Two-point-seven decades of quibbling

My time with the Eastern Writers Group

 Robert Dalvean

Twenty-seven years ago, my wife found me drowning in a morass of murky syntax. Earlier she had sprayed me with a patent word repellent that caused anything made of letters to fall away from me as water flees from a surface sprayed with WD40. That saved my sanity for a while but, like any severely addicted person, I found ways of satisfying my craving. I would write short messages to myself on Post-it notes and then swallow them. This resulted in my digestive system’s developing a disease not until then listed anywhere – catastrophia semanticosis – which causes one’s internal nomenclature to become chaotic, so that the stomach may think it’s a spleen or the pancreas may insist on being spelt backwards – saercnap.

Milady treated this homeopathically by making me swallow just one letter a day in a decoction of red ink and white-out fluid.  This led to the creation of my own private language, which I tried to use it in conducting my life’s ordinary affairs. That completely satisfied my word hunger but would inevitably have led to bankruptcy and divorce if she, the Queen of Syntax, had not locked me in a broom cupboard and taken over the running of the household.

After a period of hibernation, I emerged sadder but wiser and almost normal. My problem now was that over the years I had accumulated many words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters and even whole treatises that had nowhere to go. These unuttered, unwritten and barely existent bits and pieces of writing had begun to go rank, as incomplete and unaired scribbles often do. They were poisoning my mind and ruining my life and the lives of those whom I liked to think of as my family (although I don’t quite know where those people actually came from; some of them I’m sure were changelings).

The problem, as my wife saw it, was that my lexical sweepings had, as I said, gone off; they’d mutated into a vile-smelling, fermenting compost of mixed meaning. Late at night I could hear them, the detached words and phrases, sighing and rustling as they tried to make sense of themselves. It was the same sound you would hear if you were locked up in a great library on all-hallows eve and forced to listen to the squeak and gibber of words escaping from all those books that had been so carelessly stuffed with units of meaning. It is bad enough to hear two fools arguing about the meaning of a word when all about them lie open dictionaries which could easily settle the matter; it’s a hundred times worse to hear words arguing among themselves about what they could possibly signify. I tried to tell them that the mind lays hold on things, not words, and that unless they, the unattached words, could somehow escape from the Tower of Babel in which they found themselves pent they would never learn how to soak up meaning from the world about them. But words are not easily reasoned with, since one has metalinguistically to employ those same words for the task. To come between two warring words in an attempt to settle a dispute by using words – well, it’s as futile as watching two policemen trying to arrest each other for the same crime.  In any case, all the words I had at my disposal had gone rotten after having been used by politicians and other evil-tongued golems.

As I may have said earlier, this is an anniversary year (like every other year). Twenty-seven years ago, burdened by words that had nowhere to go, I was contemplating self-harm, which with me takes the form of lying in bed and eating huge amounts of chocolate (I did, in fact, take this easy way out only to find that it was actually the way in.)

My spouse, the Lady Broomduster, having swept away the cobwebs that had covered me for a month, said, “There are retreats for people like you, places where the word-obsessed may sit for hours and hours doing nothing but muttering words to one another. They’re called writing groups.”

“Don’t believe a word of it,” said my guardian angel, who at that time was occupying the body of an unusually stupid cat. “She’s only after your money.”

“Well, that’s strange,” said I. “I was under the impression that I was living off her.”

“That’s what she wants you to think,” said the cat. That’s what they all want you to think.”

“They? Who are they?”

But the cat had fallen into one of its characteristic paranoid sulks and would speak no more. (In fact, it has never spoken since that day, which is normal for cats but not for guardian angels.)Deprived of conversation because of the cat’s muteness, I made do with the duster woman.

“Tell me more,” I said.

“They exist, these groups, to ease the pressure inside the skulls of writers, whose words, if unheard, can as everyone knows, turn to steam and blow the brains out of their skulls.”

“So they’re safety valves,” I said, feeling brilliant.

“Find out for yourself. Here’s a phone number.”

Really, I don’t know where she gets hold of all these numbers that spill out of her. Some say she reads them and writes them down. I say she spins them as a spider spins a web – or . . . but let me not multiply my similes beyond necessity.

After some spasms of rumination, I called the number she had given me and a voice informed me that a set of scribblers calling itself The Eastern Writers Group existed, that it met at some strange place called The Box Hill South Neighbourhood House and that parking and biscuits and tea and coffee were available.

So, in June 1990, on a wet Sunday, I attended my first meeting of the Eastern Writers Group, not knowing that once you were in you couldn’t get out – well, I couldn’t, although some other people have managed to escape. Obviously the EWG, whose members I supposed, called themselves “the earwigs”, was a criminal organisation that entrapped people and subjected them to a peculiar kind of third degree. Brutal questioning was the order of the day. For example, “Did you really mean to use the word which in that sentence? Shouldn’t it have been, not which but that?” And “Ha ha ha. You just used a double negative. Aren’t you ashamed of yourself?”

Well, ashamed I am, since I myself have now gone over to the dark side and become one of these remorseless questioners. I have learned the art of pedantic quibbling. I know when Doctor Who must make way for Doctor Whom, and should someone dangle a participle, I’ll use it as a punching bag or tear it off and throw it at them.

At the time of my joining, members of the Eastern Writers cabal used to sit in a semicircle of chairs. A master-of-ceremonies grandiosely titled the President would command some poor scribbler to read, and when the reading was done, would, beginning on the left, point to each miserable attendee in turn and extract from him or her a comment. The author was not invited to respond.

There were people present that day that I have neither heard from nor seen since. Perhaps they went home and shot themselves following an unfavourable critique (and perhaps mine were the comments that drove them to it). These days such poor creatures could unfriend me on Facebook, or annihilate me with poisoned Tweets, but back then there was nothing to be done, duelling having been (wrongly in my view) outlawed.

Today, our meetings are less formal, yet our comments can still sting.

You may be sure that if a robed gentleman of Middle-Eastern appearance should dare to come down from a mountain and to show his face at an EWG meeting carrying an armful of tablets made of stone (or perhaps fired clay) – tablets incised with ancient semitic calligraphy – and should utterS ten sentences beginning with “Thou shalt not”, I’d be up on my feet in an instant with a comment.

“Nobody talks that way now, Moses. Lose the ‘thou shalts’ or you’ll never get published; and, by the way, you owe the group five dollars for your attendance here today, payable in cash right now!”

I have come to believe that something like Sthis did happen, and that Moses had his revenge. After my widely misreported death by misadventure while climbing Mount Sinai wearing scuba gear, the following epitaph appeared on a bit of the Rosetta stone that some disgruntled palaeographer must at some time have broken off and lost:


Here lies one who once lived;
and whose living was not so much a recital
as a gesture;
and to whom a blizzard was a zephyr
fuelled by steroids;
and who, having the antennae
of a poet, morphed them into blunted antlers
useful only to office staff
for the impalement of Post-Its
Containing his collected and wholly dismal works . . .


You know, of course, how things turned out for Moses, the way he never amounted to anything much after that. Archaeologists tell us he left the prophet business and moved back to Egypt where he established a community literary group called The Middle-Eastern Writers Group . . .

So much for Moses, but the broom-duster witch lady, what of her? She endures, still sweeping up my word-litter, which is used for nest-building – for she has now turned into a large black bird of the kind many people call a crow, but which is actually a raven . . .

And this raven never flitting,
still is sitting, still is sitting
on the mouldy old stuffed wombat
just above my chamber door;
and her eyes have all the seeming
of a demon’s that is dreaming,
and the lamp-light o’er her streaming
throws her shadow on the floor,
and the sentences all scrambled
in that shadow on the floor,
shall form syntax . . .  nevermore.

Well, not until the next meeting of the Earwigs.