Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Britain enters twentieth century, loses last remaining bit of style

I'm sorry, folks, but this:

Via le Grauniad.

Just reminds me of this:

And that was a silly little spoof in the first place.

They don't get modernity in Blighty, do they?

Or - hang on: Is this maybe the Empire designing back? Haha, I got it! This is a piece of postcolonial public art - Anish Kapoor's answer to the Brighton Palace (or Royal Pavilion or whatever you call it).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Slow News Day

Over at The Times, Frank Skinner has nothing new to say about the idiosyncrasies of British television. Nothing new, that is, for faithful readers of this here blog. If Skinner's column is anything to go by, there appear to be thousands of Brits out there who still need to be enlightenend about the irritating ubiquity of one Adolf Schicklgruber on Blighty's manifold TV channels.


May I take this opportunity to remind you that the observation that Englanders simply dig Hitler (Skinner nicely surmises that he is the middle-aged Briton's Lady Gaga) is a staple of the Obscene Dessert corpus and has been made umpteen times by me or the hubband - for instance here, here, here, here, here, here and here (special Nazi Raccoon edition) - during the past three years or so?

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

La La La for Spring

Yael Naim has written a very nice little song here, methinks:

"New Soul"

All the news that fits

And while we're on the topic of the press: a few comments on the Daily Herald's move in the 1920s away from featuring only serious news toward a certain 'frivolity':

On 20 December 1929, it might have been expected to lead on rural council attacks on Neville Chamberlain’s poor law policy. Instead the main headline was ‘Hunchback shot dead in billiard saloon’; undoubtedly the closest the Herald ever came to the New York Post’s immortal ‘Headless man in topless bar’.

Huw Richards, The Bloody Circus: The Daily Herald and the Left (London: Pluto Press, 1997), p. 133.

A quick check shows that the Post's headline was actually 'Headless Body in Topless Bar' (15 April 1983).

Either way, it's a classic.

[UPDATE]: Looking through the World's Pictorial News -- a paper that definitely focused on the sensational and bizarre -- it also appears that the hunchback-in-the-billiard-hall case occurred in October 1928 rather than December 1929. (Unless, of course, there was another hunchback killed in another billiard hall. But that seems a bit unlikely.)

The story in brief: 'Entering a Manchester billiards hall, a bookmaker's clerk shot a man dead and wounded another. Then dashing out of the saloon he made his escape in a motor-car. He was traced to his home by two detectives, whom he held up with two revolvers and then shot himself dead in his own bedroom.'

Man: drama.

The WPN, in any case, definitely had nothing to say about Chamberlain's poor law policy. Whenever that was released...

The more things change

Noted, in passing, in the British Library:

Indeed, there are times when it seems that the [£]40,000,000 we spend on national education is no less wastefully disposed of than the £120,000,000 devoted to the fighting forces. ...For (our) £40,000,000, we seem, apart from patriotism, to do little more than teach our children how to read. And in a world full of Daily Mails that is more of a danger than an advantage.

Arthur Bourchier, 'Art and Culture in Relation to Socialism' (1926), p. 8

Sunday, March 21, 2010

'I would have liked to have gone out with a bit more flair...'

Quite by chance, I ran across an article and a couple of videos about Margaret Moth, a CNN camerawoman who died of cancer earlier today at the age of 59.

Among many other striking stories, Moth returned to work in Sarajevo after being shot in the face there by a Serb sniper in 1992, followed by numerous bouts of reconstructive surgery.

Moth referred to the incident with a remarkable amount of equanimity:

" 'We came into their war. Fair's fair,' " former CNN correspondent Stefano Kotsonis, who was with her when she was shot, remembered her saying. " 'I don't blame anyone for firing at me. They're in a war, and I stepped into it.' "

There is, I have to admit, something unsettling about her brand of single-mindedness.

But also something impressive.

And I was also struck while watching those videos by the reminder that when we see video footage from a war zone, there is a human eye behind that viewfinder.

I forget that too often.

Friday, March 19, 2010

Invisible man who can sing in a visible voice

Alex Chilton, RIP.

And for added pathos, a cover of Chilton's lovely 'Thirteen' by Elliott Smith.

Monday, March 15, 2010

A blonde by any other name

Just by way of extending John's recent foray into linguistics, here's another lovely German neologism that our Anglophone friends might consider worth adopting:


That is, "behaviourally blonde."

Apparently the term has been around since 2000, but that was a time in my life when I was busy doing other things. In them days I probably would still have found this term sort of sexist. How one learns to relax in merely a decade! From where I am right now this strikes me as an absolutely lovely expression. So apt and true! How many "Verhaltensblonde" do you know? I know at least one bald one, he, he, he ...

Friday, March 12, 2010

Fremdscham is the new Schadenfreude

One of the most interesting things about emigrating to a country where you are not a native speaker is that you will spend probably the rest of your life discovering new and wonderful words that those who grew up with the lingo don't appreciate in quite the same way.

A few, you will find, are words that don't exist in your own language, but, really, should.

My favourite this week is the verb fremdschämen, which I ran across in an article in Der Spiegel about German foreign minister Guido Westerwelle.

The word was, in fact, applied directly to Mr. Westerwelle, so some background is in order, as I don't presume that anyone living outside of Germany has the slightest notion of our domestic politics.

After leading his party, the FDP (or 'Free Democrats' or 'liberals' [in the European 'free market, small government' sense]), to a historic victory in last year's federal elections, Westerwelle has seen his popularity and that of his party slump dramatically, due to 1) giving an impression that they're not very good at running things, seeming to spend most of their time picking fights with their larger (and long-desired) governing partner, the CDU and 2) seeming to be misusing (German) their arrival in government mainly to benefit the well-off and their main business donors (in this case, then, essentially the same group of people).

Matters have reached a bit of a head this week, as Westerwelle has been accused (English) of using his office to benefit party donors, friends and family, who have been accompanying him on his international trips. Politics as usual you might think; however, the foreign minister seems to have a special place in Germany: as a representative of the nation, standards are higher.

Even sneaker-wearing, policeman-beating Joschka Fischer managed to maintain stratospheric levels of popularity during his stewardship of that office as part of a government that was by no means universally loved.

In any case, Roland Nelles, in a commentary (G), referred to Westerwelle and used the word that you find in this title: fremdschämen.

I had never run across it before, though I recognised the components: fremd -- which has a variety of meanings from 'foreign' or 'other' to 'stranger' -- and schämen which I have usually encountered in its reflexive form referring to feeling embarrassed or ashamed.

A quick Google search brought me to a site that explained it (in German, of course), via a quote from Nadia Zaboura's book, Das empathische Gehirn: Spiegelneurone als Grundlage menschlicher Kommunikation (i.e., 'The Empathic Brain: Mirror Neurons as the Basis of Human Communication').

The crucial bit being (my translation):

The phenomenon of 'fremdschämen' refers to an empathic process in which person A feels ashamed in place of person B. Person B is not aware that they are in a situation about which they need to feel shame; person A, however, absolutely is. From this embarrassing feeling of being touched by the situation in which person B finds himself unknowingly, person A feels vicariously ashamed for him.* [Emphasis added]

Nelles, thus, in his Spiegel article, suggests that our Guido should be ashamed, doesn't realise he should, and is running the risk of making other people feel ashamed for him in his place.

Much like the more well-known Schadenfreude, it seems that Germans have invented a word that doesn't exist in English, but, somehow, needs to.

This is a bit difficult, though, as the verb fremdschämen not only has one of those tricky Umlaute (vowels with the two dots over it that change the pronunciation in ways that Anglophone speakers find confusing) but also is a 'separable prefix' verb that (sometimes) separates into different parts when used: i.e., the first part (fremd) moves to the end of the sentence.

(This is a German specialty about which Mark Twain long ago bitched.)

However, it occurs to me that the noun form, Fremdscham (so, something like 'vicarious shame'), seems ready for export.

So, for which public personage do you immediately feel a strong sense of Fremdscham?

I have the feeling that if we work at it, we could introduce a new and entirely useful noun to the English language.

I'm counting on you.

*'Hinter dem Phänomen »fremdschämen« steht ein Einfühlungsprozess, in dem eine Person A sich an Stelle einer anderen Person B schämt. Person B ist sich der schämenswerten Situation nicht bewusst, Person A aber durchaus. Aus dieser peinlichen Berührtheit für die Situation, in der Person B sich unwissend befindet, schämt sich Person A also stellvertretend für diese.'

Monday, March 01, 2010

On gloveworthy childhoods and clips round the ear: or, the children of the poor find their own way home

What follows are some comments on the police from C. H. Rolph, a former police officer himself, from his edited book, The Police and the Public: An Inquiry (London: Heinemann, 1962).

One of Rolph's topics was 'the ear-clipping period', i.e., that (possibly mythical) time when police constables took a more, shall we say, rough and ready approach to keeping Britain's potentially feral youth in check, based on techniques of which today's Daily Mail reader would no doubt approve:

I have heard citizens of little more than thirty speak of it fondly, as though it belonged to a golden age before the invention of juvenile delinquency. But any man who is forty today was in his pram when I first joined the police service, and even then the ear-clipping period was spoken of as past. The formula is usually the same, ‘In those days the bobby gave you a clip on the ear with his gloves, and you heard no more about it. Nowadays you’d have to go before a juvenile court, hang about for months waiting for the result, remand home, probation officer’s report, women police, children’s officer, attendance centre, perhaps an approved school – the lot.’ In the version I heard as a child, the policeman always put wooden blocks in the tops of the glove fingers to make them hurt more. I had an Edwardian childhood, its leisure hours being partially spent in pursuits that, from a police point of view, were outstandingly gloveworthy. But no police glove ever clipped my ear, though once or twice I was caught (this was rare because the police were fatter in those days).

Nowadays, by comparison, ‘if a policeman strikes a boy there’s a Parliamentary debate and a Committee of Inquiry’; and this, according to the glove advocates, is the cause of the ‘juvenile crime wave’. (187-188)

The more things change, eh?

I also like this quip about the public image of the police:

Apart from the armed forces, the police service is in fact the only public serve whose ultimate sanction is physical force: inside every gentler policeman there lurks a hired strong-arm man, a licensed tough. This is the policeman perceived most readily by some people; others see always the uniformed constable with the lost child in his arms. Both are middle-class conventions, if not smoke-screens: the children of the poor find their own way home and the children of the rich are not allowed to get lost. (188-89)