29 September 2008

Lionel Britton Makes His Appearance

Lionel Britton used to make a habit of cropping up all over the place, but I've no idea how he got in here! Just click on a photo on the extreme right-hand side (maybe twice) and he soon appears:

25 September 2008

David Foster Wallace Again (But I Make No Apologies for It)

I was recently reading 'Grammar and American Usage' in David Foster Wallace's Consider the Lobster when I noticed that he mentions an imaginary 'grammar nazi' objecting to the wording in a supermarket queue: 'Express Checkout: 10 Items or Less'. It took me a full three minutes to realize what was wrong with this sentence: the fact that 'less' refers to mass as opposed to count was not immmediately obvious to me, and I digressively agonized over the other words instead. As someone who taught English grammar for fifteen years, this is a humbling experience. But then: does anyone care? Yeah, in certain ways I care: I particularly care about my vegetables being mis-apostrophized as 'Cauliflower's' or 'Carrot's', about people writing that 'Its a wonderful day, and to prove it the dog is wagging it's tail', or (a real-life example, this) about a college near me in Nottingham – which included four different peoples from different races in its logo – calling itself 'People's College' (now called Castle College, which I think is because someone just realized that it's at the back of Nottingham Castle), where I once told the vice-principal that on the basis of the logo alone this was grammatically incorrect, but she didn't even understand what I was talking about. (1) Anyway, for the record, what I was talking about was that the noun 'people' can be pluralized, so 'Peoples' College' would in this instance have been a more correct apostrophization. But what do you expect from a S.N.O.O.T. like me, or from the vice-principal of a college who obviously isn't interested in grammar?

(1) I've just noticed that the Carlton Road annexe of Castle College now seems to be calling itself 'Peoples College', which I suppose is a kind of neutral compromise. I imagine that they're retained the name because some people complained (the name goes goes back over a century but who cares about small details like that?)

Tryphena Joan Shaw (1922–90)

The internet can amaze at times: take for instance this link to this photo, which is part of a post in The Serendipity Project here:

OK, it's a woman in front of Oliver Cromwell's house in Ely, Cambridgeshire: what's so strange about that? Only that it's my mother, Tryphena Joan Shaw (née Pembleton) and appears to have come from nowhere. There aren't any missing spaces in my photo album, but here's a similar shot (also taken by my father Jim Shaw (1918–99), who also wrote the caption to the photo below) in front of Kings College Chapel, Cambridge, Cambridgeshire: she's wearing the same dress, shoes, and bracelet, so it was presumably taken during the same holiday. Very odd. Fascinating, though.

24 September 2008

David Foster Wallace (continued)

Another thing Wallace mentions in the article 'Consider the Lobster' which had never occurred to me before is our tendency to use euphemisms for the meat of higher animals: 'pork', 'beef', 'veal', 'venison', etc, which keep carniphiles (a Wallace neologism?) an emotional step away from the fact that an animal is being eaten (1).

(1) I wasn't aware of the existence of the word 'dysphemism' until I read the article 'Grammar and American Usage' (also in the book Consider the Lobster), and had to check that it wasn't another neologism. No, it's pre-Wallace: a dysphemism is a kind of exaggeration, like an opposite of a euphemism, as in some of Wallace's examples: 'grammar nazi', 'syntax snob' and 'usage nerd'. But imagine (as he claims, anyway) his family inventing the acronym S.N.O.O.T. to avoid dysphemisms when describing language usage fanatics: depending on whether you were one or not, this stood for 'Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance', or 'Syntax Nudniks Of Our Time'. Who'd of guessed it. But then Zadie Smith, who was apparently too (intellectually) 'scared' of Wallace to interview him, is quoted on the front cover of Wallace's Oblivion: '[H]e's in a different time-space continuum from the rest of us. Goddamn him.' Jealousy is fruitless now.

A final point: when Wallace was an undergraduate, he was so thrilled that a philosophy lecturer had called him a genius that he thought he'd never have to go to the bathroom (he used the American euphemism) any more: he'd transcended it.

22 September 2008

David Foster Wallace Digresses, as Was His Wont: We Shall Miss His Vegetarian Leanings

David Foster Wallace's article 'Consider the Lobster', which he was originally commissioned to write about the Maine Lobster Festival for Gourmet magazine, is an amazing piece of writing, although Wallace was obviously the first person to note that a food magazine wouldn't necessarily take too kindly to his obsessive footnotes, and would probably not be too happy at all that about half of his article was a (very scientifically pitched) argument that read in parts like a vegetarian tract. This, of course, was one of David Foster Wallace's hallmarks: he was more digressive than Lionel Britton. The video here was created by a buddhist vegan organization, but let that put no one off: Wallace's words have been heavily simplified, but this still makes for good viewing, in spite of the black and white words without pictures. We can only hope that the publicity surrounding Wallace's suicide will make him more widely known in the UK: he was a major writer in any generation, not just this. But the fact that an intellectual maggot like Gordon Ramsay is (by common definition) also a human being seems to suggest that we are indeed, as Lionel Britton claims, moving in intellectual reverse: don't we need a way of categorizing human beings according to basic brain capacity? (Politicians would never allow this, of course, and for obvious reasons.)

Digression: last year I spent several weeks in Carbondale, IL (Wallace used to delight in the two-letter abbreviations of states, among acronyms and other abbreviations that would make you flip back pages to find out if you could see what he was talking about), and as well as driving out to surrounding states such as Missouri (MO) and Kentucky (KY), I visited nearby Murphysboro, IL, for its apple festival (Wallace is quick to point out in 'Consider the Lobster' that some of the other festivities in the U.S. include the Kansas beer Festival, the Tidewater crab festivals, the Midwest corn festivals and the Texas chili festivals, for instance), although this was only on the way to Chester, IL, a small town tucked right up against the Mississippi River, where there's a tiny Popeye Museum dedicated to the work of the creator of that cartoon figure, Elzie Segar, born in Chester in 1874.

21 September 2008

Boris Vian – Le Déserteur

It is sad that English people tend to know little of French singer-songwriters (or chanteurs à paroles.) Nevertheless, Jacques Brel, Georges Brassens, Georges Moustaki and a few more are known by many in anglophone countries. Boris Vian is a different case: I'd only known him as a writer, and was delighted to discover this song in particular, which is written in very simple French to express a simple message: we won't accept your [i.e. the government's] demands that we should kill others, and we shall walk away from your insane dictates.

I'm trying to think of an English person who might have sung this, but am completely unsuccessful: perhaps unsurprisingly, Renaud recorded a slang version of Le Déserteur, and Joan Baez sang a cover version, but apart from other French singers, this lovely song has perhaps not been covered by any other anglophone singers. England has never had a Phil Ochs, or a(n early) Dylan, or a Baez.

By extension, of course, the song is a plea to all sane people to refuse to participate in any war. If the spirit of Vian's song had been heeded by just a few of the sycophants of Britain's New Labour government before the obscene war on Iraq, for instance, Tony Blair would have been forced to resign, Gordon Brown would have disappeared into the black hole where he belongs, and the world would perhaps look a far less forbidding – certainly a far less racist – place. As it is though, New Labour neo-liberal politics continue to influence European countries: the very right-wing Sarkozy, for instance, is a thoroughgoing Blairite. As is Gordon Brown: only the newspapers fabricate differences to sell copy:

Significantly, someone has posted a comment on YouTube pointing out that the end of this song is 'censored', which is true, because it now reads:
'Prévenez vos gendarmes
Que je n'aurai pas d'armes
Et qu'ils pourront tirer.'

Apparently the original last two lines read:

'Que je tiendrai une arme
Et que je sais tirer.'

This is wildly different from the version sung here, but according to http://fr.lyrics-copy.com 'Boris Vian a accepté la modification de son ami Mouloudji pour pour conserver le côté pacifiste de la chanson !' (1).
OK, but as a pacifist I ironically prefer the original version because I detest authorial compromise, and the altered lyric compromises the force of the song. As the person who posted the comment says: 'Je préfère l'original, la fin est beaucoup plus Boris Vian.'

(1) However, another site is perhaps more exact in this matter: Vian was forced to change the words because the government had banned the song as it stood.

3 September 2008

An Obscure Bookstore

In fact, an extremely obscure bookstore, part of which was recycled from a manure tank.