It's the rules, fool
Talking of cunt magnets
. It seems astonishing that a community blog, invented so that people can share links, can be so unfriendly.
One guy says:
"Not pissed at you specifically, but the radical sub-sect of Metafilter users who follow the guidelines or the wiki like Wahhabists follow the Koran. Your post was just the nearest example...
He doesn't need a reprieve because he shouldn't be penalized in the first place. It was a good-faith thing, so I'm not even sure why we need this thread."
And this is exactly it. Like all wikicitizens, MetaFilterers are supposed to assume the best of other posters. It's a good metarule. Think the best and make allowances. But there's always some cunt who says "We have a rule banning that and I want it applied." They have ignored the good metarule because they have a not so good, harsher guideline that they can use to hurt someone else. What's worse, they spend hundreds of posts on whether they should be utter cunts or just cunts.
The question I didn't spot anyone asking was "Why would he want to stay?"
(Thanks to Miss P Dubya
for the link.)
Some places on the net are what you might call cunt magnets. They attract fuckheads as though they were burning the fuckhead flame specially to attract them. I like those places because they're a lot of fun to play in.
Usenet is, of course, a cunt black hole. No cunt can come within its event horizon (more accurately I suppose I should call it the total nonevent horizon) without being sucked in. Some people like to kid themselves that it is not a total waste of their time to hang out in newsgroups but unless you truly do think that being called a fucking idiot by some arsehole like Dr Zen is self-improving, it's as useless as it's possible to be in a world that has made useless an artform.
I have recently been indulging myself in Wikipedia. If you scout around there, you'll find me. I have actually been constructive (there are quite a few pages that are greatly improved because I visited them). But guess what I found? Cunts. A whole swarm of them. A bureaucracy of cunts. People who live only to apply rules. I think they must mostly be students who can't get laid.
Don't get me wrong. I think that attempting to build a great encyclopaedia communally is a tremendous enterprise. The wiki ideal is a wonderful thing and it is exactly the sort of thing that the interwebnet can be for that gives me hope for mankind and so on. (I applaud, too, its founders' insistence on neutrality -- and how they intended that it should be arrived at; and the wiki goal of a civil atmosphere, a collegiate harmony, is a good thing.) Until you actually get involved in it and you realise that the idea has been soured by cunts. You wish you had arrived earlier, because the freedom and enterprise that the concept implies have been stripped away and the method ossified. Vicious demagogues stalk the project, forcing their points of view on all and sundry. It does not have the harmonious hum of a community working towards a common goal. It has the wild clamour of a place where people do not actually get on (having worked out how not to be civil while not actually being rude -- I've always felt it was far more virtuous to be rude in plain terms, so that one's correspondent is not left feeling they have been cheated but knows that they have had a thorough kicking) and are not pursuing one goal but many, often at odds. The poor soul who owns the project believes he is beset by a few trolls, who take advantage of the community's good nature. He doesn't seem to realise that the community is rotten and trolls take advantage of that. He bemoans "POV pushers" (those who try to destroy the neutrality of the articles) but he doesn't realise that the worst offenders are often the established members of the community. Like all establishments, they do not welcome dissent. Part of the problem is that they believe much of what is there is worthwhile and they do not really welcome outsiders who might burn it down if allowed to do what wikis are for: join in. Wikipedia could ban all the people it thinks are trolls, make it harder for anyone new to edit, and become restrictive; it would still be rotten. Only then would it dawn on them what their problem really is.
I wonder sometimes whether all communities are destined to rot in the same way. I don't care, though. I like the clamour. I disagree with Wikipedia's founders that it is not productive. It seems to me that harmony rots and turmoil creates. You want to be a good writer? Seek conflict. Embody it. Because nothing truly grows out of a void but an infinity of possibilities spring from writhing chaos.
Kitchen screen drama
I am watching a gecko catching a moth1
The moth's wings beat incredibly fast but it2
is making all its effort, it seems, just to stand in place. I have seen moths fly very quickly (although generally in circles), so I know that it is purposely not moving away from the gecko.3
I am thinking it is mesmerised by the kitchen light. It stands in the air. There is a moment of stillness and the gecko moves, much more slowly than I would expect, forward. It simply walks up to the moth and closes its mouth around it. The moth barely struggles. I suppose it cannot; the gecko has it fast. The gecko does not hurry to eat the moth.
I am thinking, how is that geckos are nocturnal? They must be coldblooded. I had always thought that lizards warmed themselves up in the sun, then had short periods of activity and then returned to basking4
I must have that wrong, at least for geckos.
Of course, when I start thinking about it, I realise that most animals and all plants are "coldblooded". They must all have means of absorbing the heat they need to function or means of functioning with whatever heat is available. A bit of googling and I learn
that lizards can shift through ranges of being heated or not that are hard for us to understand, because our bodies work so hard at staying the same temperature or close to it day and night.
1 Note the unpossessed gerund.
What I was watching was the act of catching a moth. It was a gecko's act. Is it not a participle? No. Here's the difference. In this example, it's the act that I say I'm watching. If I write "I am watching a gecko, catching a moth", I am saying that I am watching a gecko, and this is what he is doing. This sentence is, of course, strictly ambiguous, although it is a convention of English that grammar books and pedants sometimes ignore but those who speak and write it actually rely on that participles belong to the closest referent, so that this is only read to mean that the gecko is catching the moth, not me. Is it not a parallel structure (watching... catching)? No. It's possible but English caters for creating the parallel in another way and is fairly strict about doing it correctly. You must say "I am watching a gecko and catching a moth" if you want to say unambiguously that you are doing both.Return
2 I don't know why but I couldn't help thinking of the moth as a "he".
My first thought is that it is because they strike me as ugly but I also think of butterflies as "he", and some of our butterflies are strikingly attractive. Perhaps it is the subtle influence of the patriarchy. I think of dogs as male, too, unless I know otherwise. Their aggression and dumbness seem quintessentially male. These are things I think without thinking. When I come to write it down, I correct myself, of course.Return
3 Actually, I say "purposely" but it gives the wrong impression.
The moth is purposely not moving away from the gecko but I believe this is because he, it, is not aware of the gecko's approach. Intentionality is one of the more interesting areas of philosophy, particularly in ethics and theories of behaviour, where we might distinguish between acts that are outcomes that we aim for and acts that are outcomes that are subsidiary to our aims but arguably both can be our "intention". A simple, and simplified, example would be this: I drive to my friend's house. My intention is to visit my friend. But the car releases, say, half a kilogram of pollutants. Now, I released the pollutants intentionally (I didn't accidentally start the car). Can it be said that my intention was to release pollutants?Return
4 Basking is of course another gerund.
A small item of interest for me, when considering how speakers create English utterances, is whether it would have an understood possessor. Are actions always somebody's? So do I mean to say that lizards return to their
basking or to a more generalised basking -- the ur-basking if you like, the Platonic basking. (I remember in studying linguistics being particularly impressed with Eleanor Rosch's prototype theory, in which she posited that we understand concepts through internal prototypes -- so that we have a mental structure that represents protobird, which has certain features, that our word "bird" represents. Students of postmodernism will immediately recognise that this very much conflicts with any theory that insists in meaning as differance
. Rosch's bird is not a bird because it is not a dog. It is a bird because it is a bird. Why is Rosch appealing? Lots of reasons and particularly because we know that words can have wider and narrower fields of meaning, depending on whatever words we know (in other words, our prototypes can have more or fewer features). Small children who have learned "door" will, for a short time, use it for any structure that opens and closes. They will describe purses (pocketbooks, I think Americans call them) as "door" (I've observed this myself, in English and Spanish). Well, of course, it's easier to conceptualise nouns-as-prototypes than verbs-as-prototypes, but there's no reason to assume that we do not have an idea of running that we are, ultimately, referring to when we say something "runs" -- and also when we talk about "running" because while gerunds are abstractions of action, describing not the action but the idea of the action, it is clear that any prototype of running is also an abstraction!)Return
Our lives are fragile
, beautiful things.
They feel to us like robust, vibrant machines that we ride along with; they are in truth ephemera we cling to tenuously.
There is nothing to say. I know some of the laughing children who I played with on the beach may have died; the friendly people of Mama; the throng that makes Chennai so exhilaratingly dirty. The small part of me that became part of them is extinguished. The small part of them that is part of me is fixed for the rest of the time I live.
We are nothing, in a world that we flatter ourselves we control but sometimes we cannot even bargain with.
Cunt of the year?
Time magazine, against all reason, made Bush their man of the year. We all know it should have given the accolade to Karl Rove, who engineered the rigging of the election, and not the bumbling monkey who will now stumble through four more years of creating hatred and division. This heartfelt letter
These men will never be held to account. War crimes
tribunals are only for the losers in wars, not for emperors and their viziers. While this Christmas, many Americans languish in jail for minor offences such as smoking doobies, and many Muslims of different nationalities are still incarcerated without process in camps where they are tortured and humiliated, these murderers and thieves -- our Barabbases -- walk free and are honoured by what we laughably describe as a free press.
On the end of the possessing of gerunds
My managing editor, to whom I without question bow the knee, asked me to stop using the possessive with the gerund
. "We don't do that here," she said. She meant in Australia.
I am sure that the tendency in Australia is
to use an objective with the gerund, and, as a descriptivist and rather a permissive editor, I would not correct it for my own sake. However, as I pointed out to her, the company's style guide asks for the "correct" usage: use the possessive.
In my own writing, I tend to follow the prescription of Fowler (as I do in most things) and write "I dislike your saying that" and not "I dislike you saying that". (Apart from any other consideration, I take it to be a sign of my command of English, which I desire to display in my writing because I am an elitist and wish to be seen as part of the elite. Is it peculiar that a person who tends to be an egalitarian in all things should believe that there should be a privileged means of communication? Well, not really. I have the perfectly natural human desire to be "good at something". If there is no way to be good at writing, I cannot be it, and for me that is an intolerable state of affairs.) I think his analysis was rather disingenuous though, because there is no case whatsoever for considering "you saying" as a fusion of an object "you" and a participle "saying" that. (Mind you, his discussion of "the infantry being taught" is entirely masterful in showing that "being" cannot be a participle. That is how a real thinker works: finding the generalisation that makes your thought correct.)
I was thinking about gerunds, when a tangent struck me. We are told in school that "noun+POSS noun" is the equivalent of "noun of noun", although that's not to say that the latter is not often clumsy. So "the dog's bone" can be rendered "the bone of the dog". Erm. Maybe not. How about "the year's end" and "the end of the year"? Much better. So how come it works better in some cases than others? Well, of course, we were taught wrongly. They do not mean the same thing at all, except for in a few cases. "The end of the line" is not at all the same thing as "the line's end". "You'll be the death of me" is not "You'll be my death". (Why not? It hurts my head to try to draw the deep structure of the two sentences, let alone conjure up the terminology. The case is the same for "let that be the end of it" and "let that be it's end". In the former case there is no possessive; "of" is a simple preposition, which is used similarly to "to".)
How about "the leg of the chair"? Isn't "chair leg" more idiomatic than "chair's leg? Hmmm.
Anyway, I was thinking that gerunds can never
be written as "noun of noun". You cannot recast "I don't like your saying that" as "I don't like the saying of that of you".
Is that interesting? Or obvious? Does it help resolve the problem of gerunds ("gerunds' problem" is of course different -- why? Because "of" in this instance means "composed of" -- compare "leg of mutton" or "cup of tea"). Yes, yes and no, I think, are the answers.
What is, I think, the key is "chair leg", "lamp post", "dog house" (I leave them separated for clarity's sake) and the recent usage "girls school", which is much more common here than it is in the UK. In each case the first noun ought properly to possess the second. The leg is the leg of the chair, the post the post of the lamp and the house the house of the dog. You can argue that the "chair leg" is a leg of the type that appears on a chair, so that there is no notion of possession but rather one of description, but I am not at all convinced that we conceptualise either of first two of these things separately from the larger entities (a chair leg is not like other legs but is always part of a chair (attached or not)), while the latter is less clearcut but I think similar.
In any case, English clearly allows nouns to be used as adjectives in this way. I find "girls school" instructive. Is it the school of the girls? No. It's a school for girls, yes. A school of the type that girls attend. But the notion of possession is not truly present. What we call the "possessive" in English does not, of course, strictly imply possession as such. You could describe it, at a stretch, as a genitive. And we allow the possessive to be used in exactly this way in "men's toilet" ("men toilet" is impossible -- but I note that "bikes' shed" is impossible too; curious, huh?). Now, we know that speakers of languages look for rules to structure the utterances they hear. We all have a set of rules wired into our noggins to help us make sense of English (even if we cannot articulate them). These rules are flexible and can be applied more or less widely as time passes. I think that the same rule that creates "chair leg" has created "me saying", in other words, a noun has been adjectivised because it is not recognised as possessing the second noun. Adjectives cannot have case in English, of course, so it is impossible to write "my saying" if you have analysed the gerund as being described by an adjective. Fowler's description of this as a "fused participle" is defeated, because, I claim, the speaker is fully aware that the second noun is a noun and doesn't take it to be a participle at all. Neither is "me" an objective, because, as I say, adjectives do not decline in English.
Two objections can be raised. First, "me" is not used as an adjective in other constructions in English. To which I say, no, but there is no call for it. Where there is a notion of actual possession that is strong, "my" is used (it is the weakness, or abstraction, of "possessing" a verbal noun or an action that makes the adjectivisation of "me" possible). In a similar way, it is natural to say "chair's leg" in constructions such as "I hit him with the chair." "Did you kill him?" "No, I hit him with the chair's leg, not its back.", where the idea of possession is much stronger. Second, there is no reason to choose "me" as the adjectival form. Why not go for "I"? Well, having said that Fowler was wrong in his analysis, I now say that he was right. Although I don't believe speakers analyse "me" as an objective, they do analyse the whole construction "me saying" as being an object (of course, for "you", "it" and any common noun the objective and subjective are identical, so the issue does not arise, and I would have thought that the construction began to be used with complex or long subjects, or even with "this being" or "it VERBing", which is very awkward, and was then generalised to pronouns).
It's a sure thing that gerunds will no longer be possessed a few decades from now (although I do note that constructions such as "On my leaving him, he said..." or "My thinking that changes nothing..." and similar are going to be stubborn.) Pedants and prescriptivists (the scourge of a living, organic language, as they are of anything that can grow and thrive) will of course fight a rearguard action, insisting that it is not "logical", that it breaks some rule or other (entirely disregarding that the rules are something reinterpreted by young children in each generation), but they will not come out and say what really irks them, which is that change is frightening and we all would like from time to time to hold back one tide or another lest we (or what we hope we consist in at least) drown.
When I think about my novel, I think how awful it is, how poorly constructed, how it lacks in insight, how the writing is not stylish, how I cannot be proud of it.
When I read it with a view to revising it, I find that I cannot find other ways to construct it, that it is sometimes lyrical, cleverly put together and in the round something that most would be very proud of. It has flaws, which I suppose I should put straight, because if I can find none, I can begin to be confident in it, but it is not the wreck I like to think it is.
Of course it is not the mature work that I will
do and this is part of the problem. I want what I write to encompass all that I feel, all that I know, all that I understand. Writing is in large part peacockery -- or I feel it ought to be.
Feel. It's important to be clear with yourself that what you feel and what you think can be contradictory, violently so. My understanding of texts as processes, with authorship shared among the writer, the reader and the discourses both bring to the text (not so much the harmony of shared context as the clanging discord of differing contexts that each fit in their own way), is clear. But I still feel that I want to be recognised as a canonical author, an important writer. The two cannot easily be reconciled.
I have been thinking about aberrant decoding. It seems the ultimate enemy of the modernist (for whom I have a great deal of sympathy, of course). Eliot fought it with footnotes and allusion; others with an insistence on the precision of their writing and the value of precise communication (which is still something orthodox today, even though it is entirely unsupportable). The understanding that words are ongoing negotiations between speakers and listeners (writers and readers, if you like) tends to make one complacent in believing that once negotiated, meaning is shared, while it should alert one to the possibility that the other side is still haggling even when you're done.
It strikes me that I can decode my own work aberrantly. I can misinterpret myself and misalign the contexts that are required to understand it. Given this, how would it ever be possible to write something you can be pleased with?
On Vickerman's track
There is a dead possum by the track. He does not have the disassembled look of one that has been hit by a car. He could be sleeping. But you know when something is dead and you do not mistake it for sleeping.
I remember seeing a corpse in the street in Delhi, the day I arrived in India. It had been a dark man, a beggar. People walked around the body; no one was much concerned. Even I felt barely curious.
It is a story that astonishes and frightens my friends. When we sat outside S and G's house yesterday, I scandalised them by telling them that I outraged my mother by asking her what anal sex was when I was ten. I say outraged; of course, I mean mildly embarrassed, but that's hardly spicy enough for the story, so I add pepper.
My friends are not even bourgeois. They are what the working class would be if there still was a working class. G has an education of sorts but he is embarrassed that his eldest boy, J, is very clever -- embarrassed and proud mixed, I should say. G worked in sheet metal, as a foreman, a manager. S was some sort of office worker. She knew Mrs Zen from the legal firm they both worked at. I don't know what she did and I don't care. It's not interesting enough for her to want to tell me. D and M, who are also there, are not bourgeois either, although they live in a fairly big house on a piece of land. D is a salesman. He wouldn't strike you as the type. He has none of the shark about him. He needs to believe in his product. He is selling pool cleaners. He believes in them and it is working well. M is another office worker. She works for a union, but she could hardly be less sympathetic to the ethos of collectivism. She is mindlessly right wing, prudish despite her racy youth.
They bore me sometimes. I feel ashamed to say it. I don't feel I'm better than them. I am just in some ways more.
M has been to Egypt and other foreign parts, and yet she is a kneejerk racist. We are talking about boys wearing girls' clothes. M disapproves of the idea with a shudder. I am telling her how keen I was to do it when I was a kid. I say isn't it stupid how it is so hot here but men wear trousers. It's incredibly hot and humid in the summer and in other places like it all the men wear skirts. That's their culture, she says. When they come here they should do the culture and not impose their own. I say, well, when we
came here, we not only imposed our culture but killed the people who didn't like it. M observes an embarrassed silence. She never learns anything from talking to me, and God knows why I insist on doing it. I just can't help myself.
She talks about people coming here, other cultures, foreigners, and I feel like slapping her repeatedly while shouting "I'm from another culture", "I'm a foreigner", "I'm from somewhere else, you stupid bitch, and what you say about them is true about me, I'm just not dark or yellow". M's husband is a New Zealander. Presumably they don't count as foreign either, so long as they're white. D is only a little bit Maori -- a sixteenth, I think, and he has none of the culture -- and you would only see it if you were looking for it.
You know what I mean, M says.
Well yes, I do. It's a problem of Australians that they feel that if you know what they mean, if you understand, then you can't really disapprove. They're not good at perspective.
I cannot stop long to look at the possum because I am wearing my plastic sandals and the track is alive with big ants. I do not often wear shoes here, especially in the summer, and I've learned to keep my toes clear of ants. Nearly all of them bite. The small house ants tickle but the bigger ants give a bite that will burn all morning. I continue up the track. It must have hit 30 degrees (and will get up to 34 in the heat of the day) and the air is infused with the smell of baked eucalyptus. I walk for a mile up and down the hill in Belmont Reserve -- which I am surprised to learn was once a pineapple reservation that since its abandonment has been recolonised by the bush, and now has been saved by the city with the levy we pay in our rates -- and out into a suburban development. It is hellish: treeless, soulless. There are no shops, no children playing in the street even though this is a holiday for them, no one walking except for a young couple with beach towels, which is odd, because there is nowhere to swim around there.
Killing Americans: the death sentence.
Killing Iraqis: three years
American justice: priceless.
Three hundred years ago, the Australian people lived, if not the life of Reilly, a satisfying existence, in which they understood their place in the world, how they fitted and who they were. They could not control their environment exactly, but they had learned its workings over thousands of years, and could use it to their advantage.
They barely survived the intrusion of white Europeans that began in the late eighteenth century because of England's need to punish its poor for not being able to survive in an economy run for the benefit of a privileged few. (A need that still exists today -- who can fool themselves that the motivations for workfare and the workhouse are not the same? We run an economy that does not adequately provide for all, and cover up our shame by blaming the victims.)
It's notable that a similar intrusion, in New Zealand, although it also caused conflict and inevitably the destruction of the native economy and largely its culture, has had a different outcome (an accommodation that at least does not leave the indigenous people utterly hopeless and devastated, even if it has not proved equitable).
I am perfectly happy not to take a "black armband" view of history (this, nonAustralians might not understand, is how the right wing here describes history that reckons the whites did anything wrong in causing the deaths of thousands of the indigenous people, including the entire population of Tasmania or that considers the arrival of the Europeans as anything but a spectacular triumph of the modern world). I think concentrating on whether we should express sorrow for what we
did is largely counterproductive. We should concentrate on what we're doing now.
makes me feel profoundly sad. Instead of taking affirmative action, forcing open the racist structures of our nation, and uplifting this very much benighted section of it so that they can share in our enormous wealth, we feel we have the right to treat them like, what, children, animals? What do the Liberals think the Aboriginals are?
Do they ever stop to think how they would feel if they were told they could have a petrol station in their suburb if their kids kept their faces clean?
I believe truly and honestly that all human beings are much the same under the skin. I do not believe that we differ in intelligence, sensitivity or moral ability (although we differ, greatly, in education, how that sensitivity is moulded and directed and what we consider moral). What is more, I believe that not sharing that belief can only be the product of indoctrination or plain lack of education, because it is so obviously true.
Andrew Bolt wrote the other day that we are not racists
because we voted Casey Donovan our Pop Idol, and she is part-Aboriginal. Leaving aside that it is mostly youngsters who vote for Pop Idol, this was an interesting thing to say. Take a look at Casey
. She's a pleasant-looking young lady and what you might describe as pleasantly tinted. Now take a look at Yothu Yindi
. Now they're black. (They rock, by the way, and for me they are a tremendous example of how a minority message can be conveyed using the majority cultural expression -- I believe that multiculturalism is far more about how cultures can enrich one another than about how they must be kept as islands.) Needless to say, Casey was not covering any Yothu Yindi on her way to triumph. My point, in case you were wondering whether I had one, is quite simply that racism is far more than not liking dark skin! Just because people don't consider looking a little exotic as a bar to being voted a Pop Idol (which is a singing competition, after all) doesn't mean they aren't bothered by a person's being from another culture. (I wonder how many people reading Bolt's drivel exclaimed "I never knew she was a boong".) What Bolt doesn't recognise is how patronising his view is. "Look, we're not racist! We voted for an abo." Yes, now give one a job, you cunt.
We don't have too many Aboriginal lawyers, doctors or even teachers. Aboriginal MPs are a bit thin on the ground too. Actually, truth to be told, Aboriginals themselves are a bit scarce in our major cities. There's a guy plays the didge in the Queen Street Mall, and I used to see a family around and about in Coorparoo when I lived there, but frankly, you see more Africans than indigenous people in Brisbane. (Perth has more of an Aboriginal presence. I suspect this is because of its later development and lesser attractiveness to farmers. Darwin, I'm told, does too, and of course so do the inland cities of NT, but these are not particularly populous, so a small number would go a lot further.)
I wonder whether many Brisbanites appreciate the irony of living in suburbs with Murri names but having not a single Murri in their street or even in the neighbourhood.
We are told that Cathy Freeman is a great role model for Aboriginals. We all love Kathy. Who didn't shed a tear when Cathy won the 400 in Sydney? I know I did, and I hate the Aussies' winning at anything. I thought it was a wonderful gesture that she lit the Olympic flame, because yes, she is iconic for all Australian people.
But what's the message? Your only way out is to be good at sports. Frankly, Cathy is not a great role model for anyone. She's a good runner but frankly she's just so-so as a human being. (Well, most of us are!)
There are quite a few Aboriginal sportsmen. All get labelled "role models" for the indigenous kids. The message is clearly "practise your footy and forget your books -- you've got fuck all chance of making it as a lawyer".
The thrust of the right has long been that indigenous communities should "deserve" our "help". There are a couple of Uncle Toms among the Aboriginal community who sing from the same sheet. Meanwhile, Aboriginals suffer poor health, lack educational opportunities, fill our jails and occasionally find themselves "falling down the stairs" in police stations (I could not believe my ears when I heard on the news that Cameron Doomadgee
might have become injured by falling on some concrete steps -- black guys stopped falling down the stairs in London police stations twenty years ago, when the police was purged of racist coppers and we started doing something about it).
But I say they don't need to deserve a goddamned thing until the descendants of the people who destroyed their way of life, and have done very well out of it, have raised their standard of living, by whatever means, to the same as even poor whites enjoy. This is not done, I feel, by treating them like idiots, or by making them jump through hoops for the amenities the white majority take for granted.
Propaganda in a shoebox
Schools in the UK are apparently supporting these fuckers
Kids love to give. Especially at Christmas. Once they get past a certain age, they become aware that others are not as fortunate as they are.
So they are asked to put a gift in a shoebox and send it to kids in foreign countries (some of which don't celebrate Chrimbo, of course). In the States they add in a fiver for distribution and other things. In the UK it's a couple of quid.
But here's the kicker. These people pop in a leaflet about Jesus. That's right. Your kid's heartfelt gift is simply the vessel for their preaching to people who have perfectly good religions of their own. The UK shoeboxes mainly go to eastern Europe, which is largely Christian already, although, of course, Orthodox or Catholic, not happy-clappy.
Is Dr Zen a Scrooge-like figure, who would deny the poor sprogs of Romania a doll or a book? No, he is not. But what he does resent is the cynical abuse of children's generosity to push views on the impressionable.
My proofreader and I have a disagreement. He is right, on a strict reading of the rules, but still I strike out his correction. We are even admonished in the style guide to take care over this particular issue. Still I insist on my usage.
The problem is “only”. Careful editors know that “only” is one of those recurring difficult words in English. Most would agree with the proofreader, I should point out, but the reason I don’t is rather revealing of the difference between prescriptivists and descriptivists, and how they approach language.
A possible sentence in question is: “I am only allowed to go three times a week.” The proofreader would correct this to: “I am allowed to go only three times a week.” I do not know his reasoning (probably blind application of the rule, because if he understood language better, he would be an editor and make more money) but it could be that the former sentence could be taken to be contrastive: “I am only allowed but not forced.”
However, I argue that my usage is correct, idiomatic English. It is exactly equivalent to the latter because in fact the preposition of “only” before the verb does not sever it from the adverbial phrase and make it apply to the verb, any more than moving “up” to the end of the sentence in “Pull the blinds up” changes the meaning of it. (I was thinking of comparing it with “Shut the fuck up” but this is not a good example. One cannot say “Shut up the fuck”. I would argue this is because “shut the fuck up” is a unit, entirely distinct from “shut” and “shut up” both. I don’t know even what these units are called (I’m not particularly well versed in formal grammar). I guess it’s a type of phrasal verb, although it lacks the flexibility of verbs such as “take over”, “put across” and so on, where the object can be interposed. It’s more like “move in on”. (I’m not sure “move in on” even is a phrasal verb. Thinking about it, I brought to mind “run over the field” and “run the dog over”, in which the former uses “over” as a preposition and the latter uses it in a phrasal verb.) I am not anyway comparing the mobility of elements here but rather the idea that elements are connected to one another regardless of their physical proximity.)
Compare “I always go on a Sunday” and “I go always on a Sunday” where the position of the adverb does make a difference. The former means that on each Sunday, I go; the latter that when I go, it is on a Sunday. Only the former tells you that I go every Sunday. The latter is true if I go once a month, once a year or once a decade, so long as when I go, it is on a Sunday.
Look at “I only go on a Sunday” and “I go only on a Sunday” though. Again, you might argue that the former is contrastive (“I only go but do not take part” perhaps) but without a context that makes it so, I believe that that reading simply does not exist in English.
Why am I right?
(It’s quite instructive to look at “mostly”. “I mostly go on Sundays” is equivalent entirely to “I go mostly on Sundays”. One does not read the former as saying “I mostly go but partly do other things on Sunday”.)
Have a look at “I only like her” and “I like only her”. Aha, Dr Zen, the proofreader is thinking. Got you. Clearly these two sentences mean different things! (The former that I like her but don’t love her; the latter that I like her and no one else.) Yes, they do. But neither has an adverbial phrase to which “only” belongs. (Comparing “I only like her” with “I only go on a Sunday” is like comparing “Run up a hill” with “Run up a debt” or, more confusing still, “Run up the flag”. Hell’s teeth! Three “run up”s! Can it be? Well, yes and no. The first is clearly “run” with a preposition “up”. The second is equally clearly a phrasal verb, in which “up” has no independent meaning. But in the third the flag does go “up”. You could say “run the flag up the pole”, couldn’t you? There’s a lesson in there, which is that one should not confuse grammatical terms with realities. In English, prepositions can often work very much as adverbs. “I’m going to Grandma’s.” “Take the pie over with you.” But “up” is not an adverb, a prescriptivist must cry! Yes, dude, it is. I just described a sentence where it is.) I wonder what to make of “I like her only”. It must surely (surely must?) be read as “I like only her”, but why? How does it fit the rule?
Now, the proofreader must say. Yes. Okay. But how about “I only stroke her on Sundays” and “I stroke her only on Sundays”. Surely the former says that you stroke her but don’t poke her, and the latter that you stroke her but not on Mondays.
Well no. Try saying them without conveying your meaning with intonation. If you do not emphasise “stroke” in the first, it does not have the contrastive meaning. Intonation sometimes conveys context in speech.
For further comparison, consider: “Smoking is only permitted in the smoking room.” Surely this must mean it’s permitted but not encouraged? Yes, if it is spoken in reply to “We’re in the smoking room but must we smoke?” But if it is, context has overtaken the idiom. In the same way, imagine this. Three men are in a room. Two are torturing the third, who begins to babble, whine and moan. The first hands a second a gun. “Shut the fuck up,” he says. But he is talking to the second guy, who is not saying anything.
Or this. Two fleas are standing on a flagpole. “Should we run?” says flea one. “Yes,” says number two. “Let’s run up the flag”.
Why did I mention prescriptivists and descriptivists?
It’s simple. The proofreader’s argument rests on making sense out of the sentence – parsing it, if you will, rule by rule, strictly and logically. The rule that he applies is that “only” modifies the word it is closest to. However, this ignores that English is not constructed word by word, any more than any other language is (with the exception of synthetic languages such as Chinese, which is far less permissive of idiomatic readings). It doesn’t always make “sense”. Think about the famous Spanish double negative. Yo no tengo nada means I have nothing, but literally says I not have nothing. Hey, that means you do have something, right? Wrong. The Spanish idiom is to use the negative twice, before and after the verb (the same is true of written French of course).
There is a rule in English that “only” modifies the word it is closest to, but it only applies in some cases (Dr Zen admits to loving self-reference – again that phrase cannot mean it only applies but does not, erm, well, there is no contrastive verb that springs to mind). The prescriptivist wants “only” to follow a narrow rule for adverbs – which applies for example to “simply” in the sentence I used above: “Because the contrastive reading simply is not idiomatic English.” – but ignores that in fact the two “simply”s have quite different meanings! “I’m simply allowed to go three times a week” and “I’m allowed to go simply three times a week” mean different things because in the former “simply” means “emphatically” and in the latter “without adornment”. “Only” does not change meaning – it has the same idea of restriction wherever it is put in the sentence. The prescription that it should modify whatever it is next to is belied by the truth that in the common idiom it does not (okay, I cheated, because the double negative is
prescribed in Spanish, but in that instance I was illustrating that language refuses to obey the “rules” of logic). Yes, “I’m only allowed to go three times a week” is strictly incorrect. It could
mean that I’m allowed but not forced. But it doesn’t
At this point, perhaps the proofreader is thinking, But every time you are at variance with the rules, you will cry “idiom” and trump them.
Well, I might reply, this is why good editors are descriptivists to the core. Because you feel that the rules are laid out and the language ought to abide by them, but I am familiar enough with English to know that the rules are simply how it is. (Of course, some are somewhat fixed. The analogy I sometimes use is driving a car. You mostly have to stay on the road and out of the ditch and your motor must be working. Your car must be structurally recognisable as a vehicle. But how you drive is down to you, and where you go, well, the road is open. An understanding that going quickly is more fun than going slowly comes with experience of driving; there is no exhilaration in gridlock (but maybe you can call your mum).) Knowing what is idiomatic is part of what makes an editor. You do not simply learn a set of rules – in spelling, grammar and semantics. No. You learn what English is, how it is used and how it is not.
By the people...
G’s new wife, R, says, rather out of the blue, that if you don’t vote, you can’t complain.
I know that she doesn’t realise that because I am not a citizen I cannot vote anyway. She doesn’t mean me personally. She is making a general point, although why I don’t know. We had been talking about Australian politics, yes, but rather about the figures involved than the system on the whole.
But, I said to her, what if what you are complaining about is the system of voting itself?
Because I do. Most Western nations are ruled by factions of a mercantilist class that does not represent the people it governs. I was reminded of this in reading Reefer madness, Eric Schlosser’s book about the American underground economy. In it, he points out that you can be sentenced to longer for possession of marijuana in some states than you would be for murder. How many of us would agree that smoking a joint is a worse crime than topping your neighbour? A majority? Anything like one.
Each three, four years we get to choose which of a couple of factions gets to rule the place for three, four years. Yes, we can vote for a minor party, but the system is structured, mostly because of its control of the media and the way power is apportioned, so that minor parties struggle to get anywhere near a share of power.
The winning faction claims a mandate to do whatever it chooses. It doesn’t usually choose to do things that people want. No. More often it chooses to do things that prevent people from doing what they want. This mandate can be based on very shaky ground, democratically. In the UK, perhaps 60% of the eligible population voted last time (I don’t know the exact figure). Of them, maybe 40% voted Labour. Maths fiends will be well ahead of me and will have worked out that this means only 24% of the population, a bare quarter, actually supported the party in power. (The coercive system in Australia gives the winners a more convincing mandate, somewhere in the mid-40s.) A quarter! Three quarters of the population either didn’t want Blair to rule or were not impressed enough either way to bother voting.
What is clear is that he does not govern in the name of the majority.
What is even clearer is that those that did vote for him did not vote for everything that he does. Nowhere was it suggested that a vote for Labour would entail an invasion of a foreign country. I don’t remember being asked whether I approved new repressive laws. If I had been, I would have said no, actually, the lack of rights we have now is already sufficiently worrying for you not to remove any more, cheers for asking.
What would I suggest to replace it? (Because of course we must have suggestions for replacing what there is – as R points out, it’s no good whining if you don’t have good suggestions for replacing what there is; bollocks, of course – I might have a very good idea of what’s rubbish and absolutely none about what would be good, but that doesn’t make it untrue that what’s rubbish is rubbish.)
Well, even though I think most people are politically illiterate and too blindly prejudiced to be trusted not to fuck the place up without even giving it a second's thought, I do believe that anyone who takes democracy seriously must trust the people. I think we should vote on lists of proposed programmes and that the government should be nothing but the functionaries who put them into action. (Okay, I have slightly more detailed ideas than that, because I can almost feel the "yes, but how would it all be paid for" coming.) There are of course fears that the majority would vote for the death sentence and other unsavoury things of which I don't approve, but two things have to be taken into consideration. One, who says that my idea of what's right should prevail? I know that's a bit revolutionary for most liberals, who feel that their personal feelings of righteousness outweigh any considerations of consensus or even the will of the majority. Two, politicans' role in my system would be much more as persuaders. Convince people not to hang criminals. Educate them. I believe strongly that if you are right, you can be seen to be right. I refuse to have so little faith in people that I must assume they are fundamentally not to be trusted with the direction of their own lives. Here's the key for me: let people have the power. Devolve to the lowest feasible level. The individual for choices that affect the individual alone (since when was it actually the state's, or anyone else's, business that Joe Blow smokes pot; even if it were true that he is endangering himself, why might he not be permitted to endanger himself?); the community for choices that affect the community; the city for the city...
People do not play an active part in politics because they cannot see how to change things. This is largely because they cannot, of course. They are mostly passive in the political process. We have "representatives", but we do not feel they represent us. This is because at every level they make decisions we do not mandate them to make.
We should be having meetings in every street, in every suburb, in every town. We should yea or nay the whole shebang. We should have voices that are heard, not votes that simply empower people we do not trust to do things we do not want done.
The court of our contempt
I was very moved by this
Those who glibly suggest that we must fight terrorists over there so we don't have to fight them over here or whatever nonsense we are using to justify our war on the world's poor this week do not ever have to face the results of their blather.
The dead are all terrorists for them, or can be dismissed as collateral damage, because they do not see the real people that they were. They are not forced to face those that accuse them, the screaming wives and mothers, the uncomprehending fathers and husbands. They do not hear the bombs falling on their houses, the tanks in their streets.
I never lose sight of the fact that America supported the Khmer Rouge when Vietnam kicked that crew out of power. I never lose sight of their support for Saudi Arabia when I hear their blather about bringing democracy to the Middle East. I never lose sight of the truth that the only nation that has ever used a nuclear weapon in anger is the United States.
I do not forget that it harbours, and has long harboured, terrorists that attack Cuba; that it supported the contras; that it murdered many leaders. I do not forget that it bombed Serbia mercilessly; that it destroys hospitals, places of worship, schools and homes and calls what it does spreading American values and not by its real name: terror.
They'll write the history books but we'll indict them. Some lash out in fury, and it comforts the Americans to imagine that the fury is limited to those so enraged by it as to be driven to the extremes of giving their lives suicidally just to express it.
But it isn't.
Ah, what's the use? What's the use of any of it?
There is none, of course. We are dust in a hundred years from now, and our consciences dust with us. What fucking use will they have been to us?
It's one of the great unresolvable contradictions of the thinking man's life. You are smart enough to know it's not worth caring, but being smart means that you cannot ignore it.
Have mercy on us all
Perhaps I should have read it in the French but that does seem a little too much when one is considering what is, after all, a fairly run-of-the-mill thriller (though one I had been keen to read, having read an interview with Fred Vargas in the New Scientist: Fred is, if I remember rightly, an archaeologist of some repute who writes under a pseudonym, and Pars vite et reviens tard, a better title actually, won several awards in France).
The strangest thing was that I felt after the first chapter that it fully deserved its accolades. She set the scene so wonderfully well, creating a setting that lived and breathed and characters of good depth. The plot was beautifully set in motion, with plenty of questions and elements of intrigue.
Then she fucked it up.
The policeman, Adamsberg is, I’m sure, supposed to charm you with his absentmindedness, his insouciance, his intuitive thinking, but they came over as cluelessness, carelessness and contrivance, respectively. He gained a great deal of indulgence, it seemed, without ever deserving the least piece. That he survived the book without receiving a hospital-grade kicking was miraculous and thoroughly unsatisfying both. Don’t even start me on the sidekick, so useless that I cannot recall his actually contributing anything
to the investigation except an excruciating sidestory about his wife’s leaving him, which you could hardly blame her for. The writing went a little to pieces too, although to be fair it never descended into cliche or incomprehensibility. It lost its engagingness. Some of the twists were dull: some guy is a Breton! Whoopee! Talk about ho fucking hum. He didn’t really rape the child (we didn’t for a moment suspect he did)! Some were smart but poorly introduced: the diamond ring is the most obvious example of a brilliant clue so clumsily presented that you resented the investigator’s finding it.
The plot twisted well towards the end but the denouement was rubbish, because the perpetrator was slammed in without prior notice. There is little more annoying in a whodunnit than the one who dun it to be none of the suspects but a whole new character, unless, as in the Big nowhere, the character is neatly tied in so that you feel yes, it’s clear how he fits the clues that were there and yes, his traces were there and you have had a revelation, just as the investigator has. It’s a fine line to tread between its being awesomely predictable who dun it long before the end (a failing that all books that promise surprises must avoid) and one’s leaving the book with the feeling that the writer didn’t make up their mind until right before the denouement. I felt Vargas simply did not understand the rules of the thriller (despite having observed them so very well in the beginning – although it has to be said that she introduced one set of suspects incredibly poorly, but they were in any case poor suspects, not even half sinister enough). Having said that, the clue that led to realising that there was a new suspect was nicely handled: it had been in play for most of the book and was a clear marker for anyone on the ball (which did not include me but I was in good company because it didn’t include Adamsberg or anyone else involved either) that there would be a further twist at the end.
I tried hard to like it but I was ultimately glad that I had picked it up in a sale for eight bucks. I would have felt she’d picked my pocket if I’d paid the full thirty.
Kings of the wild frontier
The first gig I went to was Adam and the Ants at the Barn in Penzance. Dog eat dog had entered the charts but the crest of their wave was yet to come, and the crowd was not the teenies that it would later be, but an older, more savvy bunch – even rural Cornwall had plenty of people who knew what good music was. Saying that makes me think of Karen B, who, when I was 15 was the woman I desired most in this world (I doubt I have ever yearned
more for one). She was a huge Bowie fan, to the extent of copying his makeup when she went out to Peggotty’s in St Ives. She had an asymmetric hairstyle. She was rich (her father owned a large hotel in St Ives – well, it seems large when I recall it but I suspect it was nothing more than a glorified guesthouse). She seemed mature far beyond her years (I am reasonably sure she was no more than a year older than me, if that). She was comfortable going to nightclubs, hanging out with far older people, partying. At the time I couldn’t figure out why someone as cool as Karen would want to spend time with me. Now of course I know that she liked me (but not much, because I do not remember more than one weekend of her acquaintance; I remember she had a boyfriend who she said was a jealous type).
Adam and the Ants showed me what pop could be. I think that they put the last nail in the coffin that I buried my love of grebo rock in. There was just no way even AC/DC could match them. The sheer sexiness of Adam overwhelmed a shy boy like me. Here was a cool guy, a guy who had sex with women I could never dream of meeting (well, any women at all would be a start), singing about how cool he was, how liberating he found sex. And he loved to dress up and show off, rebelling against the dreariness of conventional England. Who could not love a guy who believed he was a Red Indian pirate? He strode around in clothes I would never be able to wear (although I did, despite a well-founded fear of a good kicking, wear my mother’s blouses and makeup that the ladies in the local pharmacy must have thought I was buying for my sisters). I don’t mind admitting that had Adam ever phoned, I would have packed my swag and set sail for London, ready for a life as his cabin boy, whatever that involved.
He was all about everything transgressive: sex, drugs, piracy, rejecting the norm and sneering at dullsville. The music, which passed as pop then, is rather more sinister, sinuous, brooding and hard than the stuff teens are fed now. The image, the Indian stuff, all that was silly enough for it to be dismissed by your mum and dad, without their actually listening to it. But Adam was singing about kinky sex (and not with the slightly offputting schoolmarmly manner of a Britney, who orders us to believe she is “nasty”), violence, being naughty
And some of the music has stood the test of time very well. The more jaunty, yo-ho-ho stuff is of its era, and you are left with a definite sense of “you had to be there” (but that’s true of so much New Wave and even punk – although you’ll rarely get anyone to admit that much of Wire’s output, for instance, is entirely unlistenable, or that Gang of Four is a good name to drop and a poor thing to have on the stereo). But the dark, tense Killer in the home, for instance, hits the spot, and the three singles that made them, Dog eat dog, Antmusic and Kings of the wild frontier, all kick the proverbial ass. The first is a statement of intent: a royal like it or lump it, a slab of sound that is the clarion call for a tribe that any self-respecting teen would love to belong to; the second is sheer pop thrill, a restatement of the punk ethos: “that music’s lost its taste, so try another flavour”; the third a spit away from sheer insanity, but believe me, I knew what he meant: I too felt that beneath the skin I was something much realler, a savage, untamed.
Like all great pop phenomena, from Elvis with his sneer, through the Beatles with their moptops, sharp suits and Scouse snideness, Roxy Music, with their cosmopolitan chic, Bowie, well, being Bowie, to the Sex Pistols, with their rough clothes, green teeth and spiky, unkempt hair, and Duran Duran, the kings of flash, Adam was about the image. Of course, like all of them, he and the Ants also had great music – ultimately the image was a facet of the creativity that drove him. I feel saddened when I hear today’s pop because the image is off the shelf and creativity is frowned on, or seems to be, since it is so little in evidence, and never any more do the twain meet. Even those popsters who are
at least somewhat creative – the Dizzee Rascals or perhaps Outkasts of this world – are not people whose gang you’d want to be in. I cannot imagine storming the barricades with Miss Dynamite, but if Adam called ...