More Grauniad and Observer oddities

More Grauniad and Observer oddities — see the last collection here

Writing in the Guardian of 31 March 2008 from Memphis, Tennessee, about Martin Luther King, Gary Younge (does his name rhyme with scrounge, or tongue?) quotes a remark about American businessmen being happy to sit down to dinner at the place where Dr King was assassinated, a comment apparently made by the splendidly named circuit judge D'Army Bailey.  The judge must dread being the subject of a Spoonerism.   Wikipedia, predictably, provides some delightful examples of Spoonerisms, including the classic remark allegedly made by the good Doctor S. to a lady at a reception, predicting her imminent descent into insanity by reference to Alice's Hatter:  "You'll soon be had as a matter of course".  

Gary Younge used to be the Guardian's New York correspondent, but now he seems to function exclusively as the paper's race affairs correspondent, and a rather good one too.  According to his Comment is Free profile he is now "a Guardian columnist and feature writer based in the US", which obviously gives him an enviable amount of scope.  In the same article he identifies a certain Andrew Young [sic] as 'one of [Martin Luther King's] aides', which perhaps does less than justice to the man who has been, in the words of his Wikipedia entry, a "U.S. congressman and mayor of Atlanta, Georgia, and was the United States' first African-American ambassador to the United Nations", as well as having been a prominent civil rights activist in his own right.  However, perhaps a degree of reticence about the now venerable Andy Young's eminence was in order, since Mr Younge [sic] attributes to him a striking grammatical solecism:  referring to Martin Luther King's opposition to the Vietnam war, Young (not Younge) is supposed to have said, "As a Nobel prizewinner we expected people not to agree with it, but to take it seriously."  Alas, even with that royal 'we', old Andy can't claim to be a Nobel prize-winner, however much he may have deserved it.

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Do you remember Obama's prominent aide, Samantha Power, having to resign from Barack's team when the Scotsman newspaper published an interview with her in which she described Hillary Clinton as "a monster"?  —

"We f***** up in Ohio," she admitted. "In Ohio, they are obsessed and Hillary is going to town on it, because she knows Ohio's the only place they can win.  She is a monster, too – that is off the record – she is stooping to anything," Ms Power said, hastily trying to withdraw her remark.

Ten days later, on 17 March, the Guardian's Media section published short interviews with four media pundits who stated their views about the ethics of publishing a remark which its author said, immediately after making it, was "off the record".   All but one of the four attempted, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, to defend the action of the Scotsman in publishing the remark despite the clear caveat which accompanied it.  This seems to me on a par with the almost universal attitude of the media to public servants who salve their private political consciences by leaking sensitive government secrets to the media — often referred to as "whistle-blowers", as if enjoying the prerogative of the referee, even though self-appointed — on the principle that their private political opinions override their duty of loyalty and confidentiality to elected ministers.  It's obviously in the media's interests that treacherous public servants should feed official secrets to them for publication (it makes a good story and sells newspapers and advertising), just as it's in the media's interests to betray those who give them interviews and ask that parts should be "off the record" — i.e. purely for the background information of the interviewer and in confidence.  How media people with such flexible ideas of right and wrong have the brass neck to write sanctimonious editorials wagging their fingers at elected governments, lecturing them on what they 'must' do, is a continuing source of amazement.

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 Talking of sanctimonious editorials, the Observer's first leader on 30 March 2008 (with its wrong-headed heading 'Brown should not rule out a Beijing boycott') surely broke all records for sanctimony, loftily lecturing the Chinese government on what it 'has to' do if it wants to be accepted as a world power:

If China wants to be fully accepted as a major actor in the international community, then it has to behave as a responsible stakeholder in its actions. That especially includes its actions towards its territories like Tibet.  This is not only important in terms of its internal affairs. It is also vital in the upholding of international law, multilateral institutions and a common framework of human rights to which the world adheres. The world needs China to take these issues seriously, whether in Tibet or Darfur, and to recognise that it will be held to account if it does not.

Almost everything about this is hopelessly misjudged.  The idea that China is not yet "a major actor in the world community", a country with a population of more than one and a quarter billion — more than one in five of the population of the world, and rapidly growing — together with a huge and expanding economy, and a permanent member of the Security Council, is frankly bizarre.  Anyone anywhere in the world but in Britain reading the Observer's homily would be bound to wonder where it thinks it's coming from, given Britain's own recent record on "upholding of international law, multilateral institutions and a common framework of human rights":  this from a newspaper which actually supported the US-UK aggression against Iraq that flouted international law and gravely undermined the world's primary international institution.  Physician, heal thyself!  Then the advice to Britain's prime minister to consider boycotting the Peking[1] Olympic Games is recklessly ill-judged, with Britain scheduled to host the games only four years later and thus dangerously vulnerable to Olympic boycott politics.  But above all, the whole tone of the editorial is hopelessly arrogant and impertinent.  Quite apart from anything else, do the Observer's leader-writers not understand that China, like all global great powers (the American neo-cons, Britain at the peak of its imperial power), doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks about it, provided that it is feared and respected?  

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The Observer's second leading article on the same day ("A shameful way to treat women prisoners") was impeccably liberal as to substance, but contained one striking sentence:

On any given day, around 1,000 women in English and Welsh's jails … are on remand.

It's easy to see what has happened here.  No doubt the original draft referred to "England's and Wales's jails" — or even, heaven forbid, "England's and Wales' jails"; and some cub sub-editor, perhaps on work experience attachment, felt uneasy about that apostrophe-s after a non-plural word ending in 's', and decided to play safe with "English and Welsh" instead.   But the Observer, unlike its daily sister paper the Guardian, has a week to proof-read and fact-check its copy, and someone really ought to have spotted this, especially in an editorial column.

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Sorry, but I haven't quite finished with the Observer of 30 March.  This same doomed issue prominently featured a long article by Max Hastings in support of the campaign by the reactionary Tory clown Boris Johnson to be elected Mayor of London.  Max Hastings is always worth reading for his insights into what an intelligent Tory is thinking, but on this occasion he seemed to be writing strictly in his capacity as a former editor, not only of the Daily Torygraph, but more particularly of the London Evening Standard, the newspaper which even more than any other organ of the right-wing populist press pursues a virulent vendetta against Ken Livingstone, London's controversial left-wing Labour Mayor.  Published to coincide with the launch of the Conservative party candidate Johnson's campaign to replace Livingstone as Mayor, Hastings's article was based on some curiously contradictory propositions:  (1) that Livingstone had been a rather good and successful Mayor whose major reforms Hastings reluctantly approves of, (2) that Johnson, well known personally to Hastings, variously described as "a callow white lump in formal evening dress", "a façade resembling that of PG Wodehouse's Gussie Finknottle", one who in a tight spot "evoked all his self-parodying skills as a waffler", was a person whose "indiscipline made him ill-suited to [political] office", leading Hastings to advise him to stick to journalism;  but (3) that "the Tory candidate has it in him to become a London hero, if he can avoid impaling himself on his own extravagances and we should add, given the record, his willy."  As endorsements go, this must be one of the most heavily qualified;  but an endorsement it is undoubtedly meant to be.  But why in heaven's name is the Observer, supposedly a newspaper of the centre-left, printing this piece of Tory election propaganda, however contorted, designed to help launch the campaign of one of the most improbable, reckless, irresponsible and far-right buffoons ever to run for high political office in this country?  It's a mystery.

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 But much can and should be forgiven the paper which is accompanied every Sunday by the outstandingly good Observer Review, containing week by week some of the best film (especially), theatre, dance and book criticism of the non-specialist British press.  Henry Porter's weekly crusading journalism in the Observer in the defence of human rights and civil liberty has long been required reading.  And in last Sunday's Observer the article by John Gray about the coming international struggles for increasingly scarce oil and water, the context without which it's impossible to make sense of the Iraq misadventure, was absolutely compulsory and compulsive reading. 

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It would be unfair to end this chronicle of Observer misfortunes and misjudgements without a closing word about the once-great Sunday Times, now dragged sadly down-market by Rupert Murdoch and his minions.  One of its oddest features is its weekly 'Style' glossy magazine, apparently aimed at well-heeled and socially ambitious women with more money than sense.  Most of it amounts to little more than a series of articles and photographs advertising absurdly expensive women's clothes, beauty treatments, 'alternative medicines', and other such follies.  It's full of sign-posts to what's fashionable this week and what's no longer 'in'.  Two regular exceptions are the witty and faintly raunchy spoof agony aunt column at the back of the magazine by "Mrs Mills", and the camp but also generally witty essay by A A Gill, concluding each Sunday with an often waspish restaurant review that pulls no punches.  Last Sunday however Gill's piece included a wonderful Malapropism, which must have had Gill tearing his hair out when he saw it in print (he presumably dictated his copy down the telephone to another of these work experience trainee hacks):

The menu looks like the Ivy's, but it's a reprieve of Marco's best bits.

Or did Gill really mean reprieve and not reprise?  Perhaps some ingenious reader will suggest an interpretation which makes sense of this memorable sentence as it was printed.  Meanwhile it remains a puzzle that a broadsheet paper which makes some claim to seriousness continues to fill a whole page of its Style magazine with an astrology column by the improbably named Shelley von Strunckel (surely someone out there has a sense of humour after all?).  'Ms von Strunckel' plods through the signs of the zodiac with the usual vague warnings and predictions, cautiously unverifiable as always, but at the foot of her page of rubbish, in smaller print, this rather objectionable advertisement appears:

Have a personal consultation with an astrologer! Shelley's hand-picked team are among the best in the country. Call 0906******* now, or text SHELLEY (space), followed by your burning question, to 8****. Calls cost £1.50 per minute and are recorded (ICSTIS regulations). SMS costs £1.50 per message plus standard network rates. Readings are for guidance only and you must be over 18. Service provided by Telecom Express. Reader helpline: 0870 *******, open 9am-5.30pm GMT.
Numbers are for UK callers only. Calls cost 60p per minute (phone) and £1 per minute (fax). Fax helpline: 0870 *******. Cost of calls from mobiles and other networks may vary. Approximate call duration: 5 minutes. Lines are updated weekly.  [Asterisks substituted for the published numbers — BLB]

So even the 'reader helpline' and 'fax helpline' use premium cost telephone numbers which produce a modest income for the advertiser as well as the hapless caller's telephone company.  The 0906 number for calling Ms von Strunckel, at £1.50 a minute, produces an income for that shrewd lady which isn't even modest.  What idiots the editor of Style magazine, and Ms von S., must take their readers for!

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[1]  I might consider starting to call Peking 'Beijing' when those who already do so begin to call the capital of Italia 'Roma' and the capital of Rossiya 'Moskva'.  Until then, Peking is good enough for me.  (I might also hang on for Deutschland, Firenze, Venezia, Sankt-Peterburg, Den Haag in Nederland, Bruxelles in La Belgique and København in Danmark, as well as waiting for the French to stop calling London Londres and England Angleterre.)


5 Responses

  1. Tim Weakley says:

    Thanks for that piece, Brian, and especially for footnote 1.  I don't know what the Chinese call Great Britain, England, Scotland, London, and Edinburgh, but I'd bet  we wouldn't recognise the names!    Are those rather amiable little dogs now officially known as Beijingese?  And why are Bombay and Calcutta now Mumbai and Kolkata?  We don't (yet) call my birthplace Alexandria Iskendaria, or Cairo Al-Qahira.

    Brian writes:  Like you, I don't know how the Chinese refer to our country, but I do know that very many foreigners call Britain or the UK "England" — e.g. in Moskva, the Russians invariably refer to the "angliiskiy posol" ("the English ambassador"), at any rate in conversation, although of course not in formal documents.  Very irritating for the many Scottish, Northern Irish and Welsh diplomats serving in 'English embassies' abroad.  Incidentally I haven't yet seen 'Beijing duck' on the menu of any Chinese restaurant, but nowadays they tend to call it "crispy duck" anyway.

  2. Peter Harvey says:

    Peking became Beijing when the Chinese changed from Wade-Giles to Pinyin as their official system for transliterating Chinese names into the Roman alphabet. Chinese pronunciation varies very widely and I understand that in some part of China, maybe even the Beijing area itself if I remember correctly, the middle consonant sounds as a <k>. Wade-Giles was kept in Taiwan and Hong Kong. I don't know if it is still used there.

    Bombay is a Portuguese name. Like many countries India has preferred to use non-colonial names for its cities. I think that Kolkata is just a local spelling.

    Brian writes:  Thanks for this interesting gloss, Peter.  I still feel inclined to stay in Peking with good ol' Wade-Giles, however.  As for Bombay, Wikipedia confirms what you say and comments at length, beginning:

    The name Mumbai is an eponym, etymologically derived from Mumba or Maha-Amba— the name of the Hindu goddess Mumbadevi, and Aai — mother in Marathi. The former name Bombay had its origins in the 16th century when the Portuguese arrived in the area and called the place with various names, which would finally take on the written form Bombaim, still common in current Portuguese use. After the British gained possession in the 17th century, it was anglicised to Bombay, although it was known as Mumbai or Mambai to Marathi and Gujarati-speakers, and as Bambai in Hindi, Urdu. However, even Marathi and Gujarati-speakers commonly used "Bombay" when speaking in English. The name was officially changed to its Marathi pronunciation of Mumbai in 1995… [Footnotes omitted — BLB]

    — and so on for another two paragraphs. 

  3. Peter Harvey says:

    PS This person outside Britain reacted exactly the way you describe on reading that Observer editorial.

  4. David says:

    Belgium provides a number of pitfalls for the neo-Beijinger PC brigade.  Antwerpen or Anvers?

  5. Michael Hornsby says:

    A most entertaining catalogue of Observer/Grauniad oddities. I can only say "amen" to most of your comments. But there are a couple of points I would take issue with.

    I was surprised to see you expressing shock that the Observer, a "paper of the centre-left", should have given space to a piece of "Tory propaganda" by Max Hastings supporting Boris Johnson's bid for the London mayoralty. I hold no special brief for the contemporary incarnation of the weekly organ that bears the same name as that of a once-great newspaper, but in this instance its conduct seems to me irreproachable. All the best newspapers, whatever their own editorial bias, make a point of affording house room to a wide range of different views in their comment columns. For example, my old employer The Times, whatever else may be said of its evolution under Mr Murdoch's ownership, still adheres to this principle, its regular columnists ranging from marxist, through various shades of liberal/left-wingery, to traditional right-wing . That seems to me commendable. Hastings was simply putting the case for voting for B**** (I have no wish to aggravate your allergic reaction to the B-word by spelling it out) rather than for Ken. Unsurprisingly,  you did not find his arguments convincing. Tory propaganda? Well, yes, I guess so, if the pospect of B**** as mayor fills you with horror. But, for those of a different viewpoint, a similar article in favour of Ken might no doubt be regarded as "Labour, or loony-left propaganda" or something of the sort. Were the Observer to carry no articles in favour of Ken, or even to urge a vote for B**** in its own leading articles, that would indeed be surprising and arguably a betrayal of its history. But it has not done that as far as I know.

    I agree with you about the lecturing and sanctimonious tone of the Observer's leading article about China and Tibet. Finger-wagging and sermonising is – if you'll forgive my saying so – a besetting sin of left-wing commentary. (Those on the right are guilty of their own kind of pomposity). I was puzzled, however, by your comment that the Observer had failed to understand that China, like all great global powers, "doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks about it, provided it is feared and respected". There is something in that as a general proposition, of course, but China is not a very convincing illustration of it. The present-day United States under the influence of the neo-con tendency and Britain in its late Victorian imperial hey-day are better examples. But for the locus classicus of this superpower mind-set, I guess you would have to go back to the Roman Empire under the Emperor Caligula, whose favourite saying was reputed to be oderint dum metuant   ( let them hate so long as they fear). Palmerston's famous dictum about Britain's having no permanent allies or enemies, only permanent interests, might be said to express much the same thought less brutally.  There is certainly more than a touch of the Palmerstons about the neo-con approach to international affairs: "This is what we are going to do. If you want to come along with us, well and good, but if you don't, it doesn't matter, because we are going to do it anyway".  That said, Britain at the height of its imperial power was by no means impervious to criticism, any more than the US is today. The moral authority of the British Empire never recovered from the widespread international condemnation of the methods used by Britain in the Boer War. Up to then imperialists had been able to make out a plausible case that the Empire offered its subject peoples a more advanced form of civilisation based on modern administration and the rule of law — civis Britannicus sum and all that. Even the likes of the young Mahatma (a title he acquired only later, of course) Gandhi broadly accepted that claim. Thereafter that self-serving case looked increasingly thin. The US has never been an empire in the old European sense; its imperium has been based (with one or two short-lived exceptions such as the Philippines) not on territorial aquisition but on sheer size – geographic, demographic, economic and military. Its genesis as a modern state – a colony that took up arms to seize independence from the imperial power of the day – is self-evidently very different from that of the great European powers that preceded it. The neo-cons (whose influence may already be waning) certainly affect a grand indifference to world opinion; but I think you would agree that they are very untypical of the US as a whole, which wishes and expects to be loved with an almost child-like fervour and is deeply hurt and distressed when it finds that its self-image as a champion of freedom and enlightenment is not always shared uncritically by the rest of the globe. China's imperium will be of another kind still – its exact form and nature not yet possible to see. It is certain to be based, like America's, in part on sheer continental size,  but it will also be shaped by resurgent pride in an ancient civilisation dating back for millennia, the desire to expunge the memory of humiliations suffered at the hands of European powers in the 19th century, and the struggle to escape from the political legacy of 60 years of Maoist communism. The one thing about modern China that seems to me demonstrably untrue is that it "doesn't care what the rest of the world thinks of it". This surely is a country, par excellence, that is obsessed, in a curiously unproductive way, with what the rest of the world thinks of it. Why else do its rulers go to such extraordinary lengths to shelter its people from even the mildest hint of external criticism? Why, given its great power, is it so extraordinarily afraid of exposing them to such criticism? Sheer size is, of course, very important, but not enough for China to enjoy fully the acceptance and respect that it evidently craves and expects as a great modern global power. Mature modern states accept (though they may not always like it) that their internal affairs and foreign policy are open to scrutiny, and on occasion vigorous criticism, even from friends and allies, and that this is part of the rough and tumble, the give and take, of international discourse. China does not . It does not seem to me "arrogant and impertinent" to point that out, forcibly and often. Indeed, it seems to me nothing less than a duty. There seemed to be a worryingly glib suggestion, at one point in your commentary, that Britain, and by implication other western powers, had no business criticising China because respect for human rights and democracy was, when all was said done, really no better or worse here than there. However, I am sure you intended no such crass assertion, which would be most unworthy of the Barder blog.


    Brian writes:  Thanks for that, Michael.  One or two clarifications:  1. I don't seriously object to newspapers of the nominal left like the Observer running articles, even regular columns, by right-wing commentators, especially those like Sir Max Hastings who write well and informatively.  It was this particular strangled puff for Mr Johnson that I objected to.  2.  I'm not convinced by what you say about China.  I believe that the Chinese leadership is uncharacteristically in a hurry to get economic reform and liberalisation in place and bringing benefit to their gigantic population in time to head off social and political unrest on a scale that could threaten the monopoly hold on power of the CCP, and therefore determined not to allow international criticism of their human rights violations inside China (including Tibet) to get into China's domestic bloodstream before they are ready.  I don't believe that they give a damn about the criticism per se:  but they don't want it to spoil their game plan.  They have seen what Gorbachev's glasnost' and perestroika did for Soviet communism once a critical mass of the Soviet people started to understand how far the USSR lagged behind the west economically, socially and in terms of basic individual freedoms, before perestroika had had time to narrow the gap between the Soviet Union and the west, and they are determined to avoid making the same mistake in China if they possibly can: perestroika, certainly; glasnost', you have got to be kidding.  But whereas the Russians have always had a fatal underlying inferiority complex vis-à-vis the west, the Chinese have the exact opposite: an unshakable belief in their own innate superiority, only temporarily and in the short term (i.e. for a few centuries) eclipsed and concealed by the fall-out from the west's industrial revolution, a mere blip in the millennia of China's history.  (Remember Chou En Lai's remark about the significance of the French revolution?)  Because they know that China will shortly — perhaps even in the next century or two — emerge as the world's dominant power, and that no amount of human rights agitation in the west can prevent that inevitable victory, they also know that they can afford to ignore the gnat-bites except at a relatively trivial tactical level.   3.  I nowhere wrote or implied that Britain's recent bad record on human rights and civil liberties was remotely comparable with China's — only that those who live in even double-glazed thick-walled glass houses are ill-advised to throw stones, even at much more fragile structures.  However, it seems to me clear beyond dispute that Britain's record on flagrant disregard for international law, with two acts of blatant aggression on its crime sheet in the past nine years, and our accompanying history of reckless undermining of the world's primary and most indispensable international institution, together easily trump any international misdeeds that can be laid at China's door.  For a newspaper which actually supported the unprovoked and illegal attack on Iraq to offer instruction to China on respect for international law and support for international institutions displays arrogance and ignorance on an Olympic scale.   4.  I salute the accuracy of your reference to the Palmerston dictum about having no "eternal allies and … no perpetual enemies.  Our interests are eternal and perpetual and those interests it is our duty to follow."  (House of Commons, 1 March 1848, a difficult year.)  In other words, as you implicitly recognise, he made no reference either to "permanent friends" or to "permanent interests".  Not many people seem to know that, apart from you, me and other readers of this blog (now).  This quotations website actually puts the misquotation inside quotation marks, in bold type!

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