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She Literally Exploded: The Daily Telegraph Infuriating Phrasebook, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston (Constable 2007)

Language is like architecture and art: the more modern it is, the uglier it tends to be. So it’s interesting to ask what the world would be like if the United States of America didn’t exist. What if North America were like South America: a patchwork of Spanish-speaking states? Or what if the US had been founded by Germans or Scandinavians?

I think the English language would be in a better state if any of that were true. English would be much less important, but also much less polluted. There would be less hype, bombast and pretension in it. The United States is the great engine of modernity, pulling the world into an ever brighter, ever drearier, ever less enchanted future. The engine would be running less powerfully, or even running in reverse, if America didn’t exist or didn’t speak English.

So I think, anyway. And there’s a lot of evidence in this short but entertaining book. A lot of bad British English comes from America. A lot comes from the Guardian too, but that’s partly the same thing. The Guardian is the main British outlet for the gas generated by the New York Times and New York Review of Books. But the whole of the British media is Guardianized now. Ironically, that includes the Telegraph:

Ironically Used as if it meant “oddly enough”.

The modern Telegraph is full of feminists, ethnicists and other narcissists, but the authors of this book, Christopher Howse and Richard Preston, are evil white males and represent the dying tradition of Peter Simple:

Iconic The iconic Mulberry handbag. Anything vaguely recognizable.

Short and simple. But I didn’t like the entry for the Guardianista über-phrase:

In terms of Misused as though it meant “with respect to”. We have voiced our concerns in terms of childcare costs.

“With respect to” is bad too. “About” is the right word in that context. Often you can replace “in terms of” simply with “in”. It’s a linguistic parasite, riding in English like viral DNA in the human genome. The more often someone uses it, the deeper they are inside the Hive Mind. And this phrase is even worse:

Issues around We’re facing issues around MRSA targets. There are unresolved issues around health and safety compliance. A favourite of health workers and bossy officials.

It’s core Guardianese, in other words. If I ruled the world, using the phrase “in terms of issues around” would carry a mandatory jail sentence. So would using the words “mandatory” and “core” (as an adjective). But neither is in this book. Nor is “über-” or “vulnerable”. But many other irritants are:

Passionate about I’m passionate about salsa / stamp collecting / equal rights.

We’re bombarded by bad English and it’s hard to keep alert to all of it. If you’re not alert, you might start using it yourself. But I can’t remember ever noticing or using this:

Is is The thing is is that postal services need to diversify. The repetition of the verb is would be almost incredible if it was not heard daily on the wireless. It is sometimes introduced by the problem. The construction is probably an unconscious echoing of grammatically correct forms such as what the problem is is that.

Interesting. And endearing rather than endrearing. It’s something that might have occurred in English at any time. “Thing” is a very old word, even if “problem” isn’t. So “is is” doesn’t belong with “in terms of” or “passionate about”. (If I have heard it, I think I’ll have assumed it was a kind of stutter as the speaker paused and sorted his thoughts out.)

Fowler didn’t write about any of those, but it’s good that some of the bad English of his day is now gone. Alas, worse English has often replaced it, but some of the horrors here will pass in their turn. And maybe the Guardian will pass with them. I live in hope.

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Extreme Metaphors Interviews with J.G. BallardExtreme Metaphors: Selected Interviews with J.G. Ballard, edited by Simon Sellars and Dan O’Hara (Fourth Estate 2014)

This book reminded me of one of Ballard’s most remarkable stories:

People were now clambering all over the giant, whose reclining arms provided a double stairway. From the palms they walked along the forearms to the elbow and then crawled over the distended belly of the biceps to the flat promenade of the pectoral muscles which covered the upper half of the smooth hairless chest. From here they climbed up on to the face, hand over hand along the lips and nose, or forayed down the abdomen to meet others who had straddled the ankles and were patrolling the twin columns of the thighs. (“The Drowned Giant”, 1964)

There are lots of interviewers in this book clambering over the gigantic person and work of J.G. Ballard. But Ballard is alive, not drowned, so he responds to the clambering feet and clutching hands. He laughs and wriggles. He offers a commentary on his own body, explaining his own scars and birthmarks, demonstrating his own reflexes and justifying the use he’s made of his muscles. By the time you finish the interviews, you’ll understand the giant better.

And you may have had some surprises on the way. Ballard liked Margaret Thatcher and didn’t like drugs:

This story [“The Voices of Time” (1960)] also came without drugs, and that, I believe, confirms what I’ve just said, that the human imagination is [capable of anything], it doesn’t have to fall back on artificial stimulants, on chemicals, to release something that the brain can do even on its own. A fertile imagination is better than any drug. (“1982: Werner Fuchs & Joachim Körber. An Interview with J.G. Ballard”, pg. 145 – translated from German)

He didn’t practise what some thought he preached:

People used to come out to this little suburban house [Ballard’s home in Shepperton] expecting a miasma of drug addiction and perversion of every conceivable kind. Instead they found this easy-going man playing with his golden retriever and bringing up a family of happy young children. (“1995: Will Self. Conversations: J.G. Ballard”, pg. 315)

The giant was gentle, you see: he wrote a lot about violence, but didn’t believe in practising it or promoting it. Which becomes a bit of a shame in the interview by Will Self. How good would it have been if Ballard had lifted his gigantic fist and turned Self into a splot on the floor? Very. Alas, it didn’t happen.

And I must admit that the Self interview has some of the most interesting replies in it. But Self’s presence is a reminder that Ballard appeals greatly to the Guardianista community, which is not a good thing. Most of the interviewers here are Guardianistas or some overseas equivalent and they often pursue a Guardianista agenda. Fortunately, Ballard doesn’t say “in terms of” very often, but it would have been interesting to have questions about more things than are in the Guardian’s philosophy. Ballard shared that philosophy in some ways:

Of course men, on account of their greater physical strength, were the dominant figures in most social activities: commerce, industry, agriculture, transportation. Those activities no longer require a man’s great physical strength. A woman can just as easily fly a 747 across the Atlantic. A very small part of industry requires brute muscle. A woman computer programmer can control a machine tool that cuts out a car door. A large number of traditional male strengths, in both senses of the term, are no longer needed. The male sex is a rust bowl. (“1995: Will Self”, pg. 312)

There is much more to the difference between men and women than physical strength. It’s easier for a woman to use a gun than to fly a 747, but almost all gun-crime is committed by men. There are genetic, neural and psychological reasons for that. But men differ too, within races and between them, which is something else that Ballard and his interviewers don’t acknowledge. I’m puzzled by this, because Ballard saw big differences between races in his childhood: English, Chinese and Japanese. He later wrote about them extensively. Did he think they were simply due to upbringing and culture, that the human race was one-and-indivisible?

H.P. Lovecraft didn’t and Lovecraft is a regrettable absence from this feast of analysis, prophecy and metaphor – just as William S. Burroughs is, for me, a regrettable presence. It would have been good if the former had replaced the latter, with Ballard discussing and praising Lovecraft instead of Burroughs. After all, H.P.L., like J.G.B., drew on dreams, not drugs. But I assume Ballard never read Lovecraft and perhaps never even heard of him. That’s a shame, because Lovecraft might have fertilized Ballard’s work with even stranger and stronger ideas. And might have made him use mathematics more.

But Lovecraft wouldn’t have needed to fertilize Ballard with humour, because it was already there. The giant was ticklish. The world made him laugh and so did his own work. There’s a lot of fun in Extreme Metaphors:

Crash a corrupting book? I’ll take my younger self’s word for it. (“1984: Thomas Frick. The Art of Fiction”, pg. 185)

There’s also a detailed index and a clever cover: a crashed, overturned car, a mysterious solar/sanguinary glow and some blue inviting sky. If I wish that Lovecraft had fertilized Ballard, I also wish that Ballard could have fertilized Lovecraft with gusto, joie de vivre and optimism:

I would say we were moving towards an era where the brain with its tremendous sensory, aesthetic and emotional possibilities will be switched on, totally instead of partially, for the very first time. The enormous, detailed, meticulously chosen reruns [of everyday life] that I have been talking about will give one a new awareness of the wonder and mystery of life, an awareness that most of us, for biologically important reasons, have been trained to exclude. […] After a million years or so, those screens are about to be removed, and once they have gone, then, for the first time, men will really know what it is to be alive. (“1979: Christopher Evans: The Space Age Is Over”, pg. 131)

If you’re interested in the giant, you can clamber all over him here.


Elsewhere other-posted:

Vermilion Glands – review of The Inner Man: The Life of J.G. Ballard (W&N 2011)

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Front cover of Watch You Bleed by Stephen DavisWatch You Bleed: The Saga of Guns n’ Roses, Stephen Davis (Michael Joseph 2008)

The back cover calls the book “AN EPIC TALE OF EXCESS, DEBAUCHERY, ADDICTION, PARANOIA, MANIA AND GREAT F**KING MUSIC”. It gets five out of six right. Stephen Davis is also the author of the Led-Zeppography Hammer of the Gods, first published in 1985. Since then, his writing has got better and his subjects have got worse. I don’t like Led Zeppelin much and I don’t think Robert Plant is a very good singer. But Led Zep sound good set beside Guns n’ Roses. They sound subtle too. A few of GNR’s songs start well. I forget what happens to them after that. As for “November Rain”… Sheesh. It’s so wrong on so few levels that it’s probably prophesied in the Book of Revelation. Yes, you understand American foreign policy better after hearing – and watching – what GNR do to rock music:

Niven cautions that Guns didn’t think Spinal Tap was funny. (ch. 6, “The Big Guns n’ Roses Adventure”, pg. 159)

But the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR isn’t that they found success while based in Los Angeles. That isn’t fatal for a band. Mötley Crüe did too, but they are entertainingly cartoonish. GNR are obnoxiously cartoonish. No, the main explanation for what’s wrong with GNR is simple: W. Axl Rose. Davis holds his nose – hard – and takes the lid off the kid from Lafayette, Indiana. Racism, sexism, homophobia, killing small dogs – it’s all here in unflinching detail. But Axl has a bad side too. And the cycling shorts are by no means the worst of it. There’s also the plagiarism:

Then something crucial happened. Photographer Robert John took Axl to see a group he was shooting: Shark Island, the house band at Gazzari’s on the Strip. Shark Island was supposed to be a great metal band, but they were too fond of melodies, plus their hair was all wrong, and so they would never break out of the L.A. metal circuit. But Richard Black, Shark Island’s lead singer, was a charismatic front man with killer stage moves, the kind of small-venue choreography that could make a packed club break out in a communal, drenching sweat and get the joint rocking on its foundations. Axl watched Richard Black with total fascination and then proceeded to appropriate his act. …

According to Robert John, “In Hollywood Rose and L.A. Guns, Axl jumped straight up and down, holding onto the mike stand for balance. Axl later admitted he’d got the whole snake move, that S-curve, from Richard. He once told me that he even wanted Richard to somehow get credit for this. Most of Axl’s moves” – the headlong run across the stage, the furious stomp, holding the mike stand straight out with both hands, the blatantly sexual snake dance – “that’s all Richard Black.” (ch. 4, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 60-1)

In a better world, Shark Island might have had the big success and GNR the bit-part in their four-hundred-page biography. But success would probably have corrupted Shark Island too and swollen Richard Black’s head. Still, it’s impossible to believe that they would ever have become as bloated and excessive as GNR or that Black could ever have out-assholed Axl. GNR are one of the Big Three among the bands that I hate. The other two are The Clash and Oasis. But GNR are odious in a more entertaining way than those two. I can’t imagine even picking up a biography of The Clash. And if I ever try a biography of Oasis, it will be strictly out of primatological interest. This, on the other hand, is a readable book about risible people. I couldn’t read all of it, but it’s hard to believe Stephen Davis doesn’t sometimes feel the same about the people:

One time, after [Bret] Michael [of Poison] had slagged Guns, Axl confronted Poison backstage and told them, to their face, that they sucked. Bobby Dall, whose band already had a record deal, replied: “Maybe fucking so – but you gotta suck, sometimes, to make it in this business – and you guys will never make it at all.”

This stuck in Axl’s craw. Sucking was against everything W. Axl Rose believed in. (ch. 3, “The Treacherous Journey”, pp. 74-5)

That’s funny and I hope that Davis meant it to be. But the joke wears thin well before the end of this book. Okay, three of the band – Axl, Slash and Duff McKagan – looked good for a bit, early on, but the best thing GNR ever did was inspire this article in The Guardian:

Minute five: Is mainly taken up with Slash being a rock god. For those readers who are unfamiliar with this song – which is possibly a criminal act, may I add – you know when Regina Spektor sings “The solo’s real long, but it’s a pretty song” in “On the Radio”? This is the solo she means.

A helicopter flies around Slash, giving us rockgodness from all angles, although possibly putting his cigarette out in the process, which is not a bad thing, as it will kill you.

Smoking, I mean, not guitar solos. Although if any guitar solo could kill, it would be this one. You can tell Slash is a rock god because his stance is so wide he is almost doing the splits. (Read on: Guns N’ Roses – November Rain)


Elsewhere other-posted:

• More Musings on Music

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You want literary trangression? I’ve recently come across something that puts everything else into the shade. Sade’s Sodom? Soppy! Aldapuerta’s Eyes? Infantile! Britton’s Basted in the Broth of Billions? Fuck off and diet! The most powerfully nauseating piece of prose I’ve ever read is this:

Emery’s life-partner, Laney, is HIV positive. Laney and Emery are proud to be a serodiscordant couple. Through diligent safe-sex practices, Emery has remained HIV negative since becoming Laney’s partner in 2005.

That is part of the potted biography of Emery Emery (sick), an American “stand-up comedian” who is one of the many contributors to The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas, edited by Ariane Sherine. If you don’t find it nauseating too, either you’re a Guardianista or you have no aesthetic sense. For smarminess, sliminess and sheer self-fellating self-righteousness, I have never seen its equal, despite my diligent liberal-prose-reading practices since well before 2005. Okay, I expected this book to make my flesh crawl – after all, David Baddiel is in it – but Emery surprised even a H8-positive homo-negativist like me. But I wasn’t surprised that the editrix of the book “writes regularly for The Guardian”. Or that she and her close-knit contributional community “have donated their full share of the profits from this book to the Terrence Higgins Trust”, “the UK’s leading HIV and sexual health charity.”

You would expect that sort of piety from deeply devout atheists like Richard Dawkins, whose quarrel is not with religion as such: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. His own religion, liberalism, has its own sacred cows and its own pious rituals, like the ostentatious donation of money to AIDS charities. But I wonder what Dawkins and other liberal atheists would think about AIDS if it didn’t differentially impacticize a Minority Community sacred to their faith. What if it had a much higher prevalence among fundamentalist Christians than among gays, for example? I find it impossible to believe that liberal atheists wouldn’t draw uncomfortable conclusions for Christianity, if that were the case.

As it is, Dicky Dawkins & Co. use AIDS to bash the bishops only because bishops oppose the use of condoms, not because bishops die of AIDS very often. Heads atheism wins, tails Christianity loses. And Christianity is the overwhelming target of liberal atheists in the West. At least one of the contributors is highly positive about another religion. The eminently emetic David Baddiel says this in his potted bio:

Born and raised Jewish, and maintaining a deep affection for his Jewish heritage and identity, David’s Facebook religious views entry describes him as a “fundamentalist atheist”.

The grammar and punctuation there are as skilful as Baddiel’s comedy, but then this porn-positive performer does have an EngLit degree, with all that that implies in terms of issues around issues of good prose. It might seem odd that a “fundamentalist atheist” can have a “deep affection” for a religious tradition, but it isn’t really odd at all, I would suggest. I can imagine another contributor having a “deep affection” for his Hindu or black “heritage and identity”, but not for his Catholic or Methodist. And there’s no way on earth a contributor would express affection for his “white heritage and identity”. That would be blasphemy in excelsis. But Baddiel’s h-and-i aren’t Christian: he isn’t anti-God, he’s anti-Son-of-God. His quarrel, like Dawkins’, isn’t with religion: it’s with the wrong kind of religion. Although I am an atheist (I won’t say “too”), I prefer the religion that gave birth to Milton and Tennyson over the religion that gave birth to Marx and Trotsky.

Perhaps Baddiel studied Milton during his EngLit degree. If so, there’s little sign of it in his dreary “An Atheist at the Movies”, simul-scribed with one Arvind Ethan David, whose potted bio also attributes supernatural powers to something inanimate: “Born and raised Catholic, Arvind’s Facebook religious views entry reads ‘Atheist. Humanist. Yogi. Bear.’” Which is a crap joke, but funnier than Dicky Dawkins’ contribution, “The Great Bus Mystery”, which proves once again that Dawkins should stick strictly to biology:

I was hoofing it down Regent Street, admiring the Christmas decorations, when I saw the bus. One of those bendy buses that mayors keep threatening with the old heave-ho. As it drove by, I looked up and got the message square in the monocle. You could have knocked me down with the proverbial. Another of the blighters nearly did knock me down as I set a course for the Dregs, where it was my purpose to inhale a festive snifter, and I saw the same thing on the side.

That’s the start of Dawkins’ would-be Wodehousean, wanna-be Woosterian story based on an advert run on the sides of London buses: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” One way to enjoy life is to read P.G. Wodehouse, who, after an Anglican upbringing and education, wrote sunny, gentle, life-affirming humour for many years. Whether he’d have done the same after a Catholic or Muslim upbringing, I’m not sure. Sunny, gentle and life-affirming are not good ways to describe the best atheist humorist in this book: Charlie Brooker, the Guardian’s Wizard of Wind Up and Magus of Misanthropy. Scabrous, genital-obsessed and life-denying would be closer. Brooker doesn’t shed rainbows: he squirts bile. And I doubt he’ll keep it up for decades. Not successfully, anyway, but that may be because, unlike Wodehouse, he’s a Committed Cultist with a Pious Purpose: to mock and ridicule all True Faiths but his own. Brooker’s True Faith is liberalism: like everyone else here, he’s part of the highly conformist non-conformist community. This is the conclusion of his sermonette:

Laughter separates us from the gods while binding us closer together. If you’re looking for a miracle, look no further that your most recent belly laugh. Maybe a friend made you clutch your sides till you shook with glee; maybe an old episode of Frasier had you howling on the carpet. Either way: in that moment you were immortal. And that, my friend, is as sacred as it gets.

It’s also as uplifting as it gets, for Brooker. No wonder liberals are in a demographic death-spiral. If Frasier is the liberal justification for existence, the conclusion they reach seems to be: the fewer children we have, the better. And note that the steely-eyed and cynical Brooker appears to understand the sadistic and thought-policing role of humour as little as Richard Dawkins understands the sociological role of religion. Brooker’s contribution is in the “Philosophy” section of this book, where you’ll also find the bleatings of the execrable A.C. Grayling, Professor of Philosophy at Birbeck College in London. If, like me, you think that 95% of philosophers are 99% twat, Grayling isn’t going to make you think again. Like David Baddiel’s comedy, Grayling’s prose is excellent propaganda for the theistic cause:

For Christmas-disliking folk, the dream is a Christmas spent in a warm country where they do not celebrate Christmas. They would revel in the absence of Christmas music, decorations and symbols, together with exhortations to spend money on trivia, ephemera and excessive quantities of food and drink. They would be refugees from iterated “Jingle Bells” and other carols that play on a loop in every department store, driving the staff mad… No such escape is available to those with young children, for whom Christmas is a bonanza of acquisitiveness and indulgence, and yet to whom we all wish to give the traditional experience of acquisitiveness and indulgence. It is in large part because of our children that Christmas has accumulated its hybrid and generally over-the-top contemporary form, together with its sentimentality and excesses. It has become a piety to approve of this, so that to call it into question is to invite being called a Scrooge or worse.

As usual, Grayling sounds like a dim vicar preaching a boring sermon. The “Science” section of the book is more intellectually rigorous, but not much more convincing. You’ve seen part of Dawkins’ effort and it doesn’t get any better than that. Simon Singh sings a psalm to science in “The Sound of Christmas”. I’d rather hear a real psalm. Brian Cox tries to big-up “The Large Hadron Collider”, but I think the Middle Ages spent its money better in building cathedrals. They’re certainly better to look at and easier to understand, but then part of the appeal of atheism to liberals is its intellectual elitism and epistemological rigour. Or so they fondly imagine. I suspect G.K. Chesterton and C.S. Lewis will prove far better and wiser guides to life, politics and culture than anyone here.

Like the old religions, the new religion of liberal atheism is mostly overseen by men, but the book’s editrix, Ariane Sherine, does provide a useful visual guide to two of the key core components of liberalism: its narcissism and its autolatry. For the inside back cover she poses in tight jeans and a tight, white “There’s Probably No God” T-shirt, displaying her slim and attractive body for the edification of the faithless. The flesh is important to people who don’t believe in the soul. But those who live by the flesh often also die by it, as AIDS proves. Nor is Christianity to blame for anorexia, self-harm and “raunch culture”. As Christianity is increasingly pushed out of public life and porn is increasingly pushed in, I think there’s good reason to wonder whether secularism is good for women. Islam certainly isn’t good for women, but none of the atheists here do anything effective to oppose Islam’s increasing presence and power in the West. They’ll kick Christianity till the sacred cows come home, but grow curiously muted in the presence of the mullahs. Or not so curiously, given what can happen to the critics of Islam. Religions are not all the same and not all equally harmful. I think that the overt religion of Anglicanism is much less harmful than the covert religion of liberalism, for example. Unbelievers aren’t all the same any more than believers are. I’m an atheist, but I think The Atheist’s Guide to Christmas was written by idiots for idiots. It’s smug and smarmy, mawkish and maudlin. It’s desperately jaunty and jauntily desperate. I’m almost inclined to thank God that Stephen Fry and Christopher Hitchens didn’t contribute to it too. If this book were the worst liberal atheism can do, the religious would have nothing to fear.

Unfortunately, it isn’t the worst liberal atheism can do. The atheidiots here aren’t confined between its covers: they’re all over British public life and influencing public policy in all sorts of ways. The Church of England puts up no resistance to their societal subversion and sapping: nowadays, it’s part of the liberal suicide-cult too. A good way to understand life is to read one of Richard Dawkins’ books on biology. A good way to enjoy life is to avoid one of his attempts at humour. Avoid David Baddiel’s attempts too. In fact, avoid David Baddiel altogether: his appearance, tone and manner don’t so much weaken the case for a benevolent God as strengthen the case for a malevolent Satan. Charlie Brooker is an eyesore too, but he can be funny. Not in a sunny Wodehousean way, though. And he isn’t funny here. Nor is anyone else. Where liberal atheists and atheist liberals are taking the West will definitely prove funny. But I suspect none of the people here will be laughing.

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