Friday 30 July 2021

Solent Moments

Time for a short blog-break, I think. I hope you have a good summer, despite everything. See you later.

[UPDATE: back in September!]

Tuesday 20 July 2021

Telescope 2

There, that's rather better, with a bit of a wipe. Still can't see anything but mist, though. Issa was right.

Suddenly it's too hot for anything but tinkering, and I've got one of those annoying summer colds, which at first I thought might be you-know-what; either way almost certainly an unwelcome takeaway from that recent wedding. I think it may soon be time to reconsider the traditional Summer Blog Break.

Wednesday 14 July 2021


The guest with the effortless small talk

At the weekend we attended a family wedding in Bristol, between our nephew, a tattooist, and his barista girlfriend, who was originally from what I'm told is quite a traditional rural Catholic background in Northern Ireland. The resulting contrasts of friends and family made for some interesting people-watching on what turned out, despite the forecast, to be a very sunny afternoon. Which was just as well, as the timetable of events was, for some of us older folk, more than a little over-extended. After a 4:30 ceremony in a community centre that was as close to a full-on wedding as you could get without a vicar and hymns – I have never understood the point of bridesmaids, for example – there was a three hour wait in the grounds – three hours of drinking, making endless small talk, drinking some more, talking some more, and listening to a poorly-amplified but decent Irish folk duo on guitar and fiddle – before a sit-down meal at 8:00, followed by live music at 9:30. As a fully-qualified introvert, my batteries were already running very low by 6:30 [1].

As you can probably imagine, our nephew's friends and elective family belong to that particularly Bristolian tribe that is heavily-tattooed, pierced, and given to curious hair-stylings, up to and including some Keith Flint lookalikes, whereas his wife's family-sized family are from a rather different tribe, and were clearly somewhat bemused by some of the spectacle they had found themselves involved in. The bride's father in particular, a farmer, looked baffled throughout, and although this may have been the anxious frown of a man on unaccustomed leave of absence from his livestock, you had to suspect he hadn't quite realised what his daughter had been up to in recent years, and who with. There was no hint of trouble, though, at least not up until the point we made our excuses and left, well before the speeches, music and dancing kicked off.

At the meal – pie and mash with gravy and mushy peas – I found myself seated next to one of our nephew's old housemates, who was acting as the official photographer. Now here was someone with whom I was actually keen to make some small talk. He'd been using a lens that I was pleased to get a closer look at: one of those white monsters that declares "professional event photographer" as soon as it heaves into view. It turned out to be the Canon EF 35-350mm, which covers an extreme zoom range from moderate wide-angle to serious telephoto when mounted on a full-frame body, and from normal to "blimey!" on a body with a smaller APS-C sensor. There is a price to pay for this sort of versatility, however. I'd never handled such a beast before, and was surprised by its weight: a full 1.385 kilos. If you are susceptible to well-made precision engineering, though, it's a lens that exudes that reassuring heft, fit and finish that says, trust me, use me, I'm built to last, I can take whatever you throw at me! Which is a sort of wedding vow in itself, I suppose, although I have to say that it's not a union I'd ever be seeking: simply not my type. I wasn't surprised that the poor guy was exhausted after carrying that weight (not to mention that responsibility) all afternoon, with the lively evening yet to come.

Some people enjoy weddings, but I'm afraid I'm not one of them. It's not just that I find socialising exhausting: I have a strong aversion to any formal occasion of the sort that encourages men to wear suits and women to wear hats. Despite having gained four degrees from three different universities I had never even considered attending a graduation ceremony until, finally, it was my own children's moment in the scholarly spotlight; it seemed churlish not to go, if that was their choice [2].  Mind you, if you want to experience extreme tedium, perhaps as a sort of spiritual exercise, I can recommend a degree ceremony, an endlessly repetitive parade of more or less identical small events, framed by speechifying, and lightened only by the occasional spectacular tumble on the steps up to the stage, and the single shining minute when it is your child's turn to step up and shake hands with whoever is handing out the certificates; in my daughter's case comedian and actor Sanjeev Bhaskar, which did liven things up a bit.

Which may go some way to explain why it was, a couple of weeks ago – after 40 years together, raising two children, and paying off several mortgages – that we finally booked ourselves into the local Register Office, and – in a ten-minute ceremony that had all the romance of taking out a bank loan – signed a Civil Partnership. The pandemic had offered the perfect opportunity for a no-fuss, pared-down, guest-free experience, witnessed by two neighbours, a retired nurse and a French neuroscientist, whom we treated to a no-expense-spared ice cream in a nearby park afterwards. No, go on, have a chocolate flake! Extra sauce? Why not! It was fun, it was quick, it was inexpensive (and will be, um, tax-efficient), and we have no regrets that, after all this time, respectability has finally been achieved.

"We don't need no piece of paper from the City Hall..."
(but we've got one now, anyway)

1. A useful definition of an introvert is someone whose psychic energy is sapped by social life and restored by solitude, whereas an extrovert is the other way round. Most people are somewhere more moderate on the spectrum between the two extremes.
2. Some might say it was churlish not to have given my own parents the dubious pleasure of attending at least one degree ceremony, and in hindsight I probably agree.

Friday 9 July 2021


One of the best-known writers of haiku is Kobayashi Issa, generally known as "Issa", which is actually his adopted pen-name, meaning something like "one cup of tea". His stance of resigned irony, relaxed attitude towards life and literary conventions, and his constant one-sided poetic conversation with insects and other disregarded life-forms may endear him to many secular western readers even more than the more rigorously formal and Zen-inflected work of, say, Basho. I'm certainly a fan. They were writing in different centuries, of course – Basho in the second half of the seventeenth century, and Issa in the early nineteenth – so it's rather like comparing the work of Dryden and Keats, although I'd be surprised if the contrast were quite so pronounced as that in such a convention-bound society as Japan.

One of my favourite Issa poems (there is debate as to whether it is a haiku or a senryu) is this (in my slightly revised British version, suitably adjusted for decimalisation and inflation):

Nothing but mist
For twenty pence

In Japanese: 三文が霞見にけり遠眼鏡
Transliterated: san mon ga kasumi minikeri toomegane
Literal: Three mon / but / mist / see (in a past tense form with an exclamation) / telescope
(No, I don't speak Japanese: information from The Haiku Experiment)

"Mon" were apparently low value coins, although I'm reminded that "mon" are also the red "grade" stripes that we were awarded in junior Judo to be sewn onto our white belts– first mon, second mon, and so on – as opposed to the coloured belts for adults; the word literally means something like "badge" or "emblem".

So the basic scenario, as I imagine it, is not that someone has bought a very cheap telescope, but that on a dreary day they have put a few coins into one of those coin-operated telescopes situated at viewpoints, and found that it is misted up with condensation. Nothing to see here... Typical! Think I'll pop into the caff and have a nice hot refreshing beverage instead.

Issa K.
On a foggy day
Finding nothing to see
Had just one cup of tea
As far as I know, the clerihew has never caught on in Japan, but it seems to me one obvious equivalent to a short, often wryly humorous Japanese form like the senryu, especially in such an incorrigibly facetious culture as ours. Just my, um, three mon's worth.

Monday 5 July 2021

The Dust of Your Feet

St. Petersburg, June 2018

July is here – how did that happen? – and I have not been able to find a suitable replacement for the outgoing "widget" that emailed notifications of new posts to subscribers (see the post The Curious Incident of the Vole in the Night-Time). That is, I have not been able to find a replacement that works with Blogger, is cost free, and enables users to sign themselves up (and unsubscribe) rather than requiring me to maintain some sort of mailing list. Which is a shame, but there it is: I have now removed the "Follow This Idiot by Email" widget from the blog.

In the end, the number of active readers relying on the old service was really quite small, and I trust they will either sign up for a blog-feed service (Feedly and The Old Reader seem OK, but I'm sure there are others), remember to click on a bookmark from time to time, or (to get Biblical), "whosoever shall not receive you, nor hear your words, when ye depart out of that house or city, shake off the dust of your feet". Although I'm not sure who would be doing the dust shaking thing here, me or them. Hopefully, neither of us.

(Drawing of the Buddha's footprint)

Friday 2 July 2021

You Shall Not Pass!

It's a funny old business, language, isn't it? It's amazing, really, the way the various grunting noises we can make have evolved into something so precise, and yet so elusive and changeable, when it comes to conveying real meaning in real life. As with, say, cars, the essential purpose of the thing remains constant, but the form it takes changes constantly, according to need, circumstance, fashion, and accident. Anglo-Saxon never quite recovered from its head-on collision with Norman French, for example, and you should see our little Skoda after the close encounter with a lorry we had recently. The sort of care and attention we pay to both language and cars varies enormously, too: my view of a few bumps and scrapes is probably not the same as yours, and certainly not the same as that of our friendly garage owner, Luke, who managed to convey to me that he would be embarrassed to be seen driving around in anything in quite such a distressed condition. Although "distressed" is not a word he would ever reach for. By comparison, I may be a slob where cars are concerned, but linguistically I like to think I drive the equivalent of a well-maintained Jaguar XJ.

Of course, because, like anyone, I understand and can use a wide range of social "registers", I am able to converge with Luke, and I wouldn't say "distressed" at the garage, either: "a bit of a fuckin' mess" does the job nicely, without causing anyone unnecessary awkwardness. But the fact that I refer to the "um, passenger side?" of the car rather than the "near side" reveals me as an outsider. It's clear that I'm no more a car mechanic than Luke is a librarian. Which is fine: this is an insider:outsider transaction. I'm happy to trust in and to pay him for his expertise, and he's happy to sort out for me whatever needs sorting out. But these little linguistic markers that distinguish insiders from outsiders interest me, particularly when they fall into the category referred to as a shibboleth.

Few people understand Biblical references, these days. The original shibboleth was, in fact, the word "shibboleth" itself, as described in the Old Testament, Judges 12:

5 And the Gileadites took the passages of Jordan before the Ephraimites: and it was so, that when those Ephraimites which were escaped said, Let me go over; that the men of Gilead said unto him, Art thou an Ephraimite? If he said, Nay;

6 Then said they unto him, Say now Shibboleth: and he said Sibboleth: for he could not frame to pronounce it right. Then they took him, and slew him at the passages of Jordan: and there fell at that time of the Ephraimites forty and two thousand.

In other words, the ability or inability to pronounce a word "correctly" – that is, as it falls from the tongue of an insider – is a quick and easy way to determine outsiders and slaughter them ruthlessly, Bible-style, or at the very least enjoy an inward smirk of superiority. Looking at the examples of shibboleths in the Wikipedia entry, it seems the Biblical option has more often than not been the consequence of even quite mild and perfectly comprehensible differences in pronunciation. "You say tomato, I say toma... Argh!"

The names of people, places, and foreign words are a particularly tricky set of silent intruder alarms to negotiate. I remember reading out an essay in a tutorial on Shakespeare's comedies – none of which I had seen acted on stage – and pronouncing the name of the character Jaques in As You Like It as "Jacques", in the French manner. My tutor tactfully let me know that the conventional pronunciation is, in fact, "JAY-kweez" or "Jakes". Well, who knew? Everybody on the inside, that's who; but come on in, lad, and shut the door behind you. Similarly, a friend who was studying politics mentioned the difficulty he was having getting hold of something called the "Grundle Gung", which sounded intriguingly Tolkien-esque to me. Of course, when he showed it written down, it turned out to be the single word "Grundlegung", German for "foundation" or "groundwork", and pronounced rather differently: I like to think my mockery saved him from a deeper humiliation. The ruthless slaughter of outsiders is no longer an option in university circles, not least because the whole idea is to turn outsiders into insiders, but the mortification of having revealed the true depth of one's ignorance can be quite wounding enough, especially when only realised with hindsight.

In the end, I suppose what distinguishes a true insider from an ill-informed wannabe is whether you have heard certain crucial words and names spoken out loud in the right company, or merely read them silently on the page. I mean, who would ever have guessed that artist Ed Ruscha's name is pronounced "roo-SHAY", or that photographer Diane Arbus was a "Dee-ahn"? It's true that a facility with foreign languages can take a lot of the mystery out of this, but most of us will stumble over names like Vija Celmins or László Moholy-Nagy. Besides, there is a perversity in the Anglosphere that means that, just as we prefer Munich over München or Florence over Firenze, not even the most interior of insiders will use the native-language rendering of certain long-established names ranging from Titian to van Gogh. That is, as far as I know. Maybe the consistent (mis)pronunciation of, say, Degas as "DAY-gah" on TV and radio programmes – there is no acute accent over the "e", and the French do not tend to stress syllables – is a simple but effective shibboleth that keeps the rest of us out of the connoisseurs' club?

Naturally, as with language in general, the insider's version of any shibboleth is no more "correct" than the outsider's version: it's just that only one will get you across the river Jordan unscathed. It's no good insisting, "Look, mate, that is perfectly good Ephraimite!" when it is precisely your Ephraimitishness that is being tested. The difference between a shibboleth and simple pedantry about "correct" pronunciation is that pedantry gets you nowhere, whereas a shibboleth, like a secret handshake, opens doors. Let's go back to Luke's garage. You might wince at your mechanic's mangling of marques like Peugeot or Porsche, but you're not going to be the one picking up the phone to order a new brake drum at trade discount. The guys at Pete's Parts know and trust Luke's lads, and they all speak the same language. And when it comes to small talk, as lifelong Saints fans and followers of Premier League football, they have no trouble handling names like Ralph Hasenhüttl or Moussa Djenepo, albeit in versions with the rough edges knocked off. Just don't pay too much attention to that umlaut, though, or you'll instantly mark yourself as an overeducated snob like me who doesn't watch Sky Sports; although fastidious attention to such niceties could, of course, open doors elsewhere.

When it comes to pure linguistic pedantry, though, I have a good story which I think I've told before, but here it comes again.

Now, if you don't speak German you may not be aware that the vowel represented by the letter "a", when short, is pronounced rather like an English "u". Thus, for example, the surname "Mann" is pronounced "Munn" in German, and so the writer Thomas Mann is – "in German", as it were – "Toe-muss Munn". However, to give foreign names their full native-language pronunciation when speaking English is both tedious and pretentious, and can have unintended consequences. When I was in the sixth form, we were taught German by a brilliant but eccentric man, whose ability to turn on a sixpence from mischievous, fun-filled provocateur to outraged vengeful tyrant could be disturbing. You learned to read his mood quite closely. So one day, this man – a true pedant, one who habitually pronounced "questionnaire" as "kestionnaire" – decided we needed to know a little about the German philosopher Immanuel Kant. I think you can probably see where this is going. Few things are as painful as forcibly-suppressed mirth, so you can well imagine the agonies of seven 17-year-old boys, all trying not to catch each other's eye as their teacher solemnly expounded the philosophy of a man whose name, in his fusspot rendering, now rhymed with "blunt". I never knew whether this was a deliberate provocation on his part to make us squirm – I wouldn't have put it past him – but it makes me laugh to this day whenever I recall it, and is also a useful lesson in the perils of misplaced pedantry; a self-inflicted anti-shibboleth, a vice that puts you in a category of unwelcome outsiders alongside bores, egomaniacs, anecdotards, and compulsive practical jokers. You shall not pass!