Monday 21 December 2020

Slow Down

People used to be fond of saying to procrastinators and pretenders, "This is not a dress rehearsal, you know: this is the real thing". It's something that can be quite a revelation the first time you hear it, but quickly loses its impact, especially if you're a truly committed procrastinator. I expect "a stitch in time saves nine" and "look before you leap" were eye-opening insights in their day, too. But you don't hear that "dress rehearsal" thing so much, these days. Largely, I suspect, because an all-encompassing virtuality has undermined our sense of the reality of the here and now, to the extent that the distinction between a dress rehearsal and the real thing has become quite blurred. We're all pretenders now.

Incredibly but undeniably, I will turn 67 early in 2021. I'm older than I think. I'm reminded of what a wise friend said to me a while ago: it's time for us to start thinking about endgames. This is something most people postpone, quite often until it's too late, like writing a will. [1] Understandably: an "endgame" does sound rather, well, final; it's nowhere near as fun to think about as some youthful, open-ended daydream of future, fantasy lives, or even yet another well-intentioned New Year's Resolution. But it's a simple fact that in our 60s rather more than half of our life is over, and a fair proportion of whatever may be left is highly likely to be unpleasant, painful, and humiliating. I've already had a preliminary taste of that, and we've all had more than enough reminders of our mortality this year, haven't we? So, as seventy hobbles into view, it's finally time to stop dreaming, stop imagining alternative realities, and make the most of this one. This is not a dress rehearsal...

Producing this blog has embedded itself in my day-to-day life, but it may be becoming a distraction from my reality. I'm not sure that writing pieces which were read, at peak, by 300 people – and recently far fewer and still diminishing, I'm sorry to say – is a serious part of any endgame that makes sense. In the end, it may simply be yet another excellent way of postponing some more important things that I really want to undertake, or attempt, before I get too old to remember what they were, and why they seemed important.

At the outset of my big blogging adventure, back in 2008, I was still in my mid-50s and had finally grown sufficiently disenchanted with my work in a university library to contemplate early retirement, and I think I had hopes that writing these pieces and showing these photographs might be a solid public platform for a second, late-life career, perhaps even a portal for opportunities to exhibit or to write columns and articles. But, twelve years later... Well, dream on. Such things are other people's reality, not mine. The sober fact is that, for most of us, the dress rehearsal is as far as it goes. You might even say that everybody is an understudy for the life they thought they were going to lead.

However, although I have no intention of shutting down the blog yet, regular visitors may have noticed that the interval between these posts is increasing, and it is likely to increase still further in 2021; strange as it may sound to people who don't themselves write, I need to learn the discipline of writing more, but "publishing" less. There may even be times when the blog goes dormant for extended periods, while I concentrate on other things. Obviously, I'll flag that up if and when it is going to happen. 

It's still fun and rewarding to do, most of the time, and I'm still enjoying the company of a handful of fellow-travellers.  It is astonishing, really, that like-minded people can still find each other among the noisy party of a billion rooms that is the Internet. Ironically, though, in the end that is the core of the distraction of blogging: if nobody at all read these pieces – certainly the fate of most blogs – how much easier it would be to put it aside and do something else.
But leave the Wise to wrangle, and with me
The Quarrel of the Universe let be:
And, in some corner of the Hubbub couch'd,
Make Game of that which makes as much of Thee.

Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, Fitzgerald translation
So, my best wishes for 2021 to you from this particular corner of the hubbub, as we back carefully and slowly out of 2020. That really was quite some year, wasn't it? Despite all the inconvenience, hurt, and heartache, despite everything you might want to forget about it, and everything that didn't happen as it was supposed to, 2020 is destined to be a year to remember. Even if you were one of the lucky ones, and not much of significance happened to you personally, or anyone close to you. So what did you do in the Great Plague Year, grandad? Well, I mainly worked hard at sitting indoors, scoffing at the news and the scrambling, serial incompetences of our political class, and enjoyed feeling like Butch Cassidy every time I masked up to enter the Post Office. ¡Esto es un robo! Manos arriba... Other than that, it was all a bit of a blur.

So, just to get the virtual seasonal party going, and seeing as the theme is "slowing down", I thought it would be an admirable opportunity to put "Slow Down" on the turntable, something that same wise friend mentioned above brought to my attention some years ago. I pride myself on having worked out that Keb' Mo' was "Kevin Moore" without being told. It's the little things...

You never know what is enough unless you know what is more than enough

1. I know nothing worth knowing about chess, so for me an endgame is a metaphor, pure and simple. But on the subject of wills here's some golden advice from one who knows, i.e. me: don't let your elderly relatives, however poor, die intestate, especially if dementia runs in your family. Just don't. And if they're even moderately well off – do they own a house? –make them write a will NOW. And don't ever let them name a bank or a solicitor as an executor. If you're British, arrange "enduring power of attorney" NOW.  If you don't know what that is, FIND OUT. Seriously.

Wednesday 16 December 2020

Working Hard

The eyes of fire, the nostrils of air, the mouth of water, the beard of earth

Like any keen observer of our language and its constant evolution, I tend to notice linguistic oddities as they escape from the confines of specialist or subcultural usage into the wider world, as well as those formulaic expressions that suddenly get taken up widely, as they meet some new or previously unmet need. It's natural that people enjoy spicing their talk with modish expressions, however weird or annoying this may sometimes seem, and there's not a lot of point in getting grumpy about it: language does what it does, because people. (Yes, that one's getting annoying, too).

It's been a good five years since I riffed on "sadly died" (see the post No, Mr. Bond, I expect You To Sadly Die), so I thought I'd point out some new-ish things that give me a perversely pleasurable pain whenever I hear them; mainly on the radio, as I'm not a big TV-watcher.

First, this has definitely been the year of people "working hard". Everywhere, politicians, doctors, nurses, scientists, civil servants, teachers, special advisers, negotiators, retailers, hairdressers, pub landlords – you name it – are said to be working hard to address the problems created by Covid-19. Certainly, the medics, the vaccine developers, and the teachers have been working hard under trying conditions. But the others? Haven't they just been doing their jobs? Have they been starting early and staying late, sleeping in the office, skipping meals, not seeing their families for weeks on end (we'll pass over the egregious "loved ones" for another time), in situations fraught with danger and trauma, actual and emotional? Probably not, and if I were their union rep I would strongly counsel against it anyway. But "working" and "hard" have become semi-permanently glued together during 2020, as if to be doing anything less is to be suspected of being employed in nothing more than clock-watching busywork, divided up by frequent lengthy chats at the water-cooler [1] and over-extended lunch-breaks. As if!

Another one that I've been noticing is: "thank you for having me on the programme". At some point in the last year or so, it seems to have become customary for any guest expert or commentator invited onto a news or magazine programme to declare, "Good afternoon, and thank you for having me on the programme". What? There are so many ways this is strange. For a start, this is the language of well brought-up children after a birthday party or outing – "Now, what do you say to Sophie's mum, Rufus?" –  not that of professors of immunology, and especially not the representatives of ecologically-damaging industries, about to be taken to task for polluting a river. It is also utterly redundant: it's not as if the presenter, about to interrogate the "guest" with extreme prejudice, did the inviting in the first place. Any thanks, however ironic, will surely already have been delivered behind the scenes to (I'd guess) the producer or their PA. It also smacks of a prissily ostentatious adherence to the formulas of "good manners", and is a further elaboration of the tendency of candidates for trial by interview to exchange pointless social niceties on air, usually straight after the first direct question has been asked. Perhaps it's a way of gaining some thinking-time, or using up some of the allotted interview slot? Or putting some air-time insulation between the question and the evasive non-answer? Not to say implying in advance that the questioner is a graceless slob, lacking the most basic social skills. Which is bound to sway our opinion in favour of some PR flack defending the indefensible, isn't it?

I also notice that such people seem to have stopped saying, "So..." at the start of every sentence (see the post So So, also from 2015). I wonder if this is in any way connected with the rise of  "thank you for having me", or if it's simply that such speech-pattern fashions expire after a few years? I certainly hope so: the sooner young female arts-professionals stop croaking into inaudibility at the end of every sentence the better. What is that about? I thought nothing would ever irritate me quite as much as "upspeak" (the voicing of every statement as a question? As if talking to an idiot? Or pretending to be unsure of what you're saying?). But that terminal creak, a.k.a. "vocal fry"... Is it meant to sound less girlish or "gendered"? More relaxed, thoughtful, or world-wearily wise? If so, for me it doesn't do any of those things. What it does sound like is a pre-emptive plea for clemency: "I'm only feeble, go easy on me, I'm out of breath after ... saying ... all ... those ... words...". I suspect it is just another passing fad, however, adopted for no better reason than it's what certain fashion-forward speakers are doing. If so, may it pass quickly. Speak up, you people! Some of us can barely hear anything as it is.

The roaring of lions, the howling of wolves, the raging of the stormy sea, and the destructive sword, are portions of eternity too great for the eye of man

1. Does your office have a water-cooler? No, neither did mine. Yet another little linguistic curiosity, probably imported from the USA.

Thursday 10 December 2020

The Devil's Party

Truth can never be told so as to be understood, and not be believ'd

The crow wish'd that every thing was black, the owl that every thing was white

The "Proverbs of Hell" keep landing thick and fast: nearly seventy now... Here are a few pairings I like. If they're a bit grotesque, well, that's just the way my imagination tends to swing and, besides, these are the proverbs of Hell, not Heaven. As Blake wrote: "Note: the reason Milton wrote in fetters when he wrote of Angels & God, and at liberty when of Devils & Hell, is because he was a true Poet and of the Devil's party without knowing it". If you've ever had the pleasure of reading Paradise Lost, you'll know exactly what he is talking about. If you haven't, then you should read it, preferably out loud. Very loud; go on, turn it up to eleven.

Farewel happy Fields
Where Joy for ever dwells: Hail horrours, hail
Infernal world, and thou profoundest Hell
Receive thy new Possessor:   One who brings
A mind not to be chang'd by Place or Time.
The mind is its own place, and in it self
Can make a Heav'n of Hell, a Hell of Heav'n.
What matter where, if I be still the same,
And what I should be, all but less then he
Whom Thunder hath made greater? Here at least
We shall be free; th' Almighty hath not built
Here for his envy, will not drive us hence:
Here we may reign secure, and in my choyce
To reign is worth ambition though in Hell:
Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n.
(Satan speaks to the fallen angels, in Book I)

Drive your cart and your plow over the bones of the dead

Excess of sorrow laughs. Excess of joy weeps

Thursday 3 December 2020

Ancient History

"The hours of folly are measur'd by the clock, but of wisdom no clock can measure"

Occasionally I get asked to help out with a bit of Latin translation: nothing as challenging as a chunk of Cicero or a Horatian ode (phew) but generally a few lines of an inscription, memorial, or some similar curiosity that someone has come across. Which always makes me nervous as, by the standards of a proper classicist, my Latin is pretty poor. But I know enough to feel my way through a few sentences, like someone trying to find the light switch in an unfamiliar dark room full of shin-bruising obstacles. Usually I do manage to find it, eventually, and usually the bulb comes on.

This is no major accomplishment on my part. Like nearly all A-stream pupils in state grammar-schools before the 1970s, I was taught Latin from the age of 11 to 16 in the traditional manner, pretty much as it was in Shakespeare's day, but with less beating. We chanted verb conjugations and noun declensions in class, starting with the first declension (mensa, a table: "O table!") and the first conjugation ("amo, amas, amat...") and progressing to tricksy things like the "gerundive of obligation" and the "ablative absolute" ("the having been killed barbarians were thrown in the having been dug ditches...").  As it happens, I was in the very last class ever to be put through to O-Level Latin by my school, as it had been decided that as a subject it was redundant in the modern world and, besides, Latin teachers of a suitable standard willing to work in what were now "comprehensive" state schools were no longer available. To the great relief of most of my classmates, more than happy to discard their previous four years of study, the subject was immediately dropped from the timetable, but a small group of us – eight potential Oxbridge candidates – were intensively drilled to exam standard in two terms during our lunch hours. I'm pleased to say that we all passed at the top grade [1]. However, I can remember very little of this crammed knowledge now – I discovered recently that I'd forgotten, if I ever knew, that there was a fourth and even a fifth declension – but ancient learning can be awoken from its slumber with the aid of a dictionary and an online grammar, even if it does remain quite drowsy.

I have often remarked that I was part of a last generation of state-educated kids to slip through a door that was closing on certain aspirations and opportunities, and which would henceforth be labelled, "No Admittance: Private Education Only". I was reminded of this by a recent post on Language Hat (no relation) in which jaws were dropped at the number of Latin "howlers" and general ignorance of the subject matter that had made it into a couple of editions of Wycliffe's Latin works in translation published by two university presses; for example – astonishingly – mistaking the frequent annotation "ed. pr." (editio princeps i.e. "first printed edition") for "editor prefers". It seems that even at the level of scholarship where one has been entrusted with the editing and translation of important source material a linguistic competence adequate to the task is becoming a rarity. It's not just Latin or languages, of course. At the other end of the scholastic spectrum, I have heard university mathematicians express dismay at having to teach remedial classes for new undergraduates, the standard required for a top-level pass at Maths A-Level having fallen so low. O tempora, o mores! as rather fewer people are likely to exclaim these days. 

Does this matter? Well, yes and no, but in the end it doesn't matter whether it matters or not: we are where we are, and nothing much can be done about it. State schools will never again teach Latin qua Latin, although people who wish to advertise their educational status will continue to drop poorly-understood expressions derived from Latin into their language, as I did just then. Access to the languages of the classical past has become and will remain the privilege of the privately-educated, or the result of the inevitably patchy, boot-strapped efforts of humanities postgraduates [2]. But, to be honest, I'd be much more concerned about the teaching of mathematics and science in a world where, for example, the unbelievably complex structures of proteins have been unravelled by artificial intelligence, as announced this week – opening the door onto whole new areas of research, knowledge, and beneficial outcomes – or where the rapid development, testing, and distribution of effective vaccines has become a globally-significant matter of life and death. By comparison, a kludgy translation into English of the Latin works of the first translator of the Bible from Latin into equally kludgy English may, quite justifiably, seem less than disastrous. Despite the fact that once it mattered enough to the Pope in 1428 to order Wycliffe's rebel protestant bones to be exhumed forty years after his death, burned, and cast into a nearby river. Priorities change.

Culture is necessarily an endless process of forgetting and leaving behind; who now knows or cares how to flake a flint or fletch an arrow, or which god is thought to inhabit your local river and the necessary placatory measures to take when he, she, or it decides to flood your pastures? A once widely-shared body of classical literature and allusion is just another thing to be dumped into the waters of Lethe (and where exactly is that?). The churn does seem to be getting ever faster and more relentless, however. I think of the software I learned to use in the 1980s and 90s: will anyone in the future ever care about how we mastered and loved WordPerfect 5.1, despite having had to run it from two 5¼" floppy disks, or appreciate the inbuilt advantages for database-construction of the Pick operating system? Will any of the scripts and programs I wrote myself survive the next change of system in the library where I laboured over them for so many years? Of course they won't; once the plug is pulled they will vanish forever down the electronic drain into a river beginning with "L" whose name has already escaped me.

Most genuinely useful stuff gets updated and transmitted forward, of  course, constantly re-written for new operating systems and new circumstances in new languages. Something similar could be said for literature in translation, I suppose, despite the protestations of purists that traduttore, traditore (translator = traitor). But, unless and until the study of "ancient languages" is extended to programming, I doubt anybody will ever again care about the "original" version of some innovative sort routine, say, written in FORTRAN for a non-portable OS once used on an obsolete mainframe built by a firm that went out of business in the 1990s. Sic transit ... Oh, stop it.

"No bird soars too high, if he soars with his own wings"

1. Grade 1 O-Level seems like an impossibly high standard to aspire to in any subject at age 16 today. My daughter passed her French GCSE at grade A, and yet had never even heard the words "pluperfect", or "past historic", never mind learned those essential tenses across all regular and many irregular verbs by rote. The idea that "immersive learning" is a better route to language learning is probably true, if you are able to go and live in France for a year or two, but "immersive" is hardly how you would describe a couple of lessons a week from someone whose French is less than fluent. Grr.

2. One of my son's friends at Oxford was a lad from a Midlands Pakistani family who was teaching himself Latin at the same time as studying Classical Archaeology and Ancient History, which was an extraordinary feat – I'm amazed it was even contemplated – but you do have to wonder how he could ever match the standard of some public-school classicist who had been grappling with declensions since the age of 10 or even earlier. He made it, though, and my recollection is that he got a first, too.