I’m trying to understand power – what it means, how it’s wielded, how it affects us. Big topic. But I’m increasingly convinced that we can’t understand the culture of suspicion without grasping the power of power (and its abuses).
This has drawn me to someone who has been a bit of a hero, but whose writings I’d only dipped into. Reading Václav Havel‘s masterly and vital 1978 essay The Power of the Powerless has blown me away. Written in the dark days of Czechoslovak communism (only 10 years after the false dawn of the Prague Spring), it is a profound analysis of what it was like to live under a regime built entirely on lies. The only response, the only subversion of the regime, therefore, is to live in truth. Read more
It has its gainsayers (eg Steven Poole is pretty disparaging, though unfairly in my view) but George Orwell’s Politics and the English Language (the whole essay is online), is prophetic. Of course some of his linguistic concerns are matters of taste and fashion (as Steven Poole rightly notes). But written at the close of the Second World War, this article exposes the sham sincerity and dissembling motivation behind so much political speech and writing. That is the essay’s great virtue. And it has not gone out of date at all. Read more
You’ve got to label food these days. It makes sense. In these days of pre-packaged, pre-cooked food, you naturally want to know what’s in the package. So it’s a bit of a shame when it tells you you’re eating cow when all the time it’s horse. The remedy is not to ditch the label; just make sure it’s telling the truth. Labels are essential for consumer confidence and even, at times, to stay alive. For let’s face it: nuts can kill.
As another year draws to its inevitable demise, I’ve been occupying my little, rather trivial mind with trying to create a cryptic crossword to commemorate some of the big moments. Obviously, it’s not been possible to ensure that every clue is strictly relevant – but a fair number of them are. So that’s good, then. I have already spotted at least one error (though it’s more one of cryptic tightness than incorrect lettering or numbering) and no doubt the eagle-eyed will find others.
But it’s a stab – and although I say so myself, there are a handful that I’m quite pleased with. It will, therefore, no doubt bring joy and delight to countless millions. Read more
Many bloggers have touched on this subject in recent years, but here’s a little thought to throw into the mix. And it all revolves around the ambiguity of language. People often exploit it, whether intentionally or not; because at the very least, such ambiguity gives us wriggle room, or even a place to hide.
I’m talking about the problem with ‘saying sorry’ Read more
I’m not going to get into all the ins and outs of synodical votes this week. It’s all very sad, and for a whole range of reasons, and I’m frankly fearful of the future. Obviously, things can’t remain as they were. Read more
Never one to lose the momentum of a bandwagon, here are some more great moments from Charlie Croker’s Lost in Translation. All very silly and as I said last week, very unfair.
But quite fun nonetheless.
Just for a change, here are a few choice quotations from this rather fun tome, Charlie Croker’s Lost in Translation. Of course, it’s never fair to make fun of people’s mistakes in a language not their own. After all, I dread to think of all the terrible errors I’ve made when speaking French.
However, it’s a slightly different matter when it happens on official signs or notices. So here are some taken from hotels around the world.
A real gem this week. It’s on display in the painting studio at Chartwell, Churchill’s much-loved home in Kent. I couldn’t resist getting down his points verbatim when we paid a return visit over the summer.
Well, the US presidential election is in its final month at last. Will any of us sleep safely in our beds again?
History has been full of people who have hedged their bets and emulated the venerable Vicar of Bray. And in smaller ways, politicians are doing it all the time. Saying things that don’t actually say too many things in case they be accused of actually saying things they don’t want to be heard actually to be saying. Read more
Not quite sure what got me hooked on this New Yorker article (sadly the full article is behind a paywall), but I was gripped. Using linguistics to help solve crimes seems pretty counter-intuitive – but the Unabomber was caught by analysing his manifesto - as was Joyce Meyer security chief Chris Coleman who was found guilty of killing his family. Read more
Humourist, polymath and wordsmith, Clive James has written this rather glorious articulation of the Schadenfreude felt by a writer at a rival’s failures. But as the poem concludes, it is clear that, as ever, there is more than simple consolation motivates him. Read more
John Smith MP was one of those tragic political should-have-beens. But while Leader of the Opposition riding on Labour’s 23% point lead over the Tories in 1994 and widely assumed to be Prime Minister in waiting, he died 18 years ago tomorrow from a pair of massive heart attacks. He was only 55. For those concerned with public life, it was one of those remember-what-you-were-doing-moments. But the reason for picking up on it here is that I was blown away at the time, and recalled in conversation last week, the piece written by the great Matthew Parris, at the time The Times’ Parliamentary Sketch-writer and oft-quoted by Q. Read more
It seems that church ministers are fair game and always have been. Rowan Atkinson is certainly not the first to lay into clergy as people “of such extraordinary smugness and arrogance and conceitedness who are extraordinarily presumptuous about the significance of their position in society”. Ho hum. Much of it is no doubt deserved. Read more
Christopher Reid’s 2009 anthology A Scattering won many plaudits, all entirely deserved, including the overall Costa book award (which is very unusual for a book of poetry). It is an anthology of grief – poems written in the process and aftermath of Lucinda (his wife of 30 years) dying of cancer. But it is a wonderful, if deeply poignant, book. I found myself frequently shaken up and having to pause for long periods – which is precisely what the best poetry is meant to do. It’s full of beauty, humanity and above all the wonder of life. Read more
It’s everywhere – you’d better get used to it. It’s a language we all must learn – both to be able to understand messages sent to us and to avoid ending up paying far too much for text messages. But the interesting thing is that the language of text-speak did not originate with the mobile phone and SMSs. It’s been around for around 150 years!
Any walk along the Thames Embankment or the South Bank is bound to conjure up memories and evocations. This ancient river is observed/guarded/ignored by countless buildings created at different moments in British history: the proceeds of empire and the fates of peoples are all reflected in their facades. I came across this wonderful poem by Daljit Nagra in the last New Yorker of July. And it captures it all perfectly, far more articulately than we non-poetically-gifted mortals could manage.
In the light of recent events, it seems only appropriate to bring this back to the forefront of public attention. You’ve seen the trailer for Hackgate The Movie – now read Hackgate The Poem. Written by Humbert Wolfe in the 1920s, it shows that little has changed over the last century or so… Read more