A red letter to the editor

At the start of a new year about a quarter of a century ago I wrote a letter to the editor, publication unknown. I came across the printout this week in one of my many boxes. (The removalist had groaned. “If I’d known you were a journalist I’d never have come.” He knew about our boxes.)

The letter was written on an electric typewriter, printed out on foolscap, the paper size we used before A4, so there’s no electronic file, no floppy disc, nothing but a paper record that must be copied by hand like the scribes of old. There’s no newspaper clipping stapled to it either, so it probably wasn’t published. Understandably, I admit; it was far too long and far too left, but maybe I never sent it. (I knew about editors. It was addressed to Sir: .)

What surprised me while rereading it a lifetime later is that I could have written it today. It would still be far too long for anything but a blog, but I doubt it’s too far left. My genteel rant is no longer a lone political opinion. It’s becoming common sense to all but the cage fighters we call world leaders. Judge for yourself how little some things have changed:


Did those who decided that 1995 should be the International Year of Tolerance provide a priority list of practices to be tolerated? Must we continue to tolerate war, or incitement to war, in all its manifestations and diplomatic disguises? Every day, decades of cultural endeavor and hard-won academic research are vandalized or delayed by war.

Yeltsin’s Grozny tantrum has already cost $4000,000,000 with a promise of reimbursement from the International Monetary Fund. Imagine what the late Fred Hollows and countless others with his dedication could have achieved with that amount. Humanity does not need the neuroses of political, religious or racist supremacy to ‘bring out the best’. Natural disasters will always provide orphans, blindness and misery enough.

If only these physicians could heal the politicians! How long will we tolerate the sick rationale that war produces beneficial spin-off: opportunities for commerce to feed on the carrion, medical miracles, new weapons to win new wastelands, full employment to demolish then rebuild ‘peace’ with a use-by date.

We must seriously question the logic of leaders who tolerate war as a factor of the economic equation, as an answer to a deficit in the commodities of power. And what of those who tolerate such Sisyphus-like politics while leaving it to the weary service organizations and educators to fight the good fight for planetary peace?

It seems we have entered a multinational era of tolerance where the value of a human life decreases with its distance from a sales pitch. Populations are shuffled around like products on a supermarket shelf. Dollar-driven values and apathy disguised as democracy are intolerable, this year and for ever.

I could tolerate a use-by date for a letter like that.

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An Editor’s Pain in the ‘S

If you’re feeling crook, the last thing you should do is look on the Internet to decide what you’re suffering from.   On the other hand, if you ignore all the advice, it might well be the last thing you do. Whatever, you’ll soon be convinced that you’ve been terminally ill for yonks and you’re well over deadline.

Some years ago The Reader’s Digest (and yes, the apostrophe is in the right place, so it must have had only one reader, and that must have been me) published a monthly three-page feature on some obscure but lurking disease from which a grateful patient had made a miraculous recovery.

I suspect there were several other readers digesting this monthly feast of fear, and those already feeling far from par in a medico’s waiting room had a double dose. The result was the phenomenon dubbed by doctors ‘The Disease of the Month’. Suggestible hypochondriacs turned an unheard-of ailment into an epidemic overnight, so that the Bureau of Statistics could have graphed a correlation of the monthly street date of the Reader’s Digest with doctor’s visits, medical certificates and a week of empty desks.   That’s the power of suggestion over digestion.

One month RD asked us to answer a marketing survey to find out if we’re ‘normal’.   Not me.  A non-smoker all my life, I’ve always been a deviant.  But perhaps there’s a non-smokers’ disease. . .

I don’t know how doctors can still stand up, being barraged by mobile germ factories every hour of their working day.  I take my hat off to them (but briefly, in case I get wind).

In England, members of parliament hold ‘clinics’ to see their forelock-tugging constituents.  No doubt the name is derived from the patient waiting it requires to even catch a glimpse of an MP over there.   A popular saying from my Lancashire mother’s day comes to mind: “Ah won’t tek me coat off. Ah’m not stoppin’.”

These days constituents anywhere could probably get all the answers they need from the Internet. Most of what an Australian MP could tell them (and probably more) is there for all to read in Daily Hansard, the record of the debates that defeated that day’s Bills or turned them into Acts of Parliament, recording which way the MPs voted and how many thousands signed the petition that will now disappear into a pigeonhole.  If it’s welfare the MPs’  visitors need, and most of them do, the receptionist will quickly redirect them to their GP or Centrelink, or the Internet.

Which brings us back to the question of sorting helpful from dangerous.  The response to verbal bullying in my youth was ‘Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words can never harm me.’   We know that’s not true.  So we can’t rely on what we read on the Internet any more than we would on the opinions of a Melbourne tramful of passengers taken at random.

The art is to consult the right practitioner for your problem.  Whom do you need?  An MP, a doctor — or an editor?

Sometimes there’s a need for all three, depending on the legality of the activity. Sometimes the words themselves need a bandage, like this post to an Internet health forum:

 “The operation is done while you are awake local pain reliever’s are used and the process is painless with brilliant result’s. The scar is invisible.”

Despite its encouraging tone, this is a capital offence. The process needs to be brought to a full stop and an appropriate sentence imposed.

This post reveals that the writer is suffering a highly infectious disease known to editors as pluralsy.   It leaves visibly scarred grammar, and the only cure is the immediate removal of those apostrophes. “Painless result’s”?  If only an editor’s pain in the ‘s were as easily removed!

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Power and glory of a whisky priest

“God has placed two wolves in the heart of man. A good wolf and a bad one.
Which one does he feed?” – Chinese riddle.

In the entrails of English literary lore is an interpretation that a text contains its own meaning within itself, requiring no complicated process of placing it in a broader context. This is called the second tenet of Liberal Humanism. I reject this too-liberal priestly divination, believing that an understanding of the broader context of a text, novel or life, contributes to a richer reading experience. To illustrate my credo, I penned an essay on a novel new to me, Graham Greene’s disturbing ‘The Power and the Glory’.

THE second tenet of the Liberal Humanism catechism states that a ‘good’ text is intelligible to a reader without referring to its broader context.

Professor Peter Barry of Aberystwyth University describes this tenet of Liberal Humanism (LH) as an empirical study of a document’s text devoid of the social, political, historical or autobiographical context in which it was written (Barry 2009).

I believe that a reader’s experience is enriched by even a passing knowledge of a book’s setting and its author’s motivation. The popularity of book reviews and the placing of blurb and bio on the book’s back cover are sure indicators that readers want to know the broader context.

My one concession to the second tenet is that adverse knowledge of the writer, or statements in the text that contradict the author’s known opinions might colour a reader’s reception of the text, unless it were known that the leopard had changed its spots. However, another tenet of HL denies the possibility of such a transformation (Barry 2009). To test these tenets, both would require almost illiterate readers to be selected somewhat like a jury, except that critical appraisal by the author’s peers would surely find the tenets guilty of nonsense.

My non-sectarian English upbringing, in which every school day opened with the Lord’s Prayer and a Christian hymn, and each week closed with biblical scripture taught as secular history, certainly enhanced my appreciation of Graham Greene’s 1940 masterpiece, The Power and the Glory, written after his visit to Mexico in 1938. The title comes from a doxology in the early Catholic liturgy that was added to the four verses of the Lord’s Prayer in the Bible.  Written after 70 AD, it begins ‘Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory’, though ‘kingdom’ was added after 250 AD.

‘Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done,’ we prayed to our Heavenly Father, ‘on earth as it is in heaven.’ (Luke 11:2)

The English sang ‘God Save the King’ while Mexican revolutionaries died crying ‘Long live Christ the King!’ For generations, Mexico has waged a war of wills between a succession of dictators and the Catholic Church (Goodrich 2010) to see which should have the kingdom.

I learned from Greene and Google that thousands of Catholic priests were executed in that Marx-inspired secularisation of Mexico (Ruiz 2008), and now I can place its historic depravity in the context of Mexico’s most recent martyrs – journalists, male and female, being murdered almost weekly for their defiance of the police-protected drug lords (Zable 2012). Little has changed; the fight goes on.

On the front cover of my copy of The Power and the Glory, reset and reprinted in 1971 by Penguin, is a review by Greene’s former employer, The Times (Updike 2009), aptly set in Times Roman italic:

 ‘Though the book is written in the deliberate avoidance of emotion,
it starts in the reader an irresistible emotion of pity and love’

Beneath the review is a Chinese-style black ink-brush painting by Paul Hogarth, of two cocks fighting over a spoon. A silver spoon is used in churches to offer the communion bread, but this spoon is empty, and the cock-fight, which we know will be cruel and bloody to the death, seems caught in a Mexican stand-off.

The Nazi-like treatment of the Mexican peasants turned Greene from his flirt with Communism to his new wife’s Catholicism (Yiu 2012). Ever the writer, he could recognise the mythic proportions of that relentless, godless persecution with its equally persistent antagonist, blind faith. Both were in thrall, one to the grasp of secular self-interest, the other to the grip of religious dogma and servitude.

In The Power and the Glory, Greene, as his reviewer asserts, illustrated skilfully one of the more reasonable tenets of HL: that emotion should flow from actions, not words (Barry 2009). Greene also strove for political impartiality, to the extent, he confessed, of inventing the police jefe (lieutenant) giving him more humanity than any he’d met (Yiu 2012). Updike (2009) observes that the novel oddly reverses the geographic north to south, which I suspect is code. It sites Mexico City in the east, perhaps symbolic of a hope for the dawn of a new regime.

In my opinion, HL’s exclusion of the context of a literary work, and a further tenet, to ignore authorial intention (Barry 2009), deprives both reader and writer. There is joy in the discovery of a writer not only of like mind but of like experience. To recognise in a text a mutually familiar time and place or to discover significant information to relate to one’s own writing is to partake of a literary communion. Despite LH, such an everyday exchange can transform our lives.

‘Give us this day our daily bread. . .’ (Luke 11:3).

Greene’s respectable elderly Lutheran, Miss Lehr, is irredeemably altered by her quickly curtailed reading of Mexico City’s Police News. ‘I never knew such dreadful things were printed,’ she confides to the priest with the whisky breath. ‘I think it was the most dreadful thing that’s ever happened to me.’

‘. . . and forgive us our trespasses . . .’ (Luke 11:4)

‘It opened my eyes,’ says Miss Lehr. (Lehrbuch is German for textbook.) She cannot confide in her brother, a Christian who doesn’t hold with Catholics. ‘He wouldn’t think the same of me, I do believe, if he knew.’

‘. . . but deliver us from evil.’ (Luke 11:4)

Greene has no need to spell out Miss Lehr’s torment, nor that of the hunted, guilt-haunted Padre Jose. Readers with a rosary will understand.

‘It’s knowing, isn’t it?’ Miss Lehr says.

If Greene’s intention in writing The Power and the Glory was to exhibit the harm done to the human psyche when ideologies collide, he did it well. Given the context of his work as an MI6 spy (Norton-Taylor 2010) the reader is assured that Greene knows more than the map: he knows the territory of collateral damage.  ‘You are in the place,’ a Mexican fellow traveller told Greene’s biographer, Norman Sherry, after reading the book. (Updike 1990).

An area where disregard for the broader context is not an option is in Indigenous writing, warns the author of The Editor’s Companion, Janet Mackenzie (2012). Aboriginal cultural norms forbid the revealing of tribal secrets to the uninitiated, and the depiction or naming of recently deceased people. Our government, on behalf of the first people, has the power to insist on a needful cautionary note to Indigenous readers or viewers that they are about to read or witness something that will cause them distress.  It has taken half a century of ideological struggle to reach this unsatisfactory compromise.

In the closing scenes of The Power and the Glory, the police jefe watches from the dentist’s window as his deputy fires a bullet through the head of the state’s last priest.

‘Oh, the pain, the pain. . . Hurry!’  the jefe moans to the despised English dentist.  There is none other who can take away his toothache.  The world is eternally willing to inflict or suffer any punishment in its attempt to conquer pain.

At the end of the book the children are asking the same questions of their mother as they did at the book’s beginning, about the priests they’d sheltered, and the boy martyr in their Revolutionary storybook, who at his execution cries ‘Vivo el Cristo Rey!

Was the priest they shot today a hero? the son asks.

Is that priest with the funny smell a saint now? asks the girl. Shall we pray to him?

Yes, and maybe, their mother replies. ‘It would do no harm to pray.’ (Greene 1940).

‘. . . Thine is the kingdom, the power and the glory . . .’  (Doxology).

That night the son, reared on his mother’s forbidden faith, grieves the future lack of blood-soaked martyr’s relics. He is wakened from a nightmare by a knocking at the door. Cautiously he opens it – then springs to kiss the hand of yet another fugitive priest (Greene 1940).

‘. . . for ever and ever . . .’   (Doxology 250 AD).

Good or bad, a text once read survives, though buried in our memory. As long as we can think and remember, this world provides the context for any text – except perhaps the first verse of St John’s Gospel (John 1:1):  ‘In the beginning was the Word. . . ’

If only we could know the broader context of that Beginning, and the Author’s intention, our experience would be truly, uniquely enriched.

And there I rest my case against the second tenet of Liberal Humanism.

 ‘. . . Amen’.  (Doxology 250 AD)



Barry, P 2009, Beginning theory: An introduction to literary and cultural theory, 3rd edn, Manchester University Press, UK.
Doxology, 250–380 AD, The Apostolic Constitutions, Catholic Liturgy, accessed 19 April 2012, <http://ourladyofsorrows.us/QotF/Doxology.htm&gt;
Gee, James, 10 tenets of liberal humanism, blog, accessed 15 April 2012, <http://jweducation.wikidot.com/liberal-humanism&gt;
Goodrich, L 2010, ‘Mexico’s Separation of Church and State’, Wall Street Journal, 1 March. Accessed 17 April 2012,   <http://online.wsj.com/article/SB10001424052748703740704575095704065365166.html&gt;
Greene, G 1971, The Power and the Glory, Penguin, London.
Mackenzie, B J 2011, The Editor’s Companion, 2nd edn, Cambridge University Press, NY.
Norton-Taylor, R 2010, ‘Graham Greene, Arthur Ransome and Somerset Maugham all spied for Britain, admits MI6’, The Guardian, 21 September, accessed 16 April 2010, <http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2010/sep/21/mi6-first-authorised-history&gt;
Ruiz, L 2008, ‘Where have all the Marxists gone? : Marxism and the historiography of the Mexican revolution’, A Contra Corriente, vol. 5, no. 2, Winter, pp. 196–219, NCSU, accessed 17 April 2012, <www.ncsu.edu/project/acontracorriente>
 St Luke, The Holy Bible, 1611, ‘Gospel according to St Luke’, Chapter 11:2, British and Foreign Bible Society, London. (Except the Doxology from The Apostolic Constitutions).
St John, The Holy Bible, 1611, ‘Gospel according to St John’, Chapter 1:1, British and Foreign Bible Society, London.
Updike, J 1990, ‘The Passion of Graham Greene’, The New York review of books, 16 August,  accessed 16 April 2012, <http://www.nybooks.com/articles/archives/1990/aug/16/the-passion-of-graham-greene/
Yiu, M 2012, Graham Greene biographical notes, blog, retrieved 17 April 2012, <http://greeneland.tripod.com/bio.htm>
Zable, A 2012, ‘President’s Report’, Melbourne PEN Quarterly, April, p.10.


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It’s time to say ‘Sorry, Australia’

It’s been a while since I posted here.  Not because I had nothing to say, but because so often I have been left speechless with disgust and disbelief at what has been said and done – or not –  by those who purport to represent me to the world as an Australian citizen.

It is almost beyond me to both maintain and restrain my rage long enough to write a cogent article on the shame I have felt ever since the Tampa was turned away and the second Dark Age descended on my new country.  I too was a migrant. Australia invited me here.  I did not seek its egalitarian opportunities as a refugee from fundamental religion and racism. By God,  a refugee today would hardly know the difference.

For years I was proud that decent, hard-working people forced to flee from genocide and political malevolence found a welcome here, but now I find it shameful that they are treated as criminals by those who more correctly deserve the name;  I am ashamed to see small children, already abused by  disadvantage,  further abused by brutes in whose care their su-peer-iors place them; I ashamed to see Australia placed in the forefront of greedy, selfish countries who  drain, desecrate and pollute the planet with the detritus of their wealth. They do not listen when we say ‘No war’.  They get off on our whimpers.

Someone more able than me has put my horror into words.  Dally Messenger III is one of my most respected friends, a former neighbour and employer of mine in the 1980s as the entrepreneurial publisher of Dance Australia.   As one of the earliest appointed civil celebrants in Australia, Dally has transformed the archaic marriage and funeral ritual to represent the highest emotions and shared ideals of ordinary people, speaking from their hearts, unshackled by legalese and propriety.   In this spirit, I commend to you Dally Messenger’s open letter to Australia’s two wannabe leaders:

Mr Malcolm Turnbull, 
Prime Minister of Australia,
Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600
Mr William Shorten
Leader of the Opposition,
Parliament House, Canberra ACT 2600
Dear Malcolm and Bill
Manus Island and Nauru
There is some talk of cooperation so, living in hope, I am emboldened to write to both of you. Only by you both working together can this criminal behaviour cease. There are far better ways to stop people smuggling than imprisoning people in third world jails without charge or trial. 
I am particularly ashamed to point out that in jailing people who ask for help we violate three international treaties — The United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights, The United Nations Convention on Refugees, and the United Nations Convention against Torture. In simple terms, we are what we erroneously accuse the boat people of being – lawbreakers.  We have become the people who do not keep our deals, who break laws when it suits us, whose word is not our bond. The harm to our reputation internationally which results by these crimes – trashing every law and convention from Magna Carta to Habeas Corpus and “innocent until proven guilty” is immense. Have you any idea the harm you have done, the precedent you have set? (By you, I mean the governments of both persuasions up to now).
I am particularly alarmed to tell you that Eva Orner’s film “Chasing Asylum”, is about to be screened to 10,000,000 cinema-goers in Europe. This will ensure, following the articles in the New York Times, and reports by the BBC, that Australia’s reputation for fairness, decency and respect for the law will be well and truly trashed.
I am particularly embarrassed to remind you that when war criminals were tried at Nuremberg and elsewhere, their pleas that they were only obeying orders from their government was not accepted. Obeying unjust laws was no excuse. They were tried and sentenced. And when Mr Abbott, Mr Morrison, Mr Dutton and others (including public servants and government contractors) are placed on trial in a few years time, in the same way that we catch up with paedophile priests, the defence that everyone thought it was OK at the time, will have no currency.
I am particularly sickened, Malcolm and Bill, to cause you to face the fact that these crimes are all the more hideous because they are enacted by people, like you, who claim to be doing the right thing. Like all criminals committing criminal acts,  there is always the attempt to justify. But all the spin doctors in the world cannot make this one wash.
I am particularly galled to note that the worst perpetrators of this crime are practising Catholics and practising Christians. How am I supposed to get my brain around that? “Do unto others”, the most basic of all Christian tenets, has become a sick joke. The Good Samaritan has become a fairy tale for gullible “bleeding hearts”. Pope John XXIII’s encyclical “Pacem in Terris” bears no weight with these churchgoers whatsoever. The Pope says:

When there are just reasons in favour of it, (a citizen) must be permitted to emigrate to other countries and take up residence there.(22) The fact that he is a citizen of a particular State does not deprive him of membership in the human family, nor of citizenship in that universal society, the common, world-wide fellowship of men.

I am particularly shocked to point out this whole scene, as both of you well know, is filled with stupidities. I know people who have come here by plane on tourist or student visas who have successfully gained asylum with very little trouble. Many many more than those who, misinformed, came by boat. How dumb are we that we do not lock up people who come by plane, but lock up those who come by boat? Why do boat people and not plane people deserve to be sent slowly insane on remote tropical islands because no one told them it was far better to come by plane? What about some full-page Kevin-Rudd-style ads in all the asian newspapers telling people to come by plane? (“It’s cheaper and safer and you won’t get jailed in the swamp infested tropics.”) Do I have to point out that those who came by boat, that minuscule number compared to plane people, are the bravest and gutsiest of them all. Historically boat people have made some of the finest citizens we have.
I am particularly distressed to point out that double demonising of “people smugglers” does not wash with intelligent people. They are criminals but they are not that bad really compared to the crimes of our big corporations who pay no taxes, and the ever ready rabble of “entrepreneurs” who exploit the government such as they did with the insulation scheme, or they now do in the educational sector. These exploiters who are all around us are far worse criminals. But it suited your predecessors to portray people smugglers as the worst kind because it attracted the vote of uninformed and uneducated people. How base is that – you simply did not attempt, or you did not have the skill, to “sell” decency to basically decent people. (Have a chat to Angela Merkel.) And the argument that these crimes we are committing are very effective  in controlling our borders! Mal and Bill, there are lots of crimes that are effective. In all areas of human life crime pays. Where is society heading if you act like that?
And when all this comes out from under the radar and the court proceedings begin, how will we explain how we turned boats around (with the help of people smugglers) and sent people back to certain wars (to which we contributed), or back to almost certain jail, punishment, persecution and/or torture. All this to get a few extra votes?
It’s like this, Malcolm and Bill, the first thing you have to do is to stop this horror, then you must apologise, then you must compensate and assist those you have wronged. It should be pretty cheap given that we are paying $500,000 per year person as we send people crazy by depriving them of hope, depriving them of “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”.
I do understand your job is difficult but this is not a “policy”, it has crossed the line and become a crime. Please get together and fix it.
Yours sincerely
Dally Messenger III 
Australian Citizen
Dally and Remi Messenger

International College of Celebrancy (Est. 1995)

Dally Messenger III
 – Principal

Remi B. Messenger – Project Director



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You are, we are all Australian

As a former copy editor for the Melbourne PEN Quarterly, I follow PEN’s tireless action on behalf of writers wrongfully imprisoned.  A recent email told that among the refugees imprisoned on Manus Island is a journalist with a Master’s degree in geopolitics and political geography.

Geopolitics is about competition over the control of territory and the extraction of resources, and political geography considers the way that countries and cultures are affected by their location and politics. 

What an ironic internship Australia has delivered this insightful writer:  a real-life demonstration of how politics and competition for resources can corrupt morality and common humanity.  Our nation, once famed for ‘the fair go’, now brags about kicking a man when he’s down.  I never thought I’d have to say, “Not in my name, Australia.”

This is the email from PEN Melbourne:

“It’s 2016. The time has come.

“Yes. The time has come for an amnesty. An act of humanity. This recent Age editorial is eloquent, succinct, and just. The suffering of innocents must end. The detention of people who have committed no crimes must stop. This torture, driving people to utter despair, must no longer be committed in our name. This injustice must be put right. It is time to set the refugees free.

“PEN Melbourne has for many years argued for a more humane and compassionate policy for asylum seekers and has advocated for refugees in detention here. Both PEN Melbourne and PEN Sydney have called for the protection of asylum seekers making their way to our shores, those seeking refuge from persecution, war, famine and devastation taking place in their own communities. PEN has been involved with the broader issue of refugees and asylum seekers, regularly publishing articles in the PEN Quarterly, sharing writing by asylum seekers, and joining advocates Australia-wide in endorsing rallies and providing statements of support. The plight of asylum seekers and refugees is an issue that concerns PEN as a human rights organisation, with a special understanding of the effects of detention and imprisonment, and of the plight of displaced peoples. We will continue to argue the plight of asylum seekers incarcerated in brutal conditions on Manus Island and Nauru, and on Christmas Island and a range of onshore detention centres.

“In late 2015 PEN International launched a campaign on behalf of Kurdish Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani, who fled the threat of arrest and interrogation in Iran in May 2013. After attempts to reach Australia seeking asylum, he ended up on Christmas Island where he was detained and later transferred to Manus Island Immigration Detention Centre where he has been held since August 2013. During his time on Manus Island Mr Boochani has continued to write about the human rights abuses he and hundreds of other men experience daily. He passes much of this information to Australian and international journalists.  He also continues to write about Kurdistan, its culture, politics and laBehrouz-photonguage.  Mr Boochani’s articles are published in Kurdish newspapers and online journals.  Mr Boochani is an Honorary Member of PEN Melbourne.

“In 2016, we will continue our campaign on his behalf and on behalf of all incarcerated asylum seekers, wrongly deprived of their freedom. We will continue to press the authorities, write letters, petition local politicians. We will continue to fight alongside other international advocates, such as Reporters Without Borders, Amnesty and Human Rights Watch. There are some signs that a gap is opening, talk of behind the scenes talk regarding how to solve the ‘problem.’ We will continue to apply pressure to widen the gap, and encourage media such as the Fairfax press, to continue the fight.”

PEN Melbourne Membership

Membership of PEN Melbourne is open to all who subscribe to the aims of the PEN Charter, without regard to nationality, language, race, colour or religion. We also encourage members and non-members alike to come to our events, participate in our campaigns,  write a letter to a government on behalf of an imprisoned writer, follow us on Twitter or simply keep up to date on our work.

The Fairfax group’s Melbourne Age published an editorial by the immediate past president of PEN, Arnold Zable, on 22 September 2015: Iranian journalist Behrouz Boochani tells of the horrors of Manus Island: out of sight, out of mind    Read it here

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Be careful what you whisper

The following points were made in a lecture a decade ago by historian and academic Earle de Motte, author of Egyptian Religion and Mysteries and The Grail: a search for transcendence. His topic was ‘The Power of the Word’, meaning the Logos, regarded by mystics as the primordial vibration, the source of all creation.

De Motte’s thoughts are worth repeating here. Ancient Egyptian philosophy permeated Greek and European thought and is found in holy books worldwide. Its classic tenets have eternal relevance to human nature, especially now as we think and speak about the possibility of religious fundamentalist action.

Words are the verbal expression of thoughts, and the agency of communication between individuals. One of the aims of mysticism is to develop the aptitude of mentally communicating with others.

Words were originally used to express an emotional state, before they were used to transmit an idea. With the passing of time, language passed from its most primitive form to more refined speech using words that expressed both an emotional and mental state.

Language also has a creative influence. Mystics have attributed a creative power to words. However, this influence can be positive or negative, constructive or destructive. Words are charged with the emotional or mental state of the persons who utter them. We can therefore serve good or evil in our thoughts, speech and action.

The best example of the creative power of words is the chanting of mantras and vowel sounds to neutralise pathological conditions in the body or to awaken latent psychic faculties.

In the ontology of the western mystery school tradition, such as the Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis, the Lost Word was conceived in divine thought and projected into material existence.

From Mephis, Egypt, comes the quotation, “Ptah, the Mighty, is the Thought and Language of the gods. It is Thought that makes possible every manifestation. From Ptah truly proceeds the power of Thought and Language.”

And from the Holy Bible, “In the beginning was the Word.”

Among the Greeks, the Logos was the creative word, the living expression of divine thought, from which emanated the universe.

Like modern mystics, ancient philosophers tried to purify their manner of speaking, employing words with the aim of achieving something useful and constructive. If we do not do this, we contribute to the creation of thought forms destructive to the physical, psychic and spiritual wellbeing of humanity. Sometimes, if it is not possible to say something positive, silence speaks louder than words.  

“Hear, hear!” I say. Fiat lux! Let there be Light.

Earle de Motte is a life member of the international Ancient and Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC).



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The editors’ bottom line

Societies of editors in each Australian state last week voted on a motion to dissolve the individual branches and form one cohesive, national organisation. Whatever the outcome (and the Victorian tail would wag the dog) some questions remain: what is the value of such a collective? Who benefits most – editors themselves, publishers, writers or readers? And why?

Any discussion of what the Melbourne-based society of editors can do for writers and publishers should take into account that this is just one of six state branches operating under a single constitution and an umbrella organisation known as the Institute of Professional Editors Inc. (IPEd). The value of any of these groups to writers and publishers becomes apparent more through their interaction with individual active members of a branch than with the incorporated body itself.

Editors Victoria — and likewise all state branches, to the extent that their membership makes possible — provides the means for its members to polish their craft and to apply this knowledge to their dealings not only with authors at the start of the publishing line, and publishers at the end, but with all stations in between.

Editors can enhance and streamline the entire publishing process, making the efforts of the writer, the designer and the publisher worthwhile. To get this message across to those whose communications would benefit by an experienced editor’s quality control — and whose would not? — is the aim of the state societies of editors.

Editors Victoria holds regular dinner meetings with guest speakers, and freelance editors’ lunches, both open to the public and at a discount for writers’ groups and students.

With partners such as the Australian Publishing Association and the Victorian Writers’ Centre, it provides experienced practitioners for a variety of training sessions including specialised sessions for editors of financial, statistical, scientific or mathematical data.

Participants who apply what they learn to their own field may in time present a specialist lecture themselves. Members support the society by serving on committees, maintaining the webpage (www.editorsvictoria.org), compiling a monthly e-newsletter and producing books related to editing and publishing.

Contact with writers and publishers is maximised by the Victorian branch’s participation in the many writers’ events and festivals for which Melbourne, recently dubbed a City of Literature, is now renowned.

Members with IT expertise demonstrate the latest computer publishing programs or electronic technology. This in particular furthers their own and members’ professional development and boosts their value to potential employers, be they authors or publishers. In this way everyone benefits from the corporate efforts of the society.

Evidence of professional development is required for the renewal of an editor’s accredited status five years after passing the national editors’ accreditation examination conducted by IPEd.

This competently organised examination that has set the industry standard for editors is the high point in a history that began in Melbourne in 1970. The inadequate working conditions of publishers’ editors and the desire for writers to recognise their services prompted two editors, Janet Mackenzie, of Melbourne University Press, and Ruth Dixon, at Oxford University Press — both still active members of the Society in 2015 — to establish an association of editors.

‘We narrowly avoided calling ourselves The Galley Slaves,’ says Mackenzie (Mackenzie, 1996, p. 101) later a recipient of the George Robertson Award for services to publishing. Her second edition of The Editor’s Companion, updated to deal with the digital revolution, was launched in August 2011.

Mackenzie was also instrumental in the work of IPEd and the new accreditation standards. Government departments assessing tenders involving editing and publishing are finding them a useful benchmark for selection, as are the publishers who submit the tenders.

Back in the 1970s, publishers seemed interested in training only their own poorly paid editors in-house, while editors wanted the bargaining power of professional status before joining a publisher. Negotiations with the then Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology to teach editing came to nothing. (Norton 1980, p.114).

Ten years on, Hilary McPhee wrote in the Australian Book Review:

There is almost no recognition of the need to develop editors so they are responsible for their own lists with all the management and entrepreneurial skills such responsibilities entail…. Very occasionally as a kind of fringe benefit an editor is allowed overseas, but rarely to buy rights, rarely to clinch deals, usually as a handmaiden to some bloke in a pinstripe suit. (McPhee, 1986.)

It was easier to help writers than publishers who seemed not to recognise the untapped commercial potential of external training in book editing, nor to see, as the presenter of ABC radio’s First Edition program, the late Jill Kitson, warned, ‘that ultimately a publishing house’s reputation depends on its editors’ judgement.’ (Kitson, 1991, p.91)

Perhaps it was because almost all the CEOs in the Australian Publishing Association then were commissioning editors or managing editors, all with hands-on editing experience. Among them were George Ferguson, of Angus and Robertson, Andrew Fabinyi, of Cheshire, and Frank Eyre, of OUP. (Hudson, 2010, p.10).

With unique insight, John Hooker, a long-time publisher with Cheshire, Penguin and Collins,who in later life turned to writing, observed that publishers could not understand ‘just what writers do and how they underpin the entire structure of the publishing process.’ (Hooker, 1984, p.44).

Editor Jill Kitson understood: ‘Editors are mediators. We mediate between the author’s idea, their words, and the mind of the reader. ‘ (Kitson, 1991, p.92).

Also under the aegis of IPEd is a two-yearly national conference of editors, hosted in rotation in each state capital by its local Society of Editors. High-profile keynote speakers are engaged, and invitations to submit abstracts go out to editors, researchers and others involved in current and upcoming areas of communication with links to editing. The 2011 IPEd conference in Sydney had included a meeting of the Style Council which handles the content of the government Style Manual, soon to undergo revision, and e-books and the latest electronic wizardry were hot topics when the Victorian branch played host in 2013.

There is no rule that says an editor must be a writer, but it seems self-evident that an editor who is also an accomplished writer will be a better editor. Hilary McPhee’s view was that ‘it helps if editors are frustrated writers and can sympathise.’ (Falla, 1986, p. 209). A story has a long way to go before it is ready for copy editing and proofreading, and this is where the utmost tact is necessary. A mutually respectful rapport is the ideal editor-author relationship, so an editor’s training includes how to relate encouragingly to writers to help them produce their best work.

Immigrant author and a long-time president of PEN Melbourne, Arnold Zable, told how grateful he was to his editors, Margot and Henry Rosenbloom, of Scribe Publishing, for ‘respecting his voice’. Sensitivity was ‘a major requirement for an editor working with an author who is writing a cross-cultural work,’ he said. (Longland, 1997, p.61.)

Lone writers suffer uncertainty about what editing principles to apply, write too much or too little, go off on tangents, have difficulty steering a story that has literally lost its plot, then, if by sheer grit they complete the book, despair of finding a publisher. On the other hand, the writer with an editor has a friend, a supportive mentor who can feel the flow of the story, advise on length and the contents of each chapter, who knows the market and can keep the work on track through writer’s block and family crisis.

Publisher Hilary McPhee told a Society of Editors dinner audience that in her eleven years’ experience, every author she had worked with had ‘gone mad’ at some stage in the process (Falla, 1986, p. 209).

Successful writers become very loyal to a ‘sensitive’ editor. They may acknowledge assistance in the book and even follow an editor to another publisher, although, says John Hooker, ‘The author owes something of an allegiance’ to the publisher (1984, p. 45). Would any publisher alert to the bottom line not show similar allegiance to such an editor?

Ways in which an editor might assist both writers and publishers are listed in a brochure entitled ‘Why Do You Need an Editor?’, produced by Editors Victoria.

In addition to the basic attention to grammar and spelling, and checking for factual errors, an editor may suggest – to name but a few – how to phrase a paragraph more persuasively; avoid defamation or breach of copyright; brief artists and graphic designers about cover art, illustrations, and textual elements; ensure consistency of style in multi-author documents; and standardise references, punctuation and formatting by creating a style sheet and templates to simplify the process for the author.

Authors should understand and select which of these services are necessary to produce an effective publication, because this decision will determine the contract and the fee, and to a large extent the quality of the product.

Societies of editors produce an annual online and print Freelance Register, indexed by name and specialisation – for example, agriculture or medicine, religion or crime fiction – for use by writers or publishers seeking an editor.

Editors working in thriving ‘small press’ or independent firms are exceptionally skilled, and while their publication output is necessarily limited, they are uniquely placed to offer their authors the personal nurturing and mentorship that a large-scale publisher has little time for.

When a major publisher hires an editor, the decision is more likely to be economic, for example, in order to avoid a lawsuit, to have someone brief a designer, to convert the manuscript to an e-book, but rarely because the publisher cares as passionately about the story and its presentation as the writer and the editor.

As Nick Hudson said in Editors Victoria’s 40th-anniversary address, we had seen two revolutions, the litho and the Mac that swept away hot press and typesetters, and now we were facing two more: the digital and the e-book which would end litho printing and slash print editions ‘but hugely increase the number of books written and published.’ (Hutton, 2010. p. 10).

It’s oddly comforting to read editor Paul Stapleton’s report of the prophetic words of then Hyland House editor Anne Godden to the Society of Editors (Victoria) in March 1980:

Ann [sic] believes that the 1980s and beyond will be a dreadful time both technically and socially, and only by acting now, or at least beginning to act, will the editors of today be able to participate in the electronic vision of tomorrow.

What she sees in our future is the book that is produced, stored and distributed electronically. The question is not how, but who will be putting these creations together. From past experience Anne believes publishers to be conservative and unwilling to accept new ideas: therefore moves must be made now to ensure that competent people, that is, editors, lead the teams of multi-talented people that will be concerned with producing the books.

The original purpose of this essay was to describe how a professional body of editors helps writers and publishers. However, asking what it does for writers is much like asking what it does for readers. The reader gains what the writer has learned from the editor, and so it goes around.

It will be a happy day for a new Australian Institute of Professional Editors and its national membership when the industry finally acknowledges that by whatever means or in whatever form books are read, in print or electronically, via audio or Braille, the most significant and vital contribution to publishers, writers and readers will always be the quality of their editing.


Constitution, Society of Editors (Victoria). http://www.editorsvictoria.org
Falla, S 1986, cited in ‘Growing Up Authors: Hilary McPhee’ in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.209.
Hooker, J 1984, ‘Insights of a publisher-turned-writer’, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.44.
Hutton, N 2010, 40 years of style: 40th anniversary celebration program, Society of Editors (Victoria) Inc.
Longland, A 1997, cited in ‘Writing across cultures’, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.61.
Mackenzie, J (ed.) 2005, At the typeface: selections from the Newsletter of the Victorian Society of Editors, Society of Editors (Victoria) Inc.
McPhee, H 1986, ‘A sense of place’, Australian Book Review, May, cited in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.114.
Norton, A 1980, ‘A report from the training officer: Anne Norton’, May, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface, p.114.
Stapleton, P 1980, cited in ‘Publishing in the 1980s: Anne Godden’, in J Mackenzie (ed.) At the typeface.




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