17 December, 2007

Language Loveliness

I find it difficult to overstate my interest in language, how it works, the relationships between different ones, how we can learn them, similar words with different meanings, and vice versa. One of the fascinating things, therefore, about being here is the interplay between the two languages, English and Welsh, and the people who use them under what circumstances, and, especially, the process of learning the second.

With regard to the latter, Jacob is of particular interest. When we arrived, we were told that although it is really an English-speaking school, the local primary school uses Welsh as the medium of instruction; obviously, this concerned us a little, because we were arriving in the middle of the school year, and Jacob had absolutely no Welsh. We were assured that he would learn it, that there were a few pupils new in the system each year and the council provided a language centre which he would attend for several months. And, indeed, he did. The remarkable thing now is that he is fluent ~ which by my definition means that he can communicate with anyone at any time, with the means to ask them to repeat or rephrase if he happens not to understand something. So much so, in fact, that there are things he now knows in Welsh that he does not know in English!

An interesting illustration of his fluency, the totality with which he thinks in Welsh, arose the other day. I am taking lessons, struggling to learn it, a bit at a time and, to help, have a simple children's picture book that i'm getting Jacob to read with me. We came across the word roedd as we were reading, and i asked what it was, as it wasn't in my vocabulary. The closest he could get to telling me was that it is a word that means that something happened or existed, in the past. I asked if it were like once upon a time, an almost meaningless phrase just used to indicate a story in the past; he agreed, but said it meant a bit more, happened a bit more often, but he couldn't give me a more precise meaning. It turns out that roedd is the third person singular imperfect indicative active of the verb bod (to be), which is absolutely essential; it translates almost exactly as (he or she) was. Try telling a story without using was and you'll see its importance. Yet to Jacob it was just a word that he knew, without being able to be more specific. To me, that is a sign of fluency!

There is far more to comment on, especially the interplay between the language, so i'll hold off now, since i'm getting close to my (self-imposed) post limit, and write more another time.

29 November, 2007


I read an interesting children's book to JAG a week or two ago. It's quite a simple tale, but one that was just right for us to read. It's a funny thing, though, that we only heard about it because someone tried, officially, legally, to censor it. The law of unintended consequences came into play again.

The book's title,
Olympic Mind Games, was the point at issue with the censors. The book is set just slightly in the future, at the time (and partially at the location) of the 2012 Olympic Games in London; the Games themselves don't really feature in the story, other than as setting for the action: The key is that the Olympic Village is apparently the most secure place in Britain at the time, and security is one of the protagonist's needs. While he is in the Village, through the aid of the alien he is working with, he discovers he is in telepathic communication with his twin sister, who is also in the Village, as a competitor. Thus the title. Quite clever, actually.

The problem arises because the organisers of the 2012 Games have trademarked the word Olympic. As if one can claim that the use of a word which, in assorted languages, has been used since at least 1896 and, in its original language, since about 800 years before Christ. And yet, at utterly stupid as it seems, the law has not firmly slapped the organisers and told them (in suitably restrained language) to get a stronger grip on reality, and behave themselves in the public arena; still no one ever said that the result of law is fair.

Instead, the author was given some kind of legal restraint on using the word in his title, presumably in case any of his potential readers should be mistaken and think that his book was authorised by or in any way tied to the 2012 Olympic Games. Of course, no one could possibly make that mistake, not least because the book's cover conspicuously features an alien face, and nowhere is it tainted with the monstrosity that is the official logo of their games. In the end, thanks to someone whose common sense must have recoiled at the sheer effrontery of what they were trying to do, Ronsson, the author, was permitted to use the title of his book.

So why do i write this now? Because i heard a news story on BBC Radio 4 one day, about the conflict between Ronsson and his would-be censors and, immediately, with no real knowledge of the book, not even exactly what age-group it was aim at, i ordered it. There is no way that an intrusive, out of control, bureaucratic organisation ought to be allowed to prevent anything from being written or published, particularly not for such an appallingly asinine reason. The amusing point and unintended consequence here is that i had never heard of the book, and was unlikely to, except for the actions of the censors; they stimulated action directly opposite to what they intended.

I enjoyed the book, as it happens. Both of us did, in fact. If you'd like to read the review, you can.

20 November, 2007

House Resolution

An end to the saga of our house in America. Briefly to recap: We abandoned it, after no help from the mortgage-holder, when we were unable to sell it; they tried to auction it, asking some thirty thousand dollars more than the remainder of the mortgage, but it did not sell at auction. Now, though, a resolution has been reached; like the rest of the story, though, it is not altogether straightforward.

The house has been sold, finally. Not at auction, not surprisingly, but as the result of foreclosure proceedings. One of the ironies is that it sold for between twentyfive and thirtyfive thousand, when we had a cash offer for fifty thousand that our bank wouldn't let us accept, and about sixty thousand was still owed on the property. Sadly, in the end, the bank probably didn't lose any money over it, despite their appalling behaviour, as i expect their mortgages are insured in some way to prevent loss. (Of course, just because they didn't lose money, it doesn't mean they aren't losers.)

There are a couple of rather curious features in the process; we have been able to find and access an inspector's report on the property, which has given rise to several questions. The report claims that there were no appliances in the house; we left a stove, refrigerator, washing machine, tumble drier, dishwasher, and garbage disposal unit. The same report also indicated holes in the walls; when we left the house, twenty months before the date of the report, there weren't holes. Not only that, but the report also says that there are no fixtures in the downstairs bathroom; again, when we left, the bathroom was complete.

It rather makes me wonder if, after we left, because it was empty for such a long time, somebody didn't break into the house and do some structural damage as well as removing the appliances. The only other alternative i see is that our good bankers themselves had the items removed, but i find that a little hard to imagine, as they could hardly have recovered much that way; everything was clearly used ~ well used, most of it!

Another curious finding is to be found in another report we located, this on referring to the lead paint inspection. Apparently the inspector “determined that there is deteriorated lead-based paint in the property and lead hazard reduction activities will be required”; that is, obviously, a concern, because we raised three young children there ~ indeed, our son lived there from the time he was born until he was almost nine. You'd think that the report before we purchased the house would have revealed that toxic paint. You'd have hoped so, anyway.

Anyway, the final resolution has been reached. The only interaction i can now foresee as possible is if, as some distant point in the future, one or other of our children returns and visits the house, as i have done to some of the ones i grew up in. I admit, i'm curious about what will happen to it; i had a number of happy years there, but it's gone now.

10 October, 2007

The Value of a Contract

There is a truly remarkable (to me) set of differences between my work here and in the USA. This is the matter of contracts and work conditions.

Here, at GPHQ, i have signed a contract, agreeing that i will work eight hours a week and be paid for that. They cannot schedule me for less than eight hours, and i do not have to work more, though i sometimes do. In America, at Big Al’s, an hourly paid employee, the equivalent of my position at GPHQ, had no contract, no set number of hours a week, no guarantee of permanence. What they had was the knowledge that they would work more than 32 hours a week, if they were full-time, or between twenty and thirty, if part-time. No one was asked to work less than twenty, as a rolling average (though a specific week might be less), unless they specifically asked for it, because of their particular circumstances. On the face of it, this would appear to be a win for the British method.

After all, a contract is a contract, one would think, and is a good indication of what working conditions will be like. Curiously, however, in my opinion, Big Al’s treats its employees far better than does GPHQ; all sorts of things happen at the latter which would not have been tolerated at the former, which, indeed, would have led quickly to lawsuits and financial penalties.

As an example, Big Al's was unbelievably picky about making sure that employees were paid for the time they were working. I remember, when i was training for an under-supervisor position, being forbidden to remove some of the training materials from the store ~ not because Elzevir, the manager, was worried that his competition would get hold of it if it left the building, but because he didn't want me to read it at home, when he wouldn't be paying me. At GPHQ, by contrast, we are frequently kept locked in until fifteen or twenty minutes after the end of business (the time we are scheduled to end working), unable to leave until the closing manager finishes paperwork ~ and naturally we are supposed to be on the floor ready to work five minutes before the start of the shift. Over the course of a month, this extra time could easily add up to an hour or more, five or ten pounds, were we to be paid for it. But we're not. Not only that, but recently we had to make a special trip in, after business hours, to attend a meeting for fortyfive minutes; i have no expectation of being paid for that, either.

At Big Al's even Grace, the worst manager i had, made sure that the hourly employees took the breaks they were entitled to. The company would have fired her if she didn't. Andrew, however, at GPHQ, neither assigns breaks in the schedule, nor does he speak to us to ensure they are taken. In fact, we almost have the feeling that to request a break (which we are certainly sometimes entitled to) is to cause a disruption to the day's business and, though tolerated, should not be done by the best employees.

I'm really not sure that having signed that contract i'm better off than when i worked without one.

15 September, 2007


A curious thing, listening to the news; it can give you odd feelings, even when you think what they say really shouldn't be going to affect you in any way. Two examples.

Yesterday i heard the head of BBC news say words to the effect that every normal person is eager for every scrap of information about Madeline McCann, which is the only reason that they have been covering it so completely, following every twist and turn of suspicion and horror. So, if i believe him, the only conclusion i can come to is that i am not normal, because i am heartily sick and tired of hearing about her parents, whether the Portuguese police think they are suspects, if the children were sedated while the parents left them alone, how many people have been question, and for just long ~ almost to the hour ~ it has been since the last break in the case.

Maybe i'm wrong, it has happened before, but it seems to me that, along with a concern for the missing child, much of the public's fascination with this case, as with any of this nature, is the very likely unconscious thought, Thank God it's not my child, not me that's suffering! We are taught today that we live in such an overwhelmingly dangerous world, especially towards children, that we are led to feel that since someone is going to be abducted, inevitably, then it's just as well that this time it's someone else's child. A horrible reaction, but not unreasonable given the falsity of the premise (the world is far fuller of danger today than ever before). And thus the continual news which plays to that feeling and reaction.

The second odd reaction i have had from the news recently is over the current crisis in the financial markets, leading to great difficulties for at least one British bank, among other institutions. The curious part about it is that, on many occasions, the blame has been laid at the door of defaulting Americans who are not paying their mortgages. What the media are trying to say, loosely, is that many banks lent much money to people who were poor credit risks, then sold the loans to groups, funds, or institutions which did not do due diligence in checking what they were buying, and the unpaid loans have then reverberated around a much larger segment of the economy than would otherwise have been expected. By phrasing it as they do, however, they make it appear that we are personally responsible for all the economic dislocation currently occurring; after all, as you know, we walked out on our mortgage. In America, too boot!

Nevertheless, i decline the honour, thank you very much.

13 September, 2007

Current Review

A review of a book i have read recently, for the school-work. Just to show what kind of thing's going on here.

Edward I
Michael Prestwich

     I attended a seminar given by Michael Prestwich at UWA on an entirely different subject, that of pictures and illustrated books of hours; it was very interesting, he spoke well. He also writes well.
     This is a fairly simple, but by no means unlearned, history of one of England’s more popular kings ~ within England: The Scots and the Welsh probably don’t have so much good to say about the “Hammer of the Scots”! That duality of vision about Edward made for quite curious reading here; Prestwich is obviously intrigued by his subject, and enjoyed writing about him, and there is evidently an enormous body of material about the King and his activities, but i find it awkward reading about him because i find so many of his actions of a lower quality than i would have hoped for from such a great man.
     I suppose that i am disappointed that Edward was as human as he was: I would rather that he had been the man of honour and quality and courage and chivalry and impeccable behaviour that he would have wanted to be remembered as. But, the truth is, he was proud, and greedy, and dishonourable, and selfish, just as other men, in addition to having, just as other men, flashes of brilliance, moments of wisdom, episodes of chivalry. And all intertwined around and through each other. Thus, it is hard to reconcile the man who hung his enemy’s sister and supporter in cages, exposed to view in towns, with the man who loved his own wife so much that he built a series of crosses where her dead body rested on its way to London; just as hard to reconcile the man who so desired to return to the East as a crusader with the one who built an Eastern-influenced castle in Caernarfon to intimidate and oppress a newly subject people. In the end, i am saddened by the reminder that even the greatest (among whom Edward must be numbered) of England’s sovereigns are and have been fully human, not semi-divine.

18 August, 2007

A Little Bit of Nonsense

Testicular Elephantitis

Testicular elephantitis
      has a remarkable ring;
Its rhythm is lovely and light yet
      it's a terribly heavy thing.

30 July, 2007

An Unpleasant Discovery

I regret to say that i have, over the past eighteen months, discovered something in myself that does not please me particularly. I have always been relatively proud ~ happy, at least, if pride isn't to be thought a good thing ~ that my parents brought me up, consciously or not, in a relatively prejudice-free manner. I never really noticed this, it was so ordinary, until i moved to the USA, and discovered a truly prejudiced society. For all the progress it has made as a country ~ and i can't imagine how awful it must have been before the 'Fifties ~ it is permeated with prejudice, racial/ethnic, financial, geographical, and cultural. I felt both appalled living there, and pleased with my own upbringing. Until i returned to the UK.

At that point i realised that i really have nothing to be proud of, as i discovered a prejudice within myself that i had never before suspected. I discovered that without realising ~ or planning ~ it, i judge people before i know anything about them, by the way that they speak. I have in me, apparently, an inclination towards Received Pronunciation, what used to be called the Queen's English. If i hear someone speak in an accent other than RP, i find that i am biased ~ not against them or what they are saying, but i make assumptions which i have no right to make, and which are very likely completely erroneous.

Now, to be perfectly honest, this prejudice does not really arise in everyday life ~ perhaps i unconsciously expect people to talk in more regional accents when i meet them. But when i have the radio on, which is frequently, and an interviewee or, worse, an interviewer or, worst, an announcer speaks English in a manner that indicates their regional origin as being somewhere other than the South-west of the country, oh then, then i just am appalled at their lack of self-respect, at the shame which must accrue to them over the dishonour of speaking that way in public.

And how foolish i am to think this way. I recognise it, when i think of it, because i don't judge my friends for having Welsh, West Country, or Birmingham accents. It makes no difference to me, the way they speak; why should it, they are still my friends, still who they are. So, then, why should it matter when i hear such accents over the air? It can only be because, in my mind, the way i was brought up (i assume), the person behind the radio microphone is an authority, educated, knows what he is talking about, and speaking with what i apparently think is an uneducated accent is not the way to demonstrate that authority. It isn't a regionalism, therefore, that i have found in myself, a disdain for all things Welsh, for example; rather it is an assumption that there is a proper English that everyone ought to try and use, and anyone who doesn't is, well, uneducated.

Now i can't say that i am proud of this discovery about myself. It was quite an unpleasant shock, in fact, as i realised it. What i can do, however, and do, is to actively remind myself that the accent on the radio is not, just as it isn't with my friends, an indication of the value of the person speaking, nor of what they are saying. It still makes me feel good, though, when i hear a newsreader using RP; i guess that's still something to work on.

18 July, 2007

Travelling Woes

Well, home again after a fortnight’s trip to Canada to see various members of the family ~ and to perform my brother’s wedding ceremony! There’s an honour for you! So, what should i write about other than travel and its frustrations?

The trip itself, i hasten to add, was lovely. The journeys, though, were anything but. I suppose that’s the penalty we pay for living in a world in which we can travel so far so fast for so short a period. After all, i did travel about 4600 miles (or 7400 kilometres) from here to there, and the same back, in a matter of some hours, no matter how many years it seemed.

So, i was going to complain...well, i will. The trip there, actually, wasn’t too bad, other than the chap sitting next to me for over nine hours in the aeroplane ~ sitting i say, but it would be more accurate to say he was sleeping next to me for almost all of that nine hours (how did he do that?); the problem was not the arm he left on the armrest between us, but the shoulder attached to it that continually drifted over to the upper part of my (already small) seat back, giving me less room to twist myself into. And, of course, the fact that for two or three of the hours one of his feet stayed under the seat in front of me, giving me little choice with mine other than sticking them out in the aisle to trouble passers-by.

What i really wanted to complain about, though, was not my neighbour: I could have done something about him ~ or, rather, it would have been possible for someone more assertive than i to do something about him ~ what really frustrates me is the things about which nothing can be done, regarding which there is no appeal: The variant policies of travel companies, airlines and such.

My itinerary/e-ticket (incidentally, it's printed on a piece of paper; how can it be an electronic ticket?) indicated that i had twenty kilos weight allowance. Carefully, then, i travelled with about nineteen and a half, and commented on that to the woman at the check-in. Oh no, she said; you have twentythree, that twenty regulation is wrong. Great, i thought, and wasn't too worried about returning, even though i had a little more weight than going, what with gifts and so on. But, as you doubtless guessed, at the return check-in the lower limit was strictly enforced, and i had to pay a two kilo overweight charge. No use arguing that i had based my action on the airline's own employee; no use arguing at all in truth, not if i wanted them to bring me home.

The second frustration from the airline, also at the check-in counter, was the people who came up with two carry-on bags, despite clear instructions that only one was permitted, and a laptop case or a woman's handbag each counted as the allowable one. Came up, i say, to the counter, and then strolled on the aeroplane carrying two bags. If that were the case, i needn't have paid the excess baggage charge, but just used a handbag!

I suppose the question is, how can i tell which of their policies are the airlines going to be selectively enforcing the next time i fly?

13 June, 2007

Book Time

Well, it's a shame, but we got some new books the other day. I ordered them about a week before, from a catalogue, through the post, and when i came home from school, there they were, on the dining table. All nicely wrapped in plastic, begging to be opened and examined.

As i say, though, it was a shame. The problem arises, because there are so many other things i would like to be doing, from working on the research for my dissertation, to writing one of these blog entries or a book review (i try [and fail] to write 500 words a day, altogether), to doing some dishes or picking up around the house a bit. But all these other tasks will have to go by the wayside, now, as i explore these new books!

I mean, who could stand to wash dishes when there are gems like Making Cocoa for Kingsley Amis, Old Possum's Book of Practical Cats, or High Windows waiting for them? Or, could you sit down to write, rather than read The Collector, As I Lay Dying, or I Capture the Castle? Of course not. No more can i. Nor would i find it possible to put aside a lovely series of poetry for young people, A Shame to Miss, nor the Horrible Histories which we ordered ostensibly for the children's benefit.

So all i wanted to do, as i walked in and saw them, was grab them, rip the plastic off, crack the backs, and start devouring (amazing how much violence was in that sentence!). And, having the will-power of lemming near a cliff, i did exactly what i wanted, and enjoyed it greatly. They are wonderful books.

The only positive to the situation ~ well, not the only positive, but a great one ~ is that two of the children have also started reading the new books. And i am delighted to have them reading classics. I have to confess, though, they haven't started on the poetry yet. And may not, since one of the poetry books is a collection of Seamus Heaney, some of whose work is an A Level text, and not, therefore, to be enjoyed (one is just finishing A Levels, the other will start in September).

So, if you'll excuse me for a while, i'm off to hole up with a pile of books...

27 May, 2007


Another in a continuing series of quotations for you. I don't know whether it is a true attribution, but one of my favourite quotes comes with a lovely story.

Oliver Wendell Holmes, Sr., was an American doctor and man of letters, and the father of the long-serving Associate Justice of the Supreme Court, Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr. He lived during the time that anæsthesia was developed and first used. In fact, he coined the word, though, being American, he may well not have spelled it the way i just have! He was instrumental in the spread within America of the practice and belief of the doctor aiding nature to heal, more along the lines of a passive treatment, and certainly disliked and countered the practice of blood-letting, one of the most ancient of treatments.

It is in relation to anæsthesia that the story is told: He was one of the first to be given an anæsthetic, either laughing gas or ether; as he was going under, he suddenly realised the most amazing truth, a matter that had to be spread abroad, because it would forever change our understanding of the nature of reality. Unfortunately, when he came round from the anæsthesia, though he remembered that the revelation had occurred, he no longer recalled its substance.

Holmes therefore arranged that the next day he should be anæsthetised again, but this time with a secretary standing by, with pen and paper, to record the words of revelation he would speak, were he graced with the understanding again. Indeed, he was so graced, and the words were written down for him to see when he awoke: The universe is permeated with the odor of turpentine.

So why, you may well ask, do i love this nonsense quote and its story? First, because of the sheer nonsense of it; obviously, as the story is told it is building up to some great climax, and though the fact that the revelation is rubbish is not a surprise ~ so many stories are told pricking the bubbles of the great and good ~ the rubbish itself is so bizarre that it tickles my fancy.

Second, i love it because it gives hope to all of us. If a man like Holmes, evidently quite a thinker, and a strong writer, can be so misled by his brain, how easy it is for us to be, and i needn't think that only wisdom and good writing is worth putting on paper (or disc), and recording for posterity. I am quite able to see myself straining and struggling to put my thoughts down in permanent form, and it is a relief to know that rubbish is as likely to come from the great as from the small.

And, third, the quote itself is a delight for the shape of the words in my mouth. Permeated, and turpentine, and universe ~ fully a third of the words have three or four syllables, they roll nicely off the tongue, and they sound precise, particular, and perfect. But they are nonsense; what a delight!

12 April, 2007

Reading Statistics

In celebration of the upcoming anniversary of my book reviews, eighth anniversary, i think it is, here is a list of a few, completely random, books that i have read over the first seven years of the programme. I have written down a round dozen numbers under seven hundred, and will fetch and insert the corresponding titles and authors. Without having looked at them yet, i am guessing that this will probably give an idea of both my interests, and the rather eclectic list i draw from. Let's see:

Midwives, Chris Bohjalian
The Mystery of the Blue Train, Agatha Christie
True North, Kathryn Lasky
Juvenile fiction
Spinner's Inlet, Don Hunter
Short stories
Mistress Masham's Repose, T.W. White
Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon
Speculative, or philosophical, fiction
Vintage Stuff, Tom Sharpe
Eichmann Interrogated, Jochen von Lang, editor
Modern history
Dead by Sunset, Ann Rule
Non-fiction mystery
The Five People You Meet in Heaven, Mitch Albom
Philosophical fiction/fluff
Uncrowned King: The Life of Prince Albert, Stanley Weintraub
Historical biography
Op-Center; State of Siege, Tom Clancy & Steve Pieczenik

Hmm, quite a lot of fiction on there; one or two history books; not as much variety as i had expected. No matter, this was my plan; this is what i'll stick with. I'll do it again sometime, perhaps, and see if we get a different result.

15 January, 2007

Book Review

Darwin's Black Box by Michael Behe.

A very interesting writer, Behe; his thesis here is that because certain biochemical processes are of an irreducible complexity ~ that is, they have a number of factors, each of which is essential to the function or process ~ they point to an intelligent design at the origin of life. The idea is that, like a spring mousetrap (his explanatory image) these processes could only have been designed to work as a unit, as the trap without the trigger lever, for example, would be useless. A flagellum, for example, is a small biomechanical motor with several parts; if any of them, any one of the molecular elements, were not present, the flagellum would not flagellate. Behe is a convincing writer, though obviously writing to one side only of the evolution-creation argument; to his credit, though, he makes no claim about the identity of the Intelligent Designer. There are some questions that Behe appears to dodge, however, which are doubtless fully exploited by those on the other side of the argument. Among those are the possibility that it is merely that Behe hasn’t been able to think of a way that a flagellum could originate randomly and yet usefully at all stages; that would be evidence of Behe’s lack of imagination, rather than a designer. Another question is that surely, in some areas, the designs are rather less than perfect, so why would they have been sufficient for the designer? Overall, Behe’s argument seems to be a rehash of Paley’s proof of God from the watch found in the field, but on a more sophisticated level. Of course, i always found Paley’s argument fairly convincing; but then, i also don’t see a paradox in the Ontological Proof: That is convincing.