chainsaw to prune it low enough for us to pick the lemons.

Sigh. The whole place is starting to look like one of those abandoned farmhouses you see during country drives. It's going to take days of chopping and pruning and chipping and mulching before it resembles a respectable suburban home again.

But on a moonlit night, there's little that could be more spectacular than the flowers of Ipomoea alba. They're a lustrous creamy white, about 14cm in diameter and saucer-shaped, with a small cluster of yellow-tipped stamens in the centre.

By mid-morning, each bloom has withered to resemble a crumpled sheet of tissue paper. By mid-afternoon, the ground underneath is littered with the spent blooms.

But look back up to the creeper, and it's covered with tulip-shaped buds, ready to burst open into the new evening's moonlight.

The moonflower is a relative of the common morning glory, Ipomoea indica, but took a different evolutionary path to achieve cross-pollination by attracting moths, not bees. Like morning glory, it could get out of control in bushland, so be responsible when you dispose of prunings. Check this warning by the Weed Society of Queensland (click through to "Weeds In Focus", then the January 2006 listing of moonflower).

Otherwise, it's a plant to enjoy on a bright night. And a plant which would fire up conversation if things get a bit boring at your next dinner party.

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Most weeks, I put a little time into volunteer tutoring at a high school, usually in English but sometimes in geography or history.

And sometimes, if I think I've got the right sort of student, I'll lean forward to share a secret: “If you can do it better by breaking the rules, go ahead and break them. Really. You just may achieve a better result. But first, know the rules and why they exist, and why your way is better.”

In more than fifty years as a journalist, I've seen dramatic changes in the way English is used – and most, but not all, of those changes have enhanced our ability to convey information and ideas with precision and vigour.

When I was still a cadet, one might receive a letter which began: “In reply to your telephonic communication of the first inst.” Today, does anyone know their “inst.” from their “ult.”?

Teachers were still rapping the knuckles of pupils who began a sentence with “And”. As for a fragmentary sentence! Or a split infinitive! Egad! What's the world coming to?

--- oooOOOooo ---

So now, well after my formal retirement, I'm sitting at my keyboard knowing that I'm breaking rules. Some, such as my digression into topics (like moonflowers) unrelated to the main thrust of my blog, may just help me offer a more enjoyable experience for readers.

Others, like offering long essays to people too busy to read long essays, may be counter-productive. There, I can only defend myself by saying I'm frightened of being superficial, a fault I see in too many blogs.

Nor do I want to be a blogger who snatches items from The Australian and adds predictable and boring comments.

Is cowardice breaking the rules? That came to mind the other day when the Vatican presented a new list of sins relevant to the 21st century.

I looked in vain for any suggestion that celibate old men living in palaces on the other side of the world might just be in error when they tell hundreds of thousands of women in third-world countries that they would sin if they were to ask their HIV-infected husbands to use condoms.

Call me a coward, but I'm unlikely to go further down that road.

But there is one rule I regret having broken: Post frequently to a blog. If for some reason you can't, put up an explanation.

It must be about a month since I last posted to Grumpy Old Journo, and that's not much of a reward for anyone who returns to see my latest words.

My next post may be on compassion and the Liberal Party. No, honestly. The top Libs are now all talking compassion. But never fear – the torch will soon be in safe hands again. As I write this, the Young Liberals are organising dossiers on academics who show dangerous leftish or Green tendencies. You think I'm joking?

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