Sunday 27 August 2023

Colin Watson's Lonelyheart 4122

I have just finished Lonelyheart 4122,  my first Colin Watson mystery featuring Miss Teatime (written in 1967). Watson's "Flaxborough Chronicles" span the 70s. "Four of the books were adapted for television in 1977, and starred Anton Rodgers as Detective Inspector Purbright and Christopher Timothy as his Detective Sergeant, Sydney Love," says Wikipedia. (Brenda Bruce, pictured, played Miss Teatime.)

The premise is interesting. Miss Lucilla Teatime (an elegant lady in her 50s) finds that London is getting too hot for her, reasons unspecified. She picks on Flaxborough, a fictional town in Lincolnshire, as a sphere of operations, and books a room in the best hotel. Meanwhile, two local ladies have gone missing after joining an introduction agency.

As the detectives investigate the agency, Miss Teatime signs up. It is clear as soon as she meets the overpoweringly naval "Commander Jack Trelawney" that the impression of riches she gave the agency was the attraction. 

The writing is good, and at times even poetic. Watson keeps a sharp lookout for class markers. The detectives peer into the house abandoned by one of the missing women, and see:

A stair-post, shiny brown lino, an oak hall stand – all neat, clean and rather depressing... cold, bulgy leather suite... a kitchen, that looked designed for the preparation of tinned salmon sandwiches and bedtime Horlicks and nothing else.

Sargeant Love is hauled away from his high tea:

A feast of buttered haddock, wholemeal scones, tinned oranges, Carnation milk and Eccles cakes. 

At the dénouement, Miss T is ushered into this interior:

They entered a long, low-beamed room, thickly carpeted in blue, with yellow cushioned light wood furniture, an enormous television set and, in the three deep window recesses, earthenware bowls of cactus and succulents. The walls were of pale grey rough cast plaster. On that facing the windows hung a Gauguin reproduction.

The owners could afford to do up their thatched cottage, but chose a rather downmarket, Sunday Supplement style.

On the final page, the publishers explain:

It’s easy to guess why Colin Watson’s novels have been overlooked in recent decades – they’re 20th century police procedurals of a gentler pace than is fashionable today. It is just as easy to pinpoint now what makes them timeless. They are each and every one a genuine mystery; beautifully written; and full of wry, satirical but ultimately kind-hearted humour.

By "gentler pace" they mean "slower pace". But, as my examples show, this book at least is hardly "timeless". It is set firmly in a time and a place. Published in 1967, it must have been written in 1966, just before weekend hippies in headbands and Oxford Street beads invaded even backwaters like Flaxborough.

Lonelyheart 4122 is an enjoyable read, and we get Miss Teatime's joke very quickly: despite her respectable and attractive exterior, she is a hard-drinking, cheroot-smoking babe with a line in scatological humour. And it wears thin.

By "wry and satirical" the publishers probably mean "Watson takes the mickey out of the romantic platitudes peddled by matrimonial agencies" – this is one of the best bits. Plus, of course the digs at the tastes of the classes who are not quite quite. But the publishers don't want to put readers off, so they insist that the satire is "ultimately kind-hearted". It didn't come across that way to me. I was "ultimately" put off by the occasional repulsive details, and Miss T's unfunny references to bodily functions. Censorship was abolished in the UK in 1968, and there was a general feeling of "Whoopee! We can be rude now!" "Pee, po, belly, bum, drawers," as the Flanders and Swann song put it.

More on mysteries here, and links to the rest. 

Saturday 26 August 2023

Ten Rules for Mystery Writers

Monsignor Ronald Knox drew up some rules for the Detective Club of the 1930s that included "No Chinamen, no ghosts, no identical twins". But perhaps we need a new set.

1. Do not make your female central character "deep" by giving her a drink problem.

2. Do not broaden your male central character by making him like post-1950 jazz.

3. Gawd blimey oh Reilly, guv, nobody shall talk in dialect, begorrah.

4. Give your detective a very dull, mainstream car.

5. Your single central character's orphaned, rebellious nephew/niece can be packed off to boarding school.

6. Your central character is a bit of a computer whiz, instead of leaving this stuff to a 20+ ex-Borstal boy or girl. Take the opportunity to educate your audience about saving their files in a folder on their hard disk and thence in the Cloud. "Still keeping 30 tabs open instead of using bookmarks, Sarge?"

7. Substitute a row of asterisks for sex scenes. *****

8. Never let your central character quote poetry to themselves. ("Those words of Keats came into her mind...")

9. Be as snobbish as you like about food and interior decor – the info will prove invaluable to future historians.

10. Whatever you do, don't try to be "timeless": be as specific as possible about this years's clothes, debates, psychological theories and intellectual fads. They'll prove invaluable to future comedians.

I'd junk the interior monologue and tragic back stories, too. Your hero can claim he's too shallow to be depressed. Adopt the "I am a camera" mode of narration. Any autistic character must not be diagnosed with, and then cured of, PTSD. Plots must not be powered by historic witchcraft persecutions. Nobody "grows" or learns lessons. The book isn't an excuse to display your knowledge of Lebanese cuisine or Icelandic poetry. But I'd like a complicated booby trap as the murder weapon.

Here are Knox's rules from the 1920s:

The criminal must be someone mentioned in the early part of the story, but must not be anyone whose thoughts the reader has been allowed to follow.

All supernatural or preternatural agencies are ruled out as a matter of course.

Not more than one secret room or passage is allowable.

No hitherto undiscovered poisons may be used, nor any appliance which will need a long scientific explanation at the end.

No Chinaman must figure in the story.

No accident must ever help the detective, nor must he ever have an unaccountable intuition which proves to be right.

The detective must not himself commit the crime.

The detective must not light on any clues which are not instantly produced for the inspection of the reader.

The stupid friend of the detective, the Watson, must not conceal any thoughts which pass through his mind; his intelligence must be slightly, but very slightly, below that of the average reader.

Twin brothers, and doubles generally, must not appear unless we have been duly prepared for them.

More here, and links to the rest.

Friday 25 August 2023

Logic: Argument 101

Don't we all love having vicious arguments on social media? Look out for the following logical fallacies and make sure you don't use them yourself. (This is just a primer – it's a huge subject.)

Petitio principii or Begging the Question
It means assuming that what you're trying to prove has already been proved.

Some words assume a phenomenon is bad. We can’t possibly give up cattle farming. Why? Because if we did the land would be covered in SCRUB (pictured). If you call it “native woodland” the argument isn’t nearly so compelling. Why must we pull down these Victorian terraces? Because they are SLUMS, not because they’re standing in the way of a lucrative development.

Likewise people gorge junk food and guzzle gas, and consume mediocre mass culture. These words are the opposite of neutral – they are all loaded.

Or you call their argument a "bizarre fixation". "Obsession" is also a giveaway. 

You dub your opponents "zealots".

Foreign doctors are "lured" here with "cash" rather than invited and paid a salary.

And if you use the word "disgusting", you've lost my sympathy – and possibly the argument.

No True Scotsman

"No Scotsman will be seen in public without a kilt!"
"I've often seen Scottish men wearing trousers."
"No TRUE Scotsman will be seen in public without a kilt!'

No true artist would ask for payment. The satisfaction of creating the art itself is payment enough.

Real journalists are agents of people, not power. (John Pilger, paraphrase)

"Real women are incapable of violence" is 100% patriarchy y'all. (@AmyDentata)

Real men lead women to Christ not their bedrooms.

Straw Man
Your opponent accuses you of putting forward a ridiculous argument which is a parody of your position – a straw man, easily pulled apart.

I've lost count how many times it's been suggested that we'd like to see an aisle full of boring beige boxes. (Let Toys Be Toys, campaigners against pink/blue segregation of toy shops)

It's utter nonsense to suggest that synthetic phonics taught children to 'read without enjoyment'. (@SusanGodsland) The words "barking at print" are also used.

If you can create a set of logical steps from what someone actually said to an even worse thing, then you are justified in treating that worse thing as the person's true view. It's a form of violence for that person to even require you to reveal the steps by which you got to their "true" view. (@adamkotsko)

Standing shoulder to shoulder with Mary Whitehouse
In the 80s, if you objected to pornography, you'd be told "We can't disapprove of pornography because that would mean standing shoulder to shoulder with Mary Whitehouse". Mrs W was a campaigner against "filth" in the media and maybe she had a point. These days the bugbear is more likely to be "Jordan Peterson".

And we couldn't believe in evolution because it led to Social Darwinism.

"We can't think X because it's believed by enemy Y" is not very convincing logic.

Ad hominem
You've run out of arguments, so you call your opponent a brainwashed right-winger, a social justice warrior, a degenerate harpy, a do-gooder – whatever comes to mind. Insults are not arguments.

One form of ad hominem is to accuse your opponent of being insincere – but if your opponents are just luvvies, virtue signallers, champagne socialists, why are you so threatened by them?

The dystopian world of the preening vaccine-mongers. ( There's something pejorative about "monger". We give warnings, they are doom-mongers etc.)

"We don't believe anything they say!", or disbelieving in anything published by the Mail or Spectator, may be a form of ad hominem.

"Twitter is just lies peddled by loons!" claimed a person with a Twitter account. ("Peddled" is also a giveaway.)

Projection, Tu quoque, Deflecting, Mirroring, the same to you with knobs on
You've been brainwashed! No, you've been brainwashed.
You're a cult. No, you're a cult!
Your argument is self-contradictory. In your post No. XYZ from 2014 you contradicted yourself!

Accuse materialists of magical thinking.

Bait and Switch
100CE: The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand! (Kingdom of Heaven fails to appear.)
200CE: The Kingdom of Heaven is within you!

You only find true freedom in the Catholic church because true freedom is freedom from doubt. (The Jesuits)

A says “avocados cure cancer – but big pharma won’t let it be published!”. B patiently explains scientific method and points out that the promising (no more) avocado results have been published. C ripostes: "But if I or a loved one was dying I’d try 'unicorn’s milk or dragon’s brains'."

Consolation prize? It’s a Wonderful Life – American dream goes bust – Jimmy Stewart works hard all his life and doesn't make it – oh but look how he’s improved other’s lives – just a bit. Pundits say: "That's what we meant all along!"

“Jesus wasn’t single, the church is his bride” is one of the most contrived takes I’ve heard in a while. I shouldn’t be surprised, but here we are. (@thomaslhorrocks)

Be yourself – I mean "Discard early indoctrination, unhelpful behaviour patterns you've been taught. They aren't YOU."

You've never had a partner, so you get sent to a psychotherapist. After a few years, the therapist lets fall that the process is intended to produce "an integrated personality", and presumably they'd apply the same method whatever the "presenting problem", which is never the real problem, of course. Isn't this rather dishonest?

Argumentum ad Populum
"I'm just saying what everybody's thinking."

Christian apologists used to say that their faith must be true because so many people let themselves be torn apart by wild beasts in the Colosseum rather than renounce it.

This is bad, but so is That, therefore we should leave This alone.

Never mind injustice X, why aren't you fighting injustice Y?

A male friend who has daughters, a granddaughter and a great-granddaughter, dismisses my concerns about gender and children because it's "not as serious as climate change". (@Flashmaggie)

Jam yesterday, jam tomorrow, but never jam today
In the 80s, left-wing men would promise us that women would have equal rights come the revolution.

A: We should be kind to children.
B: You mean we should mollycoddle them and pander to their every whim?
A: I was just thinking about not being cruel to them, actually.

Perhaps this is distortion, or even Straw Man again.

A flatmate of mine used to say: "When you said X, naturally I assumed you meant Y, because everybody does..." 

There's a term, so there must be a reality behind it. Now let's all come up with our own analyses of what the term means, and discuss them until the cows come home. And when we've done that, we can start on counting the sands of the seashore...

cancel culture
human nature

But kleptomania and pyromania have been downgraded - we don't mention their names and they are no longer things.

Define your terms
If you don't define your terms, you can use the word "peace" to mean something different from what your audience or opponent understands. Terms should be agreed on.

There's glory for you!'

'I don't know what you mean by "glory",' Alice said.

Humpty Dumpty smiled contemptuously. 'Of course you don't — till I tell you. I meant "there's a nice knock-down argument for you!"'

'But "glory" doesn't mean "a nice knock-down argument",' Alice objected.

'When I use a word,' Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, 'it means just what I choose it to mean — neither more nor less.'
(Lewis Carroll, Alice through the Looking-Glass)

Move the goalposts
Redefine your terms. Suddenly. In the middle of the argument. Without telling anybody.

Trust the science! Oh, I meant social science.

Or you can dodge between the literal and metaphorical meaning of a word.

Order your opponent to make ropes of sand
In the fairytale, the sorcerer summoned some demons who asked "What can we do for you, O master?" Whatever he gave them to do, they finished the job in a few minutes and were back again. Finally he told them to go to the seashore and make ropes of sand. They never bothered him again.

"Well, have you asked everybody from this demographic in the whole world?"

Or you get them to memorise all 32 g*nders and their corresponding bar-code flags. Tomorrow the list will be different.

More Loopy Logic here, and links to the rest.

Grammar: Nuance

When you're losing the argument, you can always reach for the word "nuance":

nuance, reality is more nuanced: Often used as a “get out of jail free” card. Can also mean “imaginary”, “metaphorical”, “intuitive”, “counterintuitive”, “watered-down”, “insoluble moral problem” or “This statement means whatever I want it to mean”. Or may just mean “Freud spouted a lot of tosh, but he had a few good ideas”. Or “Nobody has a monopoly on the truth”. Or “Nature acquaints us with strange bedfellows”. Or “I’m not going to stand here and say it is or it isn’t”. Or “Your completely opposed view does NOT trump mine!” Simply put, it means: “I’m right, so ner!”

nuance II: I am going to use this word with several different meanings, but I'm not going to tell you which, and will swap retrospectively if the going gets tough.

nuance III: A call for more “nuance” may be like the astrology apologist’s last-ditch defence: “Won’t you even admit there might be something in it?” Does it even mean that two contradictory statements can co-exist? Or does it mean “so generalised as to be undisprovable”? 

nuance IV: I am just going to restate the proposition you don’t agree with in a kinder, gentler way.

nuanced, subtle: indirect, oblique, nonverbal, euphemistic, subtextual, deep, carefully hidden (Or perhaps “sees both sides, foresees knock-on effects, aware of pros and cons”. Or "You may feel differently when you hear about my feelings and back story.")

nuanced, subtle II: fudged, deliberately ambiguous, obfuscation, misdirection, dogwhistle, subtext, hints, leaves the door open for a quick retreat. Could be taken either way (so I can’t lose). Statements that can be neither falsified nor confirmed (so we can carry on waffling until the cows come home, or the end of time, whichever is sooner). I daren’t come right out and say it because it’s probably illegal, or I might be attacked. Deniable in case the argument doesn’t go my way. Ultimately, “nuanced” means “slippery as a blob of mercury”. Or even “snide”.

Update, 2021: “Nuanced” is being used to mean “but this cloud has a silver lining”. Perhaps they just mean “contradictory”, or even “paradoxical”.

Archbishop Wake in 1718, when speaking of the 39 Articles, wrote: We have left every one to interpret them in his own sense; and they are indeed so generally framed, that they may, without an equivocation, have more senses than one fairly put upon them. (@RyanNDanker)

More tips on what to say when losing the argument here.
All this and much much more in my book on euphemisms and their opposite, Boo & Hooray.

Friday 18 August 2023

Grammar: Neologisms 23

Never mind lost archaisms and little-known dialect: I like the neologisms people come up with spontaneously every week.

Do all modern architects go to 'whaling shed' school? (NJ, pictured)
The marionettes are weary and starting to snip their strings. (Eliza Mondegreen)

They have the same lies that they repeat as if on shuffle. (@scepticalPhil)
Absolutely nothing has changed in Ireland except the curtains(@faintlyfalling)

Some bearers of bad news insert footholds and guardrails. (Eliza Mondegreen) 

I am not your addle-pated great-aunt from East Nowhere! (Jessica Fletcher)
Global Britain has become Globule Britain. (@PercyBlakeney63)

What's "neo-intellectual", and what exactly is wrong with it? (@DaRealWulfshady)
People with a PhD in meaningless word salad and histrionics. (@thotcrimimale)

There’s a faint downwelling light. (Monkey Cage on the deep ocean.)
The press looked down on pop and up at rock. Mike Batt

Crime Horror Sci-fi. Nearly all the food groups. 
(Zoë @Z303)
Looking for an ego gap in a crowded online marketplace. (Jo Bartosch)

Onwards and upwards, or even sideways. (James Braxton)
Edward Leigh MP, whose political ideas were formed in the late Pleistocene... (Brynley Heaven)

In such a short time the city went from iconic London to Bladerunner. (Clinton Harris)
Without a shimmer of a shadow of doubt. (Judge Charles Falconer) 

Actor Alfred Burke’s early career consisted of playing “third bandit from the right”.
 (TV Times)
Flat-earth nonsense from people whose heads seem to button up at the back. (@JamesUnfettered)

I think the bulb's gone in the Enlightenment. (@mcdonnelljp)
I’m not sure why you think sub-par jokes get your porous point across better. (Via Twitter)
Without wishing to come across as Joan of Snark... (Guardian)

The gumbo of influences that shaped the Crescent City. (Aerial America)
The Ministry of Fuel and Power, known to all as the Ministry of Fools in Power. (LW)

He’s so dense that light bends round him. (Malcolm Tucker, The Thick of It)

It is hard to identify ground zero for berberine as a supposed weight-control substance, but a reasonable guess is that someone seeing the Ozempic bandwagon accelerate as it rolled by had the idea of scavenging through the scientific literature to find some substance that could be passed off as a bargain-basement relative. That bit of fool’s gold was likely found in a review paper published in... (Quackwatch. Nothing new, just a brilliant use of metaphors.)

It's flat, nasal, horrible and unmelodic, and if that's what the kids like nowadays they have ears made from jute. (@fliceverett)

This is farewell. This is the dot at the end of the sentence. (Siegfried and Roy’s manager, Bernie Yumans, when the duo retired)

The feminism is very much, ‘I just learned about feminism on Tuesday’, but I still loved the film. (Wendy Lee on Barbie)

A nice design. On the other tentacle, I've always admired those old UFOs designed by the aliens to look like 1950s lamp-shades. (Michael Frederick Green)

When you miss the exit for pseudoscience and are well on your way to conspiracy land. (@jonathanstea)

Deploying hifalutin and wildly dishonest language to cover for ideas that wouldn't pass Argumentation and Persuasion 101. (@elizamondegreen)

I’m not telling anyone how to live their life here, but if I failed this badly at writing a sentence then I’d probably give up words altogether and start communicating exclusively via handbells and eyebrow movements. (@TakeThatDarwin)

The creationist-to-actual-Nazi pipeline is about half a foot long and has both a moving walkway and helpful signage posted every two inches. (@TakeThatDarwin)

I have enough trouble with Latin without you adding even more noodles to the soup, young man! (@JaneJago1)

The state school I went to was very left wing and didn't like competition of any kind, or the idea of teaching children beyond the three things you can do with mud today.

I may have tipped too pretentious on this one and fallen off the Cliff of Insufferability. (@ingelramdecoucy)

Starting to notice lots of situations where humans hallucinate answers instead of just admitting that they don’t know. (@kareem_carr)

I’ve seen a lot of fusion breakthrough claims in my day. It's a long way to Tipperary yet, folks. (@jordanbpeterson)

I’m sick of this skip-to-the-end thinking. That if you disagree with one thing you agree with something else. (Doozer McDooze)

I'm only about a quarter of the way through my list of things to be cross about today. And I started early. (@latsot)
Mostly these days one just has to speed-fume(@OpheliaBenson)

If I’m eating fried rice with onions in it I will go full needle in a haystack on that bitch and pick every single one of them out. (@mxcxsxn227)

Old-school left-wingers who cared about stuff like poor people are now relegated to the bargain rail at the back of the shop. (@Matt_H_UK)

Britain’s Next PM, the Channel 4 debate: That the UK is bound for hell in a hand-assisted vehicle, there is little doubt. All that remains is to discover which of these escapees from Pandora’s box will taxi us there; a more wretched collection of dissemblers, idiots, narcissists and people who have mistakenly taken drugs is difficult to imagine under one studio roof, but here we are. An asbestos-clad Krishnan Guru-Murthy meets the contenders before an audience drawn from across this broken isle. God actually help us. (AJC, Guardian June 2019 Ali Caterall admitted on Twitter he never expected the paragraph to go in exactly as written.)

My removal is the greatest stitch-up since the Bayeux Tapestry. (Boris Johnson)

I am not unfamiliar with the "French intellectual." To the extent that I wonder if they grow them in vats. (Allan Brewster)

Liz waters everything except the grass every day with carefully saved washing-up water. Anything that dies despite such cosseting has failed the audition and will not be in the show next year. (Roger Bridgman)

Watching Dune. It's very pretty but I have never encountered anything that takes itself quite this seriously and I've met North Korean officials. (@DmitryOpines)

There’s a kind of perverted shop-window country-house Catholicism a la Evelyn Waugh which makes more of the performance while funking the challenge posed by Christian ethics. (Jonathan Keates)

I could spot a Nazi at a hundred yards in a snowstorm, even if he was dressed in white and hiding behind a hill. (Iain Maclean, TJ's War)

Studying the Lithuanian language is like taking a walk in the Lithuanian forest. It all starts out 'Ooh look at that lovely Indo-European root!'; but before long you've been poisoned by toxic mushrooms, gored by an elk and driven mad by forest gods. (@DrFrancisYoung)

I'm not sure how you affirm an individual's "critical thinking" when they believe any old junk they find down the back of the internet that affirms their prejudices. (Heather Ann Williams)

[Anti-vaxxers] should be careful to not bump their heads on the stalactites when they return to their natural homes. (@BobKerns)

There are few things in life [more disappointing] than going to someone's house, being offered a cup of tea, saying "Oh, yes, thank you", and then being handed a cup of warm aftershave with milk in it. And having to drink it, out of politeness. (Gareth Hughes on Earl Grey Tea)

Some will feel superior for "getting it" and others will slam the book shut with a cluster of cartoon question marks above their heads. (Amazon commenter on John Hawkes’ The Lime Twig. Sounds unreadable – I mean “hallucinatory and pointillistic”.)

Fifteen years of Peppy Helpfulness – I can't fawn like that any more. (Says an exhausted shop worker.)

Fans of harmonic men's groups will get a kick out of the title tune, crooned by an unknown gaggle of gentlemen. (imdb)

Having managed to cremate my lunch, I haven't got the energy to start again, so it's takeaway delivery time. (Tiffer Gilliard)

The problem isn't that FB can't deal with it: it's that the human and algorithmic systems that *could* have been built to deal with it were, instead, implemented as an opaque thicket that profitably fails to deal with it while providing deniability. (Nigel Heffernan)

Don't get started on Matalan’s boys vs girls school uniform. Boys get almost armour-plated fabric where girls have to wear trousers with all the structural integrity of a fairy’s wing. (@SianEldridge)

It is always useful when a parent or relative knows how they want to be interred and tells you about it. Too many people don't tell anybody, and then the bereaved survivors are left to puzzle out (or fight about) whether Auntie wanted it fully hymnal or whether she would want Cousin Sherman to speak. (Brenda W. Clough)

Dehumanising rhetoric was always the tool of identitarianism; its orientation on the political spectrum is irrelevant. These people have not learnt anything from 20th C history. I fear America is about to retake that module. (@tryingattimes)

The establishment, marking their own homework. (Daniel Ribot, in the context of getting someone who doesn’t think racism is a problem to chair an inquiry into racism in the UK.)

I look for serious reforming ideas from Starmer, not just sound-bleats about levelling up or a new tomorrow. (Jonathan Keates)

More here, and links to the rest.

Thursday 3 August 2023

Grammar: Clichés 10 (in quotes)

Clichés – do they arrive in an unstoppable flow, or an endless stream? Are we overwhelmed by a tsunami of banalities? Inundated by a flood of stale metaphors? Can we ever purge ourselves of these tired expressions as our overburdened prose limps to a foregone conclusion?

We wish our correspondents would leave off use of the silly slang phrases “awfully jolly”, “awfully pretty” et cetera. An earthquake, forked lightning and tremendously loud thunder, conflagration, or the shrieks of agonised sufferers – these may be correctly termed “awful”. (Girls’ Own, 1880s)

Characters repeatedly “flit”, “flutter” and “float”... We encounter “forbidden fruits”, “love nests”, “wreaking havoc”, “unspoken tension”, “wildly inappropriate” and “rampant promiscuity”. (Times on Capote’s Women by Lawrence Leamer)

Oneiric: a word that looks impressive in a book review in one of the quality papers. Nobody knows what it means. See also: lambent, limpid, plangent. (@AodhBC)

What I don't recommend is the ghastly decision to shoehorn into the text otiose references to her personal and family life. Insofar as they give any insight into her as a person they serve mostly to irritate. She runs up hills, mountain bikes up mountains, does spin classes at dawn, cycles everywhere, collects eight kinds of mushrooms out in the woods, has a modest cottage in Hay on Wye and is a kind of ordinary person with knobs on... Where these acknowledgments stray into description, it is usually to note character traits in which prisoners aren't taken, focuses are laser-like and people work through illnesses, which is exhausting and boring, made even more difficult by almost all these folk seeming to work for a different acronym. (David Aaronovitch)

Instead of brevity and glorious poetic imagery, we are offered cliché (“gossamer summer”, “sugary snow”). (Times review of After Sappho)

In life, there are some certainties. Tributes always flood in (they never trickle), lucre is always filthy, virtues are always extolled, rises are always meteoric, gauntlets are always run. (Victor Lewis-Smith on That’s Life)

Here’s a straightforward, largely well paced and sympathetic account of the life, marred by a slight weakness for banalities of the ‘As he waved goodbye to England, he could not have known that in five years he would be back’ type. Of Chandler, drunk, calling his wife, threatening suicide, Williams tells us: ‘It must have been awful for her.’ Really? (Sam Leith in the Spectator on a biography of Raymond Chandler. A Mysterious Something in the Light, Tom Williams)

When dancer Isadora Duncan was planning her autobiography with writer Sewell Stokes she mused: “Memoirs always have ‘a little old woman in rusty black’ in them somewhere.” In the end Stokes wrote the book for her.

Goodness, though, the clichés in this book. Not just any old clichés, but a whole glossary of posh ones. Penny Junor depicts Camilla’s world as a place where friends “get on famously”, are a “tower of strength”, “go the extra mile” and support each other “through thick and thin”. When “things go pear-shaped” and there’s “trouble on the home front”, they have “monumental rows”, “call each other every name under the sun”, and sometimes resort to “cloak and dagger antics”. These off-the-shelf expressions save a writer from having to think freshly. (Ysenda Maxtone Graham on Penny Junor’s The Duchess in the Times, 2017.)

Reading a music book that is using all the worst hyperbolic terms for noise/drone music — “teeth-rattling”, “ear piercing” – alongside such dreaded rock prose clichés as “seminal”, “sophomore”,  “albeit shot through with their trademark...”. (@Andr6wMale)

More here, and links to the rest.

Grammar: Clichés 9

Does “sits” now mean “is situated” or even “sited”? Paintings hang; fields and cities lie; buildings, statues and pillars stand, but files sit on an official's desk for weeks. The official may even sit on the files.

John Brown’s statue sits alone in the forest. (Grand Tour of Scotland’s Rivers, BBC. JB is quite clearly standing alone in the forest.)

The artwork seen in The Titanic, Les Demoiselles d'Avignon, the one with five prostitutes in a brothel, actually sits in New York City's Museum of Modern Art. (@jonawill15. Hangs.)

This sits at the heart of our investigation. (Policeman on Donal Macintyre’s Murder Files. Lies.)

The West Wing Building sits alongside Pusey House, one of the city's finest Gothic buildings. (Stands.)

There’s a paradox facing major cities in the US: office buildings are sitting empty while housing is in short supply. ( Standing or lying empty.)

He and his wife Helen didn’t change the room for six years – they even kept the Greek nudes carved out of MDF that lined their four-poster bed. Twenty years later, those two statues now sit outside the ornate shed that is a tortoise sanctuary the Ruffs built in their garden over lockdown. (Guardian 2020. The statues, pictured, are quite clearly standing beside the tortoise sanctuary. And they probably flanked the bed, ie stood on either side of it.)

Thousands of Fossils Sit Forgotten in Museum Drawers. (Lie.)

The cliffside home nestled above the beach. ( Houses, cottages and villages are far too often “nestled” in valleys and hollows. Surely a house on a cliff “perches”?)

Death threats don’t sit on the right side of history. (Alex Massie. Could they stand?)

The footage sat in a basement for 50 years. (Lay? Languished? Skulked?)

A great white whale sculpture now sits in the location where the remains of a prehistoric cetacean were found. (@atlasobscura. In the pic it is clearly lying – how would a whale sit?)

Stanley Spencer’s Resurrection sits above the altar at Sandham memorial chapel, Burghclere. (@ahistoryinart. Hangs.) 

The statue, which sits on a façade of Oriel College. (Cecil Rhodes stands.)

A massive tower block that’s been sitting derelict for years now. (Feldore McHugh. Buildings stand, but oddly they “lie” derelict.)

The gilt bronze effigy of Lady Margaret Beaufort, who died on 29 June 1509, which sits above her black marble tomb in the Lady Chapel in @wabbey. (@NathenAmin. It’s a tomb effigy. It’s lying down. )


My neighborhood is a test site for self-driving cars and I hate it. It’s so creepy seeing a little flotilla of empty vehicles trundling around. (@evan_sruthan. It's usually enemy tanks that trundle.)

A doctor notes that patients are always “rushed” to hospital, and that there’s an air of haste about any media medical report. Another forum member objects to being called brave: It seems that no-one has cancer without "fighting" it, sometimes they win the battle and sometimes they finally lose the heroic struggle blah blah.

If you’re “pulled from the water” there’s not much hope for you. But if you’re “pulled from the rubble after a week” you’re probably miraculously alive.

The bones of an adult woolly mammoth that roamed the earth at least 10,000 years ago have been discovered in the shallows of a north Siberian lake. (Reuters. Mammoths always “roam”.)

That investigation led not just to record fines against Facebook, and Mark Zuckerberg being dragged before Congress. (Carole Cadwalladr. Like being “dragged through the courts” or “hauled before the beak”. A beak is a magistrate, translator's note.)

During a strike of criminal barristers: So, he wants defendants and witnesses dragged to court for a hearing that will not go ahead? (@HannahQuirk1)

You may talk vaguely about driving a coach and six up a good old flight of stairs, or through a bad young Act of Parliament. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol)

Wednesday 2 August 2023

Syndromes We Don't Have a Name for 9 (in quotes)

Dying empires often have mad emperors, and mad emperors LOVE building physically-imposing structures as monuments to their self-imagined greatness. (MM)

The thinking is that odd politics-scale-thinking where each small development is commemorated with a sanctimonious event. (TO on Hillary Clinton’s autobiography)

Part of their training is clearly about how to sugar-coat when they are challenged about their practice. (BL on practitioners of ABA, a brutal training programme for autistic children.) 

Rupert Everett on being gay in Hollywood: People say: ‘Why were you so self-destructive?’ Well I might’ve been self-destructive, but I also hit a brick wall at every turn.

The British had an insidious way of undermining the authority of the Nawab, which was tenuous at best anyway, by surrounding him with men who had the same character flaws.  (

The narcissist requires an unwarranted amount of admiration from others and throws temper tantrums when criticized or rejected. This includes shallow verbal insults thrown at the other person. (LLJ)

“I’m not like those girly girls, daddy!” (Writer Athena Andreadis on writers like Daphne du Maurier, Mary Renault...)

I worked in the NHS in the 1990s and it was common practice, rather than make a senior manager redundant, to move them somewhere they weren't particularly needed or wanted. (Guardian agony page)

I was suffering from the apparently common delusion that I was younger, fitter and more fertile than virtually anyone else of my age. (BW)

Everybody thinks they belong in the group ten years below them.
(Katharine Whitehorn)

“Remember: Dikes are safe at present,” a bulletin from the Portland Housing Authority read on May 30, 1948. “You will be warned if necessary. You will have time to leave. Don’t get excited.” People were not warned in time and the city was flooded as the dikes fully gave way. Fifteen people died in the floods. ( When they tell you to stay put, grab everybody and get out NOW.)

Corporate culture in 80s Japan. People slept in the office, got there extra early, left extra late... whether the work justified it or not. Spending HOURS pretending to be overwhelmed with work was preferable to just... doing the work you had and going home. (@Iron_Spike)

Some people have the idea that a 'strong, feisty' woman is someone who is strong and feisty with everyone other than them, and to them, she is deferential and meek. (LW. And they put quite a lot of pressure on you to be strong and feisty with other people – “I won’t patronise you by offering to help”, “It’s about getting what you want.” Sometimes because they want to watch you bullying other people.)

You’re allowed to be strong. But not too strong. You’re allowed to be intelligent. But not too intelligent. Educated. But not too educated. Etc. (NS)

We were using “snowflake” in activist circles at university a decade ago to describe people who joined our groups for their own self-promotion and melted away when it wasn't all about them. (JBH)

She was always on the lookout for slights, never answering a question actually asked but rather responding to some implied criticism which she thought lay behind it. (Martin Edwards)

There's this episode of 30 Rock where Liz's scumbag ex becomes a minor celebrity for doing a good deed. But his basic nastiness turns people off and his Z List status fades, so he becomes idiotically desperate to claw back attention. (@dimwittedly)

They tend to become attached quickly and/or intensely, developing feelings and expectations that are not warranted by the history or context of the relationship. Since they tend to be ingratiating and submissive, people with dependent personality disorder tend to be in relationships in which they are emotionally or physically abused. (Wikipedia. And the other party may push and push your boundaries.)

Hence the phenomenon of the “Mary Child” a known classroom trope amongst parents of school-age children. A well-spoken, socially confident and “attractive” kid of well-spoken, socially confident parents. Gets chosen for things. Is advantaged, gets given advantages. (@MxBadgerNorth. In the context of who plays what in the nativity play.)

But he belonged to a class of men, I could see at a glance, who never say a rude thing to your face, and never think a kind one either before your countenance or behind your back. (The Female Detective, 1864)

One of my personal horrors is running into someone I sort of know and like in public and not understanding the signals they’re sending out that they’d like to get going now please. (@anne_theriault)

Some of the more batty policies seem like bargaining chips rather than real ideas "all right, we'll bin the nutty one we were never going to do and which would've been a disaster, what's your compromise?" (@abstex)

X seems to have a tendency toward dishonesty even in situations where there is no rational reason for it. (NYT. Why did you tell them a pack of lies when the truth would have done? Because the lies were more convincing!)

The Amalasuntha Moment: when critical mass of the elite abandon its posts/retire rather than face consequences of the actions they implemented. (Byzantine Ambassador ‏@byzantinepower)

More here, and links to the rest.

Tuesday 1 August 2023

Golden Age Mystery Limericks

Miss Marple and Jessica Fletcher
First met when attending a lecture
Do you find, said Miss M,
That death and mayhem
Pursue you? Said Jessie, You betcha!

Miss Silver worked out where to find them,
That’s why she was sitting behind them.
It’s no problem, said Maud,
I’ve no time to be bored,
More corpses? Well, I never mind them.

Ariadne, have you met Hercule?
He’s a gent it’s not easy to fool
If a rodent he smells
He consults the grey cells
And the criminal’s plot will unspool.

When a railway left-luggage clerk
Finds a trunk that a traveller parked
Full of torsos and limbs, he
Just calls Peter Wimsey
Not for long is the mystery dark.

A gentle voice murmuring “Oh so?”
It must be our friend Mr Moto
He’s so small and polite
But he wins every fight
Without even seeming to do so.

Reggie Fortune’s a doc and a sleuth
He goes ferreting after the truth
But with evidence lacking
He sends villains packing
In a way that is rather uncouth.

It’s well-known that Justice is blind
And on days when the Fates are unkind
You may find you need a
Leg-up from one Reeder:
The tec with the criminal mind.

Mr Campion, mild-mannered and meek
Thinks crime just a bit of a cheek
But he is no mug
And his friend Mr Lugg
Won’t leave him for long up the creek.

In Oxford, of learning the seat
Female dons suffer mayhem complete
That is, until Harriet
Arrives in her chariot
The solution’s not Gaudy, but neat.

And if you want to read their adventures, look for the works of Dorothy L. Sayers, Agatha Christie, Patricia Wentworth, J.P. Marquand, H.C. Bailey, Edgar Wallace and Margery Allingham.

More limericks here.
More mysteries here.

Grammar: Clichés 8

Museum staff say "we dust our storerooms".

Please, please can we stop calling manuscripts ‘dusty’ and ‘hidden’ in archives. Archivists ensure that they’re not one or the other, which is how we historians get to see them in the first place. It’s a lazy and inaccurate cliché that also manages to be insulting.
(Suzannah Lipscomb @sixteenthCgirl)

Lost 1,000-year-old Hebrew Bible found on dusty Cairo synagogue shelf.

“Grainy footage” is a cliché, right up there with tapes that “languish” in “dusty vaults”. (Rob Chapman, author of Ad Lib: Repeat to Fade)

Queen Victoria by Sir Alfred Gilbert, produced for her Golden Jubilee in 1887, now living in a dusty corner of Winchester's Great Hall. (@lukecoring)

According to media articles, archaeologists are surprised, stunned, bewildered, shocked. But why can we never be pleased or happy? Just because we didn't know something was there doesn't mean we aren't excited to see it. (@Anarchaeologist)

Baffled. That's what we usually are, according to the media. (@AndreCosto)

No, BBC Breakfast, documents in archives are not ‘discovered’ by researchers. The archivists already know they’re there. (@CAPittard)

‘Exceptional' 15th-Century Ming Dynasty bowl unearthed at US yard sale. (If the owner wanted to sell it, why did they bury it?)

This week, as the water drained out, a safe, discarded iphone, hoover, trolleys, dozens of tyres, office chair, PC, and tens of thousands of plastic bags were unearthed. ( The objects were unwatered – how about “came to light”? or “were revealed”?)

And if the object is mended and cleaned before going on display, please avoid the words "painstaking" and "former glory".

Why must science verbs be so butch?

Monsoon clouds “dump” unprecedented amounts of rain. (Week 2021, shed)

Phosphorus hurled out by volcanic plumes could interact with the clouds of sulphuric acid in Venus’s atmosphere to form phosphine. (The Week, 2021, ejected, expelled)

Heavy and slow-moving thundery showers triggered flooding. (The Week. I think it’s safe to say that showers caused flooding.)

Heavy snow and freezing rain is set to batter the UK this week. (The Week. Storms batter the country, waves batter the coast, but snow and freezing rain? Afflict? Hit? Affect? Strike?) 

Peat bogs and waterspouts don’t take in, ingest, or inhale, they suck or gulp. Volcanoes and geysers don’t emit or exhale but belch, spew or burp. I usually prefer Anglo-Saxon over French or Latin, but these verbs are getting stale.

The south-facing wall sucks up the last of the sun’s rays. (Springwatch. Couldn’t it absorb them?)

Meanwhile, it sucks down Amazon adverts from the cloud. (Steven Poole, Guardian 2013, draws down)

Climate-heating carbon dioxide will be sucked from the air using trees, peat, rock chips and charcoal in major new trials across the UK. (Guardian, May 2021)

Does the world need millions of machines sucking carbon dioxide directly out of the air to beat the climate crisis? (Guardian, Sept 2021)

This environmental catastrophe involves sucking millions of tons of small fish out of the sea and crushing them into fish oil and dry feed for farmed fish, pigs and chicken. (Isabel Oakeshott, Sunday Times, 2014, extracting)

Powerful waterspouts suck water up from the sea. (Youtube)

The author skilfully avoids the situation that is too frequently found with academic writing – the application of overly dense, convoluted rhetoric that can sadly suck the life and intrigue out of fascinating subjects
(Andy Paciorek, Fortean Times. Apt – think of vampires.)

Icelandic volcano erupts, spewing lava and smoke. Volcano in Iceland continues to spew lava. Volcano spews lava and gases. Incredible footage shows lave spewing from volcano in Iceland. (Youtube. Eject? Perhaps the volcano could spit for a change.)

In space everything hurtles.

Hurtle toward the far reaches of the universe with the space Vikings of the future! (Poster for Riders to the Stars, 1954

A black hole with a mass 20 million times that of our sun is hurtling through space at a million miles an hour after being ejected from its galaxy. (Times April 2023)

As the Sun and its surrounding planets hurtle through the galaxy, this bubble buffets against the interstellar medium like an invisible shield, keeping out the majority of harmful cosmic rays and other material. (, speed, move)

'Out-of-control' piece of a Chinese rocket is hurtling back to Earth and no-one knows where it will land. (, falling)

The test sent 1,500 pieces of debris hurtling through space. (The Week, zooming)

OK, you can hurtle at high speeds.

Nasa has announced plans to send a spacecraft hurtling into an asteroid at 15,000mph to change its path in the US space agency’s first “planetary defence” test. (Time magazine)

More than 1,500 pieces of debris were hurtling towards them at up to 17,500mph(The Week)

More here, and links to the rest.