Down in the dumps

 

 

If you went too near the edge of the chalk-pit the ground would give way.  Barney had been told this often enough.  Everybody had told him.  His grandmother, every time she came to stay with him.  His sister, every time she wasn’t telling him something else.  Barney had a feeling, somewhere in his middle, that it was probably true about the ground giving way.  But still, there was a difference between being told and seeing it happen…

 

These were the words greeting me on the first page of Stig of the Dump by Clive King, which I consider to be the first proper book I ever read.  I would’ve been seven years old at the time and though before then I’d read school reading books, picture books and collections of fairy tales, Stig struck me as being the real deal as far as books were concerned.  It was 158 pages long, its pages were packed with text and the pictures were sparse – just some simple but strangely evocative black-and-white line drawings by Edward Ardizzone – and it told a proper, continuous story, albeit an episodic one with each chapter chronicling a different adventure experienced by its protagonists.

 

I came across it in my primary school’s library and it was recommended to me by an older boy who assured me that it was ‘great’ and ‘brilliant’.  Because this older boy was the sort who’d more customarily be administering arm-twistings, Chinese burns and dead legs to me, as opposed to informing me of his literary opinions, I decided it was prudent to be seen to follow his advice.  So I borrowed the book and started reading it.

 

With 158 whole pages ahead of me, my seven-year-old self imagined that reading it was going to be an epic chore.  But I persevered and a week or two later I felt massively proud of myself when I reached the final page.  What surprised me, though, was that the experience hadn’t felt like a test of endurance.  I’d actually enjoyed reading the book.  I’d loved it, in fact.  So Stig of the Dump taught me the important lesson that reading could be a lot of fun.

 

As you will no doubt guess from those opening sentences, Barney ignores his family’s warnings and ventures to the very edge of the chalk pit, which gives way and drops him into the abyss below.  This proves to be the titular dump – “Anything people didn’t want they threw into the bottom of the pit” – and it contains “strange bits of wreckage among the moss and elder bushes and nettles.”  It also contains Stig, a prehistoric cave-boy with “a lot of shaggy black hair and two bright black eyes”, who apparently has come through a time-warp from the Stone Age.

 

Stig has made the modern-day dump his home and fashioned a den for himself consisting of “stones and bones, fossils and bottles, skins and tins, stacks of sticks and hanks of string… motor-car tyres and hats from old scarecrows, nuts and bolts and bobbles from brass bedsteads… a coal scuttle full of dead electric light bulbs and a basin with rusty screws and nails in it…” and “a pile of bracken and newspapers that looked as if it were used for a bed.”  Barney reacts to Stig’s home by saying, “I wish I lived here.”  Which was exactly what I was thinking too.

 

In the ensuing chapters, Stig and Barney get involved in shenanigans involving a leopard escaped from a circus and a foxhunt where they turn the tables on the horsebound toffs.  (“Stig doesn’t hunt foxes because they taste nasty,” Barney tells his disbelieving sister, “so we let the fox go…  And then Stig bit the dog and started hunting the horses.  It was jolly funny.”)  They also encounter some kids from a local problem family called the Snargets, who turn out to be not “as black as they were painted” and become their mates, despite Stig’s habit of eating their cigarettes.  And there’s a phantasmagorical final chapter involving a stone circle that provides some insight into where Stig has come from.

 

The book has been on my mind recently for two reasons.  Firstly, a few weeks ago, I discovered and bought a copy of it at a clearance sale organised by a library here in Colombo – the copy’s pictured above.

 

Secondly, I’ve just read that its author Clive King passed away on July 10th at the age of 94.  To be honest, I hadn’t known that he was still alive.  In fact, I’d thought he’d been dead for a long time already because I’d assumed the book had been published many years before it was really published, which was in 1963.  Maybe it’s the asceticism of Edward Ardizzone’s illustrations, which suggest the hard, economic times of the 1930s or Britain’s austerity years immediately after World War II rather than the 1960s.

 

But whatever its publication date, the late Clive King’s Stig of the Dump has both a charming simplicity and an irresistible universality – what boy from any place, era or background wouldn’t love to have a pal like Stig? – that make it as timeless as its shaggy dishevelled, dump-living hero.

 

How to talk Scots to Trump

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

Well, following last night’s 2-1 defeat at the hands (or feet) of the Croats, England are now out of the World Cup.  And today, what can the heartbroken people of England look forward to as a way of cheering them up?

 

A visit from US President Donald Trump, that’s what.

 

At least the English need to grit their teeth for barely more than a day.  Tomorrow evening, provided everything goes according to plan – i.e. Trump can refrain from grabbing the Queen by the pussy when he meets her at Windsor Castle – the most ignorant, obnoxious and morally bankrupt American Commander in Chief since James Buchanan will fly north of the border to Scotland and it’ll be the turn of the Scots to have to share their sovereign territory with the slobbering orange tyrant.  There, he’ll devote yet another wodge of his presidential time to playing golf, on one of his Scottish golf courses.  I suspect this is more likely to be Turnberry, as the breeze coming in from the offshore wind-turbines that Alex Salmond cheekily planted close to his course at Balmedie runs a serious risk of playing havoc with his combover.

 

Anti-Trump protests have been organised across the UK, with Scottish ones planned for Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeenshire.  I look forward to seeing the placards that the multitudes of Scottish demonstrators will be carrying because (a) they will surely be highly derisive about President Chump and (b) they will no doubt draw heavily on the Scottish vernacular to be derisive.

 

To my mind, there is no language more suited to insulting people than the Scots one.  Ice-T once rapped: “Words thrillin’, so real they’re chillin’, the hit author / Getting’ louder than a gunshot…”  But Ice, if the words in question were abusive Scots ones, they’d not only be louder than a gunshot, they’d be louder than an atomic bomb-blast.

 

For example, I expect there will be signs and placards at the Scottish protests referring to Trump as an arsepiece, an arsepipe, a balloon, a bampot, a bawheid, a chugmerchant, a cockwomble, a diddy, a dobber, a dunderheid, a fanny, a fannybaws, a fud, a jobby, a lavvyheid, a numpty, a nyaff, a plaster, a poultice, a puddock, a roaster, a rocket, a shitgibbon, a spoon, a tadger, a toalie, a tool, a tube, a walloper, a wankstain, a weapon and, of course, my favourite abusive Scots noun, a bawbag, which strictly speaking translates as ‘scrotum’.

 

Bawbag has already been successfully deployed in the struggle against alt-right nincompoop demagogues, because a few years ago a group of protestors laid siege to then UKIP leader and now shameless-brownnosing-Trump-cheerleader Nigel Farage while he was visiting Edinburgh.  Chanting “Nigel, ye’re a bawbag!”, they forced Farage to take refuge in the Canon’s Gait bar on Edinburgh’s Royal Mile, which in turn prompted a priceless tweet by comedian Frankie Boyle: “Nigel Farage tried to escape Scottish protesters by hiding in a pub. Which is like trying to hide from a lion by putting on a zebra costume.”

 

I hope that this weekend someone has an extra-big sign that not only calls Trump a bawbag, but prefaces it with some choice Scots adjectives too, i.e. declaring Trump a barkit, boakin, bowfin, clarty, doaty, foostie, glaikit, hackit, howlin, mawkit, mingin, reekin, sleekit bawbag.”

 

There are also some inventive and graphic Scots phrases for insulting people.  If anyone needs inspiration for what to write on their anti-Trump placard, here are my top ten:

 

Awaw an bile yer heid.”

Awaw an shite.”  (Or even better, “Awaw an take yer face fir a shite.”)

Hope yer next shite’s a hedgehog.”

Ye look like a dug lickin pish aff a nettle.”

Yer bum’s oot the windae.”

Yer da’s yer ma.”

Yer da sells Avon.”

Yer heid’s foo o mince.”

Yer ma’s got baws an yer da loves it.”

Ye’ve an arse like a bag o washin.”

Ye’ve a face like a meltit wellie.”

 

However, that’s not to say that English English – as opposed to Scots English – is incapable of mustering the vitriol necessary to deal with the horror-show that is Trump.  In fact, back in December 2015, when Trump still seemed like a buffoonish comedy candidate who had no chance of ever winning the presidency, I seem to remember someone tweeting a memorable insult that quoted lines from Henry IV, Part 1 by England’s greatest bard, William Shakespeare: “Trump’s a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, whoreson obscene greasy tallow-catch, right?”

 

That 2015 tweeter was Scottish Conservative Party leader Ruth Davidson, whose boss Theresa May will be welcoming Trump to the UK today and will no doubt be kowtowing to him in the hope that, amid all the off-message humiliations and embarrassments he heaps upon her, he’ll grant her some sort of dubious post-Brexit US-UK trade deal; and whose Conservative colleague and Secretary of State for Scotland, the hapless David Mundell, has the job of greeting him / acting as his doormat in Scotland tomorrow.  So I expect to see the always principled, unyielding and truthful Ruth Davidson wielding a placard calling Trump a clay-brained guts, knotty-pated fool, etc., at one of Scotland’s anti-Trump protests this weekend.

 

© Stewart Bremner

 

The illustrations accompanying this post are by the graphic artist Stewart Bremner.  Free downloadable, printable versions of his anti-Trump designs are available here.  And to purchase other examples of his craft, please go here

 

Enger-lund

 

From fifa.com

 

It’s World Cup time and England have been playing unexpectedly well.  They’re in the final four with a semi-final game scheduled for seven o’clock BST tonight against Croatia.

 

Less unexpected is the debate that flares up north of the border whenever England qualify for a World Cup, irrespective of whether Scotland have also qualified or, as has been the case these last 20 years, they haven’t qualified.  The question of this debate is: Should Scottish people support England during their World Cup games?

 

As usual, opinion pieces have clogged the pages of newspapers and current affairs magazines, penned by Scottish journalists adding their tuppence-worth to the subject.  Since the first kick of the ball in the first World Cup game of 2018, we’ve had Lesley Riddoch in the National, Chris Deerin in the New Statesman, Kevin McKenna in the Herald, Stephen Daisley in the Spectator and many more.

 

Daisley, for instance, stated his belief that Scots are obliged to support England in the competition: “If Scotland were heading into a World Cup semi-final – come now, it’s not nice to laugh – you can just picture the response south of the border.  England fans would throw their support behind the plucky 11…  Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn would discover long-lost great grannies who once had a fish supper in Portobello.  The Sun would give away novelty kilts bearing the legend ‘It’s coming hame’; the Mirror would reprint the lyrics of Flower of Scotland for its readers to sing along.”  Funnily enough, I was in the UK two years ago when Wales reached the semi-finals of the European Championship and I don’t recall Therezza, Jezza, the Sun and the Mirror being so enthusiastic about the Welsh.

 

© Bob Thomas / Getty Images

 

Back in the days of my youth, there was certainly a strong Scottish penchant for not supporting England at football and, indeed, for supporting any team playing against England.  When England took on Argentina in the 1986 World Cup, everyone I knew in Scotland hooted with laughter when Maradona showed the poor old English the door aided by his dodgy ‘hand of God’ goal.  This was despite the fact that, as part of the UK, Scotland had been at war with Argentina only four years earlier, as of course had England.

 

During the 1990 World Cup, the atmosphere was electric in my regular pub in Aberdeen when England played Cameroon.  This was helped no end by the entry of a group of Cameroonian students, come to watch the game on TV.  While the game was going Cameroon’s way, the students enlivened the pub by performing some traditional Cameroonian dancing, which the locals – rather atypically for Aberdonians, a people not given to over-exuberance – heartily joined in with.  And when England stole the game 3-2 in extra time, the dancing stopped and both Scottish and Cameroonian faces were long and downcast.  Later, when England went out in the semi-finals courtesy of Germany, someone in Glasgow celebrated by painting a local statue of St George in the German team colours.

 

Footballing-wise, it was easy to be ‘anyone-but-England’ in Scotland at the time.  Sometimes it felt like a political protest.  The UK was governed in an autocratic and centralised fashion by a Conservative government led by that most English-seeming of figures, Margaret Thatcher.  A majority of Scots were anti-Thatcherite, but their objections seemed to matter not a jot with those in power in London whose economic policies were dismantling Scotland’s traditional heavy industries and wrecking its traditional working-class communities.

 

Also, much of England’s travelling support seemed to consist of hooligans and / or racists.  In a recent, excellent piece about English football and English identity in the New Statesman, Jason Cowley recalls how a memorable 2-0 England win over Brazil in 1984 was, in the eyes of certain fans, a 1-0 England victory.  To them, one of the goals didn’t count because it’d been scored by a black player, John Barnes.  So who’d want to back a team supported by that unlovable bunch?

 

From www.soccer-ireland.com

 

Conversely, now that Scotland has its own devolved parliament and has at least a measure of responsibility for its own affairs, and now that the new generation of English fans have a better reputation than their predecessors, the anyone-but-England mentality seems much less pronounced in Scotland.  But I don’t see why, as Daisley thinks, Scots should be compelled to support England.  Sure, they can support them if they want to.  But it shouldn’t be shocking if they don’t want to, for a couple of reasons.

 

Firstly, plenty of Scottish football fans still see England as their great rival on the footballing stage – not, admittedly, that they’ve had an opportunity to compete against England in any major tournaments during the 21st century because the Scotland side has been too gash to qualify for them.  And it’s a basic law of sporting physics that rivals, especially near-neighbours, do not support each other.  Rather, they’ll happily support their rivals’ opponents.  When Newcastle United took on Manchester United in the 1999 FA Cup Final, I’d bet that very few Sunderland fans, ten miles down the way, were backing them.  And I doubt if many, or indeed any, Celtic supporters were cheering on their old Glasgow rivals Rangers when the latter were up against FC Zenit St Petersburg in the 2008 UEFA Cup final.

 

This rule extends to national football teams.  I’ve had Dutch people tell me that they don’t want Germany to win, and Ethiopians have said the same about Egypt.  And to other sports – I remember a long-ago rugby world cup where an Australian friend told me how disgruntled he was at hearing certain New Zealanders, whom he knew and considered good mates, cheering on any team that played Australia.  I also remember a Canadian friend asking me one time in a puzzled tone about the anyone-but-England mentality among Scottish football fans.  “So when the USA play Finland at ice hockey,” I asked her, “who do you Canadians support?”  “Finland of course!” she said immediately.

 

Secondly – and this isn’t the fault of the England players or supporters – the amount of hype that accompanies England’s entry into every footballing competition, generated by English-based pundits, TV stations and newspapers, puts you off them.  It’s immense and overwhelming and rapidly becomes maddening if you live in parts of the United Kingdom that aren’t England but are still saturated by England’s media.  These days, in fact, most of the xenophobia isn’t to be found among the fans, bad boys though they were in the past, but among the tabloids.  Witness the amount of gloating that went on when Germany were knocked out in an uncharacteristically early stage of this World Cup: SCHADENFREUDE declared the front-page headline in the Sun, which then provided a short definition (“Pleasure derived from another person’s dissatisfaction”) presumably because it considered its readers too dense to know what the word meant.

 

© Daily Express / From the BBC

 

No doubt the frenzied jingoistic coverage of this year’s World Cup has been ramped up in England’s right-wing, Brexit-crazed newspapers in the hope that it’ll help to bury news of the ultra-shambles, mega-shambles, hyper-shambles and total absolute omni-shambles that Theresa May’s government is currently making of the Brexit negotiations.  They probably hope too that if England win the World Cup, it’ll take people’s minds off the 1930s / Great Depression-style economic misery that’ll inevitably follow a hard Brexit.

 

Personally, I don’t see any reason why I should support England as it just isn’t my national football team – for me, that title is shared jointly by Scotland and Northern Ireland.  And for the reasons mentioned above, I’ve borne the anyone-but-England attitude in the past.  But I bear no ill-feeling against this current England side and I’m happy to see them do well.

 

Partly it’s because the current England squad seem like a decent bunch of blokes, certainly in comparison with some of the bloated egos and elephantine senses of entitlement that’ve populated past squads.  (The nadir was surely the England World Cup squad of 2006, who rolled up in Germany with their Sex and the City-style wives and girlfriends.  This led to the gruesome spectacle of Victoria Beckham, Cheryl Cole, Coleen Rooney and co. descending regularly on the boutiques of Baden-Baden, with the paparazzi in tow, and blowing more money in a single shopping trip than most England fans earned in a year.)

 

I also like English manager Gareth Southgate, who has executed his World Cup duties with intelligence, humility and compassion.  I even had a lump in my throat when, after England got past Colombia in their quarter-final win game, Southgate saw a Colombian player who’d missed an all-important penalty crying and went over and gave him a hug.

 

And he knows how to wear a waistcoat.  These things are important.

 

© CNN

 

So I can support this version of England – that is, if I embargo all English newspapers beforehand and have the TV volume turned down so that my brain isn’t turned to mush by any drivelling, hubristic English-TV-studio commentary.  But I’m still not sure I want them to win the World Cup.  I shudder to imagine the English media’s reaction.  They’d be braying and crowing about it for years.  Come to think of it, they still haven’t shut up about winning the bloody thing in 1966.

 

Then again, if that happens and the “We won! We won!” hysteria gets so unbearable, Scotland could be independent by Christmas.

 

The writer on the edge of forever

 

© Los Angeles Times

 

Harlan Ellison, who was often categorised as a science-fiction writer although he once memorably warned anyone who called him a science-writer that he would come to their house and ‘nail’ their ‘pet’s head to a coffee table’, passed away in his sleep on June 27th at the age of 84.

 

In his lifetime the Cleveland-born Ellison authored some 1800 stories, scripts, reviews, articles and opinion pieces, but it’s as a short story writer that he was best known.  In fact, when he was in his prime, from the 1960s to 1980s, he was responsible for some of the boldest and most exhilarating short stories I’ve ever read.  As a writer, he seemed to push both his imagination and his writing energies to the very limit.  Describing his stories is difficult, but the nearest comparison I can think of is the fiction of Ray Bradbury.  However, Ellison’s work also had counter-cultural and radical political tones that encompassed both the idealism of the 1960s’ civil rights movement and Summer of Love and the cynicism and despair that came with the Vietnam War and Watergate in the 1970s.

 

Frequently his short stories contained a palpable anger too.  Yes, Ellison had a lot of anger in him.  More on that in a minute.

 

Incidentally, by focusing on his short stories, I don’t wish to denigrate his occasional novels.  Indeed, I’d rate 1961’s Spider Kiss alongside Iain Banks’ Espedair Street (1987) and John Niven’s Kill Your Friends (2008) as one of my favourite rock-and-roll novels ever.

 

© Pan Books

 

Ellison wasn’t a big name in the UK, but in the 1970s – perfectly timed for my development as a teenager – Britain’s Pan Books brought out editions of several of his short story collections, like The Beast that Shouted Love at the Heart of the World (1969), Approaching Oblivion (1974) and Deathbird Stories (1975).  All had gorgeously psychedelic covers by (I think) the artist Bob Layzell.  It’s fair to say that my 14 or 15-year-old mind was blown by these volumes.

 

I also loved how Ellison prefaced each story with a short essay describing how it had come into being.  These pieces gave insight not only into his combative personality but also into the rich life-experiences he’d had (or claimed to have had).  Before establishing himself as a writer he’d been, among other things, a truck driver transporting nitro-glycerine, a hired gun and a tuna fisherman.  This inspired me when I was a budding writer to try my hand at different jobs and build up my experiences too, though predictably the stuff I ended up doing – stacking shelves in Sainsbury’s, working in a shoe warehouse, serving as a deputy warden at Aberdeen Youth Hostel – was rather less glamorous than the items on Ellison’s CV.

 

Some of his work also appeared on television although TV was a medium he generally had a low opinion of – in a 2013 interview he accused it and other modern forms of entertainment and communication of having “reduced society to such a trivial, crippled form that it is beyond my notice.”  For instance, he scripted the 1967 Star Trek episode The City on the Edge of Forever, which has Captain Kirk, Mr Spock and Dr McCoy catapulted back in time to 1930s America and confronted with an agonising time-travel-related moral dilemma.  Do they intervene in an accident and prevent the death of a woman called Edith Keeler who (despite being played by Joan Collins) is a noble political activist dedicated to peace, pacifism and public service and with whom, predictably, William Shatner’s horn-dog Captain Kirk has fallen in love; or do they let her die, which means her political movement won’t gain power in the USA, delay her country’s entry into World War II and allow the Nazis to become masters of humanity, which will happen otherwise?

 

© Desilu Productions

 

Thanks to its inventive and thought-provoking spin on time travel, The City… is the best episode of the original series of Star Trek.  In fact, as I don’t like any of the later TV incarnations of Star Trek, I’d say it’s the best Star Trek episode full stop.  Ellison, however, was unimpressed with how the show’s producer Gene Rodenberry and his writing staff rewrote his script and watered down some of its themes and was never slow to sound off about it afterwards.  It may be significant that his later short story How’s the Night Life on Cissalda? (1977) features William Shatner attempting to make love to a revolting-looking alien creature.  Shatner’s toupee falls off in the process.

 

More time-travelling figures in the Ellison-penned episodes Demon with a Glass Hand and Soldier that he wrote for the TV anthology show The Outer Limits (1963-65).  Years later, he was incensed at what he saw as plagiarism of elements of his Soldier script by James Cameron while Cameron was making the first Terminator movie in 1984.  Ellison threatened to sue and got a payment of 65-70,000 dollars from Cameron’s financiers and an acknowledgement on The Terminator’s credits.  By 2014 Ellison had mellowed to the point where he could see the funny side of it.  He played himself in an episode of The Simpsons in which he gets into an argument with Milhouse Van Houten.  When Millhouse comments, “I wish someone would have come from the future and warned me not to talk to you,” Ellison grabs him by the throat and screams, “That’s my idea!”

 

In fact, Ellison was highly litigious.  After discovering his writing, I found an interview with him in an American magazine called Future Life where he talked about suing Paramount Television.  He accused Paramount of stealing the premise of a story about a robot policeman that he’d co-authored with the writer Ben Bova and turning it into a TV show called Future Cop (1976-78) without their permission.  “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” he declared in the interview.  Later, when I was playing rugby for my school and while we were trying to psyche ourselves up against our opponents, I inadvertently let slip with Ellison’s phrase: “We’re going to nail their asses to the barn door!” I exclaimed.  That earned me some strange looks from my teammates.  Nailing asses to barn doors was not common lexical usage on south-of-Scotland rugby pitches.

 

I can honestly say that for a period when I was a teenager Harlan Ellison, with his mind-bending fiction, his braggadocio, his adventurous backstory and his take-no-shit-from-anyone attitude, was the person I wanted to be.  Of course, that changed as I grew older, became less impressionable and more mature, and learned more about Ellison and revised my opinions.  I began to appreciate that Ellison’s persona involved a fair bit of self-mythologizing, egotism and unwarranted cantankerousness and bloody-mindedness.  When Stephen King commented that he knew one writer who regarded Ellison as the reincarnation of Jonathan Swift and another writer who regarded him as a ‘son-of-a-bitch’, I found myself in sympathy with both viewpoints.  And by the time I read a profile of him in a non-fiction book about science-fiction writers called Dream Makers (1980), written by Charles Platt, I was disappointed but somehow not surprised to encounter a character rather too driven by vanity and rather too desperate to impress.  Ellison and Platt later fell out badly – violently, it’s said – though not as far as I know about the unflattering profile in Dream Makers.

 

Also falling out with Ellison was the English writer Christopher Priest, who took issue with Ellison’s editorship of the Dangerous Visions series of science fiction anthologies in the early 1970s.  There was meant to be a third volume in the series but for reasons known only to Ellison it never appeared, leaving a lot of submitted stories in limbo and depriving a lot of authors of potential earnings.  This seems hypocritical of Ellison considering how famously touchy he was about payment for his own work – he’s said to have once mailed a dead gopher to a wayward publisher as a protest.  And although Ellison was a vocal supporter of the USA’s Equal Rights Amendment, much of that good work was undone in 2006 when, in a moment of dirty-old-man madness, he fondled a female writer’s breast onstage at an awards ceremony.  From the footage I’ve seen of it, I suspect Ellison thought he was just indulging in some ‘innocent’ schoolboy malarkey.  Understandably, though, the writer at the receiving end was highly pissed off at him.

 

© Pan Books

 

But while I came to have mixed feelings about the character of the artist, my enthusiasm never waned for the art itself.  And Ellison’s literary legacy includes at least ten short stories that I’d number among my all-time favourites by any writer.  I’ve listed them below:

 

A Boy and His Dog: a post-apocalyptic satire that’s a spot-on blend of anarchy and irreverence, featuring as its main character a telepathic and sarcastic canine.  It was filmed in 1975 by L.Q. Jones and though the movie version isn’t perfect, it still holds up better than a lot of other, more portentous sci-fi films made in the same decade.

Along the Scenic Route: a biting analysis of the relationship between Americans and their cars.  Detailing how a couple out for a leisurely drive end up competing in a lethal demolition derby, it prefigures movies like the Mad Max ones.

Bleeding Stones: quite simply a story that made my jaw drop with its combination of brutality, blasphemy and surrealism.

Count the Clock That Tells the Time: describing how a lethargic never-do-well gets trapped in a weird, ghostly netherworld, this is a cautionary tale about the dangers of wasting your time and frittering your life away.

Delusion for a Dragon Slayer: an unremarkable little man suddenly finds his soul transplanted into the body of a Conan the Barbarian-type swordsman in a blood-and-thunder fantasy land.  What follows is a merciless dissection of the inadequacies of the nerdy males who read sword-and-sorcery stories.

Hindsight: 480 Seconds: a haunting story about a poet who volunteers to stay on an about-to-be-destroyed earth after the rest of humanity has been evacuated, so that he can provide a commentary on his planet’s dying minutes.

I’m Looking for Kadak: Kurt Vonnegut meets Woody Allen in this comedy about the frustrations of a group of aliens on a far-flung planet who’ve converted to Judaism.

One Life, Furnished in Early Poverty: another time-travel tale, this one about a man going back in time and befriending his younger self when he’s a bullied, insecure child.

Pretty Maggie Money Eyes: a sad and unexpectedly tender story of a woman’s spirit inhabiting a Las Vegas slot machine.

Shatterday: the unsettling tale of a man who accidentally phones his own apartment one evening and finds himself talking to himself.  In fact, this other self is a sinister doppelganger who’s appeared from nowhere and is planning to usurp him from his existence.

 

And that’s my Harlan Ellison Top Ten.  Thank you for the entertainment and inspiration, Mr E., and Rest In (non-cantankerous) Peace.

 

© Pan Books

 

Curiosities of my Colombo neighbourhood 12

 

 

This post is about collocations, for which the Cambridge Dictionary gives the following definition: “a word or phrase that is often used with another word or phrase, in a way that sounds correct to people who have spoken the language all their lives, but might not be expected from the meaning.”  Collocations can involve verbs and nouns, as in ‘do your homework’; or adjectives and nouns, as in ‘heated argument’, or verbs and adverbs, as in ‘rain heavily’.

 

If, like me, you’ve spent part of your working life teaching the English language to non-native speakers of it, you’ll appreciate the difficulty students often have getting their heads around collocations in English.  I seem to have spent hours explaining to people that you don’t ‘write your homework’ but ‘do’ it; that calling an angry exchange a ‘hot argument’ just doesn’t sound right; and that you can’t describe extreme precipitation as ‘raining painfully’.  Note that with all these mistakes, I fully understood the meaning the speaker was trying to convey.  (The last mistake cropped up when I was working in a school in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, where, yes, it seemed to rain painfully every day.)

 

The problem is, we simply don’t put those particular words together to express those particular things.  It may well be that the reasons for certain collocations being right and other collocations being wrong are psychological, on the part of the listener, as much as they are linguistic, on the part of the language itself.  Also, it didn’t surprise me when I heard a language researcher claim one time that collocations are the biggest causes of mistakes in speaking and writing by high-level learners of English.

 

In literature, of course, the way in which a writer uses collocations can contribute greatly to his or her style.  Shunting together words that don’t normally collocate can add an inventive flourish to the prose.  However, if the results can be embarrassing if a writer overdoes it and the attempted collocation falls flat.  I still haven’t forgotten a sentence in an Anthony Burgess novel where a character ‘tramples’ a page with his ‘signature’ – ouch!  And I’ve read a review of Martin Amis’ 2012 novel Lionel Asbo – State of England, in which Amis is taken to task for the clumsiness of his writing – much of which is down to him trying to collocate words that have no business being collocated: for example, ‘Dawn sizzled…’, ‘unfallen eyes’ and ‘a heavy silence began to fuse and climb…’

 

Anyway, this is a prelude to saying that I recently noticed a mural painted on a wall outside a school on Colombo’s Duplication Road that makes heavy use of English collocations.  It pairs off various English verbs and adverbs so that the school-pupils receive a list of instructions about how to behave properly.  Some of the collocated verbs and adverbs work for me and some don’t.  I wonder if this is because the creator of the mural had mistaken ideas about what words collocate appropriately in English or if he or she simply stuck them together without knowing at all.  Or is it because these collocations have become acceptable in Sri Lankan English while it’s evolved apart from ‘standard’ English (whatever that is) over the years?  Or are they the result of literal translations from the local languages, Sinhala and Tamil?

 

By the way, I’m not trying to take a pop at Sri Lankan English here for being incorrect.  The dialect of English where I come from originally, Northern Ireland, has often been dismissed as being ungrammatical or uneducated or just plain incomprehensible, but I would absolutely defend people’s right to speak English that way.  And it contains some collocations of its own that would probably earn an arrest-warrant from the Standard-English Grammar Police: “It’s fierce hot,” “She’s a big age,” “The weather’s powerful today,” and so on.

 

 

So let’s see.  Which of the mural’s collocations work?  ‘Dress smartly’?  Obviously.  ‘Save regularly’?  Yes.  ‘Eat sensibly’?  I suppose so.  ‘Act fearlessly’?  Well, that’s a bit dramatic and it would be exhausting to act fearlessly all the time, but I guess it’s acceptable.  ‘Sleep sufficiently’?  Hmmm…  ‘Plan orderly’?  No, sorry.

 

Some of these collocations sound downright odd, yet I can think of certain people to whom they would make perfect sense.  ‘Spend intelligently’ – did you hear that, Mr. Johnny Depp, the man who last year was reputed to be blowing two million dollars a month on wine, staff, security, a private jet and 14 residences?  ‘Think truthfully’, meanwhile, would be excellent advice for Theresa May, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove, Liam Fox, David Davis and the other members of Britain’s Brexiting Conservative government, who are currently possessed by self-delusion on an epic scale about Britain’s prospects after it leaves the European Union.

 

And ‘walk humbly’?  Well, I’m not quite sure how you would physically do that.  But I would advise this man to at least give it a try.

 

© Disney Enterprises Inc

© Stefan Rousseau / From the Times

From CBN News