In an irresistible flight of absolute fancy, I imagine Patricia Beddison Gray, just turned eight by a fortnight and being baby sat at home at Westridge, Canberra, on the night of March 18, 1932, quietly casting a curse on all journalists. Her parents, Australian Forestry School lecturer Hugh Richard Gray and his wife Judy, had gone out for the evening, to the Kurrajong Hotel for the first Press Gallery Ball held in the nation’s new capital, and were waltzing the night away to the music of the Roxy Dance Band. The reality, I gather, is that Patricia Gray was far too sensible, even at eight, to try to put a hex on anyone, including journalists. Yet in 1980 Patricia and her husband, Frank Benson Horner, published a book, When Words Fail: A Casebook of Language Lapses in Australia, that had every journalist in the country ducking for cover.
"For the purposes of this book," the Horners wrote, "words fail to meet the user's needs in three ways. First, and most obviously, they fail when they do not convey the intended meaning ... Secondly, words fail when they convey the intended meaning, but at the expense of their continued usefulness … The third way in which words fail to meet the user's needs is by alienating the reader." It’s arguable whether truer words have ever been written about the grammatically indifferent traditional content of Australian newspapers.
A young Pat Horner at a Sydney University reunion in 1953
Pat Horner began compiling When Words Fail when she was teaching at Narrabundah College in 1968, adding to examples in text books. She was initially drawn to “really exotic mixed metaphors”. Soon the Horners were leaving notepads around their Deakin home to record the howlers they heard on radio and TV. When Frank retired from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, he joined Pat in putting When Words Fail together. Happily, the project didn’t end with the publication of the book, and the Horners’ service to the English language continued for another 18 years, with a regular Saturday column appearing under the same title in The Age newspaper in Melbourne. Pat died in 2000 and Frank four years later.
In his Canberra Times review of When Words Fail (“Propriety and Elegance and a Bit of the Vernacular”), columnist Maurice Dunlevy jocularly referred to the Horners as “picking on” journalists, since “Mixing metaphors is the nearest most newspapers ever come to poetry.” Dunlevy said “the language of Australian public life is often as clumsy as a duck in a ploughed paddock”. He believed that “no attack on the press … has been so savage and yet so subtle as that by [these] two Canberrans”. Their work was “wicked and seemingly dispassionate” … “Frank Horner and Patricia Horner have attacked the freedom of the press by ridiculing the freedom with which the press uses language.” Dunlevy added, “Who … cares if the language of the news is as rough as a pig's breakfast? The Homers care, that's who. And because they care they may deprive journalists of their freedom not to care. Their documentary casebook collects examples of when words have failed professional speakers and writers in Australia today and their notes comment on the failures.”
Oh, for such a couple of guardians of the English language “as she’s writ” today. What appears online and in print from the fingers of modern journalists would require not one slim work like When Words Fail, but something of the four-volume, 510,000-word magnitude of Winston Churchill’s opus, A History of the English-Speaking Peoples. Thirty-seven years on from the appearance of When Words Fail, Dunlevy’s own words have failed and, it’s clear, nobody cares any longer.
A week or so ago I was drawn to this book by its cover, adorned with a wonderful illustration by Frank Horner’s brother, Arthur Wellesley Horner (1916-1997), creator of the Colonel Pewter cartoon strip (which sometimes featured Fleet Street reporter Wesley Upchat). Frank and Arthur were members of an extraordinarily talented family, which also included Aboriginal rights activist John Curwen (“Jack”) Horner (1922-2010). They were the sons of Arthur Horner (1883-1969), a man who rose from being a vice-telegraph messenger in his home town of Riverton in South Australia in 1902 to director of Posts and Telegraphs in the federal Postmaster-General’s Department in 1948.
Jean and Jack Horner
Arthur Horner was said to have “had a seemingly limitless imagination and amazing dexterity of vision and technique in the comics medium”.
Born at East Malvern in Victoria on October 28, 1917, Dr Frank Horner joined the New South Wales Bureau of Statistics in 1935 and attended evening classes at Sydney University to obtain a degree in economics. He was seconded to the Commonwealth Treasury in 1940 but was eventually commissioned as a naval officer serving mainly in New Guinea waters between 1943-46. Frank's wedding day with Pat in January 1946 was put back a week because he had come down with malaria on the original date.
After post-graduate studies for his doctorate at the London School of Economics, Frank returned to the bureau as assistant statistician and rose to the position of assistant Government Statistician. In 1958 he joined the Commonwealth Bureau of Census and Statistics in Canberra and was appointed deputy Commonwealth Statistician in 1964. Frank was known for his pioneering work in the introduction of social indicators to Australia and for his professional rigour.
Following retirement from the public service, Frank abandoned figures for words and concentrated his efforts on researching early French voyages in the Pacific. He published two elegant works, French Reconnaissance: Baudin in Australia in 1987 and Looking for La Pérouse: D’Entrecasteaux in Australia and the South Pacific 1792-1793 in 1995. For these two ground-breaking books Frank was decorated by the French government. On November 19, 2002, France’s Ambassador to Australia, Pierre Viaux, presented Frank with the insignia of the Palmes Académiques (see image below).
Frank was also passionate about classical music and was on the committees of the Canberra Youth Orchestra and the Canberra Symphony Orchestra.
This “Gang Gang” column about When Words Fail appeared in The Canberra Times in September 1980. Frank and Pat Horner might have been highly amused that when the article appeared in print, it quoted Frank as using the word “badder”, which a reader quickly pointed out in a letter to the editor. Frank replied that he’d actually said “harder” and blamed the reporter’s tape recorder (personally, I’d have blamed the reporter and the sub-editor and the check sub).
Pat Horner’s father, Dick Gray (1895-1979), was born in Oxford in England and died there, but spent more than 30 years of his life in Australia. After serving in World War I, he became inspector of forests on the Nile in the Sudan and in July 1923 took up an appointment as a forester in Western Australia. In 1927 he moved to Canberra to be one of the original lecturers at the Australian Forestry School.
Dick Gray, circled, in 1935. Behind him, to his left, is one of his students, Lindsay Pryor, ironically the son of a cartoonist, Oswald Pryor, and the father of a well-known newspaper cartoonist, Geoff Pryor.
Patricia was born at Waverley Private Hospital on Adelaide Terrace in Perth on March 4, 1924. Her parents moved to Canberra three years later and Pat soon proved to be a brilliant student. She attended Telopea Park School and at age 11 passed a high school entrance examination. Pat then gained a Canberra scholarship from the Canberra High School on her leaving certificate in 1940, aged 16. She did war work at Mount Stromlo Observatory in 1941. The next year Pat produced outstanding results in her first year Arts course at Sydney University; she tied for first in English I and won the MacCullum Prize and the Maud Stiles Prize for women students. She was third in History. Pat graduated in 1946. Clearly possessed of a sharp intellect, in later life she was unafraid to speak out on an extremely diverse range of issues, from opening public libraries on Sundays to National Gallery entry fees, banning casinos in Canberra and saving the city’s trees, building a biological centre and providing better remand care.
Jack Horner, like Frank, was educated at Sydney High School. He then studied art at East Sydney Technical College before being called up to serve in the Australian Army in 1943. In 1950, Jack and his wife Jean travelled to England, where they found work designing and painting scenery for theatre productions. They returned to Australia in 1953 – when Jack started work with the Law Book Company. The couple became involved with the Workers’ Educational Association and developed an awareness of discrimination against Aborigines, which led to their involvement in campaigning for Aboriginal rights and taking an active role in organisations supporting the cause. Jack and Jean joined the newly-formed Aboriginal-Australian Fellowship in 1957 and campaigned for the repeal of the New South Wales Aborigines Protection Act 1935. As the fellowship’s secretary from 1958-66, Jack was responsible for campaigns to remove discriminating clauses relating to Aboriginal people from New South Wales laws and he was secretary of the “Vote Yes” Committee for the 1967 referendum to remove similar clauses from the Australian Constitution. Jack and Jean were executive members of the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, Jack as vice-president and general secretary and Jean as the treasurer. They were also members of the Australian Council of Churches Commission on Aboriginal Development. Jack’s works include Seeking Racial Justice: An Insider's Memoir for the Movement of Aboriginal Advancement, 1938-1978 and co-authorship of A Dictionary of Australian History.
* I acknowledge considerable assistance from Harriet Barry, daughter of Pat and Frank Horner.