Saturday, 26 August 2006

For your delight

‘He is the very pineapple of politeness!’ says Mrs Malaprop of another character in The Rivals, the play they both inhabit, as it were. She’s one of Sheridan’s most delightful and enduring creations. Many have emulated her speech since she first appeared on the stage and we have all met at least one person who deserves to be nicknamed after her. If you do not know a Mrs Malaprop I can give you directions to one who lights up the blogosphere with her special kind of linguistic magic practically daily and never fails to make me chuckle or hoot with laughter.

In the meantime, here is a wonderful article on the subject by Jeanette Winterson, the author of Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit (her only readable book, in my opinion, but that’s another story):

‘Communicating with the dead is risky, especially on constipated ground’
by Jeanette Winterson (The Times, June 2006)

My column on damp squids and holly reefs and other howling etymologies seems to have delighted Times readers enough to send in stacks of their own. In the way of things, I was also bereted by two readers, indeed made into something of an escaped goat, for being sufficiently unfamiliar with the English language to imagine there was such a thing as a damp squid.

Now that I am also the Big Brother household’s favourite read, I shall no doubt suffer the fate of a previous contestant who thought East Angular was a sovereign state somewhere near China.

This is the sort of thing to drive anyone stark raven mad, or indeed to turn this whole column into a bit of a wild elephant. The only thing for it will be to drive off in my hunchback car and get a bit of aquapuncture.

Food seems to offer rich pickings for howlers: a fast-food joint in Singapore calls itself ‘Sudden Food’, but if that has crept up on you too quickly, have pity on the lady still searching for the recipe for Ends Meat, as in ‘I don’t know how I am going to make ends meet’. For the ladies’ man, Damsel Jam seems too good to miss and, for those who want to eat modestly, there is always the microway.

Other readers have been astonished at menu recommendations for Acid spumante (I cannot comment for legal reasons), banana spit, and home-made shepherd’s bush. At a wedding buffet recently, guests were met with Sausage Rolls, followed by Profit Rolls, or elsewhere, Prophetic Rolls, the kind of food, I imagine, that warns you of exactly how ill you are going to be by bedtime.

On the other hand, prophetic rolls might be just the thing to use to strike a happy medium, though why, as our reader inquires, we should wish our psychic friends to be unhappy, or indeed strike them when they are not, remains unclear.

Communicating with the dead is obviously a risky business, especially as they might be buried in constipated ground or, as the Countess of Harewood kindly suggested, have too hastily signed over their Power of Eternity.

One husband told me that his wife likes to say: ‘'If my mother were alive now, she’d turn in her grave.’ I know that’s not quite a fake etymology, but I include it, along with ‘my words fell on stony ears’. This must be close to bear-faced cheek, which might be a relative of the moveable beast, as in ‘Easter is a moveable beast — it all depends on when the hens start laying’.

I feel very sorry for the child who nearly choked on his biblical cord, and for the gentleman who feels ‘out on a limbo’. I think we have all felt out on a limbo sometimes, perhaps especially the lady who ‘has a milestone round her neck’.

I was sent a delicious little book, entitled A Decapitated Coffee, Please. This is a truly bonkers collection of malapropisms and misnomers, lovingly brought together by Des MacHale, and published by a little Irish publisher in Cork called Mercier Press.

Anyone out there — and it seems like most of you — who revels in our linguistic glories should get hold of this book. It is the kind of thing to keep in the loo — which, incidently, to correct one of my readers, doesn’t come from regardez vous, as the night-pail was sloshed out of the window, but from gardez-l’eau, indeed as the posh French chambermaids emptied their posh French chamberpots. Needless to say, the non-French less posh were soon copying the idea and mispronouncing it as Gardy-Loo. It is a bit like our friend San Fairy Ann, who I am told, has a sister called Fairy Nuff.

Anyway, the little book is perfect for the loo, and will cheer you up on those gloomy days when you are feeling a bit down in the mouse, presumably the mouse-hole, which I see is really a mouse-all, because that’s where all the mice live.

A couple of my favourites from the book are: ‘You could have knocked me down with a fender.’ And: ‘Now that I have read a book about Swedish sex, I know where my volvo is.’

Mrs Winterson used to talk about an interfering madam she disliked as a ‘proper Cleopatra’. On further inquiry I discovered she had ‘a rod up her asp’.When I asked what this meant, Mrs Winterson replied: ‘She won’t let sleeping snakes lie.’

Language deserves respect. Anyone who mangles it ought to be slapped.

Update (27 August): A word of caution: if you’re one of those unfortunate people for whom words mean nothing and who couldn’t care less about them but who still insist on writing, be very careful. Using a spellchecker doesn’t help: it doesn’t have a brain and will choose any word that resembles the one you can’t spell and produce a sentence that doesn’t make any more sense than the one you wrote originally. It will be much funnier, though.

Thursday, 24 August 2006

Oh, here’s another one!

This will get the post-feminists’ (I’m being kind here: they are female chauvinist pigs) knickers in a twist again.

Vertiginous heels are back in fashion. Heels have been steadily getting higher over the past, what?, 15 years or more. Some very expensive, haute couture styles are now ridiculously high, and women can’t walk in them: they teeter along and constantly risk falling over. Why is that, then? Why are comfortable, practical shoes not fashionable any longer?

Well, just like hairless women remind men (and everyone else, except those who don’t want to see) of pre-pubescent girls, i.e. beings they can patronize and not take seriously, women precariously perched on very high heels are vulnerable, ‘incapable’ beings: they can’t run; they stumble; they have to be steadied and protected. They become helpless little females again. And that, for some reason, seems to be the impression some women want to give.

I too used to wear heels, back in the 70s, not extremely high ones, not stilettos, just heels high enough to give me a bit of a lift. Then the kind of shoes I liked disappeared from the shops. Doc Martens came on the scene and one could only find rather chunky brogues. I wore trainers for a long time, and more recently just flat shoes. Now I can’t wear heels any longer. I’ve lost the knack. Shame. On the other hand, I don’t think I would want my bum to stick out the way it does when you wear very high heels. And I can do without looking as if I spend my life standing on street corners. I don’t wear ‘f*ck-me shoes’ (Germaine Greer, who coined the word in the 90s, would be proud of me).

But things are looking up. There may be a backlash against ridiculously high heels in the near future. Clare Coulson is already denouncing them in the Telegraph online (I pinched their photo, by the way). It may herald a return to more practical footwear and hence to another kind of woman. Perhaps. With a bit of luck. I won’t hold my breath, though.

Slapping Christian Louboutin, Manolo Blahnik et al.

Sunday, 20 August 2006


Just a quickie while I wait for something to really aggravate me (of course I’m in a state of constant irritation at the moment but the cause hasn’t changed so I won’t bother you with it again).

I’m slapping people who say ‘Believe it or not...’ followed by something totally not incredible. ‘Believe it or not, being rich and healthy is better than being poor and sick.’ Erm, y-e-s! Pretentious is not the word (as they say in sly theatre reviews).

I also want to slap anyone who peppers their speech with ‘methinks’.

Feeling lazy today: please nominate your linguistic pet hates.

Update (21 August): re. being pretentious, I've already railed against French people using English words or expressions all over the place, even when, sometimes especially when there are perfectly good French equivalents (Parlez-vous English?); this time I'd like to slap English people who mistreat the French language in the same way. I have to single out someone called Linda Pilkington because she's in the news at the moment (well, the perfume news I read about elsewhere on the Net). Linda, whose other fragrances all bear extravagant (and to my ears unpleasant) names, has called her latest creation Orris Noir, thereby taking a leaf out of Miller Harris's book and mixing English and French words in the hope that those perfumes will sound more up-market than they are. They end up sounding silly instead.

Tuesday, 15 August 2006

I don’t belong any more

I’ve been called a rabid feminist several times in my life: never to my face, mind you, this is the kind of thing women (it’s always women) say about you behind your back, but, you know, there are ways of finding out. I’ve always called myself a feminist. Rebecca West once said, ‘...people call me a feminist whenever I express sentiments that differentiate me from a doormat,’ and, since I’m not a doormat either... Until now I’ve been proud of the label (not the ‘rabid’ bit, obviously) because women who think it’s an insult and insist that they have nothing to do with it are just deluded: they believe that they are making free choices in every areas of their lives, when, in fact, in many of them, they are behaving exactly like men and society in general want them to behave, but more importantly they believe that the freedoms they are enjoying now are permanent and cannot be taken away. One almost wishes for Sharia law to come into force in the UK and take away all the things they take for granted and refuse to see as hard-won victories by the militant feminists of yore.

Enter the militant feminists of today.

In an article in The Sunday Times, Sarah Baxter, a Greenham Common campaigner, writes,
Women pushing their children in buggies bearing the familiar symbol of the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament marched last weekend alongside banners proclaiming “We are all Hezbollah now” and Muslim extremists chanting “Oh Jew, the army of Muhammad will return.”

As a supporter of the peace movement in the 1980s, I could never have imagined that many of the same crowd I hung out with then would today be standing shoulder-to-shoulder with militantly anti-feminist Islamic fundamentalist groups, whose views on women make western
patriarchy look like a Greenham peace picnic.

The compassion for people of colour has been translated into feminists standing with terrorists who are terrorising their own women.
Please read the rest of her article here. I’m not a young woman who thinks she has it all, but I’m saying, ‘Over my dead body!’ to the future it conjures up.

Oh, and please suggest an alternative for ‘feminist’: I feel bereft without my label.


* If you’re not familiar with Sharia law Wikipedia can help. Here.

Update: If the links didn't work for you earlier, please try again. Naughty Blogger had replaced them with its own address. They should work now.

Wednesday, 9 August 2006

Daylight robbery

As if it wasn’t the cause of enough stress as it is, with erratic and infrequent mail deliveries, expensive and complicated rates, etc., the postal service will very soon be the source of more aggro: on 21 August, post will be priced according to size as well as weight.

I have in front of me a bright red leaflet produced by the Royal Mail: there’s a price chart and lots of blah blah about the new system, like ‘If your item fits inside the red area [more about this in a minute], is no thicker than the 5mm thickness indicator and weighs under 100g, then it will be classed as a Letter’. There’s also a double page with two letterbox slots drawn on two different areas and in two different colours. One is for the old ‘Letter’ and the other for the new ‘Large Letter’. You’re supposed to put your item within one of the areas (‘Place corner of item here’) in order to gauge its size and work out which kind of letter it is. However, it’s not just the length and width that determine the category but the thickness too so the only way to do it would be, I think, to stand the item at a right angle with the leaflet to see whether it would go through those slots if they were cut out. But it won’t work: letters are not the same thickness all over; they’re very often thinner around the edges, for instance.

The system is absolutely preposterous and would be risible if it wasn’t going to be implemented in a couple of weeks’ time. I believe some people spend their entire lives trying to figure out how to get money from us. It’s sheer extortion (leading to sheer exhaustion, LOL!). And a stupid waste of our time. The Royal Mail should just order us to stick up our hands and give up all our cash every time we go to the post office. It would be quicker and the result would be the same.


Update: I hadn’t actually had a good look at the price chart earlier. I have now and I’m truly depressed. Things that are small and light, but bulky, like, for instance, erm… at random… a small McDonald’s ‘The Dog’ toy, which I have a drawerful of (some people are gender confused, I’m age confused, no, actually, I’m just rediscovering my inner child), well, things like that, which wouldn’t go through the slot for Letter or even Large Letter, will now have to be sent parcel rate and that means a jump from 32p to £1. Unbelievable!

Tuesday, 1 August 2006

Guest Slapper of the Month VII

My August Guest is Jemima von Schindelberg – isn't that a wonderful name? Her blog, Imitation of Life, is full of quirky poetry and insights. She's supposed to be a teacher (those kids are so lucky) but she's a writer, really. As you can see below, she feels strongly about things and doesn't pull any punches.

A Violent Pornography

I need to open with an emphasis on what I’m not. I am not an easily shocked, shy retiring spinster type of prude. I am not a self-important, do-gooding, fascist type who wishes to control the minds of those I deem ignorant. I’m not living in a bubble cut-off from the realities of what life has become in the 21st century’s developed world. Generally I dismiss complaints against extreme art with a shake of my head and a quick “they’re missing the point”; I am, however, speaking to you today in the guise of Concerned of Birmingham, outraged by some violent ‘art’.

I rate A Clockwork Orange*, Goodfellas**, and City of God*** among my favourite movies, all unflinchingly violent but, as with the obscenity distinction between pornography and art, they offer something else. I have delved into the darker parts of my personality playing violent video games (such as The Simpsons Hit and Run) where I see that violence and competitiveness provide the entertainment. Entertainment becomes dangerous when a me me me greedy culture is the immoral substructure of an explicitly violent, and outstandingly realistic entertainment package.

So I am grasping this opportunity to slap, or slapportunity if you will, to drown the makers of Grand Theft Auto, the many sequels and the many imitators with oceans of shame. These are the games of speeding in shiny cars, of theft, violence and all manner of anti-social behaviour presented in such a slick and stylish way that one cannot help but be seduced by the glamour. Entertainment aimed, allegedly at an adult market that know better, glorifying a self-centred, materialistic and utterly selfish mode of living. Not only do these games miss the intended audience influencing small minds, they also normalise violence, bringing the act of killing into people’s homes, influencing grown minds.

The blurb says:

Five years ago Carl Johnson escaped from the pressures of life in Los Santos, San Andreas... a city tearing itself apart with gang trouble, drugs and corruption. Where film stars and millionaires do their best to avoid the dealers and gang bangers.

Now, it's the early 90s. Carl's got to go home. His mother has been murdered, his family has fallen apart and his childhood friends are all heading towards disaster.
On his return to the neighborhood, a couple of corrupt cops frame him for homicide. CJ is forced on a journey that takes him across the entire state of San Andreas, to save his family and to take control of the streets.

Liberty City. Vice City. Now San Andreas, a new chapter in the legendary series.
I have always been a little troubled by the ultra violent, but believe in free speech, the right to choose, individual responsibility, yadda yadda. During a Circle Time session when we were discussing activities we enjoy (in an effort to help the children see their shared humanity, their similarities and thus to make friends more readily) I became concerned. It turns out almost all the boys have played the GTA San Andreas game, adore it, and would defend it passionately. Interesting that I’ve had a lot of problems with violence and fighting from this group also. So many of them seem to have unlimited access to play unsupervised. So many struggle to draw any distinction between reality and the fantasy painted in the 18 films and games. They are unsupported, having no guidance to consider the moral implications of visiting prostitutes and carrying weapons.

The violent cinema causes violence argument is an old and not especially convincing. Clearly many people see violence and do not react violently, The Crusaders, Genghis Khan and Jack the Ripper didn’t rely on cinema to get their passion for violence flowing. It is not as simple as that. I have to draw a distinction between passively viewing violence and taking an active role, even as far as holding a replica gun, and pulling a replica trigger in some games. The added level of involvement has to go some way to normalise violent acts and make them seem an every day occurrence. How much easier it would be to pull the trigger when faced with a violent situation, when you’ve simulated it a thousand times and become acclimatised to the consequences of a gun shot. Don’t forget Grand Theft Auto’s verisimilitude resulted in a shortlist in
The Culture Show’s Design Quest.

The websites I visited made a show of their adults only policy. These games are Rated m for Mature, but this is no protection. Options of “Click here if you are British and under 18”, “click here if you’re from the rest of the world and really mature”, enter your date of birth. Why do they even bother with this? If I’m a bloodthirsty ten year old with no one watching my online activities, my conscience isn’t going to stop me entering the site I’ve been warned is unsuitable. At a Parents’ Evening one mother reported how she resorted to breaking the PlayStation in order to get her sons (and husband) away from the violent DVDs and games they shared. Dad liked to share. Mom was powerless. This horrified me, and is probably a whole other gender-culture related slap.

The children, my dearly loved students, have no concerns for their own safety. They believe in Grand Theft Auto, see truths and validation that are lost on me. Ok, so they’re happy to inhabit this world, happy for our world to become more like it, thrilled by the Ray-Ban glamour, high-speed excitement, the fashion and passion. But, ah-hah, “What if someone wanted to hurt you?” asks the na├»ve teacher. Haven’t I warned them a thousand times of the cycle of violence and suffering that result from an act of anger? “I’d kill them first,” comes the instinctive reply. The wrongness of killing is absent. The likelihood of being caught off guard, overpowered or punished is less real than their sense of potency and the safeguard that a raft of extra lives confers. There is no danger and no conscience. I feebly quote The Qur’an, The Bible, The Torah to impress on these children who spend maybe ten hours a week in religious instruction, that every religion is certain on the question of the sanctity of life, but it is way too late. They have lived the GTA life, the thrills much more alive than tales of angels and damnation meant to scare them into submission.

I am not going to slap those who find violence and crime exciting or alluring. We are usually not responsible for our passions and interests, an attraction to that which is forbidden or dangerous is common and understandable. I am slapping parents and other carers who are so irresponsible they allow unlimited access to age inappropriate material, to the media machine that looks at success in terms of sales and not the effects on society and to a company that throws all its expertise into making their interactive violence as realistic and alluring as is technically possible. These games are not art, offering nothing more than pleasure taken in the pain of (simulated) others, they are the trigger on a time bomb that will inflict needless suffering on an already pain-weary populace.

Thanks to System of a Down for lending me the title, although I didn’t actually ask permission, so technically it’s theft: see what happens to my moral fibre when I start researching these games. All quotations and images from:

*A Clockwork Orange has young people dancing with violence as a symptom of a decaying society. It is a warning, a futureshock, with exquisite photography, soundtrack and utterly thought provoking. Youthful attraction to ultraviolence is shown as a phase we can outgrow.

**Goodfellas explores the attraction to crime and violence of the poor and impressionable. The consequences are shown. And it is also exquisite in visual and audio terms.

***Again a decaying society, of haves and have nots, a dog eat dog world that anyone with a brain and some luck would seek to extricate themselves from. A wake up call to those who close their eyes to the favelas and see the poor as subhuman and far away. It too has high standards for the sights and sounds.

****Cartoon violence. A yellow, non-realistic, humorous, humanistic icon is in no way similar to any aspect of the world I know. Probably quite a bad influence on the youth, but at least they know it’s not real. Then again, my youngest believed visiting Disneyland would result in her being transported into an actual cartoon where everything and everyone would look like they do in the animations, so can I really assert non-realistic violence is safe?