Monday, February 28, 2005

Two more pieces of unconnected pedantry

First thing: I note that the US edition of Ian Rankin's Fleshmarket Close has suffered a title change. Can you hear the splutters from Edinburgh's famous Royal Boulevard?

Second thing: A gentleman in the comments at Shot by Both Sides raised something I'd been wondering about myself -- how do Lea and Perrins, makers of the One True Worcestershire Sauce, feel about seeing a knock-off Worcester sauce involved in a ginormous food scare? I was wondering more specifically, however, about how their lawyers will feel about the use of "Worcestershire" here.

Descant on second thing: Perhaps being slightly finicky about names ("It's Worcestershire, always...") can be more dangerous than not fussing at all. My favourite example is in this review. Of course Alan Hollinghurst's characters must Hoover up, rather than hoover up, their cocaine; one hates to think of generic vacuum cleaners being implicated.

Discussion of and even quotation from books should resume shortly.

Thursday, February 24, 2005

Spelling bee: creativity section

The challenge: How many ways can you spell 'Strindberg' in one paragraph? The number to beat: Three.

"Strinberg & Helium is a witty web cartoon that features August Stringberg and 'a joyous, floating friend created to brighten his day'. It is so popular that it tops anything by the Swedish writer on the all-important Google rankings." -- Web Watch, Sean Dodson, Guardian, February 24.

Disclaimer: I understand that newspapers are written and edited under pressure, and that things like this will sometimes slip through. Unlike this site, however, newspapers are meant to be edited; there no prizes for catching my mistakes, as yet.

Monday, February 21, 2005

Flog it!

To appreciate the following, which is from S.N. Behrman's Duveen and quoted at slightly greater than normal length, you need to know that Duveen is Joseph Duveen, the greatest salesman in art history; Thompson is Joseph R. Thompson, the owner of a chain of restaurants; and "the Chicago dealer" is a lesser salesman who has run out of paintings expensive enough to sell Thompson and decided to throw him to the lion. The place is Duveen's New York gallery, the time somewhat before the great depression. Ready?

"Duveen led Thompson, as well as the Chicago dealer, into the lift, which bore them to sacrosanct upper regions. Duveen strode swiftly though a thickly carpeted, dimly lit room that contained six Old Masters reclining on easels. Thompson, in his way, was almost out of the room when, like Mrs. Lot, he looked back. He lingered; from the blur of the six pictures he got a quick impression of infinite desirability. He called the hurrying Duveen back. 'Here are some pictures,' he said. 'What about these?'

"Duveen took his arm. 'My dear Mr. Thompson,' he said gently, 'there is nothing in this room that would interest you in the least.'

"'Why not?' argued the new pupil. 'Of course they interest me. What would I be doing here if they didn't interest me?'

"'These pictures, my dear fellow, I am reserving, as a matter of fact, for a favourite client,' Duveen said. 'They will interest him far more than they could possibly interest you.'

"Thompson protested; he would yield to no one in acuteness of interest. 'Why do you think they wouldn't interest me?' he asked. 'I want you to know, Sir Joseph, that I own some pretty good pictures.'

"'I am sure you do,' Duveen said soothingly. 'And if you will just follow me, I am sure that I can add to your collection and, if I may say so, improve it. But not these. You are a busy man, and I don't want to waste your time. Not with these.'

"'Why not?' repeated Mr Thompson.

"Pushed to the wall, Duveen dropped all pretence of tact. He made it plain that he thought the pictures were over Thompson's head, both aesthetically and economically.

"'How much for the six?' Thompson demanded.

"'A million dollars, I am afraid,' said Duveen, as if pained at having to demonstrate the truth of an unflattering statement.

"Thompson was ready with an answer. 'I'll take them,' he said vindictively."

A virtuoso piece of dialogue construction, that, as well as salesmanship, with adverbs that do something. The aggravating "soothingly" is my favourite.

[Duveen, by S.N. Behrman, 1953. Jars and jars and jars of polish rubbed into a collection of stories pretty enough to stand it. Loose-ish overall structure because once a multi-part magazine profile, but elegantly tight within each chapter.]

His media

Andrew Collins has just made a fresh appearance in MediaGuardian's "My Media", possibly to celebrate the second anniversary of his previous one. Although to be fair to him, he has had two different books to plug. And to be fair to them, last time he was recruited for some internal Guardian Media Group squabbling; an additional chance to suck up probably made things feel better all round. Consider:

February 24, 2003 "The only newspaper I've ever read is the Guardian. In these times of trouble, we need it more than ever. But I have stopped taking the Observer since it came out as pro-war. I dislike the papers that eat up the government propaganda about terrorist attacks. I like reasoned coverage." [Read the rest, if you're registered.]

February 21, 2005 "The Guardian is the only newspaper I've ever had every day. MediaGuardian is my favourite bit, and I love Review. I'm an avid reader of the Bad Science column in Life because it annoys me so much. I'm not a great fan of the Evening Standard - I wish there was a better London paper that didn't so hate our mayor." [Ditto.]

Thursday, February 17, 2005


"Many people would think safeguarding the future of Manchester United is frivolous compared with trying to save lives in Colombia in the longest-running civil war in the world... Being held up at roadblocks may seem exciting and people might think that what I do at Shareholders United is a step backwards from that but the thing that really gets my adrenalin going..." -- Oliver Houston, who by day works for the TUC on worthy stuff, and by other day runs the fans' group trying to stop a takeover of Manchester United by Malcolm Glazer, in conversation with The Times. "Many people" seems a pleasant understatement.

Wednesday, February 16, 2005

CV of the week

"Sir Henry Woods, KCVO, Lt RN; late Admiral and Pasha in the Imperial Ottoman Naval Service; Grand Cordon of the Medijeh and Osmanieh; Knight Commander of the Saxe-Coburg Order; Aide-de-Camp for some years to the late Sultan, Abdul Hamid" -- self-description of an 1870s Turkish correspondent of the Manchester Guardian, from the title page of his autobiography, Spunyarn; quoted in Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, by David Ayerst.

To judge by what Ayerst says, much of the rest of Spunyarn consists of boasting about the lies Woods told various newspapers. Still, having government officials deceive your readers directly was probably cheaper than embedding.

[Guardian: Biography of a Newspaper, by David Ayerst (Collins, 1971). Read as part of this blog's continued stalking of C.E. Montague (last episode here), this turns out nonetheless to be more interesting than your average institutional biography -- and a hell of a lot more so than Changing Faces, the post-1956 follow-up volume. Is aided by fifty years of C.P. Scott, and an astonishing photograph of the crowds at his funeral procession in Manchester.]

Friday, February 11, 2005

Holmes and the hive

Michael Chabon, in one of the more ornate chapter openings of his Sherlock Holmes Versus The Nazis whatsit The Final Solution, explains elegantly why an elderly detective should keep bees. It's a lovely passage, but I suspect it's based on an anachronism. See if you can spot:

"The bees did speak to him, after a fashion. The featureless drone, the sonic blank that others heard was to him a shifting narrative, rich, inflected, variable and distinct as the separate stones of a featureless grey shingle, and he moved along the sound, tending to his hives like a beachcomber, stooped and marvelling. It meant nothing, of course - he wasn't as batty as all that - but this did not imply, not at all, that the song had no meaning. It was the song of a city, a city as far from London as London was from heaven or Rangoon, a city in which all did precisely what they were supposed to do, in the way that had been prescribed by their most remote and venerable ancestors. A city in which gems, gold ingots, letters of credit, or secret naval plans were never stolen, in which long-lost second sons and ne'er-do-well first husbands did not turn up from the Wawoora Valley or the Rand with some clever backwoods trick for scaring an old moneybags out of his wits. No stabbings, garrotings, beating, shootings; almost no violence at all, apart from the occasional regicide. All of the death in the city of the bees had been scheduled, provided for, tens of millions of years ago; each death as it occurred was translated, efficiently and immediately, into more life for the hive.

"It was the sort of city in which a man who had earned his keep among murderers and ruffians might choose to pass the remainder of his days, listening to its song, as a young man fresh to Paris or New York or Rome (or even, as he still dimly recalled, London) stood on a balcony, at the window of a bed-sit, on the roof of a tenement house, listening to the rumble of traffic and the fanfare of horns, and feeling that he was hearing the music of his own mysterious destiny."

Now, the similitude tying those two paragraphs together is between the hum of bees and what less careful writers would call the 'roar' of traffic. Motor traffic roars, anyway. Do horses and carriages rumble? Probably. It's an intelligent way to evoke the noise of non-pneumatic wheels on cobbles rather than of engines. But was that the predominant noise? Is that what you would have heard, leaning out of a tenement window? I'd like someone to tell me 'yes', convincingly.

[The Final Solutiion, by Michael Chabon (Fourth Estate, 2005). Picked this up thinking it might be a disaster; it sounded like the winner of a New Statesman competition for most tastelessly titled detective story. It's much better than it needs to be, as the author might say -- the prose is antiqued, but still witty and vivid, and the collision between Holmes and the Holocaust is more sensitively managed than I thought it could be. Still slightly uneasy about it, though, and not in a good way.]

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

What the stars are reading

"By this time my left hand is almost numb despite its shooting mitten and, holding the heavy Tolley round the small of the stock with my now functional right hand, I attempt to revive the left by blowing on it, the resulting condensation, if anything, making it feel colder. For a moment or two, I forget about the geese in my efforts to restore feeling to my hands. 'Wink-wink, wink-wink' -- I look up to see two almost overhead. There is no time to stop the gun as the long brown barrels swing beyond the leader's head. A gout of orange flame, a cloud of grey smoke and burning fragments of the Daily Mail among the whins silence the remaining legions out in the estuary." -- Richard Shelton, The Longshoreman.

By this time, I already knew Shelton was a crusty old thing, naturally given to conservatism. So it shocked me somewhat to realise I'd like him better if he loaded his home-made cartridges with The Times, or even the Daily Telegraph. I am, it turns out, a snob.

[The Longshoreman: A Life at the Water's Edge, by Richard Shelton (Atlantic Books, 2004). Memoir of wildfowling -- that is, shooting wildfowl -- and top-level fisheries science, with a little light trainspotting near the start. The effect is the opposite of that you're led to expect in autobiographies. On people, human stories, the places he's been, Shelton could be any moderately entertaining buffer; but ask him to delineate the life cycle of the brown shrimp and he becomes precise and fascinating. Text is kerned too enthusiastically on punctuation -- a full stop followed by a capital T pretty much overlaps -- which seems to be the trend.]

Monday, February 07, 2005

Bagehot as Nostradamus

If Walt had been able to make these two passages from The English Constitution a little less clear, people might be making that comparison seriously:

The wartime career of Winston Churchill: "Under a cabinet constitution in a special emergency this people can choose a ruler for the occasion. it is quite possible and even likely that he would not be ruler before the occasion. The great qualities, the imperious will, the rapid energy, the eager nature fit for a great crisis are not required -- are impediments -- in common times. A Lord Liverpool is better in everyday politics than a Chatham -- a Louis Philippe far better than a Napoleon. By the structure of the world, we often want, at the sudden occurence of a grave tempest, to change the helmsman -- to replace the pilot of the calm by the pilot of the storm. In England we have had so few catastrophes since our constitution attained maturity, that we hardly appreciate this latent excellence." (This could also be a prediction of those endless Punch "Dropping The Pilot" cartoons.)

The end of the Bagehot's preferred order of things: "A deferential community in which the bulk of the people is ignorant, is therefore in a state of what is called in mechanics unstable equilibrium. If the equilibrium is once disturbed there is no tendency to return to it, but rather to depart from it. A cone balanced on its point is in unstable equilibrium, for if you push it ever so little it will depart farther and farther from its position and fall to the earth. So in communities where the masses are ignorant but respectful, if you once permit the ignorant class to begin to rule you may bid farewell to deference for ever. Their demagogues will inculcate, their newspapers will recount, that the rule of the existing dynasty (the people) is better than the rule of the fallen dynasty (the aristocracy). A people very rarely hears two sides of a subject in which it is interested; the popular organs take up the side which is acceptable, and none but the popular organs in fact reach the people. A people never hears censure of itself. No one wil tell it that the educated minority whom it dethroned governed better or more wisely than it governs. A democracy will never, save after an awful catastrophe, return what has once been conceded to it, for to do so would be to admit an inferiority in itself, of which, except by some unbearable misfortune, it could never be convinced."

To get a sense of how unmodern the surrounding text is, bear in mind that "democracy" is meant as a mortal insult.

[The English Constitution, by Walter Bagehot, 1867. Incredibly clear and pleasurable to read; full of stuff that turns out to be still relevant; and, these days, coolly outrageous. None of the people who quote the idea of 'dignified' and 'effective' arms of government make it clear what a ruthless hypocrisy he has in mind: the one branch holds the people in awe while the other gets on with business. I suppose that's obvious, but I'd failed to realise it.]

Cover artists who read the book

"I have always had the wrong shape of head. It sticks out in awkward places, bulges whenever I think, is only sparsely covered with tufts of colourless hair, and collapses somewhere around the chin, scurrying for cover towards the collar. The ears reach out like large red satellite dishes, the cheeks are covered with lines and rashes caused by decades of overwork and overindulgence and if I dare to smile widely, it looks less like a friendly act than a record of bomb damage in the Blitz. Timothy Winters, teeth like splinters? The lad has nothing on me." -- Andrew Marr, My Trade.

You may wonder how, after a description like that, Mr Marr ended up here. But look closer: the angle, the crop and the careful focus address everything he dislikes about his face. Well, everything except the resemblence to Vladimir Putin he disavows later in the chapter. But the photographer may not have read that far.

[My Trade: A Short History of British Journalism, by Andrew Marr (Macmillan, 2004). Combines the more gossipy and less self-revelatory aspects of a memoir with the less strenuous aspects of popular scholarship. Taken as what it is, rather than what it says it is, great fun. But if you want the pop history of UK hackdom, it's still Matthew Engel's Tickle the Public that you need.]