About

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Why is this blog called The Fifth Columnist?

Well clearly it’s a play on me being a columnist, as in ‘one who writes a column’, which is essentially what a blog is (I guess bolumn wouldn’t have sounded as good as blog), and a member of some imaginary Fifth Column.

A Fifth Column is, a group that clandestinely undermines another group from within. There’s a sense in which I’ve always been that. Not a group, and not so clandestine, and not setting out to undermine – but one who constantly questions and criticises the assumptions and easy conclusions of any group of which I find myself a part. But unlike the true fifth column, my intention is not to destabilise a group in order to bring it down, but rather to cause that group to use dialectics to question its own assumptions and conclusions, its ways of working, in the interests of remaining flexible, open to outside influence and internal change, and empathetic to the needs, beliefs, and aspirations of people outside the group. I believe that such questioning, such internal debate and dialogue, is essential to the strength of the group as a whole.

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The term fifth column has a military history – in the Spanish Civil War, as four columns of the Nationalist Army marched on Madrid, Nationalist general Emilio Mola Vidal referred to his supporters inside the city as his “fifth column”, undermining the loyalists from within.

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But what if we take the architectural meaning of column? The fifth column, viewed from the perspective of this bastard metaphor, does not de-stabilise a building, in fact it provides the building with additional strength, and helps it stand when the ground around it shifts, and the first four columns cannot hold. In my mind, it stands as an apparent distraction in the centre of the room.

I believe the ground of our society is shifting. It has always moved, but now more quickly than ever, since perhaps the sixteenth century – which gave us the printing press (the internet of its day), secular education, colonialism (I never said it was all good), and Shakespeare, among many other things. It was a time of massive conflict, between humanism and fundamentalism, between the rising middle class and the nobility who believed they were born to rule, between religion and science. The foundations of Western society shook like they hadn’t shaken since the fall of Rome. And now, dear readers, they are shaking again (just take the previous list and add climate change). The world is a complex place. I am reminded of these famous lines from W. B. Yeats’ The Second Coming:

    Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;

    Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,

    The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere

    The ceremony of innocence is drowned;

    The best lack all conviction, while the worst

    Are full of passionate intensity.

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When the foundations of society shake, we have a number of options, all of which are evident today. We can bury our heads in the sand. We can declare the end of days. We can cleave to simple certainties (fundamentalism, of all stripes). Or we can embrace complexity– taking past experience into an uncertain present, to build an unknowable future. The last choice is by far the hardest, and that’s where the fifth column comes in.

So who says I’m a fifth column? What evidence and where did this rather annoying attitude come from? Time for some personal ‘sharing’.

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I grew up in Perth, Australia, the second son of Italian immigrants who arrived in the early 1950s with neither a penny nor a word of English (there’s a book or a play in that). My brother, who was born in Italy but came to Australia at three years of age,  was eighteen when I was born, so I effectively grew up alone, and where we lived meant that I had no neighbours. Gregarious by nature, I spent a lot of my childhood alone. Italian was my first language, but I learned English by the age of three, and from then on always spoke to my parents in English, though they spoke to me in Italian. My parents did not want to be part of the Italian community, though they had Italian friends, and in any case, because of their age, all of their friends’ children were already adults when I was a child. I didn’t have Italian kids as friends growing up. Then, I won an academic scholarship to an exclusive private school, and went there mainly on the strength of my parents’ pride in my achievement, without knowing what I was getting into. I was the only Italian kid there, and I was teased mercilessly for it. I grew up ashamed of being Italian, and avoided all things Italian (until later in life, as the culinary parts of this blog demonstrate). However, in my twenties I realised that I was both Italian and Australian, I did not have to choose one or the other, and it didn’t mean that I was ‘half-Italian, half-Australian’, but 100% of each.

I write songs, sing and play the guitar (hippy). But it wasn’t until I lived in the USA that I started singing in an Australian accent, rather than the generic ‘rock’ accent that almost all Australian artists still use when singing. I feel most Australian when I’m among people who are not, and among other Australians I feel a bit embarrassed about our ‘national personality.’ I don’t believe this ‘laid back attitude’ crap for a moment (Australians work more unpaid overtime than anyone else in the world). You won’t see me draped in an Australian flag, but woe betide the non-Australian who dares to criticise us in my presence. I call myself a ‘wog’ and laugh at Italian arrogance, but don’t even think about doing that near me unless you’re Italian too.

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At university, I became heavily involved in student politics, and joined the Australian Labor Party. I even rose to the position of National Secretary of the National Organisation of Labor Students (in 1988). Student politics is notoriously facitonalised and bitter. I was on the left-most fringes of Labor, but I was known among the Liberal students (that’s the conservatives, for non-Australian readers) as the one member of the student left with whom they could have a conversation that did not consist of accusation and insult, though I was completely opposed to their political beliefs and agenda.

My friend Justin and I attended a Liberal club ‘back-to-school’ party, where all the conservatives wore their private school blazers, dressed as Hitler Youth. It made a statement and caused a stir, but it was done in the spirit of satire. We had a good time there and great conversations with all the conservatives (with one exception).

I eventually left the Labor party, resigning from my post as National Secretary, when the party’s federal government ended a number of long-standing party platforms, including free tertiary education, and effectively hobbled the union movement from whence it arose.

I became a linguist, and later an actor and teacher of actors, and a director. Among my linguistics colleagues I am often critical of their lack of emotional expressivity, and am (rightly) accused of being more of an artist than a linguist. Among my theatre colleagues, I ask for greater intellectual rigour than is often their habit, and am viewed with suspicion because my day job is as a linguist, rather than as a waiter.

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I could give more examples, but the pattern should be clear. I like to stand with one foot in each of two rather disparate camps, and question the prevailing status quo and received wisdom of each, often from the perspective of the other.

Hence, I come to you as the Fifth Columnist. Here you can read my musings and research on language, theatre, culture (including many recipes), and that old standby, life.

Enjoy! Engage! Complicate!

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