Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Is your participle dangling?

Yesterday I got a letter from Barclays which read, ‘As your Plan Manager, the Inland Revenue requires us to inform them of […]’. And I wondered if I should write back, asking indignantly why they transferred the management of my account to the Inland Revenue without my permission. Well no, what they meant was ‘As your Plan Manager, we are required by the Inland Revenue to inform them…’

It’s the dreaded dangling participle again. Now I’m not a split infinitive bigot. I don’t even complain about ‘who/whom’ any more now that the Times (but not, quirkily, their Style and Usage Guide) routinely accepts ‘who’ in the dative case. But those hanging participles can be positively – or is it negatively? – misleading. Perhaps ‘misrelated participles’ would be better, but Fowler (of Modern English Usage, not the one who’s just signed for Liverpool) calls them ‘unattached’. I don’t agree – they’re usually attached, but to the wrong subject. (Not often I disagree with the mighty Fowler.)

But they all do it.

An invitation to a writing course: ‘As someone who has requested information about this course, we’d like to invite […]’ Why did they request information about their own course?
P & O: ‘As a valued customer, I would like to thank you […]
Citalia: (More than once) ‘As a previous client, we […]’
AOL: ‘As a valued AOL member, I’m delighted to […]’
Jaguar: ‘As a valued […] client, I am writing to […]’
Henderson Investments had the vanity to claim: ‘I am writing to you as an astute investor[…]’
BBC Radio 4: 'Being unique, I won’t try to imitate him.'
Even Writer’s Digest: ‘After two years in New York, Time transferred her to […]’
And The Sunday Times, in and article about Germaine Greer, may have risked libel action: ‘With past lovers including Warren Beatty, did the producers of Big Brother hope […]’

It's easier to do it the right way than the wrong way, so why do they do it? - but then as a regular writer (if not a particularly regular blogger), you must not get the impression I’m a pedant.

Thursday, February 23, 2006

Not that I'm paranoid or anything

I’ve got this friend who’s vegetarian, vegan, non-leather-or-wool-wearing and non-car-driving. But he does like a pint, and we meet from time to time in his local pub and have a drink before I drive him to a French club. (He accepts lifts in cars.)
He’s a very nice guy. Recently he said look, we’re always drinking in my local – why don’t we meet up in yours, so you won’t have to worry about drinking and driving – and I’ll be on my bike so it won’t matter. It was a nice thought. So I said fine, let’s meet in the Stag and Hounds.
His jaw dropped. ‘I’m sorry’, he said, ‘I won’t meet you in a pub called the Stag and Hounds. I don’t believe in the exploitation of animals.’
‘But,’ I said, ‘we’ve always drunk in your pub, and it’s called the Nag’s Head’.
‘Yes’, he said, ‘but the head is attached to the nag’.
‘If you look at the sign outside my pub,’ I said, 'you will see that the heads of the Stag and the hounds are firmly affixed to their bodies’. But he wouldn’t budge, and we still meet in the Nag’s Head. I drove by it the other day – and you know what? – the head of the nag is torso-less. Perhaps he just doesn’t want to drink with me.

Now I didn't think I was paranoid - well not very much - but when my wife gave me Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves at Christmas, I had second thoughts. Much as I like her, and I do (she might read this) I have to question her tact in choosing that particular gift*. Giving a writer a book on punctuation is a bit like giving Michael Schumacher Car Driving for Beginners or Fred and Ginger First Steps in Ballroom Dancing.
Paranoia apart, it’s a fascinating book, but I still don’t know why it was so successful: grammarians didn’t need it and the rest don’t care.
Ms Truss talks of the APS – Apostrophe Protection Society – a group of grammar vigilantes who write (in impeccable grammar no doubt) to perpetrators of sins like the grocer’s apostrophe (banana’s) and such, to point out their error. Her book even has a set of adhesive apostrophes of different sizes that you can stick in where they have been omitted, and a set of plain white stickers with which to cover redundant ones – a printed card I got from an estate agent recently said they dealt in ‘sale’s and rental’s’!
But this surely highlights a basic contradiction of blogging. You start off saying, 'This is my blog and I will write it how I please, regardless of such trivialities as grammar, punctuation and the like'. But once you know someone is reading it, you feel a writer’s duty to proof-read and correct.
Hemingway said that easy writing is hard reading, and that it takes hard writing to make easy reading – so what was formerly a casual personal record of one’s innermost thoughts becomes hard work – and unpaid work at that. Or is it only me?
Next week – dangling participles (‘As a valued customer, I am writing to tell you about…’) and the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’. Yawn.

* OK – I’ll come clean. I asked her for it.

Tuesday, February 21, 2006

Make history history

We had a secretary of State for – of all things – Education, who believed that there was no need for history. (He was a science grad.) So of course he was promoted – to Home Secretary, where his mission is to remove as many civil liberties as he can in the shortest possible time. Please, can we make Charles Clarke history?

When blogging on about irony the other day, my thoughts turned to other abstract terms that are more significant when ignored than when used – a veritable blog mine.
One day when my kids were very small, I heard my son say to my daughter, ‘You’d better get inside, quick – Dad’s steaming’. I was worried by this, and wondered if he was trying to scare his sister unnecessarily, and whom he could be talking about. Surely not me, I thought – I? ‘Steam’? It has worried me for 30 years, and the only solution that I’ve found that I can live with is: understatement. Their mother used to say ‘I asked you to tell C off about such-and-such and you haven’t’. ‘Yes I did.’ ‘Well yes, you did – but you only told him once.’ And I would try to explain that I thought that repetitive admonishments were counter-productive, devalued the words, were boring to the recipient etc. etc. I can only assume that in the above account I must have asked where she was – hence ‘steaming’.
I once worked in an office in the US where everyone shouted everything. If someone shouted at me I would look at them in bewilderment, and they would say ‘Oh, don’t take any notice of me – you have to shout around here or people won’t listen’. I decided, since I was shy and didn’t know any other way, to stay with my usual sotto voce – and in almost no time, people got used to it – and would just listen harder. Then people started to see that I got people to do things by not shouting at them. And most – not all, but most – stopped shouting.
Although quite young at the time, I remember a radio report – there wasn’t TV yet - from the battlefield at Arnhem. It’s a small town in Holland where in World War II British paratroopers were dropped behind the German lines to try to make it easier for the ground troops to move in. The operation was a disaster. The Germans knew about it and were ready, and the paras were mown down as they hit the ground. I can still hear the report of the BBC war correspondent (who miraculously survived), heard against a background of machine gun fire: ‘This is Wynford Vaughan Thomas speaking to you from Arnhem. It’s Sunday afternoon – teatime. But there’s no tea…’ I’ve never been able to talk about the effect that report had on me, a schoolboy listening at home. Men were dying all around him - there were few survivors - but there were no heroics, just ‘there’s no tea’.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Subtlety, irony - and how the Twain did eventually meet

Have you noticed how WORD does not like ‘emigrated’? Probably not – it’s not a word you use every day – but if you try to, you’ll get the dreaded wavy green line. When you ask WORD why, it tells you you meant ‘immigrated’ – when of course you did not. We’re talking your latest ‘International’ version of WORD here, by the way, not the ‘homespun all-American’ one. I think of this whenever I see Gates has given another $57 million (ie an hour’s pay) to some deserving cause.
I don’t want to make a big thing of this. Why am I then? Well, it’s a metaphor, you see.
In case you don’t, here’s another, less subtle one: in my early days as an accounting machine salesman selling American machines in the UK, we had a big shot come over from our Philadelphia HQ to visit us. He outlined the corporate policy – in the Financial Times no less – as ‘Think globally and act locally, but without going native’. (Sound like Rumpsfeld?) He then asked us why we weren’t selling 1004’s. Ah yes, we said, great machine, but we’ve already pointed out to the marketing people in Philly that you can’t sell accounting machines in the UK without a £ (pound) sign. The top banana’s reply was: ‘Why the hell can’t they use the dollar sign?’
It lacks the irony of the first example, but the point is the same: if Americans don’t need it, it isn’t necessary. Nobody emigrates from the US.
No, this is not one of those clichéd ‘Yankee Go Home’ banners. Now you might ask why I always take a ball-breakingly long time to get to the point and finish up having to say what the blog is not about. I’ve wondered about that, and I think it’s because Alistair Cook got away with it for best part of a century and I was one of his greatest fans.
I’ll come to the point: it’s about irony. (Phew – collective sigh of relief - at last!)
It all arose from a Sunday Times review of a new biography of Mark Twain, in which it said, ‘Irony was a European invention’. How’s that for a truism? Irony is as old as literature, and didn’t western literature come from Europe? Still, it made me think, so can’t be all bad.
Early European immigrants to the US – look, no wavy green line! – were bucolic illiterates, so, apart from the family Bible, did not take literature with them. And in the age of Enlightenment, when Voltaire, Gibbon, Diderot and the like were ladling out irony like Ben and Jerry’s ice cream, dour America was busy writing declarations of independence. Thomas Jefferson was never in his lifetime accused of having written a single ironic word.
But my claim for Twain (while mainly on the wane?) is that he was the 19th century writer most responsible for the introduction of irony to AmeriLit. – the man who brought ambiguity to the West. And the fact that he spent most of his life hating all things non-American is the biggest irony of all.
The many Euros who think that irony isn’t appreciated in the US are usually comparing the wrong centuries. Like the hoary old jokes about French plumbing, it’s one of those clichés that, while it had some credibility in the past, is now way past its sell-by date. You should not try to compare 19th century clods like Fennimore Cooper and Longfellow with Beckett and Pinter. But try it with John Updike, Truman Capote, Toni Morrison or The Simpsons and you might get somewhere.
I could finish with a succinct phrase that sums up the whole blog, but Alistair never did – and he was the best blogger there ever was, even if he never knew the word.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Saints preserve us!

There used to be a jazz venue in New Orleans – not a bar or a club, a venue - called Preservation Hall. There were precious few seats, no tables, no waiters, no food and no booze. In a city where you can buy it in plastic glasses from stalls in the streets that’s pretty unusual. It was dedicated to the preservation of traditional jazz, and most of the players were over 80 and wore suits. The average age of the audience was under 30 and they wore shorts and XXXL T-shirts.
A sign on the wall reads ‘Requests $1, Saints $5’ – which says a lot about the level of jazz sophistication of the audience. They didn’t get many requests for Livery Stable Blues or Strange Fruit.
I used to wonder who the saints were, and why they were marching in, but then decided that there weren’t any saints – just as there was no ‘Aintree iron’ in ‘Thank you very much’. Those guys were just looking for four iambic syllables with the accents on the odd – instead of the Shakespearean even – feet.
And that’s where, after considerable research and reflection, I stand on St. Valentine. There wasn’t one. Have you ever seen him in an ancient work of art, like the endless sequence of skewered Sebastians? Is there a statue of him, like the plethora of petrified Peters? A church named after him – alliteratively or not?
Until the shopkeepers realised that they had found a way of keeping the cash registers ringing after the Xmas rush and the January sales, the patron saints for Feb 14 were the Greek brothers Cyril and Methodius. Methodius gave us a word and Cyril, not to be outdone, a whole alphabet – hence Cyrillic. Not nearly as romantic or profitable as Valentine: he has only just made it onto some catholic websites. (I realise that tills don’t ring any more – it was a deliberate anachronism to make the point.)
But I’ll admit that ‘Don’t miss our special St. Methodius menu, £9.95’ doesn’t have quite the same ring. So I guess we’d better preserve Valentine – the economy needs him.

Sunday, February 12, 2006

Whom do you tell?

‘MY BLOGS are the tendrils of my soul’ as Robert W. Service might have said. (He said ‘books’ actually.) As a relative newcomer to the genre, the thought of baring one’s soul in public is still in diametrical conflict with my character. The only explanation I can think of is that it is NOT in public – the audience does not know me and is unlikely to meet me. The stranger on the train syndrome – and as soon as someone says ‘Hey, are you the Ted Watchamacallit from Hicksville?’ I will have to reconsider my position. For that reason I have told no-one except my wife and son about my blog. Well, they let me read theirs.
But does that mean it will for ever remain a secret garden? It’s a serious question. Because, while I’ve no wish to publicise my views – I’ve been known among friends and family not to express a view on anything from one year’s end to the next. (When I started to say something recently, my stepson said ‘Quiet, everyone, I think Ted is about to express an opinion’. I was so embarrassed I immediately forgot what it was.)
So who do you tell – OK Messrs Strunk & White, I know it’s ‘whom’ but I’m pleading common usage here. Because the more people you tell, the more people you have to consider when writing. Or don’t you consider anyone? I really would like to know people’s views on that – but who’s going to tell me?
There, I think, is the nub of the problem. I worry about what others may think. Not caring is essential for the true artist. If she had cared what we thought, would you ever have heard of Tracy Emin? (Though, to come out of character for a second, I don’t consider her an artist – more a seeker of celebrity.)
When William Faulkner’s daughter complained that he didn’t spend enough time with her, he said, ‘Does anyone know the name of Shakespeare’s daughter?’ When Gauguin was about to leave for Tahiti, his wife said, ‘But your daughter's dying of consumption’. He said – ‘but if I miss this boat there won’t be another for two weeks’. Now that's art.

On this, Abraham Lincoln’s birthday, when lies are not permitted, I feel an opinion coming on so must voice it. I went to a pub for lunch today. It’s a pub I use often because smoking is forbidden and it’s always quiet – and we had to wait for a table! Why? I’d forgotten about Valentine's Day, despite the fact that my greatest joy these last few weeks has been in zapping e-mails with the words ‘Valentine’s day’ in the heading. What sort of a life is that – waiting all year for a pub lunch to find out if someone cares for you?
I didn't I want to be an artist anyway.

Wednesday, February 08, 2006

Simone Martini comes to Liverpool

No, this is not about the signing of an Italian striker by one of our local football teams, but some musings about the city where I was born, some years ago. It was so long ago that there was only one flavour of potato crisps, so it didn’t need a name and only got one after the cheese and onion invasion. The ivy-clad towers of my natal manor were destroyed by the Luftwaffe in WW II, but fortunately I was not in it at the time.
(If I don’t seem to write much about the interests declared in my profile, it’s not that they’re not interesting; it’s just that I’ve got other interests, such as finding things I didn’t realise I was interested in. But tonight I'm sticking to the songsheet.)
Liverpool will be the European city of Culture for 2008. The city’s pride is the Walker (not the guy who makes the potato crisps) Art Gallery, one of whose most treasured exhibits is Simone Martini’s Christ Discovered in the Temple.
As a child, Christ is said to have strayed from his parents during a visit to the Temple in Jerusalem and stayed behind to talk with its learned scholars. The picture is one of a naughty kid getting an earful from his parents. His father, Joseph, head on one side, looks puzzled; while his mother, Mary, hands raised, is laying down the law. Her words on finding him are written in Latin on the book she holds: 'Son, why have you dealt with us like this?'
Martini signed the picture along the bottom edge of the frame with the words (also in Latin) 'Simone of Siena painted me in the year of Our Lord 1342'. He was very successful in impressing the papal court with his talents, and when the popes, fearing the political upheavals in Italy, moved their court to Avignon in southern France for much of the 14th century, Martini went with them and spent the rest of his life there. This picture was painted in Avignon. From its detail and lavish use of colour, especially the more expensive golds and blues, it is generally believed that the picture was commissioned by a high ranking member of the papal court, possibly even the pope himself.
That Martini’s talent, like that of his fellow Sienese mentor, Duccio di Buoninsegna, has long lain in the shadow of Florentine painters like Giotto has as much to do with writers as painters. With Florence’s artists being trumpeted by writers of the stature of Dante, Boccaccio, and Petrarch, Martini and Duccio were always going to be outsiders in the PR stakes. (For Florence and Siena you could substitute Manchester and Liverpool.)
But the legacy of Duccio, Martini and Giotto and their contemporaries was an essential launch pad for the quiet revolution that was the Italian Renaissance; and I find I take a totally unjustified pride in the fact that one plank of that pad has ended up in my home town, where anyone can pop in and admire a 700-year-old work of art.
(That’s two for the price of one: Liverpool and 14th century Italian painting.)

Everton play their Cup replay against Chelsea tonight. We who are about to die salute you.

Tuesday, February 07, 2006

Does my bomb look big in this?

Is this the latest thing in Halloween costumes?
Omar Khayam, 22, was nicked in London at the weekend wearing an imitation suicide bombing outfit. He was arrested, not for incitement to racial hatred - a new law passed for just this purpose - but for busting parole on an earlier drug-dealing sentence. The chairman of his mosque, with an unconscious pun, said: 'It has been blown out of proportion'.
But it was the guy's name that got me. Odd that a suicide bomber - even a phoney one - should have the same name as the poet who 900 years ago wrote:
Indeed the idols I have loved so long
Have done my credit in this world much wrong,
Have drowned my glory in a shallow cup
And sold my reputation for a song.

A rehearsal for a suicide bombing - what next?

Sunday, February 05, 2006

One small step for Man U...

It’s almost 50 years since Munich. No, not Chamberlain or Spielberg; Busby. Busby? Yes, Matt Busby, the Manchester United football (soccer) team coach. On February 6, 1958, in a snowstorm at Munich airport, the plane carrying the Man U team failed to clear the end of the runway and crashed, killing most of the team. Busby was seriously injured, but survived.
Ten years later, to national joy, the team’s young replacements, the Busby Babes, were the best team in the country.
Things have changed since then. Today, every British football fan supports two teams: his own, and the one playing Man U. Man U are the most reviled team in the country – and the man responsible for bringing the team, and the sport, into disrepute is their present manager, Alex Ferguson. He intimidates referees, encourages diving (his players feigning injury in order to win free kicks and get members of the other team sent off), time-wasting and other unsportsmanlike gestures - and he is very successful.

It’s a sporty weekend, with Everton playing Manchester City at soccer, England v. Wales, Ireland v Italy and Scotland v France at rugby, and the Superbowl tonight. A sporty, anxious, exciting and tearful weekend. Tearful? Well yes: first, because of dietary constraints there will be no chicken wings or potato crisps, and what’s a sporty weekend without chicken wings? Secondly, they play the Irish national anthem at the Ireland/Italy game – and that always makes me weep. It has something to do with my mother being Irish, and it recalls the ceilidhs we had on Sunday evenings when I was a kid in Liverpool and my mother used to sing ‘Paddy McGinty’s Goat’ and dance to Gaelic music on Irish radio. The Irish national anthem signalled the end of the programme – and my bedtime. So it means many things: childhood, fun, home, my mother - and her loneliness after we moved to another town where there weren’t any Micks with whom to dance ceilidhs.

But the weekend results are so far satisfactory: Everton won, as did England, Ireland and Scotland. The superbowl I don’t much care about this year so I’ll watch the big guys in tights tomorrow after the beer commercials and half-time excesses have been removed.

And now the bad news: Man U won.