A Progressive Rake

Funnies, rants, and quite a lot of gin

A masterclass in leading questions

We received in the post today a mailshot from our local prospective Conservative candidate, Ben Howlett. Ben wants to know our opinion on some matters, and posed some multiple choice questions to help him understand public opinion. My brother, who might know a thing or two about putting together a survey, has done a rather nice little analysis of it which you can see here.

We iz in yur wedding drinking all the winez n taking selfiez

I’m not a great fan of marriage. To be more precise, I’m not a great fan of established religious marriage. If two people wish to make a legal commitment to each other in a way that conjoins their fiscal and other responsibilities, and if the state wishes to offer people who have made this commitment certain tax breaks or advantages, that is fine. If you wish to go through a ceremony to mark this, that is no skin off my nose. Equally, should you wish to go through a religious ceremony in which you pledge to each other under the terms of your beliefs then go ahead, blow yourselves away.

I just have a problem when the latter, religious type, gets intertwined with the former, civil union. I’m not opposed to authorizing your Grand Panjandrums, Most Holy and Wise, to enact the civil union as well, so that you can get the two done in one fell swoop if you wish for both. But let us stop conflating the two institutions. A civil union is an act authorized by the state, and should be open to any two individuals regardless of race, age, or even (gasp!) gender. A religious marriage is conducted under the eyes of a somewhat different Authority, and frankly I am wholly indifferent to whether said Authority prohibits man-on-man wedding action, miscegenation, or even doing it with someone who, presumably for no fault of their own, has parents who had not themselves begged the approval of the relevant Authority. If you don’t like the club rules, hand in your membership card.

As long as these are conflated, they allow a platform for representatives of the various believers’ clubs to claim authority over the practices of people who never assented to be a member of their clubs, and to lobby the government accordingly. This, even if marriage was invented at least a millennium before their club existed, even if their major apostolic figures thought that it was best avoided, and only to be entered into if you really could not contain yourself (when did Lord Carey last pop up to bemoan the overall rate of marriage in wider society, I wonder?), indeed even if the club was so indifferent to the institution that it did not even officially declare it to be a sacrament until a millennium and half after it began.

But enough! I am, apparently, down on marriage. But not so weddings. Marriage may be meh, but I love me a good wedding. Weddings have free wine. You get little pots of bizarrely runny but tasty jam at weddings, and also free wine. At weddings you get to remember that you don’t look too bad, really, when you scrub up a bit and iron your shirt. The wine you spill on said ironed shirt, by the way, is free. At weddings you get to dance to outrageously cheesy music without even having to pretend shame (not that I’ve worried about that for years). Did I mention the free wine?

And at the wedding I went to on Friday, you get to be the plus one of an awesome Norwegian lass who you haven’t seen for far too long, and run around Oxford Town Hall taking selfies in naughty places. With wine.

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In which I discover the Rt Hon Mr William Hague in my bedroom, and an enlightening conversation ensues

I got home yesterday somewhat earlier than usual to find Mr William Hague and a man from the GCHQ in my bedroom, rifling through my underwear drawer, inspecting the individual items carefully, and taking detailed notes. “What,” I exclaimed, somewhat startled, “the Right Honourable fuck do you think you’re doing?”

Mr Hague looked up from a pair of somewhat overworn M&S trunks and smiled soothingly at me. “We’re just checking your underwear drawer. There’s a lot of sexual perverts out there in society, and we don’t want them near our children. So we’re just looking for any signs of non-standard sexual orientation. It’s perfectly alright.”

“No it’s not!” I exclaimed, “It’s an infringement of my privacy and downright illegal.”

“Nonsense, nonsense,” Mr Hague cooed gently at me, as he ran his inquisitive fingers over the fibres of my alas far-too-rarely-used lucky date pants. “You see, you have worn each and every pair of these in a public place. So how could they possibly be considered private?”

“They might have been worn in a public place, but they were covered over by my trousers,” I countered angrily.

“But they have sometimes been seen by other people, yes?” Mr Hague continued, surreptitiously sniffing an elderly pair of socks. “Sometimes, as in the gym changing room, you have even shown yourself to be fairly indifferent as to who sees them. So, come now, how can you really claim that they are private?”

“Well even if I accept that, they are currently in a private place. You can’t just break into a private place because you claim the things contained therein are public.”

“Well, yes we can, actually.” Mr Hague here received an agreeing nod from the GCHQ spook, as he passed him a rather tasteless pair of emergency kecks. “You see, we decided long ago that it was quite okay to break into private arenas as long as the things we were looking for were, as we defined them, public. Of course, it was very important that this be secret. Because you see, in order to protect an open and free society, it is of vital importance that we be able to operate in total and utter secrecy. Otherwise people might not think that they were in an open and free society, which would rather undermine the grounds on which we were defending them. You see that, don’t you? I mean, if you were to be a naughty pervert, and you knew we were looking through your underwear drawer, you’d only go and keep your leathery items and lady-bras somewhere else, now wouldn’t you?”

“Has it not occurred to you that if I had such incriminating items, I might have the sense to keep them somewhere else anyway? Morality aside, are you not totally wasting your resources by going through each and every underwear drawer in the country, rather than applying a bit of brain power and understanding to the causes of sexual perversion, and attempting to stop that?”

“Oh my dear chap,” smiled Mr Hague, “if we were to do that then we might be at risk of eradicating, or at very least tightly containing, perverts. And then who would we have to point to as justification for us going through your underwear drawer? No, no. That wouldn’t do at all.”

At this point, the GCHQ man leant over and whispered in his ear.

“Ah,” Mr Hague went on, “although we have found nothing directly nefarious, nevertheless it would appear that you do not iron your underpants, and do not fold your socks in pairs. Unfortunately this is behaviour which, whilst not in itself naughty, is more common amongst those wicked perverts than it is in wider society, such as upright and proper Tory Housewives, whose underwear drawers we have no need to check: for we know that they are ironed, paired, and folded as true British Values require. So I’m afraid we will be installing a surreptitious camera in your drawer, and possibly elsewhere. But don’t worry. If you’re innocent, you have nothing to fear. So this was all a big fuss over nothing, now wasn’t it?”

What could I say? Well, nothing. He had me there.

“Now you’ll have to excuse me,” Mr Hague said, ”I have to pop off to talk with Mr Cameron on selling arms to a despotic, extremist, misogynist, homophobic, human-rights-trampling, Wahhabist regime whom we count amongst our allies.”

I couldn’t help noticing he’d slipped a pair of my nicest Calvin Kleins into his pocket as he left.

The last leg, or, a memorandum from the writer of this blog concerning the regrettable need to earn his living and the pleasures this occupation nevertheless brings him, written in stylistic homage to the aforementioned

Welcome back, dear reader. It is a while since I have your whimsy regaled with tales of my life and opinions, and I fear that you might think my invention had failed. Not so! But my time has necessarily been taken with the regrettable need to bring home some bacon.

For those of you who do not know, when I am not failing as a linguist, I earn my meagre way in the world making books: typesetting, digitizing, and covertly editing. I have crafted (or, more accurately, hacked out) something of a niche in facing-page translations, no doubt partly informed by my probably misplaced eagerness to pick up and play with any given language, and after a lengthy and ultimately thankless period working for the Clay Sanskrit Library I am now largely working with a similar project: the New York University Press’s Library of Arabic Literature.

The range of works covered so far is impressive and wise in its selection. There is, of course, the Islamicism: the Epistle on Legal Theory of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi’i, a hagiography of Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (what a virtuous man he was), and an early biography of Muḥammad. But there have been less conformist and secular works too: a volume on the Principles of Sufism (by a woman, no less) and what I can only describe as a pedantically overlong exercise in intellectual one-upmanship and sarcasm which overly-hindsighted academics suggest has claims to being an antecedent of Dante in its description of a journey through heaven and hell (though, I have to say, I think the Apocalypse of Peter rather trumps it on that front).

But it is a four-volume translation of a nineteenth century novel by the Lebanese synonym-obsessee Fāris al-Shidyāq entitled Leg over Leg that has mainly been occupying my time, and I have to say: delightfully so. If you can imagine a semi-autobiographical Tristram Shandy written by, excuse me, an intellectual and an innovator, a smartypants and a smut-peddler, an obscene lexicographer and a lecherous obsessive, a lover of lists and a lyricist of love, then you will be somewhere near conceptualizing it, as well as understanding why I enjoy it so.

The translation by Humphrey Davies is, as the Fāriyāq himself would doubtless put it,

the chef-d’oeuvre, “a masterpiece”
the jewel in the crown, “the most valuable, esteemed, or successful person or thing of a number”
the masterpiece (or masterwork), “an outstanding work, achievement, or performance”
the pièce de résistance, and “the principal or most outstanding item in a series or creative artist’s work”
the tour de force, “a masterly or brilliant stroke, creation, effect, or accomplishment”

of our project so far. It swoops effortlessly between high-falutin’ rhetoric and crass vernacular in a way reminiscent of Flann O’Brien (and therefore rather close to my heart, as those of you who have noticed that I can barely write a single post without inserting both a grossly obscure reference and an obscenely gross adverb somewhere in it will realize), and faithfully rendering the alliterative synonymy, the occasional bursts of rhymed prose, the poetry itself, and the general joyfully irreverent tone of the work.

Lest you fear that this has become a paean to the greatness of others, let me wrench you back to my own good self, because the pleasure of working on this has been—in addition to the content—the typographic challenge. Unlike our other texts so far, this work originated as a printed volume, not a manuscript, and the author was truly Shandyesque in his exploitation of the possibilities of print, with pointing hands, tailing-off chapters, marginalia, parallel text, chapters with no content, and general typographical playfulness. To retain the layout and other innovations of the 1855 original, whilst replacing its then-necessary but ugly and un-Arabic typeface (which the author himself, as Humphrey notes, described as being “of alien form”) with the elegant Arabic font of the LAL series has made the project an enjoyable challenge—even if it has taken up more of my time than I would favour.

So here, for your viewing pleasure, are some samples of What I Do For a Living. That living has, it is true, been rather overshadowing my life of late: such is the nature of my trade and its deadlines. The last leg of Leg over Leg is now underway: the proofs of Volume Four are complete and we have corrections and indexing to go and then, finally,

God (or the Adversary) willing, I will be clear of work-related tension,

which will leave me free to write more blogposts:

a prospect that should fill you with joy,

or, to be more realistic,

apprehension.

*

LOL1-1

LOL1-2

LOL2-1

LOL2-2

LOL3-1

LOL3-2

 

Keep me in a job, and buy it here! With any luck NYUP will do the smart thing and release the translation as a standalone paperback. You can read an extended extract here.

The Lenten patriot

The forty days are upon us, and yesterday I indulged my nephew by flipping a few comestibles of a recipe traditionally developed to use up all the ingredients not permitted during the fast, and for which I therefore had to make a specific trip to the Co-op, as is right and proper and thoughtlessly patriotic (what other type is there?).

But word has reached my ears that some of you – some of the English contingent1 – have been treacherously applying maple syrup to their pancakes. This cannot stand. Pancake Day may be a lousy, lacklustre tradition, an orgy of the kind of substitution of stodge for gustatory sophistication that rightfully got English cooking a bad name, but it’s our lousy tradition, it’s what we do to start Lent, and if you can’t do it properly then you might as well, I dunno, drink cachaça and dance in the streets for four days. Maple syrup! I ask you! They have a maple leaf on the Canadian flag, a country where it is legally permitted to speak French, for crying out loud. The only acceptable thing to put on your pancakes is Golden Syrup. That’s proper Englishness. Good Queen Bess herself still visits each and every vat they brew2 of the stuff where she ceremoniously gobs on her finger, sticks it in and wiggles it around a bit, and duly proclaims, “There. Now that’s one’s. All fucking one’s,” before hopping onto a unicorn and riding off to take high tea with St. George, or whatever else it is she does to Keep Our Country Great, Gawd bless ’er. [Wipes away a moist, dewy tear.] Maple syrup indeed! Light up a Gauloises and grate some garlic onto them, why don’t you, Jacques? Bof!

So yes, the forty days are upon us. For Lent this year I shall be giving up precisely nothing. This is because God doesn’t exist,3 there’ll be enough dust when I die, so I don’t see why I should spend a month of the brief interregnum shovelling yet more of it into my craw.


1 This really whittles it down. My readership numbers are hardly such as would challenge Cantor, and a significant proportion of those seem to be non-Brits, presumably with a scholarly interest in sarcasm, gratuitous intellectual name-checking (cf. supra, bitterly), or dated tubbish anecdotalism.

2 Infuse? Congeal? Irradiate?

3 Sorry if the last five hundred years passed you by and you had yet to realise this.

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