Wednesday, May 24, 2006

How the wheel turns

This is the bitterest stroke of satire in 'Owd Yer Tight, Emrys Bryson's 1965 A-Z collage of Nottingham life. It's filed under J, for "Jack - I'm All Right":

"Guardian Journal", June, 1964. - A tumbledown block of five outside lavatories is shared by 18 adults and 19 children in Little John Street. All the nine terraced houses are more than 100 years old and are without bathrooms or even hot water. Every day the occupants have to disinfect the drains in the middle of the yard where children play between the dustbins. They spoke of damp walls, crumbling plaster, pigeons nesting in the attic, falling chimney pots and woodworm. Last year health officials had to be called in to deal with an invasion of cockraoches and ants.

The area is not due for inspection until 1966.

November 19th, 1964. - Mr J.J. Dunnett, Labour MP for Nottingham Central, told the House of Commons that in Central Nottingham alone there were 15,000 houses more than 80 years old which lacked inside sanitation, a fixed bath and a heating system. Six thousand of them not only lacked basic amenties but were so terrible that they had been condemned. Houses were sometimes so terrible that they could not be sold and were being let at rents which were exorbitant - £3 a week instead of 17/2; £4 5s instead of 16/11.

Nottingham has a housing waiting list of 5,340 families.

In 1964 Nottingham Corporation built 508 houses.

In the first six months of 1965 Nottingham Corporation completed 268 houses, and an exactly similar number was provided by private enterprise.

Nottingham is now building at the rate of 750 dwellings a year.

Since April 1945 - over 20 years - the Corporation has built 17,246 houses, a yearly average of 862. There are between 15,000 and 20,000 slum houses in the city.

January, 1965: Nottingham's No. 1 civic car is now a £10,000 Rolls Royce...

Completely justified indignation, of course, although given a sly push in the original by following a series of extracts on Victorian and Edwardian slums. What's sad is knowing that an equivalent work in 1980 would have vented its anger on tower blocks; and that the anger of the sixties would have helped raise them.

['Owd Yer Tight, by Emrys Bryson, staged Nottingham Playhouse 1965, published Nottingham 1967. A pageant-cum-guidebook-cum-scrapbook, almost entirely quotation, that ranges at will over Nottingham's history. Witty and learned and enough to make you nostalgic for the time of its writing, for all the pettinesses and injustices it describes. It's named after "the mating cry of the city's bus conductors" - these have died out, and the tram conductors who eventually came in their place have not taken up the call.]

Balance of coverage

The Google News selections for my home town are usually eccentric, but this morning's was depressingly acute:

Tuesday, May 23, 2006

Pub food, 1961

For this blog's inaugural picture, an encouragement to make sandwiches for your husband's pub. This spread is from The Guinness Guide to Profitable Snacks, a handsome hardback book apparently given away inside the trade. It eventually ended up in my surviving local secondhand shop. They manage to fit 11 bottles or glasses of Guinness into a compact cover image, but the inside is scrupulously soft sell; it ends with a hopeful remark that "Good beer, dark or light, and good food are complementary".

What's most notable about it now, though, other than the tiny space given to hygiene regulations, is its confidence that every pub is a family unit. The section "CATERING H.Q. - your own kitchen" begins "Like most licensees, you and your husband are busy people". And on the subject of poultry, you get: "An occasional turkey, bought when prices are lower than at Christmas, can be enjoyed by your family and provide tasty sandwiches for your customers."

You are to use your domestic kitchen, and your own utensils, because of course it's all "scrupulously clean", and just take a little extra care when washing the dishes because (this is unspoken) that's where the public can actually see you slipping up.

Monday, May 22, 2006

War correspondents vs tipsters

Some newspaper-bashing for balance. This is a soldier's cogent explanation of why horse racing ceased during the First World War. Unfortunately, because of C.E. Montague's way with non-RP dialogue, it appears to be spoken by Dick Van Dyke:

The pipers done it. Want to get aht o' pyin' a fair wige to a taht for 'angin' abaht Noomawket 'Eath. It tikes a man o' skill to watch a maw'nin gallop. Not like war correspondin'. Naow use feedin' backers a bag of emowshnal bilge abaht 'eroes an' cheery wounded an' any old muck. A taht must know 'is job. An' wiges accordin'...

-- from "The First Blood Sweep", in Montague's short story collection Fiery Particles.

[Fiery Particles, by C.E. Montague, London, 1923. Scarcely better than the Montague Cockney is the Montague Irishman, distinguished by his fondness for apostrophes and anti-semitism. This collection gives you him at war and at peace. It still manages some penetrating writing, though. The best story is probably "Honours Easy", in which two privileged officers far from the front compete to collect medals. One hunts blue ribbons, the other red. Montague despises them both, but he would never go so far as to transcribe their accents phonetically.]

Sunday, May 21, 2006

The Home Office vs the media

The Criminal Records Bureau will "make no apology for erring on the side of caution"; or, to put it another way, for giving 1,500 people the criminal records of those with vaguely similar names. A newspaper that made this kind of mistake -- sorry, "mismatch" -- would expect to grovel publicly and hand over thousands of pounds, perhaps tens of thousands if the namesake's crime was serious.

Now, you can argue that the CRB has a civic responsibility on these matters and the press does not. But the existence of libel exemptions for reports of court cases would suggest the law disagrees with you (look here and scroll down to "absolute privilege").

These exemptions do not, of course, cover accidentally besmirching the innocent. I'm not a lawyer; for all I know, the CRB may be luckier on that one. But it would be nice if they had any requirement to examine the facts and check them with rigour.

Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Premodifying for class

Language Log appear to have Mark Steyn bang (and bang and possibly bang) to rights on the question of unattributed inspiration from this post by Geoffrey K. Pullum.

But Mark Liberman's latest consideration of the matter raises a potential excuse for some of the apparent echoes in Mr Steyn's piece: that he got his idea from an editor at the Daily Telegraph, who may of course have lifted it first. In an update, Prof Liberman quotes a paragraph from the Telegraph's Sam Leith pointing to the omitted "the" in the first sentence of the Da Vinci Code ("Renowned curator Jacques Saunière" and so on) and says he

might have come up with this idea independently, or he might have gotten it from Pullum and thought it didn't rise to journalistic standards of sharing credit, or he might have gotten it from someone who got it from Pullum.

There's no heavy accusation against Leith -- Liberman goes on to call it "a small thing" -- but I'd like to suggest a reason why a Telegraph editor would be disposed to notice this point independently.

In British newspaper journalism, what Geoffrey Pullum calls the anarthrous occupational nominal premodifier isn't just a thing that crops up from time to time; it's a form with connotations -- in particular, one associated with more downmarket newspapers.

The Guardian's online style book specifically bans it (look here and scroll down to the entry for "the"), calling it "beloved of the tabloids" into the bargain. I can't find an equivalent proscription in the Times style guide, but a glance over the first seven pages of May 17's paper produced no AONPs and 30 forms doing the same job: premodifiers with "the" or a possessive pronoun, or job titles or affiliations given parenthetically between commas after names. I tried the same exercise for the Telegraph (seven broadsheet pages this time, rather than tabloid, but two of them adverts) and found four AONPs against 36 similar constructions.

The picture changes as you go downmarket. The Daily Mail, considered a midmarket tabloid, had 22 AONPs to 18 other constructions. (There's a particular rash of the parenthetical ones in a story about a prize for its sports columnist, which may support the idea of them as a "prestige" form.) The Daily Mirror, downmarket again, ran 37 to nine.

This is not enough to suggest the Telegraph actively discourages AONPs, but I do think they're a class signifier in British journalism, and style-conscious British journalists -- Sam Leith included -- may be expected to notice them.

That would get Mark Steyn off his first hook. Like Dave, however, I'm afraid I can't help him with the others.

Tuesday, May 16, 2006

The art of taking offence

Working on a regional paper changes the way you read. You begin to scan each text for references to your circulation area; and, although you probably try not to be conscious of it, you prefer the disparaging. Drawing your readers' attention to an insult and then loudly defending them from it promotes the togetherness on which local journalism thrives.

(This may be one reason why maligned and misunderstood places - shitholes, if you want to take the outsider's view - tend to nourish newspapers. Think of Wolverhampton and Dudley, with their paper bigger than the two Birmingham ones combined. Think of Aberdeen, with its two papers each larger than the prestigious Edinburgh equivalent.)

Also to be considered, especially if you're in a shithole, is the frisson of agreement some of your readers will feel at the insult. When I worked in Aberdeen for a few months, a friend told me to read Christopher Brookmyre's A Big Boy Did It And Ran Away, which gives the place several pages of full-on comic crying-down. I tried the local library, but all 23 copies were on loan.

There are five copies of Geoff Dyer's riff on DH Lawrence, Out of Sheer Rage, in all Nottingham and Nottinghamshire's libraries, and only two of them are in Eastwood. A shame, because his curses upon Eastwood and Notts are first-rate: "Lawrence country - north of Shakespeare's county, south of the Bronte country, bang in the middle of motorway country... there is no getting away from the fact that Eastwood is an ugly little town in an ugly little county".

Perhaps Dyer's whitewater-rafting version of the stream-of-consciousness narrative has kept Eastwoodians out. Perhaps it prevented filleting of the book by the people who would tell them to be offended. Or maybe the gatekeepers were distracted by the quality of the other jokes - this is a man who gathers momentum even as he describes depressed inactivity:

It went on for a couple of months. Laura went to work while I stayed home and did nothing. I read nothing and did nothing. I spent most of the time watching TV which may not sound so extreme but this was mornings and afternoons, it was Italian TV and - the clincher - the TV wasn't even turned on.

Something must be done. Do you think we could start a campaign to ban Out of Sheer Rage in Notts? I regret that I have come to the question so late, but the publicity would still surely bring others to the pleasures of this book. We might even get the libraries up to 23 copies.

Tuesday, May 09, 2006

Monday, May 08, 2006

Balls: Divination

is the official title of the art happening I mentioned some time ago. It has now happened. This Saturday, in fact. It drew more people into Bromley House than would normally go in a week, which is an excellent thing: a crowd of, say, 100, with what seemed like 120 cameras.

The pantomime of preparing and anticipating and buzz went on about ten minutes longer than was comfortable, but the result was worth it. The ping-pong balls were luminous yellow, which I hadn't expected, and delivered by the artist, Phillip Henderson, from an adorable little lavender-blue suitcase. He declared himself more concerned about the sound than the appearance, so the librarian asked everyone not to clap; there was a few seconds' pause before we cracked. As it turns out, a hundred people applauding sounds very like 360 ping-pong balls descending a spiral staircase. I hope Mr Henderson enjoyed the echo.

Other people have blogged this first, of course. One also put a video on YouTube. Bless them.

Monday, May 01, 2006

Matthew Norman reveals his lead time

He must be delighted with the pay-off to his Independent media diary this week:

ALSO UNWONTEDLY reticent, finally, is Jonathan Pearce, the football commentator who appeared on BBC1's sadly doomed Grandstand recently to reveal exclusively that Alan Curbishley would be appointed as England coach in a tripartite arrangement involving Trevor Brooking and Stuart Pearce. Now that the job has been offered to Luiz Felipe Scolari, a public apology must be imminent.

It will be interesting to see how much reticence Mr Norman goes for next week.