Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Shoring Up[1] London Bridge

Photo: London Bridge by Robert Dimov


Mrs Thatcher once infamously said, “There is no such thing as society”. She was wrong and one of the reasons she was wrong was literature. Much of literature, like religion, tells us how to behave[2], especially in extreme circumstances. Works like Beowulf and Spenser’s The Faerie Queene are essentially conduct books[3]. In this sense literature is propaganda from the past for the future. However, unlike[4] religion, literature is flexible and naturally inclusive.

In his Nobel acceptance speech this week Bob Dylan mused[5], “I had principles and sensibilities and an informed view of the world. And I had had that for a while. Learned it all in grammar school[6]. Don Quixote, Ivanhoe, Robinson Crusoe, Gulliver’s Travels, Tale of Two Cities, all the rest – typical grammar-school reading that gave you a way of looking at life, an understanding of human nature, and a standard to measure things by[7]. I took all that with me when I started composing lyrics[8]. And the themes from those books worked their way into[9] many of my songs, either knowingly[10] or unintentionally.”

A similar process occurred when the band Oasis took the name of the greatest British play of the 1950s, John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger (1956) and transformed it in the title and refrain for their song Don’t Look Back in Anger (1995). Over the last fortnight[11] that refrain[12] has been used by Mancunians[13] both to console and to define their reaction of “love conquers hate” in the wake of[14] the terrorist attack in Manchester.

Many would baulk against[15] the idea that a mere pop song could be considered literature. More would be affronted[16] by the idea that literature – let alone[17] pop lyrics7 – could compete with religion. But the greatest British poet of the 20th Century, T.S. Eliot, described literature as “Fragments… shored[18] against my ruins”. In other words bits of legends, stories, plays and poems are what we use to console ourselves in times of need – be they Cervantes, Charles Dickens or John Osborne.

That famous quote comes from Eliot’s cento[19] at the end of his greatest poem, The Wasteland (‘What the Thunder[20] Said’, ll. 426-31) [1922], which ends:

Shall I at least set my lands in order[21]?

London Bridge is falling down[22] falling down falling down[23]

Poi s’acose nel foco che gli affina[24]

Quando fiam uti chelidon[25]O swallow[26] swallow[27]

Le Prince d’Aquitaine a la tour abolie[28]

These fragments I have shored18 against my ruins.

Why then Ile fit you[29]. Hieronymo’s mad againe.

Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.[30]

Shantih[31] Shanith Shantih.

London Bridge is not falling down22, thanks to the robust mix of multicultural voices and the literature we have shored18 against our ruins.

[1] to shore up – reinforce, fortify, strengthen

[2] to behave – act, conduct oneself

[3] conduct bookguide to social norms

[4] unlike – in contrast to

[5] to muse – (in this case) write thoughtfully

[6] grammar school – (US English) elementary school

[7] to measure things by – to evaluate experience

[8] lyrics – the words to a song

[9] worked their way into – be inserted in a subtle way

[10] knowingly – intentionally

[11] fortnight – two weeks

[12] refrainline that is frequently repeated in a song

[13] Mancunian – sb. from Manchester

[14] in the wake offollowing, after

[15] to baulk against – resist, not accept

[16] to affront – offend, insult

[17] let alone – much less

[18] shored – accumulated, a. up to support a building, b. (of a catch of fish) brought ashore

[19] centoliterary text created from lines/fragments by other authors

[20] thunderloud noise generated by a storm (= tempest)

[21] shall I set my lands in order – will I reorganize my kingdom appropriately?

[22] to fall down (fall-fell-fallen) – collapse

[23] a line from a famous nursery rhyme (= traditional children’s song) that probably has its origin in the ritual of human sacrifice in blessing new buildings

[24] “(remember later on my pain). He hid himself in the fire which refines them” from Dante’s Inferno

[25] from The Virgil of Venus (anonymous) “When shall I be like the swallow?” (i.e. able to sing and fly away/escape). The refrain of the poem promises love to all.

[26] swallow – (Hirundinidae) very fast migratory insectivorous songbird

[27] “O swallow swallow” comes either from The Princess by Tennyson or Itylus (= Philomel) by Swinburne

[28] “The Prince of Aquitaine in the ruined tower” from The Disinherited (El Desdichado) (1865) by Gérard de Nerval (1808-55)

[29] Why then Ile (= I’ll) fit you – I’ll give you exactly that. The line is from Kyd’s The Spanish Tragedy: Hieronymo’s Mad Againe (c.1589). Hieronymo is asked to produce a court play. Superficially, he says he will do it, but he is really saying that he will use theatre to trap the murderers of his son.

[30] Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata – give, show compassion, and control yourself; from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, a sacred Indian (Hindu and Buddhist) text

[31] Shantih – (the Sanskrit conclusion to an Upanishad) peace, amen, shalom, As-Salaam-Alaikum



Having survived half a century it would be nice to say that I’ve acquired some deep wisdom[1] that I can pass on[2] to people. But the truth is that having spent 17 years writing articles whose remit[3] was that they had to be interesting enough for people to want to read them in a foreign language, I feel rather[4] emptied of knowledge. I understood the world, albeit[5] naïvely[6], better at 20 than I do at 50. That’s not necessarily a bad thing; if it weren’t so, there would be no room[7] for awe[8] or laughter[9].

Yesterday I counted the books I’ve read over the last 14 years for my literature classes: 182. Sure[10], many of them are not that[11] long but it’s still an awful lot of information that has gone in (and mostly come out) of my brain. This all leads[12] me to a verse from James’ song Five-O[13]:

I’ve been looking for truth at the cost of living,
I’ve been afraid of what’s before mine eyes.
Every answer found begs[14] another question;
The further you go, the less you know
The less I know.

So much for the introspection; there’s no point in writing a blog to satisfy your own whimsy[15] because nobody will read it. So, I offer you a bit of Japanese wisdom1. The diagram should be pretty[16] self-explanatory. May you find your Ikigai – I’m still looking.

[1] wisdomknowledge derived from experience, sagacity, insight

[2] to pass on – convey, transmit

[3] remitspecified purpose

[4] rathersomewhat, surprisingly

[5] albeiteven though

[6] naïvely – ingenuously, innocently

[7] room – (in this case) possibility

[8] awewonder, astonishment

[9] laughterlaughing, hilarity, humour

[10] sure – (in this case) admittedly

[11] that – (in this case) so, very

[12] to lead (lead-led-led) – take, guide

[13] Five-O – 50

[14] to beg – (in this case) provoke, elicit

[15] whimsy – whim, caprice

[16] prettyreasonably

History and our Worldview

History and our Worldview

Photo by Jeppestown

If I were to describe to you a scene in which a democratically elected head of state and his brother were set upon[1] by a mob[2], tortured, mutilated and murdered, which country do you think these events might have happened[3] in? I suspect that your answer would not be Holland. But that is precisely what happened when a crowd[4] of supporters[5] of William of Orange – future king of England – attacked Johan de Witt and his brother Cornelis in The Hague in 1672. Members of the mob2 even ate the Witt brothers’ livers[6] in a cannibalistic frenzy[7].

Over the years I have come across[8] isolated examples of extreme behaviour[9] that have shocked and contradicted my worldview. It is relatively easy to explain away[10] Crusaders roasting[11] and eating Muslim babies because that happened an awful long time ago. The fact that the English settlers[12] propagated the practice of scalping[13] across North America is also surprising for anyone brought up[14] on westerns[15]. But still, several centuries separate us from such primitive barbarism.

One of the most sickening[16] of the many shocking aspects of the AIDS crisis in Africa is the “virgin cleansing myth”. Popular superstition suggests that one way of curing AIDS is to have sex with a virgin. The consequence of this outlandish[17] notion is that thousands of children have been raped[18]. At one point almost a third of the population of South Africa reportedly believed in ‘the virgin cure’, though progress has been made in dispelling[19] the nefarious[20] myth. It’s a hideous[21] idea but I’d always seen the virgin cleansing myth reported in the media as propagated by traditional healers[22]; as a local cultural problem it would seem difficult to solve from outside the culture.

Then, to my horror I discovered, after a minimal amount[23] of research[24] that the virgin cleansing myth is not native to Africa but in fact emerged in 16th-century Europe. Worse still, it gained prominence[25] in Victorian England where sex with a virgin was believed to cure STDs[26]; in the second half of the 19th Century Britain suffered an epidemic of syphilis and gonorrhea. Far from being[27] a ‘primitive’ local belief, this atrocious idea was exported to southern Africa by the British Empire. I wonder[28] why they never mention these things in history class at school or on the BBC.

[1] to set upon sb. (set-set-set) – physically attack sb.

[2] mobviolent tumult, angry multitude

[3] to happen – occur

[4] crowdmultitude, tumult

[5] supporterfollower

[6] liver – hepatic organ

[7] frenzy – hysteria

[8] to come across (come-came-come) – encounter

[9] behaviourconduct

[10] to explain awayfind excuses for

[11] to roastcook over a fire

[12] settlercolonist

[13] scalpingcutting the hair and skin off the top of an enemy’s head

[14] to bring up (bring-brought-brought) – rear, raise

[15] westerncowboy movie

[16] sickening – repulsive

[17] outlandishludicrous, bizarre

[18] to rapesexually assault

[19] to dispel – eliminate

[20] nefariousevil, criminal

[21] hideous – (in this case) awful, repulsive

[22] traditional healerwitch doctor, sb. who supposedly cures illnesses using nonWestern medicine

[23] amountquantity

[24] research – investigation

[25] to gain prominence – become important

[26] STDssexually transmitted diseases

[27] far from being – it was the opposite of

[28] to wonderask oneself

The Singularity

The Singularity

More and more these days you hear about the coming singularity (expected 2040?) when machines will surpass us in intelligence. Shortly afterwards, we are told, the machines will enslave[1] us. Well, I don’t know about you, but I already feel enslaved. I come home from shopping and begin to carefully load[2] my perishables[3] into the fridge, after what seems like 20 seconds an alarm goes off; the only way to stop it is if I shut the fridge and wait until it decides that sufficient time has passed for me to gain access to it again. So I shut the fridge and open the freezer for my frozen goods[4]. But just then the washing machine finishes and starts to bleat[5]; either I go and turn it off or every 15 seconds it will complain[6] with an ear-piercing[7] “bleep, bleep, bleep”. So, I shut the freezer – thus[8] denying me access to[9] that appliance[10] for a couple of minutes, and turn of the washing machine. Just as well that by the time I come back the fridge has condescended to open again! I don’t drive but I understand that the same sort of stressful experience takes place[11] inside a vehicle if you don’t do what it wants.

My wife has a theory: she says it all started with tamagotchis. 20 years ago the New World Order (or whoever) started to train us to be subservient[12] to machines. The message of the “egg-watches” was simple: this creature will die if you don’t answer to its demands. As machines get cleverer expect more alarms, more mechanical admonitions[13], more stress. I caught myself apologizing to the freezer the other day! They say a war between humans and machines is coming; I say we’ve already lost.

[1] to enslavemake slaves of, condemn sb. to servitude

[2] to load – fill

[3] perishablesfood that can decompose quickly

[4] goodsproducts, (in this case) food

[5] to bleat – protest (like a sheep)

[6] to complain – protest

[7] earpiercing – loud, cacophonic

[8] thus – as a result

[9] to deny sb. access tonot let sb. into

[10] appliance – device, gadget

[11] to take place (take-took-taken) – occur

[12] to be subservient – be submissive, be obedient

[13] admonitionreprimand

Future-Proof Jobs

Future-Proof Jobs

US Navy photo by John F. Williams

Over recent weeks I’ve seen a couple of[1] articles about the jobs that it will be most difficult to automate[2] and therefore destroy. I’m a little bit sceptical about these lists. One had primary-school teacher high up[3] the list while, at the same time, we are told that 25% of university classes will be online in just[4] three years’ time. My (thankfully limited) experience of small children suggests that handing[5] them an iPad is the best way to get them to quietly concentrate on something. A soft robot with an imbedded[6] screen[7] that could stop them climbing out of the windows would seem to have many advantages over a primary-school teacher. Yes, I am suggesting that a Teletubby will replace Miss Pritchett in the foreseeable[8] future.

Another list had lawyers and doctors at the top. But surely all medical knowledge and all legal knowledge could be available in an app if not now then very soon. Medicine is just[9] matching[10] symptoms to diseases[11]; the legal profession is just remembering precedents that could be relevant to a specific case. OK, I’m exaggerating a little but both diagnostic medicine[12] and law are memory-based professions and those are precisely the ones most threatened by[13] modern technology.

Really future-proof professions are those that require a bit of creativity, a bit of social skills[14] and a lot of precision motor coordination manipulating non-standardized objects. Over the last fortnight[15] I have seen a state-of-the-art[16] robotic chef (in Korea) and a cutting-edge[17] robotic bartender[18] (at the Google conference[19] in San Francisco). They were both crap[20]. The incredibly slow automaton cook[21] got more food on the floor than in the salad bowl, while the android barman took three minutes to pour[22] a pint of beer. Whatever the experts say, for my money[23] the best future-proof jobs right now are those preparing food and drinks.

One final – more serious – comment about the future of work: the complaisant[24] often say that new jobs always emerge when technology replaces obsolete ones (e.g. when farm machinery replaced agricultural labour). However, this is the same fallacy as dismissing[25] anthropomorphic climate change because the earth’s climate has always changed. The problem isn’t evolution; it’s the speed of the change. If species don’t have time to adapt, then there’s mass extinction. If the labour market doesn’t have time to adapt, there’s mass unemployment. We read that, “65 per cent of primary-school kids[26] will have job types that don’t yet exist.” That’s putting a very positive spin[27] on the fact that two-thirds of today’s jobs won’t exist in 15 years’ time; it may just9 mean that over half the workforce will be out of work[28].

[1] a couple ofseveral

[2] to automate – replace with a machine

[3] high upnear the top of

[4] just – (in this case) only

[5] to hand – give

[6] imbedded – that is an integral part of sth.

[7] screen – the part of a computer or a TV where the images appear

[8] foreseeable – predictable, near

[9] just – (in this case) only, simply

[10] to match A to Bmarry A with B, pair up A with B

[11] diseaseillness, sickness

[12] I’m not referring to surgeons and dentists, whose jobs are very safe

[13] threatened by – in danger from

[14] skillstalent, ability

[15] fortnight – two weeks

[16] state-of-the-artultra-modern, cutting-edge

[17] cutting-edgeultra-modern, state-of-the-art

[18] bartenderbarman or barmaid, sb. who serves drinks

[19] conference – (false friend) convention

[20] crap – (informal) useless, very inefficient

[21] cook – chef

[22] to pour – (in this case) serve

[23] for my money – in my opinion

[24] the complaisantpeople who accept what they are told without protest

[25] to dismiss – ignore

[26] kidschildren

[27] spin – interpretation

[28] out of work – unemployed

Visual Dissonance

Visual Dissonance

René Magritte is remembered today above all for his visual dissonance[1]: writing “This is not a pipe” (in French) under a painting of a pipe. I experienced something similar the other night when I saw that a TV programme about a top Spanish chef opening a restaurant in London was sponsored by Burger King. I don’t know if this was a supreme statement[2] of irony: Burger King is exported from Britain to Spain so that the masses there can eat imitation American food while watching the trials and tribulations[3] of the creating of a restaurant in London in which they will never be able to afford to eat[4]!

Today I opened Yahoo ‘News’ to see that one of the stories was about the 25 best-paid jobs. “I wonder[5] where translator, interpreter, proof-reader, copy editor are in the list?” I didn’t ask to myself. Of course, mere wordsmiths[6] are nowhere to be found in such lists (and no doubt wouldn’t make[7] the top 200 best-paid jobs. But like the Pict in Rudyard Kipling’s poem[8] we can “dance on the graves” of rich and powerful professionals. At number one in the list is físico (= physicist) next to a photo of a pregnant woman and her doctor. Visual dissonance? No, deficient language skills[9]. Before you rush off[10] to do a physics degree, be aware[11] that ‘physician’ is a relatively common way of saying ‘medical doctor’ and does not mean ‘physicist’.

[1] visual dissonance – the psychological tension caused by the difference between what you expect to see and what you in fact see

[2] statement – assertion, declaration

[3] trials and tribulationsproblems

[4] they will never be able to afford to eat – they will never be able to eat because of the prices

[5] to wonderask oneself

[6] wordsmith – linguistic expert

[7] to make (make-made-made) – be included in

[8] A Pict’s Song:

[9] skillstalent, prowess

[10] to rush offgo precipitously

[11] be aware – I should tell/remind you

Transsexual Science

Transsexual Science

Image by TransgenderGraphics

This post is copied from “Identities.Mic”. However, I thought it was worth making[1] it EFL-friendly (by footnoting it).

It’s hard[2] to argue with science. And yet so many people keep trying[3]. Recently, a science teacher’s response to a transphobic claim[4] that transgender people “do not make scientific sense” went viral on Facebook.

The teacher began by explaining the many different ways nature can determine sex and gender beyond[5] X and Y chromosomes. “First of all, in a sexual species, you can have[6] females be[7] XX and males[8] be X (e.g. insects)”, the teacher wrote in her post. “You can have6 females be7 ZW and males8 be7 ZZ (birds). You can have6 females be7 females because they developed[9] in a warm environment[10] and males8 be7 males because they developed9 in a cool environment10 (e.g. reptiles). You can have6 females be7 females because they lost a penis-sword-fighting[11] contest[12] (e.g. some flatworms[13]). You can have6 males8 be7 males because they were born female but changed sexes because the only male8 in their group died (e.g. parrotfish[14] and clownfish[15]). You can have6 males8 that look and act like females because they are trying to get close enough to actual[16] females to mate[17] with them (e.g. cuttlefish[18], bluegills[19] and others) or you can be one of thousands of sexes (e.g. slime mold[20] and some mushrooms.)”

“Oh, did you mean humans? Oh, OK then. You can be male8 because you were born female, but you have 5-alpha reductase deficiency[21] and so you grew[22] a penis at age 12. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome, but you are insensitive to androgens and so you have a female body. You can be female because you have an X and a Y chromosome, but your Y is missing the SRY[23] gene, and so you have a female body. You can be male8 because you have two X chromosomes, but one of your Xs has an SRY23 gene, and so you have a male8 body. You can be male8 because you have two X chromosomes but also a Y. You can be female because you have only one X chromosome. And you can be male8 because you have two X chromosomes, but your ‘heart’ and brain are male8. And vice-versa.”

Ann ended her post with a very simple declaration. “Don’t try to use science to justify your bigotry[24]”, she said. “The world is way too weird[25] for that shit[26].”

For more footnoted texts, please visit

[1] it was worth making – it was a good idea to make, I should make

[2] hard – (in this case) difficult

[3] keep trying – continue to try to do it

[4] claimstatement, declaration, assertion

[5] beyondoutside, apart from

[6] you can have – there are

[7] be – (in this case) that are

[8] male – ♂

[9] to develop – (in this case) be an embryo (in an egg)

[10] environmentphysical context, setting

[11] penis-swordfightingtype of duel in which the phalluses are used as arms

[12] contest – competition, (in this case) combat

[13] flatworm – (platyhelminth) type of invertebrate

[14] parrotfish – (Scarinae) type of tropical and subtropical fish

[15] clownfish – (Amphiprioninae) type of colourful fish (such as Pixar’s ‘Nemo’)

[16] actual – (false friend) real, authentic

[17] to matecopulate

[18] cuttlefish – (Sepiida) swimming mollusc similar to a squid or an octopus

[19] bluegill – (Lepomis macrochirus) a species of freshwater fish

[20] slime mouldsingle-celled eukaryotic organisms that can live freely but tend to aggregate

[21] 5alpha reductase deficiency – 5-ARD, an autosomal recessive intersex condition caused by a mutation of a gene

[22] to grow (grow-grew-grown) – (in this case) develop sth., begin to have sth.

[23] SRYsex-determining region Y

[24] bigotryprejudice

[25] way too weirdfar too strange, much too bizarre

[26] shit – (in this case) nonsense