Friday, 23 July 2010

The latest hot spells just a change in the whether

ST ANDREWS, traditional home of golf, where Louis Oosthuizen won The Open last weekend, has no apostrophe.
St Andrew’s, home of Birmingham City Football Club, has one.
You may never have noticed this obscure distinction before – and if you have, you may not think it matters a whole lot. But as a sports sub-editor (which I have been, among other things, for more than 30 years), it’s the kind of thing I’m supposed to know.
Then there’s the case of Newcastle United’s ground.
I was virtually raised as a football fan on its terraces. Throughout the 1980s I was a regular attender in its press box.
Its name, as I’ve known well most of my life, is St James’s Park. Except that apparently it isn’t any more.
We were discussing this the other day around the sports desk of the other paper where I work. (You get such interesting discussions round sports desks.)
The conclusion that was reached is that the famous old Tyneside stadium should now be referred to as St James’ Park.
Indeed, horror of horrors, against all tradition and well-established pronunciation, the club itself, on its website and its headed stationery, has now lost the second ‘S’.
Never mind that this flies in the face of the grammatical rule that I, like most of us, was brought up with.
St James, being singular, needs an apostrophe and an ‘S’ after his name to denote his possession (or, in this case, a dedication).
St James’ suggests something jointly owned by (or dedicated to) several people, each of them called St Jame.
Or is that being too pedantic?
News rooms are full of people who think such things do matter.
I’ve had colleagues who get quite hot under the collar about the use of apostrophes.
About whether “aging”, unlike raging, staging or paging, should have an ‘E’ in the middle.
About whether “under way” should be one word or whether “anymore” should be two (you can see above what I think about that one).
The astonishing sales achieved by books such as Lynne Truss’s (NOT Lynne Truss’) Eats Shoots And Leaves suggests that plenty of other people care about such things too.
I once wrote a book about it myself. Not a bestseller, unfortunately, but one aimed exclusively at Evening Star journalists.
It was the paper’s Style Guide, in which – among a great many other things – I stipulated all the above points about spellings and apostrophes.
My version is now being updated by another journalist, as these things must be from time to time.
Language changes. An earlier guide insists on the spellings “to-day”, “to-morrow”, “un-likely” and “any-way”, which may already have been a little old-fashioned when it was written.
Modern habit suggests that “underway” probably has contracted from two words into one.
It seems bizarre, looking back, that I used to care either way.
One of the things I found while writing my guide was that the more I considered each entry – whether, for example, a free-kick should be taken with a hyphen – the more arbitrary it seemed. And the less important.
(An earlier arbiter of style would have seen red at that last comment. To begin a sentence with “And” – aargh! And yet… )
Does it still make sense to insist that “decimate” should mean reduce by exactly one tenth? Or should we accept that it now denotes vaguer, usually greater, damage?
There was a time when it would have made me quite cross to see St James’s Park reduced to St James’. But why should it?
Now I find I really don’t care anymore. Well, not much anyway…

A Cable tied in knots

AS a statement of political analysis it was straightforward enough:
“We face the prospect of rule by charming and utterly inexperienced young men armed only with a sense of entitlement to run the family estate.”
Some of us might struggle to see the charm, but essentially that’s a fair description of the incoming Tory government.
The irony is that the man who wrote it, leading LibDem Vince Cable, is himself now a lesser member of that very government.
And I wonder how George Osborne – as chancellor, effectively Cable’s immediate boss – feels about this honest assessment: “I never rated George’s understanding of financial and economic matters.”
The quotes come from Cable’s memoir, Free Radical. Originally published last November, it has just appeared in paperback.
The intervening election, and the job it propelled Cable into, will no doubt have given his book a good sales push – as well as making it a rather squirmy read.
Cable may still manage to sound mostly as if he’s talking more sense than any of his new colleagues.
But he can hardly be called radical any more. And certainly not free.

Friday, 9 July 2010

The law's an ass to put out to grass

I AM tempted to start this week with a bracing burst of song. Only slightly misquoting the late Edwin Starr, let’s all sing along now:
“Law – huh! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing.”
Well, OK, I wouldn’t really go quite that far. The proscription against killing people, for example, is quite important, I think. Or injuring them unpleasantly.
And the stuff about driving fast in built-up areas (though that’s really just putting detail on the bits about killing and injuring).
A lot of the rest essentially merely imposes the opinions or preferences of one group of people (mostly the better-off) on everyone else.
Like most folk, I was brought up to respect the law. And I suppose, broadly, I do. I certainly don’t go out of my way to break it and I wouldn’t encourage others to break it, either.
The problem is that there are just too many darned laws for any one person to know what they all are. Which can make it hard to avoid stepping over the lines inadvertently.
And there are a lot of bad laws out there, which can have the effect of lessening respect for the whole system.
Which brings me to Nick Clegg’s Big Idea.
The deputy PM is front-man for the Your Freedom website, which leads off with the words: “The Coalition Government is committed to restoring and defending your freedom – and we’re asking you to participate.”
Which could be seen, depending on viewpoint, as democracy in action, window-dressing, or just funking it.
I have my suspicions, but we’ll only know for sure, I suppose, when we see which of the public’s ideas actually make it onto (or off) the statute book.
The last government was obsessed with law-making. Most of it was nonsense, and scrapping much of it might not be a bad thing.
While we’re at it, it would be a good thing to roll back most of the blights imposed on us before that by the Thatcher and Major administrations too.
In fact, if Mr Clegg really wants our ideas on which laws to scrap, I’d put the 1994 Criminal Justice and Public Order Act top of the list.
Buried in the sludge of that ill-conceived hodge-podge were one or two provisions I’d agree with. But mostly it was a badly-written rag-bag of oppression.
The enshrining in statute of the then-current obsessions and prejudices of the Tory press and the Tory right wing, as personified in the home secretary, Michael Howard.
It might have been deliberately designed to undermine respect for the law and its officers among large sections of the populace.
The increasing of police powers of unsupervised “stop and search” can only have damaged the relationship between cops and citizens.
And that’s before you consider the extended right to take and retain “intimate body samples”.
The silliest, and most controversial, aspect of the Act, though, was its broad-brush attack on youth culture.
The criminalising of trespass, squatting and “unauthorised camping”. The restrictions on organised protest.
Most particularly the idiotic section banning “raves”, along with its definition of music “characterised by repetive beats”.
I don’t think that section was ever used to prevent a military band from parading, but it surely could have been. It was used last year to close down a barbecue held by 15 people on their own land.
Ironically, the same Act also ended the old tradition of a suspected person’s non-prejudicial right to silence.
The Labour government that came in three years later could have ditched all that. Instead they set about making matters worse with their own Crime And Disorder Act of 1998.
On the plus side, it formally ended capital punishment. And, a theoretical plus if not a practical one, it brought in a new category of racially or religiously aggravated offences.
In the totally-daft-let’s-scrap-it-now category, it brought in the ASBO.
Time, surely, for that insane invention, the scallywags’ badge of honour, to be consigned to history’s dustbin.
With it, please, Mr Clegg, you could ditch all those regulations that use the phantoms of “terror” and “paedophilia” to restrict every honest citizen’s rights to travel and take photos.
If I’m taking pics at my child’s school play or sports day, or on a public beach, it has nothing to do with porn. If I raise my camera in the street, it doesn’t make me a terrorist.
The demonising of such normal behaviour has done a lot to create the damaging “us and them” tone of our society.
So, over a longer time span, has the criminalising of drugs.
Prohibition of alcohol in the USA in 1920 didn’t just not work – it was catastrophic in creating a whole society of organised crime.
The same is true, on a vastly bigger scale, of the near-worldwide ban on many other drugs.
It’s not just ineffective, not just counter-productive – it’s worse than that.
You don’t have to support drug-use to see that the law against it makes things a whole lot worse.
Whether there would be any future in Britain going it alone in making drugs legal is debatable. If it could be done internationally, it would be a very good thing.
The same argument applies just as forcefully to prostitution.
Interestingly, the call to legalise cannabis is the most-backed call so far on the Your Freedom website.
Is there any chance of the government actually listening? What do you think?


I HAVE been engaged in an exchange of poems with the Californian poet Valerie Witte through the auspices of the excellent poetry site Likestarlings. She writes one, I reply with one of my own, she responds, etc. Like any conversation, one person's ideas spark tangential ideas in the other and the whole thing goes in directions neither of you might have predicted. Quite challenging and very enjoyable - and I'm delighted to see that my second response to Val, in the unlikely form of a completely regular sestina, titled re:action / in formation now appears on the home page of the site as the editor's 'featured poem'. Check it out here.
Anyone interested in reading any of my poetry can find links to all that's online here - or see the link at left.

Friday, 2 July 2010

When the mascots play a secret role in the game

WHAT is the point of royalty?
Since we are no longer governed by a hereditary dictatorship, why on earth do we continue to surround their descendants with so much pomp and ceremony?
Why should we care about our posh little princes or what they get up to? And why, for heaven’s sake, do we have to fund their pampered lifestyles when there are doubts over funding hospitals and schools?
The late Merlyn Rees once explained to me a kind of road-to-Damascus vision he’d had on the subject.
Merlyn, home secretary in Jim Callaghan’s Labour government, had been brought up a socialist and anti-monarchist. It was on a trip to the USA that he changed his mind about the second part.
Standing before the John F Kennedy Memorial in Dallas, he was overwhelmed by emotion. Not his own emotion, but the outpourings of the Americans around him.
That all that fervour and adulation should be expended on, as he put it, “a mere politician” filled him with dismay.
“If you’re going to put people on a pedestal,” he subsequently explained, “far better that they should be people who wield no real power.
“Just imagine if people revered Margaret Thatcher the way they do the Queen.”
That conversation took place shortly after Thatcher came to power – and Rees, of course, left it.
For 30 years since, I have generally shared his view.
But it only works if the Royals really wield no power. If they stick to their allotted role of national mascots and don’t try to take part in the game.
Which is why we should take very seriously the attempts of Prince Charles to wield power behind the scenes.
Of course Charles has a right to his opinions.
If he doesn’t like Lord Rogers’s plans for the redevelopment of Chelsea Barracks, he is entitled to say so.
Like any neighbour of a proposed new building, he can voice his objections, ask for a public inquiry, give his evidence.
What he should not have is the right to pull strings. To invite his fellow princes in the Qatari royal family, who were partly funding the scheme, to tea at Clarence House and get them to scrap the plans.
And then, crucially, to claim a royal privilege of secrecy over ever having got involved.
He likes to get involved, does Charles.
Some of his views – on farming methods, for example, or “American-style compensation culture” – I broadly share.
On architecture, I find his preference for Quality Street-tin “tradition” not merely bizarre, but offensive.
But whether I (or anyone else) agree with him is not the point.
The point is his 40-year habit of wielding influence by letter, email and tea-party – and expecting everyone to pretend he didn’t.
So I welcome the ruling by a High Court judge that Charles brought “unexpected and unwelcome” pressure to bear, causing the £3billion Chelsea housing project to be “effectively derailed”.
Charles, of course, doesn’t welcome it at all. He considers that the public ruling breaches his privacy.
As if princes had a right to more privacy than the rest of us. Especially when he wants to get things done. Or stopped.
We now know that ministers in successive governments, back to Merlyn Rees’s time and beyond, have been familiar with the “black spiders” of Charles’s handwriting as he attempted to sway decisions on everything from hunting to foreign relations.
They weren’t supposed to tell us about it because of a curious British “convention” that the Royal Family should not be seen to interfere in politics.
A convention that is as stupid as it is typically British.
If they shouldn’t be SEEN to do it, they shouldn’t do it.
If they can’t play by the rules, why should we keep them in the game at all?


GOOD job we had a fancy foreign coach to show our lads how to play, then, eh?
When I wrote, just before the World Cup kicked off, about our national over-optimism, I didn’t know just how far over the top our optimism was.
Now Fabio wants to keep his job. Well, at £6million a year, wouldn’t you?
It seems reasonable compensation for the damage done to his previously high reputation.
What of the damage to the reputations of John Terry, Steven Gerrard and the rest of the supposed “golden generation”?
I’m sure I’m not the only fan who’d be happy never to see any of them in an England shirt again.
Wayne Rooney was supposed to have been one of the stars of the tournament, up there with Messi and Kaka. In the event he was outshone by… well, nearly everyone, really.
Of course the players were tired after a long Premier League season.
So how come Carlos Tevez and Dirk Kuyt look as fresh and lively for Argentina and Holland as they did all season for Man City and Liverpool?
And how come England’s finest seemed to forget all they ever knew about the basics of defending? Or attacking, come to that.
I could go on. But you’ve probably already read more than you want about the worst England performance ever at a major tournament (and yes, I do remember Graham Taylor).
Now at least we can sit back and enjoy the festival of football without the anxiety that always goes with England’s involvement.