Of all the animals of prey, man is the only sociable one.
Every one of us preys upon his neighbour, and yet we herd together.
The Beggar's Opera: John Gay

Tuesday 30 May 2023

Nuclear, nucular or just unclear?

Three characters in the thriller I watched last night were discussing a mission: the first described how they would approach the ‘nucular’ missiles and the second answered with a point about their ‘nuclear’ warheads, while the third simply talked about the ‘nukes’ (which was a bit of a cop-out if you ask me).

I might not have noticed had I not been listening to BBC sounds last week and happened upon a drama in which the heroine - a doctor - repeatedly used the pronunciation ‘nuculus’ when referring to the nucleus accumbens in the brain (as ‘the Nucleus Accumbens’ was the title and theme of the episode, she did this quite a lot). This pronunciation wasn't, as it turns out, simply put on for the role; astonishingly - for purists at least - the same actress was subsequently chosen to narrate a docu-drama about the nuclear - ‘nucular’ - disaster at Fukushima.

In both cases, I found myself wondering what happened behind the scenes. Each production presumably has scriptwriters, editors and directors, all of whom might surely be expected to point out such a glaring mispronunciation. Were they too much in awe of the actors to criticise, I wonder, or did they fear it might be seen as some kind of discrimination? Or maybe, as I have found in the classroom, an habitual employer of ‘nucular’ is unwilling or unable to change however many times you ask.

Experience suggests that it is more common in people with dyslexia, which is understandable, but one would expect some outside input if they persist in using it in a professional context. Some very unexpected people do it; I’ve encountered it from highly intelligent A level Physics candidates (anecdotal evidence even implicates Marcus de Sautoy, occasional broadcaster and Oxford Simonyi Professor for the Public Advancement of Science) and I have heard it used several times in TV documentary programmes over the past few years including - again surprisingly - one on submarines and another on the Cold War.

There are times when it starts to feel like a form of gaslighting, or possibly one of the Asch conformity experiments; I know that my version is the correct one, but so after so many repetitions of the other, I can feel myself starting to question it. The dictionaries are reassuringly unanimous, so it isn’t a valid alternative (in any case, given the spelling, it would be hard to see any justification for that hypothesis); how, then, does it find its way into so many broadcasts?

One explanation might be that the production team themselves pronounce it that way - in which case the rot has set in deeper than I thought - or have heard it mispronounced so often that they don’t notice it; in any case, I can’t dismiss the possibility that I am in a pedantic minority and nobody else is bothered by the inaccuracy. According to some sources, George W Bush pronounced it correctly until he began his White House campaign, at which point he adopted ‘nucular’ to sound more folksy and approachable (although I just found it terrifying that he said it like that and they still put him in charge of the things).

I suppose there, is, at least, an upside to all of this; if, back in the days of ‘Protect and Survive’, someone had told me that, forty years later, I’d be bothered by the way people pronounce ‘nuclear weapons’ rather than dealing with their aftermath, I’d probably have been profoundly grateful for such a trivial preoccupation.

Saturday 27 May 2023

A Moment in Time

 How long does a moment last?

No, it’s not the opening of a romantic novel or a prompt for mindfulness meditation; I’ve been wondering because of the recent news coverage of the e-bike crash in Cardiff. 

Numerous news outlets accompanied CCTV footage of the bike being followed by a police van with the statement that it was filmed ‘moments’ before the collision, even though the actual crash site was half a mile away and the published timelines suggest an elapsed time of roughly 90 seconds to two minutes - long enough for the riders to evade the police by passing through pedestrian-only access to another street where the van could not follow.

Oddly enough, a ‘moment’ was once formally recognised as one-fortieth of a solar hour, which averages out at 90 seconds (medieval Europeans, following the practice of Ancient Rome, divided the time between sunrise and sunset to give 12 hours, the length of which varied according to the season). The advent of mechanical clocks made the unit obsolete but the word endured, if in a more flexible sense.

These days, you are most likely to encounter it in phrases like “take a moment to consider...”, “the moment of truth” or “he hesitated for a moment on the edge...” and in the word ‘momentary’; substitute ‘90 seconds’ in any of these and they lose their implied fleeting nature (this also seems as good a place as any to cite the somewhat disturbing landing announcement from USA airline pilots; “We expect to be on the ground momentarily”).

Consciously or not, I suspect that most viewers or readers would understand from today’s usage that ‘moments’ implies a matter of seconds, not a minute and a half or more, yet multiple news reports - including the BBC TV news at 6 and 10 - persisted in using the word to accompany the images, effectively suggesting that the police van was in close proximity to the bike when the fatalities occurred (interestingly, the Mail altered it to ‘minutes’ some time after publication). There have been other subtle linguistic variations too; the words ‘chased’ and ‘pursued’ appear in most sources, while a relative few have gone with ‘followed’ and ‘tailed’ (surely more accurate, given the lack of lights and sirens in the broadcast clips).

It’s often hard to tell whether the wording of reports is original or the result of the common ‘churnalism’ method of recycling the output of other news sources. Even allowing for this, the prevalence of words like ‘chase’ and ‘pursuit’ suggests there may be an agenda at work, particularly given the widespread media use of a photo from 2016 showing the boys as young children (and, gruesomely, bearing more than a passing resemblance to the widely published picture of the two 10-year-old girls whose murders in Soham sparked a massive outpouring of national grief in 2002) rather than their more up-to-date images, artfully costumed and posed to suggest gangland culture.

It’s fair to say that Britain’s police as a whole have not exactly covered themselves in glory recently (although, as with any public institution - including my own field, education  - I feel one should say a word on behalf of the many decent and conscientious souls trying to do a good job amid the furore) and it would appear that the media have decided upon a role as self-appointed instruments of retribution, spurred on, in some cases, by a spurious conflation of police and government. Since the general public are often inclined to emote first and ask questions later (if at all), this strikes me as intentionally playing with fire.

It’s a known fact that hot summers produce civil unrest and we have a population smarting under the legacy of lockdown and the high cost of living and primed by constant provocation and grievance-mongering in the media - social and otherwise. Just at the point when we need to be able to call on a strong force to protect law and order (or life and property), there seems to be a concerted effort at work to undermine the last shreds of authority vested in the police - an effort on the part of the very (and possibly only) organisations with a great deal to gain in the event of mass disorder.

Sunday 14 May 2023

Divided by a Common Language

“For my part, I prefer aliens that look alien. Then when they ritually eat their first-born or turn arthropod halfway through their life-cycle, it isn’t so much of a shock.” (Mary Gentle: ‘Golden Witchbreed’)

Citizens of the United States frequently present us with a similar problem, albeit on a smaller scale. They look and dress like us, they speak our language (more or less) and their customs and manners aren’t so far away from ours, and then they suddenly turn round and serve you a cup of lukewarm water with a tea-bag on the side.

Just how far removed we are, at least as far as their media are concerned, was recently shown by the New York Times’ confident assertion that, on the day of the coronation, Royalist Britons had ‘dined on scones, scotch eggs and breakfast pie’ and ‘sipped tea or drinks like Buck’s Fizzes, a non-alcoholic version of a mimosa’. The NYT has form in this area; it’s not so long since it claimed that we were living ‘in swamps’ on porridge and mutton, an assertion so preposterous that it could only be the result of a bizarre folie à deux on the part of the publication and its readership.

There’s misinformation on both sides of the Atlantic, of course, and, for all we think we know about them, some of their habits seem downright baffling - take, for instance, the mystery of curtains. I hate to say it, but it’s become something of an obsession; I find myself repeatedly distracted during a film or television drama by curtains left wide open at night even when the characters are engaged in amatory or nefarious activities in brightly-lit rooms, heedless of curious passers-by (or assassins, depending on the plot).

Of course, in general we know far more about them than they do about us thanks to the magic of television and film (as well as the American novelists widely read in the UK). Some of this is due to the relative scale of output but there is also an element of wilful parochialism which finds its way into the most trivial of settings; one of the funniest things about Roland Emmerich’s ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ was the contrast between the well-groomed American meteorologists striding through shiny hi-tech offices and their sepia-tinted British counterparts huddled round outdated computers in a cramped and scruffy bunker.

A comment on a recent post reminded me that this pro-USA depiction extends into more solemn settings, citing the film ‘U-571’, which shamelessly rewrote history to credit the Americans with the capture of an Enigma cipher machine. The comment led me to the words of the film’s screenwriter, who, years afterwards, admitted that he had ‘distorted history’ and ‘would not do it again’:

"It was a distortion...a mercenary decision...to create this parallel history in order to drive the film for an American audience.” 

It’s a telling quote, an explicit admission that, while the USA is home to many rational and objective souls, a significant proportion of supposed adults of voting age need to have past events rewritten and tailored to their own interests in order to capture their attention, and it lends a worrying aspect to Biden’s evident anti-British bias; a powerful but childishly self-centered nation so beset with misinformation about us, both past and present, is a dangerous beast to have loose in the world.

Hands Off My Saucepan!

If you have watched television news in the past few weeks, you have probably heard the UK  entry for the Eurovision Song Contest: an upbeat number from one Mae Muller (who, oddly for someone representing the United Kingdom, has apparently tweeted that she hates Britain):

Eurovision songs tend to the musically predictable but this one has more than the usual touch of comforting familiarity, for some at least. The first time my 85-year-old mother heard the chorus, she exclaimed ‘But I know this!’ and began singing virtually the same tune in Welsh. 

It’s familiar for me too, of course; I don’t speak the language but many of my family do and I’ve heard ‘sosban fach’ (‘Little Saucepan’) sung for as long as I can remember. For many people of Welsh descent, it is, to use my mother’s phrase, “in with the bricks”.

See what you think (I’ve used a modern version for better comparison):

It seems peculiar, but there seems to be nothing linking the two online (unless it’s on Twitter, which remains firmly outside my ken). Admittedly the scale only permits a certain number of musical combinations and similarities do arise -  my old music teacher would blend the Hallelujah Chorus with ‘Yes, we have no bananas’ as an illustration’ - but this does seem more than a coincidental resemblance.

Do you think it counts as cultural appropriation?

Saturday 13 May 2023

You Heard It Here First

Reflecting further on the mean-spirited carping about the royal family’s balcony appearance (previous post), I wonder whether some commentators, at least, were all geared up to denounce what happened in the Abbey for being too white or male but found themselves instead watching a ceremony which did a pretty good job of ticking diversity boxes, leaving them casting around elsewhere for a suitable cause of outrage and, bizarrely, landing on the heinous crime of a family in resembling each other and failing to marry suitably diverse partners several decades ago.

Away from the furore - and let’s now get as far away from it as possible - the ceremony actually showed how far we have come since the last coronation, where female participants, with one obvious exception, generally stood around looking decorative. This time, with little prior fanfare or fuss, centuries of tradition were put aside, not least with the involvement of female bishops, in ways which would have had our ancestors gaping in astonishment.

Along with Baroness Amos proclaiming the monarch, Penny Mordaunt’s turn as the Lady of the Lake and the heart-warming appearance of Floella Benjamin, splendidly bejewelled and ermine-draped as if equipped from the world’s best dressing-up box, the coronation ceremony brought us the joyous spectacle of Princess Anne striding out, in the words of the Times’ Janice Taylor, like ‘a swashbuckling lady pirate’ in a plumed hat and floor-length velvet cape under which, in anticipation of the equestrian duties to follow, she wore uniform riding trousers and a business-like pair of boots.

I have to admit that it was more than a little gratifying to see that a post I wrote some years ago was actually pretty near the mark:

Back in the 1970s, when I was a child, princesses came in two varieties. There were the fairy-tale ones in books, whose royal status unaccountably enabled them to spin frogs into gold or identify stray vegetables in their bedding, and then there was the real-life home-grown version, an energetic outdoor type with a no-nonsense style and an HGV licence who was not above telling intrusive photographers to "Naff awf!" 

Even her wedding, that ultimate opportunity for frills, furbelows and fantasy trimmings, was relatively devoid of story-book razzmatazz; as she walked up the aisle to the sound of trumpets, it would not have been a surprise to learn that, under the severe lines of her dress, she was wearing comfortable boots and possibly even a pair of jodhpurs. 

It is one of the most touching aspects of the whole occasion that the King asked his sister to hold the office of Gold Stick in Waiting, a position which, behind all the Tudor heraldic weirdness, effectively makes her his official bodyguard. It’s the ultimate in asking someone to cover your back - quite literally - and who better to do so than a woman who, once upon a time, responded to an attempted armed kidnapping by sitting tight and telling her would-be abductor “Not bloody likely!”?

Update: it is somewhat galling - or alternatively further proof of my prescience - to find that the Daily Mail has, this morning, published an article on HRH’s popularity with Gen Z:


Thursday 11 May 2023

Sticks and Stones

Now the dust is settling after the coronation, the papers are getting worked up over the 4,165 complaints received by Ofcom about Adjoa Andoh’s on-air description of the group on Buckingham Palace balcony as ‘terribly white’. The remark was undoubtedly crass, not to mention illogical - this is, after all the royal family - but is it really as newsworthy as all that?

Some of the uproar must be due to context; in recent years, the phrase ‘hideously white’ has been used by, among others, Greg Dyke (on the BBC), Andrew Lloyd Webber (on British theatre) and Rupa Huq (on pretty much everything else). That ‘terribly’ - even if it were intended primarily as a quantifier - put Andoh’s remark in the same territory and was bound to raise a few hackles as a result, while Paddy O’Connell effectively poured petrol on the flames with his response to her on his Radio 4 programme - ‘you have nothing to apologise for’, ‘you haven’t upset anyone’.

While I can see why people might, in a kind of ‘sauce for the gander’ way, want to join in the condemnation, there is surely little to be gained in responding with the same kind of thin-skinned, prickly outrage we deplore in today’s student culture and among the easily - or professionally - offended. In this case, with a certain element of do-as-you-would-be-done-by, I’m willing to give her the benefit of the doubt and believe that, caught up in the occasion, she spoke without considering how her comment would sound to viewers who had tuned in to watch the coronation.

It may be a telling indication of her thought processes - in fact, I’d be surprised if it wasn’t. Adjoa Andoh owes the spectacular good looks which kick-started a long career in the public eye to her dual British and Ghanaian heritage, so, for her, family gatherings will naturally be associated with a mixture of ethnicity. To that, one can add a lifetime spent in theatrical or television circles and in the capital, where multiculturalism is the order of the day and activism is generally seen as a good career move. When you have a hammer, as they say, everything looks like a nail; while the ethnicity of the various participants in the ceremony was clearly at the forefront of Andoh’s perception, to many others (fifty-somethings, at least) the most remarkable thing about the sceptre bearer was probably not that she is black but that - wonderfully! - she is Floella Benjamin from ‘Play School’.

Andoh’s presence on screen during the ITV coronation coverage was presumably entirely due to her role as an Georgian aristocrat in a newly-released Netflix costume drama - we are, in effect, back to the blending of artifice and reality (see previous post). She was hired for her celebrity status, not to provide in-depth analysis or background knowledge; her mistake here was failing to distinguish between the people associated with the King’s public position and a group largely composed of his close blood-relatives (who, unsurprisingly, are the same colour as he is) and, crucially, expressing this in potentially derogatory terms.

There’s a danger that, like over-tired toddlers after a party, some people are seizing on the opportunity to make a disproportionate fuss in order to fill the gap left when the excitement dies down. Either she intended to provoke, in which case the less media follow-up the better, or she spoke in haste and unwisely and genuinely regrets her words. It is human to err, and we’ve all made ill-considered or badly phrased remarks at times; I don’t necessarily agree with O’Connell but now, surely, it would be a good thing for people to accept it as such and move on.

Monday 8 May 2023

Trial by Netflix

The 2022 Netflix series ‘Hollywood’, a work of fiction set in the 1950s, centres around the making of a film about a (real) British actress, Peg Entwistle, who committed suicide by throwing herself from the top of the famous ‘Hollywood’ sign in 1932. 

In the series, the part of Peg in the film is initially intended to be played by a white woman, reflecting her Welsh origins. However, a talented black actress impresses the production team and, in the face of strong opposition from the public and the studio establishment, the decision is taken to cast her in the title role - a demonstration that they are casting based on talent rather than skin colour (well, that and her being the director’s girlfriend).

So far so good; however, things now start to get complicated. Firstly, the production team decide there is a problem with the character’s name, which will also be the title of the film; ‘Peg’ (a childhood nickname taken from an Irish play) ‘sounds too white’, so they change it to ‘Meg’. Then, as filming gets under way, some of the characters start to question whether it is right for Hollywood’s first black leading lady to play a character so crushed by despair that she kills herself; this, they say, would imply weakness and reflect badly on black women in general. As a result, an emotional final scene is added in which she is persuaded to climb down from the sign and survives.

There’s a story there, but it’s not necessarily the one Netflix originally set out to tell. The series reveals a great deal about the unjust treatment of minority groups in 1950s Hollywood (although it seems to me that, if you are demanding equality of opportunity, it undermines your cause somewhat if the first thing you do when you get it is embark on a campaign of special pleading) but much, much more about Netflix screenwriters and their attitude to the facts behind the story; the writers of ‘Hollywood’ have their characters comment on many issues but not one of the fictional team ever asks whether it is really appropriate to make such drastic alterations to the life story of a real person or considers the effect on her living relatives.

We’ve become accustomed to Netflix ensuring that the facts don’t get in the way of a good story; from the intrusive fabrications of ‘The Crown’ to the character assassination of Rachel Williams, friend and victim of the fraudster Anna Sorokin (aka Delvey). Under the strapline ‘based on a true story’, real events and sensational invention are seamlessly blended until many viewers are unable to separate fact from injurious fiction, as a quick trawl of reader comments on royal news stories will easily demonstrate (I suppose this is mainly due to a desire to create ratings-boosting drama in ‘The Crown’, but knowing that Meghan and Harry are on the Netflix payroll does lend it a rather sinister aspect).

It’s nothing new, of course; real events have been fictionalised for as long as people have been telling stories, although the visual element gives film and television an unprecedented spurious authenticity - our monkey brains still want to believe the evidence of our eyes. Unfortunately, such distortion is capable of doing a great deal of harm, as is the case with the recent film ‘No Limit’, which claims to be inspired by a real-life free diver, Audrey Mestre, who drowned when her ascent equipment failed. The dramatic potential of the true story was not enough for the film-makers, who, presumably in script conferences and discussions similar to those portrayed in ‘Hollywood’, decided to imply that their heroine’s death was the result of deliberate sabotage by her husband.

While the film begins with a disclaimer saying that it is ‘a work of fiction’ and that any resemblance to real people is ‘coincidental’, there is also a statement that it is ‘inspired by real events’ and, at the end, a photograph of Audrey Mestre appears on screen along with an account of her death (all according to news reports; I haven’t watched it). Unsurprisingly, Mestre’s widower is now taking Netflix to court and speaking publicly about the distress this film has caused to him and to his wife’s family by the implied misrepresentation of their relationship and the suggestion that he was the cause of her death.

This willingness to distort true events and the lives of real people for gain implies a breathtakingly level of arrogance on the part of the writers at Netflix and those who approve their  projects. It would be interesting to know how much thought is given to the people whose actions, words and relationships they are misrepresenting; whether they are aware of the potential damage but deliberately choose to continue despite the harm they may cause or whether, like their fictional ‘Hollywood’ counterparts, they are happy to rewrite history, apparently oblivious to  the fact that they are exposing real human beings to the judgement of a misinformed mob.

Friday 5 May 2023

Tactical Voting and the Electoral Dark Arts

The news in the Times this week that Labour had been sending ‘campaign improvement boards’ - groups of ‘experts’ from headquarters to check up on and advise local party organisations ahead of these elections - didn’t come as any surprise, given my experience of student politics in in the 1980s.

Back then, we sat at the feet of officials sent out by the Labour Party’s youth wing to to explain to us exactly how to set up tactical voting for student union elections (a complicated business before the widespread availability of personal computers to do the number-crunching) and just how far a smear campaign could go without breaking any rules.

Those of us who expressed concern about some of the methods being advocated in the workshops were offered plenty of reassurance; our actions might be morally dubious, they said, but when faced with the urgent necessity of removing Margaret Thatcher and preventing the Tories damaging the country further, we were acting in the greater good, the end clearly justifying the means.

IThis was in the days of Red Wedge, where the purchase of a concert ticket automatically enrolled you in the Labour Party; this was hailed as a great success, although, in fact, it was the Party’s subsequent claim that the rapid and vast increase in membership was evidence that the people were spontaneously turning against Thatcher which put the final nail in the coffin of my faith in it as an institution.

Those who were less hampered by moral scruples and stuck with the Party despite the dishonesty and the prevalence of what later came to be known as ‘spin’, must, by my reckoning, be old enough to be in senior positions by now either at a local level or as part of the higher structure; perhaps some of them may even be among the visiting improvement board members who advised the local parties this time round, still peddling their strategies to do down their opposition at all costs.

Back in the days of a two party system, there was a simple progression; in the common version of an often misquoted (and frequently mis-attributed) saying, ‘if you are not a socialist at 20, you have no heart: if you are still a socialist at 40, you have no head’. These days, when misguided and self-indulgent youth is prolonged beyond all previous limits, many more former Red Wedge supporters must have found a political home in the Liberal Democrats.

There is certainly an air of familiarity in Ed Davey’s complacent acknowledgement that tactical voting could work in the next election, along with the local leaflet his party sent out some weeks ago recommending applying for a postal vote to bypass the photo ID requirement at the polling station. Where the Lib Dems go, the other parties will doubtless follow to avoid being placed at a disadvantage.

It seems odd (but somehow inevitable) that, with more knowledge at our fingertips than ever before, we are at risk of being reduced to a nation of low information voters (see previous post), our votes - the precious reward of years of campaigning and struggle by our ancestors, male and female - no longer truly our own but simply fodder for the ever more complicated tactical machinations of our political masters.

(A tip of the tricorn to AK Haart and the much more elegantly laconic post which inspired this ramble: https://akhaart.blogspot.com/2023/05/turned-away.html)


Monday 1 May 2023

Pin the Tail on the Donkey

 With less than three days to go until the Council elections, I have to admit to being rather baffled.

I’ve searched the internet and scoured the local news websites but, for all intents and purposes, our independent candidate doesn’t exist. He’s named in the official lists, of course, but apart from that, there is nothing out there to indicate his policies and principles.

Since I, like many others, am thoroughly disgusted with party politics, his independent status should make him an appealing option, but what if he’s passionately committed to meat-free council catering or low traffic neighbourhoods? That appears to be the case for those independent candidates who, in the local paper’s cursory and county-wide rundown of party policies, banded together to explain how they aligned with the Greens on certain issues but, as our candidate wasn’t one of them, there’s no way of telling.

As for leaflets, we’ve had one from the Conservatives and two from the Lib Dems, all mainly telling us how the other parties have got it wrong (the Lib Dems, with a certain cavalier attitude to veracity, state that the requirement to show photo ID is “part of a Conservative government plan to make it harder for people to exercise their right to vote”). The local community magazine is no help - although it’s good to know that the WI are holding a coronation-themed cake sale on Friday - and the nearest thing I’ve found online is a supporters’ forum for the local football club which is trying, with limited success, to ascertain what each candidate thinks about their plans for a new stand.

It seems incredible that, in a nominal democracy, voting in local elections can be a matter of either blind party loyalty or selecting - apologies to the gentleman concerned - a pig in a poke. If our political masters really supported our right to choose those acting on our behalf, at the very least one would expect the Council website, along with the required details of the candidates’ proposers and agents, to include a short statement from each candidate enumerating his or her priorities and intentions; since they took the trouble to write and tell us we’d need photo ID to vote, they could even have printed the statements on the back of the letter.

With virtually no information on which to base the decision, it becomes a random choice on a par with a blindfold guessing game or a once-a-year-punter’s bet on the Grand National - except that there’s no big payout if you win and the horse won’t have a say in how local services are run for the next four years. Still, to be cynical, it probably won’t make much difference in the long run: as the world-weary Polish saying on elections has it, ‘Same trough, new pigs’.

Update: further digging in the Council archives has revealed that he stood (unsuccessfully) for election in a nearby local ward in 2016; he was representing UKIP then, so I’m guessing it’s a ‘no’ on the vegan dinners and the road-blocks.