Wednesday, December 16, 2009

The guru *

A clear-eyed essay by Jim Holt in the NY Times on the joys and torments of Fowler, "the King of English".
When it came to the notorious split infinitive (e.g., “to boldly go where no man . . .”), he observed that those English speakers who neither know nor care about them “are to be envied” by the unhappy few who do.

My favourite passages in The King's English, written by Fowler with his brother in 1906, are about slang:
Awfully nice is an expression than which few can be sillier; but to have succeeded in going through life without saying it a certain number of times is as bad as having no redeeming vice.

Indeed only the other day I was worrying about "rather ordinary".

* See section on "Words whose meaning is misapprehended without apparent cause", in The King's English; or perhaps under the wanton use of foreign words.

Wednesday, December 02, 2009


It's an odd moment in time.
I recently read Hilary Mantel's Booker-winning Wolf Hall, a novel based on the life of Thomas Cromwell, and am now engrossed in Building Jerusalem: The Rise and Fall of the Victorian City, by Tristram Hunt. And have being researching the English Civil War for a book.
It felt extraordinary to be reading and writing all this at the same time that the Pope suddenly announced completely out of the lapis blue that Anglicans who wish to become part of the Church of Rome will be very welcome.
The earth shuddered. I felt it.
Here am I reading about the Reformation one moment and then in another reading of its - arguable - end.
Was it inevitable?
Reading Building Jerusalem, funnily enough, makes one believe it was. The two topics may not seem to be linked, but of course one of the most visible and lasting legacies of the Victorian city is its Gothic architecture, designed by men (almost entirely) who pined for the lost glories of a past embodied by the medieval Church.
The German Romantic, and then Pugin and his colleagues profoundly regretted the cultural loss of Catholic ritual and the medieval religious aesthetic, just as conservative commentators like Carlyle (and possibly Tony Abbott!) longed for the return of the social structures that bound medieval communities together.
It was the great clash between the Industrial Revolution and rationalist/utilitarian thought, and romanticism. (One might also argue that it's easy to agitate for the return of the great barons when you're not a peasant farmer, although whether 15th century peasant farmers had a worse time of it than 19th century cotton mill workers it'd be hard to say.)
I'm endlessly fascinated by the play between these ideas: between Enlightenment and science; and Romanticism and the sublime. One won the day in practical terms, while the other won the battle for hearts and minds - or at least fond memory.
The process is embodied in some ways by Wolf Hall, wherein Thomas More - the revered friend of Erasmus, Renaissance man and martyr, who clearly won the sainted memory battle - comes across as a finicky, heartless and needlessly stubborn old git.
Cromwell, on the other hand - the rationalist lawyer usually painted as the evil power behind Henry's throne, destroyer of the Faith, and chopper-off of queenly heads - is the focus of the novel and in spite of being far from saintly wins the reader's empathy.
Perhaps the most dramatic example of the great battle was the French Revolution in which we can see the two ideas at war, along with a great many others, and it splattered both rationalism and Romanticism in their political senses against the walls of history and belief.
Perhaps Danton and Robespierre are the Cromwell and More of the 18th century...
and as I write that I realise that Mantell has described both fatal duets - better than anyone else.