Saving the language

Some countries put considerable effort into saving the purity of their language.  The Welsh and Gaelic speaking Scots have their own TV channels, and the Irish insist that their schoolchildren spend hours learning the language of their great grandparents.  I once gave a speech to a conference of Welsh head-teachers, all of whom I am sure spoke fluent English, yet was simultaneously translated.  The French, of course, have an Academie which arbitrates on, and finds alternatives to, English neologisms.  Software becomes logiciel, e-mail is courriel and so on.  It’s a bit of a losing battle, given the coolness of American English in France: it is pretty impossible to stand anywhere in urban France and not see English in some form, even if it is incorrect.  TV makeover shows, for example, feature ‘relooking’, a word that does not exist in English.

The English are more relaxed about their language – apart from the occasional correspondent to the Telegraph, pointing out what words such as ‘disinterested’, ‘prestigious’ or ‘refute’ actually mean (or used to).  It’s a mongrel tongue anyway, words have always changed their meaning, and some of the neologisms are good fun.  American friends have introduced ‘wine o’clock’ into our daily usage, for example.  I also like ‘cyberchondria’ – seeking symptoms on the web to prove that you’re really ill.  We are happy to welcome useful Americanisms, and Britishisms – snog, sell-by date, ginger – have taken root in the USA.  This does not, however, mean that we give up the struggle for shape and meaning in our daily language.  It is under serious threat from a number of sources.

An obvious one is political language.  Orwell’s essay Politics and the English Language is a magnificent place to start the debate.  Language mattered to Orwell – the tyranny of Nineteen Eighty Four used Newspeak and doublethink to show the connection between ugly and careless expression, and ugly and careless government.  We are lucky not to live in a country where state murder is called ‘liquidation’ or ‘elimination of disloyal elements’, but there is still plenty of clichéd and thoughtless political language.  Politicians continue to construct speeches, in Orwell’s words, ‘like a prefabricated shed’ – from preformed phrases such as ‘zero tolerance’, ‘tough decisions’, ‘exciting challenges’, ‘sending a clear message’, ‘XX is not an option’.   We are told of measures that will ‘make a real difference’ (as opposed to the other sort of difference), usually to ‘local people’ (as opposed to the other sort of people). Words that are never used in real conversation – ‘slur’, ‘pledge’, ‘smear’, ‘vow’, ‘snub’ – come easily to the front-bencher.  The curious expression ‘delivering on’ has entered the language: there was a time when pallets were the only thing that products were delivered on.  It’s striking to see that Orwell himself, in 1947, mocked politicians who promise to ‘lay the foundations’ or ‘achieve radical transformations’, phrases still in widespread use.  Management speak has added ‘vision’, ‘obsession’ ‘passion’, ‘focus’.  The phrase ‘world-class’, which can be reasonably claimed to be meaningless due to differences in international statistical practice, is brought in to give a spurious air of evidential support to the latest idea.  Government spending is always referred to as ‘investment’, private price rises as ‘revised tariffs’.  There are even real world examples of Newspeak or doublethink. The Olympic Games, tendered for at £2bn, cost £11bn, yet was delivered ‘under budget’.  The last Labour administration claimed to ‘safeguard’ adult education by freezing – that is, in real terms, cutting – its budget.  Our current Prime Minister explains he is introducing efficiency not austerity. Maybe the reason so many people would prefer Boris Johnson – who would be a walking disaster as Prime Minister – is that he speaks like a human being, even if a very odd one.

Politicians are not alone.  The press joins in the pollution of language with tired phrases – postcode prescribing, Frankenstein foods – that cut off serious debate about local flexibility or GM foods.  They have their own locker of words no-one else uses – slam, snub, slur, pledge.  The egregious Americanism “of all time” is now everywhere.  This expression usually totally redundant.  The greatest athlete or worst disaster are just that – no need to add the ‘of all time’ as some sort of verbal vitamin supplement.  Other words are not allowed out on their own, and have to be accompanied by a bodyguard: fatally flawed, top model, essential services, absolutely free, much vaunted.

Corporate cant also contributes.  I may be a cold fish, but cannot believe that so many products, services and appointments are ‘exciting’.  The proliferating number of awards ceremonies keeps hotels in business, and pays the mortgage of many a second rate comedian; that probably explains why so many products and services are ‘award winning’.  This is, to be fair, international: try buying a bottle of wine in France that doesn’t have a medal on it.  This may be to show they have taken things “to another level”.  Firms promise to stay with us ‘every step of the way’ – corporate stalking ? – so that we can be sure that we have something  ‘that’s right for you’ on our ‘journey’.  Prepositions now cling to nouns: our on-train team offers at-seat service, and when we arrive we can get bargains in-store (and be offered expensive insurance cover to give us ‘peace of mind’ as if we live in a froth of worry that our kettle or iron will break down and destroy social cohesion).  The overall effect is simply to create an impression of boring dishonesty – think of the advertisements that say (usually with a gentle Scots burr that surveys have said we trust more than any other accent) “that’s why we at XXX  (fill in as appropriate)”.

And underlying it all, is the widespread awfulness of ‘incredible’.  A grumpy pedant like me sometimes passes the time listening to boring radio interviews by counting the number of times ‘incredible’ is used – even ‘literally incredible’.  It’s not just the fall back of breathless athletes asked ‘how do you feel ?’.  Contemplative people can be infected: Ian Bostridge’s Desert Island Discs became unlistenable because of this.  David Cameron has proclaimed an ambition that commemorating the start of the First World War will make the Imperial War Museum “more incredible than ever” – exactly what you don’t want from a museum, I’d have thought. There are many adjectives that could convey meaning better – substantial, astounding, surprising, remarkable, unprecedented – but maybe that would involve thought and invade our ‘peace of mind’.

The battle is not forlorn.  My father’s bete noire (yes, grumpy pedantry is genetic) was ‘fabulous’, and that seems to be dying away.  In any case, one of the great pleasures is listening to people who talk well, and do not fall back to the chicken-shack construction.  Salman Rushdie, Clive James, Alfred Brendel, Simon Callow, Jonathan Miller: an entertainment and a delight.

Time to go to bed.

Two candles for the police

I notice that the vicar of the estate near Manchester where two policewomen were killed has lit two candles for them.  Hmmm.  I hope this might some help to the poor families of these young women, and I know from my own family that religious faith can be some consolation in moments of grief.  Even though it’s not true.

That doesn’t remove some thoughts about the formulaic way that journalists deal with incidents like this.  The local community is always shocked (Why would they not be ? What reaction is expected ?  “Oh, well, just another murder round here: who gives a toss ?”).  And journalists usually ask the local vicar for local colour.  Now, church attendance in the UK is about 6%, I would guess much less than that on tough estates, and falling.  Why ask the vicar, then, when other people you could approach – the local school head teacher, or the local councillor – will have a much richer understanding of local issues ?  Or even, as a friend said yesterday, the check out assistant at Tesco.

The mention of vicars brings another medieval practice to mind – the way that those asked to comment whenever a disaster happens (a child dies in an accident, a soldier is killed on active service) say that the family are “in our thoughts and prayers”.  Thoughts, OK, fine, but prayers ?  Even if Prime Ministers and head-teachers were given to nightly prayers (again, hmmm), there is decent research evidence on the effectiveness of prayers and, er, they aren’t effective in the least.  One of them found that people who were sick in hospital actually recovered less well when they learned others were praying for them.  Becky Pugh, a journalist in the Daily Telegraph, last year wrote an article wondering (as a devout RC Christian) whether the survival of her sick child was due to modern medicine or prayer.  She could have found out relatively simply, by contrasting the fate of children in the third world who only have prayer against those in modern secular countries that rely on medical expertise.

Terrible things happen in our world.  Illness, crime, floods and earthquakes, accidents.  There are often things we can do to help – disaster funds, training, social policy changes, engineering projects, vaccination campaigns.  There are ways we can understand – criminology, biology, climatology.  Sometimes there is nothing we can do except pick up the pieces.  I’m no theologian, but I don’t see prayer as part of this response.  Cold fish again, I suppose.  Problem is, there is solid scientific research that shows prayer does no good, and sometimes does harm.  Problem – should we tell people who are getting some consolation from it that it’s all tosh, because it is.

And most people know it.  The statistics about how religious the British are clouded by controversy, and the answer often depends on how you ask the question.  The 2001 census asked people “What is your religion ?” and 14.8% said none.  In 2008 British Social Attitude Survey asked respondents “Do you regard yourself as belonging to any particular religion ?”, and 50.5% said none.  Journalists need to learn to operate in this secular world.  It’s where we are.


Just a quickie on the topic of ‘reaching your dream’.  When interviewed after a success, sportspeople or talent contest entrants always speak of having attained their dream.  Now, perhaps I have more mental problems than the average sprinter or boy band, but my dreams aren’t like that.  They involve floating through the air only to arrive on stage acting in a part where I don’t know the words, or entering a college hall for an exam for which I have no knowledge at all.  Walking around having lost my shoes is another recurrent dream.  You get the point – I won’t go on – but the next time I win the Ashes or the Nobel Prize, be assured I will not tell the world that I have reached my dream.

The reason I won’t bang on about it is that there are few things more boring than someone else’s dreams.  There’s a Bob Dylan song – Gates of Eden – where we are told “at dawn my lover comes to me, and tells me of her dreams, without the attempt to shovel them in to the ditch of what each one means …”.  I suppose we must give the girl some credit: whilst Bob has to look interested whilst she drones on about her sleepy experience, at least she spares him the additional 30 minutes of amateur psychology.

Footnote: My stepson bridles at another cliche of successful athletes – “it was surreal !”.  Like what ?  Fish riding bicycles in a ginger coloured sky ? Limp stopwatches draped over willows ?

Legal less-than-eagles

My wife has just (almost) completed a bout of jury service.  She has not been used, and has spent a fortnight basically hanging around.  I have served as a juror twice, and each was a frustrating experience.  I can’t go into details – it’s not allowed.  What I can reveal is that one trial was a complete waste of time, such that the judge stopped it halfway through.  Another was dragged into three or four extra days by testimony that was irrelevant to the crime in question, basically saying the accused was brutalized by the police after being arrested for the offence.  A third case involved the jury taking about 15 minutes in Miss Marple mode working out that the bloke the defendant claimed had committed the crime could not possibly have done so, in a way that seemed to elude the barristers presenting the prosecution case over several days.

We are now told that the Queen has expressed annoyance that four possible terrorists have spent seven years appealing against extradition.  Latest news: despite being turned down by the European Court, the accused have won another stay.  I don’t know the ins and outs of these cases, except to note the defence claim that the defendants should be tried in Britain, as if those accused of offences get to choose who tries them.   At least they haven’t taken the Julian Assange angle, that the accused should be able to decide which police force interviews them and where.

But seven years is an awful long time to resolve things.  It seems the only sphere where this sort of delay is acceptable is the law, or associated activity such as public enquiries.  The Savile Enquiry into Bloody Sunday (1972) was established in 1998, completed its hearings in 2004 and reported in 2010.  It covered controversial issues that had to confront obfuscation by some of the parties, but the pattern happens even on less significant levels.  The BBC today reports that those implicated in the phone-hacking scandal will face trial next September.

Next September ?? What can possibly justify delays of this sort ?  Elsewhere, time horizons are shortened so that (e.g.) a new car can be designed and manufactured in a very short time. The P-51 Mustang, the finest fighter of the Second World War, was rolled out 102 days after the delivery contract was signed.  I am no management guru, but was part of a team that opened six new colleges, closed thirty sixth-forms and twelve adult education divisions, in the process reallocating more than a thousand staff and countless students (who kept doing their current work throughout !), all in 14 months.  Every time I visit my old London stamping grounds, I see new buildings.  Opticians and telecom suppliers used to take weeks and months to deliver: now it is instant, or a few days.  We are living in a just-in-time society in every area except maybe one.

Several of my family members are employed in the law, so maybe this is a difficult as well as an obvious question.  At a time when there are concerns about cutting legal aid to poor defendants, is there truly no way we can reduce legal costs and delays ?

The great voices

At the age of 72, Tom Jones appeared on television last night, singing a superb set of songs; the show was followed by a retrospective of previous appearances and concerts, back to a 1964 BBC Wales interview with the very young man, fresh off the construction site.  Whatever one thinks of him, there can be no doubt that he has a wonderful voice.  Even seeing him pumping out the early hits with a full-throated, unreserved roar was truly exciting.  Which makes me contribute to a running debate about pop voices.

The point is that the quality of the voice has little to do with the merit of the artist.  There are people who are gifted with a great voice and deliver great material – Nat King Cole, Joni Mitchell, Paul McCartney, Amy Winehouse.  Ella Fitzgerald and Frank Sinatra worked their wonderful way through the American songbook. However, there is no necessary connect.  Michael Bolton has a much better vocal technique than Bob Dylan, but other comparisons would be ridiculous.  Mick Jagger and David Bowie have made a massive contribution to popular culture, but judged on vocal terms alone, they get by, but not a lot more.  If you look on YouTube at the Stones performing Gimme Shelter, the delivery of Lisa Fisher is much stronger than the man with the child-bearing lips.  In fact anyone who has attended a few concerts knows that the backing singers are usually wonderful, but few of them make it to the top (though some crawl onto the lower divisions, like Valerie Carter or Jennifer Warnes).  Some superb singers – Celine Dion, Dusty Springfield, Brook Benton – deliver a lot of mediocre material that the A&R man seems to have picked for them alongside the classics.  And then there are iconic pop singers with more interesting material that have voices that are distinctive rather than magnificent – Van Morrison, Dionne Warwick, Diana Ross, Dolly Parton.  Madonna, Chrissie Hynde and Debbie Harry are OK, but in terms of sheer voice, not a patch on Linda Ronstadt at full throttle (beg, borrow or steal a copy of her 1976 album Hasten Down the Wind – and she was just as good live).

Not sure where this leaves the debate, apart from showing how few contemporary voices I know. I am sure the issue will go on, the important thing being getting pleasure from lots of aspects of a performance, not just the perceived importance of the act. When I was young and trendy I went to see the Flying Burrito Brothers, who were a big thing at the time.  I didn’t rate them, but the warm-up artist was an unknown Barbara Dickson, who was as uncool then as she is now, and she was wonderful.


Lawks a mercy, guv !

Lawks a mercy !  I didn’t start blogging to agree with Michael Gove but there is one part of today’s announcement of the reform of GCSEs that appeals to me – which is the limiting of an individual subject examination to just one exam board.  Education ministers need little encouragement before telling us about the lessons from other countries, but I don’t know of a single other country that has a clutch of individual privately owned examination boards providing the core qualifications for the state education system.

Looking around the world, there seem to be two models.  One is the continental system – where the state sets the exams.  This has the enormous advantage of cutting out the two layers of bureaucracy that we have (and pay for) in Ofqual and the examination boards: main disadvantage is that when something goes wrong, there is only one person to get the blame, namely the Minister.  You can see why politicians would not like this.  How much better it is for them to demand an immediate enquiry into someone else’s cock-up rather than take responsibility for their own.  The other system is one where the schools and colleges themselves can set the examinations, as long as they have passed quality criteria.  I think this is what happens in the USA.  Not without problems – obviously of ensuring comparability, and also of pressure on teachers to inflate grades. But it involves the staff in the assessment, and gives inspection a purpose besides telling people off.

I would guess both of these systems are substantially cheaper than the UK one.  When I was a Principal we spent more – much more – on examination fees than we did on libraries.  I recall annual letters from well paid Chief Executives at their swish central London addresses telling me that, regrettably, owing to rising costs, the price of examination entries was going up this year … oh, and our teachers would have to take more responsibility for grading.

Not sure about the motivation for all this – the idea that because more people pass these days, standards must have fallen. Well, more people climb Everest these days, but I understand it is the same height it ever was.  It is possible for people to get better at things. On the other hand, I remember being very happy with an above average 75% pass rate at “A” level in my Wakefield College department in the 1980s.  Figure is now in the high nineties, so something has happened.  For what it’s worth, I think exams are easier to pass not because the content is simpler but because the structure is less baffling: students are clearer about what they need to know, and how to get a pass mark.  Ben Goldacre did an article about this topic on his Bad Science web-site that is still worth a read, even if it comes to no very clear conclusion.  For a more passionate and principled analysis of the GCSE kerfuffle, read Michael Rosen’s blog.

Much to be thought about, then, before leaping one way or another.  But it’s almost worth the present spat to see a Conservative Minister tell us that competition and choice have reduced standards, and we need to go back to planning.

Ironic, huh ?

Targets again

The archery and shooting teams were not the only Olympians to be obsessed with hitting targets.  We now learn that Charles Van Commenee, the head coach of the GB athletics team, has resigned his post because he did not hit the medal targets he was set by his bosses.  Now, the guy may have been good or bad, or even tired and eager to go, but to sack him for failing to attain targets seems a dumb thing to do.

I can see that targets are useful statements of expected standards of performance when the attainment of them is within the control of those asked to deliver.  Production targets for a factory are a good example, and so are infection rates in a hospital ward.  But isn’t it a bit silly for Olympic teams to set ‘targets’ for the number of medals they wish to win ?  An individual contestant might aim to achieve a faster run, higher jump or longer throw this season, for that is within their power.  But the ability to win medals is different: it depends not just on the performance of our competitors, but also on the skill and fitness – and funding, and coaching – of their rivals in the other teams, something which is entirely beyond the control of our coaches.  How do we view it when someone hits a personal best time, but fails to secure the desired medal ?  Or gets a medal because their sub-par score is better than rivals’ similarly weak performances (I am pleased a Brit won the long jump gold medal, but his 8.31m leap and just about matches the 1962 world record and is a full two feet short of the current one) ?

Targets, goals, performance indicators: I suspect what we have here is the spread of dumb MBA thinking that, having polluted our manufacturing, government and banking sectors, is now moving on to ruin the management of our sports teams.  One factor that was noticeable was the growth of ‘plastic Brits’ – athletes from abroad, some of whom had actually represented other countries,  who were signed to the British team at short notice to bolster our medal chances.  Why do the hard work of developing UK citizens when you can fly in an American to jump your hurdles for you ?  In passing, the performance of these imports was almost universally poor.  I also notice that funding was attached only to teams and athletes who had good chances of reaching a medal – not those who could develop the knowledge and appreciation of their sport, or represent the country well.

I have written elsewhere about the way that setting targets can pollute information.  At least medals are a simple and understandable – and un-fiddleable – statistic.  This isn’t true elsewhere.  There is a rich literature on how schools and colleges can fiddle their figures.  Police forces are notorious for reclassifying crimes so their crime rates and clear-up statistics look good.  In the Soviet Union, planning targets led to routine game-playing that has been widely reported.  I warmed to a recent letter to the Times which said that he would not shun hospitals with high reported death or infection rates, as they would be the ones which did not distort their figures in order to please their masters.  This is all well known – named Goodhart’s Law after the academic who brought it to public attention.  As soon as you make someone’s promotion, or salary, or dismissal, dependent on management information, that information becomes useless.

Come back, Charles, there’s nothing to forgive.

National Debt

I have threatened several times to write a piece on the National Debt, so here goes. I think part of the problem with thinking about this topic is simply the word Debt.  Funny we’ve never thought up anything better.  Politicians and industrialists are very savvy when it comes to creating the right word.  Ministers never increase spending, they always raise investment.  Firms don’t put up prices, they announce a revised tariff.  To point this out is not whimsical humour: many public debates are warped by the phrases chosen.  What would people think of genetically modified plants* if they were described as ‘scientific agriculture’ rather than ‘Frankenstein Foods’?  How would we react to local discretion in public services if it was described as neighbourhood choice rather than postcode prescribing ?  You get my point.  Not that there’s much wrong with being frank.  The National Debt does indeed involve one group of people owing money to another group of people, but then so does your mortgage.  No-one calls that the family liability.  To look at another linguistic master-stroke, cards that increase your debts are actually called credit cards, as if spending money you haven’t got establishes you as a financially sound person.

Enough with my obsession with political English, and into the jungle. To start with, let’s consider what are we talking about. The National Debt is the amount of money owed by the British government to people or institutions (companies and banks) within its borders or abroad.  So, first fallacy – it isn’t what we owe foreigners, though some of it is indeed owed to foreigners.  The amount owed to foreigners is the external debt, the larger amount owed to British residents is called the internal debt.  About two-thirds of the National Debt is internal – that is, it is money we owe to ourselves.  How does that happen ?  Well, the government issues bonds which are certificates that pay a certain level of interest until they ‘mature’ (come up for repayment).  Short term government debt – repayable in three months – comes in the form of Treasury Bills, which are sold below face value, the difference between the purchase price and the maturity price showing the interest you get.  There are other ways the National Debt is funded – you may own part of it in the form of a Premium Bond, for example.

Why do we have a National Debt ?  Economists generally mark our National Debt as starting in 1694, when a group of Scottish merchants set up the Bank of England with a £1m loan to the government to fight the latest war.  Economics textbooks tell you that governments borrow for capital spending, like a company or a family: “it makes good sense to spread the cost of a new airport or hospital over a period of years, so all the people who benefit from them pay for them” I said in my majestic 1988 masterwork Approaching Economics.  In fact, until the last fifty years or so, the history of the National Debt has been the history of our wars.  The diagram below shows that in 1945 our National Debt came to more than twice our national income (the total value of the whole economy’s output).  Remember this when you are told that we have to make historic cuts in welfare entitlements to solve the debt problem.  We established the welfare state and the National Health Service with a National Debt proportionately three times bigger than we have right now.

Oh, and attempts to cut the National Debt by raising taxes and reducing government spending are rarely effective.  If you do that (you may have heard of ‘austerity’, which has been tried many times, and never worked), then people have less to spend, reducing the growth of the economy, reducing the tax take and requiring higher social security spending. Cutting capital spending makes the economy less efficient, again reducing the ability to grow the economy and raise more taxable income.  But I think I’ve said that elsewhere. “Many times” as they used to sigh in ‘Round The Horne’, “many, many times”.

Footnote from the future (added May 2020):

I speak many times in my blogs about the vampire beliefs that arise from the grave when you think they’re dead.  Laffer curve, wealth creators, directing students to courses the economy needs, things like that.  Sadly the ‘burden of the national debt’ is now shuffling out of the crypt.  The Covid19 pandemic that necessitated shut-down of many industries, labour subsidies and higher social security spending meant the government raised its spending at a time when its receipts were falling.  Indeed, some of the anti-recession measures involved cancelling or delaying tax payments. And so, and so … we get the newspaper columnists saying we’ll have to pay this all back, so we need higher taxes and government cuts when the pandemic ebbs.  No, we bloody won’t.  I’ll include a few of the rebuttals here, and hope it goes away. It won’t, but I can hope.

Transform. Or Improve.

I enjoy Twitter – not so much sending tweets as getting them.  It’s often the best way to enjoy public events – whether the Eurovision song contest or the closing ceremony of the Olympics.  I’m not sure it can claim to create a sense of community, because people tend to choose tweeters of similar views/nationality/class for their daily input.  Nevertheless, it gets you into news events, and often alerts the world to abuses or idiocies.

And sometimes you get great wisdom in short packages.  Just yesterday I saw a retweet from someone who calls himself Kurt Vonnegut (surely not a spirit message from the real one, who died in 2007) – “Another flaw in the human character is that everybody wants to build and nobody wants to do maintenance”.  This rang a bell with me after a life in public administration under the rule of people who prefer reform and restructuring to the hard work of doing a proper job. Structural reform is so much easier and quicker than doing it right: think how easy it is for a politician to change the funding or governance systems of schools, rather than improve teaching (which is the only proven way to raise standards).

This is reflected in the way that politicians have been quick to adopt the empty emotional language – vision, passion, obsession – of the MBA graduate.  Orwell was onto this – in the 1940s he was mocking people who were promising ‘radical transformation’. The promise of change is pretty seductive – witness the 2008 Obama campaign (‘change you can believe in’) and Francois Hollande’s 2012 campaign – but I reckon what most people actually want is not restructuring, but the current system run better and more cheaply.  This has been backed up in a recent poll reported on the BBC website on 25th August.  Running things better is undramatic work that requires competence rather than vision. As one Victorian aristo said – “Reform ? Reform ? As if things aren’t bad enough already !”.

Footnote – This logic works in sport too.  Journalists who tried to find out the secret of the all-conquering GB Olympic cycling team were rather baffled to be told that the secret was in remorseless incremental improvement.  I think they were looking for a whole lot of drivel about vision and passion and obsession with excellence: what they got were details of how pedal weights could be reduced.  Passion is what the England football team got under its least successful manager, Kevin Keegan: results immediately improved when he was replaced by a dull Swedish technocrat.