Wild folk from the west? Maybe not…

In local newspaper offices, up and down the land, away from the conglomeration of desks around which sat a hapless crew of hacks, were treasure troves hidden in corners and cupboards. Enduring endless idle afternoons, intrepid reporters with not much more to do, could be found rooting through the books and artefacts, not unlike pigs searching for truffles.

Bartholomew’s Gazetteer of Places in Britain was one such find. In between telephoning Coroners, Police Stations, Hospitals, Fire Stations and Council offices, the Gazetteer helped fill the endless dreary hours between closing times and the start of a reporter’s real work – talking to local people in the pub to discover any gossip and scandal.

For an amusing romp through the joys of life on a local paper, do read Angus McGill’s novel ‘Yea Yea’ which gives as accurate a picture of that odd, occasionally surreal, life as anyone might want.

Back to Bartholomew and his Gazetteer. In its pages I once came across a name and description that made me laugh out loud for some time: Cheese Wring was the name, and the description was “A natural pile of rude rocks.” It’s a real thing (Bartholomew was always right); look it up on Her Majesty’s Internet if you feel so inclined.

It came to mind of late as family changes now require relatively regular journeys to Exeter, taking supplies to that place where are to be found hungry students, who are also sometimes cold, and who welcome occasional visitors bearing gifts and provisions.

To get there from here you drive past another pile of rude rocks, located for incoherent, or at least unknown, reasons in the middle of a field. Not unlike the Loch Ness monster, mystery surrounds them and their origins.

Eddie Izzard had a good stab at an explanation but I don’t buy it. The whole thing is way too complicated for pre-historic Druid types. No; the truth is that a Henge, on the lines of the popular erection in Wiltshire, is more of a Renaissance thing. The architecture, art and geometry of it screams Leonardo rather than a rockman from the land that time forgot.

I suspect that Leonardo and chums came secretly to Britain one night, and using their enthusiastic wizardry with rollers, ropes and angles, having ordered the materials from a local supplier, put it up and then stole away as silently as they had arrived.

“It’s a fantastic opportunity to generate tourist income for the area'” the Town Clerk said at the meeting after someone had spotted the Henge in situ. The Council contacted the local paper which spread the story far and wide, earning tip fees each time, and everyone was happy.

Britain had a World Heritage tourist attraction. The local area had a steady stream of tourists passing through, unfortunately none of whom spent any cash locally but did leave tons of litter which kept the locals employed clearing it up.

In fact the only people who were unhappy were those who travel regularly from here to there on the fabled A303 in a slow and frequently stopping convoy of gawkers, unused to piles of rude rocks of any sort.

Traffic jams are, therefore, Leonardo’s enduring legacy.

Anything and everything he crafted and created causes people to stop, stand and stare – just go to the Louvre and check out his fabled painting of an apparently constipated noble lady. It’s fame of a sort though I would argue that an underwater helicopter would have been significantly more useful than a Henge.

How to turn Happy Christmas into a medieval execution

First, turn on predictive text; next, send Happy Christmas in Italian to your Italian chum – ‘Buon Natale’ in other words – and AI, in the blink of an electron, turns it into ‘Burn Natalie’.

Predictive text is a stupid AI technology process.

It demonstrates, with unerring accuracy, just why technology is so not an answer of any sensible sort to human communication problems, most of which are, in any case, caused by poor communication.

Artificial intelligence and ‘natural language processing’ are no substitute for taking care when writing. Some call it being mindful. Actually it is the ability to focus on the task in hand until said task is complete.

Burn Natalie indeed!

Quack because it’s good for you

Do you find this statement by former Google boss Eric Schmidt alarming: “We don’t need you to type at all. We know where you are. We know where you’ve been. We can more or less know what you’re thinking about.”

I do, because the company which once had listed in its Code of Conduct the phrase ‘Do no evil’ appears to have slithered towards a darker purpose. The original axiom was later removed and replaced by ‘Do the Right Thing’: equally vapid, veiled with menace, and impossible to achieve. Right for whom, is the obvious and initial question to ask. The answer is apparently Google, its owners and shareholders.

This should scare sentient adults with the ability to think for themselves and process information without emotion.

From Tim Berners Lee and others, the warnings to remain vigilant are consistent: tech platforms, they suggest, have taken over government of communication and perception of the world as we know it. Boris, Donald, Xi Jinping, Vladimir & Co who believe themselves to be in charge are, more realistically, in hopeless thrall to Google and Facebook, with Twitter, Uber, and Airbnb among others providing the bread and circuses to divert the people (that’s thee and me).

Berners-Lee, wrote in an open letter to mark the 29th anniversary of the world wide web: “In recent years, we’ve seen conspiracy theories trend on social media platforms, fake Twitter and Facebook accounts stoke social tensions, external actors interfere in elections, and criminals steal troves of personal data. These problems have proliferated because of the concentration of power in the hands of a few platforms – including Facebook, Google, and Twitter – which control which ideas and opinions are seen and shared.”

Increasingly, and if you are getting the heebie-jeebies about the lack of accountability of the tech giants, this won’t help. It really is starting to look as though The Matrix was less fiction and more documentary.

One way to divert the baleful gaze of the technocrats from your underwear drawer and wallet is to stop using Google and use https://duckduckgo.com instead.

It is not as slick, and its results may not be as comprehensive but, let’s face it, it takes some tenacity to go beyond the first page of any search you conduct online.

And to convert to the quack side is not difficult. Apple and Google both list DuckDuckGo as a search default option on their Safari and Chrome browsers.

Ordure by another name

Kakapo, the flightless parrot indigenous to New Zealand, for which I have no little affection (see The story so far) would probably have made a far more suitable and appropriate animal emblem for the World Wildlife Fund than the undeniably cute Panda.

The Panda’s very cuteness causes, in and of itself, a perception problem because it feeds directly into Disney-induced sentimentality (Newsflash: No animals died in Bambi. None. Zero. Some cartoons were, though, erased) which infects much human thinking. Cuteness, while a great device to divert small children, also diverts attention away from a real problem: species extinction.

Established in 1961, the WWF set itself a tough task:”Our mission is to stop the degradation of our planet’s natural environment, and build a future in which people live in harmony with nature.

“It’s a hell of a mission, and it requires the top of the food chain (that’s thee and me) to pause, probably stop, what we’re doing to reflect on the consequences of our actions and project our thinking forward a few decades.

These consequences have been clearly and graphically outlined by all independent environmental science and scientists. Independent in this case means those not in the pockets of the Agri and Oil conglomerates.

In a report published in 2018, the WWF states that humanity has wiped out 60% of mammals, birds, fish and reptiles since 1970. Over half.

The report’s conclusion is that increasing human consumption of food and resources is destroying the web of life (a real thing as opposed to the whizzing electrons which we call the web). The creation of the web of life, in which nature has invested billions of years, is the inter-connection between each living creature and plant.

We should be very clear that the removal of so many links is unlikely to be compensated for by AI or anything ‘smart’ from Silicon Valley. Amazon, Uber, Google and Deliveroo are excellent at generating revenue. None knows how to save the planet from themselves or us.

Has the WWF failed in its mission? The evidence indicates, rather sadly, that it has and I blame the Panda device.

Because of it, children the world over, and their parents, have been seduced into believing that because governments swop Pandas between zoos, in which some of the beasts breed, the Panda is relatively safe (not in its natural habitat, of course) and therefore so are other animals which can metaphorically shelter behind its cute bulk.

WWF’s mission has lost its way partly because of weak and misguided communication. And it would be well-served to up the urgency of its message by a quantum leap (aka an abrupt and extreme change). If asked I would advise the folk there to ditch the bear and replace it with something less cute and more worrying for our future.

Perhaps the Potoo Bird would neatly fit the bill.
The species dates back over 40 million years, is comical in appearance and is not yet endangered. Give us time though.

As we burn the Amazon and other rain forests into ash so that we can farm more and more cattle, the Potoo, will join Madagascar Lemurs, Leopards, Sumatran Elephants, Tigers and myriads of other species on the list of ‘soon to disappear for ever’ animals.

There is another, sublime, reason why the Potoo bird is so appropriate.

Combine the worthy environmental statements, and enduring lack of action, made by the political and commercial leaders who flock to Davos and similar forums every year, who go on and on and on about what they will do to help preserve the planet and its inhabitants and yet do nothing of consequence. And now ask yourself this: is what they have to say about climate change, and its effects on wildlife and our lives, mostly poo-too?

Dramatic lessons

Once upon a time, a Chancellor of England, Sir Thomas More, had his head hacked from his body as a consequence of his failure to swear loyalty to his king. In the dramatised version of his life, ‘A Man for all Seasons’ the following exchange with his son-in-law Will Roper (the man who sold him to the King’s spies) was reported:

Roper: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!
More: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
Roper: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!
More: Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you, where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country is planted thick with laws from coast to coast – man’s laws, not God’s – and if you cut them down, and you’re just the man to do it, do you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law for my own safety’s sake.

This argument came to mind when a column in the FT (It won’t be nice liberal Boris Johnson, By James Blitz, December 16, 2019) ended with these words:

“These are early days. But people should give up on the idea that Mr Johnson is going to be a nice moderate Harold Macmillan dressed up like Donald Trump.”

Oh dear; could it be that Dominic Cummings is determined to revenge himself on the BBC, the Supreme Court, Parliament, foreigners and all liberals as starters, before he moves onto his main course – us?

Racism makes zero sense

Ask a Royal Marines Commando whether his Green Lid training and selection time comprise the toughest military programme in the world and he’ll be saying yes before you’ve got the word programme out.

You’ll get exactly the same response from members of the Parachute Regiment, the Foot Guards, other elite units and every callow youth who has passed successfully through RMA Sandhurst.

However, all these gallant types would not hesitate to agree that the real answer to the original question is the Special Air Service and its obviously damp sibling, the Special Boat Service.

The first Gurkha to join the elite SAS regiment is known by the colloquial name Johnny. It’s a moniker that dates back to the days of the Raj when these tough men from the hills of Nepal stood shoulder to shoulder with the British to fight against the Mutineers.

From this conflict a brotherhood of arms was born, based on mutual respect and genuine affection. It is a unique relationship. On the Gurkha War Memorial in Whitehall are inscribed these words: “Bravest of the brave, most generous of the generous, never had country more faithful friends than you.”

And, by golly, we can be certain that the Gurkhas are, and were, all of this and more. The award of 26 Victoria Crosses to the Brigade since 1858 is all the proof we need.

Yet you would think, would you not, that of one thing we can be 100 per cent certain: that in this country the Gurkhas face no racist discrimination or abuse.

Sadly you would be wrong. And, what is more, you would be mistaken to believe that the abuse was from nationalist thugs whose view of foreigners is brutal, evil and ugly. Alas, it appears that the discrimination comes from within and is based on that Hindu  blight, caste.

In ‘A Gurkha’s Story’ (by Johnny Gurkha, published by Lamjung Books, 2013) we learn that due to his caste, Johnny suffered setbacks and exclusion. Senior Gurkhas from other castes diverted opportunities away from him and employed underhand tactics to disregard his qualities, effort and military skill, to favour instead members of their own castes .

He applied for, and joined, the SAS because passing Selection is in and of itself, a pinnacle of military achievement, and to get away from the racist attitudes that were prevalent in the Gurkhas at that time.

The cover of A Gurkha's Story by Johnny Gurkha

This is an interesting book, instructive as to the way the war was fought in Afghanistan and how the men from Nepal interacted with their British counterparts. Stirring stuff that makes me want to acquire a kukri, to contemplate its deeper meaning in these troubled times.

The sub-text of the book is illuminating. It explains the practical effects of racism on the soul of its victims, on their daily lives, and why it requires superhuman will, determination and strength to overcome.

And when you seek to translate that requirement to ordinary people, to immigrants here, in the US and elsewhere, you can see how the drip drip drip of racism and fascism can defeat them and so diminish us.

Johnny Gurkha is an inspiration for the fight in which we should all engage: for the right to be ourselves irrespective of creed, colour, religion, nation or caste and evolve as a united species. There is only one way and that is by turning our backs on past hatred and enmities.

Toad? Don’t talk to me about Toad

Ratty was a narcissist with neurotic tendencies. Badger was a bombastic bully with an assumed kindly and bluff streak developed purely to hide an arrogant manner. Otter was a ruthless killer with psychopathic tendencies, who nonetheless loved his kith and kin.

Mole, with whom many young persons identified, was a born follower doomed to a life of resentment. And following.

The weasels and stoats were frightful rotters, Mostly badly-behaved City boys, road ragers, gangsters and gang members. A thoroughly bad lot.

The rabbits were mostly lunch.

But Toad; what about him and his wrinkled, crinkled life?

Toad is defined, for all time, by this passage from ‘Wind in the Willows’:

“Speech – by Toad.

(There will be other speeches by Toad during the evening.)

Address – by Toad

Synopsis: Our Prison System; The Waterways of Old England; Horse-dealing and how to deal; Property, its rights and its duties; Back to the Land; A Typical English Squire.

Song – by Toad.

Composed by himself.

Other Compositions – by Toad – will be sung in the course of the evening by the Composer.”

And that all-consuming vanity is, actually, all that is wrong with him.

Toad’s heart is in the right place. He is overshadowed by insecurity, a fear of being overlooked and of appearing foolish, even whilst behaving foolishly. Toad wants the best for everyone, but so often his ego takes over and fights endlessly and sadly victoriously with his good and generous nature.

This characteristic can often be seen in my business when discussing website, newsletter and speech content with business owners and C-Suite natives.

Time and time again they lose sight of why they are there as they allow vanity and ego to drive their responses and reactions. What they need, of course, is someone to stand behind them to whisper in their ears the terribly useful words ‘You worthless piece of effluent; one day you will be dead – be nice. Remember who will write your epitaph.’

There is a slim and useful book called ‘Counselling for Toads’ by a chap called Robert de Board. It is described as a psychological adventure.

Though it seems to be about furry and other woodland creatures on the surface, in reality it’s about each one of us and explains most clearly why we should be more understanding about our own frailties and those of others.

Its biggest lesson is that when it comes to comms, once you understand that it’s never, ever, about you, even ordinary content becomes great.

Mean what you say, or say what you mean?

English language newspaper obituaries are the finest examples of euphemistic writing, a genre in which we are the world champions. Why? Because we don’t like to speak ill of the dead too overtly.

The obit code – telling the truth about the recently deceased without standing up at the funeral and saying ‘Actually, you know what…’ – came about because it is considered to be extremely bad manners to be anything other than positive about the attributes of the dearly departed. Encouragingly for scribblers, obit writing is a form that, done well, is up there with the best English writing of all time and will get one noticed.

Here are some classics:

Garrulous – overly and unbearably sociable

Ebullient and lively wit – told awful, often unseemly, jokes

Austere and reserved – joyless, dour, depressing and dull

Did not suffer fools gladly – foul tempered, permanently grumpy; an arse

Enjoyed female company – priapic sex pest

Notable vivacious – nymphomaniac

He/she lived life to the full – zero self-control of some, most or all physical appetites

Burdened by occasional irregularities in his/her private life – an intriguing list of possibilities. A conviction for indecent exposure perhaps? Rampant adulterer? Occasional kleptomania? Wouldn’t you like to know?

You can write whatever you wish to about dead people because they cannot sue you. It’s writing about the living that is fraught with legal difficulty.

Write that someone in the public eye is ‘… often thirsty …’ usually means she or he is no stranger to the bottle. Private Eye used to write ‘tired and emotional’ rather than hopelessly drunk. ‘Hands-on mentoring’ is newspaper code for sexual shenanigans while a ‘volatile personality’ means random and volcanic eruptions of bad temper.

The words ‘rumbustious’, ‘controversial’ and ‘questionable’ with reference to business behaviour mean that something illegal is almost certainly going on but is unlikely to be proven to the satisfaction of a court. Current examples might be  articles about Amazon’s, Apple’s and Google’s tax affairs.

Creative use of euphemism in content is not restricted to writing about the dead.

A civil servant who tells his minister that a decision would be ‘courageous’ means that his career will be damaged, possibly terminally, by it. ‘Adventurous’ means mad and unworkable. A frank discussion is a row and a robust exchange of views is a row with much shouting.

Euphemism is so ingrained in the English language that it is baffling to see it being misunderstood and blankly received by native born Brits. These include the rather odd people who feature on reality TV and miss the meaning of words such as ‘incidentally’(which means you clearly do not understand so I shall now explain this more simply to you). The phrase ‘with the greatest respect’, also often misunderstood, means you are so stupid that I have no idea how you can stand up and breathe at the same time; stop wasting my time. Go away.

It is helpful to understand this double-speak and to know where, and how, it is best used. When trying to spare feelings, it’s excusable. When it is blatant mendacity, it is not.

Mark Zuckerberg said, in explanation of the egregious censorship and algorithm-led news editing that Facebook recently carried out that it is a technology platform and not a publisher. He might have thought he was being euphemistic, but he was not.

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 14.54.26

It was a clear statement which events indicate may not be true, a view confirmed by COO Sheryl Sandberg.

Screen Shot 2017-01-05 at 14.54.36

This ‘misunderstanding’ has been elegantly nailed by Peter Preston, a previous editor of the Guardian and by definition a man who understands very clearly how to use words as deftly as a Venetian assassin used a stiletto. He wrote in that paper this week:

“Facebook, though now the biggest carrier of digital news on Planet Earth, says it isn’t an editor or publisher, merely a humble platform. But now watch it change algorithms like any publisher in a jam. Watch it take editorial decisions, switching idiocy for sense. And watch it drain advertising revenue pretty voraciously from the news sites it carries. Dear Mark is part of our news world now. And he needs to be fully, intelligently engaged in it.”

When Facebook dies, can you imagine the obits?

Dear Mr Harding

As you no doubt remember from your days working on a serious newspaper, reader letters tend to fall into one of two categories: disturbed folk who want to tell you about a new conspiracy theory and, normal readers who wish to share a view about the organ of whose staff you are a member.

You and your colleagues at the BBC, more than most, are inundated with an endless supply of information. Some you have discovered for yourselves by the old-fashioned art of news journalism. Much has been fed to you by the adroit PR and marketing machines which work for governments and corporations. An unfortunate proportion derives from deranged ramblings on Twitter.

Most of your listeners, viewers and readers lack either the time, knowledge, desire or intellect to discriminate between nonsense and accurate information. It would be enormously helpful to us all, and much appreciated, if you could see your way to establish and maintain two small editorial changes.

First, could you please illuminate for us which, of the stories you broadcast and publish, have been fact-checked and tested for accuracy and which have not. To assume that a politician or businessman is telling the truth is to do a disservice to your audience.

Second, if you feel that it is important to report the views and opinions of non-qualified members of the public, please do not present these as having the same credence as those of an expert. The way you reported the scandal of the MMR vaccine is a case in point.

Quality content relies upon information which has been tested for truth and has passed that test. Because the BBC is not the Daily Mail, or Daily Telegraph, surely this should be a standard operating procedure for your news teams.

The BBC’s role – and its sole justification for the Licence Fee – is to be objective and accurate, not populist. Yours is the only news outlet where, at a time when many in commercial media have exchanged professional honesty in favour of profits, those who are interested can find the truth that is missing elsewhere.

*James Harding, Director of News and Current Affairs at the BBC.

A well edited sentence is a thing of beauty

Where are sentences and syntax so pretty and fresh that they match natural pearls to be found? Why, in the pages of the Economist.

Its sub-editors are craftsmen not unlike those of the Renaissance, who wrought the spectacular works of Cellini and his ilk and made them come alive so that mere mortals could gaze upon these masterpieces of creation.

The back bench folk in St James’s not only understand the effects of a misplaced comma, but can discourse, at length if required, upon modal verbs, relative clauses and determiners.

And so they should; after all, they are at the peak of their linguistic powers and that is why they work where they do. What these people do is to make it nigh on impossible to misunderstand the Economist’s content, or doubt its accuracy.

We know that machines cannot create content. We now also know that they cannot curate or edit it correctly either.

Irrefutable evidence of this truth is the indefensible shambles that ensued at Facebook following wholesale dismissal of many of its curating staff.

Gone was the sensible human touch; instead the trending service chose to highlight, as suitable newsfeeds, articles including a gentlemen pleasuring himself courtesy of a McDonald’s chicken sandwich and a fake story about a US news anchor.

Facebook’s sacked editors have been replaced by an algorithm.

What a horrible and ugly thing to do; what a foul insult to men and women of letters. I propose that for one event only, the law prohibiting duelling should be repealed primarily to honour the memory of Dr Johnson and others.