Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The New Yorker style guide – leaked

Got my hands on a copy of the New Yorker style guide, a top secret document whose arcane mysteries have baffled all but a very select few. The New Yorker has the greatest copyediting (subediting) department in the known universe. These are their sacred texts. Be careful reading, there's no guarantee you won't end up like the Nazis at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

General notes
In general, for style, grammar and spelling guidance, imagine it's 1823.

Write coöperate with a diaeresis over the 2nd o. This shows there's a hyphen missing. No, I don't know why we don't just have a hyphen. If we didn't have the dots, people might think we didn't know how to spell cuperate.

cuperate There's no such word as cuperate.

Turns out the diaeresis in coöperate comes from Afrikaans. And New York used to be called New Amsterdam, OK?

I was talking about the Dutch. Keep up. And it's not from Afrikaans, it's a pronunciation guide mark.

With pronunciation guide mark. It's easy to spot the élite, as they are the type of person who write it like that.

No pronunciation guide marks.

Internet Cap up. Because someone's got to. Also, just because we have given up and admitted the web exists, doesn't mean we won't stick a banner on the site that obscures four lines of text.

Write out all numbers in full. And then add some more letters. Yes, even dates. OK, not dates, but THAT'S IT FOR SLACKING. However, whenever you write a year in figures, add a couple of commas. As a sort of consolation.

Have you ever noticed that pronunciation isn't pronunciated the way it's written?

All punctuation goes inside quote marks, even if it's from a different sentence.

We must never, ever forget that these are two separate words

Words such as traveller and focussed have double consonants. Sometimes this is because that's how they are spelled.

writing to length If an article is going fine, and saying everything it needs to say and looks great, add 10,000 words to it.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Shogun assassin – a poem

When I was little,
my father was famous
He was the greatest samurai
in the Empire
He was the Shogun's decapitator.
He cut out the head of 131
lords for the Shogun
It was a bad time
for the Empire
The Shogun just stayed inside this
castle, and he never came out
People said his brain
was infected by devils
And that he was rotting with evil

The Shogun said his
people were not loyal
He said he had a lot of enemies,
but he killed more people than that
It was a bad time
Everybody living in fear
But still we were happy
My father would come home to mother,
and when he had seen her,
he would forget about the killings
He wasn't scared of the Shogun,
but the Shogun was scared of him

Husband ...
Maybe that was the problem
I had a bad dream
Don't be afraid
Bad dreams are only dreams
What a time you chose to be born,
Daigoro !

At night, mother
would sing for us
My father would go into the temple
and pray for peace
He prayed for things to get better
Then one night
The Shogun sent his
ninja spies to our house
They were supposed to kill my father
But they didn't
That was the night everything changed
For ever

Azami, your dream has come true!
Dai ... Daigoro
You must protect our son
They will pay
In rivers of blood

That was when my father
left his samurai life
and became a demon
He became an assassin
who walks on the road of vengeance
And he took me with him

I don't remember most of it myself
I only remember the Shogun's ninjas
hunting us wherever we go
And the bodies falling
And the blood

You are marching toward death
wherever you go,
you cannot escape the Shogun

My father hardly ever talks anymore
We just go a little farther everyday
At night, we make a fire,
have our tea
and we listen for the ninjas

We never make a sound

Sometimes he tells me about the past
and about mother
I try not to think about it
but my father can't
help it

Sometimes he gets lost
in the past

Tuesday, July 08, 2014

Le Tour at Loughton

I'm driving through Epping Forest. Up ahead the road is closed, parked cars nestled into the bank at the roadside. It's the Tour de France de England. I park up, half in the road. Probably won't get a ticket. Although you would in Hackney.

Stroll up to the barrier at the roundabout at the top of Golding's Hill. The crowd is one or two deep right round the road. A nonplussed crowd, patient. Nothing much going on. I ask a steward how long til the bikes get here.

"Two-thirty," he says. I look at my phone. It's 1.30.

The first five minutes drag. After they're over, I think well there's only 11 more of them to go. After 10 minutes I think well there's only five more of them to go.

Nothing is happening. A few cars drive by, dressed in decals advertising various French things: cars, TV stations, mineral water. A security car of some kind, growling French instructions via megaphone. I decide to wait it out. The quality of boredom is very different, less irritating, once I've decided to stay. A pantomime cow parades around the roundabout to muted applause. A police motorbike passes by. More cars, some with bike stands on the roof.

The crowd is a gentle variety, dressed in pastel shirts or horizontal stripes. Women have their shoulders out, the men have bald pates and bad postures. A few guys with racing bikes and the full cycle helmet/shirt/leggings combo; three of them in identical kits. Smattering of kids. I stare round at the thousand or so people in view. Not, so far as I can see, a single ethnic minority person, unless you count Italian.

A BMW goes by, middle-aged men wearing police baseball caps, waving heavily tattooed arms out the window. The crowd waves back.

A guy behind me has a tall tripod on which sits a small, odd-looking camera that could be out of the Terminator films. I ask him about it.

"It's a cine," he tells me. "Digital cine." He doesn't manage to explain how a digital cine differs from an ordinary video camera, beyond saying: "It doesn't take stills."

More cars go past. A yellow van with speakers on the roof blaring euro-pop swings by, two women dancing on makeshift podiums at the back. Another follows. A few minutes later two more arrive and pull up, French accents blaring out of the loudspeakers, offering fun bags for £20. The crowd, starved of entertainment, filters over to snap up the goodies, which turn out to be a yellow bag with a yellow t-shirt, a yellow cap and some other yellow tat. I ponder the offer, and decide against it.

After ten minutes two gendarmes on motorbikes pull up behind the van and tell them to get on with it. This must mean the riders are near. The gendarmes are in no rush though, and stay and take photos with the crowd. I look at my watch: 2.25. Just five minutes to go. A bloke in front of me says to his wife: "Another half hour, I reckon." The two yellow vans and the gendarmes drive off.

It starts to rain.

I've found myself a vantage point on a grassy knoll, slightly raised above the crowd, overlooking the roundabout. There is some talk as to whether the riders will take the far side of the roundabout or the near side. If they follow English road laws, they'll take the near side, but already many of the French cars have streamed by the opposite side. Spectators speculate as to what variables will influence the cyclists when they arrive, but everyone is agreed that no one knows. The cyclists will make a split-second decision, with no regard for the people who have stood out in the rain for more than an hour now.

A woman gives out leaflets advertising a working-from-home pyramid scheme of some sort, illustrated with pictures of people on holidays. I don't want to take one but somehow fall prey to her rapacious psychology. In revenge, I fold up and wrap the leaflet around my finger, so as to waste it.

I start to think about writing this blogpost. I need some observations to make it interesting, but looking at the crowd, I am bereft. I must be losing my observational nous. The crowd is le Essex ordinaire, quintessentially unremarkable. I feel that I should maybe go off and find something to report, but I don't.

Comedy bronze, however, comes to me, in the form of a man with two kids, a boy and a girl on his shoulders, who take up a position on the knoll. "Get ready to wave when they come," the dad says

"What?" she asks, with a beautiful Estuary twang. "Are we allowed to wave?"

More cars come by. A steadier stream than before, but still sporadic. A few with Skoda livery, and the slogan "le voiture officiale". Some passengers wave to the crowd. They wave back, enthusiastically. More police cars. The police seem to be doing the most waving, and beeping. The police motorbike has gone past five or six times, beeping. Or they could be different bikes each time.

"I can see a cow," says the girl, talking about the pantomime cow now chatting amongst the crowd. "You won't see a cow round here," asserts the dad. "There's a mascot one," the son says. "Black and white." "Oh, a black and white one, yeah," says the dad.

A guy with a paparrazi-looking camera arrives, lens as big as an arm. Later I see another guy with a lens as big as a leg.

A Sikh family arrive, a bloke and three daughters. They are the only ethnic minority people that I can see, along with a couple of Persian looking women who have stopped in front of me, but that is fine because I am raised on my grassy knoll, and they are short.

The main problem with viewing is that seemingly every second person has a camera.  Everyone is taking photos. The crowd is a sea of pastel shirts and arms holding cameras.

I imagine that when the riders get nearer we'll be able to hear the noise of the crowd, a discrete unit of noise that will start at the first rider and end after the last one; we'll be able to hear it moving, like a train, coming towards us, from over the hills. But, as time goes by, what we can mainly hear is helicopters. Three of them swoop, glide and hover above us. People strain with iPhones and point-and-shoots to get pics of them. One for the album, a blurry picture of a helicopter. Still the riders don't arrive. A couple of the helicopters go off, to where the action is. The crowd waves frenetically at the remaining helicopter. It doesn't appear to wave back.

A Team Sky car drives by, and everyone cheers it. British, you see. I check my phone: 3.15. The Sikh girls are bored and want to leave.

More cars are coming. A steady stream of cars, taking both sides of the roundabout. It does feel as if the riders are closing in. I listen for the crowd noise approaching, but there is just the rotor blades of the helicopters. Every now and then the crowd on the entrance to the roundabout start cheering and waving, but it is inevitably a police car or a Team Sky car, or a Vittel car, that they are yelling about.
And then motorbikes swoop in, more cars, and the crowd start waving some more, and someone says, they're here now, and the front two riders – Barta and Bideau, I now know – steam round the roundabout, on the far side. I let out an unconstrained woop, mostly cheering the end of the long wait. The two go about as fast as two guys cycling quickly, which seems obvious now, but seemed surprisingly slow at the time.

Some more cars and motorbikes. Then the peloton: who knows how many bikes, bunched like a flock of birds, split more or less 50/50 around the roundabout, a blur of cycle shirts and those flash bikes you see about the place. The Team Sky riders pass, all together, and get a good old British cheer. Everyone takes photos. And then it's done. Cars and motorbikes continue to pour down the road, but the cyclists have passed, and the crowd starts to peel away. I go quickly, to get my car out ahead of the rush. I chat to the paparazzo and ask if he got any good shots. He shows me one of some cyclists. It looks good. "I should have had a bigger lens," he says, probably thinking of the men with the leg lens.

When I get to my car, all of the cars parked ad hoc on the side of the road have a ticket on them. Even in Loughton the bastard traffic wardens are on it. But it's actually a flyer for the Ilford NHS treatment centre. Yeah, I don't know either.

Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Only perfection is permissible – a short story

"Come in, Mrs Simpson. Sit down. You remember me, I imagine, Mr Michaels."

She pulled out the chair and sat down. The office chair was set for someone much taller, and fatter, and there were an awkward few moments as she struggled to find the lever to adjust it.

"Thanks for coming in," Michaels said.

"Thanks for having me," she said, with a little rasp. He looked up suddenly from his papers, eyed her for a second, nodded and looked back down.

She looked round at the items on the table in front ofher: a blank pad of paper, a glass and jug of water, a set of headphones and a black wire that rose out of a hole in the table and ended in the centre of the table with a chunky adapter on the end. She poured a glass of water, trying in all her arm not to spill any. A little water flicked off the lip of the jug on to the table. She clasped the glass snugly and sipped it. That would get rid of the rasp.

"As you know, this is a very prestigious job, Mrs Simpson."

Mrs Simpson looked up from her glass at that. "Oh yes," she said quickly.

"However, with prestige comes requirements. Precision. Consistency."

She didn't say anything. She wanted him to think that she knew that already, which she did, sort of, and saying something would imply that she hadn't, which she hadn't, sort of. So saying nothing seemed the safest option.

The door opened and a young man entered, wearing a laboratory white coat, with plain trousers and even plainer shoes. He was carrying a wooden box, the size of a ream of A4 paper. He placed it carefully, steadily on the table, and withdrew his hands with a courtier's grace.

"You remember Raymond."

Raymond went over to a draw and produced a table-mount, a two plastic rings caged by a constellation of elastic that looked on the one hand like a crown and its reflection, and on the other, to Mrs Simpson, as Raymond placed it on the table, like a huge spider.

Then his hands returned to the box, he flicked open the latch, and his thumbs gently prised the lid up. The lid was hinged, and she caught a glimpse of the velvet lining as it lifted. The hush in the room became pronounced. Inside, the microphone gleamed like a rare jewel.

There was a moment then, when they were all sat there, staring at the box, when she felt that it was as if she was about to undergo heart replacement surgery, and that the microphone was her new heart, beating in its box, waiting to be fitted.

Raymond looked at Michaels for approval, and after a moment he gave it.

The microphone was brought out. It took two hands for Raymond to lift, and he cradled it in both palms, only moving it on to his fingers when it was ready to place on the stand. Then he lowered his hands with infinitesimal care, until the mic rested in its breeches, enthroned, and from its vantage began to glare down on Mrs Simpson, the iridescent maker's logo shining a imperial purple. Raymond connected the wire to the bottom of the microphone.

Do I kneel? she wondered. The thought was ridiculous, but yet, she thought, not impossible. The mic's bearing had a warrior's countenance, she thought, like a royal created not by blood, by birth, but by way of blood, by battle. She almost didn’t want to look at it. Raymond departed, a last short glance at the glimmer of the microphone. Then they were alone, Mrs Simpson, Michaels and the microphone.

Everything must go into there, she thought. Or perhaps she heard. It was a thought, but perhaps she heard the thought, rather than thinking it. Then it continued, in an ambiguous gully between thought and sound: Your entire being must go in there; into there, you must direct it all. She stared at the mesh crown of the microphone's head. Into there? she thought. Yes, into there.

She looked at Michaels, who was looking at her, watching her. And she watched him, but his lips didn’t moved, nor his eyes.

Direct it all, and by all, it must be all.

"So," Michaels said, cutting off the thought as though he couldn't hear it. "We must begin."

She tried a smile, but it was short, as if it couldn't escape the brow of her teeth. She sipped her water.

"Mrs Simpson," said Michaels, "you have been selected for this job because you are capable. You are the person who we believe can best accomplish our task. However, that does not mean you will accomplish it. It does not mean that you are incapable of failure. On the contrary," he said, his mouth punching out the words, "you will have to summon considerable powers to achieve this. Considerable powers. Nevertheless, we are all – myself, Raymond and Neumann – assured that you are capable, and we have the fullest faith in you."

She thought back to her interview in this same building, six weeks previously. Michaels and Raymond had both been there. She couldn't remember a Neumann.

The microphone stared out from its desk keep, and she thought suddenly of watching Lord of the Rings with her two boys, at home on Christmas day, the eye of Sauron staring back at them from the telly.

"I don't mean to make you anxious," Michaels said, the jump from silence to speaking making her exactly that. "However, you must understand that this is a precision industry. We are in the precision business. Only perfection is permissible. Perhaps," and here Michaels permitted himself a wave of the head, as if he was deviating slightly from a strict script, "you believe that perfection is impossible. And you would be right. Nevertheless, only perfection is permissible."

"OK," she said, sipping her water again. She wanted to say that this was all fine, that perfection being permissible was her everyday outlook; that she had done many jobs with that as a requirement, and it was nothing special. But she said nothing, glanced at the microphone and looked away.

"You must enunciate, of course, you must speak perfectly clearly, but more than that you must achieve an absence of personality, Mrs Simpson, a nothingness in which your perfect diction becomes the totality of existence. There must be no hint of history. No quirks of fate or hidden hands. All must be as it was in the advent of creation, and as it shall be at the final hurdle to armageddon."

Saying anything seemed beyond the point now, so she didn't say anything, and didn't even nod, but stared evenly at Michael, and then at the microphone, and then she took a sip of water, and then she looked away.

"Please remember, Mrs Simpson, when you speak, that you are speaking, in a theoretical possibility at least, to every man, woman and child on the planet. At some point, over the next 20 years, barring a planetary catastrophe, these words we are going to record are going to be heard by more people than had lived and died on the Earth for most of history. Your words will be heard by millions day in, day out, 364 days a year. No pop band, Mrs Simpson, will be heard by so many as you. No great politician's speech, or football commentator's peal. Your voice, Mrs Simpson, will conduct the great swathe of humanity through its wretched span, as polite, stern and familiar as each person's mother. Over and over again, your every nuance will be replayed. So there must be no nuance. There must be absolute equality in timbre, tone and pronunciation. There must be, Mrs Simpson, simply perfection."

"I understand," Mrs Simpson said, a little loudly, attempting to embody absolute equality in timbre, tone and pronunciation, but all she saw was the muscles in Michaels' face tighten momentarily, and then relax.

He took a small key and unlocked a drawer on his desk, and from it produced a thick file of papers. "Your script," he said, handing it over, with his right hand, far to the side of the imperious microphone.

She took it with her left, and placed it on the table as far from the mic as she could. She opened the file and read the first page. It was a list of places. Some of them she recognised – London landmarks like Tottenham Court Road, Drury Lane, The Old Vic – some she had never heard of – Spa Road, Anchor Street, Warndon Street.

"Now, if you would put your headphones on, we shall get a recording level."

She placed the huge headphones around her head, the clammy rubber clamping to her ears. From inside the headphones she could hear the room, the same room she had been sitting in, but drawn through the one mic, with its one ear, which made no distinction between the sound of her voice, the sound of her breath, the wheezing of Michaels’ chair, or the sound of dust settling on the desk.

"OK. Raymond," said Michaels, his voice booming in her ears. "We are ready to record." There was a short silence, and then Raymond's voice cut in. "Recording."

"To begin with," said Michael, putting on his pair of headphones, "could you tell me your name."

"Mrs Janet Simpson."

"And your place of birth?"

"London. University College Hospital."

"Is that OK, Raymond?"

"Good for levels."

"Everything OK?" said Michael. "Yes," came a faint reply. Not hers, and not Raymond's. Must be the mysterious Neumann, she thought.

"Mrs Simpson," said Michael. "Could you try reading the line at the top of the page."

She read it. "Number one," she said. "To."

"Stop there, thank you." There was a pause, as if Michaels was waiting for some kind of sign. But if there was one, she didn't see it. "Again, please," he said.

"Number one," she said. "To."

Michaels let out a faint sigh. It came from his nose, and was so faint that if it wasn't for the precision-engineered microphone clasping all sounds from the room with equal pull she would probably never have heard it.

"Again, please. Remember: be nothing."

The thought started up in her head: stare into the mic, it said. Just stare into the microphone. Let everything you give go into there. Your whole being. Your entirety. Let it go only there.

"Number one," she said. "To." And Michaels nodded, and sat back in his chair slightly.

"Now the list," he said. "From the top, one at a time."

"Tottenham Court Road," Mrs Simpson read. Michaels drew a breath, and looked at her. “Mrs Simpson, please. This is not a discotheque.”

Whatever can he mean, she wondered. Best not to listen to him too much, with his bizarre advice. The thought came to her: Read the name and then speak it, she thought. Yes, that's right, she thought. Read the name first, and then speak it. Don't read it and speak it together. She looked down the list, and then she turned her gaze to the mic, and stared into it.

"Tottenham Court Road," she said. "Drury Lane." Michaels gave a faint nod.

"Holburn Station," she read. "Aldwych / Kingsway."

"Stop," said Michael. "No, no, no.” There was a pause and she looked up at him for guidance. “It’s not you speaking, Mrs Simpson. Stop speaking. It’s not you who’s speaking." His grim face nodded towards the mic. She looked at it again.


“No!” Michaels nearly rose out of his seat. “No! Mrs Simpson, come on! You can’t fail Neumann like this!” And then he paused, and his body briefly clenched, as he was forcing himself to calm down. “Mrs Simpson, the bus passengers of London need you. Please. Try again.”

Wow, she thought. He’s a crazy one. Best to just look at the microphone. That was safest. And she stared at it, into the eye of the microphone, into the mesh cage, she stared so hard that she felt herself drawn in, felt herself move inside the cage, as if she wouldn't even need to speak, that the microphone could record her from within, as if they were one and the same.

"Lancaster Place."

Michaels relaxed in the chair, and the leather exhaled beneath him.

"Waterloo Bridge / South Bank."

"Waterloo Station / Tenison Way."

"The Old Vic."

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

In the kitchenette corner of the office that I sometimes find myself in

There is a coffee machine. It is made by a company called Westinghouse, who may be the same company that "provides fuel, services, technology, plant design and equipment for the commercial nuclear electric power industry", or it may not. On this coffee machine is a slogan: The ultimate coffee house experience.

I have, over the years, grown to love marketing's passion for mirrorworld, "say it and it's so" psychology. Or lying, as others might have it. This slogan is, needless to say, an out-an-out lie. The machine does not provide the ultimate anything. Not the ultimate coffee, nor the ultimate house, and the ultimate experience only in the same way that a filthy squat toilet at a French lorry stop might do.

Unless they mean by ultimate, "last ever", instead of "best ever". In which case, Westinghouse does provide at least my ultimate coffee machine experience.

Tuesday, April 29, 2014

age-old grief

I believed, when I was young,
that grieving wasn't for the one
who'd gone
but for the grieved

Not the grieved-for,
the one at rest,
but for the ones who were left

But now I'm old, when I die,
I hope you cry
For me

Monday, April 28, 2014

Regressive investigation

At a presentation on how to make TV programmes out of investigative journalism. The presenter wants to play us a recording of a phone conversation. He tries, but the big TV is showing the wrong input, and there are a few minutes while he and the office assistant fiddle with things to get his laptop screen showing. Finally they manage it, and he clicks the button on his laptop to play the video, which shows two people sitting around an identical laptop. One of them clicks the button on their laptop, and we watch them sitting there, listening to the muffled audio.