Category Archives: language

01 Feb

The dummy-suckers

It is a pleasure to discover a good restaurant and even better to come across a talented writer. I have been reading Alexander Boot’s books and blogs for ten years and I have always found him sustaining. He is scholarly, informed and frequently amusing. Consistently he writes what is recognisably the English language – which makes a nice change from most of the stuff we read in the national newspapers. Recently Alex was wondering aloud on his blog why 1.3 million British subjects have signed a petition to deny a state visit to Donald Trump. What is it about this democratically elected president which irritates so many people to such a degree that they refuse to extend the president the courtesy of hospitality?

Perhaps it is because Mr Trump is deficient in the qualities possessed by foreign rulers to whom we did grant a state visit? Alex names a few of these in case we had forgotten, among them Messrs Mobutu, Suharto, Xi Jinping and Ceaușescu – all of them tyrants, dictators and some of them mass murderers. Donald Trump has been in office less than a fortnight and so he may plead in excuse that he has not yet had the time to set up the apparatus of mass slaughter. The petitioners should give him a little breathing space, and then perhaps he will live up to the standard set by the tyrants and dictators who were welcomed here with little protest?

Alex goes on to ponder the wider issue of what it is that attracts the mob in their millions to genocidal tyrants. And not least of the virtues in Alex’s writing is that you can see the pondering even as he writes. Here is that rare thing: a man thinking things out as he goes along, as the thinker and the writer should. Our present literary and journalistic malaise is all owing to the fact that, though we have plenty of thinkers and writers, the thinkers can’t write and the writers can’t think.

Back on the subject of the petitioners, Alex thinks this sort are the natural consequence of society’s lapse back into paganism. I dare say there is something in this. Certainly, the case of Hitler is evidence on that score. I wouldn’t want to dispute Alex’s judgement here, but I would venture another explanation – one which is not inconsistent with paganism.

When she was a toddler, my sister used to suck a dummy which had been dipped in something sweet. My mother and father tried to wean her off this comfort, as it would not have appeared seemly for my sister to turn up at Mrs Lillyman’s dancing studio in posh Roundhay, Leeds for her grade two ballet examinations with what my dad called “that thing” in her mouth. But every time they tried to remove the dummy, my sister screamed the bloody place down.

The petitioners are like my infant sister.

Since 1945 they have inhabited a political culture much to their liking: a politics of high taxation and regulation, a dispensation in which there is the appearance of democracy but not its reality. For while it is possible to chuck out the government and put another one in its place, the new lot are the same as the the old crowd. Added to this pretend democracy there is the relatively new ingredient of political correctness which tells the infantilised petitioners what to think and, just like nanny, controls their behaviour. They want to be looked after by nanny and allowed to suck their dummies. Well now the dummies have been taken away and they are screaming the bloody place down. They want to be overtaxed and over-regulated. They don’t want personal responsibility. They want the state to tell them what to do. Moreover, they have become so habituated to this politics that they long since developed a culture of entitlement. They imagined they would be allowed to suck on their dummies forever. The last thing they want is to grow up.

Listen, and you can hear them screaming the bloody place down.

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31 May

Darkness Visible

We have a terrific capacity for producing trash: nearly everything in Tate Modern, so-called Britart, “poetry” so banal it wouldn’t even serve to be adapted for the chorus in a happy-clappy “worship song”; voyeuristic nuts ‘n’ sluts shows and such as Britain’s Got Talent and Strictly Come Dancing for pleb telly; and, as a constant backdrop – like a toothache – to daily life, ubiquitous audible filth in the form of amplified electronic pop music; and everybody in thrall to self-promoting narcissists such as Prince and David Bowie.

All this is bad enough, but what is truly satanic is our penchant not just for producing wall-to-wall muck, but infiltrating work of outstanding quality and perversely appropriating it to the general junk culture. This is the gesture – akin to sprinkling a Rembrandt painting with bleach or pissing in the chalice – which turns out a version of Don Giovanni with a cast of leather-clad punks and druggies in a New York skyscraper apartment or importing pop and rock into The Promenade Concerts.

Here, for example, are a few extracts from a review by Vicki Power, The Daily Telegraph’s TV critic, of a recent BBC production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream:

“The director has re-invented the play as a children’s action adventure full of scary fairies, chase scenes and rousing Indiana Jones style music…Theseus is rebranded as a dictator and the warrior Hippolyta is his prisoner rather than his willing bride…he has also taken a scythe to the text and reshaped lines…the action fizzes along…the verse-speaking is uneven…”

Now what I find interesting about this review is that the Telegraph’s critic doesn’t conclude: “So it’s crap then – an atrocity.”

She entirely approves of this scurrilous travesty: “It is a production that might well direct a younger generation to the Bard.”

How could it possibly do that, except by false pretences? Ms Power thinks that we might be attracted to Shakespeare by what is not Shakespeare; by something to which Shakespeare is the antidote.

This sort of corruption is everywhere perpetrated by those who think it clever – charlatans who, being unable to appreciate and give thanks for the wonderful creations of artistic genius, resort to doing dirt on them instead.

Waste and void, waste and void. And darkness over the face of the deep.

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31 Jul

Rite me a poim, Megan

“Now then Megan, I want you to write a poem. And when you’ve finished, please compose a forty-part motet, cook me a cordon bleu supper and show me your designs for a new cathedral.”

If it weren’t so depressing, it would be risible to note that anyone – borderline illiterates included – are expected to be able to write poetry. What is a poem? I recall C.H. Sisson’s definition of its meaning today in the schools: “A composition in which the words do not quite extend to the margins.”

But never mind the dumb schools, this is what The Spectator offers us as an example of a poem:

“None of the teachers who taught us

Were around that final afternoon at

Grammar school – probably frightened

Of being assaulted after giving us so

Much grief for five years, no more of

That though. We sat around unsupervised

Playing cards and smoking a bit and then

It seemed so simple, so absurdly easy to

Just walk down the drive and out of the front

Gate for the last time.”

I thought it must be by poor Megan who is troubled by learning difficulties and dyslexia issues, but it turns out to be by Paul Birtill, a contributor to The Morning Star. Before we get started on thinking about your “poem”, Paul, do you mind if we just deal with something pretty basic? I mean it’s not frightened of but frightened by. It’s afraid of, as any poet no. They don’t teach you that at grammar school – ‘cos it’s grammar, innit? And, while I’m at it, none takes was not were. 

There’s no call for dogmatism when it comes to saying what counts as poetry. There is room for all sorts: for Homer, for Alexandrian metre, Augustan austerity, lyrical ballads and Uncle Tom Eliot’s inability to make connections on Margate Sands. And the sentiment doesn’t have to be hifalutin or sham antique, as in gay Hesperion’s golden whatsit. It can be slight, light-hearted, whimsical. Let me cast the net as as widely as possible and say that a poem is just a few words in a particular rhythm.

Birtill’s poem has no discernible rhythm. Dare I suggest that a poem should also be about something? It doesn’t have to be the Trojan wars or the salon of Madame Sosostris but, for crying out loud, it shouldn’t be utterly banal. Birtill’s poem doesn’t say anything except the blindingly obvious. It’s a ten-lines cliche.You go to school for a few years and then you leave.. There is no insight, nothing produced by an actual imagination, no verbal facility. In fact, it isn’t a poem. It’s prose pretending to be verse – and lousy prose at that.

Poetry is not, as the modern educashernists vainly believe, about expressing yourself. You have no self to express until you have ingested something, until you have been taught something. The true poet is usually to be noticed with the works of the great  poets of the past in his hands, not filling notebooks with verbal trash. The composition of poetry requires also concentration and, above all, practice.

You can no more write a poem without at least some understanding of what will go into ordinary English than go out and score a century against the Aussie pace bowlers when you’ve never wielded a cricket bat in your life before.

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05 Nov

Credo quia absurdum

Every newspaper and magazine should follow the example of the Spectator and appoint its own in-house surreal comedian.

Although Matthew Parris begins a recent article by misquoting Lewis Carroll – the White Queen said she could believe six impossible things before breakfast – he proceeds to outdo Carroll in the production of things bizarre and fantastic. His article is titled Why I intend to become an addict. That Spectator piece should be made compulsory reading in all our state secondary schools. You’ll see why in a minute. But enough preamble, let the great man speak for himself…

“Heroin, by all accounts, is the big one and for decades I’ve wanted to experience addiction to that drug…

“I did have one wholly abortive attempt at getting hooked on nicotine patches. My mistake was to attempt a shortcut and apply patches that were classified as the equivalent of 30 cigarettes a day. I put one of these patches onto (sic) my lower back, forgot all about it, went out to dinner – and ended up literally crawling to my host’s sofa, unable to stand, lying there with my heart thumping, ripping off the patch, passing out, and not waking until dawn…

“A friend tells me he knows a non-smoker who…tried e-cigarettes and has become seriously addicted to them. Sounds promising…”

“And how often would I need to vape in order to let myself effectively but gently into a possible addiction?

“People who are not addicts should try it and report. Sooner or later, and one way or another, I intend to.”

Parris’ virtuosic feel for narcissistic farce is beyond all comment or criticism. Give him the Spike Milligan Award for Surpassing Daftness.

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18 Oct

Escape from the ideas factory

Recently I wrote a piece about the impenetrable pedant Peter Strawson and received a comment from a friend, a literary critic. He said he had some history with Strawson who had once told him he shouldn’t write about the jargonising linguistics guru Noam Chomsky because he, my friend, is not a professional in the study of linguistics. I shall refer to this as the Academic Fallacy – the notion that those formerly referred to as “scholars” but now as “academics” each has his own “field” or “specialism” and he should not stray beyond it. Well, I admit there are specialities: quantum physics for example or endocrinology. But if a man writes about the use of words – as Chomsky does – then anyone else who is a competent user of words must be allowed to comment on what is being said. The test is not based on what academic faculty a commentator hails from, but the sense of what is being said.

The definition of an academic is someone whose mind is so fine that it has never been penetrated by a single idea, and consequently academic prose is the death of thought. There is a widespread superstition that some people are so clever that no one can understand them. Rowan Williams’ groupies frequently give him as an example. But Williams deserves the Regius Professorship of Obscurantism or to be head honcho in the Circumlocution Office. It is said of him that he speaks ten foreign languages; and indeed he writes English as if it were one of them. This belief that some people are so clever that they are beyond our ken is part of the Academic Fallacy: for the mark of cleverness is the ability to make oneself understood. It is erroneously imagined that there are such objects as “ideas” which may subsequently be “put into words.” Not so. The words themselves, in the order in which they are spoken, are  the ideas – because the choice of words determines what is being said. There is no distinction between the substance of a piece of writing and the style in which it is written – as if style were some sort of additional ornamentation.  A good style simply means clarity and immediacy of expression. Style and idea are one and the same. the word made flesh. And you can achieve style only by the constant effort to think clearly. Williamsese exists because the former Archbishop’s mind is a muddle.

Orwell – he was talking about politics but what he says applies to literary endeavour in all its forms – satirised academic prose. He took the sparse line from Ecclesiastes: “I looked and saw…” and translated it into academy-spk: “Objective consideration of contemporary phenomena compels the conclusion…” Too many people aspire to write in the putrescent style of that translation.

The best writers never were or are academics. They were learned and wise, which is not at all the same thing. In better days, we referred to them as men of letters. Francis Bacon in his Essays; George Berkeley in Three Dialogues; Newman in his Apologia. T.S. Eliot, R.G.Collingwood and Ian Robinson in everything they produced. Women of letters too. Jane Austen; George Eliot (except when she is tempted to write the positivist utopia); Christina Rossetti; Janet Frame and Muriel Spark. But not Elizabeth Anscombe who complicates and so corrupts the obsessively subtle Wittgenstein or Hilary Mantel who renders Thomas Cromwell as if he were already the leading man in a Sunday night adaptation on BBC2.

In The Book of Common Prayer, truth is delivered with sublime simplicity: “With this ring I thee wed”; “Man that is born of a woman hath but a short time to live…” The divine economy in words of one syllable.

Here’s a bit of Robinson to end with:

“The world is not the same as planet earth; astronauts take the world with them. The world is made by and made up of human beings, in co-operation, I believe, with the divine. About that, Professor Hawking has nothing to say. He has therefore no grounds for declaring either any particular thing, or everything, either significant or insignificant.” Holding the Centre by Ian Robinson.

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04 Oct

Feeding the 5000 in Dumbo-speak

And the BOSS was, like, “Like, where shall we buy bread to feed this lot then?” And Phil was like, “There’s a guy here with five chocolate croissants and two sludge trays of sushi, but that’s norra lorra nosh, like.”

“So like the BOSS was like, ‘Get them to park their arses. know what I mean?’”

Now there was a lot of grass out there – and some of the guys were smoking it. And the BOSS sort of like passed round the choccie croissants and the disgusting sushi. Honest, he did. So everybody was so like ‘Yuk!’ and they weren’t having any, know what I mean?

So the BOSS said like we should think about the environment and not, like, leave all that yukky stuff lying around, right? And Andy was like, ‘Take a butchers at these twelve supermarket trolleys and, like fill ‘em up with the yuk.’

And we were all like ‘‘OMG!’’

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19 May

Syntactic Tyranny

Nigel Farage has been driven to apologise for saying on television that he would be uncomfortable if a group of Rumanians moved in next door to him. An Australian professor of government has had a petition got up against him and signed by 10,000 for writing an article which claimed that Russian leaders since Stalin have done more to the detriment of civil society than to uphold it. The accusations made in both these cases is of “racism” – but what meaning can we attach to the use of this word?

Why is a man not at liberty to speak his mind and say that the arrival of neighbours of a particular sort and reputation would make him feel uncomfortable? Farage seemed to say that he would rather live next to a German – his wife is German – than to a Rumanian. I don’t think for a minute he meant all  Rumanians. I imagine he meant that generally he would be happier living next to a German than to a Rumanian. I think most people would interpret Farage’s remark in that way; and I dare say many would agree with him. This does not imply that all Rumanians are nasty and all Germans nice. Alex Boot in a recent blog puts the matter into perspective when he says, “I would rather live next to a Rumanian doctor than to a German lout.” This doesn’t imply that all doctors are nice people either! The shocking fact is that political correctness forbids us the rational use of general terms. Common sense understands that the use of general terms means exactly that – in general. The reductio ad absurdum of literal-minded political correctness would be the assumption that, if a man said, “I like the Germans,” one should conclude from his statement that he was an admirer of Hitler and his gang. Most people would understand Farage’s statement about Germans and Rumanians to be shorthand for something such as: “If you were to ask me, I should say that generally speaking I’d rather live next to a German than to a Rumanian. Of course this doesn’t mean that I like all Germans and dislike all Rumanians.”

I’m sorry to labour the point, but unfortunately such labour seems to be necessary.

Similarly with the professor. If he says, “Since Stalin, the Russians have done more harm than good,” no one in his right sense would conclude that the reference was to every single Russian man, woman, child, dog and pet rabbit.

And then, as again Alex Boot points out, there is the larger matter of truth. Looking at the record of Russia, including Stalin’s genocide of his own people, the red army’s viciousness in the invasions and occupations of Poland, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Chechnya and Georgia, it might indeed seem to an observer that there is some truth in the Australian professor’s statement. But here’s the rub: political correctness has no concern for the truth; it is the preferred tool of the elite which governs us and its motive is social and political control. The word for this is hegemony. The vocabulary of political correctness is ideological. Its key words – diversity, inclusivity, democracy, equality, freedom, racism, sexism and the resthave no truth-functional context: they are merely emotive and their aim is compulsion and control. This is what makes political correctness irrational. But, though irrational, it is pervasive and all-powerful.

As C.L. Stevenson in The Emotive Meaning of Ethical Terms (1937) admitted: the purpose of the emotive use of language is to persuade and coerce; and essentially there is no practical difference between persuasion by words and persuasion by a big stick. Our very own A.J.Ayer in Language, Truth and Logic (1936) agreed with Stevenson. (For those forensically inclined, it’s in chapter six) Those two philosophers wrote at the time when Hitler and Stalin were engaged on their vicious sprees. The two totalitarian dictators were as one with the two philosophers. And political correctness and newspeak are one and the same – the servants of totalitarianism.

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22 Apr

The new wilderness

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