Tuesday, 9 October 2012

Bad Language: Justice Secretary Chris Grayling and the English gendered-pronouns problem

As far as grammatical problems go — and indeed problems of sexual inequality — this one's pretty rare in that almost everyone who uses English as their first spoken language is aware of it.

Perhaps an even higher proportion of second-language speakers are aware of it; it sticks out like the proverbial sore thumb.

For those who don't make grammar a hobby, this is the problem:

You know when you talk hypothetically about "a person", and that person usually ends up being male? Yeah. That's the problem. It's sexism by convenience, and the best solution anyone's come up with thus far is the one most of us — consciously or otherwise — fall back on: pluralising said hypothetical individual.

This means he or she (more on that later) becomes "they". And everyone knows "they" is (ahem, are) plural. There are more than one of them.

So when you're in an important business meeting (as I frequently am) and somebody starts a sentence with "When a customer signs up to our website to make a purchase ..." chances are they'll finish it with something like, "They'll leave and never come back." Depending on how good their website is.

If they finish with "He'll ..." chances are someone will pick them up on their use of needlessly gendered (AKA sexist) language. Even if they're not doing so in earnest. This linguistic point is so well-known as to be more-or-less impossible for even the least-interested individual to let slip. Even if you just want to get one over on a colleague/friend/enemy. Even if you are just a mainstream pedant.

So what do you say instead? Well some people deliberately use "she" by way of trying to address millennia of sexual inequality. This is fine in the instances where the hypothetical person is demonstrably likelier to be female; as it would be completely justifiable to use "he" if the reverse were true. But you can't fight millennia of fire with fire. And "fine" and "justifiable" still aren't synonymous with "ideal". I don't want any hypothetical individual, who represents a wider group to which there's any chance I might belong, represented using a pronoun gendered to a sex to which I definitely don't belong. Thank you very much. And not because I'm hyper-sensitive or difficult; it's just because there's no real need for it. It's stupid.

You could say "he or she" instead, but it sounds arch and clumsy, and it still puts men first. You could say "she or he", or you could switch between the two. But someone might hear you use just one and misunderstand your motives, or — worse yet — someone might have to listen to you he-sheing and/or she-heing your way through a PowerPoint presentation (or a relationship problem) to the point that you actually annoy that person to death. Somebody might be friends with you and witness it regularly and decide not to be friends with you.

You can avoid the linguistic construct entirely if you like. There is no utterly necessary occasion where it simply has to be used; where a decision between he, she and they simply has to be taken. (I guarantee you I could rewrite any such imagined instance you're burdened with. For ten pounds.) But — this hot, gendered potato aside — it's a completely fine and often quite useful sentence structure. There's no sense in culling it like a septic badger.

Chris Grayling: or was it? (Or were they?)
It rears its head almost daily, but I heard a very pointed example this morning on the radio. A Tory MP who may or may not have been the justice secretary Chris Grayling was being interviewed on the news section of BBC 6Music. (Or his interview was being broadcast there at any rate.)

He was talking about new laws that would allow home-owners to stab, skin, slice and dice burglars — and cook them in a stew, or what have you. There was some typically vague legal term like "proportionate force" or "reasonable force", just to give judges a creative way to ensure lots of poor people, and no rich people, end up in prison as a result of this. (Right, comrades?)

The Tory began the recorded section of his interview by referring to the imagined hypothetical home-owner with a male pronoun: "he". A voice in his ear, either real or imagined, started furiously remonstrating with him about how old, white, rich and sexist he would no doubt appear if he finished the sentence in the same way; and by the next time grammar dictated he had to reach for a pronoun he picked "they".

Before spin or good sense could save him, the Tory accidentally, and in a half-arsed way, implied all home-owners likely to be provoked to using reasonable force to defend their domiciles from ruffians were men. He probably meant all home-owners. Indeed, he probably meant everyone. That's how grammar used to work, you see.

Yes, in the Tory's defence  "he" was officially endorsed — not just tolerated — as the hypothetical pronoun of choice for just over a hundred years. And before that if language wasn't being sexist it was only because people hadn't had the time to think of ways in which it could be, what with all the plague and cholera and witch-burning and everything. This "solution" to the problem was called The Universal He, putting one in mind of such archetypes of masculinity as He-Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, I don't bloody know, Greg Rusedski.

But linguistic philosophy and second-wave feminism put paid to this in the twentieth century — some while after the average Tory MP studied grammar at Eton. I guess the crux of the combined arguments is that our language is largely geared toward representing men, and concealing women. And that even though it's only language, this has an effect on how we view the world, especially as we acquire the language as small innocent gendered or genderless children. If every hypothetical person is male, every significant person must surely be male too. This is the point in the argument at which certain types of person (many male, but not all) raise objections. But they didn't read this far anyway, so never mind them*.

The plural pronouns employed to indicate the hypothetical dissenters in the last sentence of the previous paragraph are valid, as the sentences are constructed (not contrived) to discuss people in the plural, not one hypothetical individual from a greater mass. This is one tactic for dealing with the issue.

The MP could have said something along the lines of: home-owners have the right to defend their estates from marauding chavs with as many balls as they can let fly from their multitudinous cannon. but for some reason people like the hypothetical one to be singular. It seems to have more clout; perhaps because the listener can imagine itself being that "he or she"? MPs love pretending to talk to individuals as much as they hate actually having to do it. I guess this is why my own proposal — no doubt offered many times in the past, even perhaps by greater grammarians than I** — hasn't yet caught on.

My proposal was soft-launched in the middle of the previous paragraph, indicated italicisedunderlined, and in bold, and it amounts to no less than using "it" and "its" instead of he, her, his, her, they, theirs.

Why don't we do this already? Well, because "it" is a pronoun reserved for non-human objects (boxes, breadbaskets and strap-ons), intangible concepts (love, rheumatism and ornateness), and — apparently — "lower animals", like (presumably) moss piglets, spider mites and chow chows.

People would be affronted if you referred to them as "it", possibly even more so than if you referred to them using the opposite gender to which you declare affiliation. Indeed "it" is also reserved pejoratively for people of indeterminate gender who do not deserve — in the creatively nasty grammar-abuser's imagined world — a definite gendered pronoun.

I know this from experience; not because I have personally made the effort or put in the thought to be confident in describing myself as "transgender", but because sometimes — usually when you're a teenager, and at your most vulnerable — people feel the need to make such decisions for you.

Yes, having frequently being referred to in my beardless formative years with such linguistic stews as "that man-woman thing that sits on the window ledge," I've thought about the reality of being described as "it" for a long time. And I quite like it.

"It" is genderless, unsaddled, and therefore wild. If a horse is a higher animal, and spends its days for the most part toff-ridden — being ridden by toffs — that's a privilege I can forgo. Indeed, I haven't looked this up, but I'm pretty sure most of these alleged "higher animals" are afforded their status not by any kind of special power they possess (see moss piglets), but by centuries of selfless service to humans: either by carrying us into battle, fetching our pipes and slippers, or displaying traits we seek to emulate. Probably masculine traits. (I'm taking a pitch at lions being included here.)

If you're happier for your gender (or someone else's which is not your own) to be included as information in a sentence where it doesn't need to be, than you are for your solidarity with lower animals, non-human objects and intangible concepts to be made apparent in that same sentence, then I have no place for you on my Christmas card list.

I ask you: are you truly more inclined to align yourself with He-Man, Arnold Schwarzenegger and, I don't bloody know, Greg Rusedski — or indeed their exact female counterparts: She-Ra, Minnie Driver and, I don't bloody know, Maria Sharapova — than you are to buddy up with moss piglets, rheumatism and breadbaskets? Why, you idiot?

I guess this is where we spare a few words for the currently-thought-correct plural pronoun "they/their". This option, deemed the hazily inoffensive neutral-ground by the faceless masses of the political-correctness-resigned bastard public, is the worst of the bunch.

Why? Because it's grammatically a non-starter. It's stupid. I don't care if Shakespeare used it. As if that's a bloody argument anyway; he couldn't even spell his own name the same twice. He was an unrestrained loon, and no gatekeeper of Good English.

So use "it"; "it" is the only right and proper pronoun for this use.

Alternatively, use "the fool".

As in, if a baker charges sixteen pence for a baker's dozen of jam doughnuts, how much does the fool charge for a regular non-baker's dozen?

Now before you get all creatively critical about how many bakers own the concept of not being able to count properly, we're not talking about apostrophes today. And you can pretty much guarantee that about 90% of men and women (and bakers) are fools, but you can never — without revealing yourself to be a massive sexist — guess how many people are male, or female, or can transform themselves in the duration of a sentence from being one or the other (or both) into being an indeterminate number of "people" in the plural.

Only X-Factor's Multiple Man can do that. And he's pretty freaking gendered.

The end.


Alexander V

Images free or copyright-free.

* It's a similar point to that which politely suggests a newspaper regularly showing famous sportspeople, businessmen and politicians — mostly male, especially the "businessmen" — alongside almost-completely-naked teenage girls is not a newspaper that is symptomatic of, or even helps works toward, a sexually equal society.

** I'm pretty sure this is a joke, because probably that ought to say "me". If indeed I was accidentally right to use "I" then please ignore my mistake and take the joke in the spirit it was meant: smugness.

Thursday, 12 July 2012

Bad Adverts — Racist Squash and Poo-in-a-Boat, or Why I hate the Olympics

No amount of familiarity with the brand that was universally derided upon its launch is breeding anything in my brain but further  faster, harder, stronger, more tumescent  contempt.

I was always likely to hate the ad-frenzy surrounding the Olympics anyway, because I'm a miserable sod who is bored by televised competitive sporting events, except on those rare occasions when I can pretend it has some higher allegorical significance than I know it really has. And this is no such occasion.

The London 2012 Olympic branding is a snapshot of a blink-of-an-eye era of bizarre nouveau-eighties/nineties design: a sort of new-rave mistake that's achieved the previously unthinkable feat of pissing off self-appointed design critics nationwide and, erm, the Islamic Republic of Iran in equal measures.

The wind changed, and we're stuck with it.

But far worse than anything the people responsible for the event itself could cook up is the cavalcade of loosely tied-in crap that makes up the piggyback ad campaigns of the official sponsors.

At least the cynical cash-ins of the unofficial sponsors are unintentionally funny. Like Subway with their Z-list celebs, training hard and eating shit with some of the least healthy fast food the USA can muster, and boxing, basketballing and pole vaulting (yeah, bloody pole vaulting of all things) their way to mediocrity.

But there's something truly, supremely ghastly in the self-satisfied circle-jerk of the Official Sponsors' output. It's like they really haven't tried. They don't care. They're official so they know they're the best. The rest writes itself, right?


I've noted the sponsorship = concept foible before, as I'm sure have many more serious bloggers. But this time it's gone postal. They're so bad they're not even funny.

Rather than giving them the undue honour of an exhaustive list  and, let's face it, there are probably at least a hundred examples of bad Olympic ads  I thought I'd single out the couple I have really noticed: the two pitiful examples of imagination-free boilerplate dross and, respectively, bizarre and ill-advised flights of wimsy that have assaulted me over recent weeks on my daily commute. As is often the case, they're billboards.

So, the dross first.

Vitamin Water / Racist Squash

"Worldwide partner and best mate."

Because there's no friendship without the exchange of contracts.

This is one of those hot new energy water things that's basically branded squash, but posing as something that operates on a much higher plane: a veritable mesospheric nectar of the gods. Special squash, if you will. And if you won't, that's probably why I wasn't hired for this campaign.

(It's officially not nutritious mind you.)

Their unique spin on this whole Olympics thing is obviously that Olympians drink this special squash to make them better at running, jumping, whacking balls, chucking objects and brushing furiously at artificial ice with specially designed brooms.

I'll buy that. The pitch; not the product, obviously: the product is an even more pointless thing than bottled water. At least bottled water is useful where no bugger will provide you with filtered water out of a tap for free, which ought by now to be a human right. This stuff is just for people who want squash on the go but can't be bothered to think ahead. I have no place in my world for such people.

No, my real problem with this though is that they've plagiarized the BNP's logo. And that's just not cricket. Is cricket an Olympic sport? Who knows? Who cares? All I know is that Racist Squash is a first, and probably a last, on the billboards of Dorset and Hampshire. And I'll have none of it.

EDF / Poo-in-a-Boat

Second up, and last  lest we get too carried away  is secretly French EDF's poo-in-a-boat billboard, which presumably ties in with a much grander poo-in-a-boat campaign, with a poo-in-a-boat backstory and poo-in-a-boat tone of voice.

But let's just deal with one mistake at a time, shall we, and look at the billboard, which is what looks at us while we wait for our trains, which have been made late by the rain, which was sent by God to prove how much he's already bloody bored to tears by the Olympics.

How we've come to live in a world where something as oblique as "energy" needs branding is beyond me. But then, so many things are, so let's get on with it.

This poo-in-a-boat is sailing for some distant shore and has some characteristically modish copy (with full stops where other punctuation points ought to be) nestled in the corner.

This is what I think about what it says. What it says neatly sums up their main message in two easy-to-digest and entirely unconvincing snippets, needlessly separated by a full stop. Then it says "relax". Like, hey, we didn't even need a third thing. Get over it.

But nobody cares what I think about what it says  even less than they care about what I think of anything else, which is already very little. And this is at least partly because there's a poo-in-a-boat in the middle of the picture.

Show me a poo-in-a-boat most days of the week and I'll do nowt but shrug. I might shake my head at you, or tell you to bugger off if I'm in a particularly bad mood. But show me a poo-in-a-boat while you're trying to sell me energy  in a non-consumable capacity, at that: not even in a can or a fat sandwich or a bottle of special racist squash or anything  and I'll actually be less likely to buy energy from you than I'll be to buy it from any given unbranded non-official Olympic sponsoring competitor of yours.

Go a step further, if you've the temerity, and show me a poo-in-a-boat with an Olympic logo in the corner, and then what do you think's going to happen?

Well, all I'm going to have in my head is Paula Radcliffe pooing on the side of the road in the name of athletic endeavors: pooing on the side of the road like there's no reason not to and jogging on to win or come fifth or whatever it was in the race or marathon or whatever it was (who even cares?) and just shrugging her shoulders and saying "I think it was the tuna", like that's how we deal with having pooed on the side of the road  and not just the side of a quiet country road, but a big important road that everyone's watching you run down and filming you running down and filming you pooing on.

And I've heard it opined that Ms Radcliffe is a great athlete and it's a shame that she'll forever be remembered by most of the bastard public (of whom I stand up and count myself as one) as that woman that pooed on the road because, let's face it, most of us don't give a good God-damn who runs where and how fast they go. Good luck to them. That's their hobby. Glad they're free to do it.

But pooing on the road? That's something I do care about and, coincidentally, I'm dead against it. I dont think anyone should poo on the road in a country where effluent disposal areas are called "public conveniences" for a bloody reason; and much less do I think that if they do  and then run off nonchalantly saying "maybe it was the tuna"  that they should have the luxury to be remembered primarily for something else that they did on that day or on any other.

But that's just my opinion. Nobody cares about that, and why should they? We've all got one and most of them stink, etc.

What I do care about as a proud footsoldier in the ad industry is that some genius at EDF thinks it's a good idea to take Paula's stool and recast it. Up there on the billboard, no longer is her poo an abandoned embarrassment of a poo at the side of the road to athletic achievement; now it's the hero of the story: sailing from the water's edge of ambition to the far shore of accomplishment. The poo in a boat that could; the poo in a boat that did.

And I know this is that self same poo because even though at first glance it looks like a healthy solid sort of poo, you soon notice the moist point at its head, where its mother anus birthed it, that betrays its position on the Bristol Scale: it's a 4, deep down, even though it may look like a 2 or a 3. And this is exactly the sort of poo produced by a long-distance runner if they've eaten more than they should (or else what they should not) have the night before.

Racist-pilferers and poo-apologists, the lot of them.

And so, EDF and Vitamin Water exemplify all that I find distasteful about professional sport: that I am expected to have more respect for a human being, in this day and age, because they can run faster than me, or swing more gracefully than me, or throw an object at a more careful angle than me.

Newsflash: We outran all our predators years ago, folks. We invented cars.

And even our computer screens are rarely so heavy nowadays that one needs a person of unusually great strength, for example a Russian body-builder, to lift them.

Nobody has truly needed to throw a javelin, or a hammer, or a discus exceptionally far since the invention of nuclear ballistics.

The great achievements of our age are not of the body. They are of the mind. It's taken us years to get here: to the place where Stephen Hawking has more societal worth than any given cage fighter. And you lot with your gung-ho, poo-in-a-boat spirit would rob us of that achievement.

Female athletes strive hard to become the best woman at any given event: exerting themselves beyond most people's imaginations' bounds just to be second to men in the only thing in the world that men will ever have a guaranteed natural advantage in — coincidentally the only thing that matters less and less with every passing day in the civilized world: physical strength.

You lot with your racist squash would have us believe the measure of a great nation is not its contributions to art, to literature, to science; to furthering the cause of world peace, or to tackling the cruel disparity in the distribution of our planet's resources. You'd have us believe greatness is measured in kilograms, in metres, in minutes, seconds, milliseconds; in arbitrary numbers on white bits of cardboard held up to quantify a display of synchronized swimming that could — perhaps, at a push — but for its dogged and dumb desire to please, perhaps also be thought of as art.

And you're wrong. And you know you're wrong. And you hate yourself for it.

Which is why you can't wait to buy my poetry collection which will be published in December for the very reasonable price of £9.95, and which is current and relevant and important (much more important than sport) and which is a much greater achievement than anything sponsored by McDonalds or EDF, and which cannot be measured — no matter how you might try — in kilograms, in metres, in minutes; or in arbitrary numbers on white bits of card.

Got that?


In the meantime, though, if you want to hire me for my creative copywriting skills — second only to my poetry skills and curling skills — DM me on Twitter.

Your bemused pedestrian and cultural cog,


Amazing photos by me. Main image: "Sex Olympics" by Zef Cherry-Kynaston.

Thursday, 31 May 2012

Why I hate the Union Flag

For a start off, I just want to make clear that I don't hate the Queen.

Or any of her kids. Or her husband.

I'm not that keen on her genocidal Belgian great great great uncle  however many times removed he was  but he's dead anyway.

I don't think there should be a queen. Of anything. Anywhere. But I don't think there's a god either (not the one I've read about in Genesis), yet I love the Archbishop of Canterbury Dr Rowan Williams and think almost everything he says is right.

If the Queen's on TV, and she's given a speaking part, I'll often listen to what she has to say. She's eighty-odd and she's been a lot of places and seen a lot of things. She has a pretty interesting job. She knows a thing or two.

I don't think that her job should exist  just as I don't thing Dr Williams's job should exist. But that doesn't mean I don't think they do their jobs well and are well-deserving of them.

But in anticipation of the Queen's 60th year in her job being celebrated this coming weekend I've found miniature plastic Union Flags (or Union Jacks  call them what you will) festooned over my country, my town, indeed even the outside of my house.

This blog is about why that doesn't make me proud or happy.

The Union Flag

The Union Flag is badly designed.

If it were returned by a design agency nowadays the client would surely dismiss it as not fit for purpose.

The asymetry of the bisected red saltire transposed over the white cross of St Andrew is irritating once you take note of it.

A lot of people probably still think the flag is horizontally and vertically symetrical, as well as having a pleasing turn symmetry of two, which means you could never accidentally fly it upside down. If the former were true it would probably give the flag all the aesthetic supremacy with which it's often falsely credited; it'd be streets ahead of those funny off-centre cruciform colourways favoured by the Nordic countries.

But no, whoever updated the Union Flag from its original bipatriotic design decided to complicate matters to the point that any given individual drawing the design freehand from that point onward to the end of time would probably get it at least 30% wrong.

It's also ill-suited to adaptation. Sure, it's all over cushions and tablecloths and flasks and dog blankets and racist tattoos and seasonal bottles of Pimm's, etc. But as soon as you use the exhaust fumes of aircraft to try and recreate it, it becomes French, Hungarian, Russian, Dutch: anything but British. Our pilots just aren't good enough to match that complexity. The same happens if you turn it into triangular bunting: you're suddenly anonymous, at an international level.

But these minor quibbles are expressed partly in jest; it's a striking design, and much better than a lot of the rubbish out there. Take Nepal's irritatingly shaped broken Christmas decoration, the recently removed flag of Gadaffi's Libya  which displays a shocking lack of imagination, or the forgettable and derivative attempts belonging to any number of commonwealth territories across the globe.

No, what really makes me say it's not fit for purpose, is that it doesn't satisfactorily represent that which it claims to: the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

"Our" flag in its current design is over a hundred years old, which any historian worth its salt will tell you betrays a neglectful attention to detail on behalf of its custodians.

The Union Flag essentially represents two of the four major territories that it's supposed to, and one that it isn't supposed to. Let's start at the beginning.


St George's cross, the flag of England for hundreds of years  although not before it was the flag of medieval Georgia  is well-represented with pride of place along the central axis of the Union Flag.

This makes sense. As with most unions, everyone knows this isn't an equal partnership, so of course England goes in the middle and everything else works around it. (Where's the capital, folks?)

Red is a primary colour often associated with anger and other high passions, probably because of its close resemblance to blood and possibly something to do with it traveling faster than other colours; and white is a good neutral base (which saves on dye, too); so that's a good starting point right there. Good flag, England. And so far, so good for the Union Flag.


Scotland comes second. (Which is probably why a lot of Scots are keen on jacking in this whole union thing, but let's put that aside for the moment.)

St Andrew's saltire  white on blue  is a perfect complement to the starting point of St George's cross. It goes the other way (diagonal), and contains another classic primary colour: blue. Blue is probably the second best colour after red, and symbolic of cooler and deeper emotions, as well as water, and fish, and blue Smarties and loads of other stuff.

Transposed behind the English flag, it occupies four equal rectangular quarters quite nicely without losing too much of its own identity or taking up too much space around the English flag, which, as I mentioned, obviously comes first  that's clear to see.

This was the original design of the flag, or the one that had the best pitch and managed to stick, at any rate. This was used for a good while, until somebody noticed another nearby Celtic landmass that hadn't been under the yoke of any Anglo-Saxons lately, so Ireland was invited to join the party.


Yes, you see, the flag was adapted to incorporate Ireland. The whole of Ireland. Not Northern Ireland, which didn't exist then, and only exists now in the minds of about a quarter of the territory's inhabitants.

Most of the Irelanders in that area apparently argue* between belonging to the Republic of Ireland (whose inhabitants nowadays have their own flag with not a trace of red or blue in it) or the United Kingdom, whose flag we are currently unravelling, and which  unfortunately for those who fancy it  might not exist for much longer.

(*Actually, a lot of them probably don't argue. A lot of them probably just try and get on with their lives and keep their thoughts to themselves.)

But back in the past, which is a terrible place,  Ireland  the whole of what was then called Ireland: the whole island  was, erm... invited into the Union in such a way as it simply couldn't refuse. And at that point, sort of like at this point, nobody could get every single person on that island to decide which flag best represented the lot of them and, you know, how they felt their place in the world was best defined.

They had a saint mind you, and like the Scottish and English saints, he was a man, and a man with a common name, and with a cross made out of a combination of one primary colour and some white (to save on extra dye). St Patrick the snake-hater's flag was a lot like the English flag, only rotated so that the red cross hit the corners instead of the sides.

Perfect! Only there was already a saltire on the Union Flag, so this one  some pillock decided  would be chopped in half across each of its vertical axes and overlaid on top of the Scots saltire in a sort of haphazard manner reminiscent of a sad child trying to rearrange the shards of its mother's favourite vase.

England was first and foremost; Scotland was next; and Ireland was shoehorned in to look like it was a bad case of sunburn on one side of Scotland's sleeping face.

The overall effect was smashing! And most people were delighted. Because most people, in the Union, were (and are) English.

Look at our awesome flag! They would yell, probably, while drinking tea, or harvesting diamonds, or whipping Indians. It looked like St George's cross on acid. Or St George's cross going to war. Or St George's cross with level 35 magic armour. Or something...

But then actually Ireland suddenly had always hated being in the Union, it turned out, and actually wasn't invited so much as coerced. So then most of Ireland left, except for the bits that mainly contained Scots, or something.

It's very complicated, and I'm not actually writing this for the purpose of offending anyone, so let's just say it happened, and the Union was left with...

Northern Ireland

The problem with Northern Ireland is that it's not necessarily a country. Everyone knows that a country is a bunch of people all in the same place, all worshipping the same god  or at least pretending to, all eating the same food, listening to the same music, and being jolly well happy to see one another any time the burdens of capitalism necessitate that they have to leave the comfort and safety of their own homes.

Oh, and it helps if you have a flag.

Northern Ireland might not actually be a country  nobody really knows. And I'm not being wilfully provocative by saying this (only a third of them would be provoked anyway, because the rest are pretty sure it's either the UK, or Ireland); it's actually a fact, inasmuch as what makes something a country is other people's legal documents agreeing that it is one. Scotland's a country. England's a country.  Kosovo may or may not be a country (or may be a particularly naughty part of Serbia), depending on who you talk to. But nobody knows what Northern Ireland is.

And despite what people might have told you in the past about Northern Ireland's flag being represented in the Union Flag  it isn't. How could it be? Northern Ireland doesn't have a (country/province-specific) flag.

The bit of the Union Flag that one might presume to represent Northern Ireland ought, ironically, to only appeal to those Northern Irelanders in the Union that don't want to be in the Union, and want to be in the Republic. (Of Ireland.) Because the saltire of St Patrick represents all of Ireland, most of which has its own flag thank you very much. So the Union Flag  just to really hammer this point home  claims ownership of a country that left the Union, effectively destroying the Union as was, about a hundred years ago.

There is, however, another country that's part of the Union and is as yet not represented on the flag. It's a little country in the west. A little country where I spent most of my life. You might have heard of it...


I grew up labouring (well, more often idling) under the misapprehension that Wales wasn't a country. Not a proper country, anyway.

Otherwise it'd be in the flag, wouldn't it? Like Scotland. And Northern Ireland.

It was also convenient for me to believe Wales wasn't a country, because I grew up there as an English boy and was frequently reminded by my peers (the one's who didn't like me, usually) that I had not that special god-given birthright of Welshness. That I was not Welsh and did not belong to the land in which I lived.

Bollocks to that, I thought, but rarely said. Wales belongs to England. Everyone knows that. Look at the (UK) flag.

Mind you though, the Welsh had a story that there was once a big red Welsh dragon that beat a big(ish) white English dragon in a fight, and that red dragon now adorns their national flag. The white English dragon isn't on the English flag so I guess that's proof that it's dead.

While it may have been true for a long time that Wales wasn't a country (ever since Wessex and Mercia and all the rest of them were swallowed up into England, along with Wales), it definitely is now. So I apologize to anyone who I have previously misinformed about that. Ahem.

And Wales has its own flag. And that flag is nowhere to be seen on the Union Flag  nor are any of its elements.

It would be perfectly possible to transpose some green onto the bottom half of the union flag, or better yet stick a massive dragon in front of the various crosses on the Flag  just to tart it up a bit. But that doesn't seem to have happened. According to the Union flag, the Union still includes Ireland, and doesn't recognize Wales as a country.

Hell, they could even fit one of either version of the flag of St David onto the Union Flag if they wanted to keep it cross-centric. But no. None of it.

The Union

I suppose what this proves is that what really bothers me about the Union Flag is the "Union" bit.

I've always been interested in flags, and yet the more I've grown up and the more I've seen (and read) of the world, the more I've hated the notion of nations: the concept of countries. Especially all-powerful bullying dominant countries for whom the flag represents not union, not hope, not equality, not greatness; but subjugation, empire, and shame, shame, shame.

How can a Queen in London rule in New Zealand? What the hell's with that?

It's as nuts as Moscow telling Prague, or Talinn, or Samarkand what to do.

We hate seeing our own worst traits in others, and most English people are quick to condemn the cultural or political bullying of modern powers like the USA, China and Russia. But we're happy to fly the Union Flag. Indeed, our right wing politicals (who rarely bother to differentiate the UK and England from one another unless it's especially convenient for their current argument) tend to dislike the European Union because all the decisions get made far, far away in Brussels, which  last time I looked — is actually situated in the far West of Europe, a mere hop skip and a jump from London.

How do they think people in Inverness or Truro or Aberystwyth feel?

Estonia is often cited as a success story against the backdrop of failing economies that plague the less-mighty EU nations. It's one of those new Eastern European countries  "new" if you completely ignore it's pre-Soviet history, "Eastern" if you discount that most definitions of the geographical midpoint of Europe place it closer to the centre of the continent than England is.

Estonia  like a wounded hedgehog escaping the clumsy paws of an old bear — shook off the iron hand of Soviet rule in the early '90s and sought solace in a new pan-European family, whose centre was even further from its capital (Talinn) than Moscow was. They invented Skype (small wonder!) and they've never looked back East (except perhaps on stormy nights when they hear thunder).

If Scotland wants to follow in Estonia's footsteps, and Montenegro's footsteps, and South Sudan's footsteps, I say that's a good thing. If only because we can finally take down that damn flag and just stick and English one up in its place. Or a Welsh one. Or... well it depends where your flagpole is. I suppose the Northern Irish could keep the Union Flag if they liked.

What a lot of flag-wavers don't seem to understand is how justifiably offended a lot of people are by the Union Flag. I'm not comparing the United Kingdom with the USSR; though widdly now, it's been far more successful over the years  it's lasted much, much longer despite enforcing London's ideology and its monarchs' rule on perhaps even more people across the globe (in the past few hundred years) than Moscow ever managed with the Soviet Union.

And, as there were then millions under the boot of Britannia, there are peoples across the globe today who occupy places that are essentially as much a country as the next, but for the fact that they're not allowed to fly their flags on government buildings. There are even places like Abkhazia and Transnistria and Somaliland that are to all intents and purposes, flag-flying countries, but which have no UN recognition.

There are regions within established and recognized countries across the globe where if you fly a certain flag that identifies you of a supporter of a concept that could  just maybe  one day be a country, you could be imprisoned or worse.

These are the flags that interest me. These are the flags worth hoisting, worth thinking about, talking about, worrying about: worth loving.

What's ours? A relic. A mass-produced rag too ubiquitous to even be considered an antique. There's no bravery in it, no hope, no glory. There surely was in the past, for some, at certain times. Now it's nothing but proof of our collective ignorance and unwillingness to move out of the 19th century, and the 20th century, toward a brighter future.

I'm not saying the EU is the way forward. But it's a healthier concept than the UK ever was, even if it dies a younger death. It's a better idea: a collection of millions and millions of people with cultures diverse but interests (sometimes) common. Don't hate it because it's plagued by bureaucrats. We're all plagued by bureaucrats! Make it better. Fight for it. Try.

What's the UK for? What's the point in it? What does it achieve?

Keeps Anglo-Saxons dominant over Celts? What a thing to strive for. And it doesn't even manage that! Two of our last three Prime Ministers were Scots!

Those countries I mentioned earlier that aren't countries  or countries that used to be countries; or countries that may one day be countries  Wikipedia tends to call states with limited recognition. Some of them are tiny and, sadly, insignificant on a world scale. Some of them are huge areas of war-torn desert in Africa. Some are stretches of well-defended land in Eastern Europe or the Caucasus. Some of them are Israel, or Palestine. Two of them are China.

I call them antenational countries, because it seems to me they're in front of something big  usually wary neighbour or international body  but often poised, themselves, on the brink of some greater sufficiently significant recognition.

By my definitions, the UK  England, Scotland, Wales  Northern Ireland: we're all antenational. Because I don't know about you, but I never know what to write when I have to fill in a "nationality" form on a job application. I don't know if I'm British, English, Welsh, Polish, Lithuanian, Wessexishish...

But it's not my national identity that I'm concerned about when I see Union Flags fluttering about in the wind; it's bigger than that.

Nations, countries, are tiny, insignificant, pathetic things. Even Russia, in its way. We need to think bigger than that if we're ever going to make a better life for (yes, I am going to say this) our children.

Countries in the style of the UK inspire a jealous and arrogant brand of patriotism. It's jingoistic posturing built on nothing worth shouting about, and I never wanted any part of it. There's always lots to love about where you're from (even if you're from the Isle of Mann), but it should never be about trying to prove you're better than everyone else. Especially if you're not.

And I seriously believe that breaking up these failed countries we have is a good thing  the United Kingdom, the USSR, the USA  go a step further maybe: England (bring back Wessex! Wooh! Yeah!), Russia, Belgium, France, Iraq, China, Sudan (again). Do any of these big countries really work the way they were supposed to?

Does the EU?

Does the UN?

I don't have many answers. I'm more of a questions person. But this is the first thing I've been sure about in a while, and it's taken me a while to decide I am.

I don't think taking down the Union Flag means we can't all still be friends. I think it means we can start to be better friends.

At least let's stop sewing it onto cushions in the shape of a heart. (The BNP kind of own that now.)

Thanks for reading, if you got this far your reward is a Billy Bragg video and my proposed reworking of the Union Flag in the event of Scottish independence.

Equality is better for everyone.

Ask any feminist.


Tuesday, 6 March 2012

BBC News website's confusion between hyphens and en dashes

Expensive readers,

I come out of self-imposed blog exile to enthuse about an issue that – what else? – greatly vexes me.

This being the BBC's insistence on using a hyphen in every single instance on their news site that calls for the use of a dash.

I sent them an email to that effect and, after some three or four months, received the following reply:
Dear Mr Velky
Reference CAS-1211233-0Z92S4
Thank you for getting in touch. We understand the distinction you are making. However, our production system does not readily make the full-length dash available. We are aware that there are ways round this - using Alt and 0151 on the numeric keypad, for instance. However, we do not consider it an issue that requires us to impose convoluted procedures on our staff.
Just as words such as "to-day" and "to-morrow" no longer require a hyphen, we believe other traditions are no longer requirements of our work. The main needs are clarity and expediency, and we are satisfied that using a hyphen instead of a dash does not hinder the understanding of our work, which must be our prime consideration. Indeed, we are not aware of having received another complaint along these lines.
Best wishes,
BBC News website
Several points, which I may as well post here rather than send to the BBC (whose customer services department – like all the worst of them – provides no email address to respond to):
  1. I find the tone of the reply, as with their first, needlessly condescending. "We understand the distinction you are making" they say, as though they had understood it perfectly well the first time I emailed, which they plainly didn't (they asked for "an example" – hmm, try every page of your website, perhaps?) or I'd not have had to send a second email to clarify it, and wait a further three months for their reply.
  2. "Our production system does not ..." Pah! Pathetic excuse. Change your production system to allow accurate representation of the English language, not the other way around, you arrogant fools!
  3. I think they mean “around” not “round”: if you go round something you end up back where you started, which is rarely the required result of this idiomatic turn of phrase, whose root meaning is “to overcome an obstacle”.
  4. Using "Alt 0151" produces an em dash (—), not an en dash (–), which is the standard punctuation point required for this usage online. I said nothing about em dashes, and the previous point about understanding the distinction has just been blown right out the water by their own foolishness, fools.
  5. BBC staff (or managers, to be precise) consider correct punctuation – or, at least, anything that's not a single tap of the key away – a "convoluted process". Further condescension, and further foolishness.
  6. As for that bollocks about hyphens; the formation of compounds is an entirely different matter to the conflation of punctuation points that serve entirely different purposes but merely look the same. Sod it, let's do away with commas too while we're at it, shall we? They look just like full stops and they're a whole one key's distance away. What other pointlessly luxurious "traditions" can we do away with next, I wonder? Correct spelling? Innocence until proven guilt? Me paying my TV license?
  7. "The main needs are clarity and expediency": so, the main needs are being clear and using fancy duplicitous cop-out words that are the opposite of being clear. Nice one.
  8. "We are satisfied that using a hyphen instead of a dash does not hinder the understanding of our work ..." Perhaps you are, but it lacks elegance and it saps your parenthetical or interrupting clauses of the very power the dash is meant to lend them in the first place. Do away with that and your nuance will be no different than if you'd used commas (or a single comma) instead of your substandard crappy dash–stand in hyphens.
  9. "Prime consideration", is it? A few sentences ago you were saying "expediency" (horrible word) shared that honour with "clarity". Or was that a slip-up?
  10. "We are not aware of having received another complaint along these lines". Probably because most of the poor fools out there assume what they read on the BBC website constitutes correct English usage. More. Fool. Them. ("Indeed".)
And on that note, dear reader, I urge you too to complain to the BBC about their lacklustre approach to punctuation. The freestanding hyphen simply is not a thing. (Ask Larry Trask, or Oxford Dictionaries, or Wikipedia.) You cannot base your use of objects on the fact that they look vaguely similar to other objects you'd use for the same purpose, or all hell would break loose.

Like this:

Clear enough for you? Expedient enough?

Still looks shit though, doesn't it?

I'm not even joking about this, just in case anybody reading this knows me not well enough to think I might be.

Fight this chaos, I beg you.

Yours, irate,

A Velky