Selected Publications

Enviro(n)mental Solutions (2022)

Walking through Brisbane’s CBD near where Albert Street Station is under construction, I couldn’t help noticing this error on the side of a haulage-and-disposal truck. 

Admittedly, ‘environmental’ is a somewhat tricky word to spell: as with ‘government’, you can be tripped up by the silent ‘n’. But why, then, does a correctly spelled ‘environmental’ appear on the same side of the same truck—just a short distance away from the incorrectly spelled one?  

Could it be that, rather than going to the trouble of inserting an ‘n’, Lantrak tried to draw our attention away from the omission by placing another ‘environmental’, complete with the ‘n’, over to the right?  

I put this question to the Brisbane-Gold Coast division of Lantrak. Someone from their Marketing division advised that he was aware of the error (‘I spotted it when it came back from the printers’), and congratulated me on noticing it, claiming that ‘enviromental’ had been there for two years and yet nobody else had ever pointed it out. He added, ‘I should send you a prize or something.’ Sounded good to me; I pictured a large gift-basket, or maybe some sort of engraved plaque, being delivered to my door.  

‘Don’t they run a spellcheck at the printers?’ I asked. He didn’t know.  

‘What about the truckdrivers themselves? Didn’t any of them notice the mistake?’ 

‘Those guys? They’re basically illiterate.’ 

Lantrak, apparently, uses half a dozen different types of ‘environmental solutions’ stickers on their trucks, but only one of those sticker types contains the error, and ‘only four or five’ trucks have that particular sticker on them. The printers, to their credit, offered to make a special ‘correction’ to paste over the misspelling—an enviromental solution, of sorts. But as the Lantrak representative explained, it didn’t make a lot of financial sense to take the trucks off the road for such non-haulage-and-disposal-related reasons.   

‘And anyway,’ he said, ‘soon we’ll be updating all our stickers—it’ll be a whole new look.’  

This sounded curiously similar to the health clinic’s response when I pointed out the error on their sign (see ‘Remedial Spelling’). And, given that several Lantrak trucks have been driving around for the last two years with that clanger on display, doesn’t it seem a bit coincidental that Lantrak has suddenly decided to revamp all their stickers? Is this simply what every company says when they want to deflect spelling pedants? We will see soon enough. And if the error remains uncorrected, at least I’ll have the consolation of my gift-basket and/or engraved plaque.

When Harry Met Alice (2019)

Question: what connects ‘shock rocker’ Alice Cooper and beloved Australian naturalist Harry Butler? Answer: not very much—except, perhaps, for the Rolf Harris song ‘Sun Arise’. This well-known slice of Australiana, co-written by Butler and Harris, was the latter’s first US hit, reaching number 61 on the Billboard Top 100 singles charts in 1963. Eight years later, Alice Cooper concluded his third album, Love it to Death, with his own interpretation of ‘Sun Arise’—perhaps one of the most unlikely cover versions in rock history.  

After all, ‘Sun Arise’ is perhaps the last song, with the possible exception of ‘Jake the Peg’, you would expect from a man whose name has become synonymous with the macabre and freakish. And yet according to Alice’s former bandmate Dennis Dunaway in his memoir Snakes! Guillotines! Electric Chairs! My Adventures in the Alice Cooper Group, Cooper had liked the song since first hearing it as a high-school student in the early sixties. He included ‘Sun Arise’ in live shows at the beginning of the following decade; the next logical step, it seems, was to record it and stick it at the end of Love it to Death.  

In interviews around that period, Cooper himself claimed that he preferred listening to Burt Bacharach than rock music, so maybe ‘Sun Arise’ wasn’t such a huge leap after all. 

But it’s a pretty weird song in its own right: not exactly pop, nor folk, nor the sort of novelty/comedy record of the ‘Tie Me Kangaroo Down’ variety for which Harris might be better known (these days he’s probably best known for being a convicted sex offender, but that’s another story). ‘Sun Arise’ seeks to capture the feel of Australian Aboriginal music, to which Harris was introduced by Butler, but the didgeridoo-like drone is in fact achieved by multiple double basses—perhaps at the suggestion of the song’s famous producer, George Martin.  

The song also features the twang of what sounds like a Jew’s harp, and those wooden sticks being rhythmically banged together are claves: more Afro-Cuban than indigenous Australian.  

Given this peculiar combination of instruments, coupled with Harris’ calypso-style delivery, the song is downright multicultural—perhaps an early example of what has come to be known as ‘world music’, even if the key personnel were white and Australian/English. It may also be the first pop song to mention the Kangaroo Paw, a plant native—like the song’s composers—to Western Australia.  

Alice Cooper’s ‘Sun Arise’ is played at the same tempo as the original, but its standard rock instrumentation—drums, bass, and Glen Buxton’s wailing guitar—behind Cooper’s slightly menacing and occasionally off-key vocals (“Sun a-rieeese/She come every moh-nain’”) make the Harris version seem rather limp, if more faithful to the Aboriginal music that inspired it. After a relatively subdued beginning, Cooper’s version builds to an uplifting conclusion, in which the refrains ‘Every every every every day’ and ‘Sun arise/Whoa-oh-oh’ repeatedly overlap. Coming directly after ‘Ballad of Dwight Fry’, the story of a mental-institution inmate—subject matter that would seem closer to Alice’s heart than sunrises and Kangaroo Paws—this dynamic final track, like the sunrise itself, does indeed ‘drive away the darkness’.  

A few other artists have had a crack at the song since Cooper made it his own. UK new wave band The Godfathers released it as a single in the mid-1980s—heavier than both its predecessors, it features a ‘sample’ of a Reverend Desmond Tutu speech—and Led Zeppelin’s Robert Plant and Jimmy Page performed a semi-improvised and fairly woeful version on the Denton show in the 1990s. Neither interpretation adds much to what Cooper and his band did with the song in 1971. He saw this eccentric composition’s rock ‘n’ roll potential and transformed it into something markedly different from the original—which is what the best cover versions do.  

Harry Butler died in 2015, aged 85. No doubt he will be remembered less for writing songs and more for wandering around the bush in a khaki hat picking up tree snakes (an unexpected second link to our other famous snake enthusiast). Harris, now 90, was released from prison in 2017 after serving three years of a five year and nine month sentence for indecent assault. Cooper, at 68, is not only alive and not in gaol, but still performing. And what does the degenerate shock rocker do in between concerts? He spends time with his family, plays golf, and drinks copious amounts of Diet Coke. What a sicko! 

The Other David Cohens (2021)

The other day I typed my name into Google Books, just for the mild thrill of seeing my own three titles appear. But the mild thrill quickly gave way to mild despair when I saw just how many other writers there are named David Cohen: dozens of the buggers. It’s difficult enough trying to stand out from all the writers not named David Cohen, without having to stand out from myself.  

But losing one’s personal identity can have its upside: I noticed that Google Books had mistakenly attributed my books to a far more accomplished David Cohen; namely, the UK author of Diana: Death of a GoddessThe Escape of Sigmund Freud, and other successful titles. Cohen is, among other things, a psychologist, film-maker, and Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine. It’s people like him who give other David Cohens a bad name. Or should I say a good name. The substitution of his highly impressive bio for my pretty average one can only be a positive thing, as potential readers may well be more inclined to buy books by him than by me. 

Interestingly, Cohen was born in 1946, while I can say with some certainty that I was born in 1967 (as Mark Twain might have quipped, reports of my birth have been greatly exaggerated). This means that I have 21 years up my sleeve in which to narrow the gap between me and him, eventually bringing our respective biographies into alignment. It will, of course, entail my becoming a psychologist, film-maker, Fellow of the Royal Society of Medicine, etc., but it will save Google Books the trouble of having to correct their error.* 

But David Cohen is not the only David Cohen to whom my books have been wrongly attributed. After the Google Books experiment, I looked up my name in the online catalogues of several Australian public libraries, many of which claim that my books have been authored by David Cohen (b.1955), award-winning journalist (The IndependentThe GuardianThe New York Times, etc.) and author of Chasing the Red, White, and Blue: A Journey through Tocqueville’s Footsteps through Contemporary America, and other books.  

That in itself makes for an enviable CV, but there’s more: Cohen studied politics, philosophy and economics at Oxford University, and was a Harkness Fellow at Columbia University. He currently lives in London with his wife and two daughters (how I envy authors who live in London with their wife and two daughters).  

Could there be a more comprehensive list of things I haven’t done? And yet, in an instant, I have done them all—including the London/wife/two daughters combination that has always so appealed to me. Had it not been for this cataloguing error (or was it the work of an anonymous Good Samaritan?) my books may well have languished on the shelves, only to be mercilessly culled in due course, instead of enjoying—if my Public Lending Right earnings are any indication—a fairly healthy borrowing history. 

In short, being mistaken for other David Cohens isn’t all bad, although there are times when it is—one of those times being the announcement of the winner of the biennial £40,000 David Cohen Prize for Literature (named in honour of its founder, Dr David Cohen, a British GP and cultural philanthropist who passed away in 2019 at the age of 89).  

This is where having the name David Cohen really works against me; even other, far more illustrious David Cohens are severely disadvantaged. Suppose I could somehow overcome the almost insurmountable obstacles to being eligible for this award—one must be a citizen of the UK or Republic of Ireland; one must demonstrate an outstanding lifetime’s achievement in literature; one cannot simply enter the prize but must be chosen for it by one’s peers—they will simply never award the David Cohen Prize to someone named David Cohen, for obvious reasons: if they did, everyone would be thinking to themselves: He didn’t win that prize on his merits. He only won it because he’s David Cohen! Even if they knew the facts, it would always be a tainted victory.  

The only way I’ll have a shot at winning the prize is if I write under a pseudonym. I’m not yet sure what that will be, but I’m leaning towards ‘Julian Barnes’. After all, the other Julian Barnes has already won it, and that can’t help but work in my favour. 

*Tragically, the error was corrected before I published this post

A Tale of Two Fs (2016)

Some time ago I was waiting at the bus stop on the corner of Musgrave Road and Upper Clifton Terrace, Red Hill, when I noticed that ‘Clifton’ was spelt with two fs on the bus-stop marker, but (correctly) with one f on the nearby street sign.

I couldn’t let that glaring inconsistency stand. Nor was it fair that the bus stop had twice its fair share of fs while some other bus stop might well be missing out entirely—and I don’t imagine that the Brisbane City Council has an endless supply of fs to throw around.

I immediately phoned the Council and asked them if they could see their way clear to removing one of the fs—it was entirely up to them which one—from bus stop 5a in Red Hill, and perhaps reassigning it to a more deserving bus stop elsewhere in Brisbane.

They said they’d forward my request to Translink, Brisbane’s public transport provider. I suspected that this might be their polite way of telling me to ‘f’ off, and that I’d end up having to go back to the bus stop myself with a bottle of Liquid Paper.

Ah, but I was wrong. The next time I passed the stop, the second f was gone. It’s no exaggeration to say that the sight of that amendment restored my faith in humanity (and Translink).

At the same time, I was a bit disappointed that my intervention hadn’t been publicly acknowledged. I didn’t expect grand gestures: a simple inscription somewhere on the bus stop would have sufficed—something along the lines of The Brisbane City Council, in association with Translink and other key stakeholders, extends its heartfelt gratitude to David Cohen, etc.

But like most true heroes, I remain anonymous. Never mind: correct spelling is its own reward—although, as rewards go, I prefer cash.

Remedial Spelling (2021)

A couple of months ago I walked into a complementary health clinic in South Brisbane to inform them that the word ‘acupuncture’ on their sign was misspelt.

It had been like that for ages—and this wasn’t some insignificant, handwritten sign, but a large, prominent, professionally designed one. ‘Remedial massage’ was spelled correctly (as was ‘therapeutic massage’, the acupuncturist’s additional specialisation). ‘Visceral manipulation’ was spelled correctly. Even ‘Craniosacral therapy’ was spelled correctly. So what was the story with ‘acupunture’?

Could it be that the acupuncturist didn’t actually know how to spell the name of his own area of expertise, so had never corrected the error? A profoundly depressing thought. Imagine: someone shows up for an appointment, sees the typo and thinks, But wait a minute. If the acupuncturist doesn’t even know how to spell ‘acupuncture’, how can I be sure he’ll know where to put the needles? Hmm, maybe I should try craniosacral therapy instead.

I’m not suggesting that there’s any inherent connection between being an acupuncturist and not knowing how to spell, but a missing c can’t help but reflect badly on the profession.

A more likely scenario is that the acupuncturist did know how to spell the name of his own area of expertise, but hadn’t noticed the typo—which would call into question his attention to detail. An acupuncturist who overlooks such an error might be an acupuncturist who says, ‘I’m just going to insert this needle along your lung meridian,’ while absent-mindedly inserting it along your spleen meridian, and carrying on as if nothing’s amiss.

A third and perhaps even more unsettling possibility is that the acupuncturist knew how to spell the name of his own area of expertise, had noticed the typo, but simply didn’t care. While such a near-enough-is-good-enough attitude can’t do any serious harm in the textual realm, a similar approach when it comes to treatment(‘I’ll just stick this needle in the general vicinity of the lung meridian and hope for the best’) is problematic.

Whatever the reasons behind the ongoing absence of the second c, it was really beginning to do my head in. So, having first googled the word ‘acupunture’—just to eliminate the possibility that it’s an actual form of complementary medicine I’d never heard of—I walked into the clinic. I walked in as if I were just a regular patient with no particular interest in spelling, all the while preparing for an intervention (‘Hold on a minute now: I’m not here to get acupuncture; I’m here on behalf of the word “acupuncture”.’). As to the acupuncturist’s reaction, that was anyone’s guess. Shock? Disbelief? Resentment? Maybe even denial? But, if all went well, ultimately humble gratitude, along with a commitment to rectifying the sign without delay.

As it turned out, the only person in the clinic at that time was the remedial massage specialist, who informed me that the acupuncturist had finished for the day (it was, admittedly, after 5pm). Would I like to make an appointment? I said I’d prefer not to, and that I’d really come to talk about the missing c on the sign outside.

She had no idea what I was on about, so I drew her attention to the typo.

She said, ‘I’ve never noticed that.’

‘And neither, it seems, has the acupuncturist,’ I rejoined.

She replied that, although she couldn’t speak for the acupuncturist, this did appear to be the case.

‘But the thing is,’ she explained, ‘that sign’s going to be replaced soon anyway—it needs updating—so we’ll obviously correct the typo at the same time. Thanks for pointing it out.’

Two months later, the original sign remains, as does the typo. (Could it be that this ‘new sign’ business is a line they feed to anyone who points out the error, just to avoid having to go to the trouble of fixing it)? Since nobody, including the acupuncturist himself, seems concerned about this, I’ve got half a mind to correct it myself while we wait for the ‘new sign’ to arrive. I just need to lay my hands on a c. I’m sure there are plenty around, at a loose end, more than happy to step in and do the job. In fact, just the other day I passed a shop with a sign outside: Vaccuum Cleaner Repairs. I’ll have a word with them: maybe we can make a deal.