Category Archives: Morality

On Remembrance Day.

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You have certain reservations about Remembrance Day.

This is not because you are anti-war, anti those/these wars or anti Britain particularly, although some of those are somewhat true.

Remembrance Day in the UK is in some ways a historical anachronism, instituted at the end of a war which saw every family in the UK touched but where the outcome was largely inconclusive, devoid of any real sense of victory and without much material benefit for returning soldiers. The result was massive emotional investment in war memorials and the rituals surrounding them as a focus for the grief of the nation, a nation who didn’t have much to cheer about. This set the tone for the way war has been commemorated in the UK ever since, yet it is noticeable that the Second World War, a war which had some fairly obvious winners and losers, and which resulted in things like the welfare state being set up, did not produce a rash of war memorials. Names tended to be tacked on to the old World War One monuments.*

It’s this almost exclusive focus on the dead that you consider, at best, a little hypocritical, and at worst, rather dangerous.

It’s easy to say, isn’t war awful, look what it leads to, those poor dead boys, wasn’t it tragic, let’s wear this symbol, bow our heads, say we are sorry and feel morally cleansed by our acknowledgement of the horror. You worry that by wallowing in one day’s mourning, we, the non combatants, feel that we absolve ourselves of involvement in the issue of war the other 364 days of the year.

Plus, whilst you appreciate that the day is a comfort to those who have lost family or friends in war, and that this is not an inconsiderable point, nevertheless, the dead are dead. Remembrance Day can’t help them now. You consider that the focus on the dead means we lose sight of our responsibilities to living solders. Where, you wondered, is the day to support the troops currently under fire on our behalf, to celebrate the maimed, the traumatised, the returnees from war?

Well, actually, there is a day of sorts. It’s called Armed Forces Day (formerlyVeterans Day). Anyone know when that is? No, you thought not.

The thing is, you think that history is repeating itself, in that the longer we engage in a protracted, depressing and inconclusive war, the more focus will be put on Remembrance Day, to the detraction of actually doing anything about it, or about the increasing numbers of young men exposed to the unpleasantness who have to come back and try to get on with their lives.

Not to mention the people who actually have to live in areas of conflict.

So you buy your poppy and you wear it. In fact, this year you bought two pin on poppies, two stick on poppies, a Remembrance Day balloon, a sticker and a pennant, because when you discovered that you only had a five-pound note, rather overwhelmed by your largesse and the Star’s obvious excitement, the Royal British Legion‘s representative kept producing new items as you attempted to stuff your money into his collecting tin. You approve of their work.

But you don’t think November 11th is the best day to do our best thinking about war, our roles and responsibilities.

A paper poppy, worn in the United Kingdom from...

Image via Wikipedia

*You did quite a lot of research once on the meaning of First World War memorials, it bothers you that much. Some of that research ended up here.

On slinging the baby.

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Now, you are a big fan of slings. So much so that you were going to write a post for International Babywearing Week, except your success in finessing Twitter had to be recorded first.

Yet you struggle to take the term ‘babywearing’ seriously. Mainly because it seems to be something of a philosophical position and the fact that you wear slings a lot is, in your view, simply a practical choice.

There are lots of stairs to your flat and you use public transport a lot so it saves heaving a buggy up steps and over commuters’ toes. It allowed the Star to look passers-by better in the eye and smile at them, which he enjoyed, and it allows the Comet to better grab hold of interesting leaves, iron railings and your hair, which she enjoys. It also keeps your hands free to snaffle the Star as he attempts to sprint off in the opposite direction to the one you want. And the Comet, except on very rare occasions, doesn’t seem to enjoy being in the pram attachment to your pushchair*.

Anyway, you now consider your self, after two babies and four types of sling, something of a sling connoisseur.

There was the bag sling, reviled for its overheating issues, but incredibly easy to get on and with a cave-like atmosphere your newborns seemed to enjoy. You never felt you could let go, though, and you did need to watch that they were getting fresh air. The next was a Baby Bjorn. You always felt other people were having all the fun with the Star there as he was turned away from you. Whispering in his ear just wasn’t the same as being able to exchange grimaces. He, of course, loved it. Then there was a lightweight backpack. Bit of a struggle to get on but the main disadvantage was that the Star used to use your hair to steer you. Ow! And you say again, ow!

So given that you had never quite found that perfect solution with the Star, for the Comet you took advice from a fellow sling enthusiast and bought an Ellaroo wrap.

It’s a bit ethnic looking. Very Peruvian pan pipes.

Other than that it is hands down the best of the lot and you say that despite the fact that you haven’t gone much further than the front cross carry position. It’s more comfortable, has lasted longer already and it doubles as a breastfeeding cover, unless of course you are just going straight for that most useful of functions, the ability to feed her without removing her from the sling. With a bit of pointed wiggling, readjustment, and the inevitable nipple flash, of course.

But you’ve never been much of a one for wearing the sling around the house, particularly now you have a toddler, and today you were reminded of why.

There you were, happily wandering down the riverbank, hand in hand with the Star, the Comet growling away somewhere under your chin. When suddenly, ‘Kaka! Kaka! Kaka!’ shouted the Star.

You remained calm. You located a bar, marched the Star through it, and fended off the publican who tried to direct you to the baby change area.

You arrived at the toilets unscathed and proceeded to start stripping your son. The Comet got in the way. The Comet objected to being squashed between you and the Star while your unsighted hands wrestled with the zipper. The Comet yelled and screamed and thrashed and objected.

Eventually, you got the Star perched on the seat of the big toilet, clutching your hand, but otherwise unworried at the prospect of falling in backwards with a splash.

The Comet roared on and tried to fling herself out of the sling backwards, but you relaxed and waited for the plop plop plopping to begin.

And suddenly, there you are, kneeling on the floor of a public toilet in a cramped cubicle with a small alarm system strapped to your tummy, and someone is pissing in your face.

Because you had forgotten to ensure that the Star’s pipiska was pointing downwards in all the confusion. The Comet’s cute little coat** got a bit of drenching too.

So while you love your Ellaroo, you are counting the days until someone solves the ‘can’t bend and twist elegantly and with ease’ problem which all slings have currently.

*You gather this because she cries. Energetically. Unless she is parked under a tree. She likes trees.

**Look, she’s a lamb! Look at the ears! Awwwwwwwww.

On bra burning.

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You are not sure whether it is a source of relief or a source of dismay but as you get older you do not seem to know everything.

Or rather, you still have the capacity to find out new things. Having children is one long learning curve.

But as well as new and useful skills such as the best way to soothe a screaming baby*, which children’s tv programmes to avoid**,  techniques for having a poo all by yourself*** or how to make unlumpy cheese sauce **** the interesting thing is finding that you can still have revelations about things you have been thinking about for years (decades. Oh dear. Decades).

While you were pregnant you found yourself contemplating the world your daughter would be living in and the trials and tribulations she might find there.

As a woman.

And while you were musing, this happened.

This is an article about some law that someone introduced to the state legislature of  Georgia (USA).

It’s an anti-abortion law.

But it’s also a law which wanted to criminalise women who have miscarriages.

Yes, every miscarriage was to be treated as a potential murder and investigated as such.

Now this is a whole world of appalling in its own right.

But what made it worse for you was you suddenly understood as you had never understood quite so viscerally before how the history of women is the history of women being treated as objects. As incubators with no rights or independence at all. Just a womb, and a womb which at all costs must be controlled, told who to associate with and how. And with no other worth than the ability to produce offspring.

You were thoroughly horrified. You were scaldingly angry.

But the weirdest thing was that you were not sure that you would ever have really grasped this fundamental aspect of feminism 101 had you not tried to become pregnant. Prior to this you were not in the habit of considering yourself as primarily a baby making factory. But there is no escaping it when you are in the middle of cooking one baby hard on the heels of remembering how producing another has been an act of subsuming your independence, your body and your every waking moment to the service of this new life.

Of course, it’s one thing to choose to do that and another thing to have that choice made for you by someone else, to have even the acknowledgement that it might be your decision to make taken away.

But hey, Georgia’s in America, it’s far away and they are all slightly cracked on the issue over there. Plus, it didn’t pass.*****

And then this happened.

This is an article about some amendment that someone introduced into the legislature of the United Kingdom.

It’s an anti abortion law.

Specifically it sought to insist that all counselling of women seeking abortions should be done by independent counsellors. And by ‘independant’ what they meant was religious anti choice groups seeking to reduce the UK’s abortion rate by at least 60,000 every year.

Now it didn’t pass. It was, in fact, defeated rather spectacularly.

But how dare, how very dare they seek to limit access to a legal procedure in this way?

Clearly we are not as far along the path to freedom as we might think.

*Hiss Shhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh! in their ear more loudly than you might have expected.

**Balamory, the Tweenies and Big Cook, Small Cook to name but three.

***Sneaking up the stairs while the Star is otherwise engaged with Peppa Pig sometimes works.

****Use hot milk.

*****You are assuming it didn’t pass, because if it did pass and the howls of outrage did not echo around the world, well there is something seriously wrong.

On the plane.

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As you type you are high in the sky somewhere between London and Moscow* and you are furious with your MiL.

This is because the Star is in hospital. In Moscow.

With tonsillitis.

You are, of course, feeling somewhat guilty about this, which doubtless exacerbates your crossness.

You had been thoroughly enjoying your two weeks sans husband and child. You’ve cleaned the house to within an inch of its life, including shampooing the carpets, rearranging your kitchen cabinets, washing even the ceiling in the bathroom, dusting between and under all the technics and removing three bin bags of toys from the colourful plastic mountain that exists in the corner of your living room. Your work files are beautifully organised. You have eaten lasagna every day for a week. You have gone out and got completely and utterly plastered in the company of one old friend and spent an entire afternoon chatting lazily over coffee with another. You have spent another whole day shopping. You have read trashy novels. You have lounged around in bed all morning. You have read trashy novels whilst lounging around in bed all morning.

It hasn’t all been hedonistic self-indulgence, mind. You’ve been working too, hence the delay in your joining your family. But it is amazing how much spare time you have when your two part-time jobs are no longer vying for attention with your full-time job looking after a hyperactive two-year-old. And B.

And of course you have been looking forward to being reunited with your menfolk. And missing them. You spent a whole hour playing cars with the boy downstairs on the flimsiest of pretexts just the other day, just because the way he declaims ‘car!’ as though it is the only important word on the English language reminds you of your son.

But up until Saturday evening, you had felt barely a moment’s actual anxiety about the fact that you were separated by three and a half hours of airtime from your baby. He was, after all, in the company of his Babushka, who you secretly suspect of being rather better at looking after small children than you are.

Except, that is, when the small children are ill.

You have noted before how hysterical your MiL gets when the Star runs a temperature.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the Star runs a very high temperature every time he gets more than a slight sniffle. Nevertheless, you were only vaguely concerned when B told you on the phone on Thursday that the Star was feeling a bit under the weather. Calpol exists in Russia. As did your husband, who seemed to have everything under control, is a demonstrably capable man in the general scheme of things, a thoroughly involved father and who has been trained in coping with the Star when ill by you. You could rely on him, you thought.

In a strategic error, however, your husband went out for a couple of hours on the Saturday leaving your MiL alone with your son.

And in those few hours, your MiL panicked, phoned an ambulance which, somewhat bemusedly you hear, whisked your son off to the children’s hospital on the other side of the capital.

Your husband, arriving home sharpish after a confusing phone call from his mother, found the door locked and no key or other useful information left with any of the neighbours. He had to scale the scaffolding that builders are using to renovate the building and break into the balcony in order to get inside. Whereupon he found no useful information left there either. He eventually tracked down the Star with a couple of phone calls to the Russian equivalent of the NHS.

No, your MiL did not take a mobile with her. To be fair, she’d given hers to B. Who doesn’t have one because a) you have to pay to get foreign mobiles unlocked in Russia and b) you have his as you had washed yours two weeks earlier.

This, of course, does not explain why the Star is still in hospital, two days later, with tonsillitis.

You are yourself unclear on this point, except that it seems to have something to do with the fact that he is having injections to counteract the overblown tonsils. Whether or not he can only finish this particular antibiotic course if they are injected is something you need to find out immediately. You have a horrible feeling that you, B and the Star may all be stuck in the hospital for a week, although the medical friend, who you tracked frantically down across cyberspace and numerous messages on various answering machines on Saturday evening ** did suggest that doctors will occasionally recommend admitting a small child to hospital for a relatively minor illness purely on the basis of the complete lack of ability to cope displayed by his caregivers. Clearly your MiL passed that test with flying colours and Russians, if you can be allowed to generalise horribly, tend to assume that men should not necessarily have much to do with children, so presumably B doesn’t count. Hopefully, once you arrive, you can present a competent female presence they can deliver your son to and all will be well.

Except that you do not know how you are going to spend the next month in the same small flat as your MiL.

Now you appreciate that it could be said that she is only the grandmother and it is your and your husband’s responsibility to do the more extreme aspects of childrearing. You would sourly note that you are expected to treat her as a member of the nuclear rather than extended family in pretty much every other way. It’s a Russian thing, you are told. Babushkas are more involved than their British counterparts. Still, you and B failed to control the situation and that has landed the Star in hospital. Hence the guilt.

Nevertheless, it is an unfortunate truth that with minor and common childhood illnesses, or not so minor for that matter, the adults just have to stand there and watch, relatively powerless, whilst the apple of their eye suffers. There isn’t anything anyone can do about that. Well, OK, calpol, antibiotics and so on. But basically the illness is going to run its course regardless and a hospital can do nothing for tonsillitis except provide a sugar pill of the illusion of medical assistance… for the adult. It does nothing for the child except remove him from his familiar surroundings and cut him off from the TV at a time when he could really do with them.

So you find it really unforgivable, that left in charge of your son, your MiL indulged herself, put her needs over your son’s best interests.

Yes, you are indeed furious with your MiL.

*Or not. What I did on my holidays part 1.

**And whom you have yet to thank sufficiently. A big round of thanks to him for soothing this mother’s fevered brow. Huge.

On games to play with babies.

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There you are, innocently dandling the Star on your knee as he manipulates his coloured curly rings into his mouth.

Cautiously, you grope for your (lukewarm) tea and make as if to drink.

Instantly, the Star’s eyes light up. His mouth opens wide. He flings his plastic plaything across the room, and shoots his hands out in an attempt to snatch the new, infinitely superior, toy.

Idly, you hold it just out of reach, and move it around a bit so he can have a good look.

Then, slowly and deliberately, you take a sip.

The Star’s arms and legs whirl frantically with frustrated excitement.

Until you put the mug back just out of his line of sight.

The Star looks miffed for a few seconds, but forgets all about it as you hand him a book to suck.

And then you reach for your (lukewarm) tea and make as if to drink.

On lies and damn lies.

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You have to confess to a certain ambivalence towards news journalists.*

One of the charges the postmodernists throw at historians of the old school is that they create the illusion of empiricism by the style they employ in their writing. No hint of a mention of ‘I think…’, an attempt to surpass the amount written in the actual text by the number of words in footnotes, and the skillful use of prose so uninspiring as to put the reader to sleep within the first few pages.

Yet in the selection of information, and its juxtaposition with other so called facts, a powerful argument is, in fact, created which reflects the preconceptions, prejudices and sometimes sheer whimsy of the writer.

Now you emphatically don’t agree with the extreme extension of the argument that it it is possible to say anything at all about any given topic and call it equally as valid as any other opinion, but you do admit that there is enough truth in their criticisms as to mean that any news outlet claiming to be totally objective is sailing as close to kidding itself, or, more importantly its audience, as makes no difference.

Yes, it is the BBC you are talking about here.

Today, on heavy rotation as part of the reportage on the Russia/ Georgia contretemps, there is an interview with the Georgian president who is making a powerful plea to the West to intervene in the conflict in the name of saving democracy.

Georgia, he says, a democratic republic, is in danger of having its democratic rights trampled by the undemocratic removal of its democratically elected government.

Now the BBC is an organisation who can barely mention Russia without some mention of the autocratic (and artificially extended) rule of Vladimir Putin, electoral irregularity, suppression of opposition and crushing of the god given right of the press to say whatever the hell it likes. Even if it’s a story about how some old babushka from Vladivostok who has roller skated backwards around the globe wearing nothing but a bikini and a purple feather boa in a bid to claim the ‘most completely pointless world record’ award.

However, the BBC are running this interview without any sort of balancing comment to point out that calling Georgia’s President democratically elected is a bit like taking Zimbabwean president Mugabe’s similar claims at face value.

And irritating. 

 

* To which a regular reader of this blog** will no doubt be saying ‘no shit, Sherlock’ at this point.

** you absolutely refuse to add the qualifier ‘all five of them’ here.

On Solzhenitsyn.

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Aleksandr Isayevich Solzhenitsyn died last week.

You thought the reactions to his death in the West were quite interesting.

Considering that people held in prison by repressive regimes the West disapproves of who subsequently spend a lot of time and energy denouncing the same are usually accorded irreproachable sainthood status, some of the commentators were surprisingly grudging.

For example, there was the snittiness with which someone involved in making the film of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich responded when asked what Solzhenitsyn had said about it.

‘Arrogently’ was the epitaph given. Because Solzhenitsyn thought it was ‘true to truth’, without qualifying that what he meant was his truth, apparently.

Of course, perhaps asking someone of Jewish extraction to comment was unwise if what was wanted was not speaking ill of the dead.

However, although That Book about Jewish Russian history probably sealed his fate as a hero with feet, legs and quite possibly torso and arms of clay, he was tarnished, or at least tactfully ignored, long before that.

The mistake the West made was in thinking that he shared their values just because he opposed the Soviet system, something they were firmly disabused of when he thundered away at some Harvard ceremony back in 1978. You are not sure whether it was the direct criticism or the fact that he was only ever interested in commentating on the Soviet Union and Russia in its own terms which offended people more.

Accusing him of bad writing was a bit of a low blow though.

Now you haven’t read That Book* so you absolutely refuse to comment on it. 

However, you personally can’t automatically dismiss the man. What you have read of his stuff had a rather impressive impact on you. Especially The Gulag Archipelago.

Not so much for the revelations about the dark side of the Soviet system. You are, after all, a child of the later stages of the cold war and very familiar with the default status of the USSR as the Evil Empire.

But while Gulag is not primarily a personal memoir, you were very impressed by a number of observations Solzhenitsyn made about how he behaved while in the camps. For you suspect that despite the segacity with which they quote the ‘first they came for the…’ poem, not only do most people secretly believe that not only would they would be able to stand up to repression, but that nationalities who have succumbed wholesale to madness were somehow morally deficient to start with.

Solzhenitsyn rather disabused you of whatever tendencies you may have had towards this kind of thinking, almost in passing, by revealing some of his own story. Particularly memorable was his conviction that had he remained in the ordinary camps for the whole of his term, he would have succumbed to the pressure that had already started to be applied to become a sort of stool pigeon, spying on his fellow prisoners for the guards, as so many others did. Anyone who thinks this is evidence of some kind of deficiency in Solzhenitsyn has not been paying attention to the rest of the book.

You were also struck by the lack of bitterness Solzhenitsyn showed towards the regime that put him through the experience.

Admittedly this is because Solzhenitsyn came to believe that struggle is, on balance, good for the soul, an argument which your hair shirt mentality finds quite seductive.

Even as you suspect that many of his former prison mates (particularly the ones who died) may not agree.

 

*And are unlikely to do so given that it is unavailable on Amazon or anywhere else reachable via a quick Internet search. Which does rather raise the question of whether anyone else commenting on it has actually read it either…

On how to produce a good Eurovision entry.

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You adore the Eurovision Song Contest and you say this totally without the kind of qualifiers that Brits usually add at this point. Such as ‘it’s so tragiclly kitsch’.

In fact, you are rather bemused by the fact that the British persist in regarding the thing as a monumental joke and yet follow programmes like Pop Idol with depressing sincerity. On both shows the musicianship these days is pretty good, but whereas the Eurovision entries are varied, interesting and sometimes quite original, the other shows are wall to wall bland.

The UK spectacular missing of the point is usually neatly encapsulated in their total inability to send a decent song along.

This year, we fielded the sort of entry we fondly imagine the Eurovision is full of. Except, of course, ours was better because we were doing it ironically. So we had people in flight attendant uniforms making suggestive remarks about champagne bottles, doing aeroplane impressions and singing about how they wanted to fly the flag over all the countries in Europe.

Fly the flag over all the countries in Europe? The flag? The flag?

Really, you were quite disappointed anyone voted for us at all after that rampant display of unrepentant imperialism.

The French entry, on the other hand, was funny. Since the French, year after year, have traditionally rather humourlessly sent women stubbornly singing ballads in French even when everybody had succumbed to doing it all in English, the fact that they did it in Franglais showed a proper entry into the spirit of things. And they wore pink PVC, were jolly, and it was a much better song all round.

But to really get the full beauty of it you had to be quite good at both English and French. You don’t think many people are that good at English or French. The default language of the tournament may be English, but the trick is to try and string together the English words which are universally recognised (‘love love love love love love love love’) in some kind of logical order rather than anything more sophisticated.

 So nobody voted for it either. Except you.

Actually you are quite pleased that the rise of digital TV systems which allow translations and such seems to have encouraged people to start singing in their own language again.

The whole point, for you, of Eurovision is to enjoy a small lifting of the fog cutting the continent off from the UK, and this does not include having to pay attention to the words, which really don’t deserve it, particularly when they are written in someone’s second language. You positively enjoy listening to the other languages in fact.

This year you had your own awards for ‘ most random English lyric’ . Russia won hands down for some really ill-conceived ‘ummy’ rhymes and calling each other bitches. You are so proud. The UK came a close second though, which is really quite embarrassing when you think about it.

Anyway. You generally refuse to vote for anyone singing totally in English, although you streatched a point for Georgia this year because, although the song was a blatant rip off of Madonna’s Ray of Light, you did feel that the ethnic dancers pulled one back for national flag waving. Plus, the singer was, as a singer, rather better than Madonna, and you happen to like that song.

B was forced to vote for Romania, on the grounds that they were the only people singing in Russian.

But there’s a bit of good humoured patriotism and then there’s the Ukraine.

Who sent along a well known TV personality of the Dame Edna Everage type to do a bit of techno bopping.

Terry Wogan described it as incomprehensible, mainly because the entirety of the lyrics submitted for the Eurovision’s subtitlers to play with were pretty much ‘I want to see… Lasha Tumbai.’ Although the silver costumes complete with a hat with a large five pointed star and energetic dancing might have had something to do with that too.

You have visions of the BBC’s researchers running around and trying to find out who Lasha is in Ukrainian popular culture and why she’s a suitable person to sing about at Eurovision.

They should have ignored the spelling and had a go at imagining what it might mean if you are singing in English with a strong Ukrainian peasant accent and you don’t want to tip your hand too blatantly.

It’s supposed to stand for ‘I want to see… Russia goodbye.’

Which you find incredibly insulting not primarily to Russia, but to the competition, which sees itself as one of these goodwill hands across the border type affairs. And you also find mean spirited the the fact that they presumably deliberately set out to trick Europe into singing along.

So you were hugely relieved when Serbia won with a perfectly pleasant, well executed song sung in Serbian about love.

On bad habits.

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By and large you have not embraced the mobile phone.

The last time you had to use one, you spent ten minutes swearing under your breath and had to punch every button on the thing at least three times before you could remember precisely which combination was needed in order to get it to connect with the number you were trying to dial. It kept insisting you wanted to edit the details of the person you were trying to phone instead.

This may be the result of having the most basic of basic machines, engineered for neither style nor functionality. But you rather doubt it. For example, you have only sent about three text mesages in your life no matter whose phone you are using, largely because the predictive text funtion defeats you. And you could never work out how to get your first, slightly more user friendly handset to tell you what it’s number was, but were forced to carry it around on a piece of paper.

On the other hand, your mobile did allow you to make rearrangements for a meeting with your Best Friend recently which, owing to the vagaries of London’s public transport system, otherwise would not have taken place at all.

And you must be one of the few people in the world who has no objection whatsoever to being forced to listen to total strangers bellowing the intimate details of their lives to the airwaves and all and sundry in enclosed public spaces.

Now you are quite self disciplined in the matter of reading other people’s mail and such. This is what happens when you are the daughter of a man so sternly protective of your privacy that he would dump a year’s worth of scrupulously unopened junk mail on you every time you went home to visit until you gave him written permission to open and throw away any envelope that looked like it might house a shampoo sample or be from the readers digest competition scam.

People talking on their phones on the bus so that you can hear them from one end to the other, on the other hand, are fair game and you take full advantage.

Your absolute favourite conversation of all time was the man who was being interviewed by a radio station about his life as a butler and his penchant for drinking champagne by the river of a Sunday morning. Although a close second is all the people who have dumped their other halves by mobile over the years.

So far your tolerance limit has only been breached by the trainee who spent the entire month of your acquaintance organising his business interests in the corridor outside your office at the top of his voice for the entirety of every lunch time.

Still, this morning you feel that you may just have overstepped the boundaries of good taste in that you spent the entire bus journey happily peering over the shoulder of the woman in front of you and reading her completely inaccurate messages to her boss about where she was and the state of the traffic,  a text to a family member where she had obviously decided to see how many meaningless platitudes she could fit onto one small screen, a warning to someone else to stop making irrational decisions, and a very interesting conversation with her long distance lover.

On activating your schemata.

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You can be very boring on the topic of grammar. And punctuation. Particularly commas. The rules are comforting, even if you do treat them as something of an abstract concept when it actually becomes time to apply them.

You are considerably more interested in how we actually use language, though. And the routines we follow and the skills we employ when doing so. Pragmatics. Discourse analysis. Psycho and sociolinguistics and all that jazz.

And reading.

Isn’t it interesting to discover that we do not read word by word and certainly not letter by letter? Instead we chunk words together in groups of about four or five and hop our eyes along the page from chunk to chunk. In fact, if we were to watch someone read, their eyes wouldn’t be moving smoothly across the page, but going along in a series of little jerks. The chunks aren’t random either, but grouped for sense. We’d be more likely to group together ‘there are four chairs’ followed by ‘in the kitchen’ than ‘There are’ followed by ‘four chairs in the’ followed by ‘kitchen’, for example.

There’s also the issue of schemata. This is all the background knowledge about a subject that you have that helps you process new information, written or spoken.

Imagine coming downstairs and seeing a letter on the front door mat. Looking at it, it’s generally clear from the style of the envelope whether it’s a bill type letter or a personal one. Imagine it’s a personal one, although goodness only knows who writes real letters these days. Picking it up and looking at the address – assuming it’s handwritten – might give away who it’s from. We tend to recognise the handwriting of our nearest and dearest, after all. If that doesn’t work, the Preston postmark might help. Only 90 year old Auntie Doris lives in Preston and she hasn’t been told about email yet in case it over stimulates her. Which explains the anachronistically handwritten letter.

However, let’s just imagine for a minute that it isn’t from Auntie Doris, but old friend Tom. Look his computer is clearly being particularly bloody minded at the moment. OK? Hence the letter. No, his mobile doesn’t work either. Or the land-line. Oh shut up.

Next time, remember to choose email for this illustration.

Anyway. It’s Tom, and we tend to know what’s going on in the lives of our friends – to the extent that we have a reasonable idea of which country they are in, whether they are still married, that they have a particular fondness for flinging themselves off bridges tied to a bit of knicker elastic and such. We also know the sorts of things which we gossip about with them. And so, by the time we open that letter, we are going to gave a very good idea of what it contains, which will help us charge through it, hoovering up the information it contains very efficiently. Although we may pause and reread a bit more closely if he reveals he’s just seen the light and is moving to a small commune on the outskirts of Las Vegas to await the second coming of The King.

Anyway, the reason you mention this is because you’ve just had a rather dislocating experience, somewhat akin to finding out Tom’s hitherto unsuspected obsession with Elvis, or that the letter you thought was from Tom reveals itself, after a few confusing paragraphs, to be from Auntie Doris after all.

There you are happily whomping though a new detective story and all of a sudden you start noticing that there are a lot of references to Spain and all thing Spanish. This could be because this particular section of the book is set in Spain, of course, but you’d rather assumed that this was just a sort of shorthand for underlining that the subject of the story is High Art and therefore demands the sophistication of a continental location. And the fact that we had already been dragged around Vienna and Holland by the author did nothing to dispel this notion.

So why the obsession with Spanish motifs? It nagged. And so when you came across a particularly incomprehensible skit involving an Argentinian character’s pronunciation of ‘w’, you were actually forced out of the book and onto the blurb in search of enlightenment.

And it turns out that the book is in fact written by a Spanish author. And has been translated from the Spanish. Which explained everything.

It was extremely disconcerting to discover that all the dialogue of the last few chapters had been conducted in Spanish, though.

It’s a good book, by the way. The Art of Murder by Jose Carlos Somoza.

                                    The Art of Murder.

Calling it a murder mystery is a bit misleading, actually. You’d say it was an alternative universe construct, but again, you are sure the author isn’t much of a sci fi geek.

Nevertheless, everything in this universe is the same except for the word of Art, which is now all about using people as canvases, specially trained to be quiescent and hopped up on mind and body altering drugs. The killing of various of these canvases, who have all been painted by the same artist, is not seen by the Art world as murder, but as the destruction of masterpieces.

What you like about the book is the in depth exploration of the ins and outs of this artistic trend and the way that this is woven into the story neatly rather than, as so often happens, being dumped in unwieldy chunks awkwardly all over the plot.

And this world turns out to be absolutely fascinating and very well thought through by the author. 

Of course, it also doesn’t hurt that the whole thing is one big satire on the absurdities of Modern Art, with the author clearly giving a lot of effort to topping the outrageousness of any pieces the real Art world can produce. You vigorously approve of this sort of thing.

Although the expose would be more convincing if you weren’t finding the descriptions of the art works he’s created so utterly compelling.