Friday, 23 January 2015

Why Wolf Hall?

 As my friend and follower here and on Twitter @IvorSolomons has pointed out, not a single wolf has yet been seen in this series. But watch this space.

Wolf Effingham Hall

 There's been discussion online about the language of the BBC's "Wolf Hall". Not, mercifully, about the headache-makingly unclear pronouns of the book (who he?), but about the very modern style. This extends into body language and attitudes. When the king, with power of life and death over his subjects, asks Cromwell why he called a French town "a dog hole", Thomas almost shrugs and says with a rising intonation, like an offensively casual teenager, "Because I've been there?" Also at Sir Thomas More's dinner table he asks if his host had become Lord Chancellor by "fucking accident". It sounds like a very modern and aggressive usage quite out of character for the cool, cautious Cromwell.

It has been pointed out, btw, that the f-word does appear in a 16C manuscript. But there it is a monk saying factually what the abbot was up to and is not used as an intensifying adjective. This latter usage may not have come in till the 19C, it seems. (Thanks to world expert on slang Jonathon Green @MisterSlang and to @LoisMcEwan on that.) Although they are often referred to as Anglo-Saxon, several four-letter swear words were not used as such until modern times.

I suppose the orthodoxy is to make historical figures human and, indeed, modern. Wouldn't it be more interesting, though, if they were strange and different, weird even, almost from another planet? After all, these were very superstitious people who believed in all sorts of supernatural and miraculous things and who thought hanging, drawing and quartering and burning alive were suitable judicial punishments. It is a bit like saying if you are teaching inner-city kids, you should read stories and poems about their type of lives and environment. But perhaps they would prefer something rich and strange? Philip Pullman novels come to mind.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Just Reasons

 There are no excuses for terrorism, by individuals, by armies or by states. But there must be reasons. It is not acceptable to be an apologist for murder. But it is legitimate and, indeed, important to discuss the reasons.

This poem of mine was first published in The Rialto, Number 70, Autumn 2010. Thanks again to the editor, Michael Mackmin. Maybe worth repeating.


The women shot in the back of the neck
and pushed into ditches.
Persecution organised,
genocide industrialised.

The bombs on buses,
in restaurants,
the children blown to pieces
on the beach.

Victimisation, apartheid, the wall,
the bulldozed homes, the olive groves.

Just reason, justice, just excuses.
Executions. Terror. Exile. Torture.
Just reasons. No excuse.

Thursday, 27 November 2014

Potterisation II - cliché becomes history

 Some people have said they can notice the inaccurate language and anachronisms while still enjoying films like, for example, "The Imitation Game". I can to some extent but I get annoyed because the language is just a symptom of the Potterisation syndrome. This goes deeper and involves over-simplification, sentimentalising, stereotyping and making crude.

 In this film it leads to a falsification of an important part of British and computer science history and, as several articles have pointed out, does not do justice either to a great mathematician or, indeed, to the whole Bletchley team.

Potterisation - The Imitation Game

 Why did "The Imitation Game" make me cross? I was looking forward to it and I find Cumberbatch a compelling actor. It was the American English that (no - correction) which (BrE) alerted me to what I will call the (Harry) Potterisation of British culture.

One of the Turing character's first lines is: "I could really use (something) right now." Oh no, here we go. Soon we have schoolboys at Sherborne School in the 1920s talking American English: "We are the smartest students in the math(s) class." (Ok, they drew the line at calling it "math" there and throughout.) But soon we have Keira Knightly's character saying: "I'm not going to be home all day fixing (yes, fixing!) your lamb"!

The saddest thing is (is) that most people loved it and didn't even notice that the characters spoke in a modern, americanised way in the 1920s-1950s setting. Globalisation seems to mean americanisation, starting with English-speaking countries. Vive la French attitude to culture and language: they may hold out longer.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

In Our Time - more on Melvyn

 Might have to give IOT (In Our Time) more thought. It is an important programme and MB deserves a lot of praise, in my book, for what he does. But science and maths don't really work on radio - still, history next week. Thanks for trying.

So Desperate So

  Give credit to Melvyn Bragg - he tried. To kick off the new series of "In Our Time" (BBC Radio 4) he tackled "e" or "Euler's Number". And he had three women mathematicians on his panel. But it proved only one thing to me: you can't really do maths on radio. You need a black- or whiteboard at least.

 He bravely tried to pin them down as to what "the number represented by e" was. The more they tried to explain, the more they introduced new ideas, complexities and longer equations, which we couldn't follow on radio. To cover this, they used "So" more and more often, sounding more and more concerned, if not desperate, to get the idea across and to pretend to logical argument.

 But - aha! moment - what came out was that it is all a pretence. You have to pretend certain things for maths to work. 1/3 seems exact but you can't represent it in an exact decimal: 0.333 recurring for ever! Or any number to the power of zero is one - what? Not in the real world, but you need to pretend it is true for maths to work: remember Lewis Carroll's having to practise believing impossible things before breakfast, almost like his creed?

When I suggested at school that maths might be based on pretence, I got a clip round the ear and a detention. Bertrand Russel got awed praise and a university maths professor brought in for him as a private tutor!

 Still, well done Melvyn. You did your best.