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Posts from the ‘words’ Category


“Our Flag is a union of Black and Blue” – Daljit Nagra’s Black History

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.

Read more »


Friday Fun 9: Humbert Wolfe’s The British Journalist – #Hackgate The Poem

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 »


Friday Fun 8: For all completing tax returns: DESK DUTY by Hugo Williams

I’m in the throes of that dreaded annual ordeal: the tax return. For some reason (best known to probably not very many people at all), CofE ministers seem to be regarded for tax purposes as self-employed (I suppose the thinking was that you can’t easily send an employer’s tax submission form to the Ancient of Days). As a result, we have to deal with all the claims and counter-claims ourselves. Fortunately, there are people around who have spotted the gap in the market and are dedicated full-time to making this marginally less daunting. I’ve my appointment next week. Hence the frenzied number-crunching and paper-clip management. Read more »


Family games that avoid the screen…

One of the challenges of recent months has been to find ways to help our kids spend a little bit less time immersed in electronic entertainment – whether it be from the TV, internet, DS or Wii. As any parent will know, this is a constant, Sisyphean struggle. But one tactic we’ve come up with (having vainly and naïvely tried to impose some sort of daily time limit on such things) is to have a weekly electronics-free day (in our case, Thursdays) – this (theoretically at least!) includes the TV. The idea is to get on with reading, or creating something or generally doing something with us. Read more »


Poetic Biography: “Dizzy in Westminster” by Elaine Feinstein

Here’s another gem from Elaine Feinstein’s lovely anthology of city recollections and reflections. This time though it is of a more historical nature, the tribute from of a contemporary Jewish Briton about another, one of the great leaders of the Victorian era, Benjamin Disraeli (aka Dizzy). Read more »


Want to know what a triumph is?

It’s a word that gets used very lightly these days. It might be said that Djokovic triumphed over Nadal on Sunday at Wimbledon. Or that Obama triumphed in the last US Presidential election. Or that our school cricket team triumphed in the local derby. But overuse has obliterated the historical significance of the word. For in the Roman world (especially in the ‘good old days’ of the Roman republic), they were only awarded to a special few as the result of a full vote by the Senate, and only for those who had achieved an extraordinary military victory. Read more »


The ache of past calm: “Rush Cutter Bay, Sydney” by Elaine Feinstein

It’s a small anthology that I’ve occasionally dipped into, having heard Elaine Feinstein speaking some months back on Radio 4. Cities is a collection of poems inspired (as you might expect) by experiences and friendships in different cities around the world. Read more »


Friday Fun 7: PS What Whitehall Thinks of Canterbury

I said last week that I was offering the final instalment of Whitehall Wisdom. Well, I subsequently realised that I had omitted perhaps the most pertinent of the lot – the tangled web that has been weaved in the name of Church and State relations. This is primarily the result of that perfect CofE primer, the episode entitled The Bishop’s Gambit. Read more »


Friday Fun 7: Final Lessons from Whitehall

We come at last to the final instalment of Whitehall Wisdom. It’s more a random string of pearls than a topical arrangement this time, but still worth its weight in gold. Read more »


Friday Fun 6: Interpreting Civil Service Speak

One of the acute difficulties of British etiquette is the profound problem of meaning – there can be a huge disparity between the literal/surface meaning of words and the actual intended meaning as all visitors to these shores find to their confusion and even peril. For those wanting a general introduction to the phenomenon, you can do a lot worse than checking this excellent EU translation guide. Read more »


Nothing Buttery: a Reductionism Rant

Reductio ad absurdum: one of those nice little Latin phrases that comes in handy every now and then. It has a noble pedigree and describes an age-old form of argument designed to pick one’s opponent’s claims apart. It means ‘reduction to the absurd’, or ‘to the point of absurdity’. And it is definitely worth mastering. Read more »


The joys of Ugandan English

Not quite sure how I came across this wonderful Wiki page – but for any who have ever lived or visited Uganda, or East Africa generally for that matter, it is a treasure trove. Definitely worth printing out as a precautionary measure to keep in your back pocket.

Which reminded me of some things we wrote in our monthly newsletter when we were living there… exactly 7 years ago  – simply can’t believe it was that long ago now.

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Canning’s Riddle

George Canningwas Foreign Secretary, and briefly Prime Minister. But he is also credited with this little work of genius (which is perhaps one of his most lasting legacies).

A Riddle

There is a word of plural number
A foe to peace and tranquil slumber.
Now any word you chance to take
By adding “S”, you plural make;
But if you add an “s” to this,
How strange the metamorphosis!
Plural is plural then no more
And sweet, what bitter was before.

What is the word?

Can you solve this without googling it?! Read more »


Le Carré on writing: a narrative masterclass

Having quoted a rather light-hearted bit from this excellent compilation of interviews, I’ve been reflecting on some of the things John Le Carré has said over the years about how he goes about his work, especially because of his insights into how and why narrative works (which thus helps us to engage with narratives of any sort). I’m particularly intrigued Read more »


Anonymous common sense as an antidote to the doom-merchants

People often say that everything is getting worse and worse.

Well here is a handy doggerel retort to have up your sleeve…

Going To The Dogs

My granddad, viewing earth’s worn cogs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in his house of logs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in the Flemish bogs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
His granddad in his old skin togs,
Said things were going to the dogs;
There’s one thing that i have to state –
The dogs have had a good long wait.


(From The Funny Side, p130)


Q marks the spot – Treasure Map 30 (March 2011)

Sacred Treasure

  • And while we’re on the subject of unjust leaders, Peanuts nails it as ever! (HT Nancy H)

Topical Treasure

  • The flight of a lifetime: catch this unique view of the last ever Space Shuttle launch (HT kouya):

Quirky Treasure

  • And finally, this is brilliant – clears up all possible confusions

Dedicated to all glass half-empty folks: Franklin King’s THE PESSIMIST

For all those out there for whom the glass is always half-empty, here is a wonderful offering from the American poet Benjamin Franklin King (1857–1894)


Nothing to do but work,
Nothing to eat but food,
Nothing to wear but clothes
To keep one from going nude.

Nothing to breathe but air
Quick as a flash ‘t is gone;
Nowhere to fall but off,
Nowhere to stand but on.

Nothing to comb but hair,
Nowhere to sleep but in bed,
Nothing to weep but tears,
Nothing to bury but dead.

Nothing to sing but songs,
Ah, well, alas! alack!
Nowhere to go but out,
Nowhere to come but back.

Nothing to see but sights,
Nothing to quench but thirst,
Nothing to have but what we’ve got;
Thus thro’ life we are cursed.

From The Funny Side, p104

Perhaps the only antidote to such an attitude is gratitude


Joined-up Listening: 12 questions to ask of albums

Having been asked to write a list of questions for reading novels (I ended up with a not very succinct 20), Lars Dahle asked me to do the same thing for albums. Actually, to be fair to him, he asked me to do both at the same time, but I’ve been slack and not got round to doing the latter until now. Hopeless, really. But anyway, here goes. This time, I managed to be a bit more disciplined, and came up with 12 questions to ask.

As I say in the introduction, one of the problems these days is that the idea of an album is becoming looser and looser – in fact, over the last 100 years or so, the way we listen to music has changed radically every couple of decades (give or take) – and with the invention of a new medium for transmitting, broadcasting and selling music, the form has had a considerable impact on the contact (whether through timing constraints, sound quality and ease of listening).

So now that we have file-sharing (legal or otherwise), mp3 purchases and thus the ability to create one’s own playlists, many see ‘the album’ as decreasing in importance. Still, it is clearly the case that artists are currently sticking to this format – a collection of songs lasting anything between 35 and 70 minutes. I’m interested in trying to discern what thinking brought these songs together in the particular order they are presented. I suppose you could call this a canonical approach!

Of course, most of the time, the vast majority of people listen, and listen again, to music because of its mood, energy, resonances and associated memories. And that is totally reasonable and fair – there’s absolutely no point in downplaying the sheer enjoyment of music. But I can remember when I first started listening to the words of songs – I think I can even remember the song!  I’m pretty sure it was Bruce Springsteen’s Jungleland (from the 1975 Born to Run), a song on an epic scale that demands more than superficial engagement. I remember one of my teachers (a latin teacher, no less!) even comparing it favourably (while acknowledging it to be on a far lower intellectual plain) to TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. That may well be a contentious opinion, but it certainly woke me up (as an innocent teenager, some years before my conversion) to the serious intent of a huge swath of what can too easily be dismissed as pop-culture. It was not long after this that I started listening to both the music AND lyrics of U2 – but therein lies a whole other story!

So my purpose in writing these 12 questions is to help people to foster what we might call joined-up listening – taking an album’s form, music, lyrics and construction as an integrated whole where possible. For serious artists certainly appreciate it when people take their art seriously, especially when they go beyond the simple ‘nice tune’ response (although most would give their right arms to write ‘nice tunes’!).


“To be… or not to be”: Rhyming dilemmas of homicide and suicide

No, please don’t worry – I’m contemplating neither.

But I did rather enjoy these two little ditties in Wendy Cope’s marvellous anthology of humorous poetry, The Funny Side.

The first is by Stanley Sharpless, about whom I’ve been able to dig up little (apart from this reflection which is fun because Fitzroy Sq is just down the road from us, and this rather pertinent Song against Europe!)

Stanley J Sharpless

Prince Hamlet thought Uncle a traitor
For having it off with his Mater;
Revenge Dad or not?
That’s the gist of the plot,
And he did – nine soliloquies later


Then leafing through, I thought this rather good too by the irrepressible Dorothy Parker

Dorothy Parker

Razors pain you;
Rivers are damp;
Acids stain you;
And drugs cause cramp.
Guns aren’t lawful;
Nooses give;
Gas smells awful;
You might as well live.

Yes indeed. How true.


JB Phillips on the KJV’s ‘prison of traditional beauty’

Following up last Friday’s post on Eugene Peterson and the King James Bible, my colleague Roger Salisbury reminded me of the ethos that lay behind J B Phillips‘ pioneering modern English translation of the New Testament. He started it during the Second World War, culminating in the publication of the New Testament in Modern English in 1958. It’s hard to imagine nowadays (what with the plethora of English translations – an embarrassment of riches to be sure) – but then the King James ruled supreme (although it was beginning to face challenges from the American Standard and Revised Standard versions).

So in the light of what Peterson said about his translation The Message, it’s fascinating to see Phillips’ own thoughts. This is the preface to the Pocket Edition of his NT in Modern English, published in 1960, quoted in full:

For some time I have been working on further revisions to The New Testament in Modern English and all these have now been embodied in the following text. They are mainly concerned with the Epistles (“Letters to Young Churches”), which I first translated fifteen years ago. I have since been able to make use of the latest and most accurate Greek text. I have also had access to works of critical scholarship which were not available to me in the immediate post-war years.

During my work on these revisions I have come to realise more than ever the strength of view I have held for many years. It is not enough simply to replace outmoded words with their modern equivalents; the result is liable to be a strange and unlovely hybrid language. We must be much more fundamental than that. We have to go right back to the comparatively workaday Greek of the New Testament documents themselves and translate them afresh, not into slang, but into vigorous contemporary English. It has never been my object to denigrate the majesty and beauty of the Authorised Version, which is indeed incomparable. I have rather sought to rescue tremendous and inspiring truths from what is sometimes a familiar prison of traditional beauty.

Fifteen years have proved to me that this is an exceedingly difficult task. I do not myself believe that there is any such thing as ‘timeless English’,a nd the very best that a translator can do is to make the message and burden of what he translates urgent and contemporary to his own generation. And in attempting to do this I have of course had far more information and scholarship available to me than the translators of 1611 ever possessed.

Once more I should like to thank the many people all over the world who have been kind enough to write suggesting emendations. Even if I have not always felt able to accept all of them, they have been most helpful to me in my work of revision.

J.B.P. (Swanage, December 1960)

The whole text of Phillips’ translation is online here