August 2014

Chew on this

When the question was first posed I wanted to yell “No” at my computer. In fact, I think I did, secure in the privacy of my own home.

It is a question that confronts users of the internet almost every day. And one that continues to irritate the pedant in me.

Will I accept cookies? No, I will not. It is an abominable American word that we are seeing more and more on supermarket shelves, in cake shops and coffee bars as a replacement for the time-honoured biscuit. Nor am I alone in this opposition.  At least one other person has been equally enraged; so much so that they have written to the Morrisons supermarket chain asking whey it has decided to bastardise the English language by labelling its products as cookies.

He clearly wonders what has the good honest biscuit done to deserve being trampled on and superseded by this trans-Atlantic upstart? What is the reasoning; where is the benefit, the improvement, that justifies such trespass?

But… pause for thought. Is not “biscuit” an amalgamation of the French phrase bis cuit, meaning twice cooked? As is the Italians’ biscotti. And did not the Americans derive their cookie from the koekje of their Dutch immigrants?

Thus, as often been proved, we are nothing more than a band of linguistic thieves and plagiarists. Do I accept cookies. Hmmm, seems I must… but with much mumbling and grumbling.

The dangers of sharing

Today, like many other Facebook users, I received a request to share a post.  It featured a picture of a clean-cut looking young man, neatly attired and with a pleasant, open face. His name was provided, along with a few words alleging that he was visiting animal rescue centres with the specific aim of obtaining dogs for use as bait in some obviously cruel “sporting activity.”

The anonymous people behind this post urged that the young man be found and stopped without delay.

All very well and good; a despicable and inhumane activity and not one to be condoned or supported in any way.

But who was making this allegation? Certainly no one in an official capacity or any organisation. It was simply being circulated in that aimless, unthinking pass-the-parcel way of so much that is posted on Facebook.

There were no details of the locality where this young man was alleged to be operating; nor was there any information on when and how he was allegedly indulging in these activities.

He had simply been branded a criminal without evidence and by persons unknown and yet we, the great mass of Facebook users, were expected to spread his name and face still further without thought to evidence or facts.

It is frightening to think anyone, anywhere, can simply accuse another person of illegal, despicable or immoral behaviour without providing a skerrick of evidence or proof.  By allowing such posts, Facebook is condoning the scrapping of  “innocent until proven guilty”. It is also encouraging a vigilante attitude in which we ignore the principals of law and order and become our own judge and jury.

The young man whose picture I was invited to share may be totally innocent, his actions misinterpreted; or perhaps he has mental health or behavioural problems that need understanding and treating.  Equally, he may very well be guilty of the crimes mentioned. Either way, it should be left to the police and other enforcement authorities to make the right and proper appeals for public help after all evidence  has been fully considered.

To start unthinkingly sharing accusations is the start of mob rule. And the next accusatory picture we are asked to share maybe yours – and think how you will feel about that, no matter how innocent you may be.




It’s all relative

Relationships are funny things, and  not in a humorous way. They are even more difficult and complex than relations and, God knows, they’re tricky enough to deal with.

But relationships, they’re a real hornet’s nest.  We dive into them carefree and unthinking, full of the joie de vivre of the new and buoyed by expectations of fresh beginnings.

The one thing neither party does is  stop and ask the other what exactly those expectations are. There is no questioning, merely hopes and assumptions.

Thus it should come as no surprise when, further down the track, disillusion and disappointment set in.  The feeling is mainly one of “This isn’t how it was meant to be. This is not what I had in  mind.”

Perhaps as well as pre-nups for those taking the ultimately deadly plunge into an actual marriage, there should  be something similar for those falling into what are loosely termed “relationships” where nothing so complex as financial entanglements are involved but merely the hoped-for dovetailing of seemingly like-minded soul-mates.

A pre-partnering agreement would allow each party to define their view of the future. Perhaps even set out their likes and dislikes, their peccadilloes, habits and quirks. So many of us who venture into partnerships later in life – usually after failed marriages and time spent enjoying our own company – do so with a vision in mind, and with fast diminishing time in which to achieve it. But we forget we all become very much set in our ways, from petty daily domestic routines through to broader issues of beliefs, perceptions, desires and lifestyle.

Who needs still more disappointments as a result of partnerships that promise so much and which wither on the vine because we are too set in our ways – and, in the excitement of new beginnings,  fail to define what these ways are.

What was that about fools rush in… ?



These thesis things

The thesis is done.

Not mine … but that of a truly delightful client (aren’t they all?) who commissioned me to proofread and edit her 72,000-word submission for her PhD.

For one whose editing work is predominantly concerned with fiction in all its genres (well, most of them) and a broad spectrum of non-fiction, this could definitely be described as a learning experience. Academia is a remote and foreign land. Almost impenetrable to outsiders. They do things differently there. They speak a language known only to themselves, created it seems to baffle and confuse and form another barrier against would-be intruders.

By using  an arcane academic vocabulary and dense phrasing they weave sentences that make the simple complex; that wilfully use several words where fewer would suffice.  To one who thrives on a daily diet of cryptic crosswords, the assignment represented a massive puzzle, a brain-teaser that at times seemed to have no end.

But, like the best cryptics, the pleasure was in the solving; in making sense of the seemingly incomprehensible as together we clarified the arguments surrounding the varying mind-sets governing organisational change. The solution seemed to be in delving deep into each sentence, determining what the writer really meant and conveying it in terms slightly simpler and more direct than what had been written.

It was, in effect, a word game. Or a game with words. Of unravelling, reducing, shuffling the order and reshaping. And soon it became obvious that the subject of the thesis (of which nothing was known at the start and not much more at the finish) was a secondary consideration. It was the words that mattered; how they were used and whether they could be better ordered or even replaced.

Editing was ever thus.

Well said, Russell

In the last three days I have re-written the same chapter three times. Each time I’ve cut and added characters, I’ve changed the sequence of events, I’ve added, eliminated and altered the backstory, I’ve had new ideas, discarded old ones and drank x cups of coffee. And each time it’s been a little bit better, a little bit tighter, and a tiny step closer to what I actually want to happen. And I look forward to doing the same tomorrow. It’s called writing.

These are not my words, but those of fellow scribe Russell Proctor on the Facebook page of Australian Writers Rock. They seemed to sum up the whole writing bizzo so blindingly well. They encapsulate the whys and wherefores more succinctly, and just as precisely, as anything uttered by most of the poseurs and presenters we have reverently listened to at festivals, symposiums and workshops.

Sometimes there is just too much agonising, analysing and proselyting. As Nike urges the more active among us: Just Do It!

A storm of a zephyr

Ah, the irony of it all. The past few days have seen a deluge of posts on a Facebook group’s site populated by Australian authors.  The focus of their attention has been a single word: zephyr. A writer who had penned the line a zephyr of wind caressed the land was asking if there could be a zephyr of anything but wind.

The response was enormous. Much of it was repetitive (why do FB posters feel compelled to say what has already been said?) The rest varied from the wryly humorous (“I thought a zephyr was a car”) to the sadly revelatory from those claiming to be writers (“I’ve never heard the word”).  In between were some direct answers to the question posed, plus a variety of suggestions on rephrasing and even re-voicing.

Most interesting of all were the posts that variously suggested the word is archaic, strange, unknown or has no place in modern usage because, as one person  stated, it is not used by the majority of people in normal conversation. All of which suggests we should revert to a Dr Seuss level of writing with the cat in the hat sat on the mat and never indulge in multisyllabic words or anything that needs looking up in a dictionary.

Let’s not use big words; they are too confusing for our increasingly under-educated fellow beings. And let’s not resurrect words from the noble lineage of the English language, where meanings ebb and flow down the  centuries. Why enrich and add variety to our prose when we can reduce it to the lowest level?  I know not of a zephyr, hence I will not use it – or even take the trouble to improve my knowledge by seeking its definition.

The irony I referred to is that this week also saw the online resource  announce its latest additions, which includes such neologisms (go on, look it up) as humblebragging, neckbeards, binge-watch and clickbait, listicle and side boob, all of which I have so far had no occasion to use. However, if needed and appropriate, they could well eventually make an appearance. I will not demur simply because they may not be known to some readers.

Oxford Dictionaries adds more than 1000 new words each year, which is proof enough that our language neither stands still nor remains rooted in past definitions.

A zephyr of change constantly caresses our language. Totally amazeballs, in fact.




The search is over … I think

Eureka! Bingo! Hellsapoppin’ … and other expressions of delight and discovery; I do believe the seemingly interminable search for a British cafe that understands the words “a long black” is at last over. And in one of the more unlikely locations, too.

Up and down this cafe-crowded land a request from this caffeine addict for a long black – such a normal part of one’s daily existence in Australia – has been met with everything from bafflement through bemusement to to outright dismissal. There ain’t no such thing in the Pommie barista’s lexicon.

Which is puzzling considering the huge advance that British cafe life has made in recent years. No longer does one have to suffer the horrors of stewed percolator coffee or pots of instant Nescafe brew.  Espressos, lattes, cappucinos and perhaps even the occasional macchiato and ristretto are now widely available even far from the confines of the major cities. But not a long black, and certainly not a coffee served in a glass rather than a cup.

The closest thing on offer is an abomination labelled as an Americano, which is probably a fair description considering the terrible things Americans do to the noble bean (and don’t get me even started on the horrors of Starbucks).  This consists of a gigantic bowl of  brownish liquid, far more than can be comfortably consumed at a gentle coffee break, that resembles more soup than drink.

Even after describing a long black – offering even to  call upon my certificated ability to prepare “the perfect cup of coffee” – the baristas of the UK seem incapable of producing this daily kick-starter. Show them a picture, and they simply look baffled. It is beyond their experience, knowledge and ability.

And so imagine the joy when, after a few initial skirmishes in recent days, I was today delivered a long black, with crema, and in a glass. The perfect start to a perfect crisp and sunny morning, sitting on the cobblestoned forecourt of the Duke Street Sandwich Bar



in Truro, almost three hundred miles from the country’s cosmopolitan capital and one of the least likely locations to find such pleasures.

Yes, Amanda, there is a Father Christmas – and even a long black hidden away deep in Cornwall’s Celtic heart.