An EU report on the misues of English words and phrases

In Politics and the English Language Orwell wrote:

The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one’s real and one’s declared aims, one turns as it were instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.

Or to put it another way language is important or you lose meaning. This is especially important when you attempt to communicate difficult concepts and ideas. There’s a fashion in political circles which allows everyone to obfuscate meaning that appears the same now as it was when Orwell wrote his seminal essay.

However, back in 2013 someone at the European Court of Auditors was paying attention and commissioned this report (PDF):

Misused English Words and Expressions in EU Publications

It’s a fascinating, entertaining and occasionally bad-tempered piece of work. I commend the author for this excellent report and bringing clarity to a broad range of institutions, many of which will have documents written in English by those whose first language is something else.

Check it out!

Do you not know that a man is not dead while his name is still spoken?

There must be an investigation! This is a clear error! People are writing an excessive amount of exclamation marks!!

Death is quietly failing in his duty.

You see he’s taken a beloved author far too early, Terry Pratchett has died. This isn’t even the first time he’s made this mistake, Iain Banks passed only 2 years ago and just like then we scratch our heads and say to each other “Too soon, too soon.” Unlike Iain I never had the chance to meet Terry Pratchett but always admired his wit, intelligence and humanity. I can’t think of many people who have inspired so many and so publicly missed:  a couple of authors and actors maybe, musicians and other “celebrities” definitely not. Perhaps something should be done?

Problem is, Terry got there first and because he was prolific more than once … I imagine he would say something like

There isn’t a way things should be. There’s just what happens, and what we do.

He is missed.

Is it wrong to expect more?

Today is Who day. It’s the first day of a new Doctor and it’s also a brand new series. I was taking a look around online and all I could see was a lot of people proclaiming their excitement. It got me wondering, is it just me, is it wrong to expect more?

Before I go on I want to make myself clear; I’ve enjoyed Dr Who since I was a wee lad and, on occasion, Dr Who still produces some of the finest telly in Britain however, those flashes of brilliance are becoming fewer and further apart. I think that franchise needs some serious … umm … regeneration.

This isn’t however a day for me to car about the series itself but a common opinion I see expressed. The argument normally goes like this:

It’s a family/kids fantasy show – set your expectations appropriately.

i.e. down.

I understand the temptation of the argument but I don’t agree. When it comes to storytelling I think you should treat the audience the same no matter who they are. For example just because your intended audience is kids doesn’t mean that you can skip the internal logic of a story. No, treat your audience with respect and they will appreciate the reward even if they can’t articulate why.

Ah what about the arcs! My reply, “What about them?” Arcs, the little hints of something deeper, are the barest nods to something bigger outside of a single episode. They are a cheap way of telling a wider story and not often successfully. If anything they act as a tease to the audience who are left asking: why this, who is that person, what is the significance of that motif? Whoever is writing should definitely close off the arc satisfactorily because the audience does not enjoy being left hanging or being lied to.

In many ways I think that British drama is lagging American these days. While the Americans are getting over* the “serialisation is bad; episodic is good” mentality we in the UK still seem mired in it. Events happen in one episode have that have little or no impact in the next. The character beaten here is fresh into the battle there and doesn’t bear the scars (at least openly). This is disjointed and unrealistic storytelling.

So I think that no matter the story, no matter who you’re aiming your story at, you should treat them with the same level of respect. Don’t fall into the trap of thinking that one audience deserves sub par storytelling because… that’s what that audience can handle. I think we should assume that the audience is demanding and engaged and the storyteller should rise to that challenge. The result can only be a good thing for everyone.

*Ok, this is only partly true but I think their top drawer drama is becoming far superior to ours.

The Sad News of Iain Banks

Today I awoke to the news that Iain Banks has terminal cancer. It’s the sort of news that you hear and don’t understand. The literary world in Scotland isn’t exactly huge but it does have quality and standing somewhere near (at?) the top is Iain. He’s a popular figure to the extent everyone around here has an ‘Iain Banks anecdote’. I have two:

The first time I was so starstruck I couldn’t speak. I left embarrassed convinced he would remember me as that weird quiet guy who fidgeted before handing his books over for signing.

The second was at the book festival and I managed to spend a couple of minutes talking to him. I asked him why his novel Transition was published as SF in states but as his regular literary output over here. “Well,” he said, “It was 51% SF over there but only 49% here.”

I now know I’ll never be able to ask him questions I wanted to on the first attempt. And I will never get to ask the questions about if he was likely to do a post -Culture Culture novel.

All of this is starting to sound like am obituary and he’s not dead yet. He still has another novel coming out and we’re told this will be his last.

Instead I would like to sign off with a comment on my favourite Culture novel: Use of Weapons.

Use of Weapons is a startling novel. There are two story strands which wind round each other, each shedding a little more light on the other until they meet. It was the first novel by Iain I’d read that really effected me on a personal level. It’s shocking and powerful and I maintain it’s his best work. It’s also the first novel that really made me think about how you structure a story. And that you don’t necessarily need to plod from A to B to C. It opened my mind to other ways of approaching telling stories that I was not aware of at that time in my life.

So I don’t think it’s time to mourn him yet. He has months to go and instead I salute his genius and recommend that you should seek out his work and have your mind expanded.

Satellites of the Sun

This will be the first of a couple of posts covering  a couple of the interesting short films I’ve found in the online archive of the National Film Board of Canada (NFB).

Satellites of the Sun

Click the picture to be taken to the video

First up Satellites of the Sun by Sidney Goldsmith.

There’s something gloriously ominous about this animation. It has a colour-on-black design overlaid with a deadpan narration which adds up to a film with a remarkably dark tone. It also avoids the normal cliché of Also Sprach Zarathustra and instead offers a wonderful score by Eldon Rathburn.

As we journey through the solar system we see the construction of a space telescope (hubble?) watched over by an astronaut as his crewmate tumbles over and over in time to the music. In another scene we see a lander apparently orbit 1685 Toro. I should mention that despite what it says in the film Toro isn’t in fact our “second moon”. It’s actually an asteroid locked in a similar orbit to our own – something that dates the film. There are also several illustrations of the surfaces of the planets as observers imagined them at the time of the film’s production. There’s an almost science fiction quality to it.

Satellites of the Sun was originally intended as an update for the remarkable short film Universe (itself was a source for 2001: A Space Odyssey) and aimed at Canadian schools. However Sidney Goldsmith decided because of the work involved he would make something wholly original.

I’m glad he did. Watch the film and be chilled by the faceless astronauts while your mind expands to take in the immensity of our Solar System.

The Books That Made My Childhood

It’s (British) World Book day and my friend and author Caroline has published a list of books that shaped her as a child. It’s an intriguing list – especially as she’s Swedish  – and I thought I would do my own. I wasn’t sure about her definition of childhood but she ended her list when she got to age 12.

Without further ado (and in no particular order) here’s mine.

Meg and Mog
Yes that’s right. When I was in my early single digits I loved Meg and Mog. In my primary school we had a book club and every month we were given a catalogue of cheap books that we could get our parents to buy. I remember a tearful Gav clutching this booklet and demanding more witches and cats!

The Animals of Farthing Wood
Another surprise entry for me. I remember reading this book (it’s the first in a series) when I was a kid and eh … being blown away. I remember it being a lot darker than the enjoyable TV show. I cried. I’ve never forgotten that I cried although I can’t remember why.

The Phantom Tollbooth
Norton Juster’s American classic. This book is funny, it’s smart and it’s thought provoking. Juster throws in a ton of complex concepts and he expects you to keep up. Read it as a child and love the story. Read it as an adult and marvel at how Juster did it. Some people say it’s “too old” for kids but quite honestly tell them to F— off. Kids will get it so trust them to do so.

Yeah yeah… The Hobbit. Everyone reads the Hobbit and yes I think it is a children’s classic but everyone seems to forget he wrote a lot of other stories. My mum read me the Hobbit when I was 4-5 but later I read Farmer Giles of Ham and Smith of Wooton Major (this one is hard going…) and others. These showed me that fantasy didn’t have to mean princess and dragons. It could be mythic.

King Solomons Mines
I get the impression that H Rider Haggard is slightly out of fashion. My mother gave me King Solomons Mines to read when I was about 8 and I lapped it up. There’s something … manly … about Alan Quatermain. His stories are ripping yarns with interesting characters and an exotic Africa that feels like it’s another world. True his attitudes on race would raise eyebrows these days but they are representative of their times. Haggard himself is far more sympathetic to other cultures and the female sex than most writers of that period. It’s been a long time since I read this novel and I think I’ll go back and read them again now.

H.G. Wells
I started reading Wells when I was about 9. My godmother gave me a collected edition that included his normal novels and also some that people don’t talk about. Wells was my first introduction to Science Fiction as a mode of writing that could be more than just an adventure story. The Invisible Man, War of the Worlds and The Time Machine remain stories that shaped my world view.

Biggles is a distinctly unfashionable character these days. Many of the attitudes apparent in the writing would, these days, be seen as “problematic” but that was the attitudes of the time. I loved these stories. I loved the WWI setting and the descriptions of dogfighting in the clouds over the trenches. One Biggles book (The Cruise of the Condor) also marks the first time I ever had a problem with what I was reading. I had a serious issue with use of the N word and 2 dimensional characterisations. The Germans are evil! The blacks are servile but (so long as they don’t challenge their masters) noble. I found it deeply unsettling. I stopped reading Biggles soon after. End of an era and probably marks the period where I stopped being a child and moved into adolescence.

Faerie Tales.
The popular conception of fairy tales is that they are easy and nice. These aren’t – not if you think about the consequences. I have a very creepy volume of traditional folk tales. I also had an old copy of Grimms fairly tales.

Comics are also books so I am going to list a couple

Asterix and Obelix

I loved… no LOVED … these comics when I was a lad. I recently started buying the collected editions again. I admit I don’t find them as funny as I remembered but they are amusing. They’re enjoyable on a different level as a an adult the sly humour and satire is much more clear to me now. My mouth still waters when I think of wild boar and I blame Asterix!

Strictly speaking I’m not old enough to remember Eagle. I never bought it but I did inherit my dads Eagle annuals and it’s from these that I came across Dan Dare and the Mekon. That the classic British comic SF hero hasn’t been treated properly since the end of this comic is an absolute scandal. I loved the fine artwork and the stories. They’re quintessentially British tales with a distinctly post-war feel that hark to a Britain that had an eye to the future and wasn’t somehow obsessed with a halcyon past that never existed. More than that Eagle eventually gave us 2000ad.

Unfortunately I cannot show these books because my mother gave my original copies away when was at university. Seek them out for you and your children (careful with Biggles) and I don’t think you’ll be disappointed. Reading broadens the mind. Spending time in your imagination deepens your understanding of the world. When you read you pick up more than the words in the page. We shouldn’t need a World Book Day, encouraging your children to read should be obvious it should be natural. I hope this little list reaches out to someone and has a small impact of its own.

If you paint it black is it still white?

Recently I read a couple of books: one a near(ish) future SF the other a popular (urban) Fantasy. I had a problem with the characterisation in both. Here’s the thing, on an intellectual level I knew the primary protagonists weren’t white and yet I couldn’t help see them that way. As I read the books I slowed down and took my time looking at how the authors were giving me clues about who the these guys were and I couldn’t find them. I started to think “Is it me?” but I think that’s only part of the problem.

When I read these stories I found myself deeply curious about how the authors were going to move away from the stereotypical white western model. I was interested in the cadence of the voices and I really wanted hear the idioms in their speech and see a different view of the fantastic through the experiences of these characters. What I felt I got where Okay-ish characters that constructed themselves in my mind as white dudes in black clothes. They spoke like stereotypical white guys and even appeared to think like them. The only difference was that they didn’t have white names.  Clearly the default skin tone was dark so we  assume they are too but that characterisation didn’t work for me.

When I speak my voice has the character of many things. The way in which my throat is constructed, how my tongue moves in my mouth, whether I am ill etc. so physiologically it feels easy. However we all know that how we sound to each other depends on a number of things: our accents, the culture(s) we spend time in, who we are speaking to and other elements. As the listener I need to take all of this in and I need to put it in context.

People are people. If it’s the one thing I’ve learned in my life it’s that no matter where I go I meet People. However some are different. Some are good and some are bad and it has nothing to do with the colour of their skin or the flag they live under.  But people also live in different cultures. If you’re going to frame a story in a different culture you’re going to have to ensure you have a passing ability to put the right people in the right place. If those references aren’t right then you are committing fraud. I think it’s important to be authentic because you owe your readers that much and those cultures your depicting? Well you owe them too.

Or maybe I’m over thinking it.
I am certain that even if you paint it black the risk is that it’s still going to be white.