ADELAIDE –Phil Fitzpatrick’s useful words from a wordsmith made me realise that, in some respects at least, we have both trodden the same etymological path.
This makes perfect sense given that we are both former South Australian public servants.
Like Phil, my induction into the dark arts of public service writing was swift and brutal.
In my case, it came in the form of the then secretary of the Department of Education, whose grasp of the subtleties of the English language was provided by the very best private education that money and social aspiration could buy.
Very soon after taking up my position of Chief Clerk, I was indoctrinated into the ways of my betters.
No more would I commit the unthinkable faux pas of writing “I think” when I meant “it is considered”. Nothing, I was told sternly, should be written in the first person.
The meaning and correct use of hitherto unknown Latin expressions like stare decisis, ipso facto, inter alia and in loco parentis were drummed into me ad nauseum.
My work was routinely returned covered in corrections until, after an arduous apprenticeship like Phil, I achieved true mastery of the language of bureaucracy.
Later on, once I had joined the South Australian Health Commission, I was introduced to the technical languages of the various healing professions.
Pretty soon I learned the difference between a laparotomy and a laparoscopy and how one used a laparoscope to carry out a cholecystectomy.
In the world of Pharmacy I came to understand the difference between acetylsalicylic acid (aspirin) and mefenamic acid (ponstan) for the treatment of primary dysmenorrhoea.
As for health physics, I am afraid that my tiny brain struggled with even the simplest concepts that very earnest technicians strove to explain to me.
Still, I came to know a little about radon daughters (you definitely don’t want them in your house) and the mining of uranium oxide (don’t do that for a living either).
Later still, I was introduced to the world of casemix funding, with its 900 plus diagnosis related groups and efficient pricing principles.
During my university studies, which I thoroughly enjoyed, I learned the particular requirements of the world of academe with its demands for more Latin expressions such as op cit and ibid.
Nothing I wrote (except one long essay on the history of kiaps in Papua New Guinea reflected anything that I had personally felt, experienced or believed.
I got a distinction grade for that one break-out piece of work, thanks solely to the fact that my lecturer (the blessed Dr David Hilliard) had actually been to PNG.
Anyway, the result of all this is that I can knock out a cabinet submission or a response to a ministerial inquiry or a set of parliamentary briefing notes or even a second reading speech with relative ease.
What I cannot do now is write anything that I regard as reflecting my authentic voice because, basically, I no longer have any idea what that sounds like.
At least you have written and published a book or two, Phil, which is more than I can say. Whatever talent I may have had has long since been perverted by over 30 years in the bureaucracy, rendering me creatively impotent.
Alas, I will never write the great Australian novel.
Such is life.