First published 26 November 2012
No, this piece isn’t, as the title might suggest, about how we should all embrace our fellow human beings with joy and without reservation, especially at this time of the year; it’s in fact a light-hearted skip through the fun to be had from words seeming to mean something other than intended – especially when heard rather than read. There’s the old Christian joke about children thinking that Gladly was an ursine creature with an ocular irregularity, rather than an offer to shoulder the burden for Jesus on his way to Calvary.
Songs and hymns and prayers, which we learn aurally rather than via books, are great sources for this confusion, and the resulting amusement and apocryphal storytelling. My mother insists that for her and her class mates at her Catholic boarding school, Jesus suffered under a bunch of violets and was crucified, dead and buried, every morning till they were old enough to read the English version of the Nicene Creed. The fact that the creed was recited in Latin at mass and chanted in English in catechism classes didn’t help, she claimed. And at my school many a lad beat his breast swearing to “be a cowboy, be a cowboy, be a Mexican cowboy”. Then of course, there was Hail Mary, full of grapes…..
Now, these have entered the Christian joke canon along with Gladly, and it’s hard to tell whether children really did make these howlers or had heard the old jokes and gleefully played along with them. Just because something is in “daft things kids say” popular circulation doesn’t mean someone hasn’t actually experienced it for themselves – and sometimes, as the Australian national writing treasure Elizabeth Jolley once said, expressions become clichés or enter the popular lexicon for good reason, and someone said or thought them first.
But some mis-hearings I can vouch for personally. One Advent, mumbling my way through the final line of O Saving Victim, Opening Wide, “In our true native land with thee”, I was startled to hear Bridget O’Neil beside me declaring “In our time, nature lands with thee”. With a thud, presumably, from the way she was singing it. Mind you, so tortuous is the rhyme and scan of your average hymn that the alternative version makes as much sense as the real one.
There’s a patriotic Australian song that every primary school child learned to sing in the 1960s. A dreadful thing, in which you had to bellow the last line of the chorus, Australia, Australia, Australia. A few years ago I was on the phone to a very good writer friend and were discussing the title for a novel she was working on, which referenced 1960s Australian childhood quite significantly. This was also a time when, in hot, humid classrooms, we studied the political atlas of the world, spinning the globe to make the colours whirl. When it came to rest, there was the distinctive pink shape of our country – also a continent in its own right, we were told – and above it sat Asia, that vast continent full of countries, in different colours. “So what will you call the novel?” I asked. “Asia Bright”, she replied. “You know, ‘And all above is Asia Bright’.” There was a long silence on the phone while I plucked up the courage to tell my clever and linguistically nimble friend that I was pretty sure the line referred to the deep colour of the vast, blazing space over our own heads. Azure bright, sung in an Australian accent.
Mind you, I’ve always loved her story of how she and her classmates used to wonder who Ray Norverous was, and why the Queen, being happy and glorious, should long to him.
I hope this has got you smiling; and perhaps you have examples of your own – real or apocryphal. I just thought, after months of horrible news and in the midst of atrocious weather, we needed something light-hearted, and I wanted to remember how fond I am of Gladly, the cross-eyed bear.