Monthly Archives: February 2013

Pots and Kettles

Copyright: Jeff Turner

Last week I was bemoaning sloppy language. This week it’s sloppy reading. Or, to be more accurate, reading a watered down, slanted impression of what someone else has written, and taking it as fact. If you want to criticise Hilary Mantel for goodness sake read what she actually wrote, not what the tabloids and others say that she wrote.

I blame the press but I also blame our general laziness; I include myself of course. A nice bit of gossip, a slice of sensation is easy to read and hard to resist, unless you are very, very noble or perhaps a tad po-faced. Show me the Guardian and Times reader who has never, ever, not even once taken a quick peek at the Mail or the Express. Perhaps not the Sun, that might be a step too far.

The ‘Hilary Mantel v. Katherine Middleton’ story is a case in point. I was going to say ‘debate’ but it’s not a debate, is it. (Rhetorical question, spellcheck, no need for a question mark.) It’s a perfect example of the meaning of the word ‘uninformed’. Relatively few people read The London Review of Books so it would be unfair to expect that they would have read the whole article in full. Nevertheless, it does behove (lovely word) the press to report accurately and in a balanced manner, if they are going to report at all. As to David Cameron wading in – he obviously hadn’t a clue what he was talking about. No surprise there then.

I can see no reason why certain journalists would bother to comment on the Mantel article except to seize upon her so-called criticism of ‘our Kate.’ Leaving aside that it’s a free country where people are still allowed to express an opinion, a careful reading shows that, if anything, Kate is treated more sympathetically than critically. Yes Mantel uses the words ‘jointed doll’ but what comes before that? The sentence reads ‘… I saw Kate becoming a jointed doll’ and further along “a shop-window mannequin, with no personality of her own, entirely defined by what she wore.’ The italics are mine. And the question is of course, who is defining her. Not Kate herself. The press and we readers.

I’m not proposing to go through the whole article. However, it’s worth pointing out that while it runs to over 5,500 words direct references to Kate Middleton are minimal. More to the point the so-called criticism of Kate is not personal, nor indeed are any of the individuals mentioned treated to the sort of outright tearing of limb from limb so often meted out by the press. The bulk of the article is a thoughtful and erudite examination of monarchy in a historical context and their understandable fixation on the need to produce heirs. Together with a measured, fascinating analysis of our continuing obsession with them.

While at times very funny, overall I find it enlightening, thought provoking and sympathetic. Yes, she is critical and expresses strong opinions but the real criticism is for the way the monarchy is presented to us.

“It may be that the whole phenomenon of monarchy is irrational, but that doesn’t mean that when we look at it we should behave like spectators at Bedlam. Cheerful curiosity can easily become cruelty. It can easily become fatal. We don’t cut off the heads of royal ladies these days, but we do sacrifice them, and we did memorably drive one to destruction a scant generation ago. History makes fools of us, makes puppets of us, often enough. But it doesn’t have to repeat itself. In the current case, much lies within our control. I’m not asking for censorship. I’m not asking for pious humbug and smarmy reverence. I’m asking us to back off and not be brutes.”

That is a direct quote from the concluding paragraph of the article. It certainly gives the lie to the claim of a ‘venomous attack’ as stated in the Mail.

When it comes to criticism of the royals, the Mail is no slouch itself. In the very week that it attacked Mantel it treated us to a lengthy article on how the Middleton family are exploiting poor Mexican workers paying them ‘sometimes less than 10p an hour’ to make a product that ‘sells for £12.99.’ Full of evocative language and photographs it nevertheless takes care to say that the Middletons are profiting ‘albeit inadvertently’ from the labours of these poor overseas workers. Thus covering themselves from being sued. Though, if the Middletons are indeed unaware of the exploitation, wouldn’t it be better to draw it to their attention privately instead of splashing it all over the papers. But what would be the point of that?  The words ‘pot’ and ‘kettle’ spring to mind. And how!

Hilary Mantel’s article ‘Royal Bodies’ was the basis of a lecture, organised by the London Review of Books, and delivered at the British Library.  Later published in the Review. I urge you to read it if you can, it’s online. For excellent and more in-depth analysis read Hadley Freeman’s piece in the Guardian, Gaby Wood in The Telegraph and Google ‘Hilary Mantel’ for a plethora of information, biased and unbiased. I should have realised that many others have written and tweeted about this, but it’s been a heavy week and I’ve only just found time to read the full article and catch up with the various commentaries.

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Comes with Custard …


A couple of weeks ago, during a pleasant weekend in the country, my friends took me to one of those garden-centre-come-overpriced gift-shop-come-expensive-interior-design–come-a-bit-of-everything sort of places – I believe the correct name is shopping village. (Who thought that one up?) In this shopping so-called village there were two restaurants, both heaving. When we finally got to sit down in one we ordered a perfectly adequate meal of the baked-potato-with-toppings and soup-and-a-roll variety. Not a Michelin star in sight; that was fine. We weren’t expecting gourmet.

What wasn’t fine was the sheer effrontery of the place. When it was time to choose a pudding (I will not call it a dessert in this context) each of the three items on the menu stated  - and I quote – ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream’. I’m not sure what prompted me to check, apart from my suspicious nature or perhaps my passion for words and the English language. For whatever reason, I asked the waiter to confirm that these items came as part of the pudding.

‘Oh no,’ I was told. ‘They are extras.’

‘But it says ‘comes with,’ I protested. ‘That means they are part of the dish.’

‘Oh no,’ he repeated, ‘you have to pay extra.’

‘It says,’ I insisted ‘comes with custard, cream or ice cream.’

‘It does come with them, ‘ he answered, ‘but you have to pay for them.’

Arguing was pointless since he didn’t get the point. I gave up. I did, however, draw the offending text to the attention of the owner, assuming it was some sort of typo. He didn’t exactly apologise just acknowledged my comment and thanked me in a lukewarm sort of way. Which was somewhat cancelled out when he sauntered up to our table and said that I was the first person who had remarked on the wording in eight years. Any hopes of a goodwill gesture – ‘so sorry, have the custard/cream/ice cream on us’ was obviously out of the question.

Eight years! Jeez! He’d been getting away with that for eight years. At least. If this sounds a bit of an extreme reaction on my part, let me tell you there was more. The pudding selection consisted of three items on the menu. With prices. Plus a selection of cakes not on the menu but displayed in a case. With no prices. The bill wasn’t itemised. How did you know that your bill was accurate? You didn’t. Bad as that is from a trading standards perspective, the thing that bothers me just as much is the general ignorance about the use of English.

These days, while there are still many people who care passionately about the use of language, there are far more who don’t. Some from indifference. Even more through no fault of their own but rather as a result of failures in our system of education. So, why should any of them care anyway? What does it matter after all? It matters. Language is constantly evolving, which is a good thing. But that’s not what I’m talking about here. What I’m talking about here is clear communication. That’s what grammar is all about. Clarity. The placement of a comma affects the entire meaning of a sentence. Sloppy language can signal sloppy thinking. It could lose you a job or, in the case of my grammatically challenged restaurant owner, a visit from the trading standards officer.

There are many great books on the subject. Just to cite a few examples there is the splendid Eats, Shoots and Leaves as well as Troublesome Words and my bible, English Today, by the redoubtable Ronald Ridout.


Posted in Blog, English, Food, Restaurants, Uncategorized, Words, Writing, Writing | Tagged , , , , | 2 Comments

Of rings, roses and jumping on bandwagons

It’s nearly Saint Valentine’s day. The advertising industry is adept at leaping on to bandwagons. So I thought I’d take the lazy way out this week and link to some Valentine themed commercials. I really wanted weird and funny ones but they were difficult to find. I’m obviously looking at the wrong sites.

There were plenty of rather rude ones and misogynous ones. I ruled these out, along with anything too soupy. Also, the few rather odd or funny ones just weren’t that good. I’ve chosen one clever one from Google, even if it is old and a bit soupy at the end. A rather sweet Indian one, advertising eBay, and a very romantic one from Cartier - with far too many roses.

The Cartier one is in there despite all the roses and its ‘boy meets girl’ and ‘it will be all right in the end’ message. Why? Because Cartier are brilliant at making long commercials that tell stories. The best commercials always tell a story, even if there are no words.  Such as in the exquisite L’Odyssée that I posted on this blog some months ago.

And, call me cynical, but Im sure that ring helped!

P.S. I would like to have embedded the videos. I managed it last week. I did exactly the same thing this week but all I got were strings of URLs. And wasted two expletive hours trying to sort it out. And eventually gave up and went with links. Grrrrr.

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The Joy of Travel

No. 3  Greater Anglia Trains – the elusive plug

I don’t know what’s so great about them. They have trains, I suppose. They move, I guess. We left on time.  There were seats.  That’s the good bit. Another good bit is that, unlike South West Trains, they did have Wi-Fi but then I was in First Class and I’d have thought them pretty rubbish if they didn’t. * The seats were comfortable. A bit slopey, so probably not brilliant if you had a bad back, but you can’t have everything. We got free coffee – big deal.  But still. I’d paid a pittance for my ticket – non-peak in railway language – but I would have not been a happy bunny if I’d paid the £100 + that’s the price on some journeys.

So, given that there were some good things, quite a lot of good things in fact, what’s my beef? Well it’s this. If you’ve read my first Joy of Travel post, about South West trains you’ll have seen that, since I was restricted to only a handful of carriages and it was a Friday, I had reserved a seat. Only to arrive and be told that South West Trains ‘don’t do reservations.’ Ye God’s and little fishes. Why then did you ask on the booking form not only did I want to reserve but go into great detail as to where I wanted to face, whether I wanted to sit by a window and if I wanted a table?

Exactly the same thing has happened with the glorious Greater Anglia. Do I want to reserve? Yes. Do I want a table? Yes. Do I want to be near a window and a plug? Yes. So I arrive. Yes, the seat is facing. Yes it’s by a window. No it’s not the big table I wanted. No there’s no reserved sticker on it. And …. where’s the plug? The whole point of booking first class and bringing the computer is that I want to work. It’s a two-hour journey. My battery won’t last the full two hours, and even if I manage to eek it out, there’s the journey back.

It wasn’t just me. A bunch of us had been hunting under tables, pulling back curtains, feeling behind seats in a strange parody of ‘hunt the thimble’. All in search of the elusive plugs. No plugs. When the ticket collector came round I asked him why they were missing. You can guess the answer, can’t you? Yes indeed. ‘Greater Anglia Trains don’t do plugs.’  It seems it’s not really their fault (oh really!)  It’s the fault of The Trainline for not differentiating between the different train companies.  I don’t know whether or not it’s up to them to ferret around asking who has plugs and who hasn’t. Or who does Wi-Fi and who doesn’t ? Who ‘does reservations’ and who doesn’t?

Whoever it is, someone needs to get their act together. It’s not rocket science. Nearly everyone will have some form of electronic device on a train these days, whether it’s a tablet, computer or phone. Some people more sophisticated than me may have some thingy or other that charges the battery without the need of a plug. But there are thousands of us who haven’t. When I am asked if I want a plug, I assume there will be a plug. It’s like going into the bank and being asked if you want twenties or tens and then being told ‘we don’t do twenties and tens’. Or asking for cod at the Fish Counter at Sainsburys and finding the ‘we don’t do fish.’ Well I’m on the train now, and it’s moving so perhaps I should count my blessings and at least be thankful that while GEA don’t do plugs, they do at least do trains.

* I spoke too soon. Halfway into the journey the Wi-Fi gave up the ghost. And now I’m on the way back – no Wi-Fi.  Bummer. Imagine if I’d paid full price for my ticket. I really would be steaming. But I didn’t. So I’m just mildly annoyed.

Posted in Blog, Trains, Travel, Wi-Fi | Tagged , , , | 2 Comments