Friday, 30 May 2014

Language matters (Warning - Rant Level:9 Coherence Index: 3)

So. We are reliably informed that LOL is 25 years old. God knows who had something to laugh about in 1989; possibly the East Germans, though I don't quite see them creating iconic lingo just at that point. 

Then the other morning the Today programme devoted 10 minutes
to the new use of the word 'beyond'. It is not just a preposition anymore; it is, if you were to believe the ancient, choked up presenter, a terrorist organisation affiliated to Al Qaida.

We seem obsessed by the inherent vulgarity of the evolving language, the ugly new words the kids use, the fate worse than death visited upon honourable old words tricked into a random new meaning.

All this is very exciting and all but let us not forget the more dangerous language manipulations that make fools of us all. 

In the novel 1984 Orwell imagined that in a modern dictatorship language itself would become propaganda.  Newspeak repressed rebellious thoughts by making them impossible to express, without having to deploy a single water cannon.

In the early 21st century Orwellian, "How to spend it", post-capitalist Eco-mageddon we live in, a grubby little fake-French quasi-Brasserie chain called Côte has introduced a form of commercial Newspeak for all its waiters. If you ask for tap water they will chirp, Stepford-like :"I will certainly bring you a bottle of our complementary water, madam."

Now Côte, where do I begin? Just because you've instructed waiters to decant tap water into, not a jug, but an imitation terracotta bottle you are not offering me a bottle of 'complimentary water' any more than you could say you are serving me in the glare of 'complementary electricity'. The air I'm breathing on your premises is not a gift from the Côte shareholders either. 

Before I've eaten a single morsel of their indifferent food I am made to feel like I'm being pampered and spoilt with free stuff.

Let me repeat this again: it's TAP WATER. You can bring it to me in vessels fashioned out of unicorn hair but it's still not complimentary - it's free and you are only giving it to me because its cost to you is compensated by the the bill I will pay you later. It's one of your costs of doing business. It helps me swallow your (non-complementary) rubber chicken.

Meanwhile, back at Ryanair HQ, the bright sparks in charge of 'humanising the brand', for so long synonymous with 'utter contempt for the people cheap enough to use us', have started with a thorough redesign of the website. The new model contains exactly the same tricks to entice you to purchase- entirely by mistake -insurance you don't need and luggage you don't want but in brighter colours and more vivid fonts. 

The final gift comes at the checkout where the price of the booking is described as 'discount price' if you pay by visa debit and no surcharge is levied, and 'normal price' when you pay with a credit card and the final tally jumps up by a few quid. 

Let me repeat this, because the bad faith is breathtaking. The £100 you have been looking at till a second earlier are described as a 'discount' if they remain £100 at the moment of paying. If they jump up to £105 that is considered the normal price (the previous quote of £100 being a joke price, or a tease presumably).

We are used to the oily and self-serving language of mature capitalism, of course: the machine message about your call being important to them, the whole canon of advertising bullshit. But this is a new mutation, people: language used not to lie but to manipulate you into a position of humble gratitude. 

Which brings me to Lord Rennard. How I do not know, but here we are. Remarkably the man has created a whole new semantic genre, we should call it 'The Rennard Non Apology Apology', which roughly translates into: "I'm, like, sorry - I guess-  if you were offended by stuff I didn't do, and everything, so my bad for any embarrassment you might be feeling."

The actual wording of the last bit is  "regret for any harm or embarrassment caused to them (the women who accused him of sexual harrassment) "  but see what he did there? Instead of feeling embarrassed (boy, I would) he seems to imply embarrassment caused by his behavior or its interpretation has somehow attached itself to his alleged victims. 

Gotta go now. I'm all out of rage. I'm 'beyond'. Literally.

Monday, 26 May 2014

The people's army of Ukip have spoken

Well done silent majority.

You couldn't bother your arse to vote could you?

Thanks to you, specimen like Janice 'Classy' Atkinson and even less appealing pals of Nigel's will be giving British taxpayers and their potential European allies the finger for the next 5 years.

This on the strength of a 9 pc share of the voting population, on a turnout that barely reaches 34 pc by standing precariously on its toes.

Hardly any votes at all when all is said and done.

I bet more people rate the latest Hollywood star 'Hot or not' in online polls any given week.

Democracy shows us one thing, and we should have learnt the lesson by now: politics is not reformed and shaped by those who refuse to vote in disgust for its shortcoming.

Politics just carries on without you, and usually takes a sharp turn towards totalitarianism of some kind. 

Sunday, 18 May 2014

The Testament of Mary - what would history written by women read like?

I've just seen Colm Toibin's 'The Testament of Mary' on stage, with Fiona Shaw in the title role speaking, and roaming, alone on a sparse set for 80 mesmerising minutes.

I don't feel for a second that I can do the play justice with a few words on this blog. Even proper, professional reviewers from the Guardian and the Telegraph are almost left choking with admiration and wonder.

Shaw's performance alone is something I will probably never forget. She is one of those amazing actors (Mark Rylance also springs to mind, Kenneth Branagh used to be one) who could be reading out her shopping list and infuse it with enough rage, tenderness, sarcasm and despair that you'd be never again be able to look at a box of Rice Crispies, say, or a jar of Marmite, without a shudder of longing and regret.

Put Fiona Shaw in the role of a grieving, raging not-such-a-virgin-after-all-Mary, reviewing the events leading to her son's senseless death and her desolate exile, almost a hostage to eager myth-makers urging her to sign up to a particular version of the past, and you get a masterpiece.

The play asks (surprisingly current) timeless questions and does so with the energy, rage and resigned wit of everywoman, history's invisible protagonist, handmaiden of all that is, witness to all of it, in charge of none if it, anywhere, ever.

What if, the play teases us, history were written by women?  And what if the women allowed to write it didn't care about power and glory, about miracles and epoch changing events or at least did not use the metric men use to categorise their importance? 

What if they cared instead about their loved ones- particularly the children pushed out with great pain into the world and made of their very flesh and blood? What if their priority was see those children, ordinary or exceptional that they may be- in fact exceptional and unique only to them- to be allowed to live, to be and eventually to die, not for a god or a cause, a leader or an idea but because their time on earth was over? 

What if wars' accounts were recorded not by the generals or even the soldiers but by the mothers asked to swallow the latest cynical lie about their children's sacrifice being necessary, inevitable heroic? 

What if the costs were counted, not just the gains, the numbers left behind, not just the distance covered, the graves, not just the triumphal arches, the daring towers?

"He's changed the world!" Mary is told, time and again, about her son's life and his horrific death. "What, the whole world?" she quips, almost with a sneer. If it were possible to sneer resignedly, Fiona Shaw could convey it.

She is every Bosnian Serb pushing her toddlers onto of the last crowded coach out of the village under siege, her teenage sons already dead in a ditch; she is every Syrian woman who's trying to keep her starving family alive in Homs or Aleppo, her children bombed and gassed, her teenage sons heading for ambiguous martyrdom.  

She is the mother of all the Malalas who would be killed if a bullet hit them in the head, end of story, with no chance to speak out and to be heard. She is the great philosopher's daughter who spends her life fetching the water from the well, never asked what she thinks; she is the princess promised for marriage in infancy to some foreign chinless wonder so that two countries may briefly not be a war, or more easily gang up against a third.

She is the astronaut's wife, who never leaves the earth and lives with her gaze up in the sky; the wife of every soldier who comes back broken and traumatised, having killed and tortured in the name of democracy and freedom, having failed, once again, to save the world or to change it for the better, yes, even a little bit.