Wednesday, 31 January 2018

Words and Phrases - a Continuing Series

I am beginning to think that “with all due respect” is one of the most aggressive phrases in the English language. Any rival suggestions or opposing views, welcomed, (with, naturally, all due respect).

Sunday, 28 January 2018

Reasons to Tweet - a Continuing Series

The heading for this post is slightly misleading since my aim is to demonstrate what fun it is to be on Twitter, rather than what fun it is to Tweet, which I think is something that you should be very careful about doing very often, particularly late at night or after a drink or ten. My point is that, while Twitter is a much sneered at area of so-called social media, I think it is quite a good source of interesting information and quite a bit of harmless humour. Used with caution, it can be a great way of discovering interesting things, getting to know nice people and having a moderate amount of fun.

I have already included a few accounts of Twitter silliness on this blog - records of games played, in which participants thought up silly film names and so forth. Today though I want to write about an account that is very informative, (especially for someone who is geographically dyslexic, as I am), and simultaneously contains many amusing bits and pieces. It belongs to someone called Simon Kuestenmacher. He lives in Melbourne and on Twitter he calls himself @simongerman600. His account consists almost entirely of maps. Most of them are anywhere between moderately and extremely interesting. The example I'm going to talk about is at the trivial end of the spectrum I suppose, because I am a rather trivial kind of person. It is a map of the world that Simon tweeted recently, showing the tourism slogans each country uses to promote itself to potential visitors.

If you want to see the map itself, go to Twitter and search for @simongerman600. Below I have listed most of the slogans, with my own reactions in brackets beside them. They range from the totally inadequate and unimaginative, through many lame attempts at jokes to slogans that are unintentionally funny and onwards to those that are out-and-out mystifying:

Mexico: Live it to believe it (not necessarily positive)

El Salvador: the 45-minute country (????)

Ecuador: All you need is Ecuador  (unlikely, given I've lived this long without it)

Panama: Panama surprises (ambiguous)

Honduras: Everything is here (patently untrue)

Haiti: Experience it (not necessarily promising, I'd have thought)

Belize: A curious place (raises so many questions)

Dominican Republic: Dominican Republic has it all (See Ecuador and Honduras)

Bolivia: Bolivia awaits you (is it just me, or does that have a faintly threatening ring to it?)

Chile: All are welcome (well that's the migrant crisis solved)

Paraguay: You have to feel it (bossy and not necessarily positive

Argentina: Beats to your rhythm (as someone who entirely lacks rhythm, this is no recommendation)

Suriname: A colourful experience, exotic beyond words (rather verbose and the phrase "a colourful experience" sounds faintly euphemistic)

Venezuela: Venezuela is your destination (not exactly a sales pitch)

Brazil: Brasil - sensational (as is an electric shock)

Portugal: Europe's west coast (statement of the bleeding obvious)

Ireland: Jump into Ireland (is it possible to come by anything other than parachute?)

Switzerland: Get natural (so it's a nudist colony, is that what you are saying?)

Algeria: Tourism for everybody (Hmmm)

Gambia: The smiling coast of Africa (actually this is rather sweet)

Tunisia: I feel like Tunisia (it's a country, not a takeaway food chain)

Hungary: Think Hungary more than expected (come on, you lot are so clever, you can easily master English grammar, this means nothing and you know it)

Luxembourg: Live your unexpected Luxembourg (sadly I've been there and it turned out that what was unexpected was that it was a lot less picturesque and a lot duller than I'd imagined)

Netherlands: The original cool (but of course nothing that thinks itself cool ever is cool)

Italy: Made in Italy (there is a logical flaw there)

Slovenia: sLOVEnia (the Slovenians do love playing around with English and I suppose this is more successful than the Slovenian watch and clock company that calls itself SLOWatch)

Denmark: Happiest place on earth (they don't mention that it is also the country with the highest consumption of anti-depressant drugs, but there you go)

Belgium: the place to be (I don't know where to begin)

Austria: Arrive and revive (while it rhymes, it also makes a beautiful country sound like a motorway stopping station and a road safety campaign all rolled into one)

Slovakia: Travel in Slovakia - good idea (this is faultless although lacking entirely in sophistication)

Finland: I wish I was in Finland (who is speaking? Why do they wish they were there?)

Belarus: Hospitality beyond borders (once again, I sense menace, because I know enough about the regime there to suspect they might pursue me after I leave the country should I neglect to pay my bills or offend them in some other way)

Serbia: My Serbia (well fine, I won't come, I will leave you to possess it in peace, if that's how you feel about it)

Albania: Go your own way (once again, the fact that I have travelled quite a lot in Albania may be colouring my reaction, which rather tends to thinking that this is good advice since the roads are so lousy that you might just as well go cross-country)

Syria: Always beautiful (in current circumstances this is almost tragic)

Jordan: Yes, it's Jordan ( all right, keep your hair on, there's no need to snap at me, I'm not very good at reading a map and I thought it might be Lebanon)

Saudi Arabia: Experience to discover (again leaves so much to be read between the lines)

Tanzania: the land of Kilimanjaro, Zanzibar and the Serengeti (possibly the most sensible slogan of the lot - explaining exactly what you will get)

India: Incredible (do you see what they're doing there - In/In?)

Kazakhstan: the land of wonders (if they have them, why not take a leaf out of Tanzania's book and tell us what they are)

Russia: Reveal your own Russia (that could have been written by one of those academics who encourages you to believe that anything is a text and all texts mean whatever you want them to mean)

China: China like never before (puzzling, plus leaves you wondering whether it is getting better or worse)

South Korea: Imagine your Korea (I can do that while staying at home, possibly more effectively than if I've got the reality right in front of me)

East Timor: Being first has its rewards (are they implying that no one has ever gone there as a tourist before and they'd like to use me as a guinea pig, but therefore it won't cost much?)

Japan: Endless discovery (does that sound tiring, or is it just me?)

Papua New Guinea: A million different journeys (does that sound even more tiring?)

New Zealand: 100 per cent pure (is this an exciting prospect?)

Australia: There's NOTHING like Australia (thank the lord, can we please go home now)

Saturday, 27 January 2018

Book 3 - 2018: Reservoir 13 by Jon McGregor

I listened to this book in an unabridged Audible edition, and it is a book that very much suits the audio form. It is less a narrative than a flow of words, in which the author chronicles, in a tone that is not quite indifferent, the life of a village over a period of thirteen years, starting from the year in which a teenage visitor goes missing. The author's intention seems to be to present the ebb and flow of life in a small community, building up an understanding of the way in which time rolls on, demonstrating the insignificance of individual lives in the scheme of things and the mystery of human behaviour.

The writing is beautiful, and the book has a slightly mesmeric effect - at least if you listen to it; were I making the effort to drag my own eyes across its pages, rather than having it read to me, I suspect I might have grown bored with the novel's attempted refusal to get involved with any of its imagined characters. Leaving aside questions about why a novel that keeps its characters at a distance might be a novel worth writing, the attempt to do so is not successful anyway. Despite his efforts to remain at arm's length, the author cannot avoid favouring some characters over others, providing glimpses of some internal landscapes, while still barring us from the majority. For example, while Mr Wilson is never allowed an instant of inner reality, his neighbour Cathy is afforded that privilege in their interactions, which at crucial moments are described not from the lofty narratorial position that the author is usually aiming for but very much from her point of view. Similarly, only a small number of the village's occupants are actually given individual life at all. We are aware of a shadowy mass of others, via the regular passive statements of their collective awareness of who is seeing whom and what is going on.

One suspicion I had as I listened was that the author might actually find characterisation something that lies outside his range of talents. This suspicion was reinforced by a listen to some of the Reservoir Tales he has written for BBC Radio 4, in which he does provide closer looks at individual characters from the book; the ones I listened to struck me as flat and banal, detracting from the strange, enigmatic beauty which is the book's achievement.

In short, it seems to me that the author is almost completely successful in realising his ambition for the book, which is to portray life - both human and natural; the life cycles of fox families, the flowering patterns of wild flowers recur across the years - in a small community, but to eschew all effort to explain it. Whether such an ambition is worthwhile, I am less certain. The book seemed to me to have something in common with hyper-real painting, in the sense that it is hugely impressive, but shallow, detailed but lacking in depth. Despite the width of its canvas - the timespan of the novel is more than a decade - the book lacks sprawl and occasionally it crossed my mind that this might be how a novel written by artificial intelligence might turn out. McGregor can describe things beautifully; I hope in his next project, he will let his imagination run a bit freer and produce something a little less icily schematic and controlled.

Thursday, 25 January 2018

Half Seen

There used to be someone who wrote a really funny column about television for the Sydney Morning Herald. The piece of his that I have always remembered included the wish that there might exist (have I used the subjunctive correctly here? Such a worry), a piece of equipment that you could wear on your head while watching television; its function would be to shield you from things that you did not want to see.

The contraption the columnist imagined was something that would frame your face in much the same way that curtains frame the stage at older theatres. It would have a drawstring that dangled beside your temple - to the left or the right, depending on which you preferred.  When something you did not wish to be traumatised by seeing appeared on your screen, you would be able to tug on this drawstring, and instantly a pair of tassled brocade drapes would swing across in front of your eyes, protecting you until the horror interlude had passed.

I don't know what happened to that columnist; maybe he is off somewhere making prototypes of that excellent viewing aide that he dreamed up. I am fairly sure that what prompted him to come up with  the idea was his experience of watching possibly the most excruciating interview ever broadcast - that between Libbi Gorr and a drunken Chopper Read, which went to air live in 1998. The invention certainly would have been a useful thing to have with you, if you'd happened to be in front of the television that night.

Where it would be even more handy these days though would be at the cinema, where the indiscriminate portrayal of violence seems to occur more and more often and in contexts where you are least expecting it. A light comic film now will more often than not contain quite a lot of hitting and kicking - or depraved vulgarity, as in a film from a few years ago about bridesmaids, which included a scene in which one of the female characters crapped in the street. The latest offering to mix humour and hideous violence turns out to be  Three Billboards outside Ebbing, MissouriI went in expecting black comedy but I didn't understand that some judge scenes where humans are kicked and hit and chucked out windows or half burnt alive or have blood coughed over their faces to contain humour. My misjudgment meant that I spent quite a lot of the film's running time with both my hands in front of my face to hide the screen, wishing I owned the headgear imagined by that columnist all those years ago.

Friday, 19 January 2018

Things I Never Knew about Hergé

These is a lovely bookshop called Sotherans on Piccadilly in London. It is an institution, established in 1761, but it is also able to hold its own in the digital age, running one of my very favourite Instagram accounts.

Today on that Sotherans Instagram account, I discovered a whole lot of things I didn’t know about Hergé and Tintin in Tibet. It has always been one of my favourite Tintin books and this background only adds to my interest in it:

Thursday, 18 January 2018

Book 2 - 2018 The Fact of a Body by Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich

This book has two parallel threads - the story of the murder of a small boy by a pedophile neighbour - or rather the story of the pedophile himself - and the memoir of the author, who herself was sexually abused by her grandfather. I don't actually know how I came by this book, as its subject matter is not something I would have chosen; I'm guessing it was a present or left behind by someone who had been given it and couldn't face the subject matter. Anyway, despite the unpromising and far from appetising content, the narrative is quite gripping, even though finally not quite a success.

Despite Marzano-Lesnevich's best efforts to persuade us otherwise, there isn't really any strong link connecting the two threads of the book's narrative, beyond the fact that she is involved with both. The thing that sparks her interest in the murder element of the story is that, while training to be a lawyer and believing herself opposed to the death penalty, she comes across the case of the boy's murder and realises that, perhaps because of her own experience as a victim of sexual abuse, her instinctive reaction is that she does want the murderer to be given the death penalty.

She then abandons law school and pursues the story of the murder and the murderer instead. It comes to dominate her attention - and the story of the murderer's conception and life is truly remarkable and at times what I suppose might be called gothic. Placed beside it, the story of the author's family life is less interesting, perhaps partly because the author is unable really to get any insight into the various strange elements of her parents' behaviour, being possibly too close to be able to gain a clear perspective. However, the thing that is conveyed well, even if not entirely intentionally, is the damage sexual abuse causes, the way in which Marzano-Lesnevich is dragging this weighty pain around her, caused by a betrayal of trust at the heart of the family, the place where all children ought to feel safe.

Marzano-Lesnevich writes very well; it is the book's structure that does not work. There are hints early in the book that her family and that of the murderer are directly connected, which meant that I kept expecting some amazing coincidence to be produced - the murderer having been a classmate of hers or her siblings, or having mowed their lawns or been her grandmother's unknown bastard child. This would have justified the braided narrative. It becomes clear eventually that there is no amazing coincidence, that the connection is nothing more than the fact of the author's own abuse and her reaction to the possibility of a death penalty for a pedophilic murderer. She hopes, I suspect, to cast light back and forth between the two elements of the text, producing an insight into the phenomenon of sexual abuse from this juxtaposition. However, by the book's conclusion, sexual abuse remains as mysterious as ever, and her attempts to draw parallels where there are none - or only very tenuous ones - just become laboured.

I'm not sure if I regret reading this book. I feel slightly polluted by having thought about the various pedophilic acts described within its pages, but I suppose one ought not to hide one's eyes from reality. The vignettes Marzano-Lesnevich gives us of the crusading anti-death-penalty lawyer Clive Stafford-Smith are interesting and reinforce my suspicion that he is not without flaws. An examination of the philosophic arguments for and against the death penalty is not really forthcoming in this volume, which I found disappointing. But it was not a dull read and, although this achievement is often underrated, I think it is harder to beguile readers to keep going than many people realise and, if a writer has the gift for it, they should be saluted.

Tuesday, 16 January 2018

There Should Be a Word For It

Lest anyone accuse me of only ever wanting to expunge new words from English, I've decided to start an occasional series of posts on words that I think are lacking in our language - and I'd welcome any suggestions from others, if they feel there are inadequacies in the vocabulary of our tongue.

The word that does not spring to mind today is the one that should exist to represent the all too regular, (for me at least), experience of visiting a place and seeing through a shop window a thing that I would really, really like to buy but being unable to because the shop is closed while the owners are off on holiday, or because it's Maria Himmelfahrt or early closing day.

So many treasures I couldn't have are piled up in my memory, more lustrous than they ever would have been if I'd been able to go into the stores where I saw them and pay and carry them off. Perhaps there should be a word for that too - the mind's gift for inflating the value of things it can't have. But perhaps that is covered by "nostalgia" or "longing" or "nostalgic longing" or "covetousness" or "romanticisation" or "idealisation" or "delusion".

Many would say that, however you describe the desire to possess things, that desire itself is just foolish, as possessions mean nothing, (you can't take things with you et cetera, et cetera). Those people though ignore the pleasure of living with things that you think are beautiful, things made long ago by skilled, patient, mostly unsung craftsmen and artists.

In addition, if you follow the logic of the "you-can't-take-it-with-you brigade", where exactly do you end up, because you can't take anything with you, including intangibles like love and learning and success? All human activity, from this perspective, is worthless and futile. While I'll happily agree that human activity, including -or especially- blog writing, is absurd, I don't think that means one shouldn't plunge on absurdly in whichever harmless way we choose.

Sunday, 14 January 2018

Things We Might Be Able to Do Without - I

Do we need the word 'functionality'? I believe it is quite new - or perhaps it was just rarely used in my youth, (or I was well sheltered). Possibly - fingers crossed - it is still not in favour, outside  bureaucratic circles. But is that actually much comfort? With the rise of the managers - eurgh, bleurgh, scourge of modern life - bureaucratic circles are spreading ever wider, especially in government towns like the one I half call home.

In this place, which overflows with civil servants, 'functionality' is considered a very acceptable piece of vocabulary.  Passing the pub on the corner, I overhear it uttered in conversation among drinkers. In the aisles of the local supermarket, clerks, meeting each other unexpectedly, prop themselves against the shelving and compare notes on the 'functionality' of their - I suspect often totally unnecessary - schemes.

Does it mean efficiency? Does it mean feasibility? Does it mean anything? Is the problem the functionality of functionality or the functionality of my brain?

Saturday, 13 January 2018

Close in Affection*

We were burgled a year or two ago, and still there are things that we are struck with the loss of; not  the big much-loved objects - the paintings especially - that shocked us immediately with their disappearance, but tiny silly things that had only sentimental value and that it's taken us this long to think of and start to miss.

Since the burglary, my older brother has died, and since his death I've noticed that something similar is happening in connection with my loss of him. It turns out that bereavement is another kind of robbery, except that you have something more precious than objects taken - and, sadly, as time progresses the sense of loss does not get smaller. Instead, you are struck more and more by the many different tiny ways in which your daily life has been diminished and what exactly has been removed.

Grief I now understand as a longing, a perpetual, truly felt "wish-you-were-here". Life continues, of course, you talk and read and eat and generally keep going. But sadness is there, at your shoulder, taking the place of the person who has gone away.

*"We had always been very close in affection" - my brother, writing about his relationship with me in his memoir, Light & Shadow, by Mark Colvin, published by Melbourne University Press

Friday, 5 January 2018

Something Lovely

In an article about why there will be no more series of The Detectorists (something I very much hope is not true), this lovely piece was mentioned. I think it is beautiful.

Thursday, 4 January 2018

Book 1 - 2018: Henry Green, Loving

My younger brother once recommended Henry Green ridiculously highly, which is why I chose this book. Not hating it, but not overwhelmed either. Will go into more detail about how it struck me when I have more time, but in the meantime would hugely welcome comments from others who have read the novel.

Wednesday, 3 January 2018


The other day I had to telephone the tax office to find out my tax file number. I spoke to an absolutely exceptionally nice girl called Huong. She gently pointed out to me that I did not file a tax return in 2010 and I should have done. Instantly I became panic stricken. "What will happen to me?" I shrieked at her, "I haven't got any papers from that far back; how will I be able to file anything that will satisfy the tax commissioner?"

"Don't worry", she told me, "we have all the information, here at the tax office; I can call up your details on our computers and give you everything you need in order to fill out your form." She proceeded to do that, and we spent a happy (?) forty-five minutes together running through my various taxable sources of income for the year in question. She supplied me with all the figures and details I needed and then posted me the form the tax office needs me to fill in.

It was only as I was laboriously copying onto the form the information that Huong had kindly provided that it occurred to me to wonder whether this was a sensible use of anybody's time. Providing the tax office with information that I am only in possession of because the tax office has been kind enough to give it to me is a task of such circularity that Escher's Ascending and Descending springs to mind.

Tuesday, 2 January 2018


I have thought for a long time that writing is all about decisions - what to include, what to exclude, how to position each word and phrase. Therefore, I reason, people trying to fill jobs that call for "proven decision makers" should certainly consider writers, regardless of whether or not they hold MBAs from Harvard Business School.

While moving house recently, another parallel between writing and real life struck me. I discovered that the best way - at least for me - to approach the dreary business of unpacking was simply to dump in a particular part of the house all the things that more or less belonged in that approximate area. Once that had been done, I could begin to sort out the muddle, to transform the chaos into something approaching order. 

It strikes me that a similar approach to writing projects can be effective. When I faff around, afraid to get started on an assignment, sometimes the only thing that works is simply to dump all the things I think I want to say roughly where I think I want to say them on my piece of paper and then go back and sort them out. While the first draft is then a horrible semi-articulate jumble, it is at least something with which to work. If instead I try to arrange things perfectly from the very beginning, I never get anything finished. I don't know why this is or whether it is just something that happens to me, but it certainly seems to be a pattern that works well in my situation. Does anyone else find the same - that it is necessary to make an untidy heap at the beginning, which can then be sorted through, to create a beautifully orderly room or argument?

Or faintly orderly in my case, in both applications, to be honest.

Incidentally, before I finish, I should like to make clear that I do not approve of any sentence that suggests that anyone should "unpack" an idea. And no, I would not like to unpack my reasons - I just don't.

Monday, 1 January 2018

New Year Puzzle

As it is the first day of a new year, I am feeling more than usually conscious of time. Perhaps that is why, when I heard someone say “back in the day” this morning, I found myself wondering:

1. How far back? Just over the threshold into the recently finished year, the one before this one, or actually a long way back, back in the mists of time?

2. Which day? When you say “the” day, do you mean the day you were born, the day you started school, the day you moved out of home, the day you got married or had a child or got a job, or what?

3. And, while we're at it, "in"? "In the day"? What? Do you mean "during the day" (and here I return to question 2, with renewed bafflement).

Clarity. Meaning. Am I asking for too much? I’m sure I remember that we used to take such  things for granted. Back in the day.