Tag Archives: French

How to inhumanely kill rats, mice, pigeons and people from France

Me - at one with nature

Yesterday I was in Greenwich, talking to someone who lives in a wonderful home up an alleyway with its own open back yard. In reasonable weather, she leaves the door from the living room to the courtyard. This is fine, except mice can wander in. Once, a rat came in.

Her dog, a Jack Russell terrier, went mad running round and yapping. The rat took refuge behind a kitchen cupboard. The Jack Russell refused to leave the kitchen for two days and two nights, occasionally barking through the night.

Eventually, the two humans could stand it no more. They bought some sticky paper specially designed to catch rats. (Yes, there is such a thing. It is like fly paper but for mice and rats.) They hung it down the back of the cupboard overnight and, sure enough, in the morning, when they pulled the paper up, the rat was stuck to it, squealing.

But this provided a quandary. How to get rid of the rat.

I think I would have thrown it in an outside rubbish bin, still alive. Instead, the husband attached a sharp knife to the end of a broom handle and stabbed the rat to death.

The couple still have traumas at the thought.

I have never encountered an indoor rat, only mice.

Apparently, when I was a small child in Campbeltown, living in a makeshift flat above the storage room of a shop, there were mice around.

As an adult, I have only encountered a mouse once.

I was walking to the kitchen about five years ago. As I turned from my living room to the hall, I saw a mouse in the doorway of the kitchen. It looked at me, surprised. I looked at it, surprised. It then literally leapt up the stairs.

It paused; half-climbed, half-leapt up the vertical of the first step. Stopped momentarily. Ran the few horizontal inches to the next vertical; half-climbed, half-leapt up it. Stopped momentarily. Ran the few horizontal inches to the next vertical. And so on.

I was mesmerised by the speed and agility of the small creature. By the time I moved towards the stairs, the mouse was halfway up and beat me to the top, running into the spare bedroom.

I ran in, shutting the door behind me, but I could not find the mouse.

Eventually, I decided to lift everything off the floor. I still couldn’t see any mouse.

I left the room, carefully shutting the door. The next day, I bought a humane mouse trap cage and put some cheese in it.

A week later, the mouse had still not taken the cheese. Two weeks later, the mouse had still not taken the cheese. I cleared the room of furniture, piece by piece. When I lifted a box of books off the bed and lifted the sheets, there was a flattened mouse underneath the bedclothes, a little leg sticking out at each corner.

How it got up the smooth wooden legs, round the bed base under the mattress, up onto the bed and under the bedclothes, I do not know. But I remembered lifting a heavy box of books off the floor and dropping it heavily onto the bed when I had cleared the floor. It had flashed though my mind What if the mouse were in the bed? but I dismissed it out of hand as being impossible.

I was talking to my eternally-un-named friend about this today.

“You’ve freaked out and never opened your doors since,” she said. “Considering you’re a man whose great grandmother came down from the hills speaking Gaelic and hunting haggis, you’re not a man at one with Nature, are you? Nature is not allowed to poke its head in. It was a mouse. It wasn’t a rat. Get over it.”

“I just think bubonic plague,” I said.

“As I did,” she replied, “with the two pigeons who were busy dying on my balcony in a hysterical manner. I came home and they were just huddled-up; they looked really mangy and grey and black and moth-eaten and were flapping madly if I went near them. I wasn’t going to pick them up with my hands and there was no way to get them out of my balcony.

“Whether they’d been attacked by a fox or were just old and on the way out or even were very young… It was ghastly.

“I actually ask wasps to leave and they do. But you can’t do that with pigeons or mice.”

“You can’t?” I asked.

“You can’t,” she said. “I had to put a plastic bucket over the top of the pigeons and shove cardboard underneath it, so that I could turn the bucket over.”

“What did you do with them?” I asked.

“I don’t like to say,” she replied. “It was pretty adrenaline-rushing. Oh, alright. I put them – and the bucket – the whole lot – into the communal bin at the bottom of the rubbish chute and shut the door. I figured they were not my problem after that. They had come onto my territory. I didn’t invite them. It was all very frightening and probably negative karma.”

“Can you rid us of the French?” I asked.

“I like the French,” my friend said. “They admire the older woman in France. They dress well. Older women are still seen as sexual there. I would have studied French a lot harder at school if I’d realised all this. Now it turns out that was the one subject I should have really concentrated on. And, of course, they have nice food.”

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Filed under Death, Mice, Rats

Shakespeare, Chaucer, Jane Austen – all of them bad at the English language

(This blog was later re-published in the Huffington Post)

I posted a blog (or did I?) the other day.

Someone on Google+ took offence (or did he?) and posted (or did he?) this comment:

“no offense,” he wrote, “but can we stop calling blog posts and blog articles ‘blogs’? unless you actually are composing an entire collection of articles and posts each time you say you’ve written ‘a blog’, you’re really not using the correct term and are just coming off as uninformed and just desperately trying to drop a buzzword (albeit incorrectly).”

I am not sure about this.

He is, I presume an American, because he wrote “no offense” instead of the British English “no offence”. I have a suspicion the problem may be an example of two nations separated by a common language – even in cyberspace.

I am sure I have commonly seen and heard in the UK, the word “blog” used both for the collection within which the “posts” are… erm… posted… and for the individual blogs… erm… posts… themselves.

But, some might think surprisingly, I am no great upholder of ‘correctness’ in writing. If you get too hung up on the niceties of what is ‘correct’ and what is ‘not correct’, things can get pretty mind-numbingly dull, as I am about to prove…

I think the French are mad to have an academic body which decides what words and phrases are or are not ‘correct’ French. They are mad to try stopping ‘Franglais’.

The nearest thing we have in Britain is the Oxford English dictionary which decides to include not what it thinks is ‘correct’ English but what has become common usage.

The sentence, “Men and women competed in a quiz with a £1,000 prize but the rules stated that, when the single eventual winner received THEIR money, THEY had to donate it to charity,” is clearly grammatically incorrect, because “winner” is singular but “their” and “they “ are both plural.

The Oxford English Dictionary decided several years ago that the use of “they” and “their” in this sort of sentence structure was “acceptable” usage simply because it had been so commonly used for years by everyone. The alternative would be saying “he or she” and “his or hers” instead of “they” and “their” every time the circumstance cropped up and your tongue and brain would go potty after a time.

In English, ‘good’ English is ultimately whatever way English speakers actually speak and write the language. The French are heading towards a dead language; ironically, they are stifling it by trying to protect it.

The English language is a bit like the Edinburgh Fringe. No-one actually organises the over-all thing, anyone can join in and it becomes all the more vibrant for it.

It is anarchy, but it works.

Shakespeare could not even spell his own name the same way every time he wrote it – he used various spellings. As far as I understand it, English spelling had no need to be uniform until Dr Johnson published his dictionary in 1755 – and, even now, we are in the anarchic position of having “humour” and “humor” and “colour” and “color” being correct in different places and how the fuck did “programme” and “program” and “aluminium” and “aluminum” ever come about? They’re relatively new concepts!

I share comedian Stewart Lee’s horror at the constant mis-use of apostrophes though it is a losing battle and what gets up my own personal nasal passages is the mis-use of commas around subordinate clauses and in lists.

If you have a list of A, B, C, D, and E there should be no comma before the “and” because, in a list, the commas represent “and”s – that’s what they are, so it should be A, B, C, D and E (without the fourth comma).

But I think Americans have a different usage and the comma is correct in the US.

The abbreviation Mr for Mister should never have a full stop (i.e, Mr.) because the full stop represents an abbreviation as in etc. which has a full stop because the “etera” has been cut out. It’s like the apostrophe in “don’t” or “wasn’t” – it shows there is a missing letter or letters.

People lament the change wrought in the language by the arrival of text messaging.

But who cares?

Shakespeare wrote in what was virtually a foreign language.

Chaucer certainly bloody well did.

Even some of the Victorian novelists are a bit heavy-going nowadays.

The English language is constantly changing, which is what makes it so vibrant.

I worked in Prague in the mid-1990s, writing scripts for TV voice-overs to read in Czech – a neat trick, as I did not speak, write nor understand Czech. The scripts were translated into Czech and I then had to direct the recording of the Czech-language voice-overs – giving the TV announcers direction on intonation and suchlike – another neat trick.

On several occasions, the translator came back to me and said: “I can’t translate this exactly, because I can’t translate the nuance. Czech has fewer words than English and I can’t translate what I know you want to say.”

It is like the (apparently untrue) story that Eskimos (sorry, Inuits) have 30-odd words for “snow” and we have only five or six.

English is a wonderful language because it is so rich but also because it is so fast-changing. And long may it continue to be so.

Language is about communication not rules.

According to an Oxford University professor who has seen her original manuscripts, Jane Austen was shit at grammar and crap at spelling. I happen to think she wrote dull novels as well (apart from Emma). Others disagree with me on that. But she is an example that great writers are about ideas not linguistic rules.

Grammar and punctuation can be ‘cleaned up’ by a sub-editor.

Clear ideas are what matter.

Now, if only someone could come up with a word to replace the valuable lost meaning of “gay”…

What a great word was lost there…

I am sure Jane Austen used it.

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Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Awards at the Edinburgh Fringe – Why? How?

The bad news is that, every year around this time, I fear nobody will do any publicity stunt that is award-worthy by the end of August. The good news is that every year so far, somebody has.

The Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award for best publicity stunt promoting an act or a show at the Edinburgh Fringe was created in 2008 specifically because comedian Gill Smith sent me an e-mail halfway through the Fringe nominating herself for the main Malcolm Hardee Award for Comic Originality.

She said she was writing to me nominating herself because then she could then legitimately put on her flyers and posters MALCOLM HARDEE AWARD NOMINEE even though we had not nominated her.

She said she thought Malcolm would have approved.

I had to agree that he would have.

So I started the annual Cunning Stunt Award and Gill won it. We felt we had to give it to her before she awarded it to herself.

In 2009, the award-winner was fairly obvious even before the Fringe started.

The Perrier Awards had lost their Perrier sponsorship in 2006, then got sponsored by Intelligent Finance who, for one year, called them the unwieldily-named if.comeddies then, for two years, called them the if.comedy Awards and then Intelligent Finance removed their sponsorship possibly because of utter confusion over the name, possibly because of world financial meltdown or possibly because everyone still called them “the former Perrier Awards” anyway, so the publicity value to Intelligent Finance was zero. Personally, I had always called the new awards The Iffies.

So, in 2009, the awards were looking around for new sponsors.

London-based American comic Lewis Schaffer – always an original thinker – issued a press release to the media saying he was now sponsoring the awards for £99, they would be called “The Lewies” in his honour and his mother and agent would be on the judging panel but this would not mean he had any undue likelihood of winning. He issued this spoof press release under the name Nika Burns (the former Perrier Awards were/are run by Nica Burns).

A couple of publications actually fell for this stunt and printed the spoof as fact and, even more ridiculously, Nica Burns’ lawyers threatened to sue Lewis for defamation because his ‘Nika Burns’ press release had made slighting reference to the French and Nica did not dislike the French. Lewis also got ‘sacked’ by his own agent for the spoof.

Nica’s lawyers demanded an apology, which Lewis duly gave them in writing. It included the sentences:

“Lewis Schaffer wants to make it clear that Nica Burns had absolutely nothing to do with the press release sent on June 6th, 2009 from ‘Nika Burns’, it was entirely created by Lewis Schaffer. Nica Burns did not say she ‘gladly accepted his offer of £99 a year for sponsorship’ of what had previously been called the ‘Perrier Awards’. Anyone knowing Lewis Schaffer knows he couldn’t come up with that kind of cash… Lewis Schaffer’s only defence was that his ‘press release’ was created to publicise his Edinburgh Fringe show -‘Lewis Schaffer – Bigger and Blacker’ – running August 6 to 30 in the Ballroom of The Counting House, behind the Pleasance Dome.”

This apology, written under legal threat, was also issued as a press release and admirably managed to include (for a second time) his Fringe show’s name, dates, venue name and location. A neat trick, even if he did lose his agent.

So there was really no serious doubt about who would win the 2009 Cunning Stunt Award, which Lewis eventually did.

Last year, again, the award was almost in the bag before the Fringe began – again through the misdirected actions of the former Perrier Awards.

By now, those eternally-named “former Perrier Awards” had managed to get Fosters lager as a sponsor. The Perrier Awards had started in 1981, so 2010 was their 30th anniversary. Fosters had the bright idea of pretending they had been associated with the awards for somewhat longer than they had by mounting a campaign “Fosters Edinburgh Comedy Awards – Celebrating 30 years as the unofficial Oscars of Comedy”.

I thought this was a dodgy strategy because it seemed to risk them getting sued by the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences, who are usually very protective of their ownership of the name ‘Oscar’.

But they got away with it, though people still called the things “the former Perrier” Awards.

Part of their strategy last year, however, was to invite a public vote for a ‘Comedy God’ to be chosen from all 173 (mostly Perrier) nominees of the previous 30 (well 29, actually) years. Their idea, I presume, was to get some iconic populist name like Al Murray or Frank Skinner associated with their branded awards.

This incurred the always fearsomely impressive wrath of comedian Stewart Lee who sent what he called a “grumpy” e-mail to the organisers and who wrote about his objections in the Guardian and elsewhere. His valid point was that it was ludicrous to compare past nominees – some were entire shows, some were artists and most were performances never seen by the people voting. How could you compare or choose between Catherine Tate and The Arthur Dung Show? He suggested people might as well vote 1984 nominees, the excellent though little-seen and (he thought) disbanded Japanese performance art group Frank Chickens.

This people did in droves, presumably as a protest vote, and, as a result, the Frank Chickens art collective won the contest as ‘Comedy Gods’ – announced in a rather low-key way by the award organisers. Frank Chickens, it turned out, had not disbanded and, though they had not played the Fringe for years, they came up for a special performance with Stewart Lee.

As a result, Stewart Lee almost inevitably won the Malcolm Hardee Cunning Stunt Award because, although totally unintentional, his e-mail to the former Perrier Award organisers and his later articles and interviews resulted in media publicity and a viral campaign which resulted in successful promotion for a Frank Chickens Fringe show which did not exist at the time but which, as a result of the publicity then did exist.

You can see Stewart talking to Malcolm Hardee Award judge Kate Copstick about his prestigious win here.

The fact that a publicity stunt is unintentional is no bar to winning a Cunning Stunt Award. There are no rules (Malcolm Hardee would turn in his urn if there were) and you don’t have to apply for the Cunning Stunt Award (though Gill Smith did).

Indeed, applying for the prize makes a win less likely.

If you have to make the Malcolm Hardee Award judges aware that you have done a publicity stunt then, by definition, the stunt has failed because they were not aware of the publicity.

Having said that, I now fear nobody will do any publicity stunt that is award-worthy by the end of August.

Oh Lord.

Another year. Another Fringe.

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The Welsh language is just plain silly and is a clear sign of national insecurity

So, tell me, what is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

For the last couple of days, I have been staying on Cardigan Bay in West Wales.

When you walk in the streets and go into shops in Cardigan – or Aberteifi as it is now pointlessly half-re-named – people are sometimes speaking Welsh not English to each other. It was not until I worked in Ireland that I started to think the propagation of the Welsh language is ridiculously pointless.

If a language is dead, let it die. If it is still alive, it will survive without heavy-handed insistence that it must be used.

What is very relevant to this blog is the fact I am Scottish not English. Remember that my mother’s grandmother did not speak English until, in her late teens I think, she came down from the hills. The image of my grandmother coming down from the hills is one a friend of mine finds peculiarly funny but, anyway, my mother’s grandmother originally spoke Scots Gaelic as her native tongue, not English.

I once spent some time in the Outer Hebrides where I admired and was fascinated by how, in shops, people would speak to each other in sentences that meandered almost randomly between English and Gaelic words and phrases. They used whichever words and phrases came more naturally and fitted better. Sometimes the words were Gaelic, sometimes English; all within the same sentence.

I once had an interview for a job with Grampian Television in Aberdeen which basically transmitted to the Highlands while Scottish Television transmitted to the Lowlands. The conversation came round to starting a number of Gaelic-language programmes transmitted on Grampian (part of ITV) and on BBC Scotland. I said I thought it was silly because such a relatively small percentage of Scottish television viewers – by then almost entirely in the Western Isles with a small smattering in the Highlands – actually spoke Gaelic as their natural tongue.

The Grampian TV executive interviewing me was highly miffed.

“Ah! But you’re English!” he said to me.

“I was born in Campbeltown and partly brought up in Aberdeen,” I told him. “Where were you born?”

“London,” he said.

I did not get the job.

Later, I did a lot of freelance work over many years for HTV in Cardiff – or Caerdydd as it is now pointlessly half-re-named. It’s a bit like re-naming Saigon as Ho Chi Minh City when most of the inhabitants continue to call it Saigon.

As far as I remember, when I started working in South Wales, almost all the local signs were in English. I mean the road signs and the general retail shop signs.

At some point, almost imperceptibly, dual language signs started appearing, usually with the Welsh version first.

At around this time, or maybe a little later, there was an extended period where my full-time freelance work alternated between working for HTV in Cardiff and Tara TV in Dublin.

In Dublin, I could see old, rotting, rusting and ignored street signs in Irish Gaelic. All the current signs were in English. This was the period when the ‘Celtic Tiger‘ was on the rise and the Irish Republic had re-discovered its self-confidence.

It is very relevant that I was once sitting in an edit suite at Windmill Lane Studios in Dublin, directing a trailer for an RTE television programme which included an interview in which someone said a couple of sentences in Irish Gaelic.

“What did he say?” I asked the Irish videotape editor sitting with me.

“No idea,” he told me.

We had three other Irish people come into the suite. None of them knew what the Gaelic words meant. They had all had to ‘learn’ Gaelic at school but, just like British schoolkids who do five years of French at school, they could not speak and could barely understand the language because it was bugger-all use to them in everyday life.

It was at this time – alternating my time sometimes one week here/ one week there/ one week here/ one week there between Cardiff and Dublin – that I began to think the Welsh language was just plain silly.

It was silly because it was a mostly dead language being revived and imposed by a clique on a predominantly non-Welsh-speaking population.

One week, I returned to Cardiff from Dublin to find that the local Tesco store had changed all its signs to dual-language Welsh and English signs. Someone (Welsh) told me in near-disbelief that all the signs at the Tesco store in Abergavenny, where she lived, had also been changed.

“I swear to God, no-one bloody speaks Welsh in Abergavenny!” she told me.

By the time I stopped working at HTV, Lloyds Bank was calling itself Banc Lloyds (it has since re-re-branded itself simply as Lloyds TSB) and other shops and businesses were doing the same: making up their own names in Welsh. Mostly, I suspect, they were English companies trying to be politically correct and liberal, much like that English executive at Grampian TV trying to be so ‘right-on’.

Shortly before Tesco started changing its signs to dual-language Welsh & English, I had been on holiday to Cambodia and, in Phnom Penh, there was a street of hovels and shacks which were all English language ‘schools’. At that time, no-one had any money and there was a very real possibility that the homicidally extreme Khmer Rouge might regain power in the next month or two. But, as in almost all other parts of the world, people wanted to learn English because it was and is the ‘international’ language. If you are an outward-looking country with outward-looking thoughts, you learn English.

My understanding is that, after most of Ireland gained independence from Britain in the early 1920s (let us not get into any pedantic details of dates in Ireland: it will all end in many tears and much wailing), the republicans who ran the country wanted to encourage self-confidence and national pride.

So they called the new country Eire instead of Ireland, painted the red pillar boxes green, changed a few of the royal crests on stone buildings to harps and tried to get everyone to speak Gaelic. The country rotted in inward-looking isolation for decades, admittedly not helped by the fact successive UK governments had every reason to dislike American-born Eamon de Valera and his blindly Brit-hating chums.

But, by the time I worked in Dublin in the mid and late 1990s, the Irish Republic had regained its self-confidence and, although civil servants had to know Gaelic, the English language had taken over all everyday usage except in the extreme west of the country. The few Irish language signs in Dublin were faded and/or rusting.

Irish, like Scots Gaelic, was then and is now effectively a dead language naturally spoken by few people. Though long may they speak Gaelic in Ireland and Scotland. I have nothing against the natural rise and fall of any – indeed, all – languages.

But I am told by Welsh friends that, except in the West and sparsely-populated central highlands of Wales, the Welsh language had pretty-much died out by the late 19th century.

It was re-imposed rather than re-grew in Wales in the late 20th century.

My memory is that extreme Welsh nationalists got publicity in English newspapers by setting off some minor explosions and burning down occasional second homes owned by ordinary English people in Wales.

Then some second-rate people who could not get jobs in media, politics and the local civil service had the bright idea of looking to what their USP was – they could speak Welsh – and they pushed for Welsh-language TV programmes, an entire Welsh TV channel and the use of the Welsh language in the local civil service because, that way, they would have a positive advantage in getting jobs.

The Welsh language was, to an extent, partially revived not by natural growth and usage but by xenophobia and the self-interest of a small clique.

Yes, that’s a very personal view of what happened, but not necessarily totally untrue.

English politicians, frightened of alienating the Welsh, went along with it for electoral gain and you now have a country where people have a TV channel –  S4C – which most of them don’t understand and dual-language signs only half of which most understand – the English language half.

While the rest of the world was moving towards internationally-understood English, a group of self-serving xenophobes in Wales (where English was already established) were pushing for the renewed use of a mostly-dead language known only by some in Wales and nowhere else except some obscure area of Patagonia.

Looking inwards in an increasingly international world is not a good idea. An insistence on trying to spread the Welsh language more widely in Wales is not a sign of national identity. It is a sign of national insecurity.

Right or wrong, that’s my viewpoint. Like I said at the start, What is the point of having a blog if you can’t write bigoted pieces based on truth, half-truths and misunderstandings?

Oh – Abergavenny has now been pointlessly half-re-named Y Fenni.

Really! Give me a break, chaps or – as Google Translate claims that would be said in Welsh – yn rhoi i mi egwyl, chaps.

What sort of sensible language doesn’t have a word for “chaps”?

Dim sense.

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Filed under History, Politics, Wales

I am getting a Scottish passport – with Sean Connery

American comedian Lewis Schaffer recently Tweeted a #ff recommending this blog for its “casual xenophobia and non-casual name-dropping”.

Well, for sure, when Scotland gets independence, I am going to get a Scottish passport as soon as possible because it will be safer than a British or (by then) English passport.

If your aircraft gets hijacked or you get involved in any other terrorist mass hostage situation, the first people to be shot are the Americans – obviously – or sometimes the Israelis who, for some semi-mystifying reason count as Americans in such situations.

The next to be shot – depending on the former colonial history of the people with the guns and the bad attitude problem are either the British or the French.

The last people to get shot are likely to be Irish or Swiss passport holders… The Irish because even the most uneducated terrorist has probably heard of the IRA and you don’t shoot your own; it’s like Toyota owners being polite to each other on the roads in Britain. And the Swiss are fairly safe because even the most uneducated terrorist is likely to know the Swiss are neutral in everything and have never done anything – they did not even invent the cuckoo clock.

It’s also probable, of course, that most terrorist organisations bank with the Swiss and you don’t want to annoy people who are giving you a good interest rate and hiding your identity from the CIA, the NSA and MI6.

So I am going to get a Scottish passport when Scotland breaks from the United Kingdom.

I have no idea why Lewis Schaffer – who continues to appear on stage every Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday in London’s longest-running solo comedy show at The Source Below in Soho – should complain about name-dropping.

But, then, he’s a New York Jew.

What does a colonial kid like that know?

Marilyn Monroe once reportedly asked Laurence Olivier when being served doughy things at a Jewish dinner while they were filming The Prince and The Showgirl in London:

“What are those?”

“They’re matzoh balls, Marilyn,” Olivier told her.

“Gee, Laurence,” she replied, “Don’t they eat any other part of a matzoh?”

Also has the otherwise street-savvy Lewis never heard of adding random Tags to blogs to try to get extra hits? I haven’t even mentioned the racist Britney Spears animal sex tape scandal involving Prince William, Kate Middleton and Justin Bieber referred-to by the porno stand-up comics in the inept IKEA ad currently running on British television but obviously not on the hardcore sex channels nor on Colonel Gaddafi’s cage-fighting Libyan TV channel? The one with the trans-sexual goldfish. Nor have I mentioned granny sex (popular with Lewis). Nor Japanese schoolgirl facials.

What is it with the Japanese and sperm?

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Filed under Comedy, Internet, PR, Sex

Bad language in Scotland?

Last night I went to a very interesting talk at the British Library by author and publisher James Robertson about The Guid Scots Tongue.

It was a bit like Scots comic Stanley Baxter’s legendary series of Parliamo Glasgow sketches in his 1960s and 1970s TV shows. But with genuine academic credibility.

James Robertson seemed to confirm that Old English developed into Middle English south of the border and into the “Scottish” language north of the border and that, ever since then, people have bemoaned the ‘fact’ that Scots is dying.

I remember Melvyn Bragg saying in his ITV series The Adventure of English that, before Henry VIII, English was a dying language only used by the underclasses. The upper ruling elite spoke Latin and Norman French. But, when Henry decided to split from the Roman Catholic Church so he could knob the wife of his choice, he created the Church of England and commissioned ’The Great Bible’ – the first authorised translation of the Bible into English not Latin. This was distributed to every church in the country and rescued English from its decline and possible extinction.

Last night, James Robertson pointed out that, when King James VI of Scotland took over the English throne in 1603, became King James I of England and brought the Scottish court to London, one of the things he did was to commission the 1611 translation of the Bible into English – the Authorised King James Version of the Bible – which was distributed to every church in England, Scotland and Wales. Ironically, it was never translated into Scottish and this strengthened the hold of the English language in Scotland.

My mother’s grandmother could not speak English until she came down out of the hills. She was born and brought up in the Highlands of Scotland and spoke Gaelic – pronounced Gaah-lick not Gay-lick. She only learned English when she came to the village of Dunning in Perthshire. Or, some might say, she only learned “Scottish” when she moved to Dunning.

Historically in Scotland, after a certain point, Gaelic was the language of the Highlands and so-called “Scottish” was the language of the Lowlands.

I have never believed there was such a language as “Scottish”. To me, it’s clearly a dialect of English (as opposed to Gaelic which IS a different language). Wikipedian debate will no doubt run for decades about it.

If you disagree, haud yer wheesht, dinnae fash yersell aboot it and try no to be too scunnered.

Most languages, dialects and accents are a dog’s dinner of sources. Fash apparently comes from the Old French fascher and ultimately the Latin fastidium. Scunnered apparently has its origins in Middle English. Nothing is pure, not even Baby Spice. Only the French try (unsuccessfully) to keep their language pure.

I was born in Campbeltown near the Mull of Kintyre on the west coast of Scotland. My home town pipe band played on possibly the dreariest song any Beatle ever wrote. When I was three, we moved to Aberdeen in north east Scotland. My parents had friends along the coast in Banffshire where the locals speak to each other in an almost totally incomprehensible dialect which theoretical academics now apparently call Buchan. I call it bloody incomprehensible.

A few years ago at the Edinburgh Fringe, I think I saw a comedy show entitled 100 Shit Things About Scotland though I can’t seem to find any reference to it. Maybe I just imagined the whole thing. But one of the 100 shit things about Scotland I thought I heard was the fact “There are some accents even WE don’t understand”.

Bloody right. Buchan fer yin.

When I was eight, we moved to Ilford in England – it is theoretically in Essex but actually on the outer edge of East London. Over the years, I’ve lost my accent; I never chose to.

So what I’m trying to tell you is I’m interested in language. Perhaps you guessed that.

On the version of the recent Census form distributed in Scotland there is, for the first time, a question about whether you can read/speak/understand not just Gaelic but also the so-called “Scots” language – though how many supposed Scots language variations there might be I cannot even begin to imagine. The words people use in Dundee, Glasgow and Thurso are very different.

There are some great common words. Dreich is almost un-translatable into English in less than an entire paragraph. Crabbit is just a great and appropriate sound. As is Peelie-wallie and many others. But there are amazingly diverse words all over the UK – Perth, Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen have wild variations in words, let alone Tyneside, North Norfolk, the Black Country and Devon. They are not separate languages, though.

English is a wonderful language because it has so many variants and has hoovered up so much from other languages – cascade, table and situation are all unchanged in spelling from the original French but pronounced differently. The arrival of radio, movies and then television may have homogenised the English language and be slowly eliminating a lot of dialect and accent variations but, with English now the de facto world language, there are going to be hundreds of variant languages growing up in coming years to rival past pidgin English.

Indeed, this seems to have already happened with BT call centres in India. I don’t know what they are speaking, but it’s no form of English I recognise.

Perhaps I am just mare than a wee bit glakit.

Several times in bookshops, I have picked up Irving Welsh’s novel Trainspotting and looked at the first page then put it back on the shelf. It looks too difficult to read, though lots of English people have, so it must just be wee me. I remember at school in Ilford, for some extraordinary reason, we had to read Sir Walter Scott’s novel The Antiquary and I found it incomprehensible in places; heaven knows what my English classmates made of it. They never said. Must be just me.

When I edited Scots comedienne Janey Godley’s autobiography Handstands in the Darkwhich reads a bit like a cross between Edgar Allan Poe and the movie Gladiator – the two of us had to decide how to write quoted dialogue which could be printed on the page, as she was brought up in East Glasgow where dialect, slang and strong accents prevail. Should we write it with all the dialect words intact or spell words phonetically? Both of those would mean it might be difficult for readers in London, let alone New York or Sydney, to understand.

Eventually, we decided to slightly Anglicise the dialogue but to include Scots words which would be easily understandable to non Scots… and to print some words phonetically so there would be a feeling of accent – for example, we printed the “police” as the “polis” throughout, because that is how it is pronounced in Glasgow and it is a distinct yet not too confusing word. It felt like you were reading genuine Scots dialogue, even though it was slightly Anglicised. I was wary of using the Glasgow word close, which means an indoor stairwell, because, in Edinburgh, it means an outdoor alleyway.

It’s a sare fecht.

Look, I could go on for hours about this. Think yourself lucky it stops here.

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Memories of Hanoi twenty two years ago – and the woman with the robin redbreast face

I received an e-mail today from a friend who is in Vietnam for business. She is staying at a 6 star resort near Hoi An, south of Da Nang.

“I did a double take in Hanoi,” she wrote, “when I saw the brand new, enormous and heavily branded Hanoi Hilton near the main square.”

Apparently the new Hanoi Hilton hotel is opposite the Opera House. I was in Hanoi in November 1989 and the ‘Hanoi Hilton’ I passed was the original one – the notorious Hoa Lo PrisonI recognised its crumbling colonial front from photos. I asked my guide: “What’s that building?”

“I don’t know,” he said, straight-faced, but with a twinkle in his eye which meant we both knew we were playing a game. I kept a diary when I was in Hanoi in 1989. This is an extract:

THURSDAY 30th NOVEMBER – HANOI

Out of my window, there’s the constant sounds of car and moped horns tooting intermingled with the sounds of cheap engines.

The hotel is a simultaneous mountaineering and orienteering expedition… along endless corridors, up endless stairs, through a darkened room with a hidden comedy step to trip the unwary and finally through a half-darkened fire escape landing. The room is small but just about OK (no wardrobe or drawers) and the shower room looks like it’s seen better days at Auschwitz. But I call it home and it’s interesting to see what East Germans consider an international hotel. (There is a big East German group here.)

Nightlife in Hanoi is quite something. Bright white lightbulbs and shops are open everywhere in what I think is the main shopping street. It’s a bit like a cross between Earls Court Road on a Saturday night and a 1950s American Graffiti street with cruising. I did see three little old wrinkled ladies curling up inside blankets in a shop doorway. One cafe was doing a roaring trade because it was showing Thai rock videos. And children were playing everywhere. Children of all sizes. This was at about 8.45pm.

Teenagers listen to American rock music everywhere. It must be strange for their fathers and grandfathers.

They fought the French in the 1940s and 1950s and defeated them.

They fought the Americans in the 1960s and 1970s and defeated them.

But they lost the peace.

Now their children listen to US rock music.

FRIDAY 1st DECEMBER – HANOI

I now have a new hotel room with television (my first in Vietnam). This is probably a result of changing money with the driver and an excessively expensive $50 trip to Halong Bay. The guide is now paranoid about me telling anyone:

“This is still a Socialist country – like Russia, da?”

He keeps absent-mindedly saying “da” instead of “yes”.

People are mostly ignoring me in the street. I think I have now worked out the economics. Beggars ask locals for money but don’t ask me. They think I am a Russian. Everyone thinks I am a Russian. The Vietnamese have no time for Russians because (a) they don’t smile and (b) they have no money. No-one wants roubles only dollars and, even if they did want roubles, the Russians don’t have spare cash.

The problem with using travellers cheques is the US economic embargo on Vietnam – US companies can’t trade with the Vietnamese. My Hanoi guide tells me credit cards are “many many years” away because there are very few computers in Vietnam.

When we passed the very flash Opera House, he told me it was intended for the people, but only the very rich can afford it. This implies there is a group of very rich (as opposed to just very privileged) people.

At lunchtime, I took a walk and met Hanoi’s equivalent of a bag lady in ragged-sleeved jacket. The bottom half of her face was entirely red. Her face looked like a robin redbreast. Brown top half. Red bottom half. I think she must have been knocking-back some particularly brutal local equivalent of meths. She muttered (and probably cursed) at me, then staggered away.

I missed a photo opportunity this afternoon: two Russians buying blue jeans in the Hanoi equivalent of Oxford Street/Petticoat Lane. Further on, another Russian was toying with the idea of buying a Sony Walkman, insisting the shopkeeper put a cassette in it to test the sound quality.

I’m getting obsessed by the Russians. One TV channel at teatime had three particularly dreary Russian cartoons followed by their equivalent of Tomorrow’s World – Programme 2 – The Wonderful World of Computers. The Vietnamese channel carried a programme about a factory.

I had dinner tonight with the two Hong Kong Brits I met in Da Nang plus a couple of Canadians. When he was in Da Nang, one of the Canadians had a T-shirt printed saying in Vietnamese:

I AM NOT A RUSSIAN

He lives in an apartment in Calgary with a one-metre long iguana which, he says, craps in a sandbox behind the television set. He feeds it on cat food and says it can sense when he is about to go away because it pines and goes off its food. The iguana has its own dead tree in the apartment, so it can climb occasionally. It normally sleeps on its own heated pad although once the Canadian found it curled inside his pillowcase. The only problem is it likes to climb up the Canadian’s leg and has sharp claws. In the same apartment block, a neighbour keeps a pet boa constrictor.

I must remember to avoid Calgary.

The Hong Kong Brit told me he used to keep a pet monkey in Lagos; one of their neighbours in Hong Kong keeps a baboon which has a habit of flushing his toilet in the middle of the night.

I think I am beginning to hallucinate.

All I want is to find someone who can juggle cooked spaghetti on television for one minute.

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