Archive for the ‘culture’ category

Shutting it all out

January 17, 2012

Last year I was asked to deliver a lecture to a group of students. As I began my talk, displaying my usual skills of eloquence and persuasiveness, I couldn’t help noticing that a young person in the front row was wearing those little white earphones we have come to see everywhere ever since Apple launched the iPod. Not only was he definitely focused on what must have been his music, his fingers were drumming along on the desk, and there were small but visible nods of his head to accompany the beat. And then I noticed that another student, further back, also had earphones, though in her case I couldn’t tell whether she was equally distracted by music.

I shrugged and got on with it. It’s life. But it’s not just in the classroom. If you walk down any major city street, you will see dozens of people who are more or less oblivious to their surroundings and who are somewhere else entirely, wherever their music is taking them. It’s a modern equivalent of the account by the 19th century German satirical poet, Wilhelm Busch, of an English traveller walking along while looking through a telescope. Busch has him saying:

‘Warum soll ich nicht beim Gehen – sprach er – in die Ferne sehen?
Schön ist es auch anderswo, und hier bin ich sowieso.’

[‘Why shouldn’t I, he said, look into the distance while walking?
It’s beautiful elsewhere too, and I’m here anyway’]

In fact, Busch’s ‘Mister Pief’ ends up falling into a swamp because he doesn’t see where he’s going. Today’s earphone addicts run similar risks, or worse ones. A recent report found that there has been a significant increase in deaths or serious injuries to pedestrians wearing earphones. Looking occasionally at the conduct of road users with their white earpieces, you can see why.

Personally I love the iPod and its successors, and I will often sit at home with earphones listening to music. But that’s where it should be done. The rest of the time, we should live where we are, and experience what’s there. Including my lectures.

Television and nation building

October 18, 2011

Travelling between Ireland and Scotland recently. I was struck by one aspect of Irish life that may not, or at least not yet, be part of the Scottish experience in the same way: there is a shared conversation that accompanies Irish national life and that reaches into the community; and its fuel is television. Apart from the ongoing soul searching about the recession, national insolvency and the attempted economic comeback, the national conversation involves analysis of the current presidential campaign. This is not because the campaign has caught the public imagination; if anything, the conversation is often about how the candidates fall short. But the campaign is being fought over the airwaves, and the various live debates have been a major talking point. It helps that one or two candidates seem to be self-destructing in public, but generally the coming election is a shared experience of the national community, made possible because it is being broadcast to the country as it unfolds.

In fact, the shared experience of television is part of Ireland’s recent history. Almost everyone has some reference point, whether that is the iconic Late Late Show, or the political magazine programmes over the years such as Today Tonight and Prime Time, special series such as that on Charles Haughey, or just the Nine O’Clock news. Even as hundreds of channels became available through cable or satellite, the main national channels (and RTÉ in particular) stayed there as the focus of national conversation. This shaped the country’s identity: who can deny that Gay Byrne’s Late Late made modern Ireland what it is much more than any politician’s manifesto?

Over here in what is now my home in Scotland there is also something of a national conversation, but it is not securely anchored in the same way. Interestingly the key topic of that conversation is nation building, in the setting of the anticipated referendum on independence. But even as this topic is developed, it lacks the compelling support of national broadcasting, lacking in part because the broadcast media are part of a wider United Kingdom heritage. The BBC has a good bit of Scotland-specific programming, but is interspersed between the dominant shared British output. The same is true of STV, which is still on the whole the Scottish arm of the UK’s ITV. The iconic programmes are mostly British. Of course the national debate about Scotland’s future gets along fine anyway, but I do miss the immediate and compelling nature of the  national conversation I am used to in Ireland. I suspect that Scotland needs this also to secure its identity. Perhaps the time has come to consider a genuinely Scottish television station, to share the airwaves with the undoubtedly excellent BBC and other broadcasters.

Txt 4 u

October 9, 2011

Sending SMS (‘short message service’) messages on mobile phones is one of the communications phenomena of our day. The chances are that, since you last checked out this blog, some 3 billion text messages will have been sent and received across the world. And let us be frank, many of them will have been pretty annoying. I have no problem with texting per se – I do so myself, and keep in touch with some friends that way – but the shorthand used by many people is, I fear, doing terrible things to their capacity to express themselves in an articulate way in writing. As texts are restricted to 160 characters, people got creative about how to cram more information into that space. And so we had the dawn of the age of the txt; succinct messaging, just 4 u.

People sometimes suggest to me that my complaint is just part of the nostalgia that comes with growing older – that Shakespeare would have been horrified if he had been able to read Jane Austen and would have found her style to be lamentable – and that therefore texting is nothing other than the new mode of communication and that we should be making the best of it. I don’t think so. I don’t look forward to billions of Chinese learning to use txt English and for it to become the lingua franca of the world.

But then again, maybe I am just getting old… Or possibly even 2 old. That would not be so gr8.

The Bard as burden?

August 28, 2011

I recently took part in a conversation that I found extraordinarily troubling. Those taking part were two schoolteachers, one university lecturer and two businesspeople. The topic of conversation was secondary school reform. And the consensus of all those taking part, except for me, was that it was time to retire William Shakespeare from the curriculum. The arguments given in favour of this proposition included the amount of time given over to Shakespeare that could be spent on more contemporary drama; the way in which highlighting Shakespeare perpetuated an ‘English’ perspective on the world at a time when many other cultures needed more attention; the difficulty in making students understand the archaic language; the obvious problem inherent in the white maleness of Shakespeare.

So are these good points? Should we see Shakespeare as just one more dead white male taking up too much of our cultural attention?

In this anniversary year of the Authorised Version of the Bible (the ‘King James’ Bible), it may be worth recalling that this translation of scripture and the works of Shakespeare together more or less created the sound and flow of what we now know as English. Shakespeare was not just another author, he was a designer of what became the world’s primary language. Nor was his work focused on England, or even on an English understanding of history, culture and politics.

I am strongly in favour of encouraging today’s students to engage with modern literature, in English and other languages. But to imagine that this requires us to abandon Shakespeare seems, to me at least, to be absurd.

Entirely principled

August 27, 2011

At the risk of sounding like a spelling and grammar commissar, I was somewhat taken aback when I saw this headline on the BBC news website: ‘Student leaders urge university principles to restrict fees.’ For the avoidance of doubt, this was entirely a BBC mistake, as the substantive article showed that the ‘student leaders’ of the title used the correct spelling. But then again, about 5 per cent of all communications addressed to me suggest I am the Principle of RGU.

Of course nobody should get too worked up about one spelling mistake, or two similar sounding words confused. The world will go on, regardless. But precision of language and accuracy of spelling and grammar are being eroded, and when that hits the gold standard (the BBC), we may sit up and take notice.

On the other hand, I have recently heard experts in the history of English point out that the kind of precision I am talking about is not part of the historic culture of the English language. Consistency of spelling in English is quite a recent development, and Shakespeare was able to do what he did before we reached that state. So, is it perhaps time for us to let go of all this spelling pedantry and let people do whatever they want to do? Is that the more principled approach?

Turning music into pulp

July 28, 2011

I really love music. Truly. I swear. Yet these days when I hear music, and almost any music, I often want to scream. Music is everywhere, coming from loudspeakers in the department store, in the hotel lobby, in the restaurant, on the street, in airplanes, in lifts (elevators). And you cannot hope to go to any kind of more upmarket reception without finding a string quartet, or harpist, or someone with an acoustic guitar.

What is wrong with this? What is wrong is that this is not music for anyone’s enjoyment. Nobody stops to listen. It is pure background noise. The composer and the performer are not celebrated, they are humiliated. The harpist plays, but has no hope of being heard above the noise of conversation. The PA system belts out a song by some 1970s band but if you asked a passer-by whether they had even noticed it was being played, the answer would probably be no.

Music needs to be appreciated, enjoyed, understood, celebrated. Instead it is destroyed. So let us have it where it is listened to, and for heaven’s sake turn it off where it is just there to cover up the silence – the silence we appear to fear so much.


July 24, 2011

I confess that I read with some sadness that the major American bookstore chain, Borders, is finally to close. Admittedly this has been on the cards for some time. The Borders stores in the UK and Ireland had already closed their doors some time ago, and last year the company announced the closure of several of their outlets in the United States. But now the game is up, and from the autumn there will be no more Borders shops anywhere.

With Borders closing, and Waterstones in the UK struggling somewhat, we may not have to wait too long before all the major bookstore chains have folded. Barnes & Noble in the US seem to be still holding their own, and of course we have the online presence of Amazon (whose success has been a major factor in the failure of the others).

Why should I be sad? Not very long ago Borders and Barnes & Noble were being portrayed everywhere as the big bullies of the book-selling world and the destroyers of smaller bookshops. The movie You’ve Got Mail had this as one of its key themes. But in fact, I always found Borders a rather good place to browse, and I rather liked the atmosphere I found there – not least because they had introduced the books-and-coffee theme that somehow seemed so civilised.

But now reading is moving online, and that’s the way it goes. I cannot complain, because that’s how I do much of my buying and reading. But I would like to think that the small independent bookshop, many of which have managed to survive, will still stay in the game. In fact, I’ll make a point of shopping in one this week.

Capital Ideas in the University

July 19, 2011

Having let off steam about the misuse of the apostrophe yesterday, let me just point to one other stylistic habit that really annoys me. It is the practice of using capital letters at the beginning of words where no capitalisation is called for. Universities are particularly guilty of this practice, with a near-universal habit of capitalising the word ‘university’, for no good reason at all. Here’s an extract from one English university’s website:

‘We have always been pioneering in our course provision, being the first British University to offer a Peace Studies degree and the first University outside London to offer part-time degree courses’.

There is no reason to capitalise ‘university’, nor indeed for that matter ‘peace studies’. Unfortunately this kind of thing is common throughout the higher education system – though here’s one that gets it right. But in one report from another university I read recently, the following were all capitalised: ‘university’, ‘department’, ‘subject’, ‘student’, ‘lecturer’, ‘building’, ‘examination’, ‘procedure’. Oh dear.

For readers who may not be clear about where it is appropriate to use capitalisation, and where it is not, this guide published by Purdue University is useful.

Beware of rogue apostrophe’s

July 18, 2011

Having spent a good bit of the past day travelling on planes, trains and automobiles, I cam across several notices which had experienced serious apostrophe attacks. Here are a few I saw.

Stand back from the platform: beware of train’s
Special offer: pastry’s and cake’s
South carriageway closed tonight due to roadwork’s
Lady’s [toilet]
Turn on car light’s

I have argued previously that it is time to retire the apostrophe. It has ceased to be useful, it’s just annoying now.

The power of the printed word?

July 9, 2011

I remember accompanying my mother on day trips to Dublin in the 1960s when I was a young boy, and being puzzled by a large billboard poster that used to be displayed somewhere around Palmerstown, or maybe near Heuston railway station (or Kingsbridge station, as it then was). The poster shouted in very large print: ‘All human life is there’ – and then it had the words ‘News of the World’. I had no idea that the News of the World was a newspaper, and so the purpose of this advertisement was a complete mystery to me. I thought it was saying that the world’s news contained all human life – a rather general (if true) statement, and hardly one that needed a billboard poster to make its case.

Well of course, the News of the World of the poster was a newspaper (I need no longer say ‘is’), and as we now know it did indeed contain all human life, very much including the low life. And as anger and dismay at what at least some of its journalists did gives way to thoughts about the wider implications, people are asking whether the News International stable of papers has given too much political power and influence to Rupert Murdoch. This isn’t an entirely new question – in 1992 Murdoch’s Sun claimed that it was the one ‘wot won it’ for John Major’s Tories in Britain – but as the spectacle of newspaper power gets held up alongside its corruption, the question has taken on a new urgency. And there are fears that this worry about corruption could be even more relevant if the Murdoch newspapers can work together with the most influential broadcaster in these islands (BSkyB), under the same ownership.

However, whatever the regulators or politicians may do, it is unlikely that this kind of concentrated media power will be sustainable for much longer. The decline of newspapers worldwide continues to gather pace, as people shift and get their news from the internet and its various outlets, including Twitter. Traditional broadcasting models are also coming under pressure – and BSkyB is still quite a traditional model. As almost anyone can publish a news site, or can broadcast whatever they like, with extreme ease, the media scene is changing fast, and it is unlikely that a Rupert Murdoch will, irrespective of current events and their consequences, be able to wield this kind of influence in future. And that must be a good thing.