May 9th 2013
Yesterday was a momentous day, as Sir Alex Ferguson announced his decision to step down from management of Manchester United after over 26 years in charge. He is surely the greatest manager in the history of British football, if not world football, and his achievements are unlikely ever to be bettered. Whoever takes over from Sir Alex (almost certainly David Moyes, although let's not rule out Dean Saunders or Stale Solbakken at this stage) will have the biggest pair of shoes to fill since Joshua picked up where Moses left off. But yesterday was a momentous day for another reason, as it saw the birth of Asher James Clohesy. Young Asher is the offspring of Ant & Becca, and is being watched over by a dog whose name, Ant assures me, is Colin.
I regard this as something of a triumph: every time friends of mine have had a son, I've attempted to persuade them of the benefits of the name Colin, and it was no different with the Clohesys. I may not have convinced them as to the name of their child, but a cuddly dog is progress. And Asher shares my middle name. Anyhow, hearty congratulations to Ant and Becca (she's worked a bit harder on this one, of late, if truth be told), who I'm sure will be awesome parents. Now shhh... they probably want to get a bit of sleep. In other news, last weekend I was in the Peak District at a stag do for my good friend and former housemate Matt. A good time was had by all, with manly endeavours like raft-building, Fifa-playing and meat-eating being enjoyed. It was great to see old friends from Uni - some of whom I hadn't seen since James' wedding about three years ago - as well as meet new people, one of whom teamed up with me for our glorious Fifa tournament victory. Matt and Jenny tie the knot towards the end of June, and I look forward to cheering them on their way as they do so. In further news - a lot happens when you don't update your blog for nearly a month - I have finally finished the Wheel of Time, the epic series of fantasy books written by Robert Jordan and, after his death, Brandon Sanderson. The final tome, called A Memory of Light, was the third of the series that was written by Sanderson (based on conversations and writings from Jordan) and, if I'm honest, probably my least favourite. For those of you who haven't read it yet, I'm not spoiling too much in saying that it dealt chiefly with the Last Battle, so perhaps I shouldn't have been too surprised that hundreds of pages were all about cavalry positioning and pikes attacking from the flanks. Reasonable stuff, but at times it felt like it was there at the expense of character development, which is a shame because that has always been the greatest strength of the series. I'm sure I've prattled on about this before, but Jordan created an extraordinary number of distinct characters whom the readers gets to know and love (or, in some cases, loathe: I used to be a regular on a WoT forum where some posters would discuss at length how they couldn't stand Elayne / Faile / Cadsuane / etc.). I've rarely come across better-drawn characters, which must have made Sanderson's task all the more difficult: when readers like me have grown to have real fondness for Perrin, say, it takes a brave writer to jump in and take over Perrin duties. Sanderson's certainly not the first person to attempt such a feat, but he's been rather more successful than the many writers who for some reason think they have the ability to write a worthy sequel to Pride and Prejudice (NB: I haven't yet read Death Comes to Pemberley, which was well-received). Plenty of people have written James Bond books over the years, but he never had much of a character in the first place. If you haven't read any Wheel of Time books yet, I strongly suggest that you get yourself a copy of The Eye of the World and get going: it'll take you a while to finish 'em, but you won't regret it.
May 15th 2013
I am, you know, famous. My lovely and talented brother offered me the chance to write something for the language blog that he helps to run for the Oxford University Press, and so I wrote about the Beatles. The Beatles are awesome. You can read my words here, where you will also find plenty of other blog posts about language. There are some quizzes there, too, and I recommend the Shakespeare/Bible one. Anyways, we published writers have occasionally to see our words changed, and the good people of the OUP made a few edits (mainly cutting out some of the jokes). That's fine by me, but I thought I'd give you the original version here, too: consider it an exciting compare-and-contrast exercise. You can also see where I couldn't be bothered to find a link myself and instead got Simon to find it instead. Lazy, me.
The Beatles are regarded by many – including me – as the greatest band of all time, and few would doubt the significance of their impact on popular music. Their impact on the lexicon is less clear, though, unless you count services to the word ‘na’ (the OED defines this as meaning ‘than’ or ‘than if’, citing among others J. M. Barrie’s Window in Thrums: “The big ane's bigger na usual.”). Paul McCartney has never clarified whether or not he was making reference to J. M. Barrie when he included ‘na’ 217 times in the lyrics of the song Hey Jude. I suggest giving him the benefit of the doubt.
Impressive though that is, the Beatles’ contribution to the English language goes still further. A quick dip into the OED shows that if John & Paul hadn’t bumped into each other in Woolton on that sunny July day in 1957, we would have been deprived of words such as, er, ‘Beatle’ (“Applied attrib. to the hair-style or other characteristics of ‘The Beatles’ or of their imitators.”), ‘Beatlesque’ (“Characteristic or reminiscent of The Beatles, their music, or their cultural impact”) and ‘Beatlemania’ (“addiction to the Beatles and their characteristics; the frenzied behaviour of their admirers.”). In some ways, it’s hard to imagine a world without those words. In other ways, it’s very easy: it would be pretty much the same but the OED would be three words shorter.
Anyhow, look more deeply and there are some potential surprises: the word ‘grotty’, being an abbreviation for ‘grotesque’, may have been in use before the Beatles came around, but it wasn’t until George used it in the film A Hard Day’s Night [probably should link to that previous Beatles post here, since he talked about the film title] that it gained traction with Britain’s youth. Indeed, the first citation given in the OED comes from John Burke’s novelisation of the film – possibly a literary masterpiece; I haven’t read it – which was published in 1964. Also in 1964 came the first known use of the word ‘moptop’ (“a rather shaggy hairstyle popularized by members of the British band the Beatles; a person with such a hairstyle”), which can be chalked up to the Beatles even though it was beaten by over 75 years by ‘mop-topped’, a reference to rose trees rather than to Liverpudlian unkemptness.
You don’t have to stray too far from ‘moptop’ in the OED before you hit ‘mod’ (“A young person belonging to a subculture preoccupied with smart, stylish dress, characteristically associated with riding motor scooters and listening to soul music. Freq. contrasted with rocker”), and one of the questions the Beatles occasionally faced in the 1960s was whether they were mods or rockers. “Um, no, I’m a mocker” was Ringo’s reply, again in A Hard Day’s Night, and it was a typical Beatle response: when they weren’t selling hit records, the Beatles enjoyed nothing better than a good pun – or, more often, a bad one. Even the name of the band was a pun combining references to beat music and fellow entomological group Buddy Holly and the Crickets. The wordplay wasn’t always sophisticated, but it was a constant in the Beatles’ career: the title of their seventh studio album, Revolver, was a pun (the vinyl record revolves, geddit?), as was the title of their sixth: Rubber Soul. The latter was derived from the phrase “plastic soul”, which Paul McCartney could be heard to mutter after an out-take from recording I’m Down in 1965; the first known use of ‘plastic’ to mean artificial or superficial had come only two years earlier in a Daily Telegraph article pondering “whether plastic houses might not connote plastic people.”
When the Beatles decided to free themselves from the ‘men in suits’ in 1968 by setting up their own company – chiefly a record label, but with an optimistic number of subsidiary divisions covering electronics, publishing, films and retail – they reached for another pun by naming it Apple Corps. Paul in particular was said to be delighted by the cleverness of the joke, repeating it several times to the press to ensure that they had understood, but in the wordplay stakes he was still playing catch-up with John, who had published In His Own Write and A Spaniard in the Works in 1964 and 1965 respectively. These contain an amalgam of short stories, nonsense poetry and doodles, with Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll being among the chief – and most lawful – of Lennon’s influences: take, for example, the lines: “He is putting it lithely when he says / Quobble in the Grass, / Strab he down the soddieflays”. John clearly had an admiration for these writers, referring to Lear in Paperback Writer – “It’s based on a novel by a man named Lear” – and basing I Am The Walrus somewhat loosely on Carroll’s The Walrus and the Carpenter. Maintaining the literary theme, this latter song also included an explicit reference to another writer: “Elementary penguins singing Hare Krishna; man, you should have seen them kicking Edgar Allan Poe”. Some things, I suppose, just don’t bear too much analysis.
They gave the world some outstanding music; they gave the world some horrendous puns; they introduced the Great British public to new and exciting ways of abbreviating the word ‘grotesque’. Ladies and gentlemen: The Beatles!
May 26th 2013
Before I get going, I should warn you that later on in this entry I will be talking about Elementary, in particular the episode which aired in the UK last week. If you're planning to watch that episode, or that series, and haven't done so yet, then I recommend tuning out as soon as I start writing about Sherlock Holmes. With that out of the way, let's move on to Disney Princesses. In the Times yesterday, Caitlin Moran pointed people in the direction of this petition about the recent transformation of Merida, heroine of the Disney film Brave. I haven't seen Brave, and I rather suspect that you haven't either, but judging from Moran's comments (and the trailer) it's about a Scottish tomboy who balks at having local folk compete for her hand in marriage, so takes them all on and beats them hands down. She does things like shoot arrows and challenge the assumptions of the patriarchy. So far, so inoffensive. But, according to the petition: "The redesign of Merida in advance of her official induction to the Disney Princess collection does a tremendous disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model ... making her skinnier, sexier and more mature in appearance". I'm no feminist, and I often find feminist complaints to be petulant and faintly silly (for example, suggesting that David Cameron was being sexist by saying "Calm down, dear" to Angela Eagle MP... while ignoring the fact that he'd previously said it to David Miliband), but looking at the before & after pictures above, it's hard to disagree. This is not just a heroine (oh, all right, role model if you must - although if kids are getting their role models from Scottish cartoon characters, we have a bigger problem on our hands) who has been portrayed as 'sexy', but one who has been re-portrayed as such: Disney are implicitly saying that, in order to become a princess, you must conform to society's view of beauty. Of course, we only have to look at Kate Middleton to see that the real world doesn't work like... ah. Forget that point. The biggest surprise to me in all of this is that Disney characters can be 'officially inducted' to 'the Disney Princess collection'. Inasmuch as I ever thought about Disney Princesses (and it was really just the time that I was in a quiz team forced to give ourselves the name 'The Disney Princesses' by a girl who, it turned out, wasn't much cop at quizzes) I always kinda thought that Disney Princesses were so called because, y'know, they were princesses and featured in Disney films. Apparently it's not as simple as that. I think I will live on in the blissfulness of ignorance and give thanks to my parents for never taking me to Disneyland, which sounds like the ghastliest of all experiences known to man. Anyways, sign the petition if you want. I'm thinking about it. Enough of that: on to Sherlock Holmes. In recent years there have been three high-profile adaptations of the great detective - four, if you count the medical drama House - of which Elementary was probably the least eagerly anticipated. First came the film Sherlock Holmes, starring Robert Downey Jr and Jude Law at the top of their respective games and directed by Guy Ritchie some distance above the top of his game: it is a fine film, and while Holmes does more fighting than in most adaptations, he does so with a clinical precision that is true to the character. The sequel was somewhat bloated and less successful. Next in line came the BBC series Sherlock, starring the man of the moment, Benedict Cumberbatch, alongside everyone's fourth favourite hobbit, Martin Freeman. It was lauded to the skies, and while the stories are sometimes too odd for me too truly appreciate them and there is a general air of smug self-satisfaction about the thing, there's no denying the skill of the lead and the success of the interpretation (I note that none of the reviewers I read were bothered by Holmes fighting in this; possibly because it wasn't directed by Guy Ritchie). Which brings me onto Elementary, which stars Johnny Lee Miller (sometime co-star with Cumberbatch in a stage adaptation of Frankenstein) as Sherlock Holmes, consulting detective to the NYPD, and Lucy Liu as - gasp! - Joan Watson, his sober companion. Apparently that's a job. There were certainly some sniggers in the press over here at the casting of a woman in the Dr Watson role, but I read similar derision about Jude Law and it was just as misplaced in that case as it is in this. There is no hint at romantic links between the two main characters, thankfully, and with that taken out of the equation there is no reason at all why Watson shouldn't be a woman. It works. Elementary makes no pretence of being anything other than a very loose adaptation - it is basically a crime procedural - but where it does take elements (sorry) from the books, it does so very thoughtfully: for example, Johnny Lee Miller's Holmes is a recovering drug addict, which is arguably more interesting than Cumberbatch's ex-smoker or Downey Jr's drug-induced hazes. When you adapt Sherlock Holmes, there are two peripheral characters that you can't ignore, it seems: Irene Adler and Moriarty, being Holmes' love interest (of sorts) and nemesis respectively (this despite the fact that Adler only featured in one Conan Doyle story, apparently). In the films, Adler is played wonderfully by Rachel McAdams as a thief whose wits are a match for Holmes' own, and whom he can't get out of his head; in the BBC series she is, in some of the most tiresome writing I've witnessed in recent television history, a dominatrix who is blackmailing Kate Middleton (er, I mean, "a young female member of the royal family"). Moriarty is shown in the film sequel Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows as, well, Anthony Worrall-Thompson (see right), and in the BBC series as a kind of camp, Irish Mark Ruffalo. The latter, surprisingly, works. In both the film and the BBC series we've had versions of The Reichenbach Falls, in which both Holmes and Moriarty die... or do they? No, Holmes doesn't. Anyways, Elementary has been building up the Moriarty character over the last few episodes: in this version of events, Moriarty killed Irene Adler when she was living with Holmes in London, and it was that which started the detective on his downward spiral towards heroin addiction and being kicked out of Scotland Yard. Up until the last episode, Holmes had yet to encounter Moriarty, despite a few red herrings and phone conversations... then, at the end of the episode before last, Holmes walked into an abandoned house to discover that Irene Adler was actually alive, having been kept as a hostage for the last two years by a man in a mask whose face she never saw. Golly. Intense stuff. And then it cranked up a notch. Because (and we're getting very close to the spoilers, now), Holmes discovers right at the end of the episode that Moriarty and Adler are... one and the same person. Which I regard as, frankly, a masterstroke of invention that exceeds anything brought to us by the other adaptations. Eat your heart out, Stephen Moffat.
what was I listening to?
Day And Age - The Killers
what was I reading?
The Man Who Mistook His Wife For A Hat - Oliver Sacks