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It was inevitable. When every angle on the world cup has been done, an article about the football widower is going to get a run with fifteen minutes before time, that is, if there are no penalties. Sure enough, one of the English Sundays had a widower world cup story.

A week before I was having an email dialog with a writer about stories and TV. He gives a nuanced interpretation of the Master Chef franchise across three continents, their national differences, the characterizations deployed, the clothes, food differences and the language used in various parts of the Anglo sphere. Roland Barthes meets Gordon Ramsey

In one of our threads I offered up a pastiche of a world cup widower story.

How I hate being a World Cup widower

Every four years I dread the World Cup because my wife, Hayley, (Her name has been changed) turns into a single interest very moody football bore. She is a loving mother of our three children: Jacinta, Kelly and Stanley. After two girls she wanted a boy to play for England and she named him after the great English footballer, Stanley Matthews.  Naturally, she supports England and anyone who can beat Germany; she still hasn’t reached the acceptance phase over the 1990 penalty shootout…

As it turned out, it was close to the real article.  My writer correspondent suggested: I thought you were going to say Hayley, the footy player, had named the daughters Pelé and Ronaldo.

Those are good names if she lived in Belo Horizonte, not Birmingham.

I suppose when two writers are interested in a TV reality show and tabloid journalism it’s about narratives.

There’s an axiom that goes around that there are only seven stories, a demonstrably false notion, but one that is perpetuated, and from which a set of formal principles are advanced as though storytelling is physics. Regrettably it’s soaked up as a guide on what should be, or even, can be.

In the media those seven stories, with their rehearsed variations, are the meat n’ potatoes of story form. Eventually the form will get refreshed for the current major story.   In one of our emails we discussed why this is so fixed.

We learn these stories as children and internalize the form and as it produces a reward it is quite satisfactory. More of that form is desirable but also very easy to convey other material on the architecture of the form. Football tournaments and cooking contests – same thing really – are the ideal coat hanger.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

 

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Liberty

It was the jolt that a balmy languorous bank holiday weekend needed. Jonathan Meades excoriated against jargon and cant. His views were quite familiar, his invective distinct, the satire sharp and aimed at a wide array of targets, and delivered with the kind of unambiguous clarity heard more often in the football terraces.

It was good stuff and gave anyone who cares about the subject, or either writes in a natural language, a sense of indignation, and even, supercilious pride.

When it was finished, however, a question nagged: haven’t we tried this before? These diatribes against the lame, weasel, abstract, fallacious, ugly use of words is a purgative but it hasn’t solved much. Sod all (thanks Jonathan), if truth be admitted.

The virus is wider and multi-platformed. If it was a public service campaign to end littering but the volume of cans and food packaging in the streets, was as bad as it ever was, the organization would accept failure and fold.

Look around and it seems futile.  A retired school teacher in Georgia who recently took a moment to correct a letter from the White House – from the desk of the president – provides texture to the degraded state of simple communication. Thomas Jefferson’s White House would never have sent such a letter.

A journalist told me of the occasion when she had asked a senior executive at the opening their company’s new, larger, office whether they were consolidating their position in the region. He replied very briskly, that no, on the contrary, they were growing. In that pause she realized he thought consolidation was a euphemism for decline, restructuring staff, downsizing the corporate footprint. It occurred to her then, that the word shed of its business suit, has an awkward definition.

Typically complaints about speech are thrown at idioms, dialect, patois, which may come from a group and particular activity. The usage might be on the margin, and because it breaches common standards it causes offense. It may invert common use to act in defiance. Like most slang it changes and fades, occasionally staying around long enough for the next generation to mock.

The irony here is that professional jargon and cant comes with academic qualifications and lots of status.

The main reason why it won’t reform, let alone die, even under Meades’s (and others) devastating satire, is that it is initiated in the academy. After graduation it has a career with power and an above average income, and perhaps, even a post graduate degree.

Instead of hoping that media commentators and earnest campaigns could possibly eradicate this type of speech, we ought to restore the virtue of common usage. If Thomas Jefferson and John Adams could proclaim a nation in language anyone can understand, that freedom should be equally possible for everyone else afterwards.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

 

Authenticity

Jean de Florette, the ex-tax inspector turned farmer, declares to the peasant carnation entrepreneur, Ugolin, “Je ne m’intéresse plus qu’à ce qui est vrai, sincère, pur, large, en un seul mot, l’AUTHENTIQUE, et je suis venu ici pour cultiver l’AUTHENTIQUE”

The irony in Jean’s speech is lost on Ugolin, but not his wily uncle, César, who understands that the neophyte farmer is a dreamer. The rural authentic is in each callous and the dirt under Ugolin’s fingernails. He doesn’t know it because it’s his daily life and it is not acknowledged in his society.

The value of the authentic is potent: true and real. It can be the element that makes something successful, taken from daily life, not invented by some writer, and therefore credible, and somehow truer. However reality is not all it’s cracked up to be. Consumed in drama and novels, it needs tweaking, focus, shading, re-balancing, and other modifications in order to work as a text.

Time also needs adjusting. Anachronisms, such as hair length and contemporary idiom, may be accidental, but intentional anachronisms remove barriers of custom, place and period which are too obscure to explain, or, as in theater and opera, a director has reinterpreted. An intentional revisionist anachronism changes the original play or opera, in some instances quite distinctly from what the author could have imagined.

Last year the Opera Bastille produced La Bohème in space. A space station above Earth with a dream of living in a Paris garret. Space is chilly but it doesn’t snow. A London production of Julius Caesar had a grunge band as if it was Seattle in 1990. The text was cut, the shorter length condensed action and made it an entirely different work, not the original source but merely based on. It was not a representation of ancient Rome, not that the play is either historically accurate or authentic, but the relationships had been changed fundamentally to something like a contemporary dictatorship in which grunge still rocks.

Despite the large changes, audiences eventually liked Puccini among the asteroids. The Nirvana pulsating Julius Caesar seemed to please its audience too.

Revision of the original, and with it the loss of authenticity upsets some, as if it cannot cohere any longer. That is partially true but the idea that the essence of the finished work is immutable in order to be authentic is not.  While Jean de Florette’s objective is honorable in its righteousness, it is unattainable. As it should be. Change, intervention, meddling, redefining, however bad and awkward, is necessary. But please, just no Shakespeare, or Wagner on ice skates.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Recycling

When a clock battery’s life had finally passed into the great hereafter I took its lifeless carcass to the local library where battery and mobile phones recycling bins accept dangerous corpses.

Turning to go, I noticed that the library had put two trolleys of old books – books that presumably could not keep their shelf space in the library – opposite the battery recycling bins. These were giveaways. This unofficial recycling exchange seemed an opportunity too good to ignore. I picked up three books, one of them a collection of journalism by Will Self.

The articles in the collection first appeared in print about twenty years ago; from about the mid-90s to the new millennium; mostly about a London remembered in various guises.  The articles have revived the period and the preoccupations of the time.

Popular culture came to power and got inside no 10. Having changed governments after eighteen years Britain had a 1960s revival complete with band rivalries, ersatz thought it was. The commentary and reviews of those Mancunian recyclers, Oasis, were, and are, still quite true; as too, is the analysis of that consummate maker of homages, Tarantino: a recycler in all but name.

The Internet was expanding but still seen as something which only a small group of compulsive, socially awkward, men would use. A supercilious evaluation of the technology, and its terminology, and of course, its core users then, could not stop its relentless growth, not even on a 33 kbps modem.

Although most of the articles in the anthology are nearly a generation old: just saying generation is chilling, the curious effect from reading these dispatches from the previous millennium was its familiarity. Nowhere was there an observation, a custom, which is not still part of life today.

If a similar collection of journalism from the 1970s had been reread in the mid ‘90s, a greater sense of change and lived experience would be obvious. Fewer choices and availability of choices, such as, dining out, international travel are two examples. In 1975 just 52% of British homes had a home telephone.

The comparison with today, and in relative terms, with the mid ‘90s is quite clear.

Having found that the past is not really another country, they still do things as we know it, I shall return this book to the library and recycle it for another person to read. They may find something in this representation of 1990s Britain which is different, exotic even, and new.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Arguments

Why do people choose to do things against their own interests?  This question is a theme in Thomas Frank’s discussion of politics and why some ideas hold a mysterious appeal when they do little for their adherents.

The answer comes through Frank’s observations: lack of information, ignorance, misunderstanding, but most of all belief, belief in the invisible hand, in the status quo and in grace. Belief renders information and analysis irrelevant; it has no purpose and value when it conflicts with commitment.

Belief delivers a positive feedback loop, it ratifies that the idea is virtuous in itself.  That may be sufficient with some subjects, the ethical perhaps, but an inchoate understanding of complex information, and the logical and critical analysis by which to examine perspectives, only produces assertion. A convinced believer denounces opposing ideas, typically through reductionist characterization and ad hominem assassination.

Ideas are not bad, ideas are just seeds and may develop, mutate, in different potential directions. Fault lies with the arguments, the propositions and logic which articulate an idea.

This distinction becomes more apparent when an idea is expressed by an advocate but it is obvious that it is not much more than assertion. The cement of an argument is missing and consequently it is unconvincing in some part, or an obvious fallacy.

Matthias Matthijs and Mark Blyth discussed the influence of bad ideas and complex data in the Washington Post last year. The authors examined the Brexit vote and the political ramifications, taking it must be said a highly rational analysis to the referendum, which would not have been commensurate with the voters who exercised more emotion, even some animus, in the booth.

They argued that a bad idea has a duration. When voters realize that the idea has done them no good they can change it through the political system. Their metaphor of a put option, i.e. an option to sell a stock/asset when the collective no longer want to hold the stock, the political idea, is a neat rhetorical device though, in reality, it seems nebulous. Bad ideas, in their terms, hang on, despite political changes, sometimes because a change of advocates can make the idea presented differently more palatable, or appear so.

From these interpretations a dichotomy emerges between the qualified technocrats with their rigorous analytical method and others, reliant on axioms, on statements of belief, the antithesis of the method and language of the experts. The implications for politics and social development are numerous and volatile.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Cant

The headline is not a Faulkneresque omission of the apostrophe but rather a nod to political language. Over the holiday I read a few books on American politics, including the Wolff book, Fire and Fury, which is getting a lot of attention. While that work is useful in threading the events together, it is conventional and light on insight.  The other books I read elucidated recent events in historical context with deeper analysis, accounting for the sociological, economic and demographic forces.

Among the discussions which filtered the shifting themes of the political movements one thing stood out, and one that is the essence of the multiple fractures in the US: linguistic use, which extends beyond mere vocabulary, or tone and style.

As it is characterized from multiple sources, one group (conservative) prizes authenticity above any other quality. This is manifested in a straightforward way of expression. This feature is coupled with a deep and consistent reading of scripture which adds further emphasis to honesty in all speech. Those empty phrases at the beginning of statements: To be hones; Speaking frankly, may actually signify something.

Opposite that diverse assembly of political forces, is a more eclectic group and the language used by its speakers is technocratic, complex, occasionally ironic – it signals sophistication; highly educated, and unavoidably pretentious in some instances. Yes, we cant.

The authenticity, and by implication honesty, of each group as it defines itself versus the other, is distinguished by the way it uses language.

The antagonism, and consequently the political divide between the authentic and ironic, is manifested through many issues and cant is not exclusive to only one side, but it is rare for the authentic group to adopt it, (though not their political operatives); or else it would be to act in a way that is dishonest.

This divide in linguistic usage is seen in other countries, certainly in the political oppositions which seek to challenge the status quo. They call out the experts and the phrases they use as phony.

Cant is a display of status, a form which attempts to manipulate by flattery and empathy. Self-righteousness masks all its various defects. It is therefore not surprising that one of its greatest exponents, Oprah Winfrey, should now be touted for political office. If and when Wolff comes to write about that White House, should it happen, he may risk dehydration, due to the flow of tears.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2018. All Rights Reserved.

Reading

It is widely known that boys are reluctant readers. The data supports the view too. It was with this fact in mind that Claude Chabrol’s well-crafted tale of his initial reading of Madame Bovary struck me as very unusual.

Chabrol went on to make the best film adaptation of the book and it’s not too surprising that a boy should read – or try to read – such a novel; after all Bovary was classified as a smutty book, or perceived as one, and his first reading was when he was thirteen, an age when looking out for raunchy pages is part of adolescence.

The way Chabrol tells the story he was not just interested in Madame Bovary, he was truly hooked in the way that some things possess the entire being. The odder part of his infatuation is that he was so utterly bewitched by the novel that on the occasion of losing his virginity all he could do was rush home and resume reading again. Not for Chabrol the need to share his milestone experience; perhaps brag to signify he was no longer a mere boy; no, he had another woman waiting for him.

To add to his adolescent obsession, he says, in his rush to get home, he lost a clog. The additional detail over the lost clog (sabot in French) is potent; the clog is a synecdoche of peasant, and of the authentic France.

Chabrol losing footwear to get back to his book should be a jacket blurb, not just for Madame Bovary but for any great novel: “So good, I lost my shoes!”.

One wonders what Chabrol’s accomplice turned to when she got home. Did she confide in her diary, do some homework, or have domestic duties to do, such as wash and peel some vegetables for the pot au feu which her grandmother had begun when the Germans first came in 1871.

The director Billy Wilder imagined the lot of the man who let his apartment to the couple in Brief Encounter (or as a French friend once called it, ‘Brief Accountant’). His question turned into the film, The Apartment.  It seems in Chabrol’s version too, Emma Bovary has once again supplanted another character. Her egotism is timeless.

As I said, Chabrol’s story is well-crafted: it completely avoids the physical detail, and ignores the emotional impressions of what occurred in the woods but like the textured and crafted paragraphs of Madame Bovary, the book, the clogs and that the event occurred in 1943, combine into a tale of French symbolism. Chabrol’s intention was to articulate the influence of the novel on him, in spite of all other elements. Hunger and sex are the two strongest forces but Chabrol implies, excellent writing too. In that he may have assumed too much of Emma Bovary’s style.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.

 

Power

It is two thousand years since the poet, Ovid, died in a remote, uncivilized and cold boundary of the Roman Empire. Exile is not meant to be enjoyable and Ovid missed the pleasures of Roman life.

His relationship with the emperor, Augustus, and more specifically the power struggle between them is one that many writers have faced.  A quick search online reveals lists of writers who have been censored and harassed. Prestige alone will not protect an author from severe punishment.

The cause of Ovid’s exile is mysterious but it seemed to stem from a clash between Augustus’s decrees on civic morality and Ovid’s facetious ridicule of the emperor’s policies. Dictators dislike mockery and Ovid lost to Augustus but the extent of Ovid’s power, or rather, his influence, his ideas, was seen as no small threat to the emperor.

Like many powerful figures Augustus was concerned about social cohesion; governing a compliant population poses less risk than one in which the state is questioned. Ovid’s imaginative satire diminished the emperor’s status; humor is a dangerous weapon, and it produces a potent feedback loop, encouraging ideas which corrode dictatorial supremacy.

Ovid admirer, Shakespeare, is probably the best English writer about power.  He understood its range and force, its tone and allure, and also its transitory nature. Richard II traverses power’s vain omnipotence through to abject loss and ultimately to death. Prospero exercises magical power when his temporal power has been taken by his brother; Rosalind and her cousin, Celia, discover power in disguise and exile.

Lady Macbeth urges her hesitant husband to the throne, while Margaret of Anjou berates her spineless husband, Henry VI, to prosecute the full power at his command; Volumnia, mother of Coriolanus, exults in the dread power of her son and fears him when he is exiled. Then there is King Lear, who, still believed he was powerful even though he had vested the sources of power to his daughters, Goneril and Regan. And it is Lear’s fool who taunts him, the conscience, which sees past the status, and pulls him down to earth.

Writers often have the last word, it is a salutary concession, and it’s true of Ovid. Even though he was banished and endured parochial life, he kept writing; his texts, and the ideas, were read and debated by successive generations.  For Augustus, and it goes for all of his descendants, omnipotence has a fixed duration. The fatuousness of censuring and imprisoning a vivid imagination is certain in the long run.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2017. All Rights Reserved.