Tuesday, 25 November 2014

'Cool' is not cool for a bride

Oh dear, Benedict Cumberbatch has been quoted as saying his fiancée Sophie is 'just really cool'. No, no, that won't do. It's what Brad Pitt said of Jennifer Aniston all those years ago. I can't remember if Jen was his wife or his fiancée at the time, but I do remember being perplexed, appalled even, at his use of 'cool' to sum up her appeal. And I mean, what happened there? Intense Angelina rocked up and the game was over. 'Cool' lacks the requisite note of passion. It falls far short of the 'it must be her and no one else' that a woman rather wants to inspire in her fiancé/husband. The Cumberbatches may well go on to have a long and devoted marriage but, linguistically speaking, 'cool' is not a good start.

Judith Woods and the wunderkind

This line from columnist Judith Woods has recently been widely quoted: ' "every time a friend's child succeeds, I feel something so unpleasant that there isn't an actual word for it, not even in German".' It's a funny line, and just about everyone knows what she's talking about, so of course it was taken out of context.To me though it's even more fun in context. It's from a Daily Telegraph piece (15 November 2014) entitled 'Teach our children well - but not too well'. Woods starts by listing examples of wunderkind achievements, with due praise all around. But there do seem to be awful lot of these amazing children nowadays, she feels and, what's worse, they're always 'other people's kids'. These children who-are-not-one's own are a such a contrast to life 'in the real world', she writes, that 'it's hard not to feel a jolt of envy, shot through with irritation and wrapped up in a bin-liner of self-reproach.'  Then comes the quoted line. The context reveal it to be, in fact, a comic spin on a famously  pusillanimous line from Gore Vidal: Woods fears that if these 'pint-sized high achievers' are indeed 'proliferating at an unnatural rate', then 'Gore Vidal's "every time a friend succeeds, a little part of me dies" should be updated to "every time a friend's child [etc]." ' The quoted line from Woods is a parody rather than a straight confession, and all the cleverer for it. Beyond that though, for anyone who's curious about language, the question arises: is there such a word? The 'even in German' quip suggests Woods is thinking of Schadenfreude, a delight in someone else's misfortune. Is there a word for a double antonym of Schadenfreude that would mean 'irritation' or worse at someone else's good fortune or achievement? A quick internet search reveals other people have asked the same question, and that apparently there is one: Glückschmerz (pain/sorrow at someone's good luck). Maybe the clue as to why Woods feels there's no word for this even in German is in the 'envy' she mentions earlier. Envy puts the matter squarely under the heading of the tenth Commandment, 'You shall not covet' (Exodus 20 and Deuteronomy 5). But the further details of the tenth do not mention children - you shall not covet 'your neighbour's house, wife, field, male servant, female servant, ox, donkey, or anything that is your neighbour's' - no children. It's as if being covetous of anything to do with your neighbour's ('or 'friend's') children is so beyond the pale it's not even worth recording in Scripture as a likely possibility. And yet, who hasn't been tempted by this envy, even fleetingly? Obviously the thing to do is give any such fleeting temptation a good old kick in the pants, and remain grateful in every way for the children you've been entrusted to bring up. It does show, however, how disturbing sin is, really. The reason God could distill the main Commandments to just ten is not because there are so few that matter, but because, as Jesus so often taught, each of those Commandments encompasses far more that we care to look at too closely.

Saturday, 22 November 2014

Oxford Yobs

Despite its unfair swipe at Puritanism, I'm thankful for this article by historian and blogger Tim Stanley for highlighting a turn of events for the worst at Oxford University.


Ironically, these elite students lose the moral high ground with their bad language and intransigeant views - the moral high ground as they see it. And of course foul language does indeed short-circuit sane and civilised discussion, every time. What is happening to us as a culture if even Oxford is a hotbed of yobbery? On the other hand, these students don't seem to be aware of what they're reacting to on a deeper level. As far as I can tell, they're not enraged by the suject of the proposed debate so much as by the lingering Christian values the suject of abortion culture arises from. If so, their behaviour even more troubling, for it touches something more visceral than the failure of education, and of the social climate generally, to nurture thinking minds and generous hearts. Rage against a perceived threat to the right to abortion does not stop to consider the multitude of defenceless ones that abortion kills every day. What's more, as in this case, it violently resents the mere suggestion that these invisible victims affect us, whether we acknowledge them or not..

Monday, 17 November 2014

James Ellroy in Oxford

James Ellroy was speaking and signing in Blackwell's tonight to promote his new novel Perfidia. I've not read any of his books yet so it seemed fortunate that in answer to someone asking which book he would recommend to a new reader of his work, he pitched the very same Perfidia, convincingly. So after the talk I bought a shiny new copy of the book and got his signature on the title page and a 'Start here' instruction as a bonus. From watching a few clips of Ellroy before the event I expected the semi-profane introductory spiel (duly delivered) and a grandiose way of explaining himself and his work (ditto). Did I have fun? he asked. Yes I did! Ellroy is clearly a serious artist but he wears his seriousness lightly. He is one of those rare people who make grandiosity of word and manner seem perfectly resonable and indeed very charming. In his less flamboyant mode, I particularly liked his notion that everything boils down to a story about a man and a woman. How completely refreshing that someone can still make such a statement without any PC mention of and concession to various other genders. Though Political Correctness is pretty certainly not his M.O. anyway, it made an impression. The thing I don't understand about this evening is the audience reaction to the few times Ellroy resorted to the F-word. Reader, they tittered. There is no other word, they just plain tittered. I was mortified for their sakes. I reckon Mr Ellroy is clever enough to be able to forsake the F-word - unneeded as it usually is - and find a way of provoking a better quality of laughter from his fans.

Thursday, 6 November 2014

Benedict's Match

But of course Mr Cumberbatch is engaged to an English rose called Sophie. How perfect! Miss Hunter is as fagrant as they come, with a sleek and slightly quirky beauty very similar to Mrs Cameron's, a distinguished family and an Oxford education. From her accomplishments as a theatre director we can be fairly certain her understanding of the power of words and language is a match for that of her mellifluously-voiced fiancé. Best of all, for those who delight in such things, Mr Cumberbatch comes home to roost in the sort of understated English poshness he has often denied having, albeit nowadays the poshness involves boasting right-on credentials as much as anything else. We must therefore assume Miss Hunter shares his views on social matters. Mr Cumberbatch is also to be commended for a) committing to marry before the age of forty, and b) choosing a woman his own age. Such a refreshing change from celebrity bachelors who can and do play the field for a very long time and then marry someone markedly younger. So onwards and upwards, the future Mrs Cumberbatch! Maybe she will prevent her husband from participating in ill-informed stunts like the 'This is what a feminist looks like' t-shirt débâcle, where the t-shirts worn by the liberal bien-pensants of England in widely published photographs turned out to have been made by poor women trapped in poor conditions halfway around the world. Mr Cameron refused to wear the t-shirt and was predictably vilified by many commentators before the embarrassing detail of the origin of the pricey slogan rags was made public. For once, I was able to rejoice at the PM's action (or non-action). I still cling to the tiny hope that his refusal stemmed from something about the dignity of office; if that wasn't the case, I'd prefer to think it was due to Mrs Cameron's influence and sense of dignity, rather than to some convoluted PR calculation. I wonder if Mr Cumberbatch's choice of a woman so similar to Mrs Cameron suggests that, beyond Miss Hunter's obvious suitability as his bride, he might have an interest in some level of political life in the future?

Monday, 3 November 2014

The Ageing Gap

It's very often the case that women age more quickly than men. That is to say, that the process of ageing affects women's appearance sooner and more injuriously than it affects the appearance of men. As a general observation, of course, not counting the exceptions. It's why age-gap relationships where the man is older are seldom seen as age-gap relationships (Brangelina, for example), whereas in couples where the woman is older, the age-gap gets mentioned  - oh, pretty much all the time (Demi Moore and her chap when they were married, Hugh Jackman and his wife etc). Now that women are wise to this phenomenon they are taking steps to prevent it, whether by taking better care of their skin, nutrition, fitness and so on, and/or getting a little help from outside sources, whether obvious - like poor, picked-on Renée Zellweger (see previous posts) - or subtly like Julia Roberts or anyone else who can claim to have a natural look. Now it's the men who tend to age prematurely, if fine actors like James Nesbitt, Robson Green and the daddy of them all, George Clooney, are anything to go by. Clooney now looks old, there are no two ways about it. Even the glamour of his beautiful and much younger bride cannot lift him. In fact the new Mrs Clooney makes him look even older. But granted that in the normal course of things the gap in the ageing process between men and women does remain, why is it even there? Rationally, there shouldn't be a discrepancy: a year is a year, a decade is a decade, whatever the gonads. Then again, is it a rational phenomenon? Here's a little flight of fancy, my offer of a non-rational explanation for the ageing gap: it's because of the dual nature of time. Men and women are subject to the linear nature of time (a year is a year and so on), but within that linearity women are also subject to the cyclical nature of time. As seasons come and go cyclically every year, so women's fertility cycles come and go every month, twelve times a year, every year. By the time a few decades of linear time have elapsed, women have gone through maybe 450 life-and-death hormonal cycles. By the time we are released into simple linearity at the end of our fertility we have matured in a way that is disproportionate to our calendar years. And whereas there is a lot to be said for that on personal, emotional and social levels, the physical aspect of this maturity is not so welcome by us and doesn't go down well in terms of how we are perceived. In fact the non-physical aspects of this maturity traditionally haven't gone down very well either. This is why there is so much scorn, unease and even fear that greets the ordinary (non-famous) post-fertility woman. It's why we'll never be rid of the age-old spectre of the 'crone', 'a withered, witchlike old woman', so says the dictionary, from a root word meaning 'old ewe'. A few words further down the dictionary column, in contrast, we get the neutral notion of the 'crony'. It applies primarily to men and merely means 'a close friend or associate', even though it's derived from the Greek word for time (chronos).So even in terms of words the ageing process is not rational.