Verbal Seniority


Finally. Something good about being in my early 70’s. I read this morning that ‘this age group is tops at mastering vocabulary—all those years of reading paid off’. The study (from MIT) of 50,000 people shows that we are over the hill on just about everything else, (duh) but who knew that we are in peak form using language? I’m not a late bloomer, I’m an age-appropriate scribbler, cashing in on my hard-earned verbal dexterity. This is my time, my golden years. Like my wine cellar, it’s now or never, drink up while you can still remember the difference between pinot and merlot. Knock ‘em dead with lucid prose before you’re a stranger to lucidity itself.

That touches a sad memory for me. My dad was a scribbler too; his genre was letters to the editor of ‘The Australian’ about the topics of the day. Each day he would read the paper, think for a time, usually while watering the garden, then pen a brief handwritten letter and post it. Yes, post it—this was before email. Most were amusing, some very touching, a very few angry. His favourites were one or two lines—he was a haiku addict—and his strike rate was amazing. In five years he was published more than 300 times. The editor sent him personal Christmas cards, and indulged him by printing letters no-one else could have got in. Like one which went ‘Breakfast should be a quiet time. If my wife is reading this letter, could she please pass the vegemite?’ She was, and she did. I asked him once if he had considered other forms of writing, and he replied ‘I’ve got half a million readers now, I’m never going to top that’.

Why a sad memory? One day he announced he was finished, because he just could not think of the right words any more. He stopped playing the piano at about the same time for similar reasons. He couldn’t bear to hear his favourite pieces on CD or the radio because it reminded him of what he had lost. Six months later he was diagnosed with Alzheimers and three years on he was gone. His rapid decline from gifted raconteur and pianist to a distant, confused and unhappy man wandering around in his pajamas haunts me still.

But to return to current realities. I have things to write and I’m in my prime, ready to deliver my personal best sentences! For today’s effort, I’ll briefly mourn the lost readability of ‘The Australian’. OK, I thank it for delivering the good news about my age group today, but I rarely buy it, preferring to read it in a café for free, just skimming for occasional actual news, until I get to the Sudoku. After I (more often than not) stuff that up, I put the paper aside, muttering to myself about rabid, grouchy journalists over-reaching for proof that ‘elites’ have egg on their faces yet again. (I must be in one, how come I don’t feel influential?)

In my dad’s day, this paranoid conservatism was there, in a few articles and letters to the editor, but it was balanced by other world views. Today, The Australian is well to the right of the ‘Spectator’ and not nearly as well written. Consider one headline today—‘We have 364 other days to wear black armbands’. It’s an article written by our chief budgie smuggler, saying that efforts to change the date of Australia Day are ‘Political correctness gone crazy’. And this is one of the more balanced opinion pieces, on a day when Trump apologists, climate change deniers and union-bashers are having a field day. A sad outcome, that this, our only national daily, spends its precious community capital insulting middle-of-the–roaders on most issues, deluding itself that it is the voice of the ‘silent majority’ when it has become no more than the mouthpiece of a tiny minority of selfish, fearful ultra-conservatives.



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