off the cuff

Some things change, some stay the same

The challenge is not to spell Constantinople correctly, or even to spell it at all, but to really listen carefully and hear that one is required to spell the word ‘it’

Kevin Martin,Special to Gulf News
16:49 July 11, 2018

Constantinople is a very big word, but if you cannot spell it you’re a big fool! This is the line that one youngster is teasing the other with on the train ride. They are both attired in school uniform and, with a pair of heavy bags on the seat beside them, it is obvious that they are getting themselves in ‘school mode’ a little ahead of schedule.

My train commute constitutes about four stations and three of those are usually spent in the company of hordes of pupils. The sound of their combined voices can be deafening. It can really give meaning to words like ‘babble’ and ‘cacophony’. Everybody wants to speak at the same time. Everybody wants to be speaking over everybody else. And everybody has something he or she has to say and has to say it now!

Which begs the question: Who’s really listening? It would appear that nobody’s been elected to play the role of ‘listener’.

For my part, I generally hear this chaos even before I board the train every day. It starts bout two to three hours earlier, depending on Sydney’s daylight savings time. In poetry it’s usually referred to as the Dawn Chorus and it emanates from myriad nests in groves of trees that surround our place.

It is how birds come awake. And I have learned to endure their morning screeching before they all, somewhat in unison, leave their nests for another day’s work looking for food, keeping a sharp eye out for worms and an even sharper eye on the lookout for larger birds, those referred to as birds of prey — hawks, eagles, ospreys, falcons — that, from time to time out of necessity swoop on their own kind when the going gets tough.

On this day in the train, however, there’s just a sprinkling of school-going children. I learn much later that this is because schools have announced two days’ worth of study leave prior to the examinations and only those who wish to come in to school for a little extra work with the teachers may do so; the others are allowed to just revise at home at their own self-set schedules.

Which explains why, as I walk the 500 metres from my home to the railway station, I see a fair number of who I thought ought to be school-going children attired in civilian dress riding the footpaths on skateboards, shirt tails and hair flying in the wind.

But back to the two young ones in the carriage and to the challenge: Constantinople is a very big word, but if you cannot spell it ... What surprises me is that this is almost, word for word, a kind of trick-challenge that we as children used to pose to each other in our schooldays. It amazes me that this has survived through the generations.

The challenge is not to spell Constantinople correctly, or even to spell it at all, but to really listen carefully and hear that one is required to spell the word ‘it’.

As children, it used to make us laugh mirthfully when elders, upon being challenged, tried their best to not slip up on the spelling of Constantinople! Elders, I now know, hate being caught in a spelling trap. Certainly not spelling things out loudly that just might not be correct.

As with life — and reminded by these two children on the train – I realise that some things stay the same, despite the years. Other things, however, change. I wonder if these two children knew that Constantinople was no longer that. It is Istanbul. I wonder if they know that Ankara was once Angora; Beijing was Peking; Jakarta was Batavia; Harare was Salisbury; Volgograd was Stalingrad and St Petersburg was Leningrad; and Yangon was Rangoon? I wonder what, in another 50 years, Sydney will be called, or Melbourne; and because change can be circular will some of them revert to their former names? Will Mumbai ever be Bombay again? Or Chennai, Madras?

Kevin Martin is a journalist based in Sydney, Australia.