Thursday, 30 September 2021

Writing & Thinking

 I am inclined to baulk at the gradual transition in the meaning of words such as "disinterest" and the slow decline in the general English-speaking population's understanding of the difference between "less" and "fewer". However, I try hard to remember that it is the English language's adaptability and pliancy that is one of its greatest strengths. 

It was in the spirit of cultivating my tolerance for modern usage that my eye was caught by this passage in a book I picked up by a writer called William Zinsser:

'I’m far less preoccupied than I once was with individual words and their picturesque roots and origins and with the various fights over which new ones should be admitted into the language. Those are mere skirmishes at the edge of the battlefield; I will no longer man the ramparts to hurl back such barbarians as “hopefully.”'

What kept my attention was what followed, which strikes me as important:

'What does preoccupy me is the plain declarative sentence. How have we managed to hide it from so much of the population? Far too many Americans are prevented from doing useful work because they never learned to express themselves. Contrary to general belief, writing isn’t something that only “writers” do; writing is a basic skill for getting through life. Yet most American adults are terrified of the prospect—ask a middle-aged engineer to write a report and you’ll see something close to panic. Writing, however, isn’t a special language that belongs to English teachers and a few other sensitive souls who have a “gift for words.” Writing is thinking on paper. Anyone who thinks clearly should be able to write clearly—about any subject at all.'

I encounter so many people who cannot write a clear sentence, and I worry that Zinsser is right - that their inability to write clearly is evidence of an inability to think clearly. In a democracy, especially one where voting is compulsory, that is a worrying thing*. 

(The two passages are from: "Writing to Learn: How to Write - and Think - Clearly About Any Subject at All" by William Zinsser, which contains a delightful account of how Zinsser earned his university degree after an interview with Dean Robert K Root at Princeton - or, if your perspective is more contemporary, a disgusting account of white privilege in all its horror.)

*I have never forgotten the conversation I witnessed the day before the Australian federal election in 2010. It took place in a petrol station. One of the protagonists was a girl who manned the till in the petrol station. The other was a long distance truck driver who had just filled up his gigantic vehicle with loads and loads of fuel:

It was the day before the federal election in August 2010, and I had stopped at a petrol station in Victoria. A truck with the name of Australia's biggest trucking firm along its side pulled into the station just ahead of me. After I filled my tank, I went in to pay for my petrol and found the truck's driver in front of me in the queue. When his turn came to be served, he slapped a tabloid newspaper he was buying down on the counter. Needless to say its front page was dominated by the election. 

'Which of these mongrels are you going to go for?' he asked the petrol station attendant.

'I'm sick of the both of them,' she answered, 'I think I'll give those Greens a go this time.'

'Yeah, I reckon that's what I'll do too,' the  truck driver answered.

Yes, that's right - a petrol station attendant and a truck driver were proposing to vote for the Greens. 

Australia is the only country that has compulsory voting, and I totally support the concept - compulsory voting, that is, not us being the only country that has it. What I wonder about occasionally though is universal suffrage.

Wednesday, 29 September 2021

Rules for a Traditionalist Negotiating Contemporary Life: No. 2

Once, in an argument, if you said, "I don't want X; I want Y", the person arguing with you would say, "It isn't that simple", but there is a new phrase used by politicians and other dishonest spruikers in such situations. "It isn't a binary choice", they tell you, which they think makes them sound much cleverer - and rather contemporary and hip, since it contains the echo of identity politics, and the faint implication of being "non-binary", (woo hoo, so cool). 

The Treasurer of Australia, Josh Frydenberg, is the latest to throw the new phrase around, in a desperate attempt to seem relevant to someone, by calling for net zero carbon emissions for Australia by 2050, (while not mentioning that it will make not a blind bit of difference to anyone until someone persuades China and India to stop belching out foul gases on an ever-increasing scale). 

I bitterly resent being made even for a millisecond to contemplate Josh Frydenberg or any other politician or public figure engaged in sexual activity, whether binary or non-binary. My view on the subject is quite simple and entirely binary; I am on the side of the binary choice, (or simple choice, as it ought to be termed), that says, when presented with fleeting references to other people's sexual activity, however inadvertent those may be, "Eurgh, no, no, no, no."

Ban "binary". It's simple.

Tuesday, 28 September 2021

The Nelson Game

If you ever cross Horseguards Parade in London, there’s a game you might like to play. Heading in the direction of Whitehall look at the roofs of the buildings on your left. Can you see him? 

As you keep walking, can you still see him? 
And now? 
And now? 
Oh, he’s gone.

Thursday, 23 September 2021

The Politics of “Phwoar!”

This morning, having got back to Budapest after several weeks away, I decided to ignore unpacking and sorting out and instead to go for a stroll. 

After crossing the river, I headed down toward the beautifully restored area called the Várkert or Castle Garden, rescued by the Hungarian government as part of its Hauszmann programme, (which, mysteriously, the opposition parties plan to cancel if they win power, because they regard it as harking back to the Fascist horrors of the second world war; I don’t understand this rationale, given that the buildings and other structures in question date from an earlier century, well before the second or even the first world wars.)

Anyway, as I drew near to the Várkert I spotted a huddle of people with cameras and microphones surrounding a figure at whom they were yelling questions. Curiosity got the better of me and so I joined the crowd. The figure at its centre was speaking French and I soon realised that this was none other than Marion Maréchal, niece of Marine le Pen and now, it seems, involved with Eric Zemmour and the Union des Droites.

Mark Latham, an erratic Australian politician, once said that politics is showbiz for ugly people. What he ought to have added is that, on the rare occasions that a beautiful person wanders into politics, they dazzle even more effectively than they might on the silver screen. This was the secret, I believe, to Barack Obama's meteoric rise to become President of the United States. He'd hardly done anything politically, no one really had a clue what his plan was - if there was one. The great thing about him was that he looked absolutely gorgeous. 

In Notes on the Death of Culture Mario Vargas Llosa wrote, "Today images have primacy over ideas." If he is correct - and I think he is - then strategists on the right in politics need to nominate Ms Maréchal as a presidential candidate very swiftly. Who cares what she believes in; after just a glance, a majority of the male population of France will surely be keen to put their tick in her box (on the voting paper, I mean, of course, you smutty minded person):

Wednesday, 22 September 2021

Rules for a Traditionalist Negotiating Contemporary Life: No. 1

If you encounter the word "privilege" used as a verb in a piece of writing, stop reading immediately. When "privilege" is used as a verb, it is a clear indication that you are dealing with a narcissist whose mind is full of clap trap, (most of it probably derived - although the author may be too dim to realise the fact themselves - from Marxism). 

It is a waste of time to persist in such circumstances.

Here is an example of the kind of thing I mean, taken from the letters page of a recent issue of the New Yorker:


Friday, 10 September 2021

The Theatre of Other People

I went to the theatre again, (!!!!). I was staying in Kent and my younger daughter and I took a train from Tunbridge Wells up to London. The play I went to see was called Bach and Sons and if you want to know what I thought about it, I wrote about it here

On the train home, I witnessed a slice of the other kind of theatre that I missed during the months of lockdown - the theatre of other people. 

On the seat opposite me was a worn woman in her mid thirties with blonde hair growing out at the roots. She spent the whole journey on her telephone. Her voice was what used to be described as Sloane, and, after explaining that her work has said that from October she has to come in two days a week and so she has made sure to arrange things so that hers are the days when they often go straight to drinks and don't do any work (!?!), she settled down to listening to the person at the other end of the line, who I gathered was called Laura. 

I made this deduction, because the woman opposite me spent the rest of the journey saying the same thing, over and over and over and over again, and it was this: 

"Oh my god, Laura."

"Oh my god, Laura, oh my god, Laura, oh my god, Laura, oh my god." 

It was quite soothing after a bit. 

It was the bass line, or the counterpoint, to the bellowing - I think it’s called banter now? - of a group of young men across the aisle. 

In my childhood, the majority of male English youth had somehow been made to understand that in packs they can be frightening to women, that their loud boasting can sound alarmingly like aggressive shouting, that guffawing about degrading drunken episodes and tales about having been, (almost constantly for the last few days apparently), on the turps, as they described it, are unpleasant to hear and should not be proudly broadcast at top volume in a train carriage full of strangers, especially female strangers. 

But we are all equal now, thank you, feminism. Women don’t need to be respected, nor their sensibilities spared.

“There's nothing worse than when you get to a restaurant and you're so pissed you're not hungry,” boomed one, adding with a mixture of romance and chivalry, (hem hem), “It was worth it later though, because she was, like, gagging for it.”

Fnarr, fnarr. 

He isn’t going to call her again, by the way, because she’s well-annoying.

Then one of them began to tell a story of something that had happened that had made him angry - and clearly was still making him angry. It concerned a woman who had had the audacity to suggest that he and his mate Mikey ought not to be playing on the equipment in a children's playground. 

The man telling this story was tall. He had an air of arrogant, barely controlled irritability. In other words, he was like many, many young English men just now. 

I was impressed at the bravery of the woman in his story. I am very scared of violence and scuttle away from the merest hint of it; I am much too cowardly to confront a potentially violent man. 

The furious scorn he expressed as he told his story alarmed me. This young man was still in a state of affronted rage days after the incident. This is how his story went:

'When we were in Cardiff, there was this playground, and there was a climbing frame in it that wasn't that high. We, like, started to climb it, and I said to Mikey, "I'll race you to the top".

And then there's this woman that's there with a kid, and she goes, "You do realise this is for kids", and Mikie goes, like, "We're big kids anyway, so let it be", and she starts getting vexed and says, "No, I won't let it be. You could hurt my son", and we're, like, "What?" and she's, like, "My son - you could fall on him and then what?", and we're, like, "Yeah but we didn't", and she was, like, "Yeah, but you shouldn't go on it, because it's for kids", and we were, like, "Where does it say that it's forbidden for adults to go on it?", and we're literally, like, "What - like, what are you on about?", and she starts screaming at us, and I burst out laughing. 

I'm literally, like, crying with laughter, and I literally went, like, "Get your nose out of our business," and her son's standing there, like, "Mum, stop, please, stop." I mean, realistically, like, teach your kids not to go under someone who's climbing, and then they won't get hurt. She just started to go off, when all she had to say to her son was, "Don't go under anyone climbing, and then you won't get hurt."'

This still makes me seethe, days afterwards. The entitlement, the refusal to admit he was in the wrong, the lack of respect, the rudeness, the insistence that everything should be arranged exactly as this man wanted it, the lack of courtesy or empathy or thoughtfulness or kindness. 

What are we coming to?

A little further away sat two young men and a stunningly beautiful, unsmiling girl whose face was made up so exquisitely that she looked like a Kabuki actor or a china doll. They all remained silent throughout the journey, except when the girl made an effort and, raising her very heavily lashed eyelids, asked, "Shall we order some Nando's when we get back?" When she received no response, she tried again: "What about a little dinner?" she suggested, "It would be nice to do a little dinner. Shall we go out for a little dinner?" There was no reply. 

Anomie seems to be spreading as fast as any virus in our decadent, post-Christian world, and there seems to be no obvious vaccine, since Christian virtues seem to be despised by the majority of young people. 

Still, I suppose we haven't yet reached the depths that this video seems to suggest are being plumbed in Philadelphia. When I first looked at the clip, I thought I was watching some kind of theatrical performance, and I'm still uncertain if it's real. I hope it isn't.  

Saturday, 4 September 2021

I Went to the Theatre!

Is there anything more I need to say? Is this not a miracle after so many months in which theatres were out-of-bounds? Even I, eschewer of noisy punctuation, believe an exclamation mark is justified.

And how was it? It was grand, as they say in Ireland, where I have spent quite a bit of time lately (more of that anon). I admit that there is one good thing about having your rights taken away from you, being curtailed in your activities by government fiat - and that is getting them back. 

My word, you value things, once you've missed them for a bit. 

The play was Oleanna by David Mamet. The production I saw started its life in Bath and is now at the Arts Theatre in London. If you want to know more about it, I've written a post about it here. If you just want to know whether it's any good and worth going to, the two actors are magificent, the director has approached the text with great intelligence; in other words, I believe it is.