Monday, 29 July 2019

Grammar Rules

There’s more to good writing than avoiding common mistakes. Many people think that grammar consists of negative rules. It doesn’t, but it’s as well to conform to the rules most people know – mainly because if you break them, “people will write in”.

There’s a lot of writing advice on the internet – much of it can be ignored.

Avoid Alliteration Always. Not always – it can be effective: “I dodge your dawdling and aspire to avoid your toes” writes a wheelchair user. It’s unconscious rhyming that makes me flinch: “She was told to hold the item of old rolled gold.”

Avoid clichés like the plague. If you must use them, get them right. Don’t confuse “silver bullet” with “smoking gun”.

Ignore the people who tell you to “Take a cliché and give it a twist!”.
Use the vernacular. That means everyday speech. Avoid current slang your readers may not understand, but there’s no need to stick to the style of a university essay or company report. Write as you speak.

Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary. Parentheses are often necessary (and useful), just don’t shove in a long parenthesis between parts of the verb, or between subject and object.

It is wrong to ever split an infinitive. Sometimes there’s just nowhere else for the adverb to easily go. Are you going awkwardly to avoid the problem? Sometimes avoiding the split makes for an uglier – or even ambiguous – result. For many, though, avoiding split infinitives is the Number One grammar “thou shalt not”, so it’s better to abide by it. Why not remove the adverb altogether?

Never use a preposition to end a sentence with. Maybe not “never”, but try to avoid doing so. Eschew this kind of thing: Many more people are doing research on not only their condition or disorder, but also the people whom they seek treatment for it from. ( ...the people from whom they seek the necessary treatment.)

Foreign words and phrases are not de rigueur. If you must use them, get them right. But not everyone speaks a European language – try to find an English equivalent for louche, macho or Zeitgeist.

One should never generalise. It’s a good idea to be specific, rather than general. “Darcy leaned on the carved wooden Tudor mantelpiece while Elizabeth reclined on a brocade-covered Chippendale chaise longue”, rather than “the room was luxuriously furnished in sumptuous materials”.

Never use an Oxford comma. I think Jacob Rees-Mogg is trying to warn us against Oxford commas – a comma before an and. Sometimes you need a comma before an and, and sometimes you don’t. And nobody fussed about "Oxford commas" before Lynne Truss discussed them Eats, Shoots and Leaves (published 2003).

Much more pedantry in my book A Short Guide to Writing Well.

Thursday, 25 July 2019

Received Ideas about Etymology in Quotes 14

Beard the lion in his den: This phrase developed partly from the idea of being daring enough to take a lion by the beard and partly from the use of beard as a verb to mean ‘face’, i.e. to face a lion in his den. (Farlex Partner Idioms Dictionary. Or is it from the Bible: Samuel 17:34-36 And David said unto Saul, Thy servant kept his father's sheep, and there came a lion, and a bear, and took a lamb out of the flock: And I went out after him, and smote him, and delivered it out of his mouth: and when he arose against me, I caught him by his beard, and smote him, and slew him.)

Odds and ends: It's derived from the dialectal 'ords and ends', with 'ord' meaning 'point' or 'beginning', and just means 'miscellaneous things'.

An Ice Cream served in a cone with a Flake 99 is the UK's favourite ice cream. In the days of the monarchy in Italy the King had an elite guard consisting of 99 soldiers. Subsequently anything really special or first class was known as "99". (Web)

Since everyone was expected to know how to make Boston baked beans, today we also have the idiom to not know beans about. (

Originally, the wooden spoon was the "prize" awarded to the candidate who obtained the fewest marks in the Mathematics Tripos at Cambridge University, yet still passed with honours. Only later, when the term got wider use, did it come to mean failure or the lowest score of all; in its original usage, it was quite possible to get an (ordinary) degree with a lower mark than the student with the wooden spoon. (RM)

It's a bit like how the phrase 'the weakest go to the wall' is now interpreted as meaning they get disregarded whereas the original meaning was that, in church, weaker people were allowed to go to the wall to lean on it during the service (this is before pews, of course). (SP I see the strong marching along the middle of the pavement while the weak are pushed to the wall.)

As I understand it, 'bagsy' is just a lazy way of saying 'bags I' as in claiming which part of the morning's shooting goes in which bag, and 'botch' or 'bodge' is just a Hyacinth Bucket way of saying 'boj' which is a job done backwards. (MT)

Pop your clogs: "Pop" has evolved from "cock," and when someone "cocked" their clogs, the toes of their clogs pointed up in the air as they lay down dead. (Evening Standard Surely “pawned their clogs because they don’t need them any more”?)

Pinch and a punch for the first of the month: The playground ritual originates from the medieval times, when a "pinch" of salt was believed to make witches weak, and the "punch" resembled banishing the witches entirely. As a result, "pinch, punch, first of the month" was a way of warding off witches and bad luck for the near future. (Evening Standard)

The phrase “in the buff” comes because of the beigish tone of the average naked Caucasian human. (Via FB)

"Happy as a sand-boy" comes from when hawkers drove donkeys laden with sandbags thru streets hoping to sell sand to locals, and if their hard work paid off, they spent their profits on making merry. (@flamencobug)

Incontrovertible evidence, like a trout in the milk: The meaning is that although you did not see the dairy farmer do it, he most probably dipped the milk pail in the stream to water down the product. It’s not direct evidence but a very strong circumstantial case. It is attributed as follows: "Some circumstantial evidence is very strong, as when you find a trout in the milk.” (Henry David Thoreau)

Treacle was an old English word for medicine, and was also used to describe dark-coloured undrinkable water, which from its foul palate was associated with the commonly held taste of medicine. Consequently a well where the water became undrinkable would be termed a “treacle well”. ( Surely from the supposed medicinal properties of the water?)

More here, and links to the rest.
Why not get the book?

Received Ideas in Quotes 13

She said we couldn't be too careful what habits we formed and what ideals we acquired in our teens, because by the time we were twenty our characters would be developed and the foundation laid for our whole future life. (Anne of Green Gables, Lucy Maud Montgomery)

In the past so many children died before they were five that their parents didn’t really care: I loved her with the utmost love of which my soul is capable, and she is taken from me. Yet in the agony of my spirit in surrendering such a treasure, I feel a thousand times richer than if I had never possessed it. (William Wordsworth, after the death of his daughter)

The first English printing press, in the 15th century, was operated by Belgians who didn’t know the language and made numerous spelling errors (such as "busy" in place of "bisy"). And because they were paid by the line, they sometimes padded words with extra letters: "frend," for example, became "friend." In the next century, other non-English speakers in continental Europe printed the first English Bibles, introducing yet more errors. Worse, those Bibles were then copied, and the writing became increasingly corrupted with each subsequent rendition. (

An acre is the amount of land one man could plough with one ox in one day. A stone is roughly the weight of the largest rock a man could comfortably hold in one hand. A mile is about 1,000 paces.
Boxing Day gets its name from the small earthenware boxes that the poor would use in medieval times to save for Christmas treats. They would smash these open and spend the contents on something special in the festive season.
(Stave Stack, 21st Century Dodos)

The King of Spain, who in great part was roasted, because there was not time for the Prime Minister to command the Lord Chamberlain to desire the Grand Gold Stick to order the first page in waiting to bid the chief of the flunkeys to request the House-maid of Honour to bring up a pail of water to put his Majesty out.
(W.M. Thackeray, Book of Snobs Did this kind of story give rise to the urban legend that it takes a chain of flunkeys three hours to fetch the Queen a cup of coffee, and when it arrives it’s cold?)

My Mum warned me against picking up things in the street or on the common because "the Germans might drop things that looked like toys as booby traps".
I was particularly warned about fountain pens of all things! At age 2!! (Children were also warned about pencils and chocolate.)

Esther McVey claims that foreign aid has been wasted on building a runway facing the wrong way. When asked where this happened she replies "Er, it's in one of the... er, er, continents... er, abroad." (She’s thinking of the island of St Helena – where the runway is the right way round and works fine.)

What to say about getting an Oscar: “The last time I saw mine it was in the garage.” (Per Julian Fellowes)

What to say about Glastonbury: There’s nowhere to buy socks. (LW)

Early glass marbles are not likely to have been made commercially, but were made by glass workers at the end of their working day for their own children. (London Mudlark Glass workers seem to have spent quite a lot of time "at the end of the day" making dump weights and spiral glass canes.)

Apparently, when the Norman Foster’s Hongkong and Shanghai Bank HQ was being designed back in the late 1970's, the future of Hong Kong as the date of the handover approached was not too certain, so the HSBC building was designed to be taken apart and put back together in another location, should "the need arise". (

Catholics were regarded as disloyal, as lazy and incompetent bog Irishmen and women unfit for public office and of little use in business. (Nick Ross, Guardian 2019-03-13)

Over the years I’ve heard a lot of tripe when it comes to the causes for autism: smoking, bad parenting, Coca Cola, mercury, vaccines, The Devil, milk, bees, air pollution and the Finnish metal rock band Lordi... (

There’s a superstition in magazine publishing that readers won’t buy mags with green covers. It probably comes from the days before adjustment layers in Photoshop; converting greens from RGB to CMYK can make them lose a lot of vibrancy if you’re not careful. (@artmonogatari)

Humpty Dumpty was a brandy/ale mix, plied to potential "King's shilling" recruits – all the King's horses and all the King's men. (@maknazpy It’s in the OED, so it must be true! The rhyme occurs in several languages, and it’s clear that it’s a riddle to which the answer is “an egg”.)

The myth that Napoleon Bonaparte was short stems primarily from the fact that he is listed as 5 feet 2 inches tall at the time of his death. However, this is 5 feet 2 inches in French units. (
I’m not sure why you think giving cash to someone who’s asking strangers for it “doesn’t help them,” when it very immediately helps them have cash they didn’t have a minute before. (Daniel Mallory Ortberg)

On Tyneside in the 1950s someone returned a library book with a kipper inside it. So I hear. (Ian Watson)

The individual himself is still the most recent creation. (Nietzsche)

Velvet-collared coats are a “fashion started by English aristos to show solidarity with their French cousins who were losing their heads in the French Revolution”. (@dah_61)

Most annoying things people say to blind people: You're so brave. You're so inspirational. I feel so sorry for you. How did you lose your sight? Feel my face. How many fingers am I holding up? Do you really have a job? Have you seen
Daredevil? Can I pray for you? (@Kevinsatizabal)

A Times interviewer asks Peggy Seeger if she felt guilty about having an affair with the married Ewan McColl. “Not really... I was selfish. If a husband or a wife is unfaithful, there is something wrong with the marriage anyway.”

Deep problem here is how "news" has come to be defined. Man under investigation is going to say "I didn't do anything wrong." This is not news, because we know this is what he would say whether it was true or not. Yet, Twitter today full of journos saying "it's obviously news."
(@Metatone2 Imagine scrutinising each news story to see if it contains anything any reader might expect to have happened, and then deleting that sentence.)

“Dad, can you help me with my homework?”“Sure.”
“What’s an example of a fairy tale?”“All it takes to get ahead in this country is hard work.”

More herbs from the
Macbeth witches' cauldron; 'scale of dragon' is the leaf of Bistort, 'tooth of wolf' is the deadly Aconitum, and 'gall of goat' possibly refers to the root of Tragopodon known as 'goat's-beard'. (@VenetiaJane)

Legend says anyone who stays a night at Tinkinswood Burial Chamber on evenings preceding May Day, St John's Day or Midwinter Day would die, go mad or become a poet. (@pilgrimmaguk Also avoid sleeping in direct moonlight or spending the night in the Chamber of Horrors.)

Is there any significance to Italian last names beginning with de, del, or della ("of," "of the")? Do they indicate nobility? Someone told me that della is the highest rank. (Thomas Della Fave, Irving, Texas,

As Edward MacLysaght writes in A Guide to Irish Surnames, “Reference should again be made to one popular misconception, often held outside Ireland, viz. that all Mac names are Scottish — with such well known Irish names as MacCarthy, Macnamara, MacMahon and MacGuinness prominent all over the world this should not be necessary, yet the illusion seems to persist.” (

Bach was not crusty, arid or esoteric, serene, detached, otherworldly – he liked to drink and smoke. (Radio 4 He had 20 children, too.)

Belief in neuromyths, like "learning styles" and the "left-brain/right-brain" myth, is rife among teachers around the world. (BPS Digest)

Got used to the assumptions of nepotism, of people assuming that I had some sort of responsibility to explain all [my father’s] (or the entire government’s) decisions, assuming I automatically thought the same as him all the time... or, my favourite, the blanket assumption that I would ‘follow in my father’s footsteps’ (despite it being clear to anyone after five mins that I have zero political ambitions of my own). So much so that two senior Labour people came up and asked if I was running for his seat... at his wake. Don’t even know where to start with that one. (Dom Goggins, son of politician Paul Goggins)

Americans in particular believe that they are superior to everyone else and exempt from other's flaws. (@Petahpie)

Powder is most injurious to the skin. (Girls Own Paper, 1880s)

People seem to mix up paid-for specific research vs paid-for specific results. (@BigInTheCountry)

Handing out all the dope about bad dress rehearsals being lucky. (Dodie Smith, It Ends with Revelations)

LANGUAGEIt was once believed that speaking the Welsh Language caused stupidity, sexual promiscuity and unruly behaviour. (@hellohistoria)

“This sort of opinion can be seen particularly strikingly in societies where a minority language is spoken alongside a major language.” “Maori is simply not capable of being used as an official language or as the language of education beyond the very basic level.” ... There was a “comment in a New Zealand newspaper some years ago, which tried to make the point that Maori was no good as a language because it had to borrow words from English in order to express new ideas. English on the other hand could be seen to be a very flexible and vital language because it had throughout its history been able to draw resources from all over the place to express new ideas!”

Myth 10: Some Languages Have No Grammar
Myth 4: French is a Logical Language.

As the writer Thomas Lounsbury commented in 1908: "There seems to have been in every period of the past, as there is now, a distinct apprehension in the minds of very many worthy persons that the English tongue is always in the condition approaching collapse, and that arduous efforts must be put forth... in order to save it from destruction."
Somewhere in America, they’re still speaking “Elizabethan” or “Shakespearean” English: The more one reads, the less concrete meaning ‘Elizabethan’ and ‘Shakespearean’ have. In the popular mind they appear to mean nothing more than ‘old-fashioned’.
(Language Myths, Laurie Bauer and Peter Trudgill)

BALLASTMuseum Place, Cardiff. The extension on the left of this house is built of rubble masonry, which consists of exotic igneous rocks - ballast brought from all over the world and dumped at the port. (@pavementgeology And the builders carefully picked out the usable igneous rocks...)

If a captain could not find a cargo he would be paid for, he would use the cheapest bulky material available to fill the hold, usually sand or stone. Buying a relatively expensive product only to dump it in the sea when you reached the next port would be very bad for profits. (Page about Seaham explaining that marbles found on beaches were not “used as ballast”.)

THE VICTORIANSSome think of the Victorians as a bunch of moralising do-gooders... (PBS Victorians programme flag. It was the prevailing attitude of the age, she explained, with the subtext that we shouldn’t judge the Victorians by our standards. Victorian philanthropists were fighting extreme poverty and minimal, punitive welfare provision – plus what our history teacher called “laissez-faire capitalism”. )

Peter Ackroyd points out in his latest book (Dominion) that the Victorians thought of themselves as “at the cutting edge of progress”, says the Times. “For us, ‘Victorian’ means... a rigid, unchanging, hypocritical society, beset with stifling notions of respectability and rules of convention.”
Young people come back [from the Grand Tour] ever more debauched, conceited, useless and unprincipled. Nothing... can give a good name to such an absurd practice as travelling. (Adam Smith)

Children shouldn’t be taught facts but “values, believing, independent thinking, team work, care for others,” says Jack Ma. (Would that take up the whole school day – week – term? What would the children do for the rest of the time? And how would they get into university after not passing any exams?)

It would be good if people could ditch the weird assumption that knowledge = fixity of account and a conservative impulse to limit the agenda for change. (@Counsell_C)
Social media makes children think the world is perfect and they need to aspire to that. Schools need to bust that myth. (Times Nov 2018 Don’t they mean “think everybody else’s life is perfect”? It happened before social media.)

FLANDERS POPPIESThe Flanders poppy has lost its original meaning. It's become a beating stick and a political tool. Time to let the dead rest in peace and ditch it. (@Otto_English)

Students at Cambridge rejected a motion to celebrate Remembrance Day because it’s “imperialist propaganda” and it’s “valorising war”.

So this morning has seen not only the usual round of crap online about 'minorities' refusing to allow poppies to be sold in their 'areas', which was debunked years ago, but a new twist: retailers in Glastonbury refusing to support the British Legion. (LW)

If it's not fake news about poppies, it's councils using other words for Christmas or Cadbury not selling Easter eggs. (Malcolm White)

More here, and links to the rest.
And why not get the whole lot in one handy volume?

Friday, 31 May 2019


Pomposity attacks writers of obituaries and nature documentary narration. They also use the kind of banalities I was told to cut out when I was 12, and end up writing like a novelist or journalist from 100 years ago, in a manner which is both overblown and arch. And catching. 

Something like this: No greater example could exist of the dearth of amusements which disrelish or prejudice or both have brought about among us than in the charming town of Brighton, a not only self-asserted, but world-confessed queen of watering-places. If this sparkling, salt-watery gem of a place, this villeggiaitura of all the world’s idleness, belonged to any foreign Power, it would be one of the gayest indoor and outdoor bains de mer in existence.

She became a devotee of, the bell duly pealed, he rested his head on assorted perfumed pillows, he liked to don an oriental jacket, he had a lively appreciation of female pulchritude, experienced at close quarters, forbore to, garlanded with honours, he divided his time between, he slaked his thirst for adventure by, his
annus mirabilis, his world was shattered when, it is testament to his talents that, prompting the wry remark, the deed was done, unclear as to why, until such time as they saw fit to, the less physically taxing métier of poetry, took to task, took up residence, were long viewed solely as, at the helm, assumed the mantle.

Nature Documentaries
The lion is a shadow of his former self, gnawing hunger, the snow still holds sway, beauty where death reigns, doomed attempt to find a greener pasture, teeming with life, summer's bounty/
claim the bounty, ablaze, escape unscathed, easy pickings, too hot to handle, as a new day dawns, the fruits of their labour, aplenty, darkness falls, a devastating intensity, a botanical wonderland, coaxing new blooms from the rich glacial soil, held at bay, reaping the rewards, he resists with every ounce of his strength but the battle is lost.
The language is overcooked: "elemental forces", "time of plenty", "spectacle", “formidable”, the monsoon has reached the “peak of its power”, this “vast river in the sky”, the “mighty Amazon river” – you get the picture.

Clichés are forced into service: A single strong gust has proved an ill wind for Daisy. Hunting creatures “fill their bellies”, all kinds of things “are beginning to stir”, and the turtle is “a prized delicacy for the cooking pot”. (“A local delicacy” would do.)

From Wild India:their most precious harvest” – someone turns over a piece of honeycomb slowly and reverently. “Harsh realities are never far away – even the summer nights hold an unwelcome chill. After dark, the village takes on a siege mentality. The villagers close themselves off from some very unwelcome visitors – Asian black bears. It’s not just bears on the prowl. Foxes take their pick… in the shadows an even more sinister presence is lurking.”

If you want to sound pompous, use words and phrases like these: a goodly number, a variety of, above all, additionally, all and sundry, amongst, approximately, as of now, as you would wish, assist, attempt, attired, centre on, expedite, in addition, in conjunction with, in excess of, in respect of, indefatigable, inherent, lest, major, many a time and oft, observed, occur, ongoing, over time, overall, plaudits, potential, prone to, proven, regard, residence, rightfully, special, sufficient, the bulk of, the majority of, various, viable, virtually, wish, with respect to.

End your nature or science doc with the words “…in ways we are only just beginning to understand”.

Wednesday, 29 May 2019

Clichés 5

Extinct predators’ teeth always resemble bananas. Abuse and insults are hurled. Political demos are good humoured and have a carnival atmosphere unless they don’t. A shallow grave is where the bodies are found.  Wedding dresses are “meringues” – at least they were in the 80s – but ornate buildings are “wedding cakes”. You should call any female over 65 “a lovely lady”, and if she’s mentioned in conversation, don’t forget to say “Bless her!” If you want to reference a pointless activity, opt for basket weaving.

Surely, only effrontery is "breathtaking". Nonsense is “arrant". (JP)

Note to editors: tariffs are always slapped. (@NewsProvidence. And writs.)

Is anything ever "infernal" apart from a "racket"? (@Bob_Fischer)

Writing about UK politics for the first time in what feels like ages, and it’s amazing how easily the clichés slip out... reforms are “sweeping”, lines are “tough”, etc. (Daniel Trilling. And cuts are "swingeing".)

Always 'bleak', aren't they, open spaces? Like plazas are always 'windswept'. Is Hyde Park 'bleak'? Is Trafalgar Square 'windswept'? (Hugh Pearman)

Any white person writing about any city in Asia: "It's a city of contrasts, old and new, traditional and modern, at times hectic but also serene...." (@wetcasements)

Challenge to newspapers: try to write a headline about the Gulf that doesn't have the words 'sand' or 'desert' in it. (@KarlreMarks)

Mist is what rises on the morning of a battle. Fog is what appears when you're chasing a killer through London, accompanied by a bobby. (Heidi Regan, Annandale

Mixed emotions, emotional rollercoaster, emotional smorgasbord. (Naga Munchetty)

One would like more criticism, less gush. In the first three pages we get “note superciliously”, “pause reverentially”, “glows invitingly” and “wafts grandly”. Why look when you can “espy”? (Times book review Jan 2019)

The Times points out that baby bumps are constantly being “flaunted”. Kate is “flaunting her baby bump” in October 2017. (It’s actually invisible.)

When it was first discovered in 2003, jaws dropped at how intact the chamber was. But it is only now, after years of painstaking investigation by more than 40 specialists, that a fuller picture of the extraordinary nature of the find is emerging. (BBC News on the Prittlewell Prince, artefacts going on display in 2019. Research is always "painstaking". You can't discover something twice.)

Stonehenge is just one of 35000 megalithic stone monuments in Europe. And now, after 10 years of painstaking analysis, one archaeologist has concluded they all began 6500 years ago in northwest France. (DigVentures)

When not being "unearthed" from filing cabinets, lost artefacts are found in "dusty cupboards": Relief of Hatshepsut “unearthed” from storage in Swansea “had been gathering dust for four decades” (Times 2018)

Dean Mohamed’s life and work have been chronicled in the painstaking researches of Michael H. Fischer and Rozina Visram. (

Diana Keys, aged 70, who has spent the last 40 years painting her own version of the Sistine Chapel in her council flat, Hemel Hempstead. (@womensart. All-over murals in a council flat are always compared to the Sistine Chapel. These feature the Almighty, but also horses and mermaids.)

It’s been a very big week for Europe. (All weeks are seven days long.)
The care crisis is getting bigger. (BBC. They mean "worse".)
I’ve got a big announcement coming up. (Rory Stewart. He means "important".)

Guffaw, titter, chortle, chuckle: These sounds are only heard when pantomime villains are planning your horrible fate, explains the Times.

A property development company could be forced to rebuild a 165-year-old East End pub “brick by brick” after it was accused of demolishing it without permission. (Sept 2018)

"Margo Durrell is the sort of person who calls a doorway “my threshold”. Her memoir also contains a “would-be farcical set-piece". "A meal is made of melodramas such as purloined bathplugs, blocked drains and a chimney fire.” People are “blissfully unaware” of listening audiences etc. (Roger Lewis on Whatever Happened to Margo, Times 2018)

There are lots of “famed” and “legendary” scientists. Every other character is introduced as “tall”, “slim”, “athletic” and “handsome” if male, or “attractive” if female. (Times 2018 on a biography of Enrico Fermi)

One of the most interesting rooms was the North Turret Room,” he tells us. Authors shouldn’t tell us that things are interesting. Their job is to tell us the interesting thing. (Times 2018)

Nightmares are waking, Lister is both dazzled and enthralled.” Another character is referred to as “the quarrelsome Scotsman”. (Review of a book about early surgery, Times 2017)

As I walked/rode out one morning
On my coal-black/milk-white steed
In the merry month of May
Whom should I meet but a
Shepherdess/gypsy girl/maiden OR
Soldier/sailor home from the wars
Looking for lost sheep/a gold ring/sweetheart
Among the leaves so green-o...
(Jane Susanna Ennis)

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday, 23 May 2019

Outrageous Excuses 8

...and silly reasons for leaving the EU.

I voted Brexit because I hate centimetres. (Any Questions)

A ‘no deal’ for our country would actually be a blessing in disguise. It would force us into hardship and suffering which would unite and bring us together, bringing back British values of loyalty and a sense of community! Extreme change is needed! (@antmiddleton)

A second Brexit referendum would threaten community cohesion.A second referendum would be “extraordinarily dangerous to the social fabric”. (Andrew Mitchell)

It was pathetic, almost laughable, this morning to hear Michael Gove trying to justify the position that to have another referendum would be undemocratic! After a lot of waffle, it seemed that the deciding reason for that position is that if one had another referendum some people might think they were being talked down to...! (CS)

I voted Leave because:
I didn't want to be part of a fear-mongering crowd.
I am fed up with unsustainable massed immigration from EU and non EU.
I thought Remain would win and I didn't want to see a landslide.
(Radio phone-in)

We should Brexit because of foreign-language translators in the NHS.

Otherwise there’ll be violence.We’re an island.
We should have never went there in the first place.
I want everything to go back to how it used to be.
I want Britain to keep the three-pin plug.
Youngsters have stopped going to church since we joined the EU.
The EU won’t let us trade with the rest of the world. 
I didn’t know we were in it before the referendum. (BBC vox pop)

A man at our street stall on Saturday told me we should leave because of Waterloo. (@SherriDingle)

We voted to leave – why don’t we just get on with it? We’ll be OK – Nigel Farage says so!

Theresa May risks undermining voters’ faith in politics by allowing them to vote for MEPs. (UK Electoral Commission, paraphrase)

Several complained it was so dark during the finale of Game of Thrones they couldn’t watch what was happening. A director has explained that he wanted to ‘make the storytelling of the lighting with the storytelling of the characters’… Many people, he said, can’t tune their TVs properly and anyway it is not always necessary to see what’s going on because ‘its more about the emotional impact’. Carol Midgley, Times 2019

A reader told me he wrote to a TV channel to complain about annoying recaps after every ad break during documentaries. He was told that it was “a technique of modern commercial broadcasting” and unlikely to change. Carol Midgley, Times, 2019

I joined/stayed in the (House of Lords, establlishment organisation I have always fought, party that has become unacceptable) so that I could effect change from within.

No-fault divorce could “trivialise marriage”. (April 2019)

Women earn less because they take lower-paid jobs (Times headline April 2019)

Speaking Arabic in a public space in Sweden “disrespects Swedish language and culture”.

Everybody (Barbra Streisand) makes mistakes.

Henry F. Pulitzer presents laboratory evidence... that his painting is a Leonardo. However, specific detail on the manner in which these studies were carried out, and by whom, is not provided. He writes: "I have no intention of cluttering up this book with too many technicalities and wish to make this chapter brief".

He ended the physical affair by telling me he was a codependent sex addict and that he thought I had some of those behaviors as well, and then left on a European vacation with his family. (Writer-in to Dear Prudie,

Evolution is no longer taught in Turkish schools because it’s “too complicated”.

Alison Chabloz, who put anti-Semitic songs on Youtube that denied the Holocaust, said she did it not out of hate but out of “love”, also that they were “just silly songs”.

The painter of "potato Christ" says she was going to fill in his features but had to go on holiday.

Lifelong jerks have figured out a really successful grift when they can get, without even asking, other people to offer, “Oh, they’ve always been [ignorant/rude/boorish]” as a defense of their behavior and to prevent any real accountability or change. What your husband meant, of course, was that his sister makes a big fuss whenever he’s tried to get her to apologize or stop doing something hurtful, so he gave up ages ago to make life easier for himself and wants you to do the same.
(Daniel Mallory Ortberg)

My guess is that his first response will be something along the lines of “I don’t really know why I do this,” followed by “It’s just blowing off steam, I guess” or “It doesn’t mean anything”… “Get over it”. (Daniel Mallory Ortberg)

Famous psychological experiments turn out not to be replicable – researchers protest that the experiment was done in California and people in Michigan are different. (British Psychology Digest points out that experiments should be carried out in many different cultures and not just in WEIRD populations – Western, educated, and from industrialized, rich and democratic countries.)

More here, and links to the rest.

Friday, 17 May 2019


Name the authors:

1. Our hopes when elevated to that standard of ambition which demands unison may fall asunder like an ancient ruin... They smoulder away like the ashes of burnt embers, and are cast outwardly from their confined abode, never more to be found where once they existed only as smouldering serpents of scorned pride.

2. As if beckoned by those who had gone before, I half floated between the titanic snowdrifts, quivering and afraid, into the sightless vortex of the unimaginable... Beyond the worlds vague ghosts of monstrous things; half-seen columns of unsanctified temples that rest on nameless rocks beneath space and reach up to dizzy vacua above the spheres of light and darkness.

3. Once there were brook trout in the streams in the mountains. You could see them standing in the amber current where the white edges of their fins wimpled softly in the flow. They smelled of moss in your hand. Polished and muscular and torsional. On their backs were vermiculate patterns that were maps of the world in its becoming. Maps and mazes. Of a thing which could not be put back. Not be made right again. In the deep glens where they lived all things were older than man and they hummed of mystery.

4. His touch both consoles and devastates me; I feel my heart pulse, then wither, naked as a stone on the roaring mattress while the lovely, moony night slides through the window to dapple the flanks of this innocent who makes cages to keep the sweet birds in.

5. Under her ear lobes a couple of miniature temple bells gonged lightly in the breeze. She made a slow disdainful motion with a cigarette in a holder as long as a baseball bat.

6. A tiny white church up to its knees in non-ecclesiastical currant bushes holds a bony arm bearing a small cross high up toward the pale sky. A large hipped white church glares disapprovingly at the movie theater across the way. A small brown church has its frail back braced against a horde of immense invading alders, its front porch sags wearily under a load of wild cucumber vines. A very old trembly gray church keeps its yard tidy and tries not to notice how its friends have fallen off. In among the churches are houses, mostly old, mostly shapeless and paintless, set in neat green yards, rearing up wild-eyed and rickety out of tangles, peering out of thickets, hiding behind orchards or teetering nervously on the edge of bluffs above the water... This is not a geranium-planted-in-the-wheel barrow, wagon-wheel-against-the-fence, Ye Olde Tea Shoppe community.

7. It was November – the month of crimson sunsets, parting birds, deep, sad hymns of the sea, passionate wind-songs in the pines. Anne roamed through the pineland alleys in the park and, as she said, let that great sweeping wind blow the fogs out of her soul.

8. “How sweet the morning air is! See how that one little cloud floats like a pink feather from some gigantic flamingo. Now the red rim of the sun pushes itself over the London cloud-bank. It shines on a good many folk, but on none, I dare bet, who are on a stranger errand than you and I. How small we feel with our petty ambitions and strivings in the presence of the great elemental forces of Nature!”

9. I'm bored stiff by ballet. I can't bear those muscular white legs like unbaked plaited loaves, and I get quite hysterical every time one of the women sticks out her leg at right angles, and the man suddenly grabs it and walks round in a circle as though he were opening a tin.

10. The world is deep and dark and full of tigers, and we need those shimmering white castles in the air to creep into when life gets unbearable.

Thursday, 9 May 2019

Junk Statistics 7

Shocking statistic from John Gray, Emeritus Professor of European Thought at the LSE: “Today only around 4% of MPs come from working-class family backgrounds." (@neilwallis1)

The decision in 1997 by the WHO to move the BMI number at which “overweight” and “obese” began downwards by two points to 25... created the idea of a sudden runaway problem. Millions were made fat overnight. Anyone with a BMI over 25 was classified as “pre-obese”. (Times Jan 2019)

Apparently a 6ft tall person is likely to earn £100,000 more in a 30-year career than someone who is 5ft 4in. ( Person? Or man?)

76.3% of statistics are made up on the spot.
(But that's OK, because 88.9% of people don't believe them.)


Livestock are responsible for a third of all greenhouse-gas emissions. (It’s 5%.)

Only 6% of UK firms trade with the EU. ( says 78% of trade is done with the EU.)
60% of Londoners are immigrants.

Sales of instant noodles are up 50% in the past three months. But teen pregnancies have fallen 50% in the past 10 years. (2018 July, BBC News)

One in three victims of domestic violence is male, according to a 2017 study by Mankind Initiative, a charity helping men escape domestic violence. (Daily Telegraph)

According to the Crime Survey of England and Wales, men make up 31% of those aged 16 and 74 who report having experienced domestic abuse at some point since they were 16. Of those surveyed, 29% of women and 13% of men aged 16 to 59 said they'd experienced some form of domestic abuse since the age of 16. (

It is ironic that the perceived solution to New Zealand’s disastrous adoption of whole language approach to reading instruction (resulting in 20% of 6 year olds requiring intervention) was Reading Recovery. Talk about putting out the fire with gasoline. (@TheReadingApe)

The number of working class people in publishing, film, TV and radio is 12%; in music, performing and visual arts it's 18.2%. Just 4% of the film and music sectors are from BAME communities. The odds of someone with middle-class parents ending up in a job in the cultural sector are four times the odds of someone from a working-class family - and little has changed in the last 40 years. (Tom Watson)

Half of all UK homicides in 2018 related to domestic abuse.

Across the world, an average of 137 women every day are killed by a partner or family member.
Twice as many women than men are blood donors.
Cohabitation gives no legal rights, even though nearly half of us think it does.

Women are more likely to be killed at work by a domestic partner than by any other cause. In 2015 and 2016, about 40% of the women killed at work were slain by a relative or partner, compared with 2% of men, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics [in the US].

There are 18,600,000 vacant homes in the US (figures from Feb 2014). Every night, 600,000 Americans have nowhere to sleep.

In 2019, kids spend more time online than watching TV. (There’s more content, and they’re in control.)

In 2018:
1 in 14 have used a Food bank
4m kids in poverty
1.8m pensioners in poverty
100 ESA claimants die daily
1,000 Sure Starts axed
Council budgets cut 50%
Rough sleeping up 134%
1m disability benefit sanctions

In the UK, 7 people a year are killed by cows. (According to figures from the Health and Safety Executive (HSE), 74 people have been killed by cows in the past 15 years. Dogs, meanwhile, have killed 17 people in the last eight years, according to NHS figures obtained by The Daily Telegraph. Independent, 2015)

Half of new-build luxury London flats fail to sell, but there are 420 towers in the pipeline, says the Guardian (Aug 2018).

Young today drink less, fight less, have less unprotected sex than older generations. (@benatipsosmori)

Children in England are smoking less, drinking less, and taking fewer drugs.
Guitar sales have dropped by a third over the past decade.

Young males are driving 50% less than they did in the mid-90s. (Young people say: Better buses, buses cheaper.)

And car sales are down – for some reason.

A 2011 Gallup poll found that Americans, on average, think 25% of the country is homosexual. Research says 2 percent, tops.

At least 62 free schools, university technical colleges and studio schools have failed, at a cost of £138.5m.

99% of foreign objects found in food were put there by the finder.

Australia confiscated 650,000 guns, and murders and suicides plummeted.

EU migrants are 45% less likely than UK nationals to claim benefits.

A Yougov poll showed that students are no more hostile to free speech than the general public.

The Tories benefit sanctions regime costs the taxpayer £153 million more a year to run than it saves. (Daily Record)

There are now more churches in the UK than there were in 2008.
2008 total number of churches 49,727
2013 total number of churches 50,660
2020 estimated number of churches 51,275
1,750 mosques in UK
(Versus “There are 460 mosques in London and 500 churches have shut, therefore the UK is now a Muslim state.")

IPSOS Mori surveyed perceptions in 38 countries.
Murder rates are down, but only 7% think so.
Deaths from terrorist attacks have fallen in the last 15 years, only 19% think so.
Average guess for how many prisoners are immigrants is 28% – it’s 15%.

Teenage pregnancy is overestimated across the world. Average guess is 20% of teenage girls giving birth – it’s 2%. In some countries the perception is that half of teenage girls have children – the highest figure in any country is 6.7%.

Six in ten think there’s a link between vaccines and autism.
Russia is the most alcoholic nation? They come seventh , Belgium comes top.
75% have a Facebook account? It’s 46%.
But the US really does consume the most sugar.

In the UK:
11.8% of prisoners were born abroad, not 34%.
One in 70 teenage girls give birth, not one in five.
5%, not 27%, of Britons have diabetes.We assume others are exaggerating their illnesses, but 74% say their health is good.
69%, not 81%, of Britons own a smartphone.58%, not 74%, of Britons have a Facebook account.
We’re a bit less alcoholic and sugar-addicted than we imagine, compared to other countries.
21%, not 38%, believe in Hell. 39%, not 43%, believe in God.

Our perceptions of suicide are nearer the truth: 21% of deaths of women 15-24, 28.4% of male deaths in the same age range.

Despite the claim being widely discredited, 55% think there’s a link between vaccines and autism, or are not sure.

Q: What is gender bias?
A: Women are 50% of law grads, 36% of practicing attorneys, 25% of judges, and 2% of U.S. Attorney nominees. (But there is no gender pay gap, because reasons.)

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday, 23 April 2019

Movie and TV Clichés in Quotes 3

Euralille. Dystopian, dreadful, inhospitable. A great backdrop for films about shady business, surveillance states, the general breakdown of democracy and transparency. (Martin Lampprecht)

It's not an origin story unless you are bitten by something radioactive or fall into a vat of something.

Why do the plots of cash-in Hollywood prequels to children's literary classics always involve a messianic prophecy? (@AlexPaknadel)

According to Hollywood, all criminal leaders are into classical music, valuable paintings and various other highbrow art forms. (@N8Heddleston)

All intelligent villains have utterly bourgeois tastes and do stuff like wear suits inside and eat Cornish hen with Bach’s Unaccompanied Cello Suite No. 1 in G Major playing softly in the background.

For my taste, Season 2 of Star Trek Discovery is far better than 1 so far, but it's still too much Therapy 101, artificially ratcheted jeopardy and/or plot-convenient arbitrary miracles. (Athena Andreadis)

Those shabby genteel boarding houses where one of the female Paying Guests lives in that grey zone that may or may not be sex work. (Matthew Sweet)

There are two kinds of office in post-war British cinema. The one with an establishing shot of a brutalist tower, possibly in Crawley; the other behind a chain link fence, where slow robberies take place in rooms full of box files and the young Nanette Newman may do typing. (Matthew Sweet)

Quite a lot of quizzical-glance-acting in this. (@VictorianLondon on The Man Who Invented Christmas)

Massive explosion goes off behind the hero as he (always a he) walks towards the camera. He never flinches. (@andytrapdoor)

[Peter Cushing is] the one in all those British horror films, standing between Vincent Price and Christopher Lee. His dialogue usually runs along the lines of, "But good heavens, man! The person you saw has been dead for more than two centuries!" (Roger Ebert)

A meandering subplot of a TV show’s fifth season. (Sandra Newman)

All the characters are mysterious oddballs, escaping their pasts.
Was the secret a “covert government biological weapons facility? An evil corporation?”
Fortitude drifted into madness in the previous season.
(Hugo Rifkind in the Times on Fortitude)

I love in films like 300 where the main guy will say something like “Get some sleep, for tomorrow we battle to death”, and everyone just goes into deep sleep, in some wet grass, fully clothed. (Rob Temple)

The kind of snowfall that, in a Ridley Scott film, signals a large battle is about to occur. (@maximpetergriff)

We need a word for a scene in a movie where they introduce a character who was clearly a major part of the first draft and whose part either got written or edited out as time went on, but they still left that scene in to make it past 90 minutes. (@HouseofGlib)

Why is "driving like a maniac without noticing" so often used as code for "charmingly carefree"? (@dimwittedly)

Hackers all say “I’m in!” After twenty seconds of random typing. (Dean Hamilton @Tyburn__Tree)

Someone is watching exactly the right bit of expositionary news, then turns off the TV as soon as someone comes into the room, but it's OK because the exposition had just finished. #bodyguard (@adamcreen)

You can tell it’s serious, they’re all speaking in acronyms. #bodyguard

The protagonist is an underdog hero chosen by a prophecy who no-one likes in the beginning but come to respect in the end. (Via youtube)

More often than not, performances shaped for the purpose of winning golden statues are fake and dreadful. ( It's well-known that you'll get an Oscar if you play a disabled person or a nun.)

If you're running from bad guys in a hospital, you must knock over a huge tray of noisy metal instruments. (@rdbrewer4. Which the staff have carelessly left unattended to go unsterile...)

To show a calamity (or approaching alien spacecraft) is real, a plate must fall off a table. (@RonD1954)

If a mute character is introduced, they are going to speak during or after the climax. (@Tweeter_Zero)

An old Chinese greengrocer is always a martial-art master. (@PtitRun)

When someone says, "This isn't what it looks like", it’s exactly what it looks like. (@chasethekid)

Running from pay phone to pay phone with the ransom money. (@Prevalezco)

All Italians are Sicilians.

Actresses in drawing-room comedies were invariably seen arranging wire-stemmed roses while they awaited their fiancés. (Cecil Beaton, The Glass of Fashion)

If a girl is very physically clumsy, she'll stumble upon true love. (@nictate)

The Sheldon Cooper rule: as long as a TV show or movie doesn’t explicitly diagnose a character with autism, they can get away with the cruellest depiction of it possible, making the character an object of mockery or a beast of burden. (@untitleduser. Someone else points out that The Dog in the Night-time and The Bridge don't use the words “autism” or “Asperger’s”, so that nobody can say “Hang on, we aren’t like that!”)

A favorite film trope of mine is any character cutting and dyeing their hair in a gas station restroom then walking out looking amazing. (@ReelQuinn)

I love the way people think they are invisible if they crouch down a bit #Salamander. (@kostmayer)

#Salamander When visiting a baddie at home they will always be ready to greet you, immaculately dressed. (@Shifnal_TF)

In the film of
Angels and Demons, Renowned Symbologist Robert Langdon consults a document in the Vatican Archives and, when it turns out to be relevant, rips out the page and takes it with him. (@philistella. In Salamander, Gerardi is looking through a notebook full of phone numbers (evidence), notices his wife’s, rips out the page. Why don’t they just take a picture on their phone?)

Is there a name for the quirky male non-cop teams with straightlaced female cop to solve crimes that are nearly always murder subgenre yet? (@WordMercenary)

It's never good when TV detectives involve their children and say goodbye in a lingering way. (@mattprescott)

One of the most hilarious and creepy aspects of Hallmark flicks is how the filthy rich character never puts their hand into their own pocket to save whatever-needs-saving. They organise an auction or bake sale or fundraiser so poor people can give their money. (@sturdyAlex)

Least accurate part of TV reality: breakfast. TV characters regularly sit down to unfeasibly overproduced brekkies. Toast racks = primary indicator. (@woollensocks)

The most ridiculous TV trope is friends getting together for breakfast before work. (@missmayn)

Also any family show where they sit down in a sunlit kitchen for breakfast before school & work. (@brendanca)

 ...and they’d pour a full sized glass of orange juice, take one drink from it, then leave. (@Laurenm4)

(Or they rush out of the house chomping the toast. Or else they have a long conversation leaning one elbow on the table and holding a piece of bitten toast near their mouth.)

The 6 Types of People That Say “You Guys Are Gonna Wanna Take a Look at This” in MoviesThe scientist seeing something unusual on a computer screen.
An officer at a crime scene who’s not a main character who found some big evidence and then the scene cuts.
The guy who comes in when all hope was lost to show everyone the whole town pitched in and did something amazing.
Guy on boat looking at the oncoming storm.
Lowly underling whose deep digging led him to a discovery the President needs to know about .
Loose cannon cop finds a big lead.

You forgot “side character that didn’t seem like he had much potential but ended up saving everyone in the movie with some small piece of information”. Or like “Guys... hey guys... uh guys... hello? Guys? GUYS!!!” Trying to get a word into the conversation when they KNOW they have valuable info but no one will listen. (@laneboywrx)

The three (3) types of British crime shows:
Title is a surname, makes you sad.
Title is a place name, makes you sad.
“Gosh isn’t murder positively beastly, oh well mustn’t let it ruin the village’s Paintings of Fences and Sheep competition, it’s the 50th anniversary after all.”

A Decent Interval, Simon Brett
Pointing a camera at members of the public and waiting for them to make fools of themselves.

Acting: a subject that attracted a great deal of vacuous pretension and bullshit.

“The shots of you will be intercut with the odd castle ruin, stained glass window, faded document, out-of-focus sparkling water, sunlight through ferns.” Says the director of “A half-hour TV programme padded out to an hour which would have worked better on the radio.”

The best parts, of course, involve gibbering. There’s nothing actors like better than being deformed and gibbering on stage. ‘I want to be deformed and gibber!’ they cry.

It was based on the view that anyone can become a star. All of the contestants – girls in their late teens identically over-made-up with heavily mascaraed false eyelashes and unnaturally white teeth – said how big a part of their life StarHunt had become, how they were ‘really going to go for it’, how much support they were getting from their families (cut to simpering parents in the studio audience), how nervous they were, and how much they respected their fellow contestants and the judges.
He forgot to add “journey”, and pretending that the experience is about self-discovery, not winning lots of money.

Look photo editors you really need to stop illustrating articles about immunization with giant needles piercing skin thank you. (@AstroKatie)

If you could choose one photo to represent "machine learning", what would it be? I'm sick of pulsing brains of 1s and 0s or people standing around a chalk board. (@hmason)

More here, and links to the rest.

Sunday, 21 April 2019

Was Agatha Christie Anti-Semitic? Well, Was She?

I've just reread Agatha Christie's Lord Edgware Dies, and if you want to avoid spoilers, stop reading now.

Written in 1933, it's not one of Christie's best. She'd divorced Archie Christie five years previously, and resolved to be professional about her writing and look on it as a job. She wrote The Mystery of the Blue Train during the split, expanding an earlier short story. She said she never thought much of it, but it is one of my favourites. It features Poirot - but with third-person narration as Hastings is conveniently in "the Argentine". She eventually dropped Hastings, and much as I love the character, and his portrayal by Hugh Fraser, I think she was wise. Without the blinkered Watson-figure, we are far more party to Poirot's thoughts, feelings and most of all impressions - though of course he never gives away his solutions or workings-out.

Lord Egware, though it has an intriguing plot to which Hastings is integral, seems somewhat hurried and churned-out. Interesting characters are not developed. And apart from the central premise, one that she returned to again and again, there is one plot-hole: how did the murderer open and reseal the vital letter? Poirot and Hastings are living in "rooms", but these are barely sketched in. Some scenes start like this: We were in our rooms. Suddenly Poirot said "Zut, alors!" and seized his hat and stick. On another occasion a Duchess calls, and they meet her "downstairs". Was this a communal living room? We are not told, and the surroundings are not described.

There are moments when Christie's perception and wit put in an appearance, but they are few. Much is made of the latest "soup-plate" hats which are stuck on over one ear, shading one side of the face. And in a typically feminine Christie touch, a lot hinges on what happens if you change clothes and identities – you end up with someone else's handbag. Jenny Driver is an attractive character and we hope she is happy with the man of her choice. As for the other two young lovers, they rather vanish from the story.

Apparently nobody can live with Lord Edgware – he has the works of the Marquis de Sade in his bookshelves, and an unnecessariy good-looking butler. We only really get to know the murderer on reading a letter sent to Poirot from the condemned cell. The writer concludes by wondering if they'll end up in Madame Tussauds' waxwork Chamber of Horrors. Christie re-uses a murder method, but never quite explains how the murders were done.

But the anti-Semitism... It is 1933. People in British society thought and said such things. Hastings is narrating, so that these remarks come from the other characters, or from from him – and he is known to be not the brightest. It is never Christie speaking. These dated and, to us, unacceptable attitudes are even part of the plot – let me explain.

I read a Harper Collins paperback, and have used an etext version for reference. In the paperback version, Hastings and Poirot first set eyes on actress Jane Wilkinson (Lady Edgware) and her imitator, the impressionist Carlotta Adams, in a restaurant. They speculate about the future of the two women. "What do you foretell for Miss Adams?" asks Hastings. Poirot predicts success for the performer.

"She is shrewd and she is something more. You observed without doubt that she is a Jewess?"

I had not. But now that he mentioned it, I saw the faint traces of Semitic ancestry. Poirot nodded.

"It makes for success - that. Though there is still one avenue of danger – since it is of danger that we are talking."

"You mean?"

"Love of money. Love of money might lead such a one from the prudent and cautious path."

"It might do that to all of us."

In the etext version any mention of Carlotta's "Semitic ancestry" is dropped and apparently Poirot merely reads "love of money" in the girl's face. This scene is pretty weak, as Poirot diagnoses the characters' "fatal flaws" merely from their appearance.

One of the suspects, the deceased Lord Edgware's nephew, Captain Marsh, later produces an alibi – Japp reports:

"He’s got an alibi for yesterday evening. He was at the opera with the Dortheimers. Rich Jews. Grosvenor Square."

When Captain Marsh tells the story himself he merely says that the Dortheimers are "musical", and hints that their daughter Rachel is a bit solid. Later, when he's talking about how hard-up he was before he came into the title, he says he couldn't face marrying Miss Dortheimer. Her parents like "young men with prospects", and of course he had the prospect of not only coming into money but becoming a Lord. But, he adds, "she’s much too sensible a girl to take me, anyway."

On the night in question, Jane Wilkinson was dining with Sir Montague Corner, and there are 12 other guests to give her an alibi. Naturally Poirot goes to interview Sir Montagu.

I looked with some interest at Sir Montagu Corner. He had a distinctly Jewish cast of countenance, very small, intelligent black eyes and a carefully arranged toupee. He was a short man — five foot eight at most, 1 should say. His manner was affected to the last degree.

He turns out to be a connoisseur of art and antiques, and to be up in the latest modern music and even the theories of Einstein. Hastings thinks he looks like a "medieval genie".

Sir Montagu waved a curious clawlike hand. “There is no hurry. Time is infinite.”

“One always feels that in this house," sighed Mrs Widburn. “So wonderful.”

“1 would not live in London for a million pounds,” said Sir Montagu. “Here one is in the old-world atmosphere of peace that, alas, we have put behind us in these jarring days.”

A sudden impish fancy flashed over me that, if someone were really to offer Sir Montagu a million pounds, old-world peace might go to the wall, but 1 trod down such heretical sentiments.

“What is money, after all?” murmured Mrs Widburn.
Another Christie character is given to vapouring that time is infinite - Lady Chevenix-Gore in the long short story Dead Man's Mirror. Sir Montague's love of old-world atmosphere means that his rooms are dimly illuminated by shaded candles after dark. His ability to "do something" for actors he likes is not spelled out – presumably he can invest in a production and interfere in the casting. Or does he just pull strings? I wish we'd seen more of the affected Mrs Widburn.

On second thoughts, the book's flaws may be blamed partly on the fact that it was written for serialisation for an American magazine. Perhaps it suffers from editorial cuts and rigid guidelines. Characters have one Fatal Flaw each, and there is one Big Clue per episode – such as Sir Montagu's love of old-fashioned but dim lighting. The two women at the centre of the story are American: one a beautiful, brilliant actress, and one a successful impressionist. And there are titled characters, but the British aristocracy is shown to be either perverted or effete.

It was her American publishers who eventually persuaded her to cut out disparaging remarks about Jewish people, and many were dropped in later editions of her books.

More on the subject here, and links to the rest.

Wednesday, 3 April 2019

Euphemisms about Race 14

Reasons for voting Leave official word cloud: largest is “immigration”, followed by, in rough order of size: “country, sovereignty, control, borders, laws, British, back, independence, money, Brussels, democracy”.

A friend moved to rural France, and a neighbour told her: “We don’t have much of an Algerian problem here.” He meant: “There aren’t many Algerians here”. (In Hungary it’s “the Gypsy question”.)
In India, groups such as the Dalit, or "Untouchables" are known as "Scheduled Castes and Scheduled Tribes".  They used to be called the Depressed Classes, and are sometimes called “other backward castes”, according to Wikipedia.)
All these euphemisms and many more can be found in my book Boo and Hooray!, now expanded and updated to keep pace with the proliferation of weasel words.

civilization: Western civilisation
controversial comments on race: racist comments

cultural anxiety
cultural dilution
cultural change, culture change

cultural studies: inclusive history

defend our borders

Aborigines in Australia were “dispersed” – cleared from the land.

demographics, diversity

economic anxiety

elite, liberal elite:
educated middle-class people who aren’t racist enough

ethnic neighbourhood

get our country back

Highland clearances, Irish famine:
ethnic cleansing

I’m not a racist, but...
I’m only saying what everybody’s thinking.
I’m proud to be English.

I’m the least racist person you’ve ever met!
independent thinker, intellectual diversity: racist, racism

Life was simpler when we were young.

London values

loving your country

manifest destiny

metropolitan: not racist enough

mixed, socially mixed area: racially mixed

other cultures
out of touch:
not racist enough

patriot, patriotic
political correctness
populist, populism

provocative, controversial:
racist, sexist

real world
sacrifice our culture

racist stereotype

straight talk: racism, sexism, homophobia

take back control: take back control of our borders

The pace of change is too fast: There’s Polish food in Tesco’s and I wasn’t consulted.

traditional: racist and sexist

The English lack a sense of national identity.

Western civilisation, Western culture, Western values:
white people

White men are an endangered species: There’s one woman and one brown person on the board.

Words are just a collection of letters. People choose to be offended. What matters is the intention of the speaker: I am going to go on being racist and abusive. (Popular tropes, May 2014)

More here, and links to the rest.

Monday, 7 January 2019

Overheards 12

In Marks & Spencer:
You’re a bit of a weakling, aren’t you, Angelica?

In Tottenham Court Road: Diamond! Crystal! I’ve dropped my straw!

In the park: You know how I look at my career? 39 steps.

At John Lewis: We can buy terracotta lookalikes – the other can go in the drainpipe area.

In the park: I got a special chicken to get into Kew Gardens. I went four times.
In the street: Have you seen Bruce Lee play ping pong with a nunchuck?

After helping elderly ladies find their stop:
Lady: "See. I told you to ask the goth girl. Goth girls are always nice."

A girl on my bus just said “I can’t look at halloumi anymore because it just reminds me of him”.  (@cechitch)

Trying to keep the status quo on the level. (@IntervalThinks)

Two ladies at an 80th bday party:
'I like to keep the brain going with Sudoku.'
'Do you dear? I find it frightfully dull after Bletchley.'

In Glastonbury: So I said I wanted to visit Bethlehem and we did, but it was just like Bridgwater. (LW)

Just overheard a woman say, "Please excuse my fingernails, I had to hitchhike here." (@Greebobek)

A small boy charged past me in Tesco this morning shouting "Baked beans here I come!" (LW)

I am in the shop. It is late in the afternoon. From the darkness outside in piercing South Welsh tones: "Well, what do you always need? You always need a taxidermy shop! Always!" (LW)

Caught snippet of suity conv in street “It injects a note of fun, in my humble opinion”. (@lucyfishwife)

No, I spent all my money on yogurt. (@celestialweasel)

Tube driver: There’s currently no interchange to the Central line at Holborn. I don’t know what the point of Holborn is without the interchange but there you go. 

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday, 1 January 2019

What I Don't Miss About the 50s 10

It was a lovely time; as long as you weren't working class, black, gay, eligible for conscription, pregnant and unmarried, disabled etc etc.

Inequality, much stronger class bias, a stronger tendency to cover up and be less accountable. (SP)

Britain 1949 when even happiness was as rationed as tightly as sweets. (Harry Leslie Smith)

Woolworths, jumpers for goalposts, NHS glasses, football violence, unchallenged racism, soggy cabbage. (@IanDunt)

In 1956 Stephen McGann’s mother, aged 21, had twin boys who died. “She never got a chance to hold her dead babies and was never told by her husband where they were buried. Instead, she was warned by doctors she must stop grieving, or she would be given electroconvulsive therapy.

Early closing Wednesdays, everything shut on a Sunday. 

Keep Off the Grass, No Ball Games, and the whole jobsworth culture that went with them.

People saying “What you don’t know can’t hurt you” and “No sense, no feeling”.

Agony aunts told women to return to their abusive husbands (“You know where your duty lies, my dear.”).

We didn’t know what to do when people cried or were hurt. We didn’t know how to say “I’m sorry you’re upset, you poor thing”.

Men had the upper hand, legally and financially. Many of them had been in the army where there is a top-down hierarchy, and expected to be obeyed. Wives and children had only recently (20s) ceased to be a man’s possessions. Heads of households could be little Hitlers in their own domains, and the more they isolated their family, the more power they had. (My father used to accuse me of "dumb insolence".)

Parents could always find reasons for constantly denigrating, never praising, their children (stops them “getting above themselves”). Cruelty and bullying were common in offices and institutions. Children had few legal rights.

Everywhere a hierarchy was possible, there was a rigid hierarchy, with deferring up and bullying down. It’s less fun when it’s you doing the deferring. No wonder we got the self-esteem movement in the 70s and 80s, and tried to abolish hierarchies.

Adults believed that children were tough, they didn’t remember, they “got over” things quickly. This was convenient for the adults.

In 1962 (the 50s were still going on), child expert Walter W. Sackett Jr insisted that a baby can't learn that it'll get everything it wants in an instant. He equated soothing a crying baby to "sowing the seeds of socialism." (

Laughing at disasters that happened to other people was routine. When I didn't laugh, I was accused of having no sense of humour. I also hated people to laugh at ME. Perhaps they were trying to train me not to mind being laughed at, by forcing me to laugh at other unfortunates.

Ridiculing children was always excused, but satire directed at the status quo was frowned on and even officially censored, and nobody made fun of the royal family because “they can’t answer back”. The establishment and the royal family had feelings that must be considered, but children were fair game. In fact, laughing at them was good for them.

You couldn’t swim or even paddle for three hours after you’d eaten. If you did, you’d get stomach cramps and drown. There were even leaflets with diagrams. It was reduced to an hour, then forgotten.

Problems were treated by ignoring them. Because you only thought you had a problem in the first place.

There was no hugging, no social kissing – hardly any hand-shaking. Parents barely hugged their children (warned off the idea by those child experts), siblings and friends didn’t hug. At boarding school there was a strict no-touching policy. And you couldn’t even say “pleased to meet you”! But then we had to go to teenage parties and snog total strangers.

My parents reluctantly bought me the Meccano set I wanted, but wouldn’t buy me a Barbie.

At art school in the 60s, we weren’t allowed to paint or draw anything we cared about. We weren’t allowed to make political statements. Also we weren’t supposed to paint people for fun, or if we did we had to think they were no more interesting than a bunch of flowers or a cabbage.

"There’s no such word as can’t." Of course it’s really: “There’s no such word as can’t in the dictionary,” because it’s a contraction of “cannot”. But even if that was true, which it isn’t, sometimes you really can’t do something – it’s not because you don’t want to or aren’t trying hard enough.

You were supposed to stop eating while you were still hungry.

We had fruit cake for birthday cakes, even though we got the occasional Victoria sponge as a treat. We didn’t like fruitcake – dry, tasteless, chewy, the only nice bit was the icing.

If you dared to ask for a glass of water in a restaurant or cafe it was brought grudgingly or not at all. If it arrived it was tepid and tasted of chlorine. There was no free water at the bar of the Royal Festival Hall, no bottled water on sale. But you could always ask a chemist for a glass of water to take an aspirin, and there were drinking water taps in most public conveniences. There were also a few functioning Victorian water fountains. (And we hydrated with endless cups of tea.)

More here, and links to the rest.

Buzzwords for December 2018

raise a ticket
for log a complaint

thought leaders

destination restaurant

We're headed for cold civil war – unless it’s here already.

Crossrail supposed to open Dec 9, doesn’t, chairman resigns. Transport for London proceeds with bus route cancellations because we can all travel by Crossrail now.


“Nobody cares about Brexit – they just want the whole thing to be over.” (Polls and vox pops disagree.)

the meaningful vote (What would a meaningless vote be like?)

People accuse each other of “ruining Christmas” – because they bought the wrong kind of tree, etc.

pigs in blankets

First sighting of “identifies as on the autistic spectrum”.

Meghan constantly accused of “breaking protocol” for wearing dark nail varnish, an off-the-shoulder dress etc. There are no such protocols. (But will she dress the baby in those strange royal time-warp 50s clothes?)

Leadership now means something like assertiveness or confidence.

Comments on a charity appeal: What these people need is contraception, charity begins at home, none of the money goes to the refugees.

Thin gruel is a popular metaphor – nearly 200 years after Oliver Twist asked for more.

When people say “Facebook is bad”, they’re not talking about using it, but about regulations and Steve Zuckerberg. (Click on the three faint grey dots.)

"Chaos" and "pandemonium" as planes grounded by drone at Gatwick. Oh, now the drone was a hallucination and the media reaction was just hysteria as usual.

Selfie wrist joins texter's thumb, hula-hoop hip and railway spine.

There’s no point banning plastic straws because reasons. (Spent half of my rent money on this gin drink at the Four Seasons only for this sickening paper straw to dissolve in my mouth lmao. Liberalism is a joke. @amber_athey)

redlining (Something about American cities confining housing and industry to separate areas – or is it class-based? Turning up in the Brexit debate as the EU says "thus far and no further".)