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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24 December 2013

Jeremy Clarkson and the Russians

To celebrate the season of good cheer, it is worth remembering that that sort of cheer is not something that Russians are famous for. Although perfectly normal people in private, most Russians appear to like affecting a public expression which is either po-faced or clownish—and the latter usually just on Pervy Kanal (the kanal for pervs, presumably). 
     I have been told more than once when making a joke in public, or a silly gesture, or even singing quietly to myself, to stop because otherwise people will think I am drunk. As it happened on some of those occasions, they would have been semi-right(-ish). But what about the others? What is wrong with trying to bring a bit of good cheer into all those shades of grey that is life in Moscow?
     It is the same with ordinary politeness, which many people think Russians place less emphasis upon than other people. I notice that a restaurant in Nice, France, has introduced differential pricing for polite customers. The BBC reports that: “A blackboard outside the cafe advertises ‘Un café’ for seven euros - but ‘Bonjour, un cafe, s’il vous plait’ costs just 1.40 euros.” That seems to me the way to do it. Introduce an incentive for good behaviour. Most people would be cheerful if they knew they were getting coffee at a fifth of the price the average Russian would have to pay.
     In his latest book, The World According to Clarkson, every motorists’ friend, Jeremy Clarkson, has an article about Russian conversational manners. He visited the country in February this year, and wrote about it rather amusingly in his Sunday Times column. It is the last piece in the book.
     Clarkson’s point was that Russians are very curt—in the seven euro category. Hotel receptionists, for example, speak in monosyllables rather than with the hand-wringing politeness of the servile British. That may be true in that case, but he should not generalise. He clearly hasn’t read the prose of Professor Zorkin, Chairman of Russia’s Constitutional Court (see post 5 December “The Rule of Language”), much less the collected works of Vladimir Lenin, the revolutionary activist whose statue stands in so many of Russia’s less prosperous cities. But then, Clarkson does not strike me as a great reader.
     The interesting thing is that, though most of what Clarkson says about Russia is wrong (sample: “Queuing is much easier in Russia—because no one bothers”), the overall impression he gives is not so far off the mark. 
     However, he is on much firmer ground when talking about his own private fantasies. So here is my quote for the festive season (this is from a piece entitled “Forget about the cat and the pension, wrinklies, a gap year beckons” – 27 January 2013):
“At sixty-five you’re show-room fresh. You can play tennis and ski and scuba-dive. So why don’t you just bugger off and spend twelve months doing what you can while it’s all still possible?”
     Merry Christmas to all readers of this blog, and a happy New Year too when it comes. Remember to sing in public so people think you are drunk and assume therefore that you are cheerful. Russia demands no less.

10 December 2013

Mr Putin reads this blog - official

Mr Putin reading, with the aid of an aide, the blog:
English Language Etiquette for Presidents
After two years of hope and frustration, it is nice to have it confirmed that Mr Putin reads this blog. 
     I have written no fewer than 25 posts (out of 201 to date) which mention the awfulness of the Voice of Russia, this country’s answer to the BBC World Service, Radio Botswana and the Voice of Washington. I have been trying to illustrate the inappropriate nature of the language that the Voice of Russia (Golos Rossii) English service uses to try to persuade the Anglophone world that this country is cool, powerful, a military threat, happy, cultured, sober, tolerant, better than America, livelier than London, richer than Croesus, etc. [delete as applicable]. Even more than the Kremlin’s other official “soft power projection tools”, the Voice of Russia projects its views in such clumsy English that nobody takes it seriously.
     In my posts I was trying to describe the problems in detail, hoping that things might change for the better. But nothing did change. Nobody seemed to be listening. I thought I was a voice crying in the wilderness. Now I know that Mr Putin was secretly listening to me somewhere within his own opulent, heavily-guarded, kitch-intensive wilderness. Wilderness spoke unto wilderness, and lo! on the Feast of the Conception of the Most Holy Theotokos by St. Anne—that is “yesterday” to you, me and all other Protestants—Mr Putin announced that the Voice of Russia was to be abolished as an independent entity.
     In both Khimki, where I keyboard, and on Pyatnitskaya, where the ten-storey brick “throat” containing that Voice is situated, there was joy unbounded. Glass clinked unto glass. Blogging, I thought it fair to conclude in my hour of triumph, is not a wholly useless activity. It is more than the mere entertainment which the knockers, the sceptics and the e-atheists claim it to be. It is, I now know, a subtle way of influencing Presidents of large countries and, in so doing, exerting a private but subversive form of “soft power”.
     The only question I have concerns the entity which is to take over the Voice. It is to be known rather weirdly as “Russia Segodnya”. I always thought Segodnya was a Spanish classical guitarist, but perhaps I was wrong. Or maybe “Russia Segodnya” is his cousin who plays the balalaika?
     In any event, I see from the news reports that Sergei Ivanov, the Head of the Presidential Administration in the Kremlin, said to the press yesterday, “We must tell the truth, make it accessible to the most people possible [he should have said: “as many people as possible”] and use modern language.”
     If the Kremlin wants to use language which normal people will understand, it has made a good start by abolishing the Voice of Russia. It should now follow that up by studying this blog to learn how to write clearly, simply and elegantly in English. 
     Russia сегодня demands, or should demand, no less. 



09 December 2013

Soft power goes limp

A very interesting article on today’s BBC website about the problems facing French publishing, book-selling and general literary culture. To my mind, the situation has much in common with that in Russia.

     Do readers agree with some or all of the Russian parallels, or not?


05 December 2013

The Rule of Language: one reason why law in Russia is incoherent


Read the first sentence in the last paragraph and see if you can tell me what it means.
(Beginning: "The methodological aspect...")
This was written by Professor Zorkin, the most highly placed judge in Russia, Chairman of the Constitutional Court.
Is it any wonder that law in Russia is meaningless, if the most senior judge cannot write in a way
which the ordinarily intelligent reader can understand?


Then read the page below, from the late Lord Denning, once one of England's most distinguished judges.
This is the beginning of the first chapter of his book entitled "The Discipline of Law".
I especially draw your attention to the second paragraph, beginning "The reason why words are so important..." and ending with the sentence which exactly describes Professor Zorkin's problem:
"Obscurity in thought inevitably leads to obscurity in language."




22 November 2013

Language learning by innuendo

The word “nuts” has more than one meaning in English. I therefore wondered what the BBC meant when they posted this headline today: “Eating nuts ‘may prolong life’”.
     One meaning of the word relates to the food that monkeys are said to enjoy. Another is more slangy, and is perhaps more politely conveyed by innuendo. There are others, but in order to learn at least these two a good way might be memorise the following simple sentence: “Eating nuts may prolong life, but nailing them to the cobbles in Red Square will surely shorten it.”
     Is that clear?


20 November 2013

When prose became poetry

Another “must”—this time a radio programme about Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg address, delivered at the turning point of the American Civil War. The programme focuses on the form of the speech, and how Lincoln used the English language to such powerful effect. He allowed himself just 270 words (less than most press releases today) to describe the aims of modern government, as properly understood. It had international resonance at the time, and is still remembered as one of the most important political speeches of the modern age. It was also a literary masterpiece, having the qualities of poetry in the apparently plain prose. 
     This programme describes all this very well. I highly recommend it.


14 November 2013

A "must read" from today's Financial Times

This seems to me to be not only the truth but a fundamentally important point for all modern languages:

http://www.ft.com/intl/cms/s/0/111680ac-4b8a-11e3-a02f-00144feabdc0.html?siteedition=intl#axzz2kbSvgIFM

Sorry to have posted nothing recently, but I have been away enjoying life in Scotland, writing a novel of startling brilliance and exploring the fabulous depths of Siberia. Some of the results of that last enterprise can be seen at this link: http://voiceofrussia.com/radio_broadcast/28742746/249777798/

More to follow.

23 July 2013

End of term prizes: the Hot Air awards

English Language Etiquette for Russians:
helping those in linguistic need avoid
making arses of themselves
in print
A final post before I go on holiday to Scotland where I will be taking in, amongst many other things both reputable and disreputable, the Edinburgh Book Festival, which is one of the great events in the literary world. I will be posting occasional pieces about interesting authors I have seen. Beyond that, posts will have a more Scottish than a Russian flavour until the beginning of September.
     Before I set off, I want to stress one thought (not for the first time!). It is this: a high level of skill at written English is of vital importance in the modern world. Let me recommend two internet items that are relevant here. The first one is entitled: “How your grammar skills affect your salary”. The second one makes much the same point, in a different way, and carries with it the plutological authority (that means they are rich, or does now that I have coined the word!) of Forbes magazine. It is called: “How grammar influences your income.”
     Why do I stress this? Because a friend has sent me two outstanding examples of the linguistic mush which far too many Russian academics put out because they do not write English well (which is no sin) and are not prepared to get their work put into acceptable English by a specialist, like me (which is a sin!). People who spout guff and try to pass it off as clever discourse are said in colloquial English to be “talking a lot of hot air”. The picture on the right illustrates the process. 
     It is important to be clear that it is not only incoherent language which gets in the way of clear communication, it is  confused thinking too. Just because the authors of the two pieces below are high-level academics, does not mean they do not need help with their thought processes as much as their language. My point, really, is that the latter reflects the former. Confused, opaque, over-complicated English is a sure sign of sloppy thinking.
     The prize in this year’s ELERussians Hot Air Awards goes to the a Professor of English at one of Moscow’s leading universities. He has written an abstract for a paper to be submitted to a learned journal with the following title (which is in itself incomprehensible to me): “Metaphorical Potential of Phraseological Units in English Business Discourse”.
     If the title is beyond understanding, what chance is there of a coherent text? This is an extract:
“The author also states that the use of metaphors is a natural way of studying the world. The specificity of perception with the help of some metaphors reflects traditions, and the special features of national character of the native speaker. Phraseological units have both impact and educational functions. The author states that Russian and Western scientists are working on different schemes of metaphoric transformation and methods of classification, which are based on the transparency of the internal form of expressive vocabulary. However, the scientists were not able to reach full agreement, so ‘the last phase of the transformation of the metaphors core is also broadly disputed’. The author also discusses some of the reasons why figurative language is so intensively used in modern business discourse and argues that the criterion of idiomaticity is found to be an inadequate guide in distinguishing between metaphors and phraseological units. The article concludes that the ideological significance of figurative language should not be underestimated.”
     If any reader is able to extract a concrete meaning from that, then I will buy him or her a large drink at the next ELERussians whisky tasting. 
     The problem is not confined to academics. This next piece was written by a distinguished lawyer and is the abstract of an article, also intended for publication in a learned journal. The subject is Russian “atomic legislation”, which is itself a nonsense, since it is not the legislation that is atomic but the industry which is the subject of the legislation. It is runner-up in the Hot Air Awards for the blog year 2012-2013.
     Can any reader make any sense from these words beyond the statement of the obvious that Russian policy on the peaceful use of nuclear power needs to be revisited because of the new economic union with Kazakhstan and Belorussia?
“Furthermore, Russia is going to establish a single economic space with Kazakhstan and Belorussia, so the norms of all parties are to be synchronized. The author states that the development of the normative legal acts is made by different federal executive government bodies and some collectives. The existing bunch of normative acts should be reconsidered, rethought, analyzed and systemized; a monitoring of the use of nuclear energy legislation should be made. It is worth noticing that the systematization of the nuclear energy legislation needs a complex plan of preparing law drafts and normative acts in this sphere. In this connection the work on the systematization are going to allow legal activity for the satisfaction of innovative development of nuclear energy in Russia and gives a broad approach for the regulation of social relations in such potentially dangerous field, as the use of nuclear energy for peaceful purposes.”
     Since I might be bumping into Edward Snowden in the departure lounge at Sheremetyevo airport this afternoon, it occurs to me that I could usefully suggest to him that the best way to defeat the American global mail-spying programme would be to persuade everyone to write like the two award-winners above. His friends in Langley, Virginia, would never be able to decode that.


13 July 2013

Another rule of language etiquette: swear if you really have to!

Ein malenki shitstorm...
I was amused to read recently that the German “Anglicism of the Year" in 2012 (the most popular word taken from English last year) was “shitstorm”. A German linguist explained that the word conveyed “a new kind of protest, different in kind and degree from what could be expected in the past.”
     That was cool enough. But then I read that no less a personage than Angela Merkel had used it in connection with the current financial crisis, and I was put in mind of Comrade Zhirinovsky and his attempt to ban words of foreign origin from the Russian language (see post 14 January 2013). How would he react to Шитсторм? Might he protest so loudly that respectable German ladies of a certain age would be tempted to describe it as a schitshtorm?
     Then there is Mr Hoji Takahashi, the 71-year old Japanese television viewer who wants to rid his own language of words like “terebi” (TV), “konpuraiansu” (compliance) and “taoru” (towel). He seems to have a somewhat politer approach than Mr Zhirinovsky, so no shitustolmu in Tokyo.
     But what do we make of the very prim Russian friend of mine who hates swearing in any form? Once, when discussing the Soviet education system with her, in Russian, she said to me, “Тогда было много рабфаков.”  She was saying that there were many “rabochi fakulteti”, or workers educational institutes, which were important and numerous in the industrializing 1930s. They became known by the abbreviated name of rabfak which, in the genitive plural after mnogo, is rabfakoff.
     The reader will easily imagine how shocked I was to hear a very proper lady saying fakoff without apparent shame. Her only excuse was that she was speaking Russian. Had I not known her so well, there might have been a little, local shitstorm. If she had complained at that, I could have said I was speaking German.



Emotion recollected in tempestousness

Mary Ure, with Richard Burton, in the film version of
Look Back in Anger. An excellent, modern BBC TV version,
starring Kenneth Branagh, is available on YouTube.
I am currently reading the autobiography of the playwright, John Osborne, and I came across a good and pleasantly concise description of the problem writers face when living with “normal” women.
     Soon after Osborne shot to fame with his ground-breaking kitchen-sink drama, Look Back in Anger (1956), he found himself rather unenthusiastically marrying the attractive and friendly but not hugely talented Scottish actress Mary Ure (who died twenty years later of alcoholism).
     I quote part of his description of Mary below because it is so poetically apt, and uses word fearlessly, as they should be used. But I should perhaps say first that it is mild by comparison with what Osborne said about a subsequent wife, Jill Bennett. 
     Unlike Mary whom he liked but did not love, Bennett he hated with a passion that is rare in people who stay married for as long as seven months, much less, as in his case, seven years. He said of her that she was “so demonically possessed by Avarice that she died of it”, which was “one of the few original or spontaneous gestures in her loveless life”. She was, Osborne said, so mean that “she never bought a bar of soap in all the time she lived with me”. And none of this was mitigated by professional skill. As an actress, her voice sounded “like a puppy with a mouthful of lavatory paper.”
     By contract, Osborne is kind to Mary Ure, though still pointed and unblinkingly truthful in the manner that projected him to world fame as the first “angry young man” in the late 1950s.
“Like most actors, she was hysterical when unemployed and resentful when appearing every night to full houses. She also entertained the common belief that a writer is only working when he can be seen head down at his desk. Why are you drinking/dreaming/farting/fornicating instead of making typewriter noises?”
     Is there any writer who has not suffered such barbs from the lady of their perhaps unwise choice?


  

Another rule of literary etiquette: respect the meaning of words

You don’t “cut” with an axe, you “chop”.
You could certainly shatter bone like this,
but the careful removal of fat would be impossible.
Better to use a tiny adze for that, or a knife,
neither of which would “cut into bone”.
On 26 June the Financial Times, normally a relatively literate newspaper, published an article about the approach to economic management of the British Chancellor of the Exchequer, George Osborne. The FT commented that the depth of the cuts the Chancellor was making was arguably excessive. “This may now be cutting not only through fat but into the bone.”
     So you go from fat to bone without anything in between? What about muscle? And cutting into bone? Surely not? You can saw bone, or shatter it with something like an axe (see right). But I think cutting such a hard substance with the same instrument—economic austerity—that you cut fat with is physically impossible.
     The problem with clichés, especially sloppily used ones, is that they very often have comic or unintended effects. Best to avoid them and respect the literal meaning of words if you want your reader to be informed rather than confused or, in some cases, amused.



Another rule of literary etiquette: respect logic

There is nothing so apt to deceive
as a confidently expressed piece of
logical absurdity
The Moscow Times published an article in late June about resource exploitation in the Arctic. This is an interesting and important subject, but no-one’s understanding of it was assisted by this sentence: “The Arctic holds 13 percent of the world’s undiscovered oil and 30 percent of its gas.”
    I do not care what the experts consider the word “undiscovered” to mean—if indeed it is a term of art among oilmen—because this article was written for the general public. 
     To you, me and Ivan in the Metro, “undiscovered” means that is has not been discovered. That means that nobody knows whether it is there or not. If nobody knows it is there, how can anyone know how much there is of it? And if nobody knows how much there is of it, how can anyone say that it represents a specific proportion of any total quantity of undiscovered material which must, by definition, be of unknown size?
     Logic, gentlemen, please! Logic!


How much would it have cost to have got this sign right? One pint? Two? Three tops! Any more and I might have got it wrong myself.




























This picture comes from my recent trip by train to Siberia (see http://www.blipfoto.com/entry/3048496 ) and continues the theme in the previous post. This was part of the wonderful, expensively modernised station at Kazan, though it could have been a dozen other places, as Russian Railways have spent a lot of money smartening up their main stations in recent years.
       It was thoughtful of the management to try to provide signs in English, perhaps with a view to the forthcoming football championship which I gather from friends who take an interest in that sort of thing is partly to be held Kazan. But why not ask me how to phrase the sign properly? This is such a silly translation, it makes Russia a laughing stock, quite unnecessarily and, in some senses, unfairly.
       Will someone please tell the RZhD management, whoever and wherever they are, that I am just an email away!



First rule of literary etiquette: respect the reader

If you find this difficult to read,
remember you can expand it to full screen
 (as you can any other picture in this blog)
by single-clicking on the image
This blogger has been not blogging recently as I have been finishing a novel, which will shortly amaze the world. But while working on my manuscript I have been assiduously collecting examples of misused English and am now going to post a lot of short entries describing them. Soon after that I shall be going on holiday to Scotland for five weeks, where the demands of family, friends, fun and frolics will no doubt mean that my entry-per-month rate will drop.
     The first piece comes from the War Museum at Poklonny Gori where I went with some interesting friends on 22 June to mark the date of the German invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941. There were all sorts of explanatory notices around the exhibition, many of them in English. Not for the first time, I remarked to one of the friends I went with (who is Russian but speaks flawless English) how odd it is that Russians spend so much money on displays like that at Poklonny Gori but then skimp on the texts. From a public relations point of view, nothing could be more silly than having badly-written foreign language material. When will Russia start to spend the trivial amounts money needed to have proper foreign language experts, like me(!), check their texts for public consumption?
     I will come to the language in a minute, but the first point to note is that most of the material at Poklonny Gori was also historically inaccurate. The piece pictured above, which I have chosen simply because my photograph of it produced the most legible image, starts with the bizarre assertion (second paragraph) that: “From the very start [of the war “against the axis”] the Soviet Union exerted significant efforts to achieve a wide military and political co-operation with all countries in the state of war against Germany.”
     Huh! From the start? Do Russians not know that the war against Germany started in September 1939, nearly two years before Hitler decided to force the Soviet Union to fight against him rather than help him? Do they not know that Stalin twice asked to join the Axis (in 1940) and speculated in smirking tones about how they would be able to carve up the British Empire “like an estate in bankruptcy” once Britain had been beaten? Do they not know that in the battle of Britain—as much a turning point in the war as the Battle of Stalingrad was—the German air force was flying on fuel largely supplied by the Soviet Union and using rubber, a key material, which it could obtain only buy getting the USSR to buy it from (British) India pretending it was for its own consumption?
     Stalin did everything he could to help Hitler defeat the British Empire (remember the United States w as not in the war until December 1941). To say that “from the very start” the USSR tried to defeat Hitler is such a gross distortion of history that it renders the whole monument at Poklonny Gori decidedly questionable, to me at any rate. Why does Russia feel it needs to lie about its own military history?
     The first rule of etiquette in writing in English, as in any other language, is to respect truth, and therefore the reader by not treating him or her as an idiot, which this kind of historical nonsense does.
     A secondary rule which is rather amusingly broken in the piece is to get names and other obviously checkable material right. Towards the end, reference is made to the Dumbarton Oaks conference in 1944 at which the first proposals were discussed for the establishment of what became the United Nations. This document refers to a “conference in Dumbarton-Ox”, which I thought rather funny.



27 May 2013

Mistakes to avoid in English #1: writing like a Russian professor

Einstein: five words that changed the world
It has become fairly widely accepted that if Russia wants one of its universities to break into the world’s top 200, its academics will have to get used to communicating in the international language of scholarship, which is English. In Einstein’s day it was German, at least in the scientific world, but the combined efforts of Hitler and Henry Ford, respectively, destroyed German science and made the English-speaking world both rich and mobile. Though that happened three-quarters of a century ago, nothing has happened since to change the situation that resulted. So English it is—if you want to get ahead in academia.
     But this is not just a question of being able to write the language well, it is also a question of being able to think in an English-speaking way on paper. That means three main things: (1) subject, verb, object, generally in that order; (2) short sentences with as few subordinate clauses as possible; (3) a preference for practical examples over theoretical word-equation building.
     I came across an outstanding example of the problem the other day when editing a document for a major European publication which gives space to many senior Russians who have something intelligent and interesting to say about current problems of economic management. This is part of what a very distinguished public officer wrote about energy saving solutions for industry (after I had corrected the basic grammar):
“There is a set of common solutions and tools for savings that are relevant and useful for most industrial plants, and particularly beneficial for Russian manufacturing due to the high age of most of the manufacturing assets: electrical energy savings by optimisation of load scheduling, variable speed drives and more efficient electric motors, reducing harmonics and improving the power factor, burning optimisation by reducing the fuel demand and fuel mix while implementing alternative fuels, recovery of waste heat, air, steam, heat distribution control, loss prevention monitoring, technology analyses and process optimisation, which could be the most important one.”
     And if your eyes have not glazed over and closed yet, try this example which, though shorter, is even more constipated, syntactically-speaking:
“Definition of the strategic role on the normative level of private investments and focused work aimed at the creation of comfortable and effective mechanisms for the successful activities of Russian and foreign investors in Russia demonstrates the priority policy of the Russian Government to create all necessary conditions for attracting private investments to the Russian economy.”
     I read these two sentences to a Russian friend whose opinions I respect about many things, and his immediate reaction was: “That is the way my professor at MGU used to write. In fact, when I wrote the first draft of my PhD thesis, and I tried to put it in clear, simple language, he rejected it saying nobody will think you are worth reading if you write like that. These examples are exactly how he used to write. Every sentence was a paragraph.”
     This is nothing to do with the Russian language, which is quite capable of being concise and clear when it wants to be. It is a problem that has resulted from a habit of thinking which is designed to conceal real thought—a combination of socialist deceit, imperialist bombast, and the sort of inferiority complex which, in a different context, provokes short men to drive big cars.
     It could be called Potemkin prose, in that it gives the appearance of being the result of profound ratiocination, when in fact the writer has not been able to organise his or her thoughts with sufficient rigour to be able to say something which the averagely intelligent reader might be able to understand. (See my post about the head of MGIMO, 7 April 2013.) Clear thinking and clarity of expression go hand-in-hand. “By their fruits ye shall know them,” as Christ said in the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 7:16). It is the same with language. By their ability to communicate, ye shall know them.
     If this blog has any over-riding message it is that the first aim of writing is to make yourself understood, and the best way to do that is to write simply but thoughtfully—but above all, simply. The single sentence which changed the world more than any other in the last couple of centuries only had five words in it, and was written by a man who never even went to university, much less got a PhD.
     “Ee,” he said, with an impish grin on his hairy German face, “equals em cee squared.” 
     Russian academics and bureaucrats would do well to remember that you cannot get much simpler than Einstein’s famous theoretical word-equation.


22 May 2013

Sergei Lavrov, the English language and the Eurovision International Farting Competition

What's the point(s)?
The Russian Foreign Minister, Sergei Lavrov, has made a cod of himself (as we say in Scotland) today by making a diplomatic issue out of the fact that Azerbaijan gave no votes to the Russian entry in the Eurovision International Farting Competition held in Sweden last weekend. The idea that a serious country concerns itself officially with the results of something so idiotic, so trivial and so irrelevant to public life in general, is extraordinary. It makes Russia a laughing-stock and displays, in all its embarrassing nakedness, the inferiority complex which so-many Soviet-era Russians still retain from the days of being part of a super-power that could not feed itself or make anything that the world market wanted.
     However, having no wish to see Gospodin Lavrov laughed at in public, I have a consoling suggestion to make about the reason why Azerbaijan gave the Russian entry no points. The idea occurred to me when I watched the video to see what all the fuss was about (see here). To my surprise, I noticed that it was sung in English. Then it dawned upon me that the Azerbaijanis probably did not understand a word of it.
     If the Soviet Union had been more attentive towards teaching the international language to its subject nationalities, and had had less of an inferiority complex about speaking English, then those judges down in Baku or wherever might have got the message and been able to sympathise with the words of the Russian crooner.
     But then again, listening to the words, I wonder. I felt as if I was watching to someone on “Russia’s Got Talent” auditioning for an understudy in a 1980s musical about Jennifer Rush. I am not sure I’d’ve given the song many votes, even I had known that doing so might have risked making Mr Lavrov burst into tears at the humiliation of it all. One has, after all, one’s moral integrity to consider, even when it comes to International Farting Competitions.
     But a final, positive, point: Russian is a much more attractive-sounding a language for crooning than English. It can convey a sense of mystification with especial force outside the former Soviet Union, because we in the English-speaking world were (and are) so much worse at languages than even the Russians (who are not that great). I think the song would have done much better both inside and outside Azerbaijan  if it had been sung in Russian. The time for linguistic inferiority complexes is long past. Modern up, Sergei old chap! Who wants to hear Nezhnost, or even Podmoskovnye Vechera, sung in English, after all (except, perhaps, in a “creative” way by Bob Dylan, say, or Sid Vicious, two inferior singers who refused to accept their vocal limitations)?


14 May 2013

Sex and the single grammarian

What is more important: correct grammar
or brightly painted toenails?
The BBC website today carries a story about a new emphasis on grammar which is to be introduced into schools in England in a revised curriculum. In today’s semi-incoherent world—in which a teetotal President of the United States used to talk sometimes as if he were drunk—this seems to me a good thing. Apart from anything else, it might help to encourage clear thinking.
     But how far should one take grammatical correctness? There is nothing so silly as people who mangle sentences in order, for example, to avoid splitting infinitives. So what, dear readers, do you make of this quotation from the BBC article?
Twist Phelan, an American writer who went on 100 online dates in 100 days and later married someone she met online, says grammar is a vital "filter system". It shows care has been taken when sentences are grammatically correct. "If you're trying to date a woman, I don't expect flowery Jane Austen prose. But aren't you trying to put your best foot forward?"
     But there is a grammatical mistake in Ms Phelan's quotation. It is a basic rule of English that the degrees of comparison: positive, comparative and superlative (for: one thing, two things and more than two), are expressed as “good”, “better” and “best”. Of two objects, one is “better” than the other, not “best”. You can only have the “best” of three or more things.
     So when Ms Phelan wants a man who puts his “best foot forward”, we have to assume that she is looking for one with three (or more) feet. In homo sapiens sapiens this constitutes a deformity.
     Could that be why Ms Phelan felt she needed to go online to find a date, where the choice is so much wider? In libraries, dramming competitions, tennis matches or even in the offices of oligarchs you rarely meet people with three feet. You sometime meet ones with two left feet (as the saying goes). But those people generally do not have a right foot as well.
     So, to be grammatical herself, Ms Phelan really ought to have said that she wants a man who put his “better” foot forward. But of course, the old saying is: to put your “best” foot forward, as in the picture above. So what do we do when custom offends the rules of grammar? I know what I think. What do you think?


12 May 2013

Expressive mistakes in English: "clittirous"?

The ladies toilet in the smart steak-house in Biisk
Thank you, readers, for your patience. I have been away to the Altai for a fortnight and have not been posting. I do not take my computer on holiday with me, as I like to have holidays rather than distance working breaks. Yet you have continued reading this blog in large numbers, despite the absence of new posts. I am flattered.
     The Altai was such a wonderful experience (including six days on the train) that I have decided to change the top picture on this blog. I will write about this all somewhere else shortly, and post a link here. In the meantime, I have put up a couple of pics and a bit of narrative on my daily diary page on blipfoto. You can access it here.
      I got back a day ago to a huge mountain in my in-tray, amongst which was a sex novel which I have been editing for a Russian lady friend of mine. I am trying to remove those mistakes which detract from the text, but leave in the style and tone, which is far from standard English but which is often all the more expressive for that.
     Just now, I came across the following sentence with a misspelled word in it. I would normally change something like that, but I think the mistake is actually a revealing and artistically suggestive one and so am reluctant. This is what my friend wrote:
He puts his hand into my underwear and reaches my clittirous.
     Should I correct the spelling of the last work or leave it as a weirdly expressive mistake, which seems to me to carry  suggestions of the word “desirous? What do readers think?


25 April 2013

The European way of seduction – so different from the American, apparently

Richard Davenport-Hines
One of the best writers of modern history in England today is Richard Davenport-Hines. He has written all sorts of unembarrassed exposés of the British way of hypocrisy and self-advertisement. 
     His most recent book was about the sinking of the  Titanic, so his review of a book about an even greater disaster, the sinking of a Nazi cruise liner-turned-military transport off Gotenhafen in the gulf of Danzig in 1945 carries particular weight. 9,500 people drowned in the greatest maritime tragedy in history. So one should perhaps not make light of the subject. You can read Davenport-Hines's review at this link in this week’s Spectator.
     But still life goes on, and must. Davenport-Hines makes the point that the book, called Death in the Baltic, is written by an American journalist (called Cathryn Prince). The following three paragraphs are the last in Mr Davenport-Hines’s excellent, literate and informed review. The last one contains such a beautiful observation about the difference between European and American writing and thought, that I could not resist copying it for all readers of this blog:

People in the lifeboats saw the imploring eyes of people in the icy sea or heard their screams: ‘I have that always in my ears,’ said a survivor 60 years later. In describing the experiences of survivors, whom she has been adept in tracing, the journalist Cathryn Prince gives voices to ‘ordinary people who suffered during extraordinary times’ — and does so with scrupulous empathy.
     Nevertheless, Death in the Baltic is a very American book. It is based on interviews conducted across the continent from Tecumseh, Ontario, to Las Vegas. It is written with an artless simplicity that can be touching, but sometimes resembles the faux naïveté of an annoying child. The clumsy innocence is apparent from the first page, where Prince notes the paucity of news report of the sinking and asks: ‘Was it because there were no Americans aboard?’

     The book also has a page of acknowledgments sploshed with outlandish emotional effusions such as ‘Perched upon my soul, you are my laughter and my light.’ Perhaps Americans are sincere when they talk like this, but Europeans only murmur such nonsense when they are young, drunk and trying to wheedle their way into having sex with someone who is feeling tired.


20 April 2013

Politics, literature and the absence of George Orwell: a good essay to go with your Saturday breakfast

May I recommend another press article, published this time in today’s Financial Times? It is about political literature and its decline in Britain. The question asked is why we do not have a modern George Orwell. That seems to me a question more about political writing than literature, because Orwell’s novels were not, in my view, especially good as novels. They were often fine  polemics, and entertainingly didactic. But novels? Ho hum.  
     Anyway, you might have a different view. Either way, the story of the rise and fall of political writing in Britain is well told in this interesting piece. Enjoy! 

PS: See my post about Orwell on 22 February.
     I recommended the reading of Orwell’s article about the life of a book-reviewer. It is no longer available on the BBC website. However, I downloaded it, and any reader who would like to listen can mail me and I will send you the download. I am not clever enough to know how to put it on this site. If any brainy reader can help me with that, I would be very grateful. 


17 April 2013

How to make people laugh using the radio

May I recommend this excellent programme about one of the greatest comic talents of the late twentieth century, in my opinion? He was a man who worked as a radio DJ, but he did humour too, and what humour!
      Everyone in Britain of a certain age will remember Kenny Everett, from Liverpool, hero of the pirate radio movement and general all round audio-linguistic genius.
     Everyone in Moscow will enjoy hearing about him too, I think, and hope.
     So tune in to this episode in the Great Lives series, with Matthew Parris and learn some new angles on the English language.

11 April 2013

What's the difference between the English language and Anarchy?

A good friend of mine, John Oehrlein (the Tiger Woods of Nakhabino, not only do they both play golf, but...) posted the text below on Farcebook last night. I am simply re-posting it, so to speak, since it is such a wonderful illustration of my message about the English language, which is that you cannot learn it, only practice it. It is pure anarchy, which is why it is so vital and alive. 
     See what you make of the sentences below and the comments that follow. And remember Mitchell's Law: English has no rules only conventions. Thank you, John, for reminding us.



John at the nineteenth hole, so to speak.
He enjoys the odd beer occasionally, like once in every twenty-four hours.


This is John's text:


1) The bandage was wound around the wound.
2) The farm was used to produce produce 
3) The dump was so full that it had to refuse more refuse.
4) We must polish the Polish furniture.
5) He could lead if he would get the lead out.
6) The soldier decided to desert his dessert in the desert.
7) Since there is no time like the present, he thought it was time to present the present.
8) A bass was painted on the head of the bass drum.
9) When shot at, the dove dove into the bushes.
10) I did not object to the object.
11) The insurance was invalid for the invalid.
12) There was a row among the oarsmen about how to row.
13) They were too close to the door to close it.
14) The buck does funny things when the does are present.
15) A seamstress and a sewer fell down into a sewer line.
16) To help with planting, the farmer taught his sow to sow.
17) The wind was too strong to wind the sail.
18) Upon seeing the tear in the painting I shed a tear.
19) I had to subject the subject to a series of tests.
20) How can I intimate this to my most intimate friend?

Let's face it - English is a crazy language. There is no egg in eggplant, nor ham in hamburger; neither apple nor pine in pineapple. English muffins weren't invented in England or French fries in France . Sweetmeats are candies while sweetbreads, which aren't sweet, are meat. We take English for granted. But if we explore its paradoxes, we find that quicksand can work slowly, boxing rings are square and a guinea pig is neither from Guinea nor is it a pig..

And why is it that writers write but fingers don't fing, grocers don't groce and hammers don't ham? If the plural of tooth is teeth, why isn't the plural of booth, beeth? One goose, 2 geese. So one moose, 2 meese? One index, 2 indices? Doesn't it seem crazy that you can make amends but not one amend? If you have a bunch of odds and ends and get rid of all but one of them, what do you call it?

If teachers taught, why didn't preachers praught? If a vegetarian eats vegetables, what does a humanitarian eat? Sometimes I think all the English speakers should be committed to an asylum for the verbally insane. In what language do people recite at a play and play at a recital? Ship by truck and send cargo by ship? Have noses that run and feet that smell?

How can a slim chance and a fat chance be the same, while a wise man and a wise guy are opposites? You have to marvel at the unique lunacy of a language in which your house can burn up as it burns down, in which you fill in a form by filling it out and in which, an alarm goes off by going on.

English was invented by people, not computers, and it reflects the creativity of the human race, which, of course, is not a race at all. That is why, when the stars are out, they are visible, but when the lights are out, they are invisible.

PS. - Why doesn't 'Buick' rhyme with 'quick' ?

07 April 2013

The head of MGIMO can’t write

Professor Anatoly Torkunov, Rector of MGIMO
The purpose of writing is to communicate. To do this you need to do two things beyond simply using
intelligible English. You need to say something your readership does not know, and you need to say something that is true (unless it is funny or interesting in some other way).
     One of the most prestigious academics in Russia, Professor Anatoly Torkunov, appears not to have learned either of these lessons very well. Prof. Torkunov is the Rector of MGIMO, possibly the most respected of Russia’s institutions of higher learning. He is also a member of the Russian Academy of Science and is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary—whatever that means. He holds the Order of Merit for the Fatherland (only 3rd class, admittedly), the Order of Honour, the Order of Friendship the Order of St Sergio’s (2nd class) and the Order of Holy Prince Daniel of Moscow (3rd class again).
     But can he be depended upon to write an informative and accurate paragraph on his special area of expertise? Apparently not.
     Take the following text, for example. These are the first and fourth paragraphs of an article by Professor Torkunov which was published on the Russian International Affairs Council website, on 6 March this year, under the heading Education as a Soft Power Instrument of Russia’s ForeignPolicy. See if you can find any statements which are both informative and accurate (the words I will discuss are underlined):
A New Leadership Resource in Today’s World
Any nation in its foreign policy focuses on strengthening its international positions and image, as well as creating a favorable external environment for its country’s long-term socioeconomic growth. And while the foreign policy toolkit used to accomplish this objective may change from epoch to epoch, in the 20th century’s bipolar world, the dominant trend was for states to concentrate on building up their hard power and their military and economic might….
Today, political leadership in the world is increasingly dependent on a nation’s ability to “nurture purposefully” its neighbours or competitors. In times of transition in the global political system, nations are fighting more and more over their right to define the values and rules of this world order.
Looking at this in detail:

“Any nation in its foreign policy focuses on strengthening its international positions and image, as well as creating a favorable external environment for its country’s long-term socioeconomic growth.”
     This sentence is a statement of the obvious, so obvious indeed that every nation does what Torkunov says. So why does he need to tell us?

“And while the foreign policy toolkit used to accomplish this objective may change from epoch to epoch…”
     Leaving aside the unattractively slangy use of the word “toolkit” in such a context, these things change from year to year, or decade to decade, but not from “epoch to epoch”. An epoch is a reference date not a period of time. It is the first moment of a period, not the whole period. The break-up of the Soviet Union was an epochal moment. It was the end of the Soviet “era” and the beginning of the post-Soviet period, perhaps, but it was an event without duration. Foreign policy “toolkits” do not change only at epochal moments, but continuously as diplomatic relationships evolve.

“…the 20th century’s bipolar world…”
     The 20th century was only “bi-polar” for forty-six years, from 1945 to 1991, for the majority of the time it was either multi-polar or uni-polar, even on the crudest understanding of the term. And if you think of poles of attraction, the attraction of the Soviet Union was much more short-lived than that. It started around 1943 when everyone realised how many Germans the Soviets were killing, and ended in 1956 when most people came to realise how many Hungarians they were prepared to kill to sustain the illusion of equality with the West. The subsequent killing of so many Czechs, Poles, Aghanistanis and dissident Russians drove that lesson home in even the least imaginative minds.

“…building up their hard power and their military and economic might…”
     What is the difference between “hard power” and “military and economic might”? The whole of Professor Torkunov’s article suggests he defines hard power as military and economic might. So one or other is redundant.

“…political leadership in the world is increasingly dependent on a nation’s ability to “nurture purposefully” its neighbours or competitors…”
     There is something madly illusional about this. Which country is exercising “political leadership” in the way the rest of the sentence implies? How do countries “nurture purposefully their neighbours or competitors”?  Is Russia “nurturing purposefully” Kazakhstan, for example, or Georgia, or China? Is France “nurturing” Germany, or Belgium or Spain? Is China “nurturing purposefully” Japan or Mongolia, or North Korea? What is the good professor talking about?

“In times of transition in the global political system…”
     Whenever was the world political “system” not in a time of transition? When have international political relations been fixed in the sort of stasis which Professor Torkunov seems to think is their normal state? And why does he use the word “system” about a set of relationships that are in constant flux, without any organising principle which might render them predictable? That is what a system is. And that is what global politics is not.

“…fighting more and more over their right to define the values and rules of this world order…”
     Which countries, exactly, are “fighting” to define values, etc., other than, arguably, North Korea? There is something wearyingly old-fashioned about the way so many Russians who achieved eminence under Communism describe international relationships as having a military or violent character. Have they learned nothing from the collapse of their own system of militarism and violence? And what “world order” does Professor Torkunov see? I see only a set of relationships of greater or lesser stability, but no “world order”, which is another way of saying “system”. In the context of diplomatic analysis, reference to methods of threat and aggression seem to me little more than the atavistic fantasies of bombastic neo-Eurasianists of near-pensionable age who don’t appear to understand that not even the United States is an autonomous political entity any more—if ever it was.

So let me try to translate Professor Torkunov’s two windy paragraphs into something accurate and more succinct:
Today, the foreign policy of most nations is evolving from a twentieth century emphasis on the crude assertion of military and economic power into an approach which emphasises constructive interaction between countries based on competitive cultural self-promotion.
     That may be shorter, but I don’t think I have left anything out.


21 March 2013

Cop and robber: the etiquette of polite writing in English assumes that we are all, ultimately, parts of a single community

The picture below, published in today’s Guardian, seems to me to illustrate something very important about etiquette which should be reflected in the way language is used. Too often in Russia, I have seen writing which is designed to distance the reader from the writer, frequently by making simple thoughts complicated or by stressing unnecessarily the superior importance of the writer in relation to the reader. Even newspapers can be written like this, and it is the general rule in academic writing.
     I do not like or admire this style, which strikes me as pompous and conceited, and therefore unmannerly. I think it is more courteous to make your thoughts as easily understood as possible, and to ignore your status (if any) vis à vis the reader. The point is that we are all, ultimately, part of the same community, or should be treated as such by polite writers.

John Wooley, left, one of the policemen who caught Bruce Reynolds, right (who died last week), one of the Great Train Robbers.
 They are enjoying a pint and a laugh together on the 40th anniversary of what was one of the most famous crimes in
 recent British history. (Photo: Justin McManus/Rex Features)

     The picture I have reproduced above illustrates this principle for British life rather well, I think. It shows two people centrally involved in one of the most famous crimes ever committed in Britain, the so-called Great Train Robbery, which took place on 8 August 1983, almost exactly fifty years ago. The occasion for publishing the photograph was the funeral of the man pictured right above who was one of those robbers. He was caught and sentenced to 25 years in jail for his part in stealing £2.8 million (close to £100 million in today’s money) from a mail train carrying used banknotes from Glasgow to London. He served ten years, and, after release, wrote a successful book called The Autobiography of a Thief. He died last week and was buried yesterday.
     The man pictured left above was one of the police detectives involved in catching the train robbers. Policeman and thief are seen enjoying a beer together on the 40th anniversary of the robbery, ten years ago. Can you imagine such a scene in Russia?
     One of the basic arts of good writing in English is to treat the reader as an equal, indeed a friend (but without being over-familiar). We are all, in the end, parts of the single community of those who use English. That in itself is a good enough excuse for a beer and a laugh. Anyone for another pint?


19 March 2013

The Cypriot banking crisis and an old Scottish country saying

Cypriot banking regulator
When I had stopped laughing at the crocodile tears—a useful expression implying hypocritical emotion—of protest from Russian offshorniki at the “unfairness” of the levy which the EU proposes to force Cyprus to impose on deposits in its sinisterly “haven”-like banking system, I remembered a good old saying that is common amongst Scottish gamekeepers and refers to the plight of ordinary birds which are mistaken for vermin, like crows, that most keepers shoot on sight.
     The point is that the near 10% levy on large deposits (over Euro 100,00) will hurt not only those whose money was, in essence, stolen from the Russian “commonwealth” by the rigged privatisations in the 1990s, and who therefore cannot justifiably complain if someone else steals some of it from them. It will also hurt other, presumably small, but still significant, savers. 
Russian moneygarch
     They appear to have hoped to follow the lead of those who stole so much of Russia’s capital and wanted to park it somewhere outside the reach of the feeble Russian legal system. The smaller savers’ money might not be ill-gotten, but their motives seem to me to be as venal as those of their oligarch role-models. I am not sure many people feel a great deal of sympathy with them in their unexpected plight. They had hoped to increase their already moderate wealth, but they got shafted. I expect the common reaction will be: so what?
     In Scotland, as I say, there is a good expression which is used as a warning to people who may not be bad in themselves but who keep bad company and who therefore risk becoming the victims of rough justice on the part of the authorities. It seems to me to be directly applicable to the smaller Russian savers in the Cyprus bailout situation: 
“If you fly with the crows, you’ll get shot with the crows.”

17 March 2013

The importance of punctuation, an example from Evelyn Waugh

Evelyn Waugh as a younger man
One of the hardest aspects of written English to explain to Russians is punctuation because the two languages have completely different conventions. Essentially, in English it is about preserving the rhythm of the sentence and paragraph, whereas in Russian there are a lot of rigid rules (e.g. it is always потему, что) which I frankly do not see the need for, and which no Russian seems to be able to justify.
     In English, punctuation is also useful as an aid to clarity. I am still thoroughly enjoying Evenly Waugh’s Diaries (see last post and 9 March), and now getting sadly close to the end. This afternoon, reading languidly in bed while recovering from the excitement of the Emerald Ball (St Patrick’s Day) last night, with its Guinness, wine, Tullamore Dew whisky, Coole Swan liqueur and many other delights, including a dark, exotic lady in a long black dress, I came across the following passage, in which the last sentence is ambiguous purely due to the inadequate punctuation, specifically the lack of commas.
Monday 16 December 1946
“At 5 o’clock there was the Beefsteak committee meeting…. During the meeting I drank a lot of whisky and went rather drunk to a cocktail party given by John Murray [publisher] where I got very drunk. Rose Macaulay attempted a serious conversation in which I did not shine. I spent most of the time with Hermione Ranfurly jeering at people who were introduced to me and ended by bearing off a diminutive man called Gibbings to White’s [Club] for champagne cocktails. From then my memory is vague but I went to bed early I think at the Hyde Park Hotel.”
     Due to the lack of any commas in the last sentence, the reader is left wondering whether Waugh was in doubt about the time he went to bed or the place.
     To be clear, he should have written either:
“From then my memory is vague but I went to bed, early I think, at the Hyde Park Hotel.” (doubt about time)
      or:
“From then my memory is vague but I went to bed early, I think at the Hyde Park Hotel.” (doubt about place)
     One wonders what else he might have been uncertain about if he had been at so lavish an event as the Emerald Ball. However, if he had jeered at the dark, exotic lady in my presence, I would have been compelled to have had words with him that should have had a sobering effect.


14 March 2013

The importance of precision: Evelyn Waugh on Randolph Churchill’s “coughing and farting”

Randolph Churchill, Winston's son
Further to my post on 9 March, I am getting on with Evelyn Waugh’s Diaries (available from the British Council Library when I have finished) and thoroughly enjoying it. He is a witty writer and a great stylist.
     In the bath tonight, I came across a wonderful example of his caustic wit, which I reproduce below as an illustration of the value of precise observation for comic effect (and other effects too). I invite readers to take a look at it and say why they think this passage works as an example of amusing prose. 
     Waugh is in Jugoslavia, in the autumn of 1944, on a military liaison mission to Tito’s Partisans. His commanding officer is Major Randolph Churchill, the Prime Minister’s son and a boring drinker. Randolph's great pal was Freddie Birkenhead, the son of one of Winston’s chums, Lord Birkenhead (F.E. Smith, who died of drink). It rained almost continuously, keeping them indoors in their off-duty hours, all cooped up together.
     This is part of Waugh's  entry for Monday 23 October:
“At luncheon Randolph and Freddy became jocular. They do not make new jests or even гереаt their own. Of conversation as I love it - а fantasy growing in the telling, aрt repartee, argument based on accepted postulates, spontaneous reminiscences and quotation - they know nothing. Аll their noise and laughter is in the retelling of memorable sayings of their respective fathers or other public figures; even with this vast гереrtoire they гереаt themselves every day ог two - sometimes within an hour. They also recite with great zest the more hackneyed passages of Macaulay, the poems of John Веtjeman, Веllос, and other classics. I remarked how boring it was to be obliged to tell Randolph everything twice - once when he was drunk, once when he was sober. Two hours later, in а fuddled state, with а glass of rakija in his hand, he came to my room to expostulate with me for unkindness. Later he cooked kidneys for Zora, the cook, making loud appreciative kisses and whistles when the dish appeared - these, his American slang, his coughing and farting make him а роог companion in wet weather.”
     So why do you think that is funny? Don't read on until you have made up your mind.
     I suggest, that it is the last three words. Without those, the whole passage would be merely interesting. With them, it is extremely funny.
     But perhaps you disagree.


Hoigh toime we had an Oirish Pope!

Don't the Cardinals know that it is St Patrick's week?



The linguistic point is that the new Papa has decided that he should be called “Francis I”. Why, the “I”? Isn't that a little presumptuous?
     How does he know there will be a Francis II or III? The Papacy might cease to exist next year, when the world ends following the nuclear war between China and Japan +America. Alternatively, fashions in names might change and we find the Vatican occupied for the next few peaceful millennia by people who prefer titles like Pope Luc, Pope Elvis, Pope Uhuru or, as was once suggested in Private Eye, by Pope John Paul George and Ringo.
     Logically, the new Pontiff should be referred to simply as Pope Francis until another Holy Father of that name comes along. Or am I being too Protestant in my thinking here?
     Likewise, but outside the religious sphere, I am always mystified as to why Russians talk about Paul I, who was Tsar for four years after Catherine II, until he was murdered with the connivance of his son, Alexander I. There has never been a second Tsar Paul, so why is the much vilified military martinet and right-on enemy of Napoleon still be referred to as “Pavel I”?
     Can any Russian historian help me on this ticklish point?


09 March 2013

Etiquette, Evelyn Waugh and on being rude to underlings


The young translator (left) putting Ms Sviblova's
hour-long speech into French
I recently witnessed one of the most outstanding displays of rudeness which it has been my misfortune to see. I was at a press conference for the Moscow International Photography exhibition which opened recently.
     The main organiser is a woman called Olga Sviblova, who seemed rather full of herself. First, she published a press release which was so long I did not have time to read it—she might have saved the ink. Secondly, she spoke at the beginning of the press conference for a hour. A whole hour! It would have been better if she had confined her remarks to a few headline observations and then introduced the other speakers. Five minutes would have been ideal; ten the maximum. But sixty was so excessive as to make one wonder whether she was doing this for our benefit or her own.
     But that paled beside her treatment of the young Russian lady who had been brought in to translate to and from French for the representative of the Pompidou Centre who was there as his museum was supporting the event. Eventually, she handed the microphone to the Frenchman who spoke in French, and whose words the Russian the translated into Russian for the benefit of the reporters present. 
     But she had hardly started when Sviblova told her to hand her the microphone. Saying she was speaking too slowly, Sviblova proceeded to do all the translating herself. It was such an obvious, public and deliberate slap in the face that the young translator, humiliated in a way I would not have expected outside the Russian Army, could not control her tears.
The same translator after Sviblova
had so rudely shut her up
     The whole audience was shocked, so much so that at the end of the speeches not a single question was asked by any of the press representatives present. I have never seen that in all my years of attending these sorts of events. It rather confirmed Mitchell’s Rule, which states that, with few exceptions, the higher you go in Russians society, the ruder the people get. The highest treat their subordinates like dirt, which is why democracy is such a threat to them, and why the country has to be ruled by deception and force.
     Mulling this over a night or two later, I happened to come across the following paragraph in The Diaries of Evenly Waugh which I have been reading recently. Waugh was still at school when he wrote this:
Friday 31 October 1919 
Parade was quite pleasant; the inspecting general was quite а gentleman, ог аt any гаtе knew how tо behave as such. At the band practice afterwards the bandmaster appears tо have called Cordner-James а ‘bugger’ and he at опсе retaliated bу calling him ‘а bloody fool’. The bandmaster rushed off tо Bоnd and had him degraded tо the ranks and put on defaulters nехt Monday. It seems rather unfair, but it is rather bad form tо swear at one’s social inferiors.
     Anyone who wants to hear a fascinating programme devoted entirely to analysis of Decline and Fall, Waugh's first novel, should listen to this broadcast from the BBC's In Our Time series.