Beware the Shibboleth

Helen Darville (as Helen Demidenko)
Helen Darville, pretending to be Helen Demidenko

And the Gileadites took the passages of (the River) Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over (the river); that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;
Then said they unto him, Say now “Shibboleth”: and he said “Sibboleth”: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of (the River) Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.
Judges 12:5, 12:6

Helen Demidenko, with her soaring book sales, may well have the last laugh; but I want it known that I laughed first.

Not at Helen Demidenko, and not even at Jill Kitson, who was speaking at the time. I laughed at a middle-class illusion that I saw dancing and wavering in the air above the heads of the crowd, the illusion of ‘authenticity’.

I’m not exactly proud of it, laughing out loud at a crowded literary event, but I did it, and I did it twice.

First when Ms Kitson, announcing the Miles Franklin Prize, talked about Richard Flanagan’s «Death of a River Guide». She said the central event of the novel — the drowning of a man in Tasmania — was described with wonderful ‘authenticity’. Her voice seemed to deepen as the word ‘authenticity’ came out, like the voice of a parson when he says ‘our Holy Father’.

My wife dug me in the ribs. ‘Why are you laughing?’ she hissed. ‘You’ve only had two glasses of wine. What’s the problem?’

‘How could she know,’ I said, tears streaming down my face, ‘how could she know if it was “authentic” or not, unless she’d drowned in a Tasmanian river? How can she actually tell if it’s really authentic, or only apparently authentic, unless she’s dead?’

We passed on from this less successful novel to «The Hand that Signed the Paper». I heard Ms Kitson’s voice deepen, and grow solemn. The book recreated the terrible events of the Holocaust, she said — down went the voice before the Temple of Literature — with wonderful ‘authenticity’.

‘Cut it out!’ hissed my wife, stamping on my instep. ‘People are looking. What is it now? Did you choke on a chicken bone or something?’

‘How could she know,’ I gasped out, wiping the wine from my shirt front, ‘how could she know if it recreates the events of the Holocaust with authenticity, unless she’d been there? Jill Kitson wasn’t in Treblinka, was she? Eh? It’s like the Portuguese chicken.’

I attempted to reiterate the Enigma of the Portuguese Chicken, but my wife wouldn’t let me. Actually, it’s properly known as the Mystery of the Authentic Coals. A flyer from my local chicken shop enthuses thus:

Our chicken pieces are cooked over “real coals” in our Portuguese barbecue.

The puzzle is, if they’re real coals, why are they enclosed in quotation marks? Does this make them less ‘real’? There’s a mystery in the humblest things.

Authenticity: it’s a shibboleth. You know, a word or phrase that catches people out. My uncle, who fought in the Pacific war, said that his patrol used shibboleths to catch out enemy troops who pretended to be Australian. If you heard movement in the jungle, you’d call out ‘Who goes there?’ The password was ‘Alligator’ or ‘Elephant’. If you heard the reply ‘Arrigator’, or ‘Errephant’, you started shooting.

Authenticity’s like that; a trap to catch enthusiastic amateurs. Old hands know better.

Janet Frame
Janet Frame

Take Janet Frame, for example. I had the honour of reading on the same platform with her at Wellington Writers Week in 1994. Among the pieces she read was a story about two dogs caught in an act of sexual congress. It sounds rude, but it wasn’t — it was extraordinary. On a still summer’s day in a small country town somewhere back in the 1930s, two dogs get stuck together in the middle of the street. A gang of kids gathers to stare in horrified fascination. A linesman is fixing some wires on an electricity pole. A tractor drives past, the sun shines down, a breeze ruffles the grass by the road. An hour goes by, and the two unfortunate animals, who want nothing more than to be separate after their brief moment of togetherness, are locked together in apparent agony.

Then someone notices that the linesman hasn’t moved for quite a while. He seems unwillingly stuck, too; frozen into an awkward position and stuck to his wires. It turns out that he has been electrocuted.

It’s only a short tale, but it has a grave fascination to it, an almost radioactive glow, as though all the sadness in the world had become focussed for a time on that half-deserted street in that half-empty town on the edge of the planet, many years ago.

After the reading I joined the hundreds of admirers who queued for her autograph.

‘That story about the dogs and the linesman,’ I said, ‘that was really wonderful.’

Ms Frame smiled anxiously and looked at the floor for a moment. She must have misheard me; perhaps she thought I was praising the story’s ‘authenticity’.

Or perhaps she wanted to test me.

She pursed her lips, looked me in the eye, and said firmly ‘I made it up, you know.’

‘Of course,’ I said. ‘Of course.’

This piece was first published in «The Australian» in 1995.

Bronze Cuckoo
Bronze Cuckoo

Later interpolation: Believe it or not, the Australian Superb Fairy Wren (I called them Blue Wrens when I was a chick) teach their unhatched chicks an individual secret shibboleth phrase while they’re still in the egg by whistling the special phrase every day for a week or so before the chicks hatch. When a bronze cuckoo lays her egg in the Fairy Wren’s nest, it hatches a few days later and kicks out the Fairy Wren eggs. But when the cuckoo chick calls for food, it fails to match the shibboleth call the Fairy Wren mother has taught her own chicks. The Fairy Wren leaves the nest soon after, and the cuckoo hatchling dies. Read more about it in detail from this site, written by “grrlScientist”, here.