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Thursday, 31 March 2016

Trump on the up

A short item in today's Times claims that those who object to lowering standards of English are introverted under-achievers. Rubbish. I assume it must be some pathetic attempt at a joke (Readers- you should know!), otherwise how would they explain the long series of articles posted on his blog by Donald Trump, in which he instructs his media-relations staff on the subject of good written English, today's example of which is reproduced below:

Good written English #48,371

Expunge un-necessary occurrences of the word 'up', as found, for example, in:

Hilary rang up Donald to beg his advice.
Donald wrapped up the parcel of dog doo-doos he was sending to Bush.
Donald climbed up the stairs to the podium amid the cheers of adoring acolytes.
The singing cowboy coiled up his rope after a pre-rally nostalgia event.
The exhausted publican locked up the bar for the night after Donald's election victory party.
The conscientious journalist typed up her handwritten notes from the amazing interview with Donald.
Not wishing it to stop, Maude wound up the Napoleonic clock given her by Donald Trump.
Charisma genius and hard work helped me build up my business empire.
Donald tore up the campaigning rule book into tiny pieces.
Donald penned up all the Mexicans behind a big fence.
The failed nominees queued up to congratulate Donald.

His list goes on. I suppose, however, that in truth the advice might have been written by an introverted underachiever on Trump's staff and simply posted in Donald's name. After all, he seems not to understand where ups are needed, if we believe the following recent admonishment he uttered to a member of his team...

And don't be surprised if I pull you [up] if I spot a cock [up].

Either that or Donald has another little secret he hasn't let us in on.

Wednesday, 23 March 2016

iPhone insecurities

I was furious at last night’s confirmation by the FBI that an ‘outside party’ had shown them how to circumvent the security features of an iPhone. The predictable upshot of their careless indiscretion is that my phone (not an iPhone I need hardly add) has been red hot ever since, as virtually every journalist with the brains to add two and two has been seeking a quote from me about how and why I did it. I suppose I should be grateful that so few journalists are capable of adding two and two, otherwise there would be no end to their impudent calls.

Tuesday, 22 March 2016

Literature Live

In a supreme gesture of marital solidarity I sat with my wife through a  concert by a folk group. During about the fourth of the badly composed and badly played numbers that comprised the programme I was gripped by a craving for intellectual stimulation. Wouldn’t it be lovely, I thought, to be reading some well-written innovative literature instead of listening to this mindless dirge. And then occurred one of those astonishing phenomena of subconscious creativity which have come to characterise my prodigious intellectual output- why, I thought, shouldn’t the production of literature become a performing art?
Historically it is plain that the scope for writing as a popular performance art was limited by the physical constraints of its most common medium- paper. Performance art implies some form of simultaneous experience by a sizeable audience, and it would hardly be possible for a  more than a handful of spectators to be craning over the shoulder as an author put pen to paper. But today, with laptops and powerful high-resolution projectors there are no longer any barriers, bar prejudice and narrowness of imagination, to bringing the act of writing before a mass audience. Why, I thought, could I not be seated in some theatre, amongst ranks of like-minded enthusiasts, watching with avid appreciation as one of our favourite works is typed onto a huge screen….
Before even the end of the folk concert I had sketched out in my mind an entire paradigm for ‘live’ literature. Broadly, performances could fall into one of four schools, thus:
The Replicative School. Here the performer would type verbatim some established work of literature. To avoid simple errors of memory the performer could play from a ‘score’, a copy of the original work suitably marked-up to denote points at which the pace of the typing should be increased or reduced in sympathy with the sense of the words being produced. The description of a battle, for example, might be typed in staccato bursts, while a moment of maximum suspense in a thriller might be haltingly reproduced step by step.
The Impressionist.  Here the performer would type variants on the work to convey its essence without perhaps slavishly mimicking its every detail.
The Elevational. Here the performer would take a typical trashy best-seller and reproduce its plot but with all traces of cliché, pleonasm, etc expunged, rendering it a still popular reproduction but one less offensive to the sensibilities of the concert-going aesthete.
The Improvisational. This would be the elite realm of only the most brilliant and gifted  of writers, those of perfect technique and infinite creativity, writers who could be expected to type, from scratch, an entire evening’s reading matter to challenge, entertain and astound the most demanding of literary audiences. Doubters seeking proof that such an act of spontaneous literary creation is possible are directed to the forgoing text.

The Caitlin Moron, sorry, Moran Effect

To expand my portfolio of lucrative sinecures I have applied to be editor of ‘Times 2’, the trashy supplement introduced by The Times in 2005. The role is clearly a nominal one. I imagine its duties are confined to one short daily meeting at which the production team confirms that a) there are 20 pages ready to print, and b) they are all filled with something. Certainly no editing takes place- a red pencil would last the incumbent a lifetime. Take the following paragraph plucked at random from today’s tripe:

‘In his column Piers Morgan informs Kim Kardashian that since she is 35 her muff has, basically, passed its sell-by date. Addressing her directly, Morgan explained to Kardashian that she needed to put her clothes back on, and that the time had come to hand the baton on to the next generation of women who want to show their vaginas on the internet.’

With so much to criticise where shall we start... perhaps with the 'basically' at the end of the first line. Is it an unnecessary cliché, that should have been red-lined?  Or could it be a crucial insert to stress that Kardashian's muff is decrepit in some essential sense- not just some greying tangled pubes? I wonder. And what of the breathtakingly superfluous ‘on’ that follows ‘hand the baton’? What sort of...

Connoisseurs of Literary Humour the World Over: Hang on there. That’s Caitlin Moran you’re slagging off.
Myself: Who?
CoLHtWO: Caitlin Moran, award winning journalist and a fine strap of an Irish girl, Tubby Shaw. You should be ashamed of yourself slagging off a lovely Irish lass like that just to make a cheap point.
Myself: Yes, of course, you’re right. Most unfair. I was carried away.
CoLHtWO: How do you know that the superfluous ‘on’ after 'handing the baton' was hers and was left in by a lazy slattern of an editor? How do you know it wasn’t added in by the editor? Hey?

Myself, contrite and remorseful: True.

CoLHtWO: So what are you going to do about it?

Myself, after a pause:  How about this...

Beautiful journalist Caitlin Moran waits at the coffee machine for her cappuccino to froth. She is oblivious to the cooing crowd of acolytes who surround her. She is pensive, withdrawn. Her journalistic ethic is threatened by Morag Hilsten, the strong-willed and capricious new editor of Times 2.  Since its inception in 2011, each paragraph of Caitlin’s ‘Celebrity Watch’ has been agonisingly crafted by her to form, syllabically, a reverse ‘droighneach’, the Irish verse form practiced by the Morans of Neath from time immemorial. Of course, the effect is unappreciated by her colleagues and her hordes of hasty careless readers. All bar that one special reader to whom her work is devoted. He will notice. His eye will see beneath the tawdry content of her prose its syllabic poeticism. He alone will…

Whhaaa, whhaa, whaaa, a strident claxon sounds over the public address system at Times HQ. ‘Miss Moran to the editor’s office’ orders the harsh metallic tones she feared.  Gulping nervously she leaves her cappuccino to its fate and walks head down to Hilsten’s office.

‘Ah, Moran,’ says the brutish illiterate control-freak behind the expansive teak desk, ‘this copy of yours.’

‘Yes?’ Caitlin awaits the worst with proud defiance in the attitude of her queenly head.

‘Shouldn’t there be an  ‘on’ here after ‘baton’?’

‘Er.. not necessarily, Miss Hilston.’

‘Well readers might think the baton is being passed back, mightn’t they?’

‘The phrase is an idiom from the sphere of athletics, Miss Hilton, and the racers in a relay only ever pass the baton to the next runner; they never hand it back to an earlier one.’

‘Yes, well, you might know that and I might know that but the readers might not know, so we’ll have an ‘on’ there thank you.’

‘Yes Miss Hilston.’

‘And where you say ‘the next generation who want to show their vaginas on the internet’, shouldn’t that be the next generation ‘of women’? After all, men don’t have vaginas.’

‘Well, Miss Hilston, that’s the point.’


‘Men don’t have vaginas, so the ‘of women’ can be taken as read.’

‘Yes, well, you might know that and I might know that but the readers might not know, so we’ll have an ‘of women’ there thank you.’

‘Yes Miss Hilston.’


Sobbing inconsolable Caitlin sits hunched over her Mac, an emulsion of tears and mascara staining its keyboard. Her anxious colleagues are grouped in whispers at the coffee machine. She…

CoLHTWO: OK that’s enough.

Myself: Are you sure? I could go on for pages yet.

CoLHTWO: No we’re sure.

Myself: Right-ho. But if you change your mind…

Monday, 21 March 2016


How many times have you heard a conversation along the following lines:

A: I read The Da Vinci Code yesterday.
B: What was it like?
A: Atrocious unbearable hack-spawn.
B: I bet it wasn't as bad as AA Gill's tripe in the Sunday Times.
A: Nooooh. Gill's crap, I grant you, but surely not in the same league as Brown.

And so on.
The differing opinions that motivate such discussions are never satisfactorily resolved as there has been no agreed standard way to evaluate the extent to which any given work of literature is debased by cliché, especially where the works may take such different forms as, say, a novel and a newspaper column.
To eliminate the problem I have developed and today announce clichometry, an ingenious standard of measurement that will transform the practice of literary review.
The rules of clichometry are as simple as they are revolutionary, and may be stated thus:

1) In any given work each occurrence of a cliché is awarded a point.
2) Where the work itself is one big cliché- say a medieval whodunit with a crime-busting nun- each point is doubled.
3) The 'cliché index' of the work is its total number of points divided by its word-count, conventionally expressed as a percentage.

Informal applications of clichometry may be based on sampling to relieve the assessor of the debilitating effects of cumulative exposure to clichés; they may also substitute the figure 250n- where n is the page count- for the word count. However, in scholastic or competitive assessments rigorous counts of words and clichés must be completed and independently verified.

Future conversations may now be concluded in a far more harmonious and enlightening way:

A: I read The Da Vinci Code yesterday.
B: What was it like?
A: Atrocious unbearable hack-spawn. By my rough count the cliché index was eleven point two.
B: Just be glad you didn't read AA Gill's tripe in the Sunday Times- thirteen point eight.
A: (wincing) That's fierce. You've taken it easy since, I hope.

And so on.

My team of crack North-Korean programmers has developed and tested an algorithm that will determine the cliché index of any work presented in a machine-readable format (and which aren't nowadays). Negotiations with Google and Bing are reaching an interesting state.

What's an ex worth...

Those of you who strive for precision in language will appreciate a conundrum that has monopolised my thinking since I heard news of a scheme to rehabilitate 'ex-offenders.' My alert neurons quickly identified the essential ambiguity in the announcement, and lead me to ask what, exactly, is the difference between an ex-offender and an offender?
The prefix 'ex' clearly connotes a departure from a former state, but in what units is the departure to be measured, and what value must be attained before a definite departure can be said to have taken place? Does an offender become an ex-offender merely through the passage of time, or must some degree of reform be present? Does an inveterate lag who has not, for pure want of opportunity, offended for twenty years qualify as an 'ex-offender'?  Is he as much an ex-offender as a convert from sin who has wholeheartedly devoted herself to good deeds since last hearing the cell doors clang behind her a year ago?
The forgoing assumes ex-offendership to be a quality that can be possessed in degrees; but could it be a binary quality that is possessed and possessed in full only when some threshold of absence from offending is reached?
These questions might seem abstractions appealing only to the pedant or the philologist (I assume the difference), but a moment's thought will reveal their intensely practical importance. How will the organisers of the scheme for ex-offenders decide the eligibility criteria for participating lags? How will politicians decide whether to fund the scheme? How can the success of one scheme be reliably compared with that of another if they adopt inconsistent definitions of ex-offendership? These and similar questions are the all-consuming burden of the true philosopher, and yet still the wife wants to know when that decorating's going to be finished. I ask you.

Osborne's raft of measures

I have received a flurry of letters from overseas readers asking if I might explain a phrase spoken in the BBC’s reporting of the budget, which referred to a ‘raft’ of measures announced by the Chancellor. 
The usage dates from Tudor times, when the manuscripts of laws drafted at Hampton Court were swum down the Thames to Westminster suspended from the bills of trained swans. For many years the arrangement worked in an entirely satisfactory manner, and led to the usage of the word ‘bill’ to mean proposed legislation. However, with an increasingly active and vociferous parliament, special difficulties arose when multiple documents, collectively too heavy to be carried by a single swan, had  to be swum together. The trained swans were fiercely territorial, and when tasked with swimming in a group the enraged avians would instead lash out at each other with the draft laws suspended from their powerful necks, paying no heed to even the sternest admonishments of the royal swan-herds.
It was the naval architect Roger de Plessis who found the solution to the difficulty. After a package of velum flung by a particularly enraged cob was later found floating in the outer reaches of the Thames near Sheppey, de Plessis realised that the draft laws admirably combined the properties of buoyancy and water-resistance, so that large numbers of them could safely be bound into a raft that could be steered down the Thames by a punter with suitable knowledge of the idiosyncrasies of its current.
After the first demonstration of the technique almost came to grief when the punter suffered a large splinter from the rough-hewn pole of fir with which he had been expected to propel and steer the raft, Sir Roger (as he had recently become) from his own purse commissioned a spectacular pole of peerless black ebony, known for its unsurpassed ability to endure submersion in water.  The name ‘Black Rod’ survives to this day from the habit of the state punter to announce his arrival at parliament by knocking his ebony pole on the riverside entrance.