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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28 April 2012

Confusing words #5: “America” / “democracy”

The speaker with a bottle of The Laddie,
the classic bourbon-cask matured malt whisky
from Bruichladdich distillery on the Isle of Islay.
 This was presented by the distributors as a prize.
When the winner is announced, and we have
had a chance to taste it, I will write more!

Interesting evening at the Chekhov Centre last night (see post 19 April). I tried to explain how the basis of English language etiquette can be best understood with metaphorical reference to the traditions of sport, which has rules but which, within those rules, encourages competition and variety.
     It may well be that French linguistic etiquette can best be understood in terms of courtly flattery of the sort that Louis XVI would have experienced (see yesterday). Perhaps post-Bismarckian German etiquette has some of its roots in militaristic and mechanistic philosophy. I believe Russian linguistic etiquette has rather too much of the Socialist “power vertical” to it, especially in dealing with officialdom. When I say too much, I mean more than most modern Russians are comfortable with. They seem to want to go back to a more Tolstoyan-Dostoyevskean etiquette, in which emotions are allowed freer rein than we are accustomed to in Britain. But perhaps that simply reflects the sort of people I meet here in Moscow.
     I cannot speak with certainty about any of those things, but they are examples of what I mean by the cultural basis of etiquette. I can speak about English language etiquette, however, and I feel strongly that if you want to understand it, you need to be clear about the relationship of rules to freedom which is exemplified by amateur or semi-amateur sport, as well as by the lack of hierarchy which is implicit in all games played for fun.
     I tried last night to explain how this attitude has come to govern the world of business, which is competitive within a general context of rules, standards and ethics, and also politics which, when democratic, has fierce competition governed by certain rules—fair elections obviously being the fundamental one.
     This outlook is becoming increasingly widely accepted internationally. But not everywhere. Perhaps the United States is, as in so many other things, an exception. That was the thought that sprang to mind when the host at the meeting last night decided, part-way through my talk, that sport and etiquette were not, as I was trying to argue, connected to each other. He intervened to suggest that I talk more about etiquette, which he was concerned about, and less about sport, which I seemed to be too interested in.
     The person concerned is a deeply virtuous American who is not accustomed to compromising his principles in any way. I cannot share his point of view, as it seems to me that life is a long series of compromises which only saints, bachelors and billionaires are able to avoid. I am none of those, but I am rarely forced into the position of having to confront such people. Last night was an exception because many in the audience seemed to be interested in what I was saying. So I suggested to the host that rather than stop at his command, we take a vote. That seemed the democratic thing to do, and I hoped the idea would appeal on a procedural basis to an American.
     We had a show of hands and it was roughly 80% in favour of my carrying on and 20% against. I suggested that anyone who did not want to hear more could leave at that point and I would not be offended. Then the majority could listen to what they had voted for. Perhaps fifteen (out of an audience of 120 or so) left, after which I proceeded.
     But that was not good enough for the host who soon afterwards decided that he should cut me off and close the meeting early. When I ignored him and carried on, the audience, which was mainly Russian, gave a round of applause. What a sporting crowd, I thought! How democratic! And what a nice sense of etiquette!
     So, the question for debate over the holiday weekend is this. We know from Frank Sinatra that the words “love” and “marriage” go together like “horse” and “carriage”. In the context of last night’s jollifications, which of these two words are more closely related in their underlying meaning: “sport” and “etiquette”; or “America” and “democracy”?
     Of course, it’s a stupid question in a way as one should never argue from the particular to the general. But it's only a game, and most sport is stupid when seen from the point of view of virtuous, principled people who are striving to be good at all times, usually in the hope that they will get to Heaven at the end of times. Never forget that the most self-consciously virtuous people in all British history, the Puritans under Oliver Cromwell, banned sport as a matter of Christian principle in the 1650s, along with Christmas, colourful clothes, pubs and swearing. They saw themselves as “reforming manners” or, as we would say today, improving etiquette.
     The first English-speaking people to settle in what is now the United States were seventeenth century Puritans who thought that they had to make too many compromises living in their sinful, sport-loving homeland. How curious that their country went on to become the birth-place of democracy for white people and, more recently, the centre of political correctness, which is the twenty-first century variant (and I use this word in the sense of the post on 9 April) of classic Puritanism. That is another paradox that might repay discussion over vodka, cucumbers and black bread, while waiting for the sinful shashlik to grill.
     In the meantime, since it is a beautifully sunny day, I am going cycling. In Russia, this is a sport which depends on the etiquette of motorists. I may not be very Christian, but I do have one sort of faith.


27 April 2012

Common mistakes #8, 9 “myriads of”, “prototypical”

Flat out preparing for tonight’s talk about this blog (see 19 April: Forthcoming Event) so only time to skim the Moscow Times—which I intend as a compliment to the paper in general as it is the first I turn to in the morning.
     However, my eye is caught by two mistakes which I cannot avoid mentioning. In an article about Russia’s richest man, Alisher Usmanov, the author says his fortune was “amassed through a myriad of investments”, in contrast to many other oligarchs whose wealth came from exploiting the privatisation process in the 1990s. I have no idea whether this makes Usmanov a nice guy, and fit owner of Arsenal football club and shareholder in Rangers—where a Protestant background used to be mandatory—but it is clunky English.
Louis XVI
     Myriad is a word, from Greek, meaning 10,000. It is in general use today meaning an unspecified but still vast number. But it should not be used as if it actually meant “vast number”. To say Usmanov and made “a vast number of investments” would be fine, as would he made “a myriad investments”, or “myriads of investments”. Think of the word “million”. You say he made “millions of investments” or “he made a million investments”. You do not say “he made a million of investments”, and therefore not “a myriad of investments”.
     Looking at the picture published with the piece, I could not help noticing a ghostly resemblance between Mr Usmanov and Louis XVI of France and Navarre, especially the set of the mouth. Louis was the chap who was guillotined by angry Revolutionaries in October 1791 because he was popularly thought of, as Dickens put it in Tale of Two Cities, to be “swallowing France”. Whether he was the richest man in the Kingdom I do not know. But he, like Mr Usmanov, had a celebrity wife, in his case the delicate Austrian princess, Marie-Antoinette. Incidentally, neither she nor her husband knew at the time of their marriage how to undertake the sexual act. As a result they remained childless for many years, despite being very affectionate towards each other.
      The Moscow Times ended its piece on Mr Usmanov by noting that his wife, the ex-gymnast Irina Viner, told a Russian newspaper last year that “she and Usmanov were not the sort of couple who brought each other breakfast in bed.”
     Whatever can that be intended to mean? Perhaps it is a reference to the number of servants they have. I doubt whether either Louis or Marie-Antoinette were the ones to bring the breakfast trays upstairs to the marital suite at Versailles.
     Puzzled, one reads on. “‘But when we do see each other, it’s as if it is for the first time,’ Ms Viner said.”
Alisher Usmanov
     This could be read as suggesting that Mme Viner does not see her husband very often, and does not immediately recognise him when she does.
     Of course, I realise that was not what she actually intended to say. But that is the problem of talking in breathless clichés to the media. Better to speak straight-forwardly. Better to be dull. Best of all if you are that rich to say nothing at all, and count your blessings in private.
     One recalls Dickens’s description of France fifteen years before the execution of Louis XVI, at a time when “things in general seemed settled forever”. In the face of cruelty, conspicuous consumption by the Court and aristocracy, and general indifference to the fate of the poverty-stricken masses, a national mood-change was under way:
“Rooted in the woods of France and Norway, there were growing trees [one particular day in 1775], already marked by the Woodman, Fate, to come down and be sawn into boards, to make a certain movable framework with a sack and a knife in it, terrible in history. It is likely enough that in the rough outhouses of some tillers of the heavy lands adjacent to Paris, there were sheltered from the weather that very day, rude carts, bespattered with rustic mire, snuffed about by pigs, and roosted in by poultry, which the Farmer, Death, had already set apart to be his tumbrels of the Revolution.”

 “Prototypical”: Briefly, I must note that in the same edition of the newspaper there is an article about Dmitri Peskov, one of V.V. Putin’s press spokespeople, who has apparently responded to a piece in the Guardian criticising Russian bureaucracy by drawing attention to how difficult it is for Russian citizens to obtain British visas. I will pass over that non sequitur in order to focus on the small grammar point, which is that the author of the Moscow Times article says, “The experience [of form filling at a dry cleaner’s] was prototypical of excessive bureaucracy in Russia.”
      What the author meant was that it was “typical” of excessive bureaucracy. A prototype is an experimental version of a product or other manufactured item. The word cannot be adjectivalised—if I may coin a word—and applied to something that is said to be normal. The point about a prototype is that it is not normal: it is experimental.


26 April 2012

Dangerous metaphors #2: figures from those who cannot figure

The purple line terminus at Planernaya. Not what you'd call “state-of-the-art”
Today’s Moscow Times caries a report announcing that the Moscow metro system is to be dramatically extended. Obviously, this is good news for all city dwellers. But in Russia so many seemingly marvellous announcements are made which turn out, on closer inspection, to be more Potemkin PR than real progress, that I read this article carefully. The opening paragraph sounded promising:
“The Moscow metro system that carries more than 9 million passengers per day will undergo a massive expansion by 2020, growing in size by 1 1/2 times and creating a second ring line around the city, officials said Wednesday... Deputy Mayor Marat Khusnullin [said], ‘By 2020 we plan to build 150 kilometers of new subway lines and 70 new stations.’”
     A 150% increase in the size of the Moscow metro would really be something. I read on enthusiastically, especially about the “state-of-the-art cars” which are now said to be coming out of Metrovagonmash. I was only momentarily distracted by wondering if, in Russia with its love of portmanteau words, potatoes are produced at “Potatomash”, and really huge things built by “Monstermash”. Perhaps, in Uzbekistan, the marijuana crop is processed at “Hashmash”.
     The whole plan sounded wonderful until I read the last paragraph, which rather let the air out of the big red PR balloon:
”Every day, 12 subway lines and 185 stations serve the capital with trains traversing more than 300 kilometres of track at speeds averaging more than 40 kilometres per hour. The new plans would increase those numbers to 451 kilometres of track running through 252 stations.”
     So the metro is not going to expand by 150%, but by 50% (adding 150 kms of track to the existing 300 to make 451; and increasing the number of stations from 185 to 252—actually a 36% increase). This is substantial and entirely to be welcomed. But it is quite different from “growing in size by 1 ½ times”, as the opening paragraph promised. It is true, that if you multiply 300 by 1.5 you get 450. But the ordinary newspaper reader tends not to think in precise mathematical terms. If the paper had said the metro was to “grow by half”, most people would have expected a 50% increase. Doubling that would represent a doubling in size and, logically, trebling it would mean a 150% increase.
     Statistically speaking, this is what in English is known as a “mish-mash”.

Language postscript: on page 15 of the paper, I see a caption to a touchy-feely picture of balloons at VDHKh which says, “Temperatures are heating up and Muscovites are cooling down...”
     Of course, temperatures are not heating up. They are rising. The weather may be heating up. But 25C (which is the temperature in Khimki today) is 25C and can never be 26C or 27C. 25C cannot heat up. Only the weather can do that.

25 April 2012

My Sober Pal in Stalingrad

I have searched the world for a sober pal, only to discover one in Stalingrad, of all places.
Can this be for real? Or is my correct name Ians Mitchell?
(spotted in yesterday's Moscow News, Classified Section)




24 April 2012

How to save Russians from the American nuclear threat


Alexander Golts is, to my mind, the best columnist writing from Moscow today. He presents interesting opinion based on facts that are new to the reader. That is, to me, the true art of the columnist. Simple opinion belongs in the saloon bar, and simple facts in a news report. It is the mixture of the two which really works, especially when an important topic, like the Russian military world, is under discussion..
     I say this because today Mr Golts has excelled himself. In a piece entitled The Miracle-Industrial Complex, he describes how my old friend, Dmitri Rogozin (see post: 10 February: Statements of the Obvious #1), has made news again, this time by telling the world that Russia still wants to manage its relationships with the rest of humanity on the basis of military threat.
“A Russian version of the [American] Defence Advanced Projects Research Agency will soon be created… [Rogozin said] The idea is to create something of a research predator that would hunt among university research centres to identify the most promising, groundbreaking and innovative proposals with potential defence applications.”
     This was in response to V.V. Putin’s promise, before the election, that if the Russian people had the good sense to elect him for a third term as President he would oversee the development of “weapons systems based on new principles (beam, geophysical, wave, genetic, psychophysical and other technologies)”.

Two Russians on their way to the airport:
is there anyone who would not follow them?
(click to enlarge)
     As Golts notes, billions of roubles are to be allocated for such projects. I want to get a piece of that action, since re-arming Russia seems likely to be more lucrative, in the long-run, than writing blogs about language etiquette.
      My first point to Gospodin Rogozin is that he is behind the times if he thinks that “university research centres” are the best places to look for “promising, ground-breaking and innovative” thinking. That may have been the case in his youth, back in the days when Khrushchev was banging his shoe on the table at the United Nations (which, incidentally, produced the best British put-down ever: “If this sort of thing is going to continue,” Harold Macmillan said with a twinkle in his eye, “I shall be obliged to demand a translation.”). Today, innovative thinking lurks in the blogosphere and can be bought for just a couple of billion roubles. I know: I’m selling.
     I will let Gos. Rogozin know my bank details when he writes to me privately, but in the meantime, in order to establish copyright precedence, I want to make public the scheme I have been working on for the last twenty minutes, which will totally alter the strategic balance between Russia and the United States. It will render the US nuclear arsenal completely useless at a stroke. The idea is so simple that one wonders why it has not been thought of before. But perhaps it is the nature of genius to capture the light of truth and beauty where other men, and universities, see only darkness, complication, ugliness and research funding application procedures.
     Here is my idea: once the Russian government has moved to London (see post 12 April), you simply allow all other Russians to follow. That's it.
     Most Russians that I know would be all too willing to move, but if there are any “last-ditchers” who need persuasion, gangs of Tadjiks can be hired to go round digging potholes in the roads, erecting shashlik kiosks on every patch of green grass in Moscow and making other similar forms of infrastructure disimprovement. This will not require a very great expenditure, nor much in the way of planning skills. It is, as they say in American business schools “eminently do-able”.
     The only people left in Russia, apart from the Tadjiks, will be the Americans, Brits and other foreigners who are operating the oil and gas industries, at which point the Russian government in Whitehall will be free to threaten American in any way it sees fit.
     The mass of the Russian people will be protected by a “human shield” in the form of the non-Russian populations of London, the Costa Brava, the Haute Savoy, Tuscany, Cape Town, the Bay of Plenty, Florida, etc. The only people the United States will be in a position to threaten realistically with its rockets will be the Western technicians in the Siberian oil industry, plus a large number of wolves, bears, stray dogs, homeless forest-dwellers and Tadjiks. They might even catch Prince Harry in their cross-hairs if my suggestion on 18 April about the new Tsar is acted upon.
     Can any high-tech solution to Russia‘s strategic dilemma be as sure to work, and as cheap to install, as this one? Could anything be more ecologically sensitive or more technologically robust than the simple process of issuing 140 million заграничные passports? Who needs Glonass, missile shields and all the rest if you have Aeroflot, Lufthansa, Quantas, Air New Zealand and others ready to draw a blanket of impenetrable security over the entire Russian population for the price of a one-way ticket outta here?
     Once I have banked Gos. Rogozin’s (biodegradable) cheque I, too, will be off, though I am not saying where in case he comes after me asking for a loan. I anticipate his needing money when his government in London has run out of cash, which it will undoubtedly do after the Americans have blown up the Russian oil fields or, more likely, sold them to the Chinese and then blown them up.


23 April 2012

Why at least one Chukcha prefers to speak English rather than Russian


The organisers did a splendid job. The problem was the guests:
notice how few of them have the courtesy even to watch the dancers
To the Civic Chamber in Miusskaya Square for the launch of an exhibition of photographs of the Chukchi people from the Chukotka peninsula, the easterlimost extremity of Russia, which overlooks the Bering Strait. The Chukchi are the legendary reindeer-followers whose province was governed until quite recently by Roman Abramovich, the well-to-do London-based football enthusiast who was notoriously once a friend of Boris Berezovsky.
     Abramovich claims to have spent nearly 1% of his personal fortune—which may soon be shrinking if Berezovsky's case against him in London goes the wrong way—on improving conditions for the Chukchi. Since money cannot help an itinerant reindeer-herder, it must be assumed that this cash went to modernise conditions for those Chukchi that Stalin forcibly collectivised in the late 1930s and who have been living a Soviet-style, urbanised existence ever since.
     The exhibition stressed the rural rather than the urban element in Chukchi life, as was consistent with the tone of the remarks from the Russian government official opening the exhibition. He said it was part of an initiative to promote ethno-tourism in Russia.
     The reception was enlivened by a troupe of Chukchi dancers who gave a splendid show, singing, swinging and thumping their drums which were not unlike Irish borans. When I talked to one of them afterwards, I started by apologising for the fact that I was going to have to speak in Russian as Chukchi was “not one of my languages”. He replied in English—which rather neatly put me in my place, while tactfully putting the whole event in context at the same time.
     Two things stood out from our conversation. First, despite Stalin, the Chukchi still practice shamanism. Secondly, because of Stalin (as it were) it still takes a month to arrange the paperwork for anyone who wants to visit this fascinating-sounding area. Why? Because the Chukotka peninsula is on the Russian “frontier” and therefore a “strategic area”. There are military bases there, apparently.
     OMG. Can there be anything more pathetic? Imagine having to take a month getting permission from various bureaucrats if you, as a serious ethno-tourist, wished to visit California on the American “frontier”, where there are also military bases, or the Hebrides, on the Scottish “frontier”, or almost anywhere in the world where there is sea or soldiers.
     No wonder my Chukchi friend preferred to speak English rather than the language of the country which prevents his people having free and easy contact with the civilised world.


22 April 2012

Connoisseur's choice #3: Dombeya's Sauvignon Blanc 2010




A splendid afternoon at the Marriott Courtyard hotel last Friday where Wines of South Africa were displaying the best vintages from the Cape, and offering samples. I tried several and, as the afternoon wore on, several more. I concentrated on the whites, which can be wonderful when chilled, and evoke memories of other afternoons in the shade of spreading trees when the heat and the exotic scenery are perfectly complemented by something like the Dombeya, which I settled on  as the best offering of the day.
     Dombeya had two wines at the event, a more expensive Shiraz, fermented in oak, and the Sauvignon Blanc, fermented in stainless steel vats. I tried several glasses of both, but rather to my surprise, the latter was the nicer. But then, perhaps, it was because of the lady who offered it to me. I do not know which is the more effective aid to fluency in a foreign language: wine or women; relaxation or motivation. Best, of course, is both.

Useful sayings #1: “an argument is never about what it’s about”


Some people do their yoga sitting in the lotus position; I do mine on my bicycle on sunny summer mornings like today. It is the best way to meditate because, apart from keeping a weather eye open for potholes, half-blind Shestyorka drivers and broken glass on the road, you can empty your mind of everyday concerns and consider the wider issues of life, death and the beauty of truth. Your legs do the thinking, allowing the brain to relax.
     I have a few regular circuits I take for my two-wheeled meditation sessions (I once wrote about this in Passport). The shortest is 24 kms round Khimki, and since this was the first of the season, I took that one this morning. It runs in two places through Khimki forest where the controversial road is being built. Over the last couple of years, I have observed progress. As it is five months since I last meditated, I was not surprised to see changes. The main one is that construction of the bridge over the Moscow-Volga Canal is now well under way (see picture).
     I have been aware of the protests about construction of the road, and once went to see one that the police had warned that they would break up. It was a pretty tame affair, and most of the violence seems to be unofficial. But it set me thinking about why people are protesting about this road.
     The publicly-stated reason is the oak forest. I am not sure I see this. I haven’t walked through it, but from the bicycle, it appears that 90% of it is birch. It is naturally a shame when any wood is felled for construction of any sort, but the Russian habit of dealing in absolutes (see 15 April: Putin’s speech to the Duma) is an administrative handicap in a crowded world since it makes practical, low-temperature compromise hard to achieve. Clearly the country needs better roads, and clearly it has plenty of trees. The sacrifice of a few of them, even oaks, seems a small price to pay for an important piece of infrastructure.
     On the other hand, I support the protests because I think civil action is a muscle which, in Russia, needs to be built up after being forced to atrophy for seventy years under Communism. I think the Russian police need some practice in dealing with civil protest on a sub-absolute basis, and the authorities need to get into the habit of taking account of public opinion before it “goes absolute” and revolution or violence threatens.
     But I am still left with this thought: why protest so much about this particular wood? I know several Russians who think the whole dispute is about property values. Others talk mystically about karma and God’s creation. Both points illustrate the good old English saying that an argument is never about what it’s about. When people make a really big noise about something, there is usually a different point at the back of it than the one that is being shouted from the rooftops. More commonly there are two different unspoken points, one for each side of the argument.
     Russia is ahead of the game in this respect, because I suspect that there are three unspoken issues behind the Khimki forest dispute: sordid money-grubbing, mystical tree-hugging and the untranslatable but omnipresent Russian “soul”, which prefers any form of argument to a boring but workable compromise.
     At least that is what was going through my mind this morning as, in the cool spring sunshine, I swept past the walls of birch on either side of the existing road, looking for oak trees at every moment I judged it safe to do so, given the risk of potholes.


20 April 2012

Word of the week: “chivalry”

I have been astonished at the number of Russians who have read the previous post (about my lecture next Friday) and who have asked me what the word “chivalry” means. I have no time this morning to attempt an explanation, and in any case it is far too complicated a matter for a blog. What I intend doing is quoting various occasions when I think it, or a related word, has been correctly and illuminatingly used.
     Today's example comes from that excellent magazine Private Eye, from the pen of the late, much lamented Auberon Waugh, one of the world's great diarists.
     Russian readers will need to know that this was 1975, the year Mrs Thatcher was elected leader of the Conservative Party (she became Prime Minsiter four years later). Willie Whitelaw was a charming but rather ineffective old Tory who stood against her in the election and came second. Barbara Castle was an aggressive Cabinet Minister in the Labour government of the day. Dennis Thatcher, of course, was Mrs T's husband (or, some might, say “wife”). The figures quoted in the first line were the numbers of votes cast for the candidates, not Mrs Thatcher's “vital statistics”.


From Four Crowded Years: the Diaries of Auberon Waugh, 1972-1976

     I will look for other examples of the use of the word “chivalry” over the weekend. Suggestions from readers would be gratefully received, too.

19 April 2012

Forthcoming event: lecture on the English language and its connection with Romance, Justice, Markets and Sport – plus a whisky tasting

Next Friday evening, 27 April, I am giving a talk at Stephen Lapeyrouse’s excellent club, English Language Evenings in Moscow, which meets from time to time at the Chekhov Centre near Pushkin Square. My subject will be the English language and how, if you really want to grasp its underlying form—or lack of it—you need to understand the principles of sport. These evolved, I will argue, from the romantic notions of medieval chivalry which, when forced to go practical in the age of exploration and empire, created the modern concepts of the corporative (not corporate) market and its necessary correlative, the rule of law. Each contains an element of self-restriction in the interests of a larger social structure.
     My point will be that English is less valuable as a form of self-expression than as a technique of rule-based interaction, like games or the law. In a globalised, trading world, structured interaction is a key competence. To get the most out of English, you need to understand, not so much how it works, as how it is used. This is what I call English language "etiquette".
    Obviously it would be unrealistic in one evening to try to cover the whole history of Western civilisation as it has evolved from jousting knights to a legal system that is designed to make the world safe for hedge funds. So I am going to concentrate on the key issue of voluntary co-operation which at the heart of all civilisation and is shown to its best advantage in sport. Two tennis players, for example, co-operate by accepting a single set of rules in order to be able to enjoy their game.
     But I am going to go even further than games and talk about the essence of sport as I see it in the apparently individualistic activity of motor racing. I am going to narrow it down even further and illustrate my theme by telling the story of what many people think of as the most famous motor race of all time: the 1955 Mille Miglia.
     This was a thousand mile (1,600 kilometre) race in Grand Prix-level sports cars of the time, from the north of Italy down to Rome and back on ordinary, single-track roads, many of them in poor condition. The winners (pictured below) covered a distance nearly equivalent to that from Moscow to the German frontier between, as the navigator put it, “an early breakfast and a late tea”. It took place on 1 May, the day the Warsaw Pact Treaty was signed and was of incomparably greater significance because the aim of the winners, two Britons in a Mercedes-Benz, was nothing more elaborate that “to complete the whole course and beat all the Ferraris.” They did both and, in the process, shattered every race record and made sporting history.
     Unlike the Warsaw Pact, the Mille Miglia still goes on, though today it is run on a non-competitive “rally” basis. In 2005, for the fiftieth anniversary, the wining driver in 1955, Stirling (now Sir Stirling) Moss, drove the car he raced then, which is preserved in race-ready condition in the Mercedes-Benz museum in Stuttgart where it has pride of place.
     For further details of the event, location and time, see: www.elemoscow.net



They averaged 100 mph (160 kph) on roads like this. I infer from the colour of the car behind that it is a Ferrari.
Mercedes-Benz has never since achieved such eminence in motor sport.

18 April 2012

Unpublicised Forthcoming Event: Arty Riot at Christ the Saviour

I believe that somewhere near the bottom of the vast pile of reasons why English is hard for Russians to master (and vice versa) lies that fact that today’s international language evolved amongst people for whom the sea was a dominating presence, physically, economically, romantically and militarily. Everything is fluid and, like maritime weather and the markets, nothing is ever settled for long. Rigid planning does not work. Real life exists in a state of constant flux, as does the English language which has no fixed rules, vocabulary or grammar. Those are simple historical facts, though of course their causes and consequences can be debated.
     Another related historical fact is that Russia has produced only one painter of maritime scenes which, to me, really get it. He was the incredibly prolific nineteenth century artist, Ivan Aivazovsky (who was actually Armenian, and who married an Englishwoman). His picture, View of Venice: San Giorgio Maggiore, will be on display at the pre-auction exhibition staged next week by MacDougall’s, the London auction house which specialises in Russian art. (Estimated price: £1-2 million) The exhibition is at the Christ the Saviour Cathedral, otherwise known as the Russian home of female punk rock. It will be open on 25 and 26 April in the Arts Centre there. Further details from MacDougall’s website: info@macdougallauction.com





17 April 2012

When the Russian government moves to London, why not install a British Tsar in Moscow?

Major Hewitt
One doesn’t like to gloat, and I should not boast because yesterday I wrote a post about the evils of boasting. So I will have to restrict myself to saying, British-style, that I derive a certain quiet sense of satisfaction from this morning’s news that Boris Berezovsky, the exiled oligarch, has taken up my call for closer integration between Britain and Russia. In the Court Circular of today’s Moscow Times, I see the following item:
“London exile Boris Berezovsky announced Sunday that under his new Resurrection Movement political party, he would instate a constitutional monarchy in Russia and named Britain's Prince Harry as a candidate for king.”
     When I wrote last week that Russia should move its government headquarters to London, I proposed that as an independently sensible solution to a variety of problems (see 11 April). But now I see I did not go far enough. How much better would it be if there were some sort of reciprocal gesture on Britain’s part? Exporting a member of the Royal family who causes almost as much embarrassment in Britain as the power elite does in Russia would have a nice symmetry to it. In any case, many people believe Prince Harry may not be “the son of Prince Charles and Princess Diana”, as Berezovsky says, but of Princess Diana and Major James Hewitt, late of the Life Guards.
     We used to be able to send such people out to govern New South Wales. Now that Australians have developed their own ideas about how their country should be administered, the preferred option might be to send them to Russia, where they will probably be much more genuinely appreciated. Everyone’s a winner.
Prince Harry
     Though the Moscow Times is to be congratulated for unearthing this important news story, it should be censured for its grammar. You cannot “instate” a monarchy, at least not in conventional, contemporary English. My version of the Oxford English Dictionary has no example of the word used in any sense after the mid-nineteenth century and none in connection with a monarch since Samuel Pepys wrote, in 1667, “He will enstate the King of Spayne in the kingdom of Portugall.” (note the different spelling).
     In general you “install” a monarch on his or her throne or “invest” him or her with monarchical or Royal powers—as Prince Charles was himself “invested” as Prince of Wales in the famous televised ceremony in 1969.
     Berezovsky is right, however, when he points out later on in the report that Prince Harry probably has more Russian blood in him than Nicholas II did, and maybe a lot more if we knew something about Major Hewitt’s longer background. He was notoriously a friend of Anna Pasternak, the author of A Princess in Love, a controversial and disputed account of the affair between Princess Diana and the “bonking” Major, as he came to be known. What we also know is that “Bonkers” Hewitt won a weightlifting challenge on a television celebrity games show, was later arrested for possession of cocaine, and had his gun licenses revoked by the police because of his “intemperate habits”. So he may well have some Russian blood in him.
     If he has indeed passed that on to Prince Harry, the case for installing him as Tsar is surely unanswerable. With his government in London, he could rule as peacefully as his grandmother, Queen Elizabeth, does from Balmoral, being even further from the centre of political life and intrigue than she is in the stalking season. Both Russia and Britain are countries that still harbour imperial ambitions, which neither is in a position to gratify in the modern world. What better solution than that each colonise the other by having the Russian government in London and the British Royal family in Moscow?
     Can there be any serious objection to such a solution?

16 April 2012

Etiquette issues #5: boasting — in connection with the Titanic

Chernyaev (left) with James Cameron.
The articles describes Chernyaev as “very much the picture
 of a distinguished 'hero of Russia': a man with stony features,
upright posture, gray streaks in his mustache, and with a
large Russian flag emblazoned on his jacket sleeve.”

A feature in today’s email circulation of Russia Beyond the Headlines (RBTH) is headlined: “A Russian who discovered the Titanic”. Sounds interesting! I had no idea a Russian was involved. I always thought it was that Ballard bloke, so I’ll read on….
     Perhaps predictably, I discover after a couple of paragraphs that the story does not justify the headline. Instead it concerns the Russian commander of the undersea vessel which took a Canadian IMAX crew down to the seabed to revisit the wreck while filming a documentary called “Titanica”. The Canadians chose the Russian-operated (but Finnish built) vessel from the many others capable of descending to the same depth because it had more interior space and a larger porthole, both of which facilitated filming. That was the extent of the “discovery” announced in the headline.
     A reader who read only the opening paragraph would hardly have guessed that:
“For 100 years, the rusty wreckage of the fabled luxury ship has been lying on the bottom of the sea. Now, thanks to Russian technology, we know what it looks like down there.”
     This is such a gross misrepresentation, not only of the facts, but of the contents of the rest of the article, that it calls for comment. The Soviet press used to have a very off-putting habit of relentless boasting about Soviet achievements, some of which were not even real, and of endlessly denigrating the achievements of other peoples. Since friendship involves the courteous assumption of a certain equality, the Soviet approach precluded friendship. You cannot be friends with someone who is perpetually telling you he is better than you and, in case you did not get it the first time, that you are worse than him. No wonder the country was isolated.
     Today Russia seeks to end the isolation and make friends internationally. This is the purpose of RBTH. It is an advertising supplement for Russia which is inserted in many of the world's major newspapers, like the Daily Telegraph in London, the Washington Post and New York Times, and others from Paris to New Delhi. It is financed by the Russian government and published by Rossiskaya Gazeta. Its aim is to win friends and influence people by improving the image of Russia. This is a perfectly reasonable task, especially given the prejudice that still lingers in many quarters due to the nastiness of the Soviet Union and the way in which official Russian still contrives to give the impression that it doesn’t really disapprove of Soviet methods, whether they involve murdering people in central London hotels, shooting them in east London streets or making it clear to иностранцы in Moscow that they are tolerated rather than welcomed.
     RBTH has an uphill task due to Soviet and post-Soviet official attitudes. One wonders why it chooses to make that hill steeper than it need be by resorting to the sort of charmless boasting which convinces nobody and alienates many. The fact is that the rest of the article is both interesting and balanced. Despite the headline, it notes that the wreck of the Titanic was actually discovered in 1986 by the American, Robert Ballard, as I vaguely remembered. Then it focuses, quite legitimately, on the Russian interest in the longer story in the shape of Evgeny Chernyaev, the captain of the submersible which, in 1991, helped the Canadians and, five year later, James Cameron when it came to filming the underwater shots for the block-buster feature film Titanic.
     Despite the silly description of Chernyaev from the second paragraph of the article which I quote in the caption to the photo above, he comes across as a highly competent but also modest and friendly individual, with whom the American film director was able to co-operate easily and successfully. He seems to be exactly the sort of person that non-Russians like to meet. It is therefore a great pity that RBTH chose to “Sovietise” its contribution to yesterday’s 100th anniversary of the sinking of the great liner. It is never very attractive when countries use occasions of tragedy to indulge in half-empty self-promotion of this sort. It does a great disservice to an obviously decent Russian sailor and is, it need hardly be said, not the best way to go about winning friends and influencing people internationally.


15 April 2012

Master Class #1: V.V. Putin’s speech to the Duma

Another day, another Putin:
so much depends on presentation
Last Wednesday, the Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, V.V. Putin, addressed the Duma for the last time in his capacity as head of the government, before he returns to his previous eminence as Head of State.
     His speech was interesting on a political level—in my opinion principally because it illustrated the impotence of the Duma—but that is not the concern of this blog, which is to try to help Russians speak and write English in such a way as not to embarrass themselves. Putin spoke in Russian, of course, but the Office of the Prime Minister provided an English translation on-line and I think it is fair to use that as an example for purposes of criticism.
     I am going to start with a few grammatical points, and then go on to the more interesting question of style.

                    “Thankfully, we don’t have to approach anyone with hat in hand.” (p2) This is a common mistake for “cap in hand” and is made by people who do not understand all aspects of the British class system. From the eighteenth century onwards, members of the bourgeoisie wore “hats”, while the working class wore “caps”. Though class distinctions have largely gone, people still wear hats at Ascot and caps at football matches. In eighteenth century Sweden, the two political factions were known as the Hats and the Caps. The latter was a party of peasants and clergymen who favoured alliance with Russia after their country’s defeat at Poltava, and were mocked for being soft, like night-caps. The former was a party of gentlemen, who wore hard tri-corn hats and favoured a more forward policy, in alliance with France, with the aim of recovering their empire on the Baltic, a policy which eventually took the country into the Seven Years War on the losing side. In general today, a respectable person approaches someone with hat in hand as a mark of respect. What Mr Putin was saying was that Russia no longer had to beg, as working people sometimes used to have to do. A different metaphor is called for there.

                    “We have launched a new Russian passenger liner, Superjet 100, which has been made in digital format for the first time.” (p. 3) I have no idea what this means. “Digital format” applies to information and has no meaning in connection with physical objects like aeroplanes. Aside from that, Mr Putin should have said “airliner” because “liner” by itself usually means a ship. And it is ships, including “liners”, that are “launched”. Aeroplanes are, these days, “rolled out” (from the hangars in which they are assembled).

                    “The last four years have brought to our national thrift box the oil and gas of Vankor and Talakan….” (p. 3) A “thrift box” is a container into which poor but thrifty people put small change in the hope that one day they will have amassed enough money to make some otherwise unaffordable purchase, like a new cap for him or a Sunday hat for her. What Mr Putin ought to have said was: “In the last four years Russia’s fossil-fuel reserves have been augmented by discoveries in Vankor and Talakan…”

                    “Over 50 highly complex tunnels and railway bridges have been built.” (p.3) What is a “highly complex tunnel”, and how does it differ from a simple tunnel. Why not just say “tunnels”?

                    “By 2013, the domestic demand for innovation will amount to 1.5 trillion roubles just through the programmes pursued by companies partially owned by the state.” (p. 5) This sentence has no meaning. “Innovation” refers to a quality not a quantity. It cannot be expressed in monetary terms. If Mr Putin meant “innovative goods” which could be valued, that too would be largely meaningless without some sort of definition of what constitutes an “innovative good” (or service). Does it include new types of hamburger, different sorts of hat or cap, or complicated new financial instruments?

                    “Corruption in this sphere is unacceptable.” (p. 5) This provokes the question: in what sphere is corruption acceptable?

                    “Russia should have no schools in emergency conditions.” (p.7) Does this mean that when war breaks out, the stock markets crash or forest fires burn uncontrollably all schools should be closed? But Mr Putin does not say that. What he says is that in those conditions the country should have “no schools”. On its face, that means that the buildings should be demolished, the teachers fired and the children sent home for good. I suspect that was not what he was really trying to say. He would have been better to have put his point more straight-forwardly: “Russia should not have any schools in an unacceptably dilapidated condition.”

      I could go on, but that is enough on grammar. With regards to the wider question of style, Mr Putin would be well advised, as would all other Russians in positions of power, to avoid conveying the impression, whether true or not, that they are hard, unyielding, unsympathetic men who would feel more at home in the Army than they do in government.
     The way Mr Putin speaks in Russian (and this point I have checked in the original) is not unusual amongst powerful people in this country. But that does not make it any more appealing to outsiders. The word абсолютно (absolutely) is commonly used in Russian but should usually be avoided in direct translation in English as it sounds peremptory and ostentatious.
“We need to bring the investment level up to at least 25% of GDP by 2015, and later by (sic) up to 30%. This objective is absolutely attainable. In 2011, we had about 20%, so the (sic) growth of 25-30% is absolutely possible.”
     Perhaps this sort of talk sounds impressive to members of the Duma, but to those who might read the English-language version of Mr Putin’s speech I suspect it will most likely be considered rather silly, like the dictator of a shambolic country who makes a fetish of punctuality. If I were Mr Putin’s publicist, I would have tried to convey the tone of a man talking to colleagues, rather than to subordinates:
“Last year investment was 20% of GDP. We need to increase this substantially. I believe a rate of 25% is achievable within three years, and up to 30% eventually.”
     The same peremptory tone is conveyed in many other parts of the speech, occasionally with the unattractive addition of a direct threat. For example, while talking about creating “a modern system for training skilled workers”, Putin says,
“This level of education is the direct responsibility of the regions…. Please note that unconditional compliance with this mandate will be a prerequisite for provision of all federal budgetary transfers.”
     Does the Prime Minister, in a solemn meeting with the country’s legislature, really mean to threaten local government with the withdrawal of all Federal funds, which in Russia surely means more or less all funds, if they do not display “unconditional compliance” with his wishes?
     When I read that passage, I began to think that no amount of style-editing could make this speech entirely acceptable to the world that I come from, in which rulers are expected to treat those they rule as at least theoretical equals. There is a good English expression which few Russians seem to know which expresses, amongst other things, the limits to Potemkin-style editing: “You can’t make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear.”
     Every Russian I have explained that to has reacted with either horror or offence. I have been told how insulting it is to compare a Russian with an animal, and especially a female pig. I always respond by telling them that they should lighten up, understand that it is only a figure of speech and remember what Winston Churchill said about pigs.
     The great man’s grandson once recalled that when he was a boy and used to go and stay at Chartwell, Churchill’s country house in Kent, the old man used to enjoy taking him with him when he went every afternoon to inspect his favourite animals, the pigs. There was one particular old sow that used roll on its back and let Churchill senior scratch its belly with the tip of his walking stick.
     “A dog looks up at man,” the elderly statesman would explain to his grandson as they leaned over the edge of the sty, “and a cat looks down on man. But a pig looks you in the eye and sees his equal.”


13 April 2012

Who? Where? Why? When? The second clue....

It is Friday night, and time for another clue in the great amber liquid hunt ....

And where might the gentlemen be drinking?

Suggest the name of a town nearby (same place as in clue #1 on 5 April).
The answer which is nearest to the correct one wins a free invitation
to an elitny, kulturny whisky degustation sometime in the spring.
You too could nose the nose, taste the taste and drink the drink.
 (Note the verbalised nouns, Bob. Or are they nounified verbs?)


Etiquette issues #4: verbalising nouns

Bob can be contacted on:
robert.mulligan@bsn-real.com
My friend and fellow language teacher, Robert Mulligan—known to the world as Bob—writes with an interesting point which I fear confuses many Russians trying to unravel the mysteries of English. It is an old controversy, but one that doesn’t go away, namely the objection that some people have to turning nouns into verbs.
     Robert sent me this:
“A funny thing happened to me on my way to the classroom, which reminded me of an unintended grammatical confrontation I had with my daughter a good few years ago. (She is now too old to be argued with. Ooops! Too old with whom to argue? Whatever.) One of my students had apologised for not doing the homework with which he had been ‘tasked’. As if by magic, a supernatural, incorporeal being looking remarkably like my daughter arose before me and gave me ‘one of those looks’ that make mere males quake in their boots. I can still hear her witty words from all those years ago: ‘I can’t stand people who verbalise nouns!’ To which I replied: ‘In that case I’ll task you with erasing this canker from the English language.’ ‘Ha, ha! Very funny,’ came the reply. Suddenly a light frost descended over what minutes before had been a beautiful summer’s day. Only a large dose of pocket-money could relieve the situation so, standing on my dignity as best I could, I acceded to her request to ‘cough up the dosh.’ She was just as happy as if I had ‘paid the money’, which amused me as ‘cough’ is a noun and ‘to cough’ a verb. But it would have been more than my bank balance was worth to point this out to her.”
     Right, Miss Mulligan, you asked for it! Can you honestly say you have never “hoovered” the floor; “banked” the money, “eyeballed” a beefy boy or ignored his advances while saying, “I can’t be arsed.”? And did you not realised that you  yourself verbalised the noun “verb” when complaining about others doing so?
     P.G. Wodehouse’s hero, Bertie Wooster, regularly used to “trouser his change.” One of his books opens with the sentence: “I marmaladed my toast with a flourish.” That was written in, I guess from memory, the 1930s.
     I wonder when Bob’s confrontation with his daughter took place because, as far as I am aware, the issue of verbalizing nouns became controversial only in the 1980s when President Reagan’s Secretary of State, General Alexander Haig, got into the habit of answering difficult questions from journalists at press conferences by saying, “I’ll no comment that.”
     Suddenly the whole of liberal England discovered the evils of verbalized nouns, even though every speaker of English—including conservative Americans—claims, or should claim,  the freedom to use the language in any way he or she sees fit, subject only to the fact that he or she makes himself or herself understood.
     Perhaps I do the young lady an injustice. I had better be careful. Though it is no crime to compare an English lady with an American General, she sounds like the sort of person who might be quite prepared to “verbal” me by “bad mouthing” my reputation, such as it is. I may have to “bung” her a quiet bung. D’you think a couple of bob’ll do, Bob?

12 April 2012

Dangerous words #1: “anti” – in a friendly evening at Papa’s

Doug Steele, the father of Papa's, plays the smoking flute
To Papa’s Place in Myasnitskaya for a party to celebrate the fourteenth birthday of this excellent establishment.
     A Russian friend says to me: “In our office we love your blog, Ian. We call it ‘anti-Michele Berdy’.”
     “Anti-Michele Berdy!” I say, aghast. Michele, the author of the Russian Word’s Worth , writes a wonderful column every Friday in the Moscow Times about how to use the Russian language.
     “Yes, anti-Michele Berdy,” he says with a grin.
     “But I’m not anti-Michele. Quite the opposite. I think she is wonderful, and her articles are fascinating and informative.”
     “I agree with you,” says my friend, grinning even more broadly. “We all think that.”
     “Huh?”
     “You are the opposite. She writes about Russian for English-speakers and you write about English for Russian-speakers. You are anti-Michele Berdy.”
     “Aaaaah!” I say, the light of revelation dawning in my slightly inebriated brain. “You mean like the ‘Anti-Sovietsky Restaurant’?”
     “Yes, exactly.”
     I should explain for non-Muscovites that a Putinoid numpty in the Moscow City administration caused a stir three years ago when he suddenly lighted upon a Georgian shashlik house which has existed for more than half a century on the west side of the Leningrad Chaussee more or less opposite the Sovietsky Hotel and decided to force it to change its name. The Sovietsky Hotel was, and is, a famous establishment, adjacent to the Yar restaurant (see Forthcoming Events, 26 March). It accommodated the high and mighty in Soviet times, and has been restored to its Stalinist glory in recent years while becoming, I gather, a really good hotel. Certainly it is impressive inside, with huge portraits in the stairwell and elsewhere of some of the greatest luminaries of the Communist nightmare.
     The little Georgian establishment on the other side of the road had lived contentedly since Stalin times with its ironic name. But when some now-forgotten spring-heeled jack, at the height of the purse-proud triumphalism of Russia’s rich years, decided that his superiors might like it if he harassed some Georgians, he forced the restaurant to change its name—which it had no option but to do. Suddenly the Anti-Sovietsky Restaurant was anti-Soviet, which was not the fashionable thing to be in the years when Stalin was being widely touted once again as the greatest man in Russian history.
     But I was anti-Michele Berdy in the older sense that the Anti-Sovietsky Restaurant was anti- the Sovietsky Hotel—in other words over the road, opposite it rather than opposed to it. This is not the way in which we commonly use the word “anti” in English. To be “anti” something means you are against it. You would be anti-Soviet if you thought socialism a bad thing. You would be anti-Georgians if you thought they ought not to be allowed to run shashlik houses on the sacred territory of Mother Russia without somebody letting them know who is master. You would be anti-Michele Berdy if you thought she was using the foreign-owned Moscow Times to disclose secrets about the sacred language of the narod which inhabits the sacred territory of Mother Russia.
     However, if you are simply trying to explain the rich Russian language in clear and amusing terms, or you are trying to feed Muscovites good shashlik, then nobody should be “anti” you. It is another dangerous word for Russians.
     My friend, who generally speaks excellent English, was grateful for the warning. We decided to bury the painful memory in a flood of Papa’s beer, which was no problem as neither of us could truthfully be described as being anti-drinksky, in either the English or the Russian senses of the word.

11 April 2012

Moving Russian government from Moscow – to London?

How London looked before the introduction of the congestion charge
Given that the art of self-expression in English is as much about what you say as how you say it, I offer for debate today the idea that Russia should consider a more radical solution to the problem of gridlock in Moscow than any which has yet been suggested.
     The problem is caused by the fact that the city has, in round terms, 10% of the population of the whole country, 20% of its GDP, 50% of its cars with black windows, and the vast majority of the cosmopolitan smoothies who have always last shaved more than three days ago. And I forgot: 100% of the political power. All live together in a city whose boundaries were largely defined, and infrastructure constructed, by Soviet planners when the population was half its current size.
     Understandably, therefore, various proposals for decentralisation have been made. The most prominent recent one was President Medvedev’s suggestion that government agencies be moved to new areas to the south-west of the city. Some people do not think that idea radical enough. It will still leave the Moscow region overcrowded and may mean only different patterns of commuting, without any large-scale relocation.
     To answer those questions, the new governor of the Moscow Region, Sergei Shoigu—who I presume, from his surname, is Japanese—suggested last week that the capital be moved to Siberia. I can see the logic in this. If a Moscow Region governor is to have any peace, and to be able to rule his fiefdom in the way he sees fit, without interference from higher powers, it would obviously be beneficial to have the federal government three or four thousand miles away.
     But I see two problems with the “oriental” solution. First, Siberia arguably does not have the infrastructure necessary for the efficient transfer of money around the country and world which is one of the main activities of modern government. Secondly, a move to Siberia would increase, not decrease, the isolation of the power elite from the main currents of European and international life.
     I therefore suggest that the Russian government consider biting the bullet, and moving to London. Now that government in Britain has largely moved to Brussels, and much of what is left is shortly going to be departing for Edinburgh and Cardiff, there is a ready-to-use capital sitting nearly idle on the banks of the Thames, complete with excellent restaurants, wonderful taxis on unchoked streets and a legal infrastructure which ensures that money transferred there should be safe from any unlawful demands on the part of the Russian tax inspectorate.
     GovRus OOO, as the new enterprise might be called, could move in on a turn-key basis, taking a long lease on Westminster, and boosting itself into the governmental hyper-sphere where location is the sort of old-fashioned notion, like High Street banks, that earth-bound consciousness in the on-line age seeks to transcend—beam me up счёты! That surely is the wave of the future. Look upon it if you like as third-generation out-sourcing.
     Is this such a wild idea? Not really. Lots of Russians already live (and die) in London, and most of the important Muscovites still left in residence here seem to want to move their families there, often in order that their children can go to English schools and universities. With modern communications, there is no need for them to stay out of touch with events in Russia simply because they happen to take breakfast with their wives in Belgrave Square and dinner with their cronies at the Gavroche. They could learn how to wear morning dress properly at Ascot, and practice making small-talk at Lord’s or the Chelsea Fowler Show. Mr Putin could conduct his archaeological researches in the Staines reservoir, take his shirt off in Epping Forest, and go tiger hunting at Longleat on the weekends.
     They would all be welcomed by the local dignitaries. The mayor of London, Boris Johnson, is known to want to attract business of all sorts to his city in order to expand the tax-base. And if the Russian powers-that-be are content to have greater Moscow run by a man with a Japanese surname, they should feel equally at home in London where the Mayor has a Russian Christian name.
     From the operational point of view, there would also be at least two major advantages to GovRus in this solution. The first, domestic, one would be that it would kill opposition in Russia. Distance, combined with Britain’s strict visa rules, would ensure that there would be no more protests against government conduct in places where a Minister or official might be inconvenienced by the sight of angry shareholders. The Cabinet could administer its customer base in the austere calm of the gods on Mount Olympus.
     The second, international advantage would be that a Russian government in London would be free to wage nuclear war on America, safe in the knowledge that only their clients back home on the Reservation would be likely to suffer if the wrong finger pushed the wrong button at the wrong moment. That would be about as “asymmetric” a response to the controversial US missile shield proposal as it is possible to imagine. Sergei Lavrov would surely be happy to see credibility restored to the Russian missile threat. And everyone else would be happy because a stronger deterrent should make the world a safer place.
     Can there be any serious counter-argument to my proposal? Debate!


10 April 2012

Native-speakers misusing English #1: Tom Cary in the Daily Telegraph

The Daily Telegraph Formula 1 correspondent ought to give Russians struggling with English hope: he can’t write properly either.
     In this morning’s paper, Mr Tom Cary has a piece which opens with a sentence that will be widely misunderstood. The story concerns the reluctance of Formula 1 teams to visit Bahrain for the forthcoming Grand Prix because they think they will not be physically safe there, given the current political unrest. Mr Cary writes:
The castle where the grammatical buck ought to stop
as far as the Daily Telegraph is concerned.
The proprietors are probably too busy enjoying the view.
“Formula One’s teams began the long trip to China yesterday ahead of Sunday’s third race of the season, but the sport’s attention remained centred almost exclusively on next weekend with some outfits now briefing off the record that they would prefer not to travel to Bahrain.”
     If the teams are going to China for “Sunday’s” race, how can they be considering going to Bahrain “next weekend”, a time which many people would assume includes Sunday? Is this coming Sunday not “next Sunday”? It is true that some British people use “this” weekend when they are referring to the one before “next” weekend, to the confusion of (amongst others) the many Russians who have asked me about this over the years. But amongst the sort of international audience which the Telegraph aspires to, this is likely to be misunderstood. Since Mr Cary's dateline for the earlier piece quoted below was Kuala Lumpur, he ought to have been conscious of foreigners. Why did he not say, “the following weekend”, which would have been clear to everybody?
     This is an example of the common English problem of insiderish language, as if London journalists are all writing for each other, rather than for the whole English-reading world. The same impression comes across when Cary calls the teams “outfits”, which is matey, saloon-bar English. Does the bulk of the Telegraph’s audience understand that word in that context?
     And why note that the teams are “briefing off the record”, as if they were politicians? “Saying quietly” would have sounded less contrived, though it is true that would not have conveyed the impression that Mr Cary has some sort of “inside track”. Self-advertisement is the enemy of good journalism.
     Finally a smaller point, more of style than comprehensibility, is that when Cary says the teams “would prefer not to travel to Bahrain”, he surely means they would prefer not to “visit” Bahrain, or race there. The journey is not the problem; it is the place which worries them.
     This is sloppy writing. But not quite so sloppy as the opening sentence in his linked piece, dated 25 March, about contract negotiations for next year. I defy anyone, native speaker or non-native speaker, to read it through once only and infer the correct meaning:
“Mercedes are the only remaining manufacturer-backed team yet to reach any sort of agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, with negotiations becoming increasingly discordant.”
     To begin with, two misused words. First, “team” is a singular noun and “are” is a plural verb. Perhaps Mr Cary think “Mercedes” plural, which presumably means that you can have a single “Mercede”. Secondly, “discordant” means out of tune, and implies a lack of harmony where there should be harmony, which is not usual in fierce contract negotiations. But the larger problem is that there are so many words strewn round this sentence, like discarded crisp packets, that you have to read the next couple of paragraphs before it becomes clear what the writer was trying to say. It was not actually very complicated. A fair copy might read:
“Mercedes is the only manufacturer-based team which has not yet reached agreement with Bernie Ecclestone, and the negotiations are becoming increasingly difficult.”
     When a London newspaper that espouses traditional values employs correspondents who cannot write traditional English, it is either sad or a sign that the publication has fallen into the clutches of anti-social Scottish millionaire property developers—which the Telegraph has, in the shape of the weird Barclay twins, who live reclusively in a huge castle on a tiny island off Sark, a fascinating British dependency in the Channel Islands. (see picture) They have probably sacked all their sub-editors, thinking them as much a waste of money as it was employing literate motoring correspondents. The result is that the Telegraph has become increasingly unreadable.


09 April 2012

Arnold Schwarzenegger, California and bankruptcy in America

Before I get too distracted with the other excitements of Moscow life and forget, I want to make a brief note about the other excellent journalist that I noted in the post on Saturday (7 April). Russians and others who have not heard of him might like to take note of Michael Lewis, who made his name with his first book, Liar’s Poker: Rising Through the Wreckage on Wall Street, and who has been writing about the interaction of big money and human psychology ever since.
     Published in 1989, Liar’s Poker was arguably the best book about the financial madness of the 1980s. Lewis experienced it at first hand when he took a job, straight from studying History of Art at Princeton, as a rookie bond salesman at Salomon Brothers, on the same trading floor as all the Masters of the Universe or, as they were also called, the “big swinging dicks”. His job was simply “to make money come out of those phones”. He saw the chaos around him, predicted the wreckage to come and wrote about it all in a way that was often hysterically funny. It was one of the most enjoyable reads of the decade, as well as one of the most informative.
     Lewis’s core interest is financial power and the behaviour of those who make it flow around the world. His current special concern is the way the forecasts all went wrong in the mid-2000s, and the mass psychosis on Wall Street which allowed that to happen. If you want to know more about this, watch his interview on the excellent Charlie Rose show, on 3 October last year. At minute 22 in the interview Lewis says: “I’m not an economist, I’m just a writer. But I am phobic about the whole issue of forecasting because most of Wall Street is premised on a false belief in the predictability of unpredictable things.” He goes on to talk about the mass protests against the bailout of the big American banks, saying, “It is outrageous that we have socialism for capitalists and capitalism for everybody else.”
The man from Muscle Beach
     In the piece I am talking of today, Lewis takes these kinds of insights to California in order to meet The Terminator, after he had been terminated as Governor. In a fascinating, 12,000-word article for the excellent New York magazine, Vanity Fair, Lewis went cycling with Herr Schwarzenegger at Muscle Beach, where the big man first started to pump iron after arriving in America to re-invent himself both physically and financially.
     Lewis has previously written in the same magazine equally long, equally fascinating articles about the financial crashes in Iceland, in Ireland and in Greece. This one is about America. But instead of going to Wall Street, he goes to San Jose and other such places to find out why small-town American is bust, just as surely as the country as a whole is.
     The reason is not that democracy doesn’t work; it is that it does work, all too well. “The system is actually very good at giving Californians what they want,” Lewis notes, going on to quote a commentator who said to him, “What all the polls show is that people want services and not to pay for them. And that’s exactly what they have got.” The result: looming bankruptcy. The problem: what happens when real bankruptcy hits and the services can no longer be provided on credit.
     Readers can use the link to read the whole article. Suffice it to say here, that Lewis ends by describing one of the most dysfunctional communities in modern California, Vallejo near San Francisco. There he finds hope for regeneration. When everything is completely bust, to the point where the municipality cannot even afford a receptionist in the city hall, a few people with morals, energy and a willingness to take risks get together and start to sort out the mess.
     This is where the United States is different from most other countries, especially Russia, at least as it has been until very recently. A Russian friend recently sent me an article she had written about her country's tendency to go some way towards the Oriental habit of committing suicide after failure. Here, bankruptcy is a black-mark for life, she says. Lewis says that this is part of the reason for the current crisis with the Euro. Nothing must be allowed to fail. He says at the end of the Charlie Rose interview, talking particularly about Greece:
“There are plenty of stories of going from unsustainable indebtedness, to defaulting, to prosperity. Once you have wiped out the debt you are a good risk again. The idea of personal reinvention or social reinvention or national reinvention is not alive and well in Europe. That’s our idea. The Europeans don’t really go for that. They really think that failure is permanent failure. It’s built into their laws.”
     Can post-Balotnaya Russia, with all the young folk we have read about recently taking an oppositional mind-set into local councils, do things differently from western Europe? Write and tell me if you think that's possible.


Patriarchal Wristwatch Watch: the perils of calling a woman “lay”


Watch what space?
The controversy over the wristwatch allegedly worn, or allegedly not worn, by the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church, Kirill, when photographed at a meeting with one of the pillars of Russian orthodox politics, illustrates an amusing language pitfall that the unwary Russian public relations executive ought to be aware of.
     The Moscow Times today reported:
“The patriarchate quickly explained that the photograph had been doctored by an inexperienced 24-year-old employee — a ‘lay woman’, the statement emphasized…”
     I do not doubt that report. But the Patriarch’s language, which is perfectly correct in a formal sense, was perhaps unwise in the circumstances. Given the international interest in this incident, he might find himself quoted by Western journalists, who are a disreputable lot. I know because I am one.
     The way his Beatitude's staff (if that’s the correct form of reference) made the point that the buck stopped with a “lay woman”, who was “inexperienced”, exposes Himself to the kind of joke that the British tabloid press absolutely loves. I can just see the old News of the World pouncing with the glee of a hungry bear at a honey festival on those words and printing the following headline in screaming bold type:
Patriarch calls 24-year old woman an inexperienced lay!
     The Patriarch really ought to have asked his chief press officer to clear the text with the Ian Mitchell GaffeWatch Service before release. At your service, Господин! My rates are very moderate...