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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18 July 2016

English - the language of the EU, Brexit or no Brexit

A fascinating piece on the subject of the "official" language of the EU - or, at least, its working one. This is more than simply a political development, as it seems many French bureaucrats think, it is a cultural shift that could have immense implications. If you believe, as I do, that languages impose their thought patterns on those who use them (as happens in reverse in the longer term), then this is a fantastically important development:



AMBIVALENCE: the key to good writing

I listened the other day to a very interesting programme about the problem with modern banks. I inferred from it that the reduction in the "financialisation" of London, and therefore Britain, which one hopes will be a result of Brexit, is on balance a good thing.

The subject of the programme was John Lanchester, the ex-Hong Kong but now London-based author of a book about the terminology of finance, called "How to Speak Money". The interviewer was Michael Lewis, author of the wonderful book, "Liar's Poker", about his experiences on Wall Street in the 1980s.

To me, the most interesting aspect of the programme was not so much banks as the craft of writing. Both Lanchester and Lewis are, in their different ways, skeptical of the role of banks. Both see good sides and bad sides to them. And both are, it would seem, are good writers. (I have read only Lewis--his book and lots in Vanity Fair--but he admires Lanchester.) The important thing was that they agreed that you need to feel AMBIVALENT about your subject to write about it effectively.

This is a key insight. Books by total opponents of something (or someone) become tedious hatchet jobs, and books written sycophantically are equally tedious and usually uninformative. As with most things in life, it is important to keep a balance. The key to it in writing is ambivalence. I stress this as I see very sadly, day by day, that quality disappearing from civilised dialogue under the influence of the internet where people tend to shriek at each other, or the world. If you believe, as I do, that verbal violence can be a trigger for physical violence, then this is not only sad, boring, impolite and uncultured, it is also dangerous.

That apart, this is a very interesting programme which I highly recommend:

13 July 2016

Courtesy and kindness from the master of paperback killing

A most enjoyable programme about Ian Fleming and his relationship with the readers of his James Bond novels. There is something charming in the old-fashioned courtesy of a man whose books were dismissed by the sanctimonious socialist, Paul Johnson (in The New Statesman), as being "little more than sex, snobbery and sadism".

And the letter from the pious Edinburgh woman is a classic! As is Fleming's letter to the manager of the Shannon Airport shop after he'd received a letter of complaint about his description of the stock as "junk".


12 July 2016

How bureaucracy killed the genius of Russia, part 79

Here is a fascinating programme, from a source I have only just discovered, about the attempt in the 1960s and 1970s to build a Soviet "internet", way ahead of its time. It failed, and the reason was unrestricted bureaucratic, interagency competition. In short, brilliant and imaginative Soviet ideas were defeated by the realities (note: not the theory) of bureaucracy. I highly recommend this:


09 July 2016

Words are all about context, as a Turkish diplomat once demonstrated

Right now I am reading an excellent book about the origins of the Cold War, called Six Months in 1945, by Michael Dobbs, a British author now resident in the United States. When describing the Yalta conference in February 1945, at which the "war" started (in his view, and I think he is right), Dobbs writes about the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union in terms which vividly illustrate the importance of context when understanding what words mean. Sir Archibald Clark Kerr, an unconventional, Australian-born Scot, was introduced to the Turkish Ambassador, and the rest is a pure lesson in linguistic contextualization - see below:

01 July 2016

History for humans (i.e. not academics): an example I read yesterday

The Russian royal yacht, the Standardt, dressed
This is an account of the Tsar's visit to Cowes in 1909 to watch the yacht racing with King Edward VIII and inspect the British Home Fleet at the Spithead Review (the main naval parade of those days).

This piece conveys something of the mood of the occasion described, while being both factual, selective and semi-poetic. This is history as, in my opinion, it should be written for an audeince if people.

The essay is quite long, but I have chosen the bits giving the views of this Russian – Alexander Spiridonovich, who was on the Tsar’s yacht, Standardt – of the British fleet and their inspection of it. The second to last paragraph is key to the "plot", but don’t read that before you have read the rest. 

Whatever else it may be, it is enjoyable to read and, as you correctly pointed out, a STORY – but it also conveys something which pure factual, analytical history does not – the SPIRIT of the occasion, the human and emotional side of it.

We had before us the entire North squadron of the English fleet. Three lines of huge combat ships and many lines of smaller ships were arranged in parallel in the harbour of Spithead and were lost out toward the direction of Cowes. One hundred Fifty-three of them, without counting the destroyers and the smaller ships, commanded by 28 admirals, who were receiving their crowned admiral, the Emperor of Russia.
Despite the rather strong winds, the ships remained stationary as they were anchored fore and aft.
It was as if immense spindles had been thrown by a powerful hand between the steel giants, ships formed into links between them, at the same time picturesque and yet of an impressive power. In front of this passed the yachts of the Sovereigns.
A characteristic "hurrah", which was similar to our Russian "hurrah", came to us from the ships also along with the sounds of the Russian national anthem. Our sailors responded back at full voice. We passed before ships each more and more impressive. We arrived before the right flank where we found many Dreadnoughts, the pride of the British fleet. This type of ship was at the time a novelty to us, as we did not yet have even one of this class of ship. Seeming like gigantic and monstrous irons as we passed by, they pressed down, so to speak, compressing the entire surface of the sea.
Passing before the Dreadnoughts, the Rurik could not turn as required, could not "deploy" and failed to hook up with one of the ships. It had to execute a manoeuvre which had the effect to make the ship leave the line. It soon joined back up with the rest of the squadron, at the same place it had occupied before the mishap.
The parade of ships lasted more than an hour. Then at 5 o'clock, the yachts returned to their places and dropped anchor, and one of the Dreadnoughts began to salute them with cannon shots. The monster made an indescribable thunder. The Polar Star also dropped anchor. Before us and to our left the entire surface of the sea was covered with yachts and small boats of all kinds. A genuine forest of masts it was, with flags flying from their tops. The tableau was less grandiose than the one in the harbour of Spithead, but was more happy and gay.
Their Majesties spent that day on board the royal yacht. That evening was a dinner, during which there were many proposals of official toasts. The Royal table was decorated with roses and was resplendent with gold dishes. The suite and Captains of the yachts dined separately, but were invited afterward to join with the circle around the Sovereigns.
The King and the Emperor spoke in their toasts of the Anglo-Russian friendship and of world peace.
The King observed that our Emperor was no stranger to England in general, nor to Cowes in particular.
In his response, the Emperor admitted to having been quite struck by the spectacle of the English Navy. He recalled the past and said that he would never forget the happy days which had passed fifteen years earlier under the reign of Queen Victoria.
The second day of their stay in English waters passed, for Their Majesties, with less solemnity.
The weather was exquisite, clear, warm. A soft breeze blew. In the morning they received several deputations, among them a deputation from London, led by the Lord Mayor who gave Their Majesties a magnificent gold coffret. Their Majesties then went on board the royal sailing yacht, Brittania and left to attend the races. The day before, the Emperor had been named an honorary member of the Royal Yacht Club and, as a sportsman, he showed a great pleasure.
Their Majesties did not return to the Standardt until six o'clock, after which they went to visit Empress Eugenie, widow of Emperor Napoleon III, who was on board a private yacht. They stayed with her for about one half hour.
The Emperor gave permission for the English journalists to visit the Standardt. Admiral Tchagyine received them with his customary kindness. The journalists were happily surprised to find in Their Majesties' salon were copies of the works of Shakespeare and other English authors.
Our officers went ashore where they were entertained by the English. Some of our men had even found the means to go to London for several hours.
The only men of the Standardt who did not go ashore were the Emperor, Tchagyine and Sabline. The Empress, to display her appreciation, had each man given as a gift of one of solid gold jetons with both the English and French flags, which they were selling in Cowes. That evening on board the Standardt there was a ceremonial dinner, at the end of which they were going to admire a magnificent tableau. As if by the stroke of a magic wand, the entire English fleet was illuminated with electric lights strung along the outlines of each ship. Under the dark blanket of night, the giant ships seemed transformed to be bordered in silver along their contours. As far as one could see into the distance these luminous spectres appeared smaller and smaller, with the farthest seeming to be mere fine silver threads.
The colossal fleet, stationary and sleeping, was a fairy tale vision.
When we awoke the next morning, the fleet was no longer there. Silently, without anyone having noticed, they left the harbour during the night. Only a true sailor can really appreciate the virtuosity of such a manoeuvre.

That same morning, our squadron left the English waters and proceeded back, with the Standardt in the lead, toward the Russian coast. The weather had again become sombre. The barometer fell.