What this blog is for and about

I also offer personally-tailored, individualized English conversation practice (including etiquette) and coaching in writing techniques. Finally, I edit texts such as magazines, business proposals, memorandums, emails so they are presented in English which does not embarrass you or your organization. For further details, please mail me at: language.etiquette@gmail.com

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31 March 2012

Blue blood/brown breeks

The Earl of Oxford’s fart has made a come-back. For some unaccountable reason, my post about it (2 March, referring to 28 February) has suddenly started showing many more hits on the Google statistical analysis. Usually, posts attract interest for several days and then they die down, which is natural. This one was widely read at the time it was posted, but then numbers declined in the normal way. Suddenly, about a week ago, they started picking up again, dramatically. This is very unusual. To use a colloquial phrase which might be new to some Russians, it seems that his Lordship’s fart “has legs”.
     First it overwhelmed Putin whose long weekend started drifting back down the field. Pressing on, it galloped past “Good Bonk” and Karl Lagerfeld as if they were trotting. By last Wednesday it was level-pegging with David Cameron’s “supper in the kitchen” and Prince Charles’s television habits. Other strong runners which had shown early form, like “liberating the smiler” and “the perils of waffle”, were blown away by the noble fart, which went on to make short work of both Boris Akunin and Mikhail Khodorkovsky, who collapsed gasping for breath in the outfield. Taking no prisoners, the famous Elizabethan faux pas thundered on past “have a lightbulb” and “Irish weekend” before setting off in pursuit of the leader, Papa’s Dog Style. Though on Friday, his Lordship appeared to fade, I see this morning, looking at the stats, that he got a second wind overnight and eased past Papa’s Dog Style into what is now a commanding lead.
     Hats off to the noble Earl: his fart is top of the heap, and his colours flutter high in the fresh breeze. But what might the reason be for this unexpected come-back? Readers with ideas are welcome to comment.

Where to speak English in good company

A busy week: on Wednesday I attended the 11th Charity Auction held by the Canadian Eurasian Russian Business Association (CERBA). This was held in fine style at the Yar restaurant, which was made famous by Rasputin (see post 26 March) and which has managed to remain substantially unchanged since. The whole room, with its cabaret stage, gilded ceiling, chandeliers and little private balconies, is a monument to Edwardian kitsch and, as such, one of the great sights of Moscow. The adjoining bar reminds me of a St. James’s gentleman’s club from the same era. If you, like me, think time travel is at least as interesting as spatial travel, then the Yar should be on your tick list.
     The auction was hosted with aplomb in both English and Russian (though not in French!) by Nathan Hunt, who is the CERBA начальник (English has no better word for his role). The items auctioned were not necessarily of great intrinsic value, which meant that the sum raised was an even greater tribute to the generosity of the patrons. The fantastic total of $196,234 was achieved. This money will be given to children’s hospitals, orphanages, and programs for street children in and around the city of Ulyanovsk.
      Some part of the funds may be diverted to Yaroslavl in connection with the air disaster that claimed the lives of the entire hockey team last year. In which connection, I should mention that one of the items most enthusiastically bid for was a hockey jersey (fully laundered) which represented the one worn by the Soviet star, Vladislav Tretiak during the legendary 1972 Canada-USSR series.

With the bidding about to start, the tension mounts,
though Rasputin was nowhere to be seen.

On Thursday the British Business Club held its monthly meeting in the more homely surroundings of Katie O’Shea’s, the great Irish pub on Grakholsky Pereulok. This is perhaps the best organization to join if you are a Russian, living in Moscow, who wants to get some idea of the normal mode of social interchange of white-collar Britain, plus plenty of practice with the English language in its post-colloquial form.
     Thursday's event was the usual convivial affair, enlivened by a typically British debate—good-humoured, but essentially serious—about how best to fund the Club’s expenses. It seems that a “left-wing deviationist” faction is leaning towards a more low-key venue policy, while a “right-wing deviationist” faction is taking a more elitny stance. We even have our own Stalin to referee the debate, and a Politburo to execute the Plan. New members are always welcome to join the fun.
     After the club meeting, there was dancing to an excellent band, called Betty Boop Lovers, who announced their business on the bass drum as “Jumpin’ Jive and Neo-Swing”. They were so good that a Russian friend and I had a good bop. I mention this because she provided the occasion for an interesting language point when she wrote next day to thank me for inviting her to the meeting, and saying: “We were the only dancers in the dance pole!” Of course, she meant “dance floor” (presumably from the Russian танцпол, or dance floor). I understood that, so no problem there.
     However a danger lurks, as so often with English, in that there is an activity called “pole-dancing” which is indulged in by scantily-dressed dyevushki in steamy night-clubs in grimy towns for the excitation of sweaty men in cheap suits with money to burn and nothing better to do. To say that this lady and I were “on the dance pole” could be misinterpreted by those of a mind to do so. I would not like us to be labelled “dance pole deviationists”. That could be bad for business.

Some members and guests: British, Russian and American

Two members of the Politburo: English and Welsh

29 March 2012

More on Prince Charles's watch/see confusion....

This message just in from Old Nitpicker, a friend from the west of Scotland who commands great respect for running speedy marathons at the age of sixty-five or, since he is a mathematician and computer expert, 1000001—which looks a lot older.

“I must pull you up on that – “The Telegraph quoted Charles as saying that The Killing is 'one of the only things we can agree on seeing together'. . . . . Either way, the sentence is not grammatical." Doesn’t conform to accepted English usage - fair enough. But nothing wrong grammatically.  If you and I are stargazing in the twilight, I might well say, “Venus is one of the only things we can agree on seeing together.” (because with my poor eyesight I cannot discern any other stars) Old Nitpicker

     Yes, Comrade Nitpicker, you are right, but only in one sense. Let me give some examples:
     “Can you see that star?”
     “Yes, I can. I have been watching it for years and noticed how it changes positon with the seasons.”
     “Do you you see the television set in the corner?”
     “Yes, that’s the one I watch the news on every night.”
     “Do you see what I  mean?”
     “Yes, I do but don’t forget I am watching you closely.”
     I could go on….

Dead Man in the Duma

In an article about the shooting in London of the Russian banker, German Gorbuntsov, the Moscow News yesterday noted:
“London is home to a vast community of wealthy Russians and the hard-handed (sic) settling of business disputes in the city is not uncommon. In the most well-known case is (sic) the 2006 polonium poisoning of former KGB agent and Kremlin critic Andrei Lugovoi.”
     Wow! Three floaters in two sentences! I think they meant “heavy-handed” rather than “hard-handed”, an expression not in conventional use in English these days. The beginning of the second sentence needs proof-reading. But the kicker is at the end: Mr Lugovoi, currently a member of the Duma, would be amazed to learn that he was killed in 2006. Has it all been a dream?

This post is published as a public service in the interests of the Moscow Union of Korrektors, Proof-Readers, Copy-Editors and Linguelegance Consultants (MUKPRCELC). They feel they are under-represented on the staff of most media organisations in the city today.

Soviet Britain #1: David Cameron’s “supper in the kitchen”

A friend writes worryingly from Moffat, the attractive town in the Scottish borders where Air Chief Marshall Sir Hugh (later Lord) Dowding was born. Dowding was the architect of victory in the Battle of Britain, a fact worth mentioning here because my friend's email reminds me that there is another battle of Britain in progress at the moment. It is a kind of civil war which is being waged by those who want to improve life against those who, though they would undoubtedly wish to make things better if they could, consider that life cannot be improved in any broad sense and therefore feel it ought to be allowed to flourish as it will (subject to conventional social and civil controls, of course).
     The improvers, if I may call them that, are under the psychological sway of the American political correctness movement. They wish to compel people to think, act and communicate in ways which conform to a vision of a society that is guilt-free in the extreme Protestant sense of the word. These Americans (and there are many who are not like this) are so embarrassed at their own society's historic sins, like slavery (re: blacks, or African-Americans) and genocide (re: Indians, or Native Americans), that they want to force the rest of the world to behave as they now think they should have behaved in the past. This form of moral egotism is very dangerous.
     It is as dangerous—and for similar reasons—as Marxism-Leninism was. One of the joys of living amongst educated Russians today is that so many of them have rejected so completely the ideals of Marxism-Leninism that they look on the political correctness movement in the West with a mixture of horror and amusement. But the movement is alive and kicking in large parts of American society and also in Britain, Australia, South Africa etc. The point of mentioning it here is not to start a political debate, which is outside the scope of this blog, but to warn Russians who travel to savage parts that they will encounter coded language and linguistic pitfalls which they might not be expecting. Beware the PC brigade!
     My friend’s letter give some excellent illustrations of this. She wrote:
“There is a language-based furore largely centred around Francis Maude [a Conservative Member of Parliament and Cabinet Minister] who has betrayed his (and, it is held, the current cabinet’s) ‘poshness’ and overlapping ‘old-fashioned-ness’ (i.e. ‘out of touch-ness’). He suggested yesterday that people might provide for a possible strike of petrol-tanker delivery drivers by having ‘a jerrycan of petrol in the garage’. A jerrycan is apparently considered an antiquated article, presumably because made of metal and associated vaguely with WWII; it holds 20 litres and the fire service has immediately condemned the suggestion as being a fire risk and illegal. Maude is also condemned for referring to ‘supper in the kitchen’ in connection with the fund-raising scandal, where David Cameron invited major donors to intimate meals at his flat ‘above the shop’ at 10 Downing St. On BBC Radio 4 this morning, Conservative commentator Tim Montgomerie pointed out that ‘supper in the kitchen’ is a class-based concept because it implies a cosy contrast to ‘dinner in the dining room’ (one’s usual arrangement).”
     My own view about political correctness is that it is a blasphemy since it assumes that, if carried on long enough, it will in theory create a perfect world without any assistance from the Man Upstairs. Man is God.
     But I should not say that. To mention “the Man Upstairs” is PC offence because it is genderist. The fact that it is said as a light jest is no defence. The Taliban famously shot three teenage boys for laughing at them. The PC brigade are of the same mind—like Hitler, Stalin and all the other tyrants who have tried to improve the world by force. Not one of them was the sort of person that one might have considered inviting to supper in the kitchen, like the dreadful, priggish Mr Montogomerie who, incidentally, started the Conservative Christian Fellowship, with support from the Christian Coalition of America, an extreme Protestant organisation whose fundamentalist, evangelical nature rather makes my point for me. 

28 March 2012

Confusing words #4: convenient/comfortable

A charming Russian lady telephoned me five minutes ago and asked: “Is it comfortable to talk right now?”
     I had not the heart to answer: “Yes, but really you should have said, ‘Is it convenient to talk right now?’”
     So I am making my unspoken thought public, hoping she will read this post. The problem results from the fact that in Russian the word удобный can mean either convenient or comfortable (in some senses).
     To ask if I am comfortable would be nice, in much the same way that the famous BBC Home Service programme, Listen with Mother, always used to begin: “Good afternoon children! Are you sitting comfortably? Then I’ll begin. Once upon a time, in a big, dark wood, there lived a wicked old bear/witch/socialist/environmental activist/person with dubious taste in suits etc…” (delete as appropriate)
     But the lady who phoned me just now did not want to know about my physical posture. She wanted to avoid disturbing me if were “in a meeting” or otherwise engaged. That was polite of her, and I am grateful for her courtesy, which was why I could not bring myself to correct her English.
     But here it is, Katya, specially for you—and the 140 million other Russians who use the telephone. For me, this is a more convenient way to put the point across. I hope you will feel comfortable with that.

Brief boobs #5: Prince Charles gets his verbs mixed up: seeing/watching

Charles and Camilla
Today’s Daily Telegraph has a “humanise the Royals” piece about the television-watching habits of Prince Charles and his second wife, the Duchess of Cornwall. Apparently on a recent visit to Copenhagen, the Duchess admitted that her favourite viewing at the moment is a “gritty, expletive-ridden Danish crime drama” called The Killing. Prince Charles, according to the paper, normally likes watching the cartoon comedy, Wallace and Gromit.
     For Russian readers it should perhaps be explained that Wallace is a plasticine-modelled cheese enthusiast and amateur inventor from somewhere in Lancashire, and Gromit is his highly intelligent but completely silent (because he has no mouth) dog. When my children were about 10 years old they loved them. Prince Charles still does at the age of 63, but then he, too, is a cheese enthusiast and heavy-duty hobbyist.
     Apparently the Prince and the Duchess have very different tastes in family viewing. When they sit down together in front of the television on a quiet evening in Clarence House, at Highgrove House or on the Birkhall estate on Deeside, they find this a problem. The Telegraph quoted Charles as saying that The Killing is “one of the only things we can agree on seeing together”.
Wallace and Gromit
     Most native-speakers of English “watch” the television; they do not “see” it. The difference is similar to the difference in Russian between the words смотреть and видеть. Prince Charles’s father may be of Danish extraction and have Greek connections, and his mother may be half-Scottish with German antecedents in the paternal line, but Charles himself was born and brought up amongst native-speakers of English and should be expected to know better. Perhaps he does. Perhaps it is the declining standards of proof-reading in Fleet Street which is to blame.
     Either way, the sentence is not grammatical. Charles might correctly have said, “When my wife and I see each other we watch television together only when we see eye-to-eye on what we should watch. The only thing we agree on is that we both love murder with lots of swearing.”

27 March 2012

Statements of obvious #2: Moscow Times/VTsIOM


Today’s Moscow Times contains an extremely interesting report of a recent poll which suggests that there has been a decline in the number of Russians who wish to emigrate. It attributes this in part to the protests of the last few months. Many people who, five years ago, would have felt so disempowered that they preferred life abroad have changed their minds about their own country. They feel they can influence its future, and now wish to stay and be part of that future. So far, so cool.
     Then I read that the statistics from which the conclusions had been drawn came from a state-run poll by VTsIOM. Not quite so cool: perhaps I would do well take them with a grain of salt. But they did have the ring of truth. I can believe that there is a new mood amongst the Bolotnaya folk—if I may call them that for short.
     But the more I read, the less convinced I became. So many statistics were quoted that I, for one, began to have doubts. Finally, I read the last paragraph, which makes the point that there is an age dimension to the issue. This is what it said:
“The older a person gets, the less likely they are to want to leave: 25-35 year olds (14 percent), 35-44 year olds (13 percent), 45-59 year olds (7 percent), people over 60 (1 percent), dead people (0 percent).”
      But surely dead people have, in every meaningful sense, already emigrated? And if they have not, presumably their visas have expired? And how did the pollsters establish the wishes of these people? By what means were the interviews conducted? With a ouija board during a séance, or what? What was the poll sample in this category? Or was the figure simply a logical deduction from the assumption that dead men don’t walk, and therfore cannot get onto aeroplanes?
     Of course, I made that last statistic up, in order to emphasise my point. The article as printed actually ended with “...people over 60 (1 percent).” But there is a problem with the sort of precision that ran though the whole piece and which was becoming almost funny by the last sentence. It gives a scientific gloss which the pollsters presumably hope will make their conclusions more believable but which in real life has the opposite effect.
     Similarly it is a strange fact, but it is true, that the more you state the obvious, the less people—at least British people—will believe you. If you want to improve credibility, tell people something that they did not know but which they see could quite possibly be true, and go easy on the statistics.
     An English expression which Russians like the VTsIOM pollsters would do well to ponder is “wet behind the ears”. To state the obvious is to treat people as if they are “wet behind the ears”, which means they are naive, and that they have not yet been exposed to the world. Newly born animals are licked dry by their mothers, except in the places where their mother’s tongue cannot reach. One of those is behind the ears (according to legend), and so a young faun is “wet behind the ears” for a few hours.
      The VTsIOM pollsters—or rather the staff who wrote the press release based on the pollsters’ work—would do well to remember that if you want to convince worldly-wise people of important new trends, do not treat them as if they are wet behind the ears. Do not state the obvious, and never try to ram home an argument with masses of statistics which can never be checked against ordinary experience in the way that more general statements can.
     The alternative is to risk getting yourself into the sort of ludicrous tangle which Dmitri Rogozin did when discussing reproduction (see post 10 February: Statement of the obvious #1). I don’t think he persuaded very many people. Likewise, I am not convinced that there is a huge change in Russian emigration intentions as a result of Bolotnaya etc. But I may be wrong. I simply don’t know. And that is the worst possible criticism of a poll which was published presumably in order to inform me.

26 March 2012

Common expressions #1: "to have a lightbulb"

In American cartoons of the 1950s and 60s the convention for illustrating pictorially the fact that someone had suddenly had a bright idea was to show a glowing light-bulb in a thought bubble right above the thinker's head. I witnessed something similar at the monthly networking meeting of the Russo-British Chamber of Commerce last Friday in the Sheraton Palace Hotel on Tverskaya-Yamskaya.
     The special occasion was the introduction of the new Moscow Director, Alan Thompson, who comes from Edinburgh and is an old friend. I will say more about him and his organisation's activities in future posts, but for now, I want to show for the benefit of my Russian readers what you might expect to see if you were to be standing in front of a British businessman at the moment when he has a good idea. Look right! (Remember with all images, you can click on them to expand them.)
    The gentleman in the picture has not just had a bright idea, he has, as we say colloquially, "had a light-bulb"!

Common mistakes #7: “in case”

Moscow News is a much-improved newspaper since my friend Tim Wall took over a couple of years back and started subjecting his backers to some polite but proper scrutiny. He will understand, therefore, if I subject his prose to some polite but proper scrutiny.
     Friday’s edition of his paper carries an interesting article by Yulia Ponomareva about the possibilities for unity amongst the anti-government parties in Russia. In it she wrote:
“Just Russia member Oksana Dmitriyeva, who Mironov was going to appoint Prime Minister in case he had won the presidential election, admitted that ….”
     The use of the phrase “in case” in this context is a direct translation of the Russian в случае, and though commonly used by Russians in this way is not correct in English. What Ms Ponomareva should have written was: “in the event that” (Mironov had won the election). As the sentence stands, it means that, as a precaution against the possibility that Mironov won the election, he was going to appoint Ms D. prime minister—which of course is not what Ms Ponomareva intended to say, nor what Mr Mironov was thinking.
     “In case” is not used in the subjunctive mood. It is quite correct to say, “I have brought my umbrella in case it rains”, or “as a precaution in case of rain”. But to say, “My umbrella would have got wet in case of rain”, is not correct. That sentence should be: “My umbrella would have got wet in the event of rain”, or, better still because it is simpler, “if it had rained.”
      In case Mr Wall reads this blog, he might like to mention this point to Ms Ponomareva, in case she is tempted to make the same mistake again. In the event that (not “in case”) she had read this post before writing her otherwise informative article, she would probably have avoided this error.

Forthcoming Event: CERBA at the Yar Restaurant on Wednesday

Anyone in Moscow with money to spare for those less fortunate than themselves should consider attending the Charity Auction which is to be held by the Canadian, Eurasian, Russian  Business Association (CERBA) this Wednesday evening at the Yar restaurant on Leningradka.
     Historians of Russia will remember that the Yar was where Rasputin exposed himself in public one night in late 1915 to the scandal of many. But the event resulted not in any curb on Rasputin but in the dismissal of two of the Tsar's most competent and popular Ministers, Djunkowsky and Samarin. The First World War was going badly for Russia by then, a fact that many people thought partly due to the evil influence of Rasputin at Court. The incident has come to stand as a symbol of the galloping degeneracy of the Tsarist system as it tottered towards final collapse.
    This is the account of that evening written by a British eye-witness, Robert (later Sir Robert) Bruce Lockhart, the Consul in Moscow at the time. It is taken from his wonderful book, Memoirs of a British Agent (1932, though still in print) which I discussed a year ago on my radio programme:
Cabaret at the Yar Restaurant
“One summer evening I was at Yar, the most luxurious night-­haunt of Moscow, with some English visitors. As we watched the music-hall performance in the main-hall, there was a violent fracas in one of the neighbouring “cabinets”. Wild shrieks of women, a man’s curses, broken glass and the banging of doors raised a discordant pandemonium. Head-waiters rushed up­stairs. The manager sent for the policeman who was always on duty at such establishments. But the row and the roaring continued. There was more coming and going of waiters and policemen, and scratching of heads and holding of councils. The cause of the disturbance was Rasputin—drunk and lecherous, and neither police nor management dared evict him. The policeman telephoned to his divisional inspector, the inspector telephoned to the Prefect. The Prefect telephoned to Djunkowsky, who was Assistant Minister of the Interior and head of all the police. Djunkowsky, who was a former general and a man of high character, gave orders that Rasputin, who, after all, was only an ordinary citizen and not even a priest, should be arrested forthwith. Having disturbed everyone’s enjoyment for two hours, he was led away, snarling and vowing vengeance, to the nearest police-station. He was released early next morning on instructions from the highest quarters. He left the same day for St. Petersburg, and within twenty-four hours Djunkowsky was relieved of his post. Samarin’s dismissal, which followed later, made a very painful impression. A nobleman of splendid character, he was then Oberprokuror or Minister in Charge of Church Matters and one of the very best representatives of his class. No one but a madman could accuse him of anything but the most orthodox conservative opinions or of any lack of loyalty to the Emperor. Yet every Liberal and every Socialist respected him as an honest man, and the fact that the Emperor could thus sacrifice one of his most loyal advisers for a creature like Rasputin was accepted by nearly everyone in Moscow as a complete proof of the Tsar’s incom­petence. ‘Down with the autocracy!’ cried the Liberals. But even among the reactionaries there were those who said: ‘If the autocracy is to flourish, give us a good autocrat.’ This was the only occasion on which Rasputin came across my path.”
CERBA cannot produce Rasputin on Wednesday night, and will surely avoid any unpleasant scenes. But if you want to see the restaurant where all that happened, which is almost unchanged from those days, then buy a ticket to the auction and join the fun.

23 March 2012

Osip Mandelshtam and Barry McKenzie

The point of this blog is to facilitate communication between Russians and English-speaking people by explaining some of the peculiarities of the way in which the English language is actually used in real life. This is an issue which was addressed in a serious way nearly a century ago by the great Russian poet Osip Mandelshtam.
Osip Mandelshtam
     Language, according to Mandelshtam, is not just a set of abstract symbols which act as a code, in the way mathematical symbols do, but a living embodiment of cultural identity. Reading Border Crossings: The West and Russian Identity in Soviet Literature 1917-1934, by Carol Avins, this morning as my metro car hammered through the tunnel towards Barrikadnaya, it occurred to me that old Osip would, had he not died in the Gulag, have had something to say in this regard about Barry McKenzie, the 1960s Australian cultural explorer whose creator, as I mentioned in the piece on 21 March about Lady Bakewell, has just announced that, at the age of 78, he is giving up touring as a comedian.
     That creator is Barry Humphries who is best known for his female impersonations of the Melbourne housewife and superstar, Dame Edna Everage. One of her more recent exploits was to cover the Royal wedding last April between Prince William and Kate Middleton for Australian television. But Dame Edna is—sadly we must now say, was—in many ways a visual act, though with brilliant pastiche and repartee, while Barry McKenzie was more verbal. He was a creature of the Swinging Sixties when Australian slang was young, vital and in the final stage of its evolution before the internet and global communications started to cripple all human interaction.
     Most languages have been impoverished; many minor ones have died out. Perhaps the mountain gorillas of Rwanda still retain their traditional means of communication untainted, but the rest of us are being forced by the conveniences of modern life to communicate so easily with each other that some people think there is no longer any point in talking since we are all becoming the same. That, however, could never have been said of Barry McKenzie, a man who was, in the full Mandelshtamian sense, “linguistic”. He had something to say about cultural difference, and it is something which I think become more rather than less relevant as time goes by.
     Comrade Mandelshtam had, as was fashionable in his day, a theory about this. It was not enough at the time when communism was being constructed and a new world born simply to think something. You had to have a theory about it, preferably one with proto-cosmic implications and obscure terminology. Incidentally, this tendency still survives in some of the remoter parts of Russia, like the Philology Department of Moscow State University, where I used to teach Upper-Intermediate Chatting to students of English. On my way to class, I had to walk past a grim-looking door, which was always shut, on which was engraved the words: Кафедра теории литературы (Chair of the Theory of Literature). For the life of me, I could never work out how the word theory” could possibly be applied to literature. But it was.
     Comrade Mandelshtam’s theory, according to Dr Avins, was that Russian culture represented the Hellenic strand of European history, and stood over against the West, which represented the Latin one. The West was more disciplined and rational, like Rome, and Russia was more intuitive, artistic and generally cooler, like Athens. Russian culture was linked to Hellenic culture “through a principle of inner freedom which was inherent in them both.”
     I am not an expert on Mandelshtam’s poetry (which foreigner can be?), but I can appreciate his suffering at the hands of Stalin and his henchthugs. I made a radio programme about this, which was based around a wonderful book (sadly available only in Russian) which detailed his persecution at the hands of the “organs”: Слово и «Дело» Осипа Мандельштама by Pavel Nerler (2010). Despite this, and with all due respect, I think it legitimate to question the idea of inner freedom as being something inherent in Russian-Hellenic culture and therefore by implication less common elsewhere.
     So far as I am aware, Mandelshtam does not mention Australia anywhere in his considerable body of work. Perhaps he thought it provincial—or perhaps he was a tiny bit provincial himself, being unaware of the “hands across the sea”. It would surely have worried him to know that experimental refutation of his theory was being generated in a culture which was so far from Moscow that it makes Vladivostok seem almost рядом. And they spoke/speak English there—after a fashion. That fashion has been significantly influenced by Mr McKenzie and the inner freedom which allowed him to use the language of his culture in any way that he saw fit, both before he poured a dozen Fosters down his throat and after, when he would habitually sit on the shores of the “old Pacific Sea” with a bucket full of prawns which he would munch and then return to their natural habitat in half-digested form.
     Indeed, he once wrote a poem about the circumstances in which he did this, and the methods he employed. He set it to music and performed it in a film called The Adventures of Barry McKenzie (1972). The song contains some very inventive language that simultaneously affirms and refutes Mandelshtam. It supports his idea that language is an expression of culture, but refutes the point that inner freedom is something to be found only on the Athens-Moscow axis. Australian culture allowed McKenzie the inner freedom to describe the “re-wilding” of pre-owned prawns in a variety of descriptive ways appropriate to different situations: to chunder, have technicolour yawn, park a tiger, play the whale, laugh at the ground, throw the voice, park the pea soup, go for the big spit, have a liquid laugh, make love to the lav, or get on the big white telephone to Hughie (or Ruth).
     Likewise if prawns are not involved and it is only Fosters lager that has to be dealt with, then the process of expelling the fluid is described thus: to drain the dragon, strain the potatoes, wring the rattlesnake, splash the boots, shake hands with the wife’s best friend (or the unemployed), siphon the python or train Terence at the terracotta.
Man in hat
     Osip Mandelshtam is not to be criticised for his more limited use of language, or at least would not be had he not claimed to have more inner freedom than the likes of Barry McKenzie. The result of the poet-philologist’s lack of linguistic range eventually had tragic results. Mandelshtam was sent to the Gulag, where he died in 1938, essentially because of a poem he wrote about Stalin in which he compared the Great Leader and Teacher’s fingers to “thick worms” and described the signature moustache by saying the Vozhd had “huge laughing cockroaches on his top lip.”
Thirsty man in cooler hat
     That was not very imaginative. Far better to have avoided standard terms of abuse and written, as Barry McKenzie would undoubtedly have done (see post 21 March), that the Great Dictator was “as ugly as a hatful of arseholes”, or that he “looked like a pox-doctor’s clerk” and “stank like a dingo’s dunny”, an “Abbo’s armpit”, or a “Japanese wrestler’s jock-strap.” He might have added that he was probably a vegemite driller, who dines at the YMCA and crunches the Kapok, because the front-botties of all his Sheilas have piss-flaps on them like Gene Autrey’s saddle-bags, and they probably had skid-marks on their thunder bags too.
     Doubtless he would still have ended up in the Gulag, but he would at least have had a laugh on the way telling that short-arse in the shit brick-house to “stick his head up a dead bear’s bum.”
     Sod the Greeks, mate, that is what inner freedom is really about.

21 March 2012

Lady Bakewell and the Buranovskie Babushki

Older British readers will remember Joan Bakewell, whom Frank Muir famously described as “the thinking man’s crumpet”. Russian readers should know that “crumpet” has two apparently unrelated meanings: a type of soft, floury cake, and a woman whose attraction is mainly sexual.
     This was amusing because Ms Bakewell was an earnest, brainy late-night television presenter of left-wing tendencies who was a serial interviewer of the intelligentsia, usually male. Ten years ago, she published an autobiography revealingly entitled The Centre of the Bed. She had a celebrated extra-marital affair with Harold Pinter, the Nobel Prize winning playwright, and was, I think, successful on television because she was able to appear simultaneously puritanical and flirtatious. “Let’s break all the rules, darling!”
     In 2010 she was created Baroness Bakewell, presumably for services to thinking men. Alas, I was never one of them. I can’t imagine why, unless it is the fact that I never actually met her. That was a serious disadvantage in her day, which pre-dated the internet by several decades. Perhaps I am now too late, since she is 78 years old and presumably not so user-friendly as in her Muir-Pinter period.
     But her Ladyship is still active, in the press at any rate, and appears to have most of her mental faculties intact. I say “most” because in yesterday’s Daily Telegraph, she wrote what struck me as a very odd sentence for a Cambridge-educated blue-stocking. In connection with the Russian Eurovision group Buranovskie Babushki, otherwise known as the Dentist’s Delight, the noble Baroness wrote: “It rejoices my heart to see them.”
     As far as I can see from the Oxford dictionary, the transitive use of the word “rejoice” went out of fashion about 150 years ago. Certainly, I have never come across it in modern prose, not even in the way Harold Pinter might have used it: “Brace yourself, Joan! I am coming round tonight to rejoice you.”
     What, I said to myself, is the old girl up to? Then a horrible thought burst in on my own ageing brain: her Ladyship was born more than half-way back to 150 years ago! I suddenly felt no more urge to criticise. Instead I got down on my knees and prayed briefly for her soul, as it cannot be all that long before it is removed from the Upper House of the British parliament to an even higher place—if such a thing is possible.
     Anyway, that is getting off the point of what I intended to say, namely that Lady Bakewell also drew attention in her article to Barry Humphries, who ranks for me as one of the half-dozen or so greatest humorists who have worked in English in my life-time. He is the man who coined the deathless Australianism that I quoted this morning in connection with that ludicrous Japanese sports car: as ugly as a hatful of arseholes. But I fear time is running away with me today. So I am going to deal with him at proper length in my next post. Bear with me, please, gentle reader.

Russians actually liberating the smiler within

"Anonymous" commented yesterday on the post about Papa's Place (Perils of mis-pronunciation) as follows:
"...what keeps you here in Moscow? I sincerely believe it is not the money as it the matter with the other expats. You, as really sensitive and educated person, must have some other reason to live in such a place which indeed is not a proper place to live for such a refined gentleman as you are."
     It is a question I am often asked, in one form or another. Let me reply generally by now giving an example of what the "other reason" is that "keeps me here in Moscow", and why the city can be a "proper place" for a "refined gentleman" to live in. It is the sort of thing that is shown in the YouTube video below, which a friend sent me recently, and which features many people I seem to remember meeting at the Bolotnaya Square, post-election party on December 10th. I don't claim to be either sensitive or educated, but a certain sort of refinement probably does help one enjoy life. See what you think:


Language point: one lady shouts out "super-pooper", which is a common expression in Russia. Better in multi-national company to say "super-dooper" as the song does. To poop is, well, shall we say: to commit the act for which sensitive dog owners in London and Edinburgh carry "pooper-scoopers" with them when taking their pets out for walks in public places.

Australian slang

"This Nissans's as fast as a Ferrari"
- shouts the Daily Telegraph today

"And as ugly as a hatful
of arseholes"

- says legendary Australian traveller, Barry McKenzie

Read next post about Australian slang and the shock announcement yesterday that Barry Humphries (the creator of Barry McKenzie) is to retire Dame Edna Everidge from touring, even though (s)he is only a youthful 78.

20 March 2012

After an Irish weekend, it’s back to normal with Voice of Russia

Today we read:
“Four foreign tourists were killed on Monday in the north of Norway as a result of an avalanche. One man was saved, the fate of the others is not yet known…. The police stated that the group that was buried by the avalanche consisted of five Swiss citizens and one person from France.”
     So, first: four foreigners were “killed” but their “fate is not known”. Does this have some supernatural implications? Could the Voice of Russia believe it is possible to know the fate of some people after death? If so, I think we should be told.
     Secondly: if four people were killed and one was saved, out of a group that contained five Swiss and one French person—that is, by my reckoning, six people—what happened to the tourist who was neither killed nor saved? Swallowed alive by a mountain whale, maybe, like my Biblical friend, Jønah. Or turned into a trøll, and banished to a knøll?
     Perhaps the editing department at Voice of Russia is still celebrating St Patrick’s Day—in which case, øll is forgiven.


18 March 2012

I search for Bernadette Devlin at the Emerald Ball

To the Unmentionable Hotel on Leningradka for the Emerald Ball. Though not a ticket-holder, I have kindly been asked to look in by Avril Conroy, the Chair of the Irish Business Club in Russia. In truth, Avril, who is one of Moscow’s dynamos, is not just the Chair of the Club, she is also the Table, the Filing Cabinet, the Ansaphone and even the Window which one likes to sit beside when a mood of contemplative rumination comes upon one.
     I find a seat at the table of my friend Roy Tenderghost, who has brought a Russian girl with burning breasts and a vivid flow of pessimistic conversation about the imminent self-destruction of her own country. I infer that she is hoping to acquire an Irish passport.
      My supplementary reason for attending is that I hope I might bump into Ms Bernadette Devlin who is starring in a film that is currently playing at the Khudozhestvenny Kinoteatr in Arbat Square. The film—part of the interesting Irish Film Festival—is a documentary about the life of the woman who was once called Fidel Castro in a Mini-Skirt. She is best known for having slapped the face of the British Home Secretary, the greasy dipsomaniac Reginald Maudling, when he announced in the House of Commons that on Bloody Sunday the British Army had fired on a crowd of protesting Catholics purely in self-defence.
     My reason for wanting to meet Ms Devlin is to ask an important historical question: did Irish step dancing pre-date Riverdance? Was it, in its modern form, invented by Michael Flatley in 1994, or did she and her co-revolutionists in the old Republican Army spend their Saturday evenings clacking round the pobs of the Bogside with arms rigid at their sides in the chaste fashion made famous by Mr Flatley? Today hardly any Irish event can be staged without a performance of this kind. The Emerald Ball is no exception. A troupe of Russians gives an excellent performance, so excellent that I am distracted from my search for the old revolutionary.
     When the last clack dies away and the hubbub of conversation surges back, I return to the table for a quick stiffener before heading home. As a non-ticket holder, I do not want to overstay my welcome. Also, it will ruin Roy’s evening if his dyevushka starts casting covetous eyes on a Scottish passport rather than an Irish one. All’s fair in love and war, but this is neither, just a good party. Sláinte, old boy!

17 March 2012

St. Patrick and the snakes, plus something equally true from Flann O'Brien

Last night I won a bottle of Brogan’s Irish Cream Liqueur (for “imaginative use of green”) at a wonderful party at the Irish Embassy to celebrate St Patrick’s Day.
     Since time is tight, due to the Parade in the Old Arbat starting soon—it was a late start this morning, you understand—I thought I would celebrate the occasion by recollecting two aspects of Ireland that I have loved (and written about previously in Passport magazine), one indoors and one out of doors.
     Taking the latter first, I remember with undimmed joy the experience of going, twenty years ago, to see Lester Piggott riding at the Ballinrobe races. Having sailed from Scotland round to Westport, County Mayo, my wife (whose mother came from there) and I hitch-hiked out into the lush countryside. We found a course laid out on the ordinary turf, amongst hay-bales and oak trees, over a couple of fields that normally had cattle in them. Nonetheless there was a small grandstand, plus a forest of bookies’ pitches and a long, well-patronised bar.
     The afternoon sun slanted in from the west and the greatest flat jockey of all time galloped round this little course (he came 6th) for no reward but the simple joy of sport amongst people to whom that was enough for an afternoon’s entertainment, which is why he did this every year. He was one of my wife’s heroes, and he seemed to be similarly regarded by the locals, partly, I am sure, because he had only recently finished serving a jail sentence for VAT fraud—another type of sport.
     If sport is the proper concern of summer, so books are the proper concern of winter. Personally, I can’t be doing with James Joyce, who's too clever for my taste. For me, the literary hero of Ireland is Flann O’Brien, who wrote novels in both Gaelic and English, in many of which he poked fun at the official cultivation of “national Gaelic” culture. During the 1950s he wrote a column in the Irish Times—they are now collected in book form—which was quite unlike anything found in post-Cromwellian Britain.
     I think Russians will be surprised to read of his definition of the Gaelic word, Cur. As a verb, he says it means “the act of putting, sending, sowing, raining, discussing, burying, vomiting, hammering into the ground, throwing through the air, rejecting, shooting, selling, or addressing.”
      As a noun, it is “the crown on cast-iron buttons which have been made bright by contact with cliff faces, the stench of congealing badgers’ suet, the luminance of glue-lice, the noise made in a house by an unauthorised person, a heron's boil, a leprechaun’s denture, the act of inflating hare’s offal with a bicycle pump, a leak in a spirit level, the whine of a sewage farm windmill, a corncrake’s clapper, the scum on the eye of a senile ram, a fairy godmother’s father, the art of predicting past events, a wooden coat, a custard-mincer, a blue-bottle farm, a gravy flask, a timber-mine, a Fair day at Donnybrook with nothing barred.”
     Got it? Och, no bother. I suggest you make imaginative use of another glass of Brogan’s Cream and head up to the Parade! Here's to a Fair day on the Arbat, with nothing barred!

16 March 2012

How Sad is Assad?

Today’s Daily Telegraph carries an article by the great Theodore Dalrymple on the psychology and musical taste of President Assad of Syria. I am one of Dr Dalrymple's staunchest admirers because of his attacks on the political correctness which has so disfigured the English language in recent times, especially in the period when Tony Blair was on the throne. One of the great joys of life in Moscow is the absence of both political correctness and Tony Blair. But, in the unsparing, bullet-biting spirit of Dalrymple himself, I feel I must object to this passage from today’s piece:
“When you look at pictures of Assad you see a weak man, whom you would expect to be a pettifogger rather than a brute. But push a pettifogger to the wall and he is capable of the greatest obduracy, which is the strength of the weak. A cornered rat, that normally resides incognito, is a ferocious and dangerous beast, even if he remains in essence weak and highly vulnerable.”
     First, why can a “pettifogger” not be a “brute”? Himmler was; Captain Blythe was said to have been; Norman (now Lord) Tebbitt tried to be.
     Secondly, “obdurate” cannot be very widely understood as “the strength of the weak” if the Royal Navy has named at least two ships HMS Obdurate, the more recent of which took a prominent part in the Arctic convoys that brought desperately needed supplies to the Soviet Union during the Second World War.
     Thirdly, rats do not “reside” anywhere. The word is a synonym for “live” and is generally used these days to suggest pomposity. I don’t think it is possible for a rat to be pompous. Who ever heard of a rat having a “residence”—outside The Wind in the Willows, that is?
     Fourthly, rats cannot live “incognito”, as that implies a concealed identity. To conceal an identity, you have to have one to conceal. Does a rat, in any meaningful sense, have an identity? And to compare President Assad with a rat really adds nothing to the sum of human understanding. That’s lazy.
     Finally, there is no need to state the obvious. Surely we all know a “ferocious and dangerous beast” can sometimes “reside incognito”? Lenin lived incognito in Finland after the July Days in 1917. Adolf Eichman lived—possibly even “resided”—incognito in Argentina for fifteen years. And, for how many years did the people of Dewsbury fail to notice that that Peter Sutcliffe living round the corner was the Yorkshire Ripper incognito?
     It is a shame Dr Dalrymple writes so sloppily because he makes some excellent points, especially when comparing Assad’s “rat-like” whining to that of the blood-thirsty self-righteousness of Tony Blair: “You can just hear Assad saying, Blairishly, ‘Surely you can’t think that I ordered the deaths of all those people, at least not unless I thought it was really necessary for the good of my country and the rest of humanity.’”
     More importantly still, Dalrymple describes President Assad’s musical taste. Apparently, the great dictator ordered Don’t Talk Just Kiss by Right Said Fred through a fake iTunes account in the middle of the shelling of Homs. And he spent much of the time in the run-up to Christmas watching Harry Potter films he had just bought in the same way. And here’s the kicker: on New Year’s Eve last year, Assad downloaded A Tribute to Cliff Richard! Is it humanly possible: Cliff Richard?
     I had always wondered why, in the context of Russian coolness towards Islam, Presidents Assad and Medvedev looked so pleased with each other when they met in Sochi four years ago. Now I know. They were wired for sound and swapping tracks on their iPods. Ever since he did that dance on YouTube to American Boy, I have been following the evolution of Mr Medvedev’s musical taste with close interest. I have asked my spies in the Kremlin to find out if he is a Cliff fan, but so far to no avail. While reading Dr Dalrymple’s article it occurred to me how I can definitely establish the facts. I will wait for the 1st  May, and see if, when he walks up to the newly inaugurated President Putin with outstretched hand, Medvedev does a coy little shake of his head and says, “Congratulaaaaaaations! And celebraaaaaations! I want the world to know I’m happy as can be!”
     If that does happen, it will be almost as sad as Assad.

15 March 2012

Bells, smells and perfume for the Pope

 It is important to keep up to date if you, as a Russian aspirant to “acceptable” status in Anglogovoryushosphere, want to feel relaxed in your use of language. Nothing marks out the person who has “learned” their English, rather than “acquired” it, so much as using the sort of out-of-date expressions that feature in old text books. Many of them are drawn from Agatha Christie novels and went out of general use when Britain stopped taking tea at four o’clock, and dinner at 8.
     An example of this is contained in an interesting article in yesterday’s Guardian about the new, custom-formulated eau de cologne which Pope Benedikt XVI has just started slapping all over the Papal body. The fragrance was created by the sought-after Roman Nose, Silvana Casoli, who has devised scents for Madonna and King Juan Carlos. This one is said to include hints of lime-tree, verbena and spring grass in order to reflect His Holiness’s “love of nature”. 
      But the Pope is a canny operator and he demanded an exclusivity deal so that nobody else could go round smelling so holy. Signora Casoli calls it “a pact of secrecy”, which means this scent cannot be bought in GUM. So Russians who want a hint of the Old Religion will have to visit my friends Mike and Bob who operate out of a back office on the fourth floor of a rather “ethnic” building at the top end of Myasnitskaya. There they peddle a budget, ready-to-slap scent for men, which they call Eau de Pope, and which they make up to order in the office kitchen from a concoction of incense, Sunday biscuit and re-calibrated vodka. Like His Holiness’s cologne, this transmits what Signora Casoli calls, “an unforgettable olfactory message.”
     All of which is by the grammatical way. What I wanted to mention today was the fact that the Guardian article ends with the following sentence:
“One scent that bishops and cardinals might wish to avoid is Nude, a scent inspired ‘by the smell that only a woman’s skin emanates in a state of ecstasy’.”
     It is very old-fashioned to use the word “emanate” as a transitive verb, meaning to emit, to send out. These days you only hear that word used in its intransitive form, as in “the smell emanates from a woman’s body”, or “the sound of heavy breathing emanated from a nude cardinal.” Only someone who has “learned” their English will understand that as most dictionaries and text books still give both forms.
     However, only someone who has “acquired” their English will understand the terms “transitive” and “intransitive”. Most native-speakers of English are so ignorant of their own language’s grammatical structure that they need Russians to explain it to them.

14 March 2012

The perils of mis-pronunciation: Papa’s Dog Style

This morning a Russian who does not speak especially good English asked me what I had been doing last night. Speaking in English, I said,  “I was working, then I went for an hour to the pub to celebrate Doug Steele’s birthday.”
     Doug (pictured right, photos Andrey Sedin) is the brains behind many Moscow night-spots where the big dicks of the ex-pat world hang out. The Russian was someone who had once got annoyed with me because I had never heard of  Sheeshl. Have you heard of Sheeshl? No, neither had I. We went back and forth for quite some time, until she said, “Sheeshl, you know: Ueenston Sheeshl!” Then the penny dropped: Churchill, Winston Churchill.
     This is the danger in so many conversations in Russia. It’s almost as bad as trying to talk to native Shetlanders—but that’s another story. It is important to cultivate patience and tolerance.
     “Why dog steel?” she asked me this morning. “I thought it is said: style?”
     “His name is Doug Steele,” I said.
     “Oh. I thought you said 'style'. Celebrating cобачий стиль.”
     “You mean you thought I said we had been in the pub celebrating Dog Style?”
     “Yes of course.”
     Suddenly there rose up before me horrific visions of the boys on their knees in Papa’s Place enjoying the comforts of Istanbul, as it were, or what my grandfather’s generation used to call “Hunnish practices”. But as you can see from the picture below, we were all quite upright, indeed upstanding, such are the harmless pleasures of life on Meat Street, or Myasnitskaya. Even the hand holding in the picture below looks to have been quite innocent, though I did leave early and cannot be sure what happened after my hour was up.

Brief boobs #4: Putin and Medvedev have a very long weekend

 Today’s Moscow Times reports a report of a press release about a presidential meeting as follows:
“Putin and Medvedev spent several days over the weekend in Sochi discussing the makeup of the new Cabinet, a Kremlin source told RIA-Novosti on Sunday.”
     The word “several” can be used in several ways. A familiar one is when partnerships accept “joint and several” liability for debts of the partnership. This means that each partner is fully liable for all the debts of all the others. If there are only two partners it is “joint” liability only. So the use of the word “several” implies a partnership that has a minimum of three members. There are many other types of usage, but all imply a number which at least three, and usually more than that.
     In the context of the quote above, if the spokesman had wished to say the two men spent three days talking, he would have said “a few” days were devoted to Cabinet making. A couple is two; a few is three; more than that is many or several, depending on the sense intended. So we can assume that four days was the minimum length of these discussions.
     And the weekend must have been longer than four days, since to say that the discussions lasted “several days over the weekend” implies that the discussions did not occupy all the weekend. Otherwise, the Kremlin spokesman would have been better announcing that the two men “spent the entire weekend” in discussions, as it seems clear from the context that he wanted to emphasise just how much time had been spent, how hard his bosses had been working. We the public were to understand that this wasn’t just a quick meeting by the water cooler, at which Putin said, “Hey, Dima, what say we get this list of guys in to run things?” To which the President, having glanced at the names, said brightly, “Fine by me, Vlad old boy!”
      So the two politicians’ power weekend lasted at least five days, and maybe longer. Lucky for some! I have just two days for my weekends, and that only in dreams. The sooner I get into politics the better. But perhaps a more reasonable way forward would be for me to stay where I am and for the Kremlin to send its press releases over to language.etiquette@gmail.com for a spot of preliminary checking before launching misleading impressions of the work-life balance of the country’s hard-working leaders into an already sceptical Anglogovoryushosphere (if I may coin a word). With the normal fees for public sector work in Russia, I would soon be able to afford at least six, and maybe seven, days for my weekends. Another dream?

12 March 2012

Brief boobs #3: the BBC takes its eye off the (rugby) ball

In its sports coverage, the BBC is famously pro-English, sometimes to the point where they are accused in Scotland, Wales and Ireland of being the EBC, or English Broadcasting Corporation. But today’s website carries that bias a bit far—indeed further than simple logic allows.
     Reporting an English rugby victory over France yesterday, the BBC script-writers got so carried away at the enormity of their own side’s achievement that someone wrote this:
England edge out France in Paris. England score three tries as they become the first side to win a Six Nations match in Paris since 2008.”
      For Russians who do not follow rugby, but who want to be able to sound cool in middle-class pubs, I should mention that the Six Nations tournament is an annual competition between England, Ireland, Scotland, Wales, France and Italy. In most years each side plays either two or three of their matches at home, and home for France is Paris. Since 2008, France will have played about ten home games. According to the BBC, either they were all a draw, since no side has “won a Six Nations match in Paris since 2008”, or they did not count as “matches” as far as the BBC is concerned.
      But this is very puzzling, because many people distinctly remember seeing television coverage of what definitely looked like rugby matches being played in Paris as part of the Six Nations tournament in the years 2009-11. Indeed much of that coverage was on the BBC itself. Since draws in rugby are rare, the only logical explanation can be that some of those games were not “matches” as far as the Corporation is concerned. Why?
     I think I know the answer. Those games were all won by France—middle-class England’s traditional enemy—and therefore they did not count as “wins” or “matches”. They were a sort of illusory, phantasmagorical form of rugby, which bore as little resemblance to the real thing as the three soccer World Cups won by Germany—working-class England’s traditional enemy—did to the gritty reality of proper World Cup triumphs such as that achieved by England in 1966.
     In that game, the commentator famously shouted right at the end, just before England scored its final goal, “They [the Germans] think it’s all over. It’s all over now.” Most people have taken that to mean that the match was over. In the light of today’s coverage of the English rugby victory in Paris yesterday, a new interpretation of that remark suggests itself. The commentator may well have meant that football itself was “all over now”. For some people it was. Once England had won the World Cup, everything that followed was an anti-climactic foreign fantasy. The parallels with modern rugby are becoming increasingly depressing.

11 March 2012

Etiquette issue #3: monologues (Khodorkovsky)

Most members of what Russians call the “intelligentsia”, but what we in Britain might call (by a stretch) the chattering classes, scoff when I say that some of the best stories about the realities of the modern world are presented in the American magazine Vanity Fair—and that includes stories about Russia. It is felt to be too happy and carefree a publication to be worthy of the concerned scrutiny of the heirs of Hertzen, Bukharin, Tvardovsky and Rastrelovich. Rast-who? Yes, I know; I’ve never heard of him either. I made the name up, on the root of the word “to shoot” (расстрелять), which was what used to happen to people who did not listen to Stalin's monologues and react with “stormy, prolonged applause”. But who’s heard of all the others? Sure, they have figured over the years in Literaturnaya Gazeta, either as authors or subjects for long essays. But that hardly increased their brand awareness on the international chattering scene—unlike so many of the subjects of Vanity Fair’s articles.
     Take George Gershwin, Gloria Swanson or Gertrude Lawrence in the magazine’s pre-1936 manifestation, or Clint Eastwood, Annie Leibovitz or Demi Moore in its post-1983 reincarnation. Vanity Fair has also broken some very big stories, including collusion and corruption in the US tobacco industry (which formed the basis of the 1999 film, The Insider), and the identity  of the man behind Watergate, the famous “Deep Throat”—Mark Felt, former Associate Director of the FBI. Many others could be mentioned, without getting on to articles of more general interest, like Jennifer Aniston’s first interview after her divorce from Brad Pitt. Need I say more?
     So I feel no need to apologise for quoting the current (April!) issue which carries a 10,000 word article on the roots of the Putin-Khodorkovsky vendetta . It is by Masha Gessen and is entitled The Wrath of Putin. I do not propose to go into the politics of the matter, but instead to pick out an extremely interesting point of linguistic etiquette which Russians who wish to present a non-Soviet front to the world might like to consider.
     One of the displeasures (if I may use a word which has not been current since Walter Scott’s day) of conversation with Russians, especially members of the intelligentsia, is that they tend to harangue listeners in the style of Calvinist preachers, or of Private Fraser, the gloomy Scottish coffin-maker in Dad’s Army. Alexander Solzhenitsyn was well-known for his monologues, and he succeeded in irritated many otherwise sympathetic Westerners.
     Many anti-Soviet “intelligenti” adopted the style of the Soviet regime, which did not indulge in dialogue with anyone other than the President of the United States. Otherwise, as bearers of the whole truth of life for the whole of mankind, communists felt constrained to lecture people, especially their own fellow-citizens, in a way which was usually so long-winded and repetitive that it became aggressive. This is not the way to make friends and influence people.
     Russians often do this today, even well-meaning, anti-Soviet ones. It is not a problem of politeness, but of the difficulty in breaking a cultural habit. Worse still, most people doing it do not seem to realize they are doing it. So Ms Gessen’s reminder that even the new hero of the opposition, Mikhail Khodorkovsky, suffered from the same inter-personal blind-spot is timely. She ends her paragraph on the subject with a particularly apt American phrase for this form of counter-productive haranguing: “talking past the sale”. That literally means, once the customer has signed on the dotted line: for God’s sake shut up!
     According to Ms Gessen, when Khodorkovsky decided, in 2003, to go on the political offensive against corruption and resource plundering in Russia, he decided he would take his case to the people by touring the country making a series of speeches. He was not a natural public speaker and he knew it, so he hired an adviser, called Marina Litvinovich, an ex-Putin advisor who had decided to change sides. This is how Ms Gessen describes her way of alerting her client to the dangers of Soviet-style speechifying:
“She told Khodorkovsky that he had a way of belabouring an idea even after the audience had come over to his side, and that this caused him to lose his tempo. During talks, she sat in the front row with the word TEMPO written on a piece of paper. She would hold it up when he started talking past the sale.”
      No better advice could be given to Russians who want outsiders to pay attention to what they have to say. Leave the audience wanting more. Quit while you are ahead. Don’t talk past the sale. All of which amounts to the very unSoviet act of presenting your argument then letting the listener make up his or her own mind. It is the opposite of the tired old principles of “thought control”, and therefore one of the best ways of actually directing people’s thoughts.

10 March 2012

Cliché watch #2: snobbery, Royal titles and the boredom of bird-lovery

In the previous post I said I thought that the key to mannerly English prose for Russians is to avoid Soviet-style thinking. But this is a disease of the soul as much as of political or literary style, and therefore afflicts people in all countries to some extent. Bureaucratic Britain is one of the worst affected, with politically-correct America running it a close second. Its fundamental feature is thinking of people as first and foremost members of a group, category or (as Soviets would say) collective, and only after that, if at all, as individual human beings. Racism, Nazism, the Gulag, snobbery, class-hatred, sectarianism, chauvinism and a hundred other public poisons flow from this source. And it kills language, as in the end people are always more interesting than groups, categories or classes.
     The dead prose of bureaucracy is exceeded by that of the modern environmental movement since it adds a particularly insidious form of self-interest to the toxic brew. I have written two books (see details on the side-bar of this blog) which explore, amongst other things, the way in which the environmental movement tries to deceive the public in order to get money. In this, it is very successful. In Britain there is no body more successfully deceptive than the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), a vast organisation which grew out of an honourable and humane desire to protect birds from the psychotic brutality of late-Victorian sportsmen.
     Today, the RSPB will ignore an injured bird, saying that it deals only with numbers and populations—in other words, categories. I once witnessed an argument at the RSPB’s headquarters when a member of the public brought in a  bird that had flown into power-lines and broken a wing. The lady assumed that a bird charity would be interested in the frightened creature flapping helplessly in the cardboard box she had used to transport it. Not a bit of it. She was told to take the thing away and to try to contact the appropriate animal rescue charity. That, for me, was environmentalism in a nutshell.
     I recently had cause to look up the history page of the RSPB’s website, and I found the predictable focus on past virtue which is ordinarily used to conceal present-day mendacity. The confusion of the language is indicative of the confusion of thought in a wider sense. A cynic might say the confusion was deliberate, but no matter. The language lessons are worth pointing out to Russians trying to write humane English. That involves keeping it simple and personal. Though worth noting, the mistakes are less important than the last point I make which concerns people.
“The RSPB was formed to counter the barbarous trade in plumes for women’s hats, a fashion responsible for the destruction of many thousands of egrets, birds of paradise and other species whose plumes had become fashionable in the late Victorian era. In its earliest days the Society consisted entirely of women who were moved by the emotional appeal of the plight of young birds left to starve in the nest after their parents had been shot for their plumes. The rules of the Society were simple: That Members shall discourage the wanton destruction of Birds, and interest themselves generally in their protection; That Lady-Members shall refrain from wearing the feathers of any bird not killed for purposes of food, the ostrich only excepted. Some of the Society's staunchest supporters were the very kind of people who might have been expected to wear the plumes – people such as the Duchess of Portland who became the Society's first President, and the Ranee of Sarawak.” (emphasis added)
     (a) “barbarous trade in plumes”: it is not the trade that is barbarous, but the killing of the birds in such numbers.
     (b) “fashion”: as written, this sentence implies that the fashion concerned was for a barbarous trade in plumes, when presumably the writers intended to say that it was the fashion for plumes in women’s hats which was to blame for the barbarous trade (in fact a highly arguable point as the fashion for killing applied to birds of any sort, whether those with saleable plumage, or pheasants, sea birds or birds of prey).
     (c) “moved by the emotional appeal”: in this phrase, “emotional” is redundant as any appeal that is “moving” must be emotional.
     (d) “plight of young birds left to starve”: this is what the emotional appeal is about. But, if the words are to be taken literally, then birds cannot make “an appeal” as they cannot communicate with humans. If the words are to be taken more figuratively, then the statement is still nonsense as you cannot find the plight of starving creatures “appealing”. I think what the writers intended to say was the “women were moved by the plight of the young birds…”
     (e) “parents”: this is anthropomorphising, and as such is condescending to the reader. The core membership of the RSPB is from suburban England and many of these people have, I know from living many years near RSPB reserves in Scotland, pretty fantastic misconceptions of how animals behave. This is an example of the general tendency of “environmental” people to be ignorant of individual animals and their habits.
      (f) “any bird not killed for purposes of food”: food cannot be a “purpose”. Eating can be a purpose, as it is an act. It would have been better to have written: “any bird not killed for food” or, less satisfactorily, “any bird not killed for the purposes of eating”.
     (g) “ostriches only excepted”: does this mean ostriches may be killed for their feathers? Why the exception? This should be explained.
     (h) “the very kind of people”: this should be “the very people” or “the kind of people”.
     (i) “the Duchess of Portland … and the Ranee of Sarawak”: this is not a linguistic point, but is typical of so much writing by organisations of this sort: there is a snobbery is implicit in the use of unexplained titles. Which reader knows anything about the Duchess of Portland, except that she was a duchess and a bird-lover? And who was the Ranee of Sarawak? To the extent that anyone has heard of the title, they are less likely to associate it with virtuous bird-protecting than with the lazy, vapid, money-crazed sex maniac from London, who described herself as “a howling snob” and who lived for thirty years in the oil-rich jungle kingdom in Malaysia with her emotionally-challenged but administratively-talented Old Wykehamist husband, the White Rajah. When the Japanese invaded in 1941, the two of them “buggered off” (as the Daily Telegraph recently put it), leaving their adoring subjects to the tender mercies of the invader. Luckily for the British Empire, the Rajah’s attempts to abolish head-hunting had largely failed and the locals living in the jungle claimed 1,500 Japanese scalps. The lady concerned spent many of her later years working to make ends meet as a fortune-teller in New York.
     Which is all very interesting. But there were three Ranees in the century during which this little private-enterprise state existed. Was this the one who loved birds? It doesn’t matter, really, as the RSPB wants to quote her title, presumably confident that it will work its snob-voodoo on the site’s “target market”, who can be relied on not to investigate further. I noted in the post about environmentalists (27 February) that they often depend for effect in their writing on the use of clichés. The use of titles in this way has exactly the same purpose: to conjure up a vague idea without actually saying anything concrete or personal. In this case the reason is obvious: people are much more interesting than birds. Even a bird bureaucracy seems to realise that—at any rate when it is looking for support, and therefore money. But from any serious, factual point of view, they might as well have been telling fortunes.