Wednesday, March 26, 2014

throw grammar from the train

I'm always up for a bit of pedantry about grammar and word usage, and like everyone else I have my own personal line in the sand regarding what's tolerable and what's not, so that everything on one side is all THIS WILL NOT STAND and WELL THAT'S JUST NONSENSE and BLOODY KIDS RUINING EVERYTHING and everything on the other side is all well, you know, language evolves, it's fine, take a chill pill, grandad.

The obvious problem is that no two people have the line situated in exactly the same place, which makes for some interesting disagreements. So for instance when I was listening to Midweek on Radio 4 this morning and Libby Purves started complaining about people saying "it looks like X will happen" instead of "it looks as if X will happen" I had a moment of scoffing at her clearly ridiculous pedantry, just because that happens to be a usage I don't care about, or, probably more significantly, don't bother to observe in my own writing or speech.

The context of the conversation was that one of the guests on Midweek was Rebecca Gowers, the great-granddaughter of Sir Ernest Gowers, author of the still-in-print usage guide Plain Words, which she's just edited a revised and updated edition of. (You'll note that ending a sentence with a preposition is a grammar law about which I am not especially bothered about.) As far as I can gather the original purpose of the book was to encourage the cutting away of unnecessary frills and jargon from written communications - presumably of the "I remain, sir, your lordship's most humble and obedient servant" variety originally, but still relevant in these days of thinking outside the box and leveraging our core values going forward.

I was also put in mind of this article from a week or two ago by Grace Dent in the Independent, the trigger for which seems to have been the Twitterstorm over Gemma Worrall's ill-advised tweet about "our" president "Barraco Barner" [picture is from here]. The problem with the reaction to the tweet is severalfold, the main problem being that Gemma Worrall's principal crime was apparently not her woeful level of knowledge about the world and dubious spelling skills, but rather just Being A Woman On The Internet. This is about the most heinous online crime you can commit, as Caroline Criado-Perez, Anita Sarkeesian and Rebecca Watson will be able to tell you after enduring an avalanche of horrific rape and death threats after having the temerity to talk about feminism and sexism in online forums.

On the other hand, Spiked's Brendan O'Neill (writing for the Telegraph) reckons it's all OK and we should stop worrying about it, and, moreover, pointing out that the astonishing invective directed at women on the internet might just possibly be a window on some underlying societal problems is pretty much literally equivalent to implementing Nineteen-Eighty-Four-style totalitarianism. On the other hand, Brendan O'Neill is a tiresome professional contrarian and an utter bellend. You can fill up your Male Privilege Bingo card here: "the standard of discussion on the internet leaves a lot to be desired", "incivility", "delicate sensibilities".

Back to the pedantry: it's also true that a nit-picky obsession with the minutiae of spelling and punctuation at the expense of engaging with the content of the writing is a bit irritating, and suggests spare energies that might be more productively directed elsewhere. If you're involved in a heated online discussion about, say, the conflict in Syria, and you're derailing the discussion by taking issue with someone's usage of the word "decimate", you're probably not contributing anything useful. Barracobarnergate in particular illustrates how fraught with danger taking someone to task for spelling and grammar mistakes on the internet is, given that Muphry's Law will always apply.

On the other hand, writing and language exists to convey meaning and some agreement on what means what is crucial. Take “infer” and “imply” as an example: we need to have agreed meanings for words or communication will be impossible. That particular example might be resolvable a) because it’s not that important and b) by reading for context, but if I start saying “banana” when I mean “horse” and then getting all uppity and DON’T YOU OPPRESS ME when people have no idea what I’m talking about, I don’t think anyone would claim it’s somehow everyone else’s fault.

On the other hand, words' meanings do change over time, and eventually the "wrong" definition becomes the "right", or at least "usual", one. "Disinterested" is a classic example where the switch is probably now unavoidable, by contrast I had literally no idea that there was any other usage for the word "nonplussed" than its standard one of "confused" until I heard my wife use it twice in fairly quick succession in a context where she couldn't possibly have meant "confused". It was only on reading this that I discovered that it's now quite widely used to mean "unfazed" or "nonchalant", which is the context she used it in. You live and learn.

As I've said elsewhere, I try (not always successfully) to be relaxed about this sort of thing as long as the meaning is clear. So I'm not at all bothered about insisting on "different from" in preference to "different to" or "different than", since that's an entirely arbitrary rule that gains you nothing in terms of clarity. On the other hand I'm not at all happy about the "nonplussed" thing, and you can rest assured I'll be having a word next time. In general these days I take the approach of not publicly correcting stuff any more as long as the meaning is clear, while still silently judging people for their crass mistakes.

The other thing to be said about the Grace Dent article is that there's a strong element of: well, you may scoff at her rudimentary language skills and flimsy grasp of geopolitics, but she's got a job and probably earns more than you, you internet pedants with your degrees and your Nobel prizes. What are they worth now, eh? The problem with that is firstly that it seems dubious to judge the worth of a job on the basis of what you can get paid for doing it - by that rationale we value Premiership footballers more than nurses by a factor of several thousand, which I don't think many people would be comfortable with. So while it may very well be possible to make a better living as an eyebrow-plucker and fanny-waxer than as a Classics graduate I'm not sure that equates to a judgment of the two things' respective value. The other thing is that there's an uncomfortable tension between expressing dismay at the internet abuse heaped on women on the one hand, and on the other hand celebrating an occupation that in large part only exists because of some fairly ridiculous societal norms about how women should present themselves to the world: entirely hairless and orange seemingly being the current preference.

Sunday, March 23, 2014

100 blogs of solitude

Couple of follow-up thoughts after the Free Fall review the other day:

Among the gazillion other awards given to Lord Of The Flies, it also appears in the TIME magazine list of 20th century novels (strictly, the 100 best novels written in English since 1923) that I've referenced here several times before. Novels in this series that appear in that list are On The Road, At Swim-Two-Birds, Infinite Jest, Snow Crash, Never Let Me GoBlood Meridian, The Catcher In The Rye, The Corrections, The Great Gatsby, Lolita, The Spy Who Came In From the Cold and Watchmen. My current count on that list stands at 39.

Speaking of lists, you'll notice I linked to this list elsewhere in the review, mainly because it's been doing the rounds on Facebook lately and makes the contentious-sounding claim that "the BBC think you'll only have read 6 of these books", which is the perfect goad (for someone like me, anyway) to make you go "right, I'll show them: gimme that list". There's some confusion over the provenance of the list - while it appears superficially similar to the BBC's Big Read top 100 from 2003, it's not the same. Needless to say someone on the internet's done the research and tracked it down to being a list constructed for World Book Day in 2007. There appears to be no reliable source for the "you'll have only read 6 of these, you plebs" quote anywhere.

The list was apparently constructed after an online survey of 2000 people - consequently, like any such list constructed after a public vote, particularly on the internet, it's a bit lumpy in terms of content. I reckon these lists are always skewed by a combination of:
  • books people may or may not have read or liked but feel obliged to nominate in response to perceived cultural obligation (e.g. Austen, Dickens, the Bible, Shakespeare);
  • books people have seen a film or TV adaptation of (I strongly suspect this, and more specifically Colin Firth, explain's Pride And Prejudice's occupation of the top spot);
  • nerdish obsessions (Potter, Tolkien)
  • what I disparagingly like to call "book group books", i.e. the likes of Captain Corelli's Mandolin, The Kite Runner and Life Of Pi;
  • fondly remembered childhood stuff (Enid Blyton, Roald Dahl and The Wind In The Willows among others for people of my age or older, Potter and Pullman for the younger generation);
  • books read by people that don't really read books (I presume this explains the presence of The Da Vinci Code at #42 since I can't think of any other explanation).
I totted up my total and it came to 35, which isn't especially high compared with some people's. The distribution of books I had and hadn't read was quite interesting, though - where I really fell down was that I don't have the background of doing, say, English A-level and having to wade through a reading list with all the 18th/19th century classics on it. So I've never read anything by Jane Austen, George Eliot, Charles Dickens, Thomas Hardy or any of the Bront√ęs, who between them account for 16 of the books on the list. I do have a copy of Pride And Prejudice - which I once got about a third of the way through but never finished - sitting on my bookshelves, along with copies of Moby-Dick and Germinal staring out reproachfully at me for ignoring them for as long as I have. One day.

I put the Pullmans and the Potters on the "not applicable" category, really - no disrespect to them and I'm sure if I was 11 or 12 they'd be the best thing ever (I suspect I'd have enjoyed the Pullmans more, though), but since I was 25 when Northern Lights was published and 27 when the first Harry Potter book was published, those weren't options open to me at the time.

I do feel slightly bad about casually dismissing the likes of Captain Corelli's Mandolin and The Time-Traveller's Wife as "book group books", which basically just means books that were very popular and a lot of people recommended to each other. It's just an aspect of my general disinclination for being told what to do, however harmlessly. A brief reading of the plot synopsis does make it sound as if Audrey Niffenegger swiped some major plot points in The Time-Traveller's Wife from Kurt Vonnegut's The Sirens Of Titan anyway. I'd be inclined to put Birdsong into the same category but for the fact that I have a copy of that one which I expect I'll read once I've completed the mental recategorising of it into the category Books Whose Existence Is Acceptable To Me.

I did get the sense that of the 35 books I ticked off, a lot of them were books I'd read quite a long time ago. That's borne out by the fact that only four of them (compared to twelve from the TIME list) appear on this blog (which documents all my fiction-reading since late 2006): The Catcher In The Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Lovely Bones and On The Road, and all of those except The Lovely Bones (which, as you'll know if you read the review, would not be on any 100 Best Books list I'd be prepared to put my name to in any case) are on the other list anyway.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

the last book I read

Free Fall by William Golding.

Samuel Mountjoy is a respected and established artist, but, well, it's not all been glamorous exhibitions and critical acclaim. Born to a feckless single mother and brought up in a slum, and later as the ward of a priest, he rose to the dizzy heights of having his work exhibited in the Tate.

Yes, but has it made him happy? Well, no, not really. And so as he looks back at his life with some confusion and dissatisfaction, he tries to pinpoint where the choices were made, consciously or unconsciously, that brought him to where he has ended up, and wonders whether he could have chosen differently.

As a child? It's Sammy's being manouevred by his devious friend Philip Arnold into desecrating a church that leads indirectly to Sammy being taken on (after his mother's death) as a ward by kindly old closet paedophile Father Watts-Watt.

At school? Faced with the opposing teaching worldviews of goddy, cold, bitter Miss Pringle and easy-going, gentle atheist Nick Shales, Sammy naturally chooses the path associated with the person who's been nicer to him.

In his love life? Developing a furious obsession with pretty, demure Beatrice Ifor while still at school, Sammy mounts a well-organised campaign to woo her, but, having eventually worn her down to the point of consenting to sleep (somewhat joylessly) with him, he finds that he has lost interest in her and promptly goes off and marries someone else.

Eventually World War II breaks out and Sammy finds himself taken prisoner and interrogated by the Gestapo. After a bit of verbal sparring with Gestapo officer Doctor Halde, Sammy finds himself locked in a pitch-black storeroom to reconsider his refusal to divulge any information about the series of recent escapes from the camp, and also to anticipate the delightful prospect of being tortured to obtain it. The fear and the darkness induce in Sammy what might be mild hysteria, or might be some sort of psychotic episode - and, we seem to be invited to infer, the frenzied reconsideration of his previous life that occupies most of the book - before he is released from his confinement and returned to his prison quarters, possibly as a changed man, possibly not. Who knows?

Free Fall was William Golding's fourth novel, published in 1959 at the end of the busy early period of his career that produced four novels in five years. Golding's biographer John Carey reckoned that it was the lukewarm critical response to Free Fall that prompted the five-year period of writer's block, or possibly sulking, that preceded the publication of The Spire in 1964. Frank Kermode's potted summary of Golding's early books (we'll come back to the first one in a bit) from his review of The Spire warrants reproducing here:
In the years that followed Golding did much to confirm this belief, but very little towards making himself a popular novelist. The Inheritors is a technically uncompromising, fiercely odd, even old-fashioned book about the overthrow of Neanderthal man, wonderfully distinguished but inconceivable as a big seller; Pincher Martin is as difficult as it is masterly; and Free Fall is complex, original, and in many ways reader-repellent.
I think "reader-repellent" is probably overdoing it a bit, but Golding's books are generally - while relatively short - dense, gnarly and difficult and make demands on the reader that some will find onerous and unappealing, and Free Fall is no exception. It's probably more linear and less wildly weird and eccentric than either The Inheritors (which I see I've namechecked here and here) or Pincher Martin (which I mentioned here), and to be honest, probably not quite as good as either of them, but it's still writing of great power, even when you feel like there's some Great Meaning afoot that would snap into focus if you could just look at the words from the correct angle. In the case of Free Fall this is to do with notions like choice and free will, a concept that tends to dissolve into incoherence if examined too closely, particularly with an eye not blinded by religious thinking. Jerry Coyne's Why Evolution Is True has a series of very thought-provoking articles on free will from a secular/scientific perspective if you're interested.

Obviously the elephant in the room here is Golding's first novel, 1954's Lord Of The Flies, still appearing on Best 100 Books Ever lists 60 years after its first publication. It was one of the first proper "adult" novels that I ever read (at probably 15 or 16) and made a massive impression on me. No doubt it vexed Golding (a somewhat irascible character by all accounts) greatly that his first book was the one that defined him, but there it is. I would recommend - nay, insist - that everyone read Lord Of The Flies; what I would say to those wanting to venture further is that Pincher Martin and The Spire are probably the ones to try. Just don't expect always to understand what's going on.

Golding also won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1983 - these two book reviews contain a couple of relevant lists.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014


I suppose you might argue that if you voluntarily submit yourself to the hive of scum and villainy that is Matalan, you deserve everything you get. And, moreover, not one of the (relatively) upmarket regular Matalan stores either, but the Matalan Clearance outlet tucked away round the back of the Newport Cineworld like some shameful family secret.

Now I'm not knocking cheap goods, hell no, far from it - times are tight and we can't all be forking out for the latest teflon-lined kevlar-impregnated designer undercrackers at forty quid a leghole. But you need to know what you're getting into - obviously the upside is extreme cheapness of goods, but the downsides include the general random chaotic pile-it-high layout, the lack of any facilities for trying anything on, and of course most importantly the inherent dangers of spending lengthy periods hanging out with the lower orders, with their coarse features and their big sausagey fingers and their sketchy grasp of Proust. And, my dear! The smell!

I presume the reasons for not having fitting rooms are severalfold - obviously it frees up space that can then be used for flogging more stuff, plus of course it saves having to assign a member of staff to patrolling the area ensuring that none of their malodorous feral clientele have nipped in for a quick knee-trembler. The other advantage of making the customers work out what size they need essentially by guesswork is presumably relying on there being a percentage of people who get a £5 top home, find it doesn't fit, and then decide they can't face having to take it back and just stuff it in the back of a cupboard and forget about it.

A case in point: my last trip yielded a quite nice navy blue zip-up sweater-y top that turned out to be too small (but which I haven't taken back despite not really being able to wear it), a pair of corduroy jeans that fit quite nicely and I'm very pleased with, and a stripey shirt that appears to fit pretty well but which the semi-sentient creature who served me contrived to leave the anti-theft tag on. Clearly (unlike my adventure with the Talisker at Tesco) Matalan's budget doesn't stretch to installing the detectors on the exit doors that set off the klaxons when you do a runner, presumably because it's not really worth it, so it wasn't until I got it home that I realised. I suppose strictly it doesn't prevent me from wearing the shirt, but it necessitates a choice between leaving the security tag dangling out and proud and looking like a common criminal or tucking it into the trousers and enduring an unsightly bulge in the groin area, and I've already got one of those, thank you very much. Plus you'd never be quite sure going into a shop with similar security arrangements that you wouldn't set their system off and have your ass tased to within an inch of its life before you'd had a chance to explain.

So it had to go. Much information is available on the internet about getting these things off, most of it heavily caveated with some ass-covering words about only doing this if you've acquired the goods legitimately, and if you've just nicked them STOP READING NOW, etc., etc. Since I wasn't sure whether the tag attached to my shirt contained an ink pack that would splatter indelible blue stuff all over everything in the event of its getting broken I decided to go for method 3 on the first list, step one of which is to stick your garment in the freezer.

Give it 24 hours or so to be confident(ish) that it'll all be frozen, though I should note that there are those who say the ink is formulated not to be freezable in a household freezer. Bear in mind though that these people will also have got this information off the internet, so approach with caution. Note also that in theory INKMAGEDDON will only occur if you fracture the large tab (pictured), as long as you can get the small tab off the back without this happening you should be OK. Freezing everything is just a belt-and-braces approach in case of unexpected smashage.

Yes, fine, you'll be saying, but when do we get to the bit with the great big hammer and the hitting and the smashing? That time is now. Here's a video.

Wednesday, March 05, 2014

unrhyw un awydd peint?

Here's an interesting article listing 75 great Welsh pubs. Inevitably this prompts a bit of trainspottery box-ticking in the mind of someone who has, well, that sort of mind, so my sub-list (i.e. the ones I've been to) comprises the following numbers:

1, 8, 17, 31, 34, 37, 38, 41, 43, 44, 51, 52, 53, 58, 67, 75

- so that's 16 out of 75, which, while clearly leaving some scope for improvement, isn't too bad. Just to pick out a few notable ones:
  • the Plough and Harrow in Monknash (#1) is just down the road from where our friend Kate used to live, and also not far from St. Bride's Major, former home of Charlotte Church and Gavin Henson. The one occasion I've ever been in the pub provided the slightly surreal situation of competing for the barmaid's attention with Gavin Henson - commendably she stuck to strictly orthodox bar protocol and served me first, since I'd got to the bar first. I can confirm that he is a) quite tall, b) quite orange and c) wears mirrored aviator sunglasses indoors, even in quite dingy pubs. Make of that what you will.
  • we went to the Sun Inn in Llangollen (#8) on our canal-boating trip in 2000 as referenced here, before doing a bit of highly irregular permit-free overnight mooring here.
  • I maintain that, while it's perfectly OK, you probably wouldn't give the Worm's Head Hotel (#31) a second glance if it weren't for the fact that its beer garden offers one of the most spectacular views in Britain, at least among views available from beer gardens anyway.
  • the Bear in Crickhowell (#34) was the venue for a post-walk pint after Huw and I went up Table Mountain a few months back.
  • the Ancient Briton in Pen-y-cae (#38) was the venue for a very similar post-walk pint after Hazel and I had been up the Black Mountain in the snow back in April 2010.
  • I had a pint in the Ship Inn on the shores of Red Wharf Bay in Anglesey (#44) while my ex-girlfriend Anne and I were over there in the summer of 2000. 
  • the Pen-y-Gwryd Hotel at the foot of the Llanberis Pass in Snowdonia (#51) was previously mentioned in another pub-related list here.
  • we went to the Sloop in Porthgain (#52) for lunch (and a pint) on our trip to Pembrokeshire in June 2012
  • the Murenger House (#58) remains comfortably the best pub in central Newport, not that that is much of an accolade. It's a nice little place only marred by its being tied to Sam Smith's brewery and therefore obliged to serve their rather uninspiring beer.
  • the King's Head in Llangennith (#67) has been the venue for much beery hilarity over the years, usually while we've been staying at the Hillend campsite down the road.
  • we went to the Blue Anchor at East Aberthaw (#75) with Jenny and Jim after we'd taken Nia for her first visit to the beach at Barry Island.
A couple of near misses - we parked up in the car park behind Tafarn Sinc (#6) in Pembrokeshire before bagging Foel Cwmcerwyn back in 2009, without ever quite realising that it was there, otherwise we'd have gone in. I also parked round the back of the Cwmdu Inn (#2) when I did my Royal Wedding avoidance walk back in 2011. It is also quite possible that I've been in more of these (particularly the ones in Cardiff) without specifically remembering their names.

No review of a list of this sort is complete without a bit of quibbling, so I'll just add that I'd have included the Old Arcade in central Cardiff as I think they have the best Brains SA anywhere, and I also have a soft spot for the Albany just up the road from Hazel's old flat in Roath. And familial loyalty obliges me to bemoan the absence of the Lewis Arms in Tongwynlais. If you play the video below the pub list you'll notice that the beardy bloke saying nothing very interesting is drinking a pint of Wye Valley HPA in the Bell in Caerleon, which I've been to a couple of times and would also probably be on my list. It was also the venue for another slightly underwhelming celebrity encounter, this time with big-nosed shouty snooker bloke Rob Walker who seemed to be in the middle of a "10 Miles 10 Pints" fun run/pub crawl mashup at the time, judging by his and his companions' attire.