Quote of The Week

“All sorts of allowances are made for the illusions of youth; and almost none for the disillusions of age.”

Robert Louis Stevenson


Archives

Politics and the English Language

It is usually a waste of time to suggest that: “Everybody should see this” or “Everybody should read that,” because “Everybody” pays absolutely no attention. But I’ll make an exception in this case. In a political season, everybody should read or re-read George Orwell’s essay “Politics and the English Language.” It doesn’t take long, perhaps ten minutes to absorb the whole thing, and it works like a kind of linguistic flu shot. Next time a toxic cloud of political rhetoric comes your way you will find to your surprise and relief that you are completely immune.

Orwell’s essay is more than half a century old, but it is as on target now as it was then. His subject is political language which, in his words, “Is designed to make lies sound truthful, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.” He attacks the clichés that political candidates have always loved, and still do: our children’s future, the healing process, to reach out, time for change, vision, diversity, this great state, this great nation – and of course the ever popular at this point in time and going forward – all ways to keep talking while saying nothing. Such clichés are a sure sign that the speaker is not thinking, and doesn’t expect his audience to think either.

Then there are what Orwell calls “Verbal false limbs” – empty phrases whose only purpose is to avoid direct and unambiguous verbs and nouns: to render inoperative; to militate against; to have the effect of – instead of simple words like stop, prevent, cause. And pretentious words for simple things: expedite and clandestine instead of speed up and secret, ameliorate and liquidate instead of improve and kill.

Above all political language is full of code words and phrases that are essentially meaningless: family values, natural resources, human rights, the melting pot, the American dream, fair trade, global leadership, national security and so on. These all sound splendid, but they are impossible to define. We are all in favor of human rights, for example. But what does it mean? Nobody can agree.

To be fair it’s not easy being a politician in an age of total exposure. Candidates must talk continuously, unhesitatingly, and with apparent authority, for months at a time. Any sign of a pause for thought will be penalized by the electorate and the media as a sign of indecision: no thoughts are allowed, let alone second thoughts. At the same time candidates must keep talking without ever saying anything clear or definite that will be held against them later. They are additionally handicapped if, as sometimes happens, they have a small and repetitive vocabulary.

Politicians must depend very heavily on their speechwriters, who have made this kind of non-communicating language into an art form. We have seen how the TV pundits and comedians are reduced to silence when their writers go on strike. A strike of political speechwriters would be interesting. Perhaps we would hear the candidates’ real voices at last, or silence, which would be even more revealing. Or perhaps the striking comedy writers might be persuaded to cross the political picket line and bring their satirical skills to the campaign trail. Then at least we would get some entertainment out of this perpetual election.

Since we can’t make much sense of what candidates say, it all comes down to how they look, and how we feel about them. This may be a good way to choose a piece of fish or a new hat, but it’s an insane way to choose a political leader. We need to know how they think, and what they would say if they could only find the words.

Too Many Books

We were staying in a village close to the English town of Rye, which is famous for its sellers of used and antique books. Half a dozen such establishments are scattered along the picturesque high street. One rainy day I decided to hit every used bookstore in town.

I started at the east end, the forbidding Land Gate, constructed in 1369 as part of the town’s defenses against the wicked French invaders. The defenses failed. Nowadays the French come pouring through the Channel Tunnel, and the streets of Rye are full of French tourists. Napoleon would have been delighted. Right beside this ancient monument was the Land Gate Book Shop, its door firmly closed but its window displaying an eclectic selection of Audubon prints, nineteenth century romantic poetry, and modern thrillers.

Just up the hill was ‘The Book Worm,’ where I could have picked up a rare first edition of Trilby by Daphne du Maurier, or a leather bound set of the complete works of Edward Bulwer Lytton – a great but almost forgotten Victorian writer – at a knock-down price. I was almost seduced by a long out-of-print biography of the French composer César Franck. But self-control is built into an expedition like this. The modern economy-class air traveler can’t afford to accumulate books. They’re just too heavy.

Books are solid things. They don’t grow old. It’s the subject matter that ages. Today’s ephemeral celebrity biography or instant Iraq war analysis will be outdated and forgotten before Labor Day. Used book stores preserve the good stuff – books that really tell us something about human nature, life and love – universal books. In these stores the literary connoisseur can discover half-forgotten authors, biographers and poets – whose works are no less good to read for being in faded bindings without colored pictures – and they cost next to nothing.

There are so many tens of thousands, even millions of important and wonderful old books that I should have read, but I haven’t read yet, and that I never will read. And it’s not only books by forgotten writers that make me feel guilty; it’s the sight of shelves and shelves of books by very famous authors whose works are almost never read outside university literature departments, and sometimes not even there. Who has read all the works of Dickens for example, or Twain, or Poe? Who has read The Count of Monte Cristo by Alexander Dumas, or Treasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson – two of the best adventure tales ever written? They sit on the shelves, waiting for readers who never come.

My tour took me into the dusty recesses of half a dozen old bookstores, including one called ‘Chapter and Verse’ that had a Latin motto engraved on its glass door: Cave Librum Unum Habentem – which I render in my schoolboy Latin as “Beware of a house with only one book.” I leafed through a well-worn 1802 edition of Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire in three volumes, but decided that it’s message was too contemporary for my taste. The first volume alone contains enough material on the collapse of democracy, Caesarism nd the illusions of empire to keep us thinking for quite a while. After a couple of hundred pages we might realize that we’ve been there, done that – and we don’t want to do it again.
It’s daunting to learn from the trade magazine Publishers Weekly that 140,000 new titles were published last year alone. So even if we ever catch up with the good books of the past, we will never in a dozen lifetimes catch up with the good books of the present.

It was the great Dr. Samuel Johnson who remarked that “Of the making of many books there is no end,” and I was struck by the thought – a horribly subversive and even wicked thought for a writer – that there are indeed enough books already. We could spend the next hundred years reading our way through the used bookshops of the world, or even just the bookshops of Rye, and never exhaust this literary treasure house. To save the drowning readers of the world I’m almost tempted to suggest a ten year moratorium on all new books; or most new books; or at least other people’s new books.

I Have Issues

The English language is constantly changing, but not necessarily improving. In theory every new word or usage enriches the language in some way. How could we communicate today without verbs like “to Google” or “to outsource,” or adjectives like “supersize”? But, all too often, new terms simply push out the old without raising the quality of our English at all.

The fad for political correctness in the late twentieth century turned a lot of our language into mush. Old people vanished and reappeared as “senior citizens,” stupid kids metamorphosed into the “educationally challenged,” drug addicts mysteriously turned into “substance abusers,” and so on. You’ve heard this all before, but it really matters because language matters. If we talk like phonies we will inevitably begin to think like phonies. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, nailing the problem with his usual precision. Euphemistic, misleading, evasive, and just plain silly language now comes at us from every part of the political spectrum, and from business too. When we had to buy some curtains for our house I was amazed to discover that simple curtains were no longer available. We had to purchase “window treatments,” although they looked exactly like curtains to me.

The weasel word that’s aggravating me at the moment is “issues.” Whenever somebody is being difficult, or unreliable, or neurotic, their behavior is excused with the phrase: “Oh, he (or she) has a lot of issues.” This slippery term can also be used self-referentially, as in: “I have issues with that,” or even diagnostically, as in: “He can’t move ahead until he deals with his issues.”

Now “issue” in old English meant a number of things: the act of coming out, or an exit, or the label for a child in relation to its parents, or the act of publishing or distributing something, or a position taken in a legal case or a political dispute. I imagine that it is this last meaning that has been seized upon and made into nonsense by people who talk about “having issues.”

Issues are big problems or conflicts. Israel and Palestine have issues, President Trump and Nancy Pelosi have issues. Most of us don’t have issues worthy of the name; we have complaints. I have numerous complaints, as listeners to this commentary know all too well: about computers, international politics, plastic bags, household chores, and squirrels on my bird feeders, among many other things. But none of them qualifies as an “issue.”

Nobody likes to admit: “I’m a miserable, negative sort of person who is never satisfied.” But it sounds rather grand to say: “I have issues.” When I floated this topic in conversation I was earnestly told that “issues” are much more significant than mere complaints. “Issues” are the psychic scars left by a lifetime of pain and struggle – divorce, illness, death, failure and all the predictable traumas of modern life. Some people seem to nurture and treasure their unhappy experiences forever. Like the old Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. So, they have issues.

In the course of writing this I inevitably examined my own character. I have been accused of having curmudgeonly tendencies, so perhaps I too have unresolved issues in my life. This would be rather fun, because I could join in the whining chorus about “issues” and feel that I am, once again, on the cutting edge of the English language.

I don’t buy it. Let’s call things by their proper names. We all have complaints, pet peeves, discontents, irritations, disappointments, resentments, bad memories, gripes, grievances, grouches, grudges, and grumbles. We all enjoy being petulant, peevish, whining curmudgeonly, and querulous from time to time. The English language is rich enough to express every good or bad thing that ever happened to anybody. We don’t need “issues.”

Dear Reader

Am I the only person who has problems these days with writing letters, and especially with beginnings and endings? The rules used to be extremely clear: you started a letter with a salutation: “Dear Mr. Jones,” “Dear John,” “My Dear John,” or “Dearest Emily, don’t let John see this letter,” according to the degree of intimacy, and signed off with “Sincerely” or “Very truly yours,” or “With love.” That’s how I’ve been writing letters all my life, allowing for some small transatlantic variations, and I feel comfortable with it.

However, as you know, these old-fashioned rules have completely evaporated. The freewheeling world of electronic communications doesn’t seem to need any such formalities. Everybody, up to and including the President, sends e-mails, tweets and text messages with no salutations or closings at all, and no names. I suppose the recipients can figure out who sent them, but it seems rather abrupt, not to say impersonal.

I haven’t learned the new style yet. One of my correspondents complained “You write an e-mail as if it was a letter.” Well, as far as I’m concerned, it is. But it’s true that the traditional forms do now seem a bit archaic. Consider the salutation “Dear” as in “Dear Mr. Jones.” It is oddly intimate, and the longer you think about it the stranger it seems. How can you address your accountant, for example, as “Dear” without seeming to make a veiled complaint about his fees. Just how dear to your heart are most of your correspondents? When it comes from a business it’s even stranger. Corporations often address me as if I was both a friend and a complete abstraction: “Dear Valued Client” (if I was so dear and so valued you’d think they could remember my name), or “Dear Frequent Flyer” as if I was a migrating bird. On the other hand informal salutations like “Hi” or Hello” seem too juvenile to use in writing to another adult.

Closing a letter or e-mail is even more difficult than opening it. Instead of the familiar phrases of formal correspondence we have a chaos of slipshod and meaningless exit lines: “Regards,” “Best wishes,” and sometimes simply “Best” (which leaves the recipient wondering, best what? I sometimes receive “Warm wishes,” presumably from Florida, “Cheers” and, most desperate of all “Have a nice Day.” As the late Peter Ustinov once said, when so addressed: “Thank you, but I have other plans.”

Lovers, if they write letters at all, are limited only by their imaginations and vocabularies. But the rest of us no longer know how to close a communication gracefully. It’s all too easy to strike a false note.

Foreign cultures are doubly treacherous. The British write “Love” to just about everybody of the opposite sex, and Americans may misunderstand this. An innocent greeting in French: “I would like to send you a kiss” may, colloquially, mean very much more.

I suppose that no letter writer in our busy times can be bothered with the subtle gradations between “Truly yours” and “Very truly yours.” Still less do we want to go back a century or more to the days when letters were typically signed: “I am, Sir, Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant,” even if there were any humble and obedient servants left to write them.

When I looked on the web, to see what instant up to date guidance is available to letter writers, I found that almost everything was geared to business letters and job applications. The few sites dedicated to personal letters were, I’m sorry to say, selling software containing ready-made letters and e-mails for all occasions. All you have to do is add the name. These are the modern descendants of those old-fashioned books of letter writing etiquette, that (for example) advised young unmarried ladies how they might properly correspond with young unmarried men, and vice versa. Those books don’t appear on the bestseller lists any more.

But sometimes I feel nostalgic for the stylish letters of the past. The charm of a good personal letter is that, like a dance, it combines intimacy with formality. It shows care and respect for the person on the receiving end. Totally informal communication is like yelling at someone across a street. It’s just tacky. Yours, most sincerely, David Bouchier.

Universal Plagiarism

A college education these days contains many traps and challenges, not the least of which is to avoid (or effectively conceal) plagiarism, a campus crime almost as heinous as sexual harassment or a taste for 1940s Big Band music. Some students are required to sign long, impressive documents, written by lawyers who stole the wording from other lawyers, certifying that they understand the penalties for plagiarism. They may have no idea what it is, but they will sign anyway. Others will be severely lectured on the subject their professors. I know, because I’ve received and delivered a few such lectures myself.

Plagiarism is the theft of intellectual property, or more plainly to pass off someone else’s work as your own. Intellectual property is just stuff that people have made up or created. This essay is intellectual property, and could conceivably be plagiarized by some abysmally stupid student somewhere, who would get a well-deserved F.

It is dangerously easy to commit this particular sin, by borrowing a half-remembered idea or turn of phrase. We’ve all done it without knowing. All our culture is one big exercise in plagiarism. There’s nothing new under the sun. It’s all been thought and said before, and will be again.

Plagiarism is a very ancient art. Shakespeare stole most of his historical plots directly from the unreliable histories of Holinshed. Laurence Sterne and Samuel Taylor Coleridge were both accused of plagiarism.

In modern times, plagiarism is not limited to lazy and dishonest students. Lazy and dishonest adults are equally guilty.. Almost every week we read another high-profile case from the world of academia or publishing. The distinguished historian Stephen E. Ambrose, and another historian Professor Doris Kearns have both been in the news, accused of lifting chunks of their works from previously published authors. Lord Archer, the disgraced British novelist and politician, is another distinguished example. Politicians borrow chunks of speeches from more intelligent men, artists copy photographers and each other, and musicians notoriously “borrow” certain melodic ideas when inspiration runs out. These rip-offs are routinely passed off as “tributes.” Movies are so obsessively self-referential that you get the feeling that nothing completely new has been attempted since “The Great Train Robbery” in 1903. Real creativity is very rare.

In one sense, then, all culture is plagiarism. We can’t reinvent the world every day, but we can and do copy the good stuff from the past, and perhaps transform it in the process. So I don’t feel strongly about intellectual property as such. When great genius or large amounts of money are involved, I suppose it becomes important. But most creative work isn’t in that league and, on the whole, we should be mildly flattered when someone finds our work worth stealing. After all, the plagiarist gains nothing, and the act itself is rather pathetic, an admission of an empty mind. I can forgive a modest amount of plagiarism, especially if it’s well done. In the academic world, the whole thing is a bit of a game, hence the old saying that stealing from one source is plagiarism, and stealing from many is research

But I do have strong feelings about cheating partly because I never could get away with it when I was a student. The worldwide web has made plagiarism infinitely easier, and less detectable, and cheating by students has become an epidemic. If you look up plagiarism on the web you will find hundreds of articles and books condemning it, and even anti-plagiarism software. The cheaters cheat themselves out of an education, they cheat the honest students, and they make fools out of their teachers. I don’t like any of that.

The moral question is: should we discourage all cheating, or is it a useful skill? News media are always full of stories about cheating on an epic scale, mostly by politicians and businessmen. The notable fact about the guilty parties is that they are all very rich. My mother used to tell me that cheats never prosper: but they do. Cheating may be as essential to success in the modern world as computer literacy. By discouraging plagiarism and similar tricks, we may be condemning our students to a life of poverty and hard work.

If anyone has the answer to this educational conundrum, please let me know. But don’t send me any of those anti-plagiarism articles off the web, I’ve read them already. Where do you think this essay came from?

Caught in the Net

Those of us who were born before 1940 had to absorb a lot of changes. We were born before television, before penicillin, polio shots, frozen foods, Xerox, contact lenses, videos, and the pill. We were here before radar, credit cards, split atoms, laser beams and ballpoint pens, before dishwashers, tumble dryers, electric blankets, domestic air conditioning, drip-dry clothes, and before anyone seriously thought of going to the moon.

We got married first and then lived together (how old-fashioned can you be?) We thought Fast Food was what you ate in Lent, and that a Big Mac was an oversized raincoat. We existed before house husbands or computer dating, day care centers, group homes or disposable cameras. We never heard of FM radios, CDs, artificial hearts, word processors, or young men wearing earrings. For us a “chip” was a piece of wood, or a fried potato, “hardware” meant nuts and bolts, and “software” wasn’t even a word.

Who would have thought, even twenty years ago, that television would come down a wire and the telephone would be wireless? Who could have predicted students who don’t study, accountants who don’t account, or scientists who cheat on their experiments? Who could ever have predicted that young people would not always be clean, respectful, moral and hard working – the way we were?

We’ve had to absorb a lot of changes, and some of us may agree with James Thurber, who said: “Progress was all right; it just went on too long” But that’s the way human beings are: we work on something until it is absolutely perfect, and then we improve it until it’s not perfect any more. Classical music was perfect, for example, about 1855 the date of Brahms’s First Symphony. The novel reached its height in 1927 with Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past. In my opinion, cars reached perfection in 1965 with that year’s Aston Martin DB6. We just can’t leave things alone.

The manual typewriter was perfect in 1939. When I was about twelve years old my mother gave me an old Underwood model from that year. Believe it or not, I still have that typewriter, I still use it, and it has never crashed or lost any data. My data is always right there, on the roller.
But in spite of all the changes we were a fortunate generation. We had the luck to miss the First World War, to be too young for combat in the Second, and to grow up in the decades of peace and rising wages. We benefited from a mighty surge of scientific and technological discoveries, including new medical treatments that extended and improved our lives.

Then history played a sad trick on us. Computers came into our lives sometime in the 1980s. We never asked for this. Personal computers are extraordinarily recent. We think we can’t live without them, but we did until 1981 when the first true PC was put on the market by IBM. Thirty years later these annoying machines have infiltrated every corner of our lives from medicine to grocery shopping to personal privacy, without any planning and without resistance, like a science fiction nightmare come to life. “Virus” is the exactly right word to describe this invasion. We can identify it, but we can’t stop it.

Kids launched into the new cyber-world with glee, and apparently without any need of learning, as if the computer was a natural part of their brains that had been lost, and now was found. Those of us who were already middle aged or older struggled, complained, and finally surrendered to the inevitable. The computer I am using now is one of five that I own. I don’t like any of them, and they don’t like me. But my work and my life are inextricably tied up in these annoying gadgets, and I don’t see a prospect (short of death, the final logout) of ever breaking free.

Age brings wisdom to some of us, if we’re paying attention. But knowledge is something else. Dealing with a family crisis takes wisdom. But when your computer screen goes blank, no amount of wisdom will help. You can be as wise as Solomon, and the screen will stay blank. We need knowledge, and sometimes it seems that we have less and less useful knowledge as we get older. We learn something and, before we know it our knowledge is out of date and any ten-year old kid knows more. I used to know how to fix cars, tape recorders, radios – but not anymore. Seniors are really juniors or freshmen in the world of high technology. The only consolation is that exactly the same thing will happen to today’s smug kids, and probably even faster. They will have to start asking their kids.

Since those early days the electronic revolution has engulfed us entirely. There are about seven billion cell phones in the world, and nobody ever seems to switch them off. The so-called social media have transformed and degraded the business of news and the racket of politics, and cyber warfare has become a reality. There are critics and unbelievers, of whom I am one. But we have about as much influence as atheists had in the Catholic church in the fifteenth century. Computers in their many forms are now the official gods of the world religion. Like the gods of the ancient world they are eager to battle for supremacy and, also like the gods of the ancient world, they don’t care in the slightest what happens to us.

The Writer’s Fate

Teachers should be more careful. I might have become an artist or an astronaut, but an indulgent fourth grade teacher praised one of my essays, and essays became my fate. My diaries turned into collections of tiny essays, designed to fit the two-inch space allocated for each day, and I wrote over baked sketches of anything and everything from a visit to the dentist to collecting tadpoles. Soon I became the most overpraised little writer in my school. Obviously, I wasn’t much good at anything else. Many years later I came upon the correct diagnosis of my situation in Kurt Vonnegut’s eccentric memoir Palm Sunday.

“Writing allows even a stupid person to seem halfway intelligent, if only that person will write the same thought over and over again, improving it just a little bit each time. It is a lot like inflating a blimp with a bicycle pump. Anyone can do it, but it takes time.”

Vonnegut was a creative genius, and knew it. But a non-fiction writer who keeps to regular deadlines cannot afford to wait for the brilliant inspiration that may never come. We must keep pumping, grab ideas straight out of the mess of reality, and try to make sense of life in the process of writing about it. A fiction writer is limited only by imagination. An essayist is trapped in the real world, which is nothing if not repetitive.

Ideas are like events: they keep coming back in different disguises. Georges Simenon, the extraordinarily prolific author of five hundred novels, as well as countless articles and reviews, wrote in his autobiographical Notebooks that every writer has a limited lifetime stock of ideas, and must eventually face the awful choice between silence and self-repetition.

History really does move in circles, as the Greeks believed. The same things keep on happening, and there are remarkably few surprises. There is always a war, an election, a summer heatwave or a winter deep freeze, a corruption scandal, a holiday season, an economic crisis, or a new invention that scientists predict will change the world. It takes a kind of perverse creativity to write something different about these cyclical themes every time they come around. At any given moment, certain ideas are “in the air”, and everyone is talking and writing about them: the addictive use of smart phones, Donald Trump, taxes, weddings, or interesting new diseases. A regular commentator must find something to say about them, and it is hard to avoid repeating what everyone else is saying and hearing in the media echo chamber. Failure to be original is always an option, and eventually it becomes inevitable. This is, in fact, the essayist’s job description. If the world refuses to gratify our desire for novelty we are forced to pretend to be original

The Unsophisticated Traveller

“Travel broadens the mind –
but first you must have the mind.”

G.K.Chesterton

Travel writers lead romantic lives. They explore the world at other people’s expense, and they don’t even need to invent their material. They simply describe the places they visit. Anybody can do that.

You know as well as I do that the above paragraph is nonsense, but the romance persists. It would be a kindness to future travelers and travel writers to lay the myth to rest here and now.

There are several varieties or genres of travel writing. The most profitable type (for the writer) is essentially a branch of public relations. This is the stuff you read in brochures and glossy magazines, and also in newspaper travel supplements. Every destination is described as beautiful, welcoming, unspoiled, and so on, with digitally enhanced pictures. This is essentially a branch of fantasy fiction, as you soon discover if you actually travel to any of these places.

Secondly there’s what I call straight travel writing that gives the reader real, accurate, and unbiased information. This is quite rare. The “Rough Guides” series is the best example I know. Straight travel writing is enormously hard work, because it demands so much detailed on-the-spot research. Stamina, attention to detail, and an iron stomach are the basic job requirements.

Thirdly (in no particular order) comes “literary” travel writing of the kind practiced by Paul Theroux or Adam Gopnik. Books and essays of this type are usually great fun to read, and can be more eye-opening than any number of guidebooks. However the literary travel writer gives no information about hotels, ferries, restaurants and so on.

Fourthly, an increasingly popular genre is what might be called the “hair raising travel adventure.” The author deliberately sets out to do something idiotic, like climbing Everest on one leg, crossing the Sahara on a unicycle, or rowing the Atlantic in a bathtub. We don’t have any new frontiers, so these writers are doing the best they can to create some excitement. As my mother would say, they should have their heads examined.

Fifthly (I’m almost done!) we have “travel pornography,” of the type exemplified by Peter Mayle’s hugely successful A Year in Provence, and its many imitators. The pornography here is not sexual but cultural. These writers take a place and a culture and recycle it as an idealistic dream fantasy.

Finally we have travel writers who use humor and satire, from Mark Twain to Bill Bryson. I enjoy these a lot, but they are not the place to look for practical information.

Americans on the whole are not great travelers. Only 8% of citizens have a passport and (almost incredibly) only 12% of U.S. Senators. This may help to explain the resolute parochialism of American culture and politics. Foreign countries are experienced mostly at secondhand, through the media, or by young soldiers who have been sent to places off the regular tourist routes in order to teach their citizens the benefits of democracy. This set me thinking about the role of travel writers. If 92% of Americans and most of their representatives glimpse the world only through the eyes of travel writers and war correspondents, what do they see?

Obviously they see only a tiny part of the planet – the regions that are designated as safe enough for tourism or weak enough for military adventures. This leaves out just about the whole of the ordinary world that most people live in, and that can only be experienced by going there.

Most of my travels are fairly conventional, so I’ve not had the opportunity to write about exotic places and extreme experiences. But even conventional travel can be written about in very different ways.

For example, we were traveling in Europe a couple of years ago. On the final leg of our journey we abandoned the rented car and look a train ride from Nice, across northern Italy and to Milan. The city was new to me, although I had driven around the bypass several times. Before leaving home I had asked my Italian barber Milan, which was his birthplace. He said: “It’s like New York but full of Italians.” When I pointed out that New York is also full of Italians he said: “Then it’s like New York.” He was quite wrong. New York has no trams.

A travel writer might handle the transition between Nice and Milan something like this:

“The train from Nice sped along the Côte d’Azur, offering spectacular views of the sea and the mountains, before turning inland at Genoa to glide across the fertile plains of Lombardy and into Milan’s imposing Stazione Centrale.”

An honest non-fiction writer might describe the experience more like this:

“The train from Nice was cancelled. All trains were cancelled due to unspecified trouble in the tunnel at Menton. Buses were laid on to take us over the mountain to the station at Monaco. But there weren’t enough buses, and a great mass of passengers had to wait for an hour in the blazing sun. When we got on a bus the air conditioning was broken and the windows were jammed shut. Instead of stopping at Monaco as promised the bus driver (ignoring the loud complaints and threats of the passengers) continued right on into Italy and dumped us all out at the station of a miserable little town called Ventimiglia where we foreigners were mildly harassed by the local police (enjoying themselves enormously, the most fun day they had had in Ventimiglia for years) before being allowed on the train. All seat reservations had been cancelled in the confusion, so there was a huge scrum for seats. The train started two hours late and crawled very slowly towards Milan, stopping at every village and sheep station to take on more passengers, none of whom could find seats. There was no food or drink on the train, and the journey took five hours (not counting the wait in Nice and the bus ride). This traveling inferno finally arrived at Milan Central Station, which is more filthy, graffiti-encrusted, crowded, hot, and infested with bums, beggars and drug addicts than even a New Yorker could imagine.”

An honest non-fiction writer might also mention that Milan’s two major tourist attractions were effectively absent. The spectacular façade of the Duomo Cathedral (1386) was covered in plastic for cleaning, and the world-famous opera house, the Teatro Alla Scala, was closed for restoration. However s/he would also feel impelled to make positive comments on the superb public transportation system, the fine restaurants, and the friendly and helpful people of Milan.

Which experience would you prefer to read about? The second one is 100% true.

Over the years I’ve published a few travel pieces. But more often I have stalled, as you may have done, in the process of trying to translate my observations into the right language. The gap between real travel experience and the conventional style of travel writing is very hard to bridge. Humor is one way to do it. Mark Twain, in Innocents Abroad, told more unwelcome truths than most travelers of his own or any other time.

Modern travel writing is indeed a form of fiction, and most of those who read travel articles in magazines and newspapers probably understand that they are indulging a kind of dream, where everything is beautiful and every encounter is picturesque and satisfying. But fiction understood by its readers to be pure invention, and travel writing is sometimes less innocent.

Many freelances and full-time journalists who do this kind of work depend on travel companies to give them a free ride. Whenever I publish a travel piece, however small and obscure, I receive a bunch of offers from PR companies – five days in Iceland, a gastronomic tour of Burgundy, a week in sunny Kabul, and so on. These offers suggest that the PR company flacks never actually read anything that I wrote. My travel writings tend to be ironic and acerbic. No sane PR person would invite me on a tour that they wanted to promote. When I accept one of these offers (which happens rarely, and only after stating clearly in writing that I will tell the truth about the experience) I always feel guilty. My fellow hacks don’t see it that way. For them, it’s just a free ride and a joke.

The earth is an imperfect planet. It is a mess. The alien peoples of the world speak incomprehensible languages, eat peculiar foods, subscribe to bizarre religions, and march to a whole timpani section of different drummers. In short, they have no idea how to live properly. Their nations, unlike ours, are often chaotic and alarming. Even their TV schedules are not always completely reliable.

The job of the travel writer is to make these stressful foreign places seem interesting enough to justify the investment of thousands of dollars in travel costs. He or she must draw on a rather limited range of images, all of which have been used tens of thousands of times before. Commercial travel writers, like travel agents, have created a new language with its own unique resonances. Water is always “crystal clear,” restaurants are “vibrant,” anything built before 1950 is “olde worlde,” views are “breathtaking” or “big sky” or “unspoiled,” hotels are “romantic gems” or “fairytale hideaways.” It takes real skill to write like this without laughing. The travel writer’s tool kit of appealing and improbable clichés also includes the following:

• Beautiful weather (usually exaggerated and unreliable).
• Glorious golden beaches (rare, usually artificial).
• Fine and/or exotic restaurants (if you are very lucky).
• Exciting nightlife (you can probably do better at home unless you live in Iowa).
• Friendly natives (usually the biggest fiction of all).
• Interesting historic ruins (almost never interesting except to professional archeologists).
• High profile cultural credits (art, music etc., a lot of hard work).
• Natural wonders (waterfalls, mountains, lakes, deserts – just like we have at home).
• Amiable wildlife (possible glimpses of the vanishing rear ends of furry creatures).
• Unique sporting opportunities (hang gliding in the Himalayas, skateboarding through Baghdad etc. – ideal for the under-twelve crowd).

It is difficult for those of us not gifted with powerful imaginations to make the connection between these descriptions and the places we actually visit on the ground. The latter can be described, certainly, but not in language that any travel editor would publish.

But the essential dishonesty of travel writing is not so much its bizarre language as its intense selectivity. Even Paul Theroux, a serious and excellent travel writer, admitted in a British newspaper interview that even he leaves out the really bad parts – the disgusting illnesses, the interminable delays, and the predatory people he encounters on his travels. Travel writing is the art of choosing a few bright fragments out of the chaos of experience and reassembling them into a complete picture.

This is not a diatribe against traveling, or even against conventional travel writing. I love to travel, even though I feel guilty about the pollution and waste involved, because I have great curiosity about how other people live, and I need the escape from everyday life. My complaint is that inexperienced tourists often set out with unrealistic expectations, nurtured by books, magazine articles and TV programs, so they fail to get the most out of their trip while it is actually happening.

The crucial distinction here is between travelers (us) and tourists (them). Tourists expect what the travel writers have told them to expect. Travelers expect anything and everything.

The interesting thing about tourists is that, in the end, it doesn’t seem to matter whether they enjoy their trip or not. Years ago, when I was much younger and even more foolish, I took on a summer job as a driver and guide for a company called Minitrek Expeditions, operating out of London. They offered what they humorously called “Adventure Holidays” in Greece, Turkey, parts of Eastern Europe and north Africa, using heavy-duty buses and stretched Land Rovers. These holidays appealed mostly to young people who were strong enough to survive the experience. The “adventure” was created by the fact that most of the driver/guides were, like me, complete amateurs. My own groups enjoyed an extra level of uncertainty because I was not good at reading maps. My tours might end up anywhere.

These trips were hard work. It’s no accident that the English word “travel” derives from the French “travail” (work). We camped, often in foul weather. We had so much sickness that I carried a box full of antibiotics and sulfa drugs, illegally purchased in what was then Yugoslavia. The vehicles often broke down. The passengers fell in love and fought with each other, usually at the same time, and found a common enemy in their driver/guide. The places where we stopped were often poverty-stricken and grim, and sometimes dangerous. Nobody could or did call it fun. But we always had plenty of customers, and even repeat customers.

After a particularly diabolical journey in the Sahara, I decided to run a little experiment. A week before the trip I had the victims (sorry, passengers) fill out a questionnaire about their expectations. Halfway through the trip those passengers who were still conscious and coherent filled out another questionnaire about how their expectations were being fulfilled. Two weeks after they returned home the survivors filled in a third questionnaire about their memories of the trip. This was repeated over several dozen trips to different places with different guides.

The result was an almost inverted perfect bell curve. Expectations started high, and plummeted down to zero in the middle of the experience. Two weeks afterwards, false memories were firmly in place. The travelers looked back on their adventures with nostalgia, and their memories were almost as rosy as their original hopes.

I published this finding as an article in a small weekly magazine, and tried to sell it to a wider audience. But nobody wanted to read it. Being funny about vacations (à la Chevy Chase) is fine. Telling the plain truth is almost sacrilegious. This was, admittedly, an extreme and unusual example, but my knowledge of the tourist industry is slightly broader than that. I’ve worked as a guide the northern Italian cultural boot camp circuit (Florence, Pisa, Sienna, Venice etc.), and also as a troubleshooter in the villa rental business in Cyprus and Turkey. None of my experiences have contradicted the impressions recorded above.

All vacations probably follow the same curving path from anticipation, down to experience, and up again to nostalgia, and experiences are less powerful than memories. To paraphrase something that Professor John Gagnon said about sex: “First there’s the expectation, then there’s the memory. But best of all is the expectation of the memory.”

This lets travel writers off the hook. The Technicolor fantasies they create may cause travelers to suffer a rude shock during the vacation itself, but they provide essential material for the re-creation of happy memories afterwards. Once tourists have recovered from the jet lag, stomach disorders and the credit card bills, they begin to imagine that they actually did enjoy the golden beaches, exotic restaurants, and unique cultural experiences that they read about before booking the trip.

The main lesson for tourists themselves is not to take detailed notes during the journey. Like any diary, these notes will make unwelcome reading afterwards. Tourists must allow the ever-inventive travel writers to stock their dreams and refurbish their memories, and not ask too many questions.

Mission Impossible

Whenever we communicate with a charity, a non-profit, a college or a big business, they expect us to read, and even to take seriously, a flatulent piece of prose described as their “Mission Statement.” I don’t know when this phrase crept into the language, but I think it should creep right out again.

The only people who are entitled to a mission statement are missionaries, and all they need to say is: “We go out to spread the faith.” But the so-called mission statements concocted by most organizations are monstrosities of verbal inflation and obfuscation, insults to the language. Universities and colleges, whose administrators should know better, are among the worst offenders. I spent a painful half hour looking at college prospectuses in the library, and it was soon clear that all their mission statements were variations on the same few vapid words and phrases. “An environment of academic freedom;” “A spirit of enquiry;” “High academic standards;” “Preparing for the challenges of the next century;” “Realize the student’s highest potential;” “Challenge;” “Responsibility;” Excellence;” and of course, “Diversity.” With this linguistic tool kit you can construct an impressively absurd mission statement for every educational enterprise, from play school to the University of Oxford.

Scott Adams, the creator of the popular Dilbert strip, had a lot to say about mission statements. His web page offered a “Mission Statement Generator,” with a handy vocabulary of the key mission statement words, which must be both impressive-sounding and fundamentally meaningless: “Professionalize;” “Globalize;” “Disseminate;” “Integrate;” “Customize;” “Foster;” “World-class;” “Cutting edge;” “Emerging;” “Interdependent;” “Paradigm;” “Infrastructure;” “Leadership;” and of course the all-important “Synergy,” which everyone applauds, and nobody understands.

Several years back, Scott Adams, disguised as a “consultant,” infiltrated a company called Logitech International, and persuaded its executives to adopt a mission statement so vague and contradictory that it would serve equally well for a peace movement or a manufacturer of nuclear bombs.

As a writer, I appreciate the hard creative work that goes into these statements. But why does a University, for example, need a mission statement? Its mission is or should be obvious. It is even more bizarre to concoct a mission statement for a profit-making business. Andrew Carnegie and John D. Rockefeller didn’t have mission statements. If anyone had asked, they would have answered with a single word: “money.” One can’t help suspecting that a thousand word mission statement is hiding something, probably that the organization doesn’t know what it is doing, or that it doesn’t want us to know.

If organizations must have a mission statement, it should at least be brief, and truthful. “We educate people” would be fine for a college, for example – assuming that they do. A military organization could truthfully claim: “We kill people.” A fast food company might say: “We serve monstrously unhealthy but cheap meals to millions of Americans in order to make large profits.” No possibility of misunderstanding there. When you have to read a mission statement with a dictionary in hand, there’s something wrong.

It must also be said that a “mission” is not necessarily a good thing. Every lunatic and fanatic in the history of the world has imagined that he or she was blessed with a “mission” – from Genghis Khan to the Crusaders, and from Napoleon Bonaparte to Hitler, Stalin, and the Islamic State. The old Communist Party of the USSR had a very fine mission statement, namely The Communist Manifesto. Much good it did them, or us. Mr. Theodore Kaczynski, the anarchist bomber who was convicted at the end of the 1990s, had a mission statement. But it was 35,000 words long, so nobody except the FBI read it, which is why nobody knows what his mission actually was. He may or may not have been crazy, but Mr. Kaczynski certainly lacked the gift of brevity.
People and organizations with mission statements are always bad news. My advice would be to put your trust in those can explain what they are doing in ten plain words or less, or those who, like me, have no idea what they are doing or why, but who at least are honest enough to admit it.

I Have Issues

The English language is constantly changing, but not necessarily improving. In theory every new word or usage enriches the language in some way. How could we communicate today without verbs like “to Google” or “to outsource,” or adjectives like “supersize”? But, all too often, new terms simply push out the old without raising the quality of our English at all.

The fad for political correctness in the late twentieth century turned a lot of our language into mush. Old people vanished and reappeared as “senior citizens,” stupid kids metamorphosed into the “educationally challenged,” drug addicts mysteriously turned into “substance abusers,” and so on. You’ve heard this all before, but it really matters because language matters. If we talk like phonies we will inevitably begin to think like phonies. “The great enemy of clear language is insincerity,” wrote George Orwell, nailing the problem with his usual precision. Euphemistic, misleading, evasive, and just plain silly language now comes at us from every part of the political spectrum, and from business too. When we had to buy some curtains for our house I was amazed to discover that simple curtains were no longer available. We had to purchase “window treatments,” although they looked exactly like curtains to me.

The weasel word that’s aggravating me at the moment is “issues.” Whenever somebody is being difficult, or unreliable, or neurotic, their behavior is excused with the phrase: “Oh, he (or she) has a lot of issues.” This slippery term can also be used self-referentially, as in: “I have issues with that,” or even diagnostically, as in: “He can’t move ahead until he deals with his issues.”

Now “issue” in old English meant a number of things: the act of coming out, or an exit, or the label for a child in relation to its parents, or the act of publishing or distributing something, or a position taken in a legal case or a political dispute. I imagine that it is this last meaning that has been seized upon and made into nonsense by people who whine about “having issues.”

Issues are big problems or conflicts. Israel and Palestine have issues, President Trump and Secretary Clinton have issues. Most of us don’t have issues worthy of the name; we have complaints. I have numerous complaints, as listeners to this commentary know all too well: about computers, international politics, plastic bags, household chores, and squirrels on my bird feeders, among many other things. But none of them qualifies as an “issue.”

Nobody likes to admit: “I’m a miserable, negative sort of person who is never satisfied.” But it sounds rather grand to say: “I have issues.” When I floated this topic in conversation I was earnestly told that “issues” are much more significant than mere complaints. “Issues” are the psychic scars left by a lifetime of pain and struggle – divorce, illness, death, failure and all the predictable traumas of modern life. Some people seem to nurture and treasure their unhappy experiences forever. Like the old Bourbon kings of France, they have learned nothing and forgotten nothing. So, they have issues.

In the course of writing this I inevitably examined my own character. I have been accused of having curmudgeonly tendencies, so perhaps I too have unresolved issues in my life. This would be rather fun, because I could join in the whining chorus about “issues” and feel that I am, once again, on the cutting edge of the English language.

I don’t buy it. Let’s call things by their proper names. We all have complaints, pet peeves, discontents, irritations, disappointments, resentments, bad memories, gripes, grievances, grouches, grudges, and grumbles. We all enjoy being petulant, peevish, whining curmudgeonly, and querulous from time to time. The English language is rich enough to express every good or bad thing that ever happened to anybody. We don’t need “issues.”