tag: Language

Apr 2013

What’s in the wind, I wonder. Money worry.

Typical of the Irish financial industry’s inability to get anything right, today we learnt that the Central Bank is unable even to copy a couple of sentences without screwing up. In what is clearly something of an embarrassment, a limited edition silver €10 coin minted in honour of James Joyce contains an error in the Ulysses quotation inscribed upon it.

James Joyce coinThe coin features a portrait of Joyce alongside a quotation from his most famous work (and perhaps the finest work of literature in the English language). While the error, arguably, isn’t a huge one (the insertion of the word “that” in the second sentence) it reveals much about the Irish Central Bank. Either it’s just a mistake – in which case, we see once again the sheer incompetence of those in charge of our money supply. Or it’s deliberate… and we see yet more of the arrogance of our bankers, believing themselves a better judge of how the lines should flow than Joyce himself. Sheer incompetence or blind arrogance? Neither are particularly desirable traits in those who control our finances.

Personally I think the real problem is the chosen quotation. Don’t get me wrong… “Ineluctable modality of the visible: at least that if no more, thought through my eyes. Signatures of all things I am here to read.” is a glorious couplet. Indeed, you could pluck a line from damn near any page of Ulysses and have a piece of writing worthy of carving into metal. I just think there are more appropriate lines given the current state of the nation. My own suggestion, for example…

I have no money but if you will lend me your attention I shall endeavour to sing to you of a heart bowed down.

Alternatively, they could make reference to the collapse of credit availability with Stephen’s line…

Where would I get money? Mr Dedalus said. There is no-one in Dublin would lend me fourpence.

And there are many many others that would better fit the mood of the times.

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Apr 2013

The curious case of Inigo Wilson

This post has been brewing for about a month now. Ever since I received a letter from Mr. Inigo Wilson at the end of February asking that I remove a post from this blog. I wasn’t entirely sure what I wanted to say about it or how I wanted to say it, but I knew I wanted to say something.

First, some background…

Way back in 2006, Tory blogger Inigo Wison wrote a piece at ConservativeHome entitled Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon. In response to this piece, Mr. Wilson was suspended from his job at telecoms firm, Orange. Although he was later reinstated, he briefly became a talking point within the blogosphere. The vast majority of people – whether they agreed with Wilson’s “Lefty Lexicon” or not – were critical of the actions of the corporation. I myself emailed the PR department of Orange to suggest that while I felt his article was wrong-headed and borderline racist, he should nonetheless be permitted to express his political views on a website completely unconnected with his employer.

Yes, I found his article pretty dreadful, but I nonetheless defended his right to publish it without censure from his employers.

However, I also wrote a piece on this blog with the title, “Inigo Wilson: thick as pigshit”. Why? Well, because anyone writing such garbage under their own (very distinctive) name while working as “spokesperson for community affairs” for a major corporation would have to be as thick as pigshit if they didn’t expect repercussions.

Palestinians – archetype ‘victims’ no matter how many teenagers they murder in bars and fast food outlets. Never responsible for anything they do – or done in their name – because of ‘root causes’ or ‘legitimate grievances’.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

In my piece, I was quite unequivocal in my condemnation of Orange (and, as I say, I emailed them to say so). However, I was also quite forthright in my condemnation of Wilson. I found his piece pretty obnoxious and I found his suspension from work predictable. Anyone who has ever worked in the corporate world (as have I) and who possesses an IQ higher than that of a brain-damaged bumble-bee, would understand the consequences of publishing such an article while holding the position of “spokesperson for community affairs”. If I read a news story about someone being beaten up by a gang, I will feel dismayed at the action of that gang. However, when I read the next paragraph and discover that the victim was walking through the Broadwater Farm Estate at midnight wearing Arsenal colours and singing “One-nil to the Arsenal” at the top of his lungs…? Well, my dismay at the actions of the gang is not lessened in any way; but nor do I think it wrong of me if the phrase “what a fricking idiot!” springs unbidden to my mind.

No, the attack is not justified. But it is predictable. Likewise with Wilson’s suspension. Which is the point I made in my article… albeit rather forcefully.

Islamophobic – anyone who objects to having their transport blown up on the way to work.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

Anyway, thanks to my ‘Mad SEO Skillz'(tm) my post appeared at the top of google results for “Inigo Wilson”. Any time someone typed “Inigo Wilson” into google, they were greeted by the phrase “Inigo Wilson – thick as pigshit” in bright blue bold letters at the top of the page. I wasn’t actually aware of this, never having recourse to type “Inigo Wilson” into a search engine, but clearly Mr. Wilson has been doing a little Egosurfing over the years (and let’s be honest, who hasn’t at one time or another?) and was less than happy at the results.

Which is why at the end of February I received a registered letter from Inigo Wilson (why he didn’t just email me, I don’t know) requesting I remove the “offensive” post.

Back to the present…

It goes without saying that my first reaction to the letter was “over my dead body!” The article that provoked Wilson’s suspension (and the condemnation of about half the blogosphere) has not been removed despite – I am quite certain – numerous requests to do so. It’s still there for all to see. If Wilson refuses to take down something he wrote that offended a whole bunch of people, why should I – at his behest – take down something I wrote because it offended one or two? I suspect that any request to remove “A Lefty Lexicon” would be met with faux-hysterical shrieks of “left-wing censorship!!” and the more hyperbolic of Wilson’s advocates would doubtlessly use the term “Stalinist”.

So yes, my first reaction to the letter was one of irritation. Here’s a guy who under the cloak of “humorous satire” labelled all Palestinians, “murderers” and equated Islam with terrorism. But he gets his knickers in a twist when someone calls him thick. Don’t dish it out if you can’t take it, Inigo. Why the hell should your capacity for offence trump anyone else’s? And why did you write such an article if you felt that people had some sort of right not to be offended? We’re all hypocrites from time to time, but this was particularly brazen.

But then I went back and re-read my piece, and you know what? I wasn’t impressed with it. It had been dashed off in a few minutes and not only wasn’t it well-written, it actually came across as mean-spirited. Uncharacteristically so for me (in my view). So after some hmming and hahing, I decided to remove the post from The Quiet Road. I just wasn’t proud of it, even if I still completely agreed with the sentiment. And just because I felt that Wilson’s original article was mean-spirited doesn’t absolve me of the same offence. On top of that, and despite my best efforts to avoid it, I did feel kind of bad for the guy. I wouldn’t be too happy to see my name followed by “thick as pigshit” pop up every time anyone googled me. My opinion about Wilson’s article and the whole farrago surrounding its publication haven’t changed, but I’m not comfortable hanging a digital millstone around his neck like that.

At the same time though, I didn’t feel comfortable just taking it down and saying nothing. Letting it disappear down the memory hole. As I say, Wilson has felt no compulsion to remove an article that he knows offended many people (I’m not personally offended by it, incidentally… I tend not to take offence at such things… but I do see how others could be. So in that sense, it’s definitely “an offensive” article). Also, by revisiting the whole thing I ended up re-reading not only his original article, but several others spawned by the brouhaha. For example, there’s the celebratory post at ConservativeHome upon Wilson’s reinstatement at Orange. It concludes with the sentence:

I understand that emails from supporters of Inigo outnumbered emails against him by more than five-to-one… a real victory for the conservative blogopsphere and a real defeat for those Muslim extremists who want to close down debate.

ConservativeHome | Inigo Wilson reinstated

First up, describing it as “a real victory for the conservative blogopsphere” is plain nonsense. I know at least two bloggers, excluding myself, who would be considered “of the left” by conservatives and who emailed Orange to support Wilson’s right to publish his article despite their distaste for it. I doubt we were the only three. But heaven forbid we should expect balance or fair-mindedness from such a partisan source. Also, the notion that his suspension was the result of “Muslim extremists who want to close down debate” is utter twaddle of the highest order. It’s a statement made either by someone who hasn’t the faintest idea how corporate PR works, or who does know how corporate PR works but wants to take a cheap shot at Muslims. I suspect it’s the latter because that’s the kind of nastiness one expects from Tories.

And when I re-read Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon, I found myself irritated by it all over again. Not only isn’t it the slightest bit funny, it’s badly researched, badly written and – as I say – pretty mean-spirited. So while Mr. Wilson will now be spared the “thick as pigshit” soubriquet, his article does not deserve a free ride. Let’s take a look at it…

Inigo Wilson: A Lefty Lexicon

The article begins with several paragraphs decrying what he views as a “curious Lefty-inspired patois”. By this he means the vague, euphemistic language of spin that has utterly engulfed political and corporate communication. This isn’t – of course – “Lefty-inspired” at all, but aside from that, I’m in complete agreement with his initial sentiment. The language of “spin” does indeed damage our cultural discourse and should be resisted. But Wilson’s notion that the root of such deliberate obfuscation can be found in left-wing, post-modern academia displays a breath-taking ignorance of the history of propaganda. For that is what this is; make no mistake; it’s propaganda. Over the years the actual techniques change as the culture evolves and the expectations of the audience shifts, so the specifics of the “patois” shift and mutate, but it’s something that’s been going on for years before post-modernism came on the scene.

I’m pretty sure there’s something about it in Machiavelli’s The Prince – for example – though don’t hold me to that as it’s almost two decades since I read it. However, it’s definitely addressed in Gustave Le Bon’s hugely influential text, The Crowd: A Study of the Popular Mind (published in 1895… a little while before those dastardly post-modern academics gained such a stranglehold on our civilisation). Le Bon’s trenchant views on the subject of white-European racial supremacy would probably exclude him from the kind of ‘Lefty academia’ that Wilson considers so insidious. Le Bon’s views were dissected and critiqued by Freud when Uncle Siggy wrote on the subject of Mass Psychology. But Edward Bernays was less discerning (as was Adolf Hitler who incorporated a number of Le Bon’s ideas into Mein Kampf).

Bernays is seen as the father of “spin”, and was about as far from being a “Lefty” as it’s possible to get. His books provided the template for the modern public relations industry which is actually where this tendency towards vague language and obfuscation originates in the modern era. Remember his “torches of freedom“? Was there ever a more insidious use of spin?

George Orwell’s glorious “Politics and the English Language” is an early example of criticism of this kind of euphemistic language. In reality, both left and right wings are equally capable of twisting language for political purposes. Equally capable and equally guilty. However, I do find it interesting that the “manual” on how to do it emerged from The Right, and the first well-known attack on it comes from The Left. Precisely the opposite of Wilson’s ill-researched analysis (though anyone who – with a straight face – describes the Blair government as “left wing” probably can’t be trusted when it comes to politics).

In fact, before I go any further, let’s clarify something about modern politics (I’m talking here about western liberal democracies here). There is no longer any mainstream left. It has completely disappeared. That’s not hyperbole. The modern political spectrum has been narrowed to such an extent that it now extends from the “pretty dodgy right wing” all the way to the “centre right”. The Blair government didn’t advocate a single genuinely left wing policy… they weren’t quite as bad as the previous and subsequent Tory governments, that’s true, but the attempts to redistribute wealth from top to bottom were half-hearted tokenism at best. Where were the wholesale nationalisations and massive increases in wealth taxation? Those are genuine left-wing policies, and anyone who felt the Blair / Brown administrations implemented them are just plain wrong.
Modern political spectrum
Modern politics has completely integrated the capitalist conservative model. Every mainstream political party in northern Europe and the United States is a right wing party. Every single one. Southern Europe has seen a (very recent) resurgence in socialist parties in response to the financial crisis. But even there, none of them have actually gained power and those that came close (I’m thinking specifically of Syriza in Greece) still don’t quite make it all the way around to “Socialism” on that graphic… though they are at least pushing that direction.

Personally, I don’t locate myself on that graphic. Anarcho-syndicalism with technocratic leanings doesn’t really fit into the standard left-right model though I obviously find far more allies on the red side of the picture than I do on the blue. But when you have “Labour” parties (in the UK and Ireland) aggressively pushing free-market policies of privatisation, they can no longer be described as “of the left”. To do so merely betrays a lack of imagination, a complete ignorance of political philosophy and a refusal to update one’s belief system in the face of new evidence. It’s essentially a faith-based position.

So Wilson’s introductory section to his Lefty Lexicon is not only badly researched when it ascribes the politically motivated use of obfuscation to “the left”, it also completely fails to acknowledge the realities of the modern political landscape. It is conservatism at its most pure – steeped in the mythology of a non-existent past and seasoned with a generous dash of wish-fulfilment.

And it gets no better. The actual lexicon is – I think – supposed to be funny though I can’t see how it would raise even a smile in anyone other than a blindly partisan conservative. It even finds itself guilty of the very thing it’s supposed to be lampooning – the political twisting of language. For example, we have:

Fascism/Nazism – apparently the ‘opposite’ of Socialism – despite sharing party members, ideology and – in National Socialism – the name.

Inigo Wilson | A Lefty Lexicon

The clear implication of this entry is that ‘National Socialism’ is somehow connected with ‘Socialism’ because of “the name”. Somehow I doubt this is coming from a man who honestly believes ‘The Democratic People’s Republic of Korea’ is genuinely ‘democratic’. But look… it’s part of the name! That must mean something, right? Or does it only mean something when it’s politically convenient? Talk about spin.

Wilson’s piece does contain some valid criticism of the more nonsensical recent examples of vague political language and management-speak. The entries on ‘Consultation’, ‘In partnership with’, ‘Issues around’ and ‘Key’ (amongst others) make legitimate if obvious points. However, he also pours scorn on “Green issues”, the notion of institutional racism and even “human rights”. This doesn’t stand up to scrutiny. Praising the United States for being the “world’s most productive economy” is akin to praising the former Soviet Union for having the world’s most productive biological weapons facilities. If you honestly think that converting the world’s natural resources into cheap consumer garbage destined for landfill constitutes “productivity” then it might be time to reassess your use of that word.

In conclusion

So yeah. I removed the original blog post as per Mr. Wilson’s request. It wasn’t a good piece. It was slightly nasty, which really isn’t how I want to be. And for that, I’m genuinely sorry (I wouldn’t have removed it if I wasn’t sorry, so you can take that apology to the bank). However, it wasn’t half as bad as the piece that started all this. I wanted to address that piece as well as draw attention to the fact that I’ve removed an article from my blog – something I don’t like to do without explanation (especially if it has generated a comment thread). And that’s all I have to say on the subject for now.

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Jul 2011

4th July 1980 – The Death of Gregory Bateson

Why not pop over to On This Deity and read my new article.

4th July 1980: The Death of Gregory Bateson.

There is no shortage of events to remember on July 4th. So I’m extremely pleased that On This Deity finds room today to celebrate the life and commemorate the death of Gregory Bateson. The first time I encountered Gregory Bateson’s name, he was described to me as “the most important thinker you’ve never heard of”. And that’s the description I tend to use when recommending his work to others. Because although his ideas have indeed been influential, and despite the fact that his work is finally beginning to leak into popular consciousness, the fact remains that the vast majority of educated, informed people are wholly unfamiliar with Bateson and his legacy.

Which is perhaps no big surprise; for unlike most of the revolutionary thinkers who have graced this site over the past eleven months, it is my contention that Bateson’s time has yet to come. His seminal work, Steps to an Ecology of Mind sits comfortably on the same shelf as Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, Marx’s Das Kapital, Einstein’s Relativity or Darwin’s On the Origin of Species. The primary difference being that the cultural impact of Steps to an Ecology of Mind is still ahead of us. For it seems clear to me that should modern humanity survive the crises that seem certain to confront us this century, it will be by adopting the kind of thinking to be found in the work of Bateson.

read the rest…

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Oct 2009

Misleading media Part 324,078

It irritates me immensely when newspaper sub-editors insist upon placing misleading headlines above a story. Fair enough if it’s a comment-piece and there’s an argument for the creative use of ambiguity. But when it’s an article purporting to be a news report, I find it very annoying indeed. It’s sensationalist and manipulative and undercuts the information within the article. In what other way is this information being ‘sexed up’, one is forced to wonder. Can I actually trust any of it?

Of course, this is far from an original observation and I’m hardly the first person to lament the sensationalism of the mainstream media nor the untrustworthiness of the information provided. Still it rankles.

In The Guardian, for instance, we have an article headlined: ‘Death tourism’ leads Swiss to consider ban on assisted suicide. Well, it turns out — and one only needs to read the article beneath the headline to discover this — that while a ban has been “considered” (I’m not suggesting the headline is a lie, merely misleading), the Swiss are almost certainly not going to introduce one preferring instead to adopt tighter regulations…

The new rules would include requiring patients to obtain two medical opinions proving their illness was incurable and probably fatal within months. These doctors must state that the dying person had the mental capacity to assert their wish to die, and prove they had held this wish for some time. The new proposal would also require assisted dying groups to provide better written records to stop organisations profiting from patients wanting to die.

All of these are probably quite sensible proposals (particularly the last one) and fail to come anywhere close to constituting an outright ban. But “Swiss to tighten assisted-suicide regulations” doesn’t make quite as good a headline.

I really wish that the media would stop doing this (leastways those elements of the media who claim to be “responsible”… tabloids obviously would cease to exist without such sensationalist and misleading tactics) as it gradually erodes our willingness to trust any information they provide.

Actually, that may itself be a good thing.

2 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Jun 2009

Dublin, statues and Ulysses

I’ve written in the past about the way a city’s statues go some way towards revealing its soul.

And let’s face it, the whole idea of statues is pretty amazing in the first place. Imagine if we encountered a previously undiscovered sub-species of chimpanzee who left intricately carved versions of their ancestors in the places where they gathered. Viewed objectively, it’s a strange thing for an animal to do. It’s a bit like leaving huge signs all over the place with the words “We’re really scared of Death” printed on them. Or maybe I’m reading too much into it.

Still, however you explain it, there’s no question that a place reveals much about itself through its choice of statues. Certainly at the most basic level, the statue is a reassurance to us all. “Death is not the end”, it whispers, “For I am still among you”. But statues of anyone will fulfill that role. What’s revealing is our choice of exactly who we choose to call back from the dead to remain with us.

Take London for instance… it’s big enough and old enough to contain statues of people from all walks of life. Engineers, nurses, scientists, fictional cokeheads, the lot.

But mostly it’s soldiers. Lots and lots of soldiers. Men who excelled at killing people from beyond the city walls, or who were cruelly killed by people from beyond the city walls. And we invite them back to stand silently among us. One of them stands atop a pedestal so high, you can’t really see him clearly.

Here in Dublin, the situation is quite different. There’s plenty of statues to fighters, certainly, but they tend to be rebels and revolutionaries, which alters the message significantly. And they’re equalled in number by poets, musicians and radical socialists. As well as the occasional statue to the ordinary people of the city.

The stone celebration of military conquest that is so ubiquitous on the streets of London (and pretty much every city in a nation that once possessed an empire) is almost entirely absent here in Dublin. This is both a result of, and a further influence upon, the collective psyche of the place. Statues create a positive feedback loop that help solidify a culture.

June 16th

One of Dublin’s most striking statues, of course, greets you from the corner of North Earl Street as you walk up the city’s main thoroughfare — O’Connell Street. There he stands; artist and revolutionary thinker; James Joyce.

James Joyce statue

Many cities celebrate their local artists just as much as Dublin celebrates Joyce of course. But June 16th in Dublin is quite unique. I’d planned on doing the whole “Bloomsday thing” this year — y’know, donning period garb and following in the footsteps of Leopold Bloom’s Great Wander. I’d probably skip the breakfast of offal, but I figure I could make up for it with a couple of extra pints along the way. Sadly the day just crept up on me, and I realised too late that it was this week. Silly me.

To make up for it, though, I have vowed two things. Firstly to re-read Ulysses (the single greatest work of literature in the history of humanity) before June 16th next year, and secondly to make absolutely certain that appropriate clothes are hired for both myself and Citizen S in plenty of time next summer. Anyone else up for it? You’ve got a whole year to plan it. And even if you don’t feel like dressing in a turn of (last) century stylee, it’ll still be a fine day out.

There are sins or (let us call them as the world calls them) evil memories which are hidden away by man in the darkest places of the heart but they abide there and wait. He may suffer their memory to grow dim, let them be as though they had not been and all but persuade himself that they were not or at least were otherwise. Yet a chance word will call them forth suddenly and they will rise up to confront him in the most various circumstances, a vision or a dream, or while timbrel and harp soothe his senses or amid the cool silver tranquility of the evening or at the feast at midnight when he is now filled with wine. Not to insult over him will the vision come as over one that lies under her wrath, not for vengeance to cut off from the living but shrouded in the piteous vesture of the past, silent, remote, reproachful.

James Joyce | Ulysses


— That’s your glorious British navy, says the citizen, that bosses the earth. The fellows that never will be slaves, with the only hereditary chamber on the face of God’s earth and their land in the hands of a dozen gamehogs and cottonball barons. That’s the great empire they boast about of drudges and whipped serfs.
— On which the sun never rises, says Joe.
— And the tragedy of it is, says the citizen, they believe it. The unfortunate yahoos believe it.

James Joyce | Ulysses


Mr. Bloom walked unheeded along his grove by saddened angels, crosses, broken pillars, family vaults, stone hopes praying with upcast eyes, old Ireland’s hearts and hands. More sensible to spend the money on some charity for the living. Pray for the repose of the soul of. Does anybody really? Plant him and have done with him. Like down a coalshoot. Then lump them together to save time. All souls’ day. Twentyseventh I’ll be at his grave. Ten shillings for the gardener. He keeps it free of weeds. Old man himself. Bent down double with his shears clipping. Near death’s door. Who passed away. Who departed this life. As if they did it of their own accord. Got the shove, all of them…

James Joyce | Ulysses

I didn’t search for those passages. Just opened three random pages and got three amazing pieces of writing. There’s not a single page in the 900 that doesn’t crackle with energy, beauty and insight.

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Dec 2008

The Meaning of Liff

Via John B comes the news that the splendid Douglas Adams and John Lloyd collaboration, The Meaning of Liff, can be browsed online.

Check it out here.

Glorious stuff. Every time I flick through The Meaning of Liff I resolve to start incorporating some of the words into everyday conversation. After a couple of decades, however, I’ve still only ever used ‘Kentucky‘ and ‘Epworth‘ more than once, though the observation made in the definition of ‘Aberbeeg‘ is one I’ve often mentioned to others.

I’d like to also take this opportunity to recommend Last Chance To See. In my view this is probably the best book Douglas Adams wrote (and I say that as a big fan of both the Hitch-Hiker’s series and the Dirk Gently books, of which I wish there’d been more). If you haven’t read Last Chance To See, then please, please, please grab yourself a copy (it’ll hardly break the bank). It’s as sad as it is funny. And it is very very funny indeed.

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Aug 2008

Well read?

It’s a blog meme. Another one.

This time though, it’s not about music but about literature. Specifically it’s about the books nominated by the BBC’s “Big Read” as being the 100 best in the English language. Actually, scanning the list, there’s a few translations on it (The Bible, Anna Karenina, One Hundred Years of Solitude, etc.) so I assume it’s “the best ever” rather than the best in the English language (though the small number of translations obviously reveal the Anglocentric nature of the list).

That said, the fact that there’s not a single book by Thomas Pynchon — who would have at least 3 in my top 10, let alone top 100 — suggests that whoever compiled the BBC’s list (possibly “the public”) don’t share my view of what makes good literature. In fact, the more I look at the list, the more I cringe at the utter dross to be found on it, and all the excellent writing not there. I suspect my response to this meme will be relatively controversial as I can count on the fingers of two hands the number of books written prior to 1920 (or thereabouts) that I consider worthwhile.

Anyways, the BBC apparently reckons that “the average adult” has only read 6 of the top 100 books. It kind of goes without saying then, that I’m a long way from “average”, though to be honest, I feel certain that the BBC is short-changing the public with that claim. Surely most people have read more than six from the list, even if only at school.

So yeah, via Phil at The Gaping Silence, on with the memery…

1) Look at the list and bold those you have read.
2) Italicize those you intend to read.
3) Underline the books you love.
4) Strike out the books you have no intention of ever reading, or hated.
5) Reprint this list in your own blog so we can try and track down these people who’ve only read 6 and force books upon them.

  1. Pride and Prejudice – Jane Austen
    Let’s kick off with a sound kicking. Jane Austen (like the Brontes, Thomas Hardy, William Shakespeare and Charles Dickens) is staggeringly over-rated. Criminally so. It still mystifies me how anyone can read this pre-modern toss and not find it contrived, stultifyingly-dull bullshit.
  2. The Lord of the Rings – JRR Tolkien
    Read this when I was a kid and it had a deep and lasting impact on me. Looking back on it, there’s flaws a-plenty, but it’s definitely some of the finest children’s literature ever written (even if that wasn’t JRR’s intention).
  3. Jane Eyre – Charlotte Bronte
    See #1
  4. The Harry Potter Series – JK Rowling
    I read a quarter of the first one and saw the film. Neither made me want to journey any further with Rowling. Ursula K. LeGuin did it so much better.
  5. To Kill a Mockingbird – Harper Lee
    A work of genius. My taste in literature tends towards the American. I blame a shop-lifted Bukowski when I was 11 years old for that. To Kill A Mockingbird was borrowed from the library soon afterwards, though.
  6. The Bible
    I’ve read it start-to-finish (skipping a few chapters of who-begat-who) twice. Both times it left me feeling confused and a little depressed. I mean, most of it isn’t even particularly well-written; how the hell did it cast such a dark shadow on the human heart?
  7. Wuthering Heights – Emily Bronte
    See #1
  8. Nineteen Eighty Four – George Orwell
    I suspect regular readers will already know my opinion of this book, and of Orwell’s writing in general (finest essayist in the English language). This is his crowning achievement as a novelist.
  9. His Dark Materials – Philip Pullman
    I’ve heard the rave reviews. But it just doesn’t appeal to me for some reason.
  10. Great Expectations – Charles Dickens
    Fucking Charles motherfucking Dickens! What a complete waste of paper. Yeah yeah, shining a light on Victorian society blah blah fricking blah. I read this at school and recall thinking very early on, “hang on a second, even back then nobody spoke like this”. It’s sanitised, soul-less writing that fails to evoke even a single emotion in me. Just as with Shakespeare; it’s British colonialism that has secured the worldwide reputation of Charles Dickens; nothing to do with innate talent. Nothing at all.
  11. Little Women – Louisa M Alcott
  12. Tess of the D’Urbervilles – Thomas Hardy
    Don’t need to read it. Hardy is shit. End of.
  13. Catch 22 – Joseph Heller
    This was so highly recommended that I recall being a little disappointed when I finally read it. Still a worthy thing. Not a patch on Vonnegut though, who did this kind of thing so much better, and is unsurprisingly not on this list.
  14. Complete Works of Shakespeare
    Oh come on! The complete works? That narrows it down to a few fools with more time than sense. I’ve read most of the famous ones, a couple of lesser-known ones and a handful of sonnets. None of them roused more than a yawn. Yeah, I know that puts me firmly in a tiny minority. But then, that’s where I’ve always been happiest. Shakespeare is a great writer, Oasis is a great band, Last of The Summer Wine is great television. Seriously, what the fuck does “the majority” know about great art?
  15. Rebecca – Daphne Du Maurier
  16. The Hobbit – JRR Tolkien
  17. Birdsong – Sebastian Faulks
  18. Catcher in the Rye – JD Salinger
    Always felt it was a wee bit over-rated to be honest. But again, like Catch-22, a worthwhile read all the same.
  19. The Time Traveller’s Wife – Audrey Niffenegger
    First one on the list I’ve never even heard of. Guess there were bound to be a couple…
  20. Middlemarch – George Eliot
    Read it at school. Rather wish I hadn’t.
  21. Gone With The Wind – Margaret Mitchell
  22. The Great Gatsby – F Scott Fitzgerald
    One of the few great examples of pre-modern literature. Though obviously, published in 1925, it’s actually in the modern era, this is not a post-Ulysses novel in anything but chronology. All the same, it rises above the dry, emotionless bullshit of pre-modern literature thanks to some wonderfully crafted characters. It’ll probably be the only novel of its type that I’ll end up underlining.
  23. Bleak House – Charles Dickens
    Don’t even get me started on this one. I read this as part of a book club I joined at university. I read it under duress (having made my feelings about Dickens well known) but decided I’d stick it out… after all, I wouldn’t like it if the others in the group refused to read my picks. I left the club soon after though… everyone but me claimed to get a lot out of Dickens. And hell, maybe they did. Maybe they weren’t just dazzled by the emperor’s presence. But clearly it wasn’t the book club for me. Thankfully I met my friend Justin soon afterwards, who was reading Gravity’s Rainbow at the time. A far better class of comrade.
  24. War and Peace – Leo Tolstoy
    To my shame, I’ve still not got round to it. Pre-Joycean Russian literature doesn’t seem to suffer from the same lifelessness as almost all of the English-language stuff (obviously there are exceptions to that, by the way). Or perhaps it’s just the fact that we’re only aware of the exceptionally good stuff over here beyond the translators?
  25. The Hitch Hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy – Douglas Adams
    A fine book. And the follow-ups were largely excellent too.
  26. Brideshead Revisited – Evelyn Waugh
  27. Crime and Punishment – Fyodor Dostoyevsky
    A fine novel, but if you’re new to Dostoyevsky, then you should really start with The Idiot, which didn’t make this list.
  28. Grapes of Wrath – John Steinbeck
  29. Alice in Wonderland – Lewis Carroll
  30. The Wind in the Willows – Kenneth Grahame
  31. Anna Karenina – Leo Tolstoy
  32. David Copperfield – Charles Dickens
    Complete wank.
  33. Chronicles of Narnia – CS Lewis
  34. Emma – Jane Austen
    I read this. See #1
  35. Persuasion – Jane Austen
    I didn’t read this. See #1
  36. The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe – CS Lewis
  37. The Kite Runner – Khaled Hosseini
  38. Captain Corelli’s Mandolin – Louis De Bernieres
  39. Memoirs of a Geisha – Arthur Golden
    Overwrought. Over-rated. Over-long.
  40. Winnie the Pooh – AA Milne
    A classic. A work of towering genius.
  41. Animal Farm – George Orwell
    This is a decent novel, but it doesn’t scale the heights of Nineteen Eighty-Four. Orwell was best as an essayist anyway.
  42. The Da Vinci Code – Dan Brown
    Frankly I’d rather eat my own flesh than read this airport-novel nonsense.
  43. One Hundred Years of Solitude – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  44. A Prayer for Owen Meaney – John Irving
  45. The Woman in White – Wilkie Collins
  46. Anne of Green Gables – LM Montgomery
  47. Far From The Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy
    Far From The Madding Crowd? Bollocks, more like.
  48. The Handmaid’s Tale – Margaret Atwood
  49. Lord of the Flies – William Golding
    I actually thought JG Ballard’s quasi-retelling of this story in Rushing To Paradise was ultimately better. Golding’s is a fine book though.
  50. Atonement – Ian McEwan
    Enduring Love was a good novel (shit film though. Really shit film). I’m not sure he’s really written anything half as good though. Certainly I thought Atonement was very weak; like so many on this list, frighteningly over-rated; and more concerned with making sure the reader spots the intricate allusions to literary “greats” than telling a story. A let down.
  51. Life of Pi – Yann Martel
  52. Dune – Frank Herbert
    I read all the Dune novels as a teenager. Yes, even the later ones when he was obviously milking a cash-cow. That said, God Emperor of Dune turned out to be the best in my view (in the sense of the most mind-bendingly far out, which is kind of what you want from your science-fiction)
  53. Cold Comfort Farm – Stella Gibbons
    Second one on the list I’ve not heard of. Am I missing out, I wonder?
  54. Sense and Sensibility – Jane Austen
    Just fuck off, will you. How much “I’m told this is great, so I’ll vote for it” shit is on this list anyway?
  55. A Suitable Boy – Vikram Seth
    Meh. Over-rated.
  56. The Shadow of the Wind – Carlos Ruiz Zafon
    I’m surprised this made the list as it’s pretty obscure (I think) as well as being rather good. It’s heavily influenced by Borges (of course) and kind of suffers by comparison in my eyes. All the same, well worth reading, both as a commentary on Franco’s Spain, and as a well-spun yarn.
  57. A Tale Of Two Cities – Charles Dickens
    Not read this one. Safe to say I never will. Fucking Dickens!
  58. Brave New World – Aldous Huxley
    One of my favourites. For the ideas, not the writing (which I grant you is a tad ropey at times). One of the few “must reads” in my opinion.
  59. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time – Mark Haddon
    Any good, this? I’ve heard all the praise, but am yet to be convinced.
  60. Love In The Time Of Cholera – Gabriel Garcia Marquez
  61. Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck
  62. Lolita – Vladimir Nabokov
  63. The Secret History – Donna Tartt
    Third one I’ve not heard of.
  64. The Lovely Bones – Alice Sebold
    This one’s been recommended by a couple of people whose views I respect. And the synopsis certainly sounds intriguing. On the “will get to it eventually” list.
  65. Count of Monte Cristo – Alexandre Dumas
  66. On The Road – Jack Kerouac
    A classic. People call it over-rated, and then go back to reading Charles Fucking Dickens. They need a good slap, frankly. This is a hugely important novel, and a wonderful read. Another on the “must read” list.
  67. Jude the Obscure – Thomas Hardy
    It’s just bad writing. OK? Read some Pynchon ferchristsakes! Something with soul. Something with balls!
  68. Bridget Jones’s Diary – Helen Fielding
    There’s a bigger chance of me eating my body-weight in goldfish than of reading this novel.
  69. Midnight’s Children – Salman Rushdie
    Rushdie is another writer I find somewhat overwrought and over-rated. This is probably the best of the three of his books that I’ve read. Still quite dull though.
  70. Moby Dick – Herman Melville
  71. Oliver Twist – Charles Dickens
    When you look at the number of books on this list that I’ve read and hated, it’s a wonder I’ve not been put off literature for life. Because this is real, passionate, deep-seated hatred here not some casual dislike. I hate the way Dickens writes English. I hate every word that emerges from the mouths of his cardboard cut-out characters. And I find the social commentary trite and obvious to the point of absurdity.
  72. Dracula – Bram Stoker
    Meh. Good for its time. But that’s not saying much.
  73. The Secret Garden – Frances Hodgson Burnett
  74. Notes From A Small Island – Bill Bryson
    Bryson holds no interest for me whatsoever. I’m willing to be convinced on the matter, but frankly, I’ve never met anyone who felt strongly enough about his writing to bother trying. Which says all I need to know about it.
  75. Ulysses – James Joyce
    Let me start by saying that if I was compiling this list, Ulysses would be #1. It’s one of the very few books that deserves the incredible critical acclaim it has received. In my view, you can firmly locate the beginning of ‘the modern era’ with the publication of Ulysses. For better or worse. It’s one of the very very small number of novels that I’ve read more than once (three times so far, and I’m planning on a fourth next year) and one of the very very small number of things that makes me positively proud to be a human being. If aliens from SpaceLand arrive and threaten to obliterate us unless we can demonstrate our worth as a species, I’ll be there, clutching a copy of Ulysses, and insisting that a species that can produce this novel deserves to survive. People tell me it’s an impossible book to read. I just look at them as though they’re mad. For me, it’s an impossible book not to read.
  76. The Bell Jar – Sylvia Plath
  77. Swallows and Amazons – Arthur Ransome
  78. Germinal – Emile Zola
  79. Vanity Fair – William Makepeace Thackeray
    Meh. Over-rated but worth a read if you’re interested in 19th century England. I was when I read it. I’m not really anymore, but I’m glad I was when I was. Y’dig?
  80. Possession – AS Byatt
    It’s been recommended. Not sure I’ll get round to it any time soon, but it’s another for that “eventually” list.
  81. A Christmas Carol – Charles Dickens
    Never read it. Scrooged was a funny film back when I was seventeen, though. But that had more to do with Bill Murray than Charles Dickens I wager.
  82. Cloud Atlas – David Mitchell
  83. The Color Purple – Alice Walker
  84. The Remains of the Day – Kazuo Ishiguro
  85. Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert
    Supposed to be wonderful. I doubt it somehow, but it’s on the “eventually” list nonetheless.
  86. A Fine Balance – Rohinton Mistry
  87. Charlotte’s Web – EB White
  88. The Five People You Meet In Heaven – Mitch Albom
    I was given this as a gift just prior to a trip to the States. I never finished it, and wound up watching Mr. Bean re-runs on the plane instead. Which tells you a lot about the book. I find Mr. Bean very irritating.
  89. Adventures of Sherlock Holmes – Sir Arthur Conan Doyle
    I’ve read them all. Every single one. At least twice. Holmes was a hero of mine (still is to an extent) and I could read those stories again and still get a huge amount from them.
  90. The Faraway Tree Collection – Enid Blyton
    I have fond memories of these books from when I was 7 or 8. Not sure how well Enid Blyton would stand up to an adult-reading, but heartily recommended for 7 year olds!
  91. Heart of Darkness – Joseph Conrad
  92. The Little Prince – Antoine De Saint-Exupery
  93. The Wasp Factory – Iain Banks
    Not as good as some of his subsequent novels (The Crow Road still being my personal favourite and one that would be underlined were it on this list), but a classic all the same. Filled with disturbing imagery though.
  94. Watership Down – Richard Adams
    Neither the novel nor the film ever really grabbed me the way they grabbed lots of people I know. Not a complete waste of time though.
  95. A Confederacy of Dunces – John Kennedy Toole
  96. A Town Like Alice – Nevil Shute
  97. The Three Musketeers – Alexandre Dumas
  98. Hamlet – William Shakespeare
    Not content with having this on the list once (as part of the complete works) the BBC have insisted on putting it in twice. And sadly, Shakespeare’s no better a writer second-time round. Dumb nonsense filled with unlikeable characters, plot holes and incomprehensible dialogue. Fuck off Mr. Shakespeare and take your rhyming couplets with you, you big arse.
  99. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory – Roald Dahl
    Not a patch on Danny The Champion of The World. But a good kids book nevertheless.
  100. Les Miserables – Victor Hugo

So yeah, 64/100 and some controversial statements, no doubt. But what else is a blog good for, eh?

To wrap up, let me add a short list of books that would have made the top 100 if it had been compiled by someone concerned with good writing rather than tradition. No particular order, by the way, and consider them all ‘underlined’.

  • Vineland – Thomas Pynchon
    Considered the least of his novels, I think Vineland is damn-near perfect. Gloriously absurd and vitally important all at once. I would also, genuinely, add every single other novel he’s written to the top 100 list. There’s only seven of them, so if you take out Dickens, Austen, Hardy and Shakespeare you’ll have plenty of room for them.
  • Vermillion Sands – JG Ballard
    One of his lesser known books, Vermillion Sands is actually a collection of 5 or 6 short-stories set in the same town. It’s my favourite of his books, but isn’t the only one that merits mention. Rushing To Paradise, The Day of Creation, Concrete Island, Cocaine Nights and all of his short-story collections are highly recommended.
  • Timequake – Kurt Vonnegut
    Like with Pynchon’s Vineland, I seem — even with those authors I love dearly — to gravitate towards the less critically-acclaimed novels. Timequake is a bleak, depressing and very funny book and is probably my favourite Vonnegut novel. Others I loved… Slaughterhouse-Five, The Sirens of Titan, The Breakfast of Champions, Player Piano and Slapstick (or, Lonesome No More).
  • Collected Essays – George Orwell
    Utterly essential. There’s more wisdom and insight contained in the essays of Orwell than can be found in the combined literature of the preceeding 6 centuries.
  • Dubliners – James Joyce
    It’s not Ulysses. But then, other than Ulysses, what is?
  • Huckleberry Finn / Tom Sawyer – Mark Twain
    Only read these quite recently, oddly enough, and they are far far better than any pre-20th century writing has a right to be.
  • Nova Express – William S. Burroughs
    And you can add pretty much his entire output to the list. To me, Nova Express is the absolute zenith of the cut-up technique. It manages to deconstruct not only language, but the very thought-processes of the reader, while simultaneously telling a story. It’s the novel that The Ticket That Exploded was trying to be, but just fell short of.
  • Tales of Ordinary Madness – Charles Bukowski
    The collection of stories that made me decide to become a writer (after The Lord of The Rings had sown the initial seed). It was the first time I’d read a book that felt genuine and real to me. It’s dark and unpleasant at times, and entirely inappropriate for an 11-year-old. But if anyone wants to trace the major influences on my own strange writing style, then pick up a copy of this book and all will be revealed.
  • Stone Junction – Jim Dodge
    It takes balls to walk in Pynchon’s footsteps. Jim Dodge has them. And isn’t doing too bad a job of it.
  • Steppenwolf – Hermann Hesse
    A huge novel for me in my teens. Helped me realise I wasn’t just mad, and that other people had thought the same things as me. Which was comforting if nothing else.
  • Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said – Philip K. Dick
    Not the greatest writer in the world (technically speaking) but a man with more great ideas than almost anyone else. His short-stories tend to be better than his novels (in my view). No doubt there’ll be those who point to his final three novels as being The Great Ones, and they are indeed Great, but this is the one that had the greatest impact on me when I first read it and the one that has lingered most prominently in my memory.
  • Pattern Recognition – William Gibson
    Although I’m a big fan of his early cyberpunk stuff (I loved his cameo in Wild Palms… “Hi, I’d like you to meet William Gibson, he’s the man who coined the term cyberspace, you know?” Gibson (under his breath); “yeah, and they won’t let me forget it!”) I feel he’s really started to come into his own as a writer more recently. Like Jim Dodge, his later stuff is — dare I say it — “Pynchonesque”.

And there’s plenty more of course. Those are ‘top of the head’ suggestions. My fiction is in another room, so I’m probably missing out someone utterly vital. Looking at the bookshelf in this room, however, I’d suggest that the complete works of Freud (all 24 volumes) should be on the list, as should The Politics of Ecstasy by Timothy Leary, Robert Anton Wilson’s Quantum Psychology, Einstein’s Ideas and Opinions as well as Relativity, Colin Tudge’s So Shall We Reap, Carl Jung’s Memories, Dreams, Reflections, the collected works of Nietzsche, Lacan’s Écrits (still not read most of it, but I recognise its worth) and — it goes without saying I’m sure — Gregory Bateson’s Steps To an Ecology of Mind.

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Mar 2008

Official: people = consumers

It’s a busy night for coded government announcements. This time it’s the British Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith, who has revealed much with her choice of language. We all know by now that late-capitalism has reduced us all, in theory, to mere consumers; units of potential economic exploitation. But when our own governments begin to see us, treat us, and overtly describe us in those terms then perhaps it’s time to man the barricades.

The story in this case is the rather predictable news that the British government is back-tracking on ID-cards (via Garry). This was inevitable, and I predicted as much the day I heard the project announced. The logistics of the proposed system meant that any due-diligence will have highlighted the near-impossibility of rendering it secure, or even of getting it to work properly. And the cost was always going to be prohibitive given the sheer pointlessness of the scheme. After all, if ID-cards were truly a necessary weapon in the fight against terrorism, any British Home Secretary who announced that “by 2015, 90% of foreign nationals will have identity cards” would be immediately fired from the position (and possibly charged with treason for leaving the nation dangerously unprotected. That’s surely aiding and abetting terrorism, even if only through rampant incompetence).

But of course, everyone knows the real reason for the scheme was to allow the government to build a central database containing detailed information on as many people as possible. Or “consumers” as they’re now known.

Home Secretary Jacqui Smith said students would also be encouraged to get identity cards from 2010, as part of plans to let “consumer demand” drive take-up.

Firstly, I’m dubious about the notion that there’s any real “demand” for the things. Are British students really clamouring to be fingerprinted by the government? But it’s the phrase “consumer demand” that really caught my attention. Unless you are deliberately going out of your way to mangle the English language, there’s no way you could describe ID-cards as being “consumed” by those who are issued them. So the phrase “consumer demand” is being used in the sense of “being demanded by consumers”.

Perhaps I’m just being over-sensitive to the language of politicians these days, but it sounds sinister as hell to my ears, and gives a clear indication of the belief-system behind it.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion

Feb 2008

Happy St. Cyril’s Day

It’s the 14th of February, and as we all know, that means it’s the feast of St. Cyril.

Saint Cyril was born in Northern Greece, but took it upon himself to bring The Good Word to Eastern Europe and — along with his brother, Saint Methodius — is responsible for converting the Slavs. Saint Cyril also invented the alphabet that still bears his name (Saint Script, or as it’s sometimes known; Sanskrit) and used it to translate the gospels into Slavonic. The feast of St. Methodius is also celebrated today, as is the feast of St. Maro, founder of the Maronites and the first person to work out that food left to steep in a sauce overnight tastes much better when barbecued.

Interestingly, today is also the feast of St. Apollonius of Terni (the patron saint of purple rain), the feast of St. Ammonio of Alexandria (the patron saint of noxious fumes), the feast of St. Zeno of Rome (patron saint of logical paradoxes), and of course, it’s also the feast of St. Proto (patron of scale models and stuff that still needs testing).

I think that covers them all. Any suggestion that I may have missed someone will be met with a firm, but fair…

Bah Humbug in cyrillic

The idea for this post was shamelessly stolen from John Band.

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Oct 2007

Climate change and some other links

For reasons I’m at a loss to explain, I absolutely love the fact that this exists.

This one is from a while ago, but I think the headline is a classic… Rich ‘can pay poor to cut carbon’. Because it’s the poor doing all the emitting, right? Like most soundbites though, it actually provides an inaccurate characterisation of what Yvo de Boer, head of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) had to say. On the surface it sounds like he’s implying that “wealthy nations” can buy their way out of their responsibility to cut their own emissions. But that’s not what he’s saying at all, though you only get a hint of that fact from the BBC article when they quote the vital line:

… So it actually becomes economically quite attractive for a company, for example in the UK, that has a target, to achieve this goal by reducing emissions in China.

Yvo de Boer | BBC News article

Note the important word… “company”. This proposal isn’t in the context of a national carbon trading scheme, but as part of a direct carbon tax on corporations. And this is a man who clearly understands the reality of the global manufacturing industry. He knows that the products being bought by American and European consumers come from factories in China and India and Mexico. So don’t force Nike to spend money cutting emissions in the United States when all their carbon emissions are happening in Vietnam. Especially… and here’s the killer point… since a dollar spent reducing the emissions at an American factory won’t go half as far in cutting emissions as that same dollar spent on a factory in a nation with laxer environmental regulations. And it’s all about cutting the global total; it matters little whether the carbon dioxide is released into US or Mexican skies.

It’s not Americans and Europeans paying the poorer nations to clean up their factories. It’s Americans and Europeans paying the poorer nations to clean up our factories. And so long as the proposal is within the context of a corporate levy rather than a trading scheme, then I say let’s just do the damn thing right now. A simple, blunt law introduced immediately and applying to the current financial year. It will do as a stop-gap while the politicians faff about for a wee bit longer, and can be replaced by whatever they eventually decide on (once the IPCC have judged it to be at least as effective in cutting total emissions in the short, medium and long term).

Proposal: Every company that wishes to continue trading in Europe in any capacity must spend 25% of all profits made in Europe directly on carbon reduction measures within their own organisation. If cleaning up their Indonesian manufacturing plants would get the best “carbon value for money” then that’s what they should do. But they will be audited, and failures to comply will result in crippling fines.

Do I hear a second?

25% is probably a tad low, but you’ve got to pick a realistic starting point, right? I mean if this genuinely is the most important problem facing our generation, then let’s get serious about it. 25% off the net profit. I’m not talking about plunging companies into losses here. Only readjusting things a bit. It just means that shareholders will get a bit less money and yes, R&D will slow down a bit, as will the economy. But that’s a small price to pay, right? Or are we too cheap for even that? To safeguard a future for our children and all of theirs? Holy crap, we are, aren’t we?

Note: companies and projects working in areas that directly contribute to a reduction in carbon emissions (renewable energy projects, for instance) would probably be exempt from the 25% corporate-carbon levy; both to allow them to maximise inward investment and R&D spend, but also to make them more attractive to investors.

Just a thought.

And on the subject of climate change, it appears that here in Ireland our climate is “hotting up twice as fast as anywhere else in the world. It’s official.” Hard to know which is worse; the news or the copywriting.

In other news: I am dismayed. Though utterly unsurprised.

And although I know how cruel it is, for some reason I find myself grinning at the images conjured by this story here.

Oh, and lest you think climate change is the only thing you should be depressed about; read this and weep.

3 comments  |  Posted in: Opinion