Tuesday, 28 February 2017

Me and My Shadow



Normally, I go to great lengths to keep my own shadow or reflection out of my photographs. Traditionally regarded as a cardinal error of photography (along with the blurred thumb, the truncated torso, the tree apparently growing out of the subject's head, and the like) one's own shadow or reflection can be used as one of those po-mo "meta" gestures: Hey, look, guess what? This is just a photograph, and it's me that's taking it! In fact, Lee Friedlander put together an entire collection of such witty self-inclusions as long ago as 1970, published as Self Portrait. But, sometimes, as in this one, it is impossible to avoid, and did seem sort of appropriate. I actually wanted the brightly-illuminated brickwork and the markings for possible use in a collage, but the angle of the sun was making it impossible to take any other way. In fact, I quite like the resulting image.

You may have thought you'd spotted me standing reflected within the seated girl in the previous post, but if so you'd be wrong. Look closer:


Blimey, is that guy having a pee against the Social Sciences building opposite? In broad daylight and in plain sight? The stance, the furtive sideways glance, are diagnostic. But, surely not...

In both cases, though, this is a reminder that it would be really handy to have a short telephoto prime lens, something like the good old 135mm that everyone used to have (and rarely used) in their 35mm kit. Personally, I used to love my Olympus Zuiko 135mm f/3.5, with its built-in lens-hood and perfectly-balanced ratio of weight to length. It simply matched the way I saw back then, although it's true my preferred personal angle of view has widened considerably with age. That new-ish Fuji 90mm f/2 would hit the spot nicely, but at £750 exists only in a parallel universe, the one in which my in-town runaround – nothing flashy, just a well-maintained Audi TT Mk. 1 – is parked outside our Chelsea mews pied-à-terre. Perhaps that's where my shadow-self lives.

[cue theme music and opening titles from The Prisoner]

Friday, 24 February 2017

The Optics Thing



Have you noticed the expression "the optics" creeping into media discourse recently? It means "how something looks", or more particularly, how something looks to the public, as mediated via the lens, literal and metaphorical, of the media. For example, a collection of exclusively white, middle-aged men might be said to give "bad optics" at a press conference, in media-relations terms. Better mix in a few women and ethnics, yeah? And get the good-looking ones front and centre. Who cares who they are or what they do? It's all about the optics.

I think "the optics" still has the status of a buzzword. That is, a term used by a particular community as part of its own jargon, which both marks off insiders from outsiders, and also encapsulates some "buzzy" contemporary concept in a suitably concise shorthand. However, the fact that I, an observant outsider, am noticing "the optics" being used (mainly, paradoxically, on the radio) probably means it is in transition from a buzzword to a cliché, which is what inevitably happens when people other than the original users notice and adopt something, in the same way fashions are copied from the subcultural and the young by the middle-aged – a particular way of tying a scarf, say, at one extreme, to body-piercings at the other – and are as a result emptied of their authentic excitement, or "buzziness". It's not beyond the bounds of possibility, for example, that a few "respectable" public figures are sporting tattoos, even the odd "tramp stamp", though this is not a thought we wish to dwell on. Certainly, Samantha Cameron has a tattoo on her ankle. The desire of the conventional to appropriate the cachet of the unconventional, without sacrificing any of the privileges of conventionality, has always been one of the drivers of art and fashion.

Not all jargon is catchy, of course. Much contemporary academic prose is impenetrable to the lay reader, rendering a discussion of a poem as rebarbative as, say, the full-on anatomical description of a newly-discovered insect species. Mind you, personally, I love (but barely understand) the precision of the language of taxonomy. What's not to like (hmm, buzzword or cliché?) about this:

The head shining, punctured, the clypeus coarsely so; the face with dark griseous pubescence. Thorax with the pubescence beneath the wings fuscous, that on the legs beneath paler, the floccus on the posterior femora beneath of a dirty white; the scopa on the posterior tibiae fuscous; wings subhyaline, the nervures fusco-ferruginous, the tegulae testaceous.
(from the description of a Mexican bee, Colletes intricatus)

Mind you, that is pretty catchy, even if incomprehensible. I mean, "fusco-ferruginous"! It just trips off the tongue, doesn't it? It could be the name of a character in Star Wars, or a red-haired rapper, and I can't wait to drop it into a conversation. Though I may have to wait some time for the opportunity, and even then "a dark rusty colour" might be more readily understood. But the whole point of jargon in transition to cliché is that it should – even if only slightly – resist immediate understanding. The speaker's status is elevated by the level of attention piqued in the listener. Cor, what does that mean?

Naturally, nearly all buzzwords, when extracted from their original context, cease to mean what they were originally intended to mean. A classic example is "deconstruction", which does not mean "to take something apart to see how it works", although of course it does mean that, too, and if everybody else prefers to use the word that way that will continue to be its main signification, to the annoyance of "theory" scholars everywhere. But, given it's become a signature move (hmm, buzzword or cliché?) of humanities and social-science scholars to take an existing word and give it a new, specialised, often counter-intuitive meaning, then it serves them right. Lay users don't want to understand "theory", merely to appropriate the aura its vocabulary lends to their conversation, signalling that the speaker is not just down with the kids but also up with the academics.

BBC Radio 4 presenters pretend to disparage such "trendy" coinages, but use them nonetheless, usually prefaced by some sanitising phrase like "in that awful expression..." or "with that dreadful word...".  I see no reason to be so bothered by most buzzwords or even clichés, if they're used consciously and appropriately, perhaps with a suitable sense of irony, perhaps with a little added personal spin. After all, almost all idiomatic English is nothing but a collection of clichéd turns of phrase so worn-out and threadbare as to be virtually transparent. The recycling of novel slang and jargon is a democratic sort of creativity: everyone can enjoy using and sharing vivid new language, especially when it is in that lively transitional phase from specialists' argot to common currency. At worst, like Samantha Cameron with her tattoo, it's a harmless way for someone to show they are alert to trends and novelties, and to feel at the same time a little transgressive, a little ahead of the curve (hmm, buzzwords or clichés?), but without risking exclusion from polite society.

Which, I suppose, means that "the optics" may, for now, be a thing. As in, "I didn't know that was a thing", an expression that is itself now definitely well on the way to becoming a cliché. Although I am still eagerly waiting to hear the first government minister on the radio, protesting to their interviewer: "But, with all due respect, Mishal, that isn't even a thing!" It probably wouldn't sound great, though; I wonder if you can have "bad optics" on the radio?


Tuesday, 21 February 2017

The Same River Twice


River Avon, looking towards Sea Mills 

A dreary late afternoon in February down by the Avon at low tide.

Sea Mills, looking towards River Avon

Friday, 17 February 2017

wood s lot


I was sad, but not surprised, to read of Mark Woods' death this week. As I posted some while ago, it was clear something was up, when such a diligent blogger fell abruptly silent.

I didn't know Mark, though we did exchange a few emails, and he was kind enough to feature a few of my pictures over the years on his amazing and long-lived blog, wood s lot. But, on the basis of his judicious daily samplings from and links to the data-hose that is the online world, it was impossible not to form a strong impression of his personality. I felt I knew him – as, I am sure, did thousands of other regular readers – and yet, he never wrote a word of his own.

Above all, I learned from him. Artists and writers I would never have discovered for myself appeared on wood s lot every day. Every day! Debates and discussions I would never have had the engagement or patience to follow for myself were presented in thoughtfully filleted extracts, taken from online journals and forums I had never encountered. I cannot imagine how he found the time or kept up the enthusiasm, but he did. Every day.

He will be missed, and he will be remembered by those who followed his tireless curatorial work. Which is an extraordinary achievement in this churning world of ever-shortening attention spans.

Thursday, 16 February 2017

I'll Never Forget Old Wotsisname


Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)

I don't really "do" Facebook, although I do have a minimal presence on it; if nothing else, it's an effective way to be reminded of certain birthdays. Which is admittedly a bit like using your smartphone primarily as a watch (which, now I come to think of it, I do). It seems to me that Facebook has a way of bringing out the worst in even the nicest people. That is, if you consider greetings-card sentimentality, say, or me-too groupthink as bad things. If you don't, well, go for it. We can't all be pretentious elitist snobs, can we? But nothing exposes the Dark Side of your friends more tragically than an unsuspected fondness for videos of kittens.

Very occasionally, though – generally when someone I lost touch with long ago comes to mind for some reason – I take a deep breath, dive in, and have a look around to see if they happen to be hanging out on Facebook. Happily, they very rarely are; it seems most of my old friends, colleagues and acquaintances are stand-offish killjoys, too, with no interest in cute cats or sharing photographs of their meals. Which is good. Although becoming a grandparent does seem to have a corrosive effect on even the most unyielding of moral fibres. Which is understandable.

If someone does show up in there, however, Facebook is set up so that the only way to get in touch is to send a "friend" request, an act that combines cheery inconsequence with needy self-abasement in such a uniquely strange way that I find it impossible to do, not least with someone I haven't met for 30, 40 or even 50 years. But then I hate having my name written on a cup in Starbucks, too ("Tall Americano for, uh, Mistry Mann!"). That presumption of the sanctity of privacy which is so important to the old is a cause of amusement to the young, I know. But then we seniors have invested a lot more time and effort into becoming who we are (as well as into concealing our mistakes), and don't feel like being quite so careless with our data or our dignity ("That's mister Mistry-Mann to you, sonny!").

But identity is a mutable thing, it goes without saying (what isn't?), and it's so easy not to notice the gradual, cumulative changes to our constructed "selves" as they are happening. But little and often adds up to an awful lot of change over a few decades. So it should have been no surprise when, the other day, I was idly following a series of Facebook links – friends of friends of friends who might be friends of a very old friend who didn't immediately turn up in a search – and it quickly became clear that I no longer had anything much in common with childhood friends with whom I once had everything in common.

Junior School trip, 1965

Life is all about those ch-ch-changes, of course. We continually make choices (some trivial, some not, it can be hard to tell the difference), we seize or fail to seize opportunities and, one way or another, leave the past far, far behind us, as we stumble through our unique, personal, labyrinthine flowchart, a series of crossed thresholds and chosen paths we can never retrace. There is no magic thread which will lead us back through the maze, although social media can sometimes give us glimpses into a maze-like hall of mirrors, offering up broken, refracted answers to the question, "Whatever became of old So-and-So?"

Now, this has to be a "no names, no pack drill" exercise. Let's just say I had been looking on Facebook for someone who was one of my best friends up until the age of eleven. We lived in the same street, went to the same primary school, played together with the same group of friends in the same woods, recreation grounds, back-gardens and bedrooms. His family were East Enders, mine were local yokels, but we all had in common the New Town spirit of the 1950s and 60s. Make yerself at 'ome, son! Fancy a bite to eat? Pull up a chair, boy, lovely grub! Those were good times with good people in a good place in some very good years.

But that friendship came to an abrupt end when the secondary school selection process* sent us on separate paths. My friend went through the door marked "secondary modern", and I went through the one marked "grammar" (or "snob school", as it was more generally known). When that door shut behind me I looked back, and all but a couple of my closest playmates had gone; the door might as well have had "EDEN – NO RETURN" written on it in letters of fire. It was the first instalment on the price of seizing certain opportunities (or having them thrust upon you), and in particular of choosing to walk the steep and poorly-signposted path of "social mobility".

Ah, grammar schools. There is a huge, unexamined nostalgia in this country for grammar schools, and not only, it seems, among ex-grammar pupils. They are held out as the route to social mobility for the "academically-able poor", if we can use such a label, one which was supposedly closed off when comprehensive schools were introduced, leaving potential little swots like me to be bullied and demotivated by peer pressure. What nonsense! A quarter-truth at best. Others know the arguments better: for example here or here, and I can't improve on them. Let's just say a return to grammar schools for a few also implies a return to secondary moderns for the many, and leave it at that.

Grammar Boys v. Grammar Girls 1971

Mobility is always relative, of course. Grammar schools – but also subsequently comprehensives – have been good at providing a steady stream of the kind of conscientious conformists who keep the public services running, freeing up the more glamorous professions for the privately-educated, for whom a steady job with a final-salary, index-linked pension is not the lure it is to the rest of us. Back in the 1960s, although a fair few of my grammar-school classmates were already children of the middle-classes (bussed in from surrounding commuter-dormitory villages), most came from New Town families like mine, working- or lower-middle-class families where aspiration and education were highly prized by our parents, not least because these valuable things had been denied to them.** For mobility even to be an option was a new and exciting thing. But in any school system, bright kids with motivated parents, however financially poor, are never a problem; it's the rest you have to worry about. Like my long-lost primary school friends, for example.

They weren't without ability, those other boys and girls, they just didn't like school, often despised those that did like school, and generally had parents who hadn't thought much of it, either. Quite likely – at age eleven! – they had also lacked that essential qualification: a capacity for deferred gratification. You could leave school at 15 back then, and start earning proper money; a very tempting prospect. People also forget that a majority of state grammar pupils did not go on to higher education, anyway. In those days of full employment, a lack of paper qualifications was no obstacle to anyone with a degree of ambition and determination. So, I was curious. Perhaps I thought that, in the process of triangulating one lost friend, Facebook might give me a glimpse of what had become of some of my old playmates in the subsequent fifty years. Or, more precisely, of how they (and their friends, relatives and business associates) choose to portray themselves now: where they live, what they do for a living, who they married and who they divorced, what their kids do, where they go on holiday, even (inevitably) what they eat. All the circumstantial stuff a person might choose to share with their Facebook "friends" and the wider world.

Old skool (Alleyne's Grammar, Stevenage, ca. 1965)

I suppose I shouldn't have been surprised, but what I often found – with fewer exceptions than I would have anticipated or liked – was that I was looking into the face of The Enemy: the Daily Mail and Sun readers, the UKIP supporters, the self-satisfied and the downright ignorant, with their racist jokes and toe-curling sentimentality, living in sterile, neat-as-a-pin homes with no books and no evidence of an inner life or cultural engagement beyond a TV the size of a dining table taking pride of place in the living room.*** Ironically, I imagine they would mostly be supporting the return of grammar schools, now. It's UKIP policy, after all.

In the main they seemed happy enough, though. Several developed and ran their own businesses, have clearly made rather more money than me, and live in considerable comfort, a few even living abroad. Others seem just about to have kept their heads above water, bobbing along with the economic tides, and are still living within a few streets of where we used to play. Obviously, I have no way of knowing what happened to the ones whose names I can't quite recall, or who didn't show up on the internet: some may have sunk (or risen) without trace, but most likely they are sensible citizens with moderate opinions and no appetite for self-advertisement or time to waste on Facebook.

But what was clear was that education, work, family life and fifty years of choices and chances had placed an uncrossable gulf between us, with our very different ambitions, achievements, pleasures, and disappointments. We started out from the same place, but live in such different worlds now that we would be entirely mutually incomprehensible on, say, some imaginary long, late summer's afternoon, standing around awkwardly on some complete stranger's immaculate suburban lawn, attempting to catch up over a barbecue and a beer.

So, no "friend" requests on Facebook, then? No reminiscing about long-ago playground larks? No getting the gang together for one last wild charge through the woods for old times' sake? No, of course not, there was never a ghost of a chance of that happening. Not least because I'm pretty sure they wouldn't now have a clue who I am, or any curiosity about what happened to me. Just as the bussed-in village kids at grammar school knew nothing of our townie weekends of underage drinking, music and partying, so those of us who ventured out to universities and a new life cut ourselves off from all those important small-town rites of passage around work, play, marriage, and family that create and strengthen the bonds of shared origins, year by year by year. Nobody ever warns you that to choose "social mobility" is also to choose a form of exile.

There are other kinds of exile you can choose, of course. For example, that sometime best friend I started out looking for? I did find him, in the end. To my amazement it seems he went out to apartheid South Africa in the 1970s and became a big noise in the packaging industry out there. There's an unmistakable photo of him awarding a long-service pin to a nervous-looking black employee. Oh, and look, nice house! But what a very big fence...

Peartree Spring Junior School, Stevenage, 1961 (detail)

* I don't recall sitting the dreaded "Eleven Plus" exam in 1965, but there must have been some kind of formal assessment, as Hertfordshire schools continued to be selective until around 1969.

** Aspiration is also relative, of course. The two most spectacularly academically-gifted pupils I was aware of in the years above me at school (both middle-class blow-ins, as it happens) ended up, after Oxbridge double firsts, as a less-than-eminent academic and a middle-ranking editor on a national newspaper.

*** It's some kind of marker of my new class identity that I do not call this room "the lounge", though that's certainly what we used to call it. Oh, well. What was that about pretentious, elitist snobs?

Saturday, 11 February 2017

Philosophical Investigations


Southampton Sports Centre

If you've ever felt bothered by not knowing much about Derrida and deconstruction – and I know I have – you could do worse than read this article from the New Humanist. If nothing else, you will find Nietzsche quoted as saying, "I am afraid we are not rid of God because we still have faith in grammar". Now there's a little something to drop into your conversation sometime, perhaps as an alternative to my favourite dinner-party ice-breaker, "Man will never be free until the last king is strangled with the entrails of the last priest" (Diderot). Ah, such flashes of merriment, guaranteed to set the table on a roar!

But if that leaves you feeling a little impatient with the philosophical project, you may enjoy this amusing addition to Wittgenstein, by the inimitable Michael Frayn (the thinking man's Tom Stoppard), which I came across via the previously-mentioned Language Hat blog. You're welcome!

Hollybrook Cemetery

Wednesday, 8 February 2017

Cadbury Camp


On Saturday afternoon we were up on a large hillfort near the Somerset coast known as Cadbury Camp, with wide vistas in all directions, including – this being a fine day – the Severn Bridge and the distant hills of Wales across the Bristol Channel. I love these high places, with their ditches, ramparts, and brooding sense of vestigial ancient presences.

However, it was a matter of dispute – my partner and I are much given to dispute – whether we had ever been here before, or whether this was the place she and her sisters had been brought by their parents in her Bristol childhood. I couldn't settle the question of her family visit, but I was pretty convinced I had never set foot in the place before, even allowing for the fact that all hillforts do share a strong family resemblance, and we have been visiting them for forty years.

Later, looking the place up on Wikipedia, I discovered that there are, in fact, three hillforts in Somerset with the name "Cadbury", one of which – Cadbury Castle – is significantly bigger and has a strong association with the Arthurian legends, to the extent of having once been known as Camalet. I strongly suspect this may be where we thought we were revisiting. There's only one way to find out...

To Brits, of course, the name "Cadbury" has an inescapable association with the manufacture of chocolate. Or in euro-terms – the EU rules having understandably inflexible requirements on the amount of cocoa solids actually used in "chocolate" – "chocolate-flavoured waxy substance, marginally suitable for human consumption". Regrettably, although I saw no evidence of chocolate production, ancient or modern, on Cadbury Camp, quite a few Crunchie and Flake wrappers were blowing around the place, adding their little local notes of non-biodegradable colour.


Friday, 3 February 2017

Go Van Go!



The other day I was reading this post on the Language Hat blog (no relation) concerning the pronunciation of the word "loess". Ah, loess! It's not exactly an everyday term, unless you happen to have studied geomorphology at some point in your life, which I do happen to have done, as I had the luck and/or wisdom to study A-Level Geography, having rejected the more obvious third subjects to combine with English and German. My teachers consistently pronounced the word as "lois", which also happened to be the name of a girlfriend at the time, so I quietly let them persist and – to the best of my memory – made no smarty-pants interventions in class to point out that, as loess was a German word, it should therefore more properly be pronounced in the German way.

This was unusually restrained of me. I was an uppity little devil in those days, and enjoyed nothing more than tormenting a class by diverting our teacher down some long and winding rabbit-hole of pedantry; so easy to do, given that any sign of life from the rows of semi-somnolent teens was a rarity. I recall the pleasure of arguing, at exasperating length, that to put a constant figure on a "random distribution" was absurd, sir, because "random" meant it could be anything, didn't it, sir?  I was also reminded recently by an old classmate of how I once embarrassed a hapless trainee teacher in a 6th-form English class by scornfully correcting his pronunciation of "Goethe". Well, the ignorant bugger was asking for it. I mean, Go-eth, really...

But it's a risk we all run, isn't it, when we venture into unknown linguistic territory? It's shaming to be called out on something so basic, and I'm ashamed to have been so arrogant about it in the past. It is not helped, either, by the tendency of those who do not wear their cultivation lightly to over-pronounce any juicy French or German word borrowed into English, like rapprochement or Zeitgeist, or even, in cases of terminal pedantry, questionnaire. I think I may already have shared my bemusement when my partner's father asked for a bourbon biscuit, giving "bourbon" the full-on French treatment. A what? I was doubly baffled, as in our family these biscuits were homophonous with American bourbon whiskey, which I suspect may have been one of my own father's many mischievous jeux d'esprit, absorbed and adopted by us kids as gospel. I'm pretty sure I must also have shared the story of our German teacher holding forth on the philosophy of Kant – or Kunt, as he meticulously pronounced it – which nearly killed an entire 6th form class with agonisingly-suppressed fits of the giggles (hey, we were just 17).

I suppose the simplest "rule" to apply would be a variant of that pertaining to plurals: if it's become an English word, it gets an English plural. It's so much easier simply to add an "s" in the ordinary way. To intone "octopi" or "agendae" may clothe one's bloviations with a satisfying air of learning, but most such are linguistically non-U and, besides, who knows or cares that, by analogy, the "correct" plural of, say, "igloo" would be "igluit"?  Any alternative "rule" requiring foreign-language plurals would come down to a consensus on which languages count, and which don't. And that would come down to which languages a cultivated person (benchmark: a privately-educated middle-class European) might be expected to know. French and German, yes; Latin or Greek, maybe, but increasingly less likely; Hungarian, Chinese, or Yoruba, certainly not.

On the other hand – getting back to pronunciation – it's true that few things sound as oafish as a completely Anglicised version of a borrowed foreign word, so that's not such a safe "rule", either. But, whereas only a self-declared language-snob like me enunciates Volkswagen or Bratwurst in the fully Germanic manner, many things – foreign food-stuffs, for example – do already have an established and generally-accepted halfway-house version. Spaghetti, pizza, and even ciabatta pose no problem to the native English speaker, and only an idiot stumbles over coq au vin, pain au chocolat, or pommes frites. Though tagliatelle and gnocchi are still problematic, and I think it's probably too early (possibly even too late?) to get judgmental about quinoa, chipotle, or even bruschetta.

Where this all does become a bit of a car-crash is in the pronunciation of foreign names. Particularly in these days when so much information is digested in printed form or on screens, and rarely heard said out loud. Even then, it seems that even the BBC's Pronunciation Unit has lost its once-powerful grip on correspondents. It's very annoying to hear, say, Münster (Germany) turned into Munster (Ireland) by some overpaid monolingual reporter, and coverage of football's Premier League is an anarchic feast of exotic names declaimed in half a dozen different ways by excitable commentators, but very rarely in any version the player's mother would recognise.

Which is not to say that getting it right is easy. My most humbling experiences in this regard have been recent trips to the Netherlands and to Portugal. Both of these countries have languages that, on the page, closely resemble those of their bigger neighbours: it's not hard to make sense of a Dutch or Portuguese document, armed with a basic knowledge of German or Spanish. But hearing them spoken out loud, or attempting to conduct even the simplest dialogue from a phrase-book, are on a very different plane of difficulty. With the exception of Danish and, I suppose, English, few other European languages have developed such a gulf between orthography and orthoepy*. Frankly, I gave up trying to grapple with it: that part of my brain went offline years ago. So, given the footballing prowess of Portugal, Brazil, and the Netherlands (not to mention Senegal or Serbia or the other 60-odd nationalities represented in the Premier League), it's not surprising those commentators are struggling.

Where this gets truly problematic is in the fields of literature and art. Here, high social status and downright wilful ignorance achieve a bizarre union. Basically, throw a brush at a list of painters' names and you will likely hit some mispronunciation venerated by tradition, one which you will have heard said a hundred times in that unchallengeable posh register that says, Trust me, I know what I'm talking about. Velazquez? Degas? Renoir? Breugel? Munch? All "wrong" but rendered "right" in the mouth of a connoisseur like Kenneth Clark. And what about poor old Vincent van Gogh? I have no idea why the American cultivated classes have convinced themselves this fellow's name must be "Van Go". It's not as if Dutch sailors and merchants didn't make it across the Atlantic. The British "Van Goff" isn't a whole lot better. For a good discussion of this conundrum, see the BBC Pronunciation Unit's effort here. Basically, there's a lot to be said for abandoning the shibboleths of class and cultivation and accepting, as a matter of principle, that other ways exist, and are (in the main) simply different and not "wrong". It's enlightening to hear how "wrong" a German scholar's reading out loud of Latin sounds, for example. However, if you insist on sticking with "Go-eth" this will irretrievably mark you out as an ignorant bastard.**

I suppose, looked at one way, it could all be seen as just another form of imperialism: to take something difficult and "foreign" and turn it into a palatable travesty, something the Irish, Welsh, and Scottish have had to put up with for a long time. Though it has to be said that whoever came up with the complex orthographic system for the Gaelic languages must also shoulder some of the blame. Your name is ... Let's see ... Caoimhín Seanchán? No?  Oh, Kevin Shanahan ... Sorry! From, uh, Tír Eoghain? Ah, Tyrone! Of course... Obvious, once you know.

But, looked at another way, it's just what people do. You say Firenze, I say Florence; you say Londres, I say London; you say Osutoraria, I say Australia. You also say Abū al-Walīd Muḥammad ibn ʾAḥmad ibn Rushd‎, whereas I say Averroes; and I see it says here Drake, el pirata de la Reina Isabel I, which I interpret as Sir Francis Drake, hero of the Spanish Armada. You get the picture. We all accommodate each others' differing sound systems and frames of reference into our own, but with an inevitable twist, which is the only sensible thing to do and the most genial form of inclusivity, and surely far better than continually calling each other out as the dreaded and eternally-wrong "other". Though the "pirate" thing is a bit near the knuckle, if I may say so, señor.


* No, I'd never come across that word before, either. Ironically, it is given five acceptable variant pronunciations by OED...
** Hungarian names are an interesting test case. How many culture-snob points does one lose, I wonder, for not knowing photographer Moholy-Nagy is pronounced something like "Mahoy Nodge"?