Thursday 25 March 2010

Pimp My Panda

Sure you know what craven means? Would you recognise a gilded youth? Some words are commonly misused:

A pander is a pimp. Pandarus, in Shakespeare's Troilus and Cressida, follows this profession. If you "pander to someone's every whim" (as the cliché originally went), you fulfil all their desires. If you pamper the person, you spoil them rotten. But you have to pander to something – you can't just pander.

I found Wall Street to be just as axiomatic and pandering as the majority of Stone's output with its thin caricatures, obvious sentiments, and a charisma-barren performance by the young Charlie Sheen. Ron Small, Web review of Boiler Room What was he trying to say? Axiomatic means "taken as a given".

Like Doris Day’s manager-husband, Marty Melcher, who took a sultry jazz singer and reduced her to pandering infantilism, compelling her to sing only ‘bouncy tunes’. NYRB September 03 Is this shorthand for “pandering to popular taste”?

We have universally rejected the abject laziness of the filmmaker, the profoundly insulting pandering that goes with reliance on this device. IMDB Pandering to the low intelligence of film-goers?

All this has nothing to do with the cuddly white bears with black spectacles. Avoid "panda to your sensibilities".

Saturday 20 March 2010

Ivy Compton Burnett

Ivy: unique hairstyle

One of the other women writers discussed by Alison Wright in Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars
is Ivy Compton Burnett. I’ve never read any of Ivy’s books, and now I feel I don’t need to. Alison Light is penetrating in her dissection of the airless milieu that gave rise to Ivy’s works. Briefly, her parents made money in “trade”, and bought a villa in Hove where they raised her and her siblings. Light notes that “a family is an investment”. It’s also a state – a dictatorship in which the parents “colonise” the children.

Ivy’s family was one of many. The grandiose villas were meant to resemble grand country houses, but had so little accompanying land that they practically touched. The parents had made enough money for their children not to have to work. Having risen in the social scale, they spent all they had on keeping up their position.

Few people were good enough for their children to mix with. So they were trapped in the house, with hardly any cash of their own, subject to regimes of scrimping and penny-pinching. It is the perfect environment for domestic tyrants who insist their children adhere to “house rules”, and police their every move (constantly asking "What are you doing?").

When Ivy’s parents died, she became the tyrant, controlling her younger sisters and forbidding them from playing the piano. The sisters escaped and lived independently – but then they killed themselves. Ivy sold the villa, set up house with a female friend and spent the rest of her life writing about trapped siblings and tyrannical parents, though she set their stories among grander surroundings.

Some time between World War II and now the family ceased to be a dictatorship and became a democracy – but I’m not sure everybody has noticed.

Buzz words of 2010

Come in Mr Bond - just let me put the cat down

The story so far...


mulligan as a verb? Any relation to Jones? or McGyver? (Seems to have disappeared by May.)

dances the happy dance” and variants

people are “getting it” week of Feb 1 (Ricky Gervais says the Americans “get” him. They can keep him.)


broken: group CORE (which tries to “cure” homosexuality) talks of people “struggling with sexual brokenness”)

train wreck

Charles Gray stroking white cat gesture suddenly very popular.

lots of people having “spats” week of March 1 (a word they’d never use in real life)

carnage is very popular this year (don't use it to mean melée, confusion or humiliating defeat – it means mass slaughter)

hubs and spokes are popular with the public sector (we're getting a "spoke" in my road – it's what we used to call a youth club)

ganache Suddenly people are saying ganache as if they knew what it meant. How do they do that? Apparently it’s “A rich icing made of chocolate and cream heated and stirred together, used also as a filling, as for cakes or pastry. Ditto gribiche, which according to the Free Dictionary: “Se dit d'une sauce vinaigrette additionnée de jaunes d'œufs durs et d'herbes hachées.” That’s a vinaigrette with chopped or mashed yolk of a boiled egg and chopped herbs. (There's also a kind of pudding called a panache.)

sanitise was popular in the week of April 4

upset Lots of them in the week of April 14, in the sense of “sudden and unexpected reversal of fortune”, the unfavoured party or tiny football club wins ect. I think it's a new American meaning – "upset" used to mean just turned or knocked over.

Not so much is everywhere the week of May 11.

End of!

a big ask

chaos is being used to mean disrupted airline schedules, flight bans due to volcanic ash, stranded travellers, airlines losing millions etc.

Buzz words of the past decade can be found here.

Buzz Words of 2011 here and here.
Complete Buzz Words of 2010 here.
Buzz Words of 2009 here.
Buzz Words of 2009 Part Two here.

Thursday 18 March 2010

So, Was Agatha Christie a Snob?

Forever England: Femininity, Literature and Conservatism between the Wars by Alison Light

You can tell from the title that this is a a book by an academic feminist. She's done her research – well, she’s done some research.

Of course, Light doesn’t reveal all about “femininity etc between the wars”. This is a study of some female, conservative writers: Ivy Compton Burnett, Agatha Christie, Jan Struther and Daphne du Maurier.

She observes that our view of Christie as a purveyor of a snobbish “heritage” view of England is largely coloured by the popular TV series of the eighties. She is fair to Christie: “she found a voice in which to cultivate the ordinary and the informal … it was a modern Englishness which sought to shrug off some of the snobberies of the past.”

Aristocracy: the icing on the cake

She exonerates Christie of loving lords, but she pushes the snobbery onto Margery Allingham and Dorothy Sayers, who “try to dazzle their readers with mesmeric titles, flattering them with a sense of intimacy with the ‘great’ and enthusing sycophantically over patrician taste.” Sayers, perhaps, though I don’t recognise her in the above description. Allingham’s Mr Campion may be titled – he may even be a royal – but this is only hinted at, and he lives in a small London flat with an ex-burglar.

Light accuses Marsh of “lingering on the munificence of the London season” in Death in a White Tie, when in fact she is criticising its wastefulness. Poirot murmurs “pauvre femme”, when going through the pathetic effects of a working-class murder victim. “One can only imagine” Peter Wimsey’s reaction, says Light. Yes, one can – I imagine he would have been just as sympathetic.

Does she really know her subject? She says that Christie “came from that couche of the English middle class which managed to be badly off but confidently so”. When Christie was a child her family was quite well off (a couche is a layer) – later they lost their money. And her father was American. Of Christie’s autobiography, she says “it is not written, as one might expect, around moments of deep feeling and psychic crisis or growth”. This is a useful clue to what liberal feminists think novels (and women's lives) OUGHT to be about. Detective stories can, of course, never measure up.

"The pleasure of her writing comes from the way that a seemingly breezy style is suffused with a sharp sense of irony." (Nicholas Blincoe, The Observer, January 2009)

More here.

Agatha Christie: An Autobiography

The Detective Novels of Ngaio Marsh

"She knows - but she mustn't be told!"

Ngaio Marsh was a damned good writer of detective stories – most of the time. She loved to lay bare an exotic milieu and a large cast of diverse characters, and was good at repulsive but attractive men, and sympathetic murderers. Here are my favourites and also-rans.

A Man Lay Dead (1934) Her debut in the cliché’d country house mode, plus Russian spies. We are introduced to her series detective, Roderick Alleyn. Not worth rereading.

Enter a Murderer (1935) She hits her stride with a theatrical background and the engaging journalist, Nigel Bathgate.

The Nursing Home Murder
(1935) We meet the prissy but perceptive lawyer Mr Ratisbon and learn a lot about social attitudes of the 30s.

Death in Ecstasy
(1936) Dodgy goings on in a fringe sect with likeable characters and an undercurrent of drug-dealing.

Vintage Murder
(1937) Back in New Zealand with a theatrical troupe. Skip the tasteless slapstick with a fat policeman.

Artists in Crime
(1938) Alleyn meets and falls in love with painter Agatha Troy. Watch out for gruesomeness and appalling snobbery.

Death in a White Tie
(1938) Set among debutantes. Apart from Lord Robert Gospell most of the characters are unappealing and coincidence takes too much of a hand.

Overture to Death (1939) Marsh is really nasty about femmes d’un certain age in love with the vicar.

Death at the Bar
(1940) A few interesting characters, but too gruesome again. She had a thing about vomiting. Review here.

Surfeit of Lampreys
(1941), published in USA as Death of a Peer. Unreadable – features an eccentric family we are supposed to like.

Death and the Dancing Footman
(1942) Right back on form as some bitter enemies are marooned by snowdrifts in the early days of the war. They include rival beauty specialists and a plastic surgeon.

Colour Scheme
(1943) Brilliant story with a Pygmalion theme set in a failing NZ spa.

Died in the Wool
(1945) Another terrific story with appealing characters set on a sheep farm in NZ (watch out for grisly corpse, though).

Final Curtain (1947) Troy Alleyn paints a theatrical knight while waiting for her detective husband to come home from NZ. Great story and characters including a cat and a horrid little girl. Pokes fun at fashionable Freudian psychology.

Swing Brother Swing (1949), published in USA as A Wreath for Rivera. The characters are involved with a ghastly jazz band and an agony “uncle”. Only flaw – the couple we care about are side-lined. Review here.

Opening Night (1951), published in USA as Night at the Vulcan. Her masterpiece and a Cinderella story set in the theatre. Seen largely through the eyes of an aspiring actress who gives the narrative a witty flavour.

Spinsters in Jeopardy
(1954), republished in the USA as The Bride of Death (1955). Sects and drugs in France. Great story, though she just can’t do children and is sentimental about the “salt of the earth” chauffeur.

Scales of Justice
(1955) One of her best, set among the country gentry. There are the usual soppy young lovers, but the real romance is between two middle-aged people.

Off With His Head
(1957), published in USA as Death of a Fool. I can’t reread this one, which is all about Morris dancing.

Singing in the Shrouds
(1959) A fabulous tale set on a cargo ship with passengers who include a priest, a lesbian, a femme fatale and a murderer. Review here.

False Scent
(1960) Great story with a theatrical cast and an ageing star. Review here.

Hand in Glove
(1962) Marsh puts snobbery under the microscope again in a country village. The young lovers are present, but likeable.

Dead Water (1964) Shenanigans around a healing spring on an island. I can’t reread this one either: the story and main characters are too nasty.

Death at the Dolphin
(1967), published in USA as Killer Dolphin. A cracker set in an old theatre where a young company is funded by a mysterious millionaire. Review here.

Clutch of Constables (1968) Wonderful on many levels. Troy Alleyn takes centre stage when she takes a river trip and begins to have doubts about her fellow passengers.

When in Rome (1970) A disparate set of characters end up on the same guided tour of “San Tommaso” with its Mithraic crypt. Great.

Tied Up in Tinsel
(1972) It's Christmas time at the Gothic prisoners' rehabilitation centre. I can’t reread this one, and apparently she had trouble with it.

Black As He's Painted
(1974) Her last masterpiece, focused on retired Sam Whipplestone, his London “village” and his knowledge of an obscure African country.

Last Ditch
(1977) Stars the Alleyns’ son and is difficult to get through.

Grave Mistake
(1978) She flickers back to something approaching form, but this is a pallid tale with a deeply unpleasant pub scene.

Photo Finish
(1980) Forgettable tale set on an island in an NZ lake.

Light Thickens
(1982) We return to the characters of Death at the Dolphin, but she should have left them where they were.

More on Marsh here, and links to the rest.

So, was Ngaio Marsh a snob?

I’ve now read Joanne Drayton’s biography of Ngaio Marsh, Her Life in Crime. As an Amazon reviewer says, ”it could have done with a darn good edit... There is a huge focus on her theatrical productions, with discussion on their merits or otherwise, reviews, thoughts on the production itself. The books are merely described.”

Drayton gives a good account of Marsh’s life (though I skipped the theatrical bits). Marsh divided her time between New Zealand and England, where she fell in with a moneyed set. She even ran an interior décor shop for a time (I wish she’d used it as background for a book).

But Drayton doesn’t really know much about English society between the wars. “1931 was the heyday of the flapper” – that was the 20s or earlier. In Marsh’s first book a murder unleashes chaos “among the sports-car driving, dress for dinner, horsey set”. Everyone from solicitors and bank managers up dressed for dinner in the 30s. Dt Sgt Smith turns up to snap the corpse with his “Box Brownie”. Surely he’d have had a more sophisticated camera? And wasn’t he called Thompson?

“On the surface the four Queens of Crime, as they became known, seemed to be conventional upper-class women with values rooted in the 'smiling and beautiful countryside' ”. None of the Queens (Christie, Marsh, Sayers, Allingham) were upper class, and it’s Sherlock Holmes who points out that the “smiling and beautiful countryside” hides more crimes than the worst slum. She also says the “privileged” Christie came from a “country squire habitat” with forelock-tugging servants. Christie grew up in the seaside resort of Torquay and had a mutually respectful, business-like relationship with her family's servants. Allingham's family were writers, Sayers' father was a vicar, Marsh's father was a bank clerk.

The English class system

Drayton even calls Holmes upper class! Perhaps – and she's not the only one – she thinks our upper class is much wider than it is. It's an extremely narrow stratum, mainly confined to people with titles and country estates, and those who have enough money to mix with the aristocracy. Holmes doesn't reveal much about his family – though he lets drop one day that one of his ancestors was a French painter.

Drayton gets that Marsh’s Death in a White Tie is a dissection of the English class layer cake, not a eulogy to it: “Ngaio’s attitude to snobbery was clear – she disliked it.” But she talks of “Ngaio’s criticism of the rhetorical aspects of the class system”. Does she mean hierarchical?

Here are a few more howlers: "Alleyn’s natural habitat would remain the English hothouse cosy … The class system inevitably rears its cosy head in Scales of Justice…” What's cosy about the class system? In Scales one of the most appealing characters is a nurse (she praises the hierarchy to Lady Lacklander but calls her "dear", and Lady L treats her as a friend). Drayton even calls Death and the Dancing Footmans cast “cosy” – nearly all of them fear, envy, suspect or hate at least one of the others.

She thinks Victoriana is a plural, like data and media. She refers to “Cliff, ‘a full-sized enfant prodigé’ [sic]”. I’m sure Marsh referred to Cliff correctly as an “enfant prodige” (no accent). In the same paragraph Drayton “corrects” Marsh by referring to Cliff as a “protégé”. She reports that Sam Whipplestone, hero of Black as He’s Painted, looks forward to life in “some subfuse [sic] layby”. The word is “subfusc”, and it means “drab”. (Not entirely her fault – the typo is in the paperback.) Marsh writes a letter from Scotland: “Hollywoodhouse was something out of a fairytale.” The Scottish palace is called Holyroodhouse – a far cry from LA.

Otherwise, the book is easy to read and well written – she talks of someone’s dreams “beginning to fade and curl at the edges”. And she makes it clear that Marsh wrote about snobbish characters (often hilariously), without (most of the time) being a snob herself.

More here.

Class by Jilly Cooper explains English society in detail.

Saturday 13 March 2010

Class Euphemisms

English society is class-ridden. We're fond of saying it's "still" class-ridden, as if we're quite confident that class is about to go away. We feel a bit guilty about it, which is why we refer to it in a covert and snide way.

all the advantages private school

background class origins

bohemian, liberal knows people who aren’t in the top 400, or who don’t have three houses and three holidays a year

classy posh (but posh people would never say it)

coiffure Mrs Salmond is carefully coiffured. Times May 14 07 (ie lower middle class)

community, as in the local community, community picnic, community choir working-class or black people living in an area who need to be organised and have things laid on for them by patronising middle class people. The middle classes aren’t “the community” because they can afford to live where they like and are always moving on.

More class euphemisms here.

And many more in my mini ebook Boo and Hooray.

Thursday 11 March 2010

Boo and Hooray Terms

Some words just signal BOO or HOORAY! Eighteenth century Philosopher Jeremy Bentham called them derogatory and eulogistic terms. They sum up an entire attitude and somehow make it impossible to disagree. In fact, boo words aren't euphemisms, they're dysphemisms. The complete list will shortly be published as a mini ebook.

belch Industrial processes you don't like always "belch" smoke, sparks, fumes, sulphur, steam etc.

clinical unsympathetic, unemotional Should mean what we do in clinics (doctors use it this way).

consumerism Chavs buying chavvy things.

controversial Overused, typically to show that the writer disapproves of something ("the government's controversial academy schools scheme"). Guardian stylebook

craven The UK does what the US wants.

didactic Some time in the 80s educationists decided that teachers shouldn't be didactic, ie teach. So they have to include exercises that the children can do in couples and groups.

dutiful Has overtones of conservative or even prissy and dull. 19th century women dutifully stitched samplers. On the elm-lined streets of Washington's Fourth Ward, where residents live in neat brick houses and dutifully tend their azaleas. NYT The active membership of the Church is largely made up of devout, personally conservative and conforming people who dutifully care for their families. Web People dutifully attend meetings and lectures when they could just “attend” them. Monks are particularly dutiful.

hawking Overselling things you don't want.

institution Marriage is an outmoded institution.

march, swathe The solution is to “march Muslim children into separate institutions where, swathed in Koranic teachings and constrictive dress…” Janice Turner Times Feb 14 09 You can tell she doesn’t like the idea of faith schools, can’t you? (Subtle pejoration is often conveyed through verbs of motion or location.)

mass market, mass media, mass culture Those ghastly chavs again.

materialism Chavs buying vulgar things especially flat-screen televisions – in the olden days it was colour televisions we disapproved of.

More euphemisms here.
And here. 



Advice on writing usually tells you to eliminate adjectives – yes, if the only adjectives you know are major, key and wonderful. You can say a lot with an adjective. You can nail a whole phenomenon. A lot of good ones are pejorative and also slangy – maybe because the polite people who make the rules about polite language are also making a good thing out of being vacuous, smug, stuck-up and slippery, or selling philosophies that are smarmy and chicken-soupy.

abrabracabrantesque antiseptic bitchy bonkers cloudy ghostly ghostlily grating mean medicinal misty myth-making over-bright overdone over-cooked over-blown over-explained over-friendly over-hyped over-inflated over-interpreted over-civilized over-stated needy nerdy neuralgic parochial pious peevish pointy posturing precious preening self-anointed self-applauding self-appointed self-centred self-congratulatory self-created self-deceiving self-defeating self-deluding self-dramatizing self-engrossed rubbishy salty sham shoddy silly sissy slow smug snarky snobbish sorry stealthy stuck-up sugary testy trashy touchy upscale wafty wet wimpy

More adjectives here and here and here and here.