Wednesday, November 24, 2021

I've stopped wearing poppies. Here's why

Here in the UK, we fetishise the suffering of the English upper classes on the Western Front, as if that was all WWI was about. Yes, Waterloo was (apparently) won on the playing fields of Eton, but the Somme wasn't. Yes, lots of toffs died after writing their war poems, but thousands of miners, farmers and factory workers also died without a line to their names. 

But it was a World War. WORLD war. How much do our kids know about the Serbian campaigns, the war in East Africa, the Middle East or Papua New Guinea? As Michael Gove (not a man I agree with very often) pointed out, it's about more than war poets and Blackadder IV. Do people even know about the Eastern Front or the war at sea? How many of our schoolchildren could even point to the Battle of Jutland on a map?

National sensitivity is no longer required as all the veterans are dead. So can we at last recognise that WWI was a tragedy not just for us but for the Commonwealth, the French (our allies; does anybody remember them?), as well as the Serbs, the Italians and the Russians? Hell, it was a tragedy too for the Germans, Austrians and Turks, who unlike in WWII weren't fighting for anything much less moral than us. Sure, we can even joke about the Americans being late but try looking at their graves and sneering.

Surely we must recall that WWI was a global tragedy and all the victims suffered as much, whatever side they were on. Are Wilfred Owen's poems worth more than the drawings of Otto Dix?

Friday, December 7, 2018

Fair, with a bit of play

“It’s a shipping magazine. We should
put ships on the cover.” Nah
I wrote this piece to mark the closure of Fairplay magazine in November 2018 after 135 years of publication. I joined Fairplay in 1995 and soon became its first ever sub-editor, which meant I controlled everything that got published – a privilege I abused massively.

When I was asked to write something for its final issue, I foolishly didn't check the word count I had been given, so I had to abandon the piece reproduced here and ended up writing something entirely different. Still, unlike what appeared in the final issue, this conveys some of the fun we had producing the magazine in the 1990s and 2000s. I might be wrong, but the loss of that sense of fun might have contributed to its demise.

Monday, June 12, 2017

Shall I compare thee…?



Business writers love the word ‘compared’. It’s an easy way of suggesting a relationship between two things without explaining – or sometimes thinking – what that relationship actually is.

Ask yourself what this writer is trying to say:

“Demand in Europe appears to be flat compared with last year”

Friday, December 2, 2016

The rise and fall of high and low

Business writers like to use the words ‘high’ and ‘low’ indiscriminately. Numbers can be high or low, but physical things such as ships can’t (except in the Panama Canal locks). Similarly, they use the verbs ‘rise’ and ‘fall’ – the process of becoming high or low – too much. If you use such words for things other than numbers, you give the impression that you aren’t thinking about the real world.

Wednesday, August 10, 2016

How harassed are you?

Another survey hits the press, this time from the Trades Union Congress and Everyday Sexism, telling us how badly women are treated at work. 

Scepticism is the obvious response, because the TUC is in the business of protecting workers and is never going to put its name to a survey saying they don't need it. Everyday Sexism isn't in the business of denying there's a problem either, and has form when it comes to presenting anecdote as data. But we could make similar arguments about most surveys that appear in the press. 

We all know sexism used to be a big problem in the workplace, and most of us suspect that it hasn't been eradicated. After reading this survey, our understanding hasn't moved on an inch. 

Thursday, July 23, 2015

Articles: "the", "a" or neither?

Articles are funny things. They're hugely important in languages where they are used, yet other languages get by quite happily without them. Unfortunately, anyone writing for an international audience will usually have to learn English, and that means using articles. For Indians, Japanese and many others, it's a hard skill to master.

Articles determine the role of a noun in a sentence, giving it history and context. There are two kinds: the definite ("the") and the indefinite ("a" – or "an" if the noun starts with a vowel sound*). 

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

The pay gap that might not be there

Need to prove an argument? Chuck in some statistics. Any old ones will do.

Sometimes it's hard to tell if a journalist is ignorant of statistics or is being deliberately misleading. Like most of us, they seldom question statistics that seem to prove what they already think they know. 

The Guardian is no better or worse than most, and it's been doing a lot of it lately. Some of its statistics are misleading, but mostly they simply don't say what they seem to say. Whether the writer knows this and is trying to pull a fast one or just doesn't understand what the numbers mean is hard to say. 

Take this example, in a recent article about how the press should report suicide in the wake of Robin Williams' death: