25 November 2004

A Short Festival on Bad Timing

by Matt Rubinstein at 9:45 am

I wrote this piece on spec for the Herald‘s “short festival” series—which used be on the back of Saturday’s Spectrum part, which was (the Spectrum part was) pleasingly tabloid in shape and easy to handle, as well as having a good concentration of literate and whimsical writing—about a week before the reverse-takeover of the old 48 Hours, in the course of which both the convenient tabloid format and the A Short Festival On: feature were scrapped.

It might even have been ironic if it’d actually been A Short Festival on: Bad Timing, especially because what a lot of people think of as irony—particularly what certain Canadian singers famously think—is in fact just bad timing. But it wasn’t, though it was close. It was, in fact:

A Short Festival On: Mistakes

“That’s one small step for a man… one giant leap for mankind,” Commander Neil Alden Armstrong intones portentously as his boot sinks into the lunar dust. At least, that’s what he was supposed to say. In fact he just says “one small step for man”—you can listen to the tape, it’s there forever. And since in the olden days “man” meant the same thing as “mankind” did (that is, “everyone”, and not just “blokes”), perhaps the most famous line in the cosmos winds up making no sense at all.

But it’s hard to blame Neil for his slip of the tongue (or tip of the slung, as the Reverend William Archibald Spooner would have it). He had, after all, just plonked down on the moon, the moon: he was understandably overwhelmed, and the slight flubbing of his line reflected the thrill and awe we all felt at the time, if we were alive. For this honourable, this endearing blunder, he is the patron saint of our festival.

Compare Neil’s benign muffing with US President George Walker Bush’s verbal train wrecks. It may be heart-warming to hear him wax about the struggle to “put food on your family” and affirm that “the human being and fish can coexist peacefully”. But when he starts up with the “tacular weapons” and “potential mential losses”, we suspect he’s trying to get at something to do with tactical nukes and missile launches, and there’s no room for those at our festival. Let his wings take dream somewhere else.

Ah, mistakes. Everyone makes them, so they say. In language, in life, and certainly in love, they’re usually embarrassing and sometimes mortifying. The biggest ones may never be admitted: there have been loads of wars, for example, and surely at least a couple of them have been somewhat off-beam, but you won’t catch anyone fessing up. Maybe they’re too big to be called mistakes; maybe they need another word.

Other mistakes are smaller in scope but still impress with their comprehensiveness. Take the plaque issued by the citizens of Lauderhill, Florida, to commemorate Martin Luther King Day in 2002. It was meant to thank actor James Earl Jones, best known as the voice of Darth Vader in the good Star Wars films, who had spoken at the celebrations; instead, it was made out to James Earl Ray, the man convicted of assassinating Dr King in 1968. It thanked him for “keeping the dream alive”.

In fact our whole festival could be given over to the Americans, whose country was, after all, discovered by accident. We can only wonder how long Cristoforo Colombo thought he was in the East Indies after he washed up in the New World; certainly long enough to call the people he met Indians, and for that name to stick for four centuries. Some would consider this kind of mistake serendipity, though the “Indians” might not be among them.

Greater consensus attaches to the serendipity of Alexander Fleming, who came back from holidays to find, like many of us, that his dirty plates were growing mould; only his plates had staphylococcus culture on them, and his mould was penicillin. It took an Australian, Sir Howard Walter Florey, to develop useful antibiotics from the mould, but none of it would have been possible without Sir Alexander’s happy accident.

Similar but less-exalted stories persist about the invention of Coca Cola, but in this case the legends themselves are mistaken: the carbonation of that syrupy solvent was by design, not serendipity. Conversely, prevailing wisdom suggests that the 2001 romantic comedy Serendipity, starring John Cusack and Kate Beckinsale, was in fact a mistake.

Mistakes have plagued or enriched art and literature forever. A 1631 edition of the King James Bible landed its printers in hot water when its Seventh Commandment elided a critical word and instructed the credulous: “Thou shalt commit adultery”. Other versions describe Adam and Eve making “aprons” out of fig-leaves, cry “Is there no treacle in Gilead?” and have Rebekah rising with her camels, instead of her damsels. It can be no surprise that one self-referential Bible complains that “Printers have persecuted me without a cause”, where most versions are concerned with princes.

But these are all human errors: what about God? It’s not for us to say, but He, in his omniscience, seems to have had a few regrets. Listen to Him in Genesis, cooking up the flood to destroy everything: “For it repenteth me that I have created them”. It repenteth me—that’s worth a pavilion at our festival.

On the other hand, in Sophocles’s Oedipus Rex, the gods are infallible and the humans are the ones slapsticking and pratfalling about. The king’s story is a litany of bloopers: first he unwittingly kills his father and marries his mother, and then he insists on heading the royal commission that ends up exposing and destroying himself. And all because his parents thought they could avoid it all happening, as was prophesied, by leaving their baby on a mountain. Talk about your clangers.

It’s not all bad. Who honestly doesn’t prefer Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “There’s a bathroom on the right,” or Bob Dylan’s “The ants are my friends” to the real lyrics? Who hasn’t had fun with that Bruce Springsteen number later recorded by Manfred Mann’s Earth Band, which starts “She was blinded by the light” and goes on about wraps and douches and God knows what else? The Byrds’ 1970 album (Untitled) and the Electric Light Orchestra’s No Answer were both so named because of record company snafus, which may well have helped them, considering some of their intentional titles.

Medieval architects designed their cathedrals with the spires slightly off-centre so as not to pretend perfection and offend God. For the same reason, every Persian carpet contains one mismatched thread. City guides include false streets, and dictionaries made-up words, in order to catch out plagiarists. And old journals claimed to make deliberate mistakes, offering prizes for readers astute enough to spot them.

There is, of course, at least one deliberate mistake in this festival.

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