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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29 June 2012

Some language problems with the Jewish Nobel Prize

Yakov Sverdlov: the Jewish Bolshevik who allegedly gave the order
 to murder the Russian Royal Family and who was later honoured
by having the town where the deed was done, Ekaterinburg,
renamed Sverdlovsk. That honour was withdrawn in 1991.
Somebody called Mikhail Fridman, who runs something called the Alfa Group, was recently reported as having offered to help finance what has been called “the Jewish Nobel Prize”. Officially this will be called The Genesis Prize and will be administered by something called the Genesis Philanthropy Group, of which Mr Fridman is a co-founder, in co-operation with the State of Israel.
     Prizes of $1 million will be awarded in recognition of “outstanding Jewish achievements” and, if I understood correctly the slightly tortured grammar of the report, the awards will be made every year at the time of the Feast of the Passover.
     I can see nothing wrong with Jewish financiers like Fridman giving money to other Jews. It is of the essence of the principle of private property that one may dispose of one’s billions in any lawful way one sees fit. But I do foresee problems of definition, which, in this context, is a language issue.
     The first problem is the word “Jewish”. What will happen to people who are only half-Jewish? Will awards be made to people who are, as the Germans used to say in the 1930s, “a quarter Jew” or an eighth Jew (what used to be called an octoroon)? And if it is to be only pure Jews who are honoured, how far back will they have to trace their ancestry to demonstrate their racial purity?
     The second problem relates to the word “achievement”. By what standard will the actions of Jews be assessed for the purposes of deciding whether they are worth honouring? I mention one example, that of Yakov Yurovsky, simply because it springs to mind due to the recent opening of an exhibition at the Russian State Archives in which he features prominently. Yurovsky was the man who organized the murder of the Russian Royal Family in the basement of the Ipatiev House in Ekaterinburg on 17 July 1918. He shot the Tsar himself. For seventy years, he was regarded by some people as a hero for this “achievement”. When he died, in 1938, Yurovsky was honoured by the gift of a burial plot in the Novodevichi Cemetery, despite his Jewish origins. A final point is that Yurovsky, like many others of his sort, had rejected Judaism. Would he therefore have disqualified himself from receipt of a prize like one Mr Fridman is helping to establish?
     These are not easy questions to answer. I hope Mr Fridman will apply his enormous brain to them with the same skill and concern for detail that he has brought to the building up of the Alfa empire. 

Good news for the Russian language

In Russia a new world is being created, no matter how much
some prominent people want to relive the safer glories of the past
On 16 May the BBC website carried a story entitled “Italian University Switches to English” in which the Polytechnic of Milan, one of the country’s leading educational institutionsuniversities, was reported as having announced that from 2014 most of its degree courses, including all graduate courses, were going to be conducted in English.
     “We strongly believe our classes should be international classes, and the university believes that if it remains Italian-speaking it risks isolation and will be unable to compete as an international institution,” said the Rector, Giovanni Azzone.
     The university wants to be in the midst of the international “market for ideas” and those ideas are being traded in English today. “I would have preferred if Italian were the common language. It would have been easier for me. But we have to accept real life,” the Rector said.
     What is interesting in this regard is the fact that in 2000 a large group of Italian members of parliament met to protest about the fact that in the latest edition of the authoritative Italian dictionary, Devoto-Oli, there were 4,000 words for which Italian equivalents had not been found. It is not surprising that politicians take the line of patriotic impracticability, while academics take the line of practical utility. Universities have to survive. In corrupt political systems like the Italian, survival depends on mouthing the right platitudes rather than doing the right things. That may be at least part of the reason why Russian politicians, in an even more corrupt system, talk the way they do. Sadly such attitudes are not confined to politics, which is one of the reasons why there is not a single Russian university ranked in the international top 100. They are run by polticians.
     Russian business, however, is quite different, at least at the independent non-oligarchic end of the commercial spectrum. I recently went to a small-business seminar in Moscow at which I heard an enormous number of neologisms (as they would be called in English: newly created words). I list below some of them that are not in my big Russian dictionary, edited by A.M. Taube and R.C. Daglish, published by Russky Yazik Media in 2004 (which means they must be very new). I reproduce them phonetically. Maybe I heard them wrongly, and maybe others would spell the words differently. But there can be no “correct” spelling for entirely new words. These are some of them:

Релевaнтный роль  –  relevant role
Карир фраймуорк  –  career framework
Кост-эффишент практики  –  cost-efficient practice
Саймтайм  –  sametime (simultaneous?)
Флексибл мэнэджмент  –  flexible management
Текнолоджи-байсд  –  technology-based
Куалити тайм  –  quality time
Нетуорк  –  network
Модератор  –  moderator
Фасилитатор  –  facilitator
Пипл каультюр  –  people culture
Интродауктори коурсэз  –  introductory courses
Ултра супер плюс  –  ultra super plus

     The message I take from this and other similar experiences is that, despite all the deadening efforts of Russia’s politicians and university administrations, the language spoken by the ordinary Russian is alive, and is developing and adapting itself to the modern world. This is the way English developed, without any plan, borrowing words and phrases from anywhere the users felt like. It is the only way for any language to survive in a world of constant change. Russian, I am glad to say, looks as if it has that instinct too.
     Paradoxically, when MGU follows the example of the Milan Polytechnic and switches to English, it will show that Russia is getting serious about meeting the modern world on its own terms. That will be when the country discovers a genuine future. Strange to say, tht will be when the Russian language will start to make an international comeback.

27 June 2012

Master class #6: Anna Chapman: the sexy “sleeper” wakes up

The self-advertising ex-"sleeper"
Today’s Moscow Times carries an unsigned article related to the so-called “spy”, Anna Chapman (who looks more like a delusional, Nashi-syle misfit to me) which includes the following paragraph:
“Anna Chapman, recognizable for her good looks and blazing red hair, was arrested in the United States in June 2010 as part of a sting operation that netted her and nine other alleged sleeper agents. She has kept a high profile since being deported back to Russia, leveraging her notoriety to fuel a budding political career and appearances in television and magazines.”
There are several language points to make about this, in sequence:

-          The expression is “flaming red hair”, not “blazing red”. A “blaze” relates to fire, or a sunset, or something purely physical, while “flame” implies passion, memory and other emotions. You refer to an unforgotten old lover as an “old flame” not an “old blaze”, and you don’t go to the Alexandrovsky Gardens to look at the “eternal blaze” or “the blaze of the unknown solider”, do you?
-          You “maintain” a high profile, or you “keep a low profile”. “Maintain” implies effort and planning, while “keep” implies protection and caution.
-          As the lady concerned was “deported”, it is unnecessary to say “to Russia” since all deportations are to your country of origin. Other types of forced exit are called “expulsions”. And to say “deported back” is a redundancy since any deportation implies a return, or going back.
-          The last italicised part of the sentence is a typical journalistic hodge-podge where the writer has lost control of the sentence structure, no doubt under the stress of deadlines. Intelligibility suffers. Leaving out “budding political career” (since the verb “fuel” governs the last part as well), ask yourself this: can you “fuel appearances in (sic – should be “on” television and “in” magazines”) television and magazines”? I don’t think so. The writer seems to have blazes on his or her brain.

The last sentence might be better written like this:

“Since being deported from the United States, she has kept herself in the public eye by using her notoriety to gain an entrée into politics and the media.” 

24 June 2012

Statements of the Obvious #3, #4, #5, #6, #7 and #8: Advertorial in the Moscow Times? Bring on Sergei Polonsky and Sir John Ortega

The opinion pages of the Moscow Times usually carry interesting and intelligent comment on the Russian scene today—Marilyn Murray excepted (see post 2 May: Master Class #2). So I was shocked last Wednesday to see an article that seemed to me just a long list of statements of the obvious—“6 Tips on How to Best Find (sic) an Office in Russia”, by Yuri Yudakov. I wrote to the Opinion Page Editor, Michael Bohm, to ask him whether he had decided to publish Mr Yudakov’s piece “purely on its merits as you see it, as part of an advertising deal or for some other non-journalistic reason.”
     Answer came there none. So what do you think?

“There are six tips that may make finding an office easier,” the article says. Here is the list.

“1. Money: Take a look at your financial situation and determine what you can really afford….”
     Now I ask you, business people of Moscow, are you really likely to consider incurring the obligation of rent for an office without deciding how much you can afford?

“2. Utilities: Make sure you understand what utilities or operating expenses you will be responsible for…”
      Who among us would honestly say, “Good point, Yuri! Never thought of that.”

“3. Searching for an Office. With so many choices in the market, it’s now all about managing your time and your costs…”
     Is this really news to the modern business executive?

“4. Viewing the Office. When you take a property tour, don’t just give each room a quick ‘once-over’. It’s important to really take the time to take it all in and work with the floor plan. After all this is the place you’ll be calling home for your company.”
     Beyond the obviousness of what he is saying, I wonder if Mr Yudakov is not getting a little confused here. Surely taking a detailed look at every room of your possible new offices, and setting them all against a floor-plan, contradicts number 3: “managing your time”?

“5. The Area. This should be almost as important as the office itself. You must make sure you are moving into an area where you feel comfortable and have good access by car and public transport.”
Two Darth Vaders holding
the  spam conductor
     Well, yes, obviously, but there is a downside. Comfort is all very well but, like convenience, it can work against you. A nice view encourages people to look out of the window, and good transport links mean people do not dread the process of going home, so tend to leave the office earlier than they would otherwise.

“6. Landlords…. This is not something you can physically measure like space.”
     OMG! People are not things? Who would have thought it?

     Am I being unfair to Mr Yudakov?
     Not unfair, I hope, since his points are indeed all pretty obvious. But perhaps I am being a little harsh since we all forget the obvious from time to time. Full disclosure: I once made a mistake myself. The story is worth summarizing as it illustrates the pitfalls of not reading articles like Mr Yudakov’s.
     I used to do the style-editing at Passport magazine, the well-known Moscow life-style glossy which is owned, with increasing reluctance, by Sir John Ortega, KOVR (www.passportmagazine.ru). Over a long dinner at NOBU, Sir John asked me for ideas of how to improve the magazine. My first point was that it needed proper offices for the editorial team. At that time, Passport was produced in a small, windowless room in the middle of a large warehouse on a vast industrial estate at the wrong end of Textilshchiki, an hour’s hellish hike from the Metro. This is the hardly ideal stimulant to the creative impulse. So where next?
     My suggestion was to take the Federation Tower in Moscow City, which is large, well-located and full of windows. But that is where I came unstuck. Had I read Mr Yudakov’s piece, I could have saved myself a lot of embarrassment.
     My first mistake was to under-estimate the size of the building. It looked quite small and cosy in the drawing (see picture right), and I liked the look of the spam conductor in the middle, between the two Darth Vader-like structures. Sir John is a Knight (of the Vine, in his case) and so are they, in their own way. You don’t have to have had the Queen whack your shoulder with a sword to call yourself a Knight, as Sir John well knows. I thought Passport would feel at home in these faux-chivalric surroundings.
     To my surprise, the letting agent was not impressed by my pitch. He looked at me as if I was one light short of a smoke, so I added, “I’ll be moving my blog team in as well. That’s another desk we’ll need.”
     That was when he started laughing. What’s all this about, I thought indignantly? You don’t laugh at the representatives of men who eat at NOBU.
     “And we’ll need parking space for the editor’s car, and my bicycle,” I said.
     At that point the agent stepped it up a gear and laughed so hard that his false teeth fell out. He started to give off an acrid, locker-room smell. I thought I heard him squelching as he dashed for the toilet, gripping his lower abdomen as if he had burst something.
     While he was cleaning himself up and rinsing his shoes out, I ran though the rest of what I now know of as the Yudakov List. Everything checked out, except the last point: the landlord. Should I hang around and wait to discuss that with Amused of Moscow? I decided not to bother. I picked the false teeth up off the floor and slipped them into a plastic evidence bag which I handed to the receptionist on my way out.
     Now that I have read the “6 Tips”, I see I was right to have ignored the last one. It is nonsense. Why does Mr Yudakov think that a landlord cannot be “physically measured like space”? There are two points here. The first is that Sergei Polonsky, the founder of Potok, the company which is building the Tower, has dimensions just like the next man—height, weight, girth, hat size, inside leg etc. All could be measured, and doubtless have been. Perhaps Mr Yudakov is not familiar with Saville Row, but I assume Mr Polonsky’s tailor will have all his “physical measurements” recorded in a little book. There is no mystery to this.
     The second point is about language. I know what Mr Yudakov intended to say, of course, but as much by guesswork as by logical inference. He would be advised to be careful when using words like “space” in a context where “area”, or even “volume” would be more precise. Those are measurable quantities. But space, arguably, is not. If the Universe is, as Edwin Hubble first suggested in the 1920s, expanding, then space is in principle immeasurable. The dimensions are continually increasing, unlike Mr Polonsky’s inside leg, Passport’s sales revenue or Sir John Ortega’s love of the publishing industry.
     But if Sir John were to get over his grief at the fate of Passport, he might be persuaded to buy the Moscow Times. If he did that, I might get a chance to style-edit articles like Mr Yudakov’s before they are presented to the public. I could publish my own piece, “1 Tip on How Best to Write a Mistake-Free Article in Russia”. It would be very short, simply saying: send it for checking in advance to language.etiquette@gmail.com .

23 June 2012

Britons (ancient and modern) Liberating the Smiler Within

An interesting British contrast to the song shown in my post on 21 March, headed Russians Liberating the Smiler Within, was broadcast last night on BBC Radio 4’s programme The Now Show (listen at minute 23) about the Bouncy Druids on their Inflatable Stonehenge, “We go bouncing on the Solstice…. ” You will not be not amused.
     If the Russian song could plausibly be described as "art" (of a sort), what is the word for the British one?
     The best one-word description of the Bouncy Druid song, from a Russian and from a non-Russian, will each win an invitation to the next Glenfiddich whisky tasting that this blog will host. Send them in as comments, please, but also email me your contact details so I can issue the inviation.

20 June 2012

Sexual revelations from the Eocene

Sex in the sand
Philip Larkin famously wrote in one of his most quoted poems, Annus Mirabilis:

Sexual intercourse began
In nineteen sixty-three
(which was rather late for me) -
Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban
And the Beatles’ first LP.

     Russian readers might like to know that the “‘Chatterley’ ban” referred to the ban on publication of D.H. Lawrence’s sexually explicit novel, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which was considered obscene and therefore unpublishable in Britain until the law was challenged, and overturned, in a famous court case in 1960. They might also like to know that Philip Larkin was 41 in 1963, which might suggest that he had an exceptionally weak libido.
     In this he was unlike Allaeochelys crassasculpta, a type of primeval turtle which once lived in northern European lakes. Today the BBC reports recent scientific research which proves that these animals were having sexual intercourse way back in the Eocene epoch, 47 million years ago. That was long before the Chatterley ban, indeed long before Philip Larkin was born presumably, he thought (if his poem is to be believed), as a result of something other than sexual intercourse. 
    The happily unsuspecting turtles were caught copulating when a burst of volcanic gas erupted from the bed of the lake they were sporting in and killed them instantly with its foul and noxious vapours. They sank to the bottom still locked in their amorous embrace, where they were enveloped in sedimentary sand and preserved for geologists to find 47 million years later.
     The language point? It is a simple one: never believe everything you read in poetry books.
     The more general point? No matter how discreet you think you are being, your secret will come out in the end, even if only after 47 million years. There's nowhere to hide.

18 June 2012

The Green Man goes red with embarrassment

It's bracing in Banffshire,” says Braced of Banff.
It seems that at least one politician reads this blog: Scotland’s Minister for the Environment and Climate Change, Stewart Stevenson. 
     Since I posted on 14 May drawing attention to his robotic habit of mentioning fatuous weather details on his Twitter slot almost every day—just to show he is a man who cares for the climate, I presume—he has stopped.
      Just over a week later, he made the last in his interminable series of weather tweets. On 23 May we learn that it is “another beautiful day out there”, and then SILENCE. Apart from 3 June when the Minister reports from his constituency that it is “windy and cool out there” and then notes that “in Banffshire the sun’s shining” (odd as his constituency is Banffshire), that is it.
      Perhaps a hundred tweets have gone out since 14 May letting the world know what our hero is up to. (And revealing whose “tatties” he digs—answer: “my spouse”; yes, really, his “spouse”. How bureaucratic can you get!) But other than 3 June, not one bulletin about the weather. Has the climate come to an end? Or is he just embarrassed? Before that last celebration of a “beautiful day” we had, on 22 May “sunny out there again”; on 21 May (rather mysteriously) “A bit of radiation fog [!] out there -  should burn off by 10 a.m.”; 18 May, “A bit damp out in Banffshire”, and so on, ad nauseam.
     The real question is why the Minister is reading this blog when he ought to be applying his mind to the issues raised by the proposed Sound of Barra Seal Sanctuary, which he appears to be totally uninterested in. Maybe the reason is that Barra is not in Banffshire. Think locally; act vocally.

Master class #5: Aeroflot entertains the passengers

“Anonymous” sent me this sheet (so I am afraid I cannot acknowledge it personally, but if you read this: “Thanks!”).  It has several amusing mistakes and opportunities for mystification.

     I particularly liked (as did Anonymous), the idea that the size of a three dimensional object can be described by a single figure. Cases must not exceed “115 cms”. At one point this is rendered “115 cms (55x40x20)”. But nothing is said about luggage that is, for example, 95x10x10, as a pairs of skis might be. Likewise a painting might be 5x70x 40. Are they allowed? I think we should be told!
     Does Aeroflot really have a class of fare, along with Business and President, called “Premiere”? Is it not Premium? A Premiere is the first night of a film or stage show—I know, I attended one once with Marilyn Monroe, back in the days when Aeroflot employed stewardesses who looked rather like the baggage handlers.
      And a  “paper-folder” is a machine for folding paper. These are not normally carried in aircraft cabins as they can be quite bulky and are rarely needed on brief business trips, much less on holidays. Emigrant businessmen tend to buy new paper-folders in the place where they migrate to. Perhaps they mean a  “file or folder for private papers”, a portfolio, as it used to be called, or document-pack as it might be called today.
     And the way the massive list of “additional items” is worded appears to mean that you can bring ALL of these items on board on one flight—which I doubt. Combined, they would weigh more than your checked luggage, and take up half the cabin.
     And what these items “don't need to be” is “weighed”, not “weighted”. Properly, the latter is used comparatively, as in a “weighted index” which gives more weight to certain stocks and shares, for example, than to others. Likewise, you can have the odds weighted against you in a boxing match if your opponent weighs more than you.
     Finally, note that it is a “cabin” that the passengers travel in with their wheelchairs, outerwear, flowers, canes and paper-folding machines. It is not a “salon” (last paragraph). A “salon” is where you have your hair done, your nails manicured or your tan enhanced. It is not a “saloon” either, which is where you shoot cowboys when you are wearing spurs and a ten-gallon hat, while silently munching a cheroot with a disgustingly soggy end.

Master class #4: Some problems with lawyer’s English

A friend of mine, Andrey Goltsblat, the senior partner of the legal firm Goltsbat BLP, recently published a document advertising his company’s services for those who need to navigate their way through the new Russian Civil Code. His full advertisement can be found on the company’s website at: http://www.gblplaw.com/ I am sure it is highly useful and I trust readers of this blog will consider making use of Goltsblat BLP if they need to.
     The document is worth quoting here because it illustrates the perils of having the wrong sort of person style-edit your texts (which Andrey assures me he has had done). The difficulty for Russians (and other nationalities) is that the employer cannot always know if the work has been done properly, or tastefully, unless someone tells him or her. I therefore make bold to publish this analysis of the Goltsblat document, with a fair copy as I would have written it, at the end.
     The underlying problem is the way the text lurches from over-familiarity to inappropriate chattiness—though there are some other issues as will be seen below.

Taking the text from the document in Roman type, and my comments in sanserif type:

     -  “On 3 April 2012, the President of the Russian Federation introduced to the State Duma a draft federal law amending the Civil Code of the Russian Federation.”
     Too formal and also repetitive. Better: “On 3 April 20102, President Medvedev introduced into the Duma a draft law amending the Russian Civil Code.”

     -  “On 27 April 2012, the Law was passed at the first reading without any serious objections or criticisms, even though it is an extensive, 461-page document. It is proposed to introduce new institutions and rules of the civil legislation and to amend, supplement and otherwise update many existing ones.”
     Too congested, and not in chronological order. Better: “This is a 460-page document which introduces new institutions and rules of civil litigation, and changes many others. Despite this, it passed on its first reading without serious examination.”

     - “The given amendments to the Civil Code of the Russian Legislation are to come into effect on 1 September 2012. We only have the summer before us to get our heads round and understand everything that is proposed.”
     Too colloquial, and with mistakes. Better: “The amended Civil Code is scheduled to come into effect on 1 September. Lawyers have only six months to familiarise themselves with everything that is proposed.”

     - “Goltsblat BLP lawyers who took an active part in drafting and discussing the amendments to the Civil Code of the Russian Federation have prepared for you an overview of the most significant of the proposed changes.”
     Too formal. Better: “Some of our lawyers were involved in drafting the new law. They have prepared a summary of the most significant proposed changes.”

     - “After these amendments come into force, we have several years ahead of us during which law enforcement practice will be developed. We, as lawyers, need to start working straight away to explain the new rules to our clients and the professional community, in order for law enforcers to be able to predict precisely how a given new institution works. The Judicial system in a civilised society must be truly independent. Judges must be irreproachably professional and enjoy an impeccable reputation. Unless these fundamentals of public life are achieved, any legislative initiatives will be still-born. People and their basic values must, of course, constitute the fulcrum of any state ideas. Yet it should not be forgotten that business, its needs and requirements are, in exactly the same way, ultimately orientated on improving our lives. Commercial relations in Russia today require a greater degree of discretion. If freedom of contract is artificially restrained, the result is precisely formal bad faith and sham transactions, which in our society have always provided the broadest scope for the Judicial whim of the authorities.”
      Too stilted and sententious, and with too many statements of the obvious. One or two parts incomprehensible (I have therefore omitted them). Better: “After the new Code comes into force, we have several years ahead of us during which law enforcement practice will be developed. We, as lawyers, need to start working straight away to explain the new rules to our clients and the professional community. We also want to play our part in moving towards a fully independent judiciary operating a system of law based on accepted human values. At the same time, for commerce to flourish, we need legal certainty and a broader juridical environment in which the principle of sanctity of contract is understood and respected.”

     Note as a non-linguistic issue: the phrase  “freedom of contract” as used in the original text has some problematic connotations as it is associated in the public mind with unbridled capitalism. It was for Freedom of Contract that the US Supreme Court struck down so many of Roosevelt’s New Deal initiatives when he was trying to pull the US out of the Great Depression. Western lawyers think of freedom of contract as being a situation in which the mighty can oppress the weak. I know it does not mean that literally, but it is a “bad karma” phrase in legal circles in this context, I would suggest. I suspect that the writer intended “sanctity of contract”, which is both acceptable and important to stress in a contemporary Russian context, where it is always under threat from non-judicial interference.

My fair copy:

On 3 April 2012, President Medvedev introduced into the Duma a draft law amending the Russian Civil Code. This was a 460-page document which proposed new rules of civil litigation, and changed many others. Despite its length and complexity, the Code was passed on its first reading without serious examination by legislators. It is scheduled to come into effect on 1 September, so the legal community has only six months to familiarise itself with it.
     Some of our lawyers, who were involved in the original drafting, have prepared a summary of the most significant changes. After the new Code comes into force, there will be a period of several years during which law enforcement practice will be developed. We, as lawyers, need to start working straight away to explain the changes to our clients and the professional community. We also want to play our part in moving towards a fully independent judiciary, which applies a system of law based on internationally accepted human values. At the same time, for commerce to flourish, we need legal certainty and a broader juridical environment in which the principle of sanctity of contract is understood and respected.
     We have therefore prepared for your benefit the following summary of what we see as the most significant aspects of the new Code.

Brief boobs #8: “summits” wrong with the BBC

I am sorry to see that the BBC appears to be going the way of all flesh and trying to seem modern when in reality its strength is its immense and eminent “maturity”. Who ever heard of the word “summit” being used as a verb? “Climb” used to do perfectly well in the days when I was a human being. I think it is still in general use. What's wrong with it? Certainly not length.
     Maybe it's a case of wanting to be like the big smells (see Al Haig and his “I’ll no comment that” in the post: Etiquette Issues  #4 on 13 April)? Is so, perhaps that should be called “social summitting”. Bob Mulligan’ll be turning in his groove, at least he will be once he has summitted that bar-stool in Papa's Place.

10 June 2012

Master class #3: the Peking Hotel makes a salad of its grammar

In the brief notice above for the Manhattan Grill in the refurbished Peking Hotel on Mayakovskaya Square, there are several small points which should have been straightened out by Mitchell’s Elite Editing Services.

     - No need to have the name in inverted commas as if it is a quotation.
     - The name should not be hyphenated.
     - Is it a Grill or a Restaurant? There is no need for both.
     - In the text the first sentence should start with “the”.
     - I think they mean “authentic”, not “original”.
     - “Grill-house” should not be hyphenated.
     - “Ready to offer its visitors” is awful. A restaurant has guests or diners, or even customers, but not “visitors”, as if it were a museum. And reporting its “readiness” to sell food sounds as if there are times when no food is available there, which I doubt.
     - To talk of “refined dishes” sounds silly in English, as it implies that there might be such things as “coarse” dishes—which is possible in a roadside café or a builders’ canteen. But why would the Peking Hotel feel the need to stress that it does not serve that kind of food? Also the way it is put, with “but also” implies that the “salads and snacks” that precede it are not “refined”.
     - “Freshest meat”: one would certainly hope so!
     - “Fish and also seafood”. Fish is seafood.

     I would offer this fair copy:

The Manhattan Grill is an authentic American-style restaurant which offers snacks and salads, as well as full meals and the freshest seafood.

09 June 2012

Brits on the balcony — Pimm's with the Posol

Posol with Pimm's
Dashing back to Moscow after helping to send Robin Gibb off to join Maurice at the great white disco in the sky, I only just have time to nip into the flat to straighten my spoons—I saw Uri Geller at the funeral (see previous post)—and change my tie before racing into town to the British Ambassador’s Residence for a party to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee.
     The building is a magnificent house just over the river from the Kremlin and was built in 1893 for the Kharitonenko family, who were Ukrainian sugar barons. They had English nannies for their children and English taste in domestic décor. They therefore hired the Volga German architect, Franz Shekhtel, to give them an interior (he did not design the building) which had the look of a grand Victorian country house.
     Shekhtel went on to become the most celebrated architect in Moscow during the last years of the Tsarist regime, designing what is now known as the Maxim Gorky House and the extraordinary Yaroslavl Station, amongst many other things. He changed his first name to Fyodor after the outbreak of hostilities with Germany in 1914 and never worked again. His submission to the competition to design Lenin’s Mausoleum on Red Square (it took the form of a pyramid) was rejected and he died in extreme poverty in 1926—another great talent wasted by the cultural holocaust of Bolshevism.
     In those years, the Kharitonenko house was used by the Soviet Foreign Ministry to accomodate important guests in the country, who included H.G. Wells, Arthur Ransome, Enver Pasha, Armand Hammer and Isadora Duncan. In 1931 it became the British Embassy, which it remained until 2000 when the Embassy moved to a new building near Smolenskaya metro station and this building was closed for renovation. It re-opened as the Ambassador’s Residence four years ago, now looking much like it did when lived in by its original owners.
     The house is also interesting because it was the site of one of the greatest pre-Revolution parties to be written about in English. This took place in January 1912 and was described by a young Scottish diplomat, Robert (later Sir Robert) Bruce Lockhart, in his wonderful book, Memoirs of a British Agent. I read the party scene on air just over a year ago, and discussed the house with the then Ambassador, Anne Pringle.
     At our slightly more modest gathering last night, we drank Pimm's on the balcony before the new Посол (Posol = Ambassador), Tim Barrow, proposed a handsome toast to Her Majesty in Shekhtel's equally handsome Ballroom (see above). This is on the first floor and looks out across the Moscow River to the Kremlin. Scriabin and Shaliapin performed in it when Pavel Kharitoneko owned the house, and one would like to think that the cultural links with Britain would be continued with more concerts of that sort in this magnificent setting.
     How does all this help people master the English language, I hear you cry? Not at all. It just makes it more worth mastering.

Stayin’ Alive – dead: I look in on Robin Gibb's funeral

Sir Tim “Evita” Rice was there too. But why
did his Dad, who was a Temporary Officer in the War,
and therefore a Temporary Gentleman, never tell his son that
it is not cool to wear striped shirts at funerals?
I wasn’t entirely surprised to see neither Vladimir Putin nor Muammar Gaddafi at Robin Gibb’s funeral in Oxfordshire yesterday afternoon—the latter because he is dead and former because he seems to prefer sending his deputy, a young law professor and shadow politician called Dmitri Medvedev, to such events. What good enough for the G8 is good enough for a BG—or Bee Gee as they used to call themselves in the pre-Twitter age.
     Older readers will remember the Bee Gees getting their teeth round Massachusetts and other croon-worthy lerv songs in the late 1960s, before they morphed into disco favourites with the sound-track to Saturday Night Fever, which included the signature track Stayin’ Alive, as well as Night Fever and Jive Talkin’. Their final ascent into stellar celebrity status resulted from their appearance on the Kenny Everett Show. They were so popular that Everett decided to show how any normal person like himself could, with the aid of a few pills, become a Bee Gee.
     I always admired the Bee Gees for never doing things the sensible, straight-forward way. Like his brothers Maurice and Barry, Robin went from the Isle of Man, where he was born, to Oxfordshire, where he died, via Australia of all places, which is miles off the direct route. But maybe that's how they got that famous tan.
     I left the funeral early because I saw Mike Read there, the odious DJ and moralist who was responsible for getting the flash gay band, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, boycotted by the BBC because their epic song Relax appeared to discourage what used to be called “Hunnish practices”, something which Obertoßer Read presumably thought, au contraire, ought to be encouraged. But it was nice to touch base with Uri Geller, and also Paul Gambaccini, the music historian who famously said that Robin had “one of the best white soul voices ever”.
     Having missed Maurice’s funeral (after he died, in 2003, from a convoluted volvulus) I cannot compare the guest lists. But I look forward to seeing who shows up to Barry’s event—long may it be delayed. At least I hope to be there, along with Uri, Paul and the gang, unless of course he lives forever, in which case we will all be Stayin’ Alive in our respective coffins.

08 June 2012

“Waar’s jou password?”

The end of racial apartheid in South Africa made no difference
to marine communities. The Atlantic Ocean is still just as firmly segregated
from the Indian Ocean as ever.
The reintroduction of apartheid into South Africa is a subject which ought to be on all the sub-continent’s rapidly multiplying lips. This, at least, was the thought that struck me reading a piece in yesterday’s Guardian on the complaints J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer—two Nobel Prize-wining South African novelists—have been making about what might be called the Group Information Act, which will shortly be on the statute book in their country.
     Of course, there is in fact no Act with that name. I made it up. The measure is called the Protection of State Information Bill. As far as I can see from the article, and from listening to a BBC Radio 4 programme on the same subject a fortnight ago, the new Act will enable the government imprison journalists they don’t like for periods of up to 25 years. The excuse will be that they have “possessed, leaked or published” a commodity called “state secrets”. The allegation being made is that the new law is designed to protect corrupt politicians and bureaucrats. I have no idea whether that is the aim. But it will certainly be the result.
     However, my complaint is not with the South African government and its totalitarian tendencies, which seem to me normal for politicians anywhere in the world who do not have to worry about an unpredictable electorate. Rather, my complaint is about the arguments against this repressive statute being advanced by Professor Coetzee and Ms Gordimer.
     I have never met the former, though a friend of mine who used to be an English lecturer in the University of Cape Town when he was the Professor there knew him and did not like what he knew. My own experience is confined to his books, which I find unreadably depressing, except the sole work of non-fiction of his which I have read, a literary history of Southern Africa called White Writing. This, I thought, was very interesting, though of course depressing in a different, factual way.
     As far as Ms Gordimer is concerned, I did once meet her, very briefly, when she came to talk about literature to the students at Wits University, where I was an indolent under-graduate, dividing my days between being a part-time anti-apartheid betooger (protester) and a keen mid-week golfer. She struck me as a perfectly nice woman, but no closer to Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy in terms of insight into la condition humaine—as I would now see it—than I am, or Professor “Sad Sack” Coetzee is. I know that misery sells but, hey! come on, get a life! At least the climate in South Africa is wonderful!
     Having declared my interest, I will now say that I agree with every complaint they have about this sinister new Bill. However, their comments seem to me to miss the central point, which is that this is the beginning of a new, updated form of apartheid as we will all increasingly experience it in the twenty-first century. The world is moving forward, and South Africa with it.
     When I lived in the country, in the 1960s and early 70s, the lion kings who wanted to control it for their own benefit made sure they controlled the land. Their primary tool was the Group Areas Act which mandated different parts of the country as the places of residence for different racial groups. Naturally the whites, who were the basic support group of the lion kings of the day, got the best land. In those days land was the key to power.
     Today information is the key to power, and the way for the lion kings of the country to get control over the country’s resources for their own benefit is to introduce what might be called “information apartheid”. This means making sure that only the lion kings and their support group have access to the really crucial—i.e. “state”—information, a category they of course define. True, this support group is defined bureaucratically and politically rather than racially. But the underlying goal of primary resource expropriation results in an equally deep division of the population into those who are privileged and those who are not.
     The result will be that anyone who gets access to information that the big smells want to keep private for their own purposes, whether patriotic or squalid, will be as harshly dealt with as any black was who found himself in the wrong part of the country without the right kind of Pass in the days of apartheid. In fact, the penalties proposed seem even heavier that those under the Group Areas Act, but that is a detail. The principle, which our two Nobel Prize winners seem not to have noticed, is exactly the same: Pass/password: what’s the difference?
     Hendrick Verwoerd, the Prime Minister in the late 1950s and early 1960s, used to justify apartheid by saying “good fences make good neighbours”. His modern equivalents might, in the same spirit of homely human reality, observe that what you don’t know doesn’t hurt you. Both are true. But both are not the point. For J.M. Coetzee and Nadine Gordimer to complain, as they do in the Guardian piece, that South Africa is going back to “censorship” is wholly inadequate. Censorship is an essentially defensive activity, and there is nothing defensive about modern information management. The real point is that the country is going back to apartheid, only instead of a racial apartheid, there will now be information apartheid—from colour bar to knowledge bar. Hence the Group Information Act.

All of which bad news brings me onto the good news I wanted to write about, which was the wonderful South African Film Festival that was staged here in Moscow a few weeks ago, and which I trailed in this blog on 14 May. It was every bit as good as I expected, even though I only had time to go to two of the screenings (and the wine ran out at the opening night reception!).
     First, I saw a film called White Weddings, which I gather is on general release and might be available to people who know how to get hold of DVDs these days, which I do not. I will not spoil it for those who manage to find it except to say that it is not, as some might expect, about “Whites”. In fact, the only white things in the film were the eyes, the teeth, the lines on the road and the bride’s dress—oh, and a daffy English girl from “oop North” who added a weird form of sanity to the plot. Oh, and a crazy white burgher from some long-forgotten dorp in the Eastern Cape who turned out to be a feral Minister, and who saved the day in the end when…. I will not go on.
     The whole impression created was of a multi-lingual, multi-cultural, multi-mobile phone society, inhabited by people who have never heard of Nadine Gordimer, much less the good Professor Sad Sack, and who do not care a fig if they are kept in the dark about whatever monkey-business the Minister of Money is getting up to. Just as in the dark days of white rule, ordinary people are colonial subjects in their own land.
The white sands of the dark continent
     The other film I saw, Otelo Burning, was nearer the political knuckle. It even included a rather unpleasant “necklacing” of a young boy falsely accused of being an informer on a group of ANC anti-apartheid activists. The theme, though, was surfing and the background one of the poor suburbs of Durban in the last days of apartheid when the whites controlled not only the land but also the sea you could swim, or surf, in. For those in search of “mood”, the film had the unexpected advantage of being entirely in Zulu, which, like a Dostoyevsky novel with its dark, evocative otherness, allowed the Gordimer in one to feel obscurely “in touch” with the dark heart of the sub-continent without quite knowing what was being said.
     The effect, in Moscow at any rate, was reinforced by the fact that the sub-titles, which were in English, were (a) hard to see because they were almost off the bottom of the screen, and (b) not easy to follow for any Russian present who was unable to read at native-user speed—which I suspect was most of the audience. But the Director, Sara Blecher, said in a short speech after the showing how much she loved the Zulu language, though she did have the grace to admit that she did not speak it.
     But if Zulu was a challenge in Otelo Burning, White Wedding went further, being in Zulu, Afrikaans, Xhosa and English, depending on who was speaking. This is a knowledge bar of a different sort from that objected to by the average Nobel Prize-winning novelist. Perhaps it explains why, even though the South African government is putting a lot of money into the country’s film industry, it has had little success in the world market. The international demand for films in Zulu and Xhosa is surely limited. This seems to me a shame, because the country is so interesting, the people such fun and the talent at all levels so various and colourful that it all deserves more than ghettoisation by means of a self-imposed knowledge bar operating through anti-mainstream language selection.
     If this is affirmative action, I say, give me affirmative indolence!

Thank you for your patience…

This blog has been on holiday, or rather I have been busy finalising a book-length text for publication and have had to leave it be for a while. The amazing thing is that the rate of page-views per day has hardly declined at all while no new entries have been made. Judging by the Google analysis, readers have been looking at all sorts of posts, some humorous, some linguistic, some informative. High on the list has been Jeremy Clarkson’s comments on the Germans, for some reason, and the various hash-ups by the Voice of Russia, for a more obvious reason.
     Anyway, I intend now to post regularly again, so I hope everyone will make a habit of checking to see the latest on the language front, and the war on waffle. The price of literacy is eternal vigilance.
     Just to get the ball rolling, I will recount a conversation I heard in a bar in central Moscow while I was working so hard on my book. Two ex-pats are having a beer together:
     “I’ll tell you how mean my wife is,” one said to the other. “She doesn’t even know the Russian word for ‘generous’.”
     “That’s impossible,” the other replied. “It must be a very common word. Any Russian would know it, surely?”
     “If it is, she doesn’t know it. I asked her the other day, and she couldn’t tell me—or so she said.”
     “Why didn’t you look it up in the dictionary?”
     “I’ve never bought one.”
     “Never bought a dictionary! Why on earth not?”
     “Seems a bit of a waste buying a dictionary when you’ve got a Russian wife.”