U need to improve ur English, innit?

The papers (particularly those oft-rattled in disapproval) have had a nice time reporting that Ofqual  have approved an exam syllabus that will study the works of rapper Dizzee Rascall and that rapscallion Russell Brand. Honestly, if you can bear the feeling of being sullied, it’s worth looking at the comments in the Mail* and the Torygraph – play a game with yourself and see if you can write the most popular comments yourself before reading them…

I’d love to hear someone from Ofqual simply offer a rebuttal with a good quote – maybe TS Eliot: “For last year’s words belong to last year’s language / And next year’s words await another voice.” and leave it at that but I’m sure the debate will rage on.

Any of the objectors in the letters page of the Telegraph might, if they care to put down their copy of Thatcher’s autobiography long enough, find that Russell Brand’s use of language is being studied quite justifiably; he is as skilled, eloquent and creative a user of the language as anyone writing in the Daily Mail (have a quick look here, for example) certainly and he uses that skill to provoke reaction and thought – which is rather the point of education, isn’t it? You’re still perfectly entitled to disagree with his point of view, should you wish to.

Alert readers of my own output sometimes make comments such as: “For someone what writes so often about English, your hardly the best example, aren’t you?” (Mr P. Figpucker**, Dorset). This is true, I make frequent grammatical and stylistic errors, sometimes to deliberately wind up pedants but most often though simple ignorance. I tend to write in what is technically called “regular” or “normal” English, which can be understood by anyone with a basic level of education and, in my case, a high tolerance for crass jokes. The other types of English recognised by experts are “low” English, spoken by youths, celebrities, gang members, dusky-looking people working in takeaways and anyone else looked down on by readers of the Daily Mail; “proper” English, as used by Her Majesty the Queen, the BBC up until they started letting people with regional accents on and unrelentingly posh Tory MPs and “complicated” English used  by James Joyce, Will Self and in any book that the experts couldn’t finish.

Of course, there is joy and beauty to be found in the language of all of these people – I won’t bore you with the case for the defence, rather, if you have half an hour spare, listen to Stephen Fry’s wonderful podcast on language. That means that all are worthy of study, surely? There’s as much to be learned from the study of the language of the street as there is from the language of princes (and ponces).

At least the chance to study the English of rappers and court jesters might provoke the students into thinking about the way that language can be shaped and manipulated to convince and cajole. The swivel eyed loons will undoubtedly claim that Brand is being allowed to sully the pristine minds of our nation’s youth with his poisonous ideology via their A-level studies  but at least they might be encouraged to look at the language used in politics to describe the poor, foreign powers who don’t like us stealing their natural resources or opponents of wholesale privatisation and perhaps wonder whether their own government aren’t guilty of more than a little sullying themselves?

If there’s one thing that perhaps we could get even their detractors to admit, at least Brand, Rascal et al make an effort when they use the language. And here’s a good point – (he said, starting a sentence with ‘and’, just as his English teacher told him to never ever do…)  – Ofqual are making an effort, letting the English curriculum imitate the language – protean, trend-driven and, crucially, belonging to the people. Long live the revolution and, choosing my words with great care, fuck the Daily Mail.

Happy reading, writing and speaking, people.

*I can’t bring myself to link to the Mail website. You’re welcome to explore hell, I’m not buying you the ticket.

**Having been made aware of the potential for embarrassment with his surname, you’ll be please to hear that Mr Figpucker has reverted to his ancient family name of Deauphyle. I’m sure this should prevent any sniggering .

Rush hour prose.

We were a heavy gobbet of boiling, vital matter shot out from the coruscating birth of a star, circling and cooling, forming a shiny, coin-bright skin; then dulling, cracking, covered in the chaotic verdigris of organic life that begat tiny scuttling things that in turn begat larger things that learned to harness the sun but still skulked and scuttled in self-created shadows, both inside and out. In time our appetites were our undoing, our stain irremovable from the once-gleaming surface that we strode, the light inside of us dimming long before the Sun.

Our dust cast to the four winds, now winding sinuously through the empty structures that we left, like abstract sculptures. Without our frail shapes to lend them purpose of shelter, our gleaming exoskeletons to scurry up their winding ramps, our endless to and fro of pointless information to fill their copper veins, they stand as cryptic monuments; tributes to gods of profit and progress worshipped inexplicably; sanitoria of our collective madness.This view, this perspective is not unique to our future, to potential visitors from whatever may transpire; it is the slightest turning of the head, a simple shift of focus. It should be obvious to any of us, as we sit in our tiny metal corpuscles, queued in the black veins that carry poison across the land, that we are a plague, that our tooth grinding impatience with the noise and the nudging forward, the pointless delay and the decay of our surroundings are simply symptoms of the disease, the lunacy that we continue to spread.Do we fail to notice? Are our senses that dull, or are we merely locked in denial, telling ourselves fairy tales to distract ourselves from the awful truth that we ourselves are the very monsters that stalk our nightmares?Know this: there will come a day for each of us that we will tumble into the abyss. Angels will not swoop to save us, science will not lend us wings and all that we will have is what we were, what we chose to do with each second that ticked by.

The minstrel in the gallery.

Scattered, apathetic applause fades to a background engine-note of exchanged banalities, punctuated with chokes of harsh laughter. The minstrel straightens up from the bar, rolls weary shoulders, drains his beer and signals the barman for another before picking his way through to the stage.
Kneeling to flick the clasps on a guitar case, the minstrel smells lemon oil, wood, an almost imperceptible spectre of old cigarette smoke and beer, the hours of care spent on the instrument almost enough to drown out the olfactory memory of a hundred stages, basement bars, dim pubs, church-hall parties.
The weight of the guitar around the neck is a burden familiar enough to bring comfort, like a calloused thumb rubbing across an old scar and as the minstrel looks up, out from the stage, his toughened fingertips return to the strings as if reunited parts of a whole.
Dimly lit in the reflection from the stage, the glow of mobile telephone screens and the dull luminescence of the exit signs, the audience are a shifting gallery of grotesques, masks rough-hewn from decaying wood, clumsily-fashioned golem-people; hollow things of dirt and clay, animated only by the words writ into their heads by faceless masters. An uneasy balance exists: the minstrel knows that without them he would leave empty-handed, his job is to entertain, stimulate, arouse and then placate them. He must achieve rapport with them, reach into their hearts and move them. On the other side of the coin, he knows that not one of them will give him their full attention for longer than a few seconds unless he panders to them, plays their requests and gives them cause to sing along; raucous and atonal. Should he chance his own songs, cut raw from the stuff of his soul and painstakingly finished over hours of solitary breaking and recasting, he will be met with vacant disinterest, even hostility. He must tread a careful path between their half-formed wishes for the trite, the universally popular or half-recognised melodies that will show them a glimpse of the wider beauty of the songs that they habitually ignore.
Muscle memory triggers the fingers into an automatic pattern across the frets, warming up, alerting the audience that things are about to start. He steps up to the microphone and utters a single syllable to check that he will be heard.
The chatter drops in volume a little, the sound and movement a momentary distraction. Fingers form a chord and he picks a soft, plaintive sequence of notes.
A hoarse voice cries out from a dark corner: ‘Play some Oasis!’
The minstrel continues to pick, and with a weary smile,  begins to sing.

Still on my mind…

I remembered, after posting my last blog, that I did a little writing about bikes after a near-miss a few years ago. Worth posting, I decided. Feel free to harrangue me if you disagree…

It is late spring.  Highlights glaring in the evening sun, the traffic is tailing off from the rush, tardy workers nosing into the pockets of space in the roads, queuing at speed, brake lights twitching impatiently, coughing tense fumes into the just-cooling air.

Down a gentle hill, leaning out into the opposite side of the road, the rider rolls the throttle open and allows the pitch of the sleek 750’s engine to climb, curling around the inside of the gentle bend and checking that the twinkling reflection of the car has fallen behind enough to make pulling in safe.  The bike swings upright again, a tiny dip of revs and clutch and up a gear, the bike continuing to accelerate as the air rushing over the helmet begins to roar.

The asphalt surface is worn and pitted, repairs run through the abused surface like dark veins beneath scarred and aged skin.  As the bike cants through the gnarled, arthritic twists, each feature shucks the tyres slightly, causing the vehicle to writhe and fidget as the weight swings over the centre of gravity and back again to an irregular rhythm.  Unnoticeable to the cars as they hum across the cratered, faded, black tape, the squirming signals back to the rider through the play head wheels, humming the lilting harmony of the road’s texture quietly over the swelling symphony of its curves, climbs and dips.

Conducting, bound by the score and yet in control, the rider guides the machine along this sweeping sequence, the rise and fall, the swaying and vibrating of his immediate environment filling his senses and concentration.  The fields that fall away to either side of the road are ripe and green, full of the verdant promise of a summer to come.  The smells that drift on the light breeze are unimpeded by the filtering of a car’s ventilation system but the rider is only peripherally aware of these things, they remain a backdrop to the act unfolding through the visor.

Now there is a car ahead, a Mazda, painted in an uninspiring shade of blue designed possibly with the sole intent of causing depression on rush hour motorways, slowing down the economy in some unimaginably deep, inscrutable piece of economic sabotage.  Out of tune with the machine travelling behind it, the compact, scuttling carapace slows and swerves, occasionally crossing the dashed white line that divides the road centrally, to and from, ayes and nays, for and against.

It is clear that the driver’s mind is on other things.  The driver feels not the road’s grating, contused texture, is immune to its seductive sway.  The driver is caught up in some epic, Ulyssean struggle, fighting one handed with a recalcitrant tape player or wrestling with words as he composes a text message, eyes flicking from road to tiny screen.

As the rider scrutinises the car ahead, looking for a safe spot to pass, a cigarette butt is ejected from the window, a tumbling, slow-motion meteor, trailing a tiny ribbon of smoke, throwing out a shower of sparks as it hits the ground.  The smell of smoke is immediate.  As the incandescent filter begins its downward parabola, the rider anticipates the driver’s lapse in concentration, a gentle squeeze of the right hand and a touch with the footbrake and the narrow overtake is abandoned as the Mazda veers into the opposite lane for a moment, where the rider and his machine would have been swatted into the hedge like some vast, scarlet insect.

How aware, how watchful, how alert.  The perception of the cigarette smoke on the sweet evening air and the premonition of the driver’s error simultaneous.  Still, in the background, the rider is aware of the emerald landscape all around.  How alive.  How close to death.  A momentary lapse and the cigarette would have been missed, the overtaking undertaken and, very possibly, the undertaker required.  On this defining moment the rider’s fate balances, the line between life and death ruled between two spots of rubber the size of a pair of coins.

This is not a defining moment in the rider’s life; this is not an epiphany.  This is the journey home from work.  This nanosecond drama is played out as a distraction from the matters of the day, the abiding issues of the rider’s life and the eternal questions faced by the soul each day.

I don’t care if I’m old.  I believe more, as I grow older and my bones bear testimony to my years on the planet that I would sooner burn out than fade gradually.  So I treasure these moments, balancing between life and death on the tyres of my motorbike.  Should this awareness, this appreciation of my life and the world around me go on, then I would gladly live forever.  If the fight ceases, if senescent, grey complacency takes me, then perhaps I’ll miss the flicked butt.  And deservedly so.  Should I eschew this dice-throwing on the road?  As each little kinetic drama plays itself out I know that my chance of losing increases.  But simply through existing I gamble against cancer, heart disease, stroke.  A genetic legacy of chance that I neither chose nor do I welcome.  What’s the difference to me between losing to a moment of inattentiveness on the road or a creeping rebellion in my cells?  I’m a scientist.  We all are in that we should be able to recognise patterns about us.  I know that my ordered thoughts, my renewing cells, are an offence, an affront to the universe and it’s draconian statutes.  My life is defiance, my insurrection against the gathering dark.  These moments where life stands in such stark contrast against the void are my fight against entropy, my two fingers brandished at the second law of thermodynamics.

The gradual running down of the cosmic clock is regulated, time and life are rationed out to us.  I suspect that the whole process is being run by beings that, at least figuratively, drive small, blue, bland Mazdas.

Overtake them and give them two fingers, that’s my advice.  Watch out for fag ends.