Thursday, 28 November 2013

By The Way . . .

I once berated a young employee as follows:-

“If I ever catch you using that word again in this office I shall sack you. Sack you on the spot,” I said. “Sack you” I continued, “without notice, or the benefit of appeal to the Industrial Court. Bugger the consequences of such draconian behaviour - I don’t care. The pain of fines for alleged unfair dismissal will be far, far out-weighed by the satisfaction of having cast from our midst such a verbal and literary excrescence.”

Warming to my theme, as if I needed to, I pressed home the point, “I can think of no occasion or context, in this office, when this word could conceivably be appropriate. Not one.” She quailed under my impassioned onslaught and steely stare. 

Well actually no, she didn’t. 

She grinned and said something along the lines of – “Okay I got it,” or “Right,” or “Cool,” or some such, but her eyes and her body language were eloquently saying  - “Jeez Steve man – get . . . a . . . life!” Sometime later she amicably left our employment and moved on to better things, but I can guarantee that while I never caught her using the offensive word, at least in writing during office hours, she has since used it in her subsequent work places.

I can guarantee that because I hear it, and I see it continually on public notices, read it in newspaper articles and on bill boards. Even political statements contain it and I am sure that if I bothered to look it would also have infected law reports – I must ask my friends in the profession if this is so.

The offending word?

Painful though it is to hear the word, let alone speak it, or heaven forbid write it I suppose this diatribe would be toothless, not to say pointless without actually repeating the word. Here goes - at the risk of the earth yawning open under my feet and the lightening bolt of Lexicog the enraged God of Language striking me on the forehead and singeing my designer stubble . . .

Here it is, writ small -  Temporal!

Or to lessen the pain and frame it in the form of a cryptic crossword clue – “A spot mixed in part is not sacred (8)”

Oh alright then – it’s Temporal!

I have to admit that my pet hate is indeed the use of the word “temporal” where “temporary” is not only correct but is not open to some weird form of theistic or spiritual interpretation.  I realise however that any amount of crusading to recapture the true meaning of “temporal” is a non- starter. Once I see newspaper advertisements warning of Temporal Road Diversions, or notices on the door of the Water Services Corporation satellite offices declaring Temporal Closure for Refurbishment I have to throw in the towel and admit that here is one word the misuse of which is permanent and, well frankly, not temporal.

What I don’t understand is how this particular error has crept into the vernacular, and cloak it in any way you like – it is an error! Somewhere, sometime, some years ago  someone made a lexicographical mistake which far from being corrected has somehow entered the language, to the extent that teachers are teaching the word “temporal”, the word appears in exam papers (yes really!), administrators, lawyers and politicians are using it and the media are reporting with it.

Okay – I concede that there is a gossamer thread connecting temporary, via time to temporal, but god knows it is a very thin thread. The nuanced time element in “temporal” has great and important subtleties that direct one towards the ties and tensions between the worldly and the spiritual. Time in a temporal context is existential, something grand and central; but in a temporary context it is fleeting and vapid.

I have a favourite in the misuse of borrow and lend, and here I have to admit to such a level of self mockery that I find myself forgetting which is correct. As I jocularly request that someone “borrow” me a book I find myself wondering if I am in fact correct after all. Oddly enough this juxtaposition really does not worry me –borrow and lend are after all, to all intents and purposes synonymous and their correct usages hinge only on the relationships between the Borrower and the Lendee, or is it the Lendor and the Borrowee, or perhaps the Borrowee and Lendee? Whatever - the point being that no other concept is obfuscated or interfered with.

Another mystery that I cannot unravel is the use of the phrase “by the way”. In traditional usage – as I remember it from the country of my birth – it is an idiom that adds additional information to a conversation (my car is in the garage and as a temporal arrangement I am driving a hire car which by the way is very economical to run), or can be used to open a new strand or subject during a conversation (By the way do you still have that book I borrowed to you about Keeping Cats?).

What has happened here in Swaziland though is that the phrase has taken on a new life - a sort of verbal open-palmed smack up the forehead that exclaims “of course I should have remembered . . . such and such”! But again, as with “borrow” and “lend”, such usage does not detract from the interjectory or additive usage I was brought up on.

However hard I try I do feel that my attempts to bring some sense of decorum to the use of English – the language of Shakespeare; the mellifluous cadences of Byron, Shelly, Becket, Heaney  and Thomas;  the Mother Tongue of glorious colonialism - that English is no longer said as she ought to be spoke. Don’t “these people” realise the importance of English as she is spoke?

Well of course “they” don’t, because like any live and dynamic language our English changes and adapts and what is actually important is that we can converse at a common level of understanding. Language is after all an expression of our sentience. It is undergoing continual change as a response to whatever environmental pressures abound. This language species is subject to continual lexicographical evolution. As an adaptive strategy the changes that are occurring are working, because we continue to converse and understand each other. The trick perhaps for us language fascists is to lighten up, get a life and luxuriate in the changes that are occurring and celebrate the nuances created by such changes.

And I will continue to beat my own revolutionary path by splitting my infinitives and starting sentences with “and” and “but”. Because lets face it without language evolution we could all be speaking Shakespearean English in the cadences of the English midlands and having to contend with his god-awful speling.

I will however still summarily sack anyone in my office that has the temerity to use the word “temporal” in any context . . .
Yorick, a closet language subversive, researching for
interesting synonyms . . .

Sunday, 24 November 2013

Frames 1

The walls of the single room hut are a lurid, almost luminescent green. The single glazed window is closed but the rough timber door is ajar allowing some air movement, otherwise the heat radiating through the pitted corrugated iron roof would be intolerable.

The walls are clean and have probably been recently painted, but when the old man leans forward the plaster behind his back is visible where the paint has been rubbed off. Clearly he always sits in this position on the grass mats spread around the corner of the room. Sibusiso and I sit on mats against the adjoining wall. He comfortably with his legs bent and to one side, leaning on one arm. Me with my knees uncomfortably against my chest and arms protectively around my shins. I randomly wonder why we mlungu find it so difficult to sit on the ground – not enough practice I suppose.
Deepest Mpolonjene
It had taken hours to get here.
First we had gone to Babe Makhanya’s homestead. He was not there, but he could be found at Nkoyoyo where he had taken the cattle to the dip, and I remembered that it is Wednesday - dipping day. A young lady from the homestead gave the number of someone else who may be able to help - a Mr. Hadebe.
The road from Kuthula Cottage to Nkoyoyo - which is as bad as it
As we battled our way through the deeply vegetated edges of the homestead fields Sibusiso suggested that we could track down Babe Makhanya at Nkoyoyo. I said “Look Babe Makhanya is only going to be acting as a middle man surely you know someone rather than having to go through Makhanya. He thought this a good idea, and anyway Makhanya always got drunk when he went to Nkoyoyo and would therefore be difficult to deal with. Pleased that we had established that the Makhanya route was probably a potential blind alley we resolved to phone Babe Hadebe. In order to do this we drove a kilometre North to the top of a ridge between two koppies to get a better cell phone signal.
Inside the room is a long low table along the wall next to the old man. It is laden with a great variety of containers ranging from canteen size Ricoffee tins to small tubs that once contained Vaseline or lip salve, and screw-topped pill pots. Against the wall opposite us is a rough timber shelving unit leaning at such a crazy angle that it threatens to collapse at any moment spilling onto the floor more boxes and pots, and two litre plastic bottles containing nameless and mysterious liquids that are plainly not what is advertised on the peeling and fading labels.
As it later transpired fortune smiled on us, because once we had managed to find a signal we rang Babe Hadebe’s number and there was no answer. “There is no answer” shrugged Sibusiso, “listen” handing the phone to me. “I am sure you are right,” I said, but listened to the ringing tone anyway – more through a sense of camaraderie than because I had doubted him.

“Sibusiso”, I said, “we are getting nowhere. I would much rather that we find someone who you know – rather than going through second and third parties.”
“Okay”, he said, “let’s go to Nkoyoyo where I know someone who knows someone who lives in Mpholojeni.”
“Right”, I said, “let’s go to Nkoyoyo.”
The road from Nkoyoyo to Mpolinjane - which gets a lot worse
during summer
In the far corner of the room by an old car seat is a pile of vegetation. I can see herbs and woody species. Incongruously above this pile is hanging a freshly laundered pinafore dress made up of what I think of as the famous blue patterned Tishweshwe cloth. Idly I wonder if the seat belongs to the battered vehicle parked outside the hut.

In the corner between the old man and me is another pile of herbs out of which protrudes the handle of a golf club. I wonder if the old man actually practices his putting, or uses it to thresh his herbs, or thrash recalcitrant creditors perhaps?
Nkoyoyo is not far, 5 kilometres or so, but the road is in appalling condition. Sibusisio congratulated me on the excellence of my 4x4 vehicle and we discussed the relative merits of diesel over petrol.
At Nkoyoyo we picked up an old school friend of Sibusisio’s called Sifiso who climbed into the back of the vehicle to show us the road through Mpolonjeni that would lead to our goal. The Mpolonjeni road was even worse than our road and made more dangerous by the speeding taxis waltzing around cavernous potholes and leaping over aggressive ridges and dips. While relatively stable now this road must be nigh on impassable after heavy rain.
After three or so kilometres we arrived at a collection of three un-plastered concrete block one roomed huts. We parked, and in that familiar manner of studied reluctance deferentially approached an old man clad in a loose shirt, tracksuit pants and broken-down sandals sitting with a younger companion on a grass bank in the shade of a tree.
 Despite his obvious youth in the face of the old man Sibusiso explains with confidence, enthusiasm and verve the purpose of our visit.

Sibusiso explains that I own a cottage beyond Nkoyoyo towards Hawane, and that there is a smaller empty workers cottage obscured by trees some 100 meters distance from the main cottage, and that the building has three windows in it, or rather that until recently there were three windows in it but now there are only three gapping holes where the window frames used to be and that we do not know who has stolen these window frames, but it happened over a period of perhaps four weeks and we (Sibusiso and I) are very upset about this state of affairs and would like the frames to be returned and would also dearly like to see the people responsible for this heinous crime in the flesh and to see them roundly condemned as criminals and be suitably punished, and anyway we are also fearful that further such crimes may be committed in the future.

Sibusiso explains that I own a cottage beyond Nkoyoyo 
towards Hawane . . 
At least I must assume that this is what he is saying, because the entire proceedings take place in siSwati with occasional brief translation for my benefit, and the breathless explanation has gone on for an awfully long time.
I had expected the old man to listen to our tale and make an appointment for a later date and an insitu inspection, but no, this does not happen. He dons a long beaded necklace with what look like sharks teeth (but aren’t) around his neck and under his arm like a bandolier.
I am a rationale being, a family man, a law abiding, respected (I think!) and responsive member of society. A cat loving person with two university degrees and membership of a number of learned societies who has demonstrated a capability and willingness to change the odd nappy or two. I am sitting in a hut in rural Swaziland consulting a traditional Sangoma about the case of the missing window frames.

If I pinch myself hard enough I will wake up . . . except I don’t want to!

Friday, 15 November 2013

A Spam Too Far

Where had I got to before – on the verge of blogging when the only traumas were related to spel cheques and to utterly useless help pages with labyrinthine links accessed from blue underlined portals

At that point I had a grand total of one post and from that point on I was hooked. Hooked like an armchair cricketer with a shelf full of Wisdens Cricketer’s Almanac at my elbow completely obsessed with statistics.

I have bored family and cafĂ© life witless with constant updates of the number of “views” my blog has had. The studied off-hand opening gambit of “I’d just like to report that I have had xxx views of my blog” was initially met with genuine interest, then polite interest, then polite barely disguised disinterest, and finally with no interest whatsoever, and latterly I find people have to frantically find the toilet or need to get to the shops ‘before they close’. Even the animals are growing restless with this admittedly daily statistical litany.

But then there is the geography! Blogger, the platform from which this particular post is being “launched” provides information about where in the world views or hits are happening. To alleviate the glazed looks after reports on viewing frequency I do manage to elicit genuine responses when I can say with all honesty. . “and I’ve been read in 51 countries!” “Really?” people say dabbing their eyes to remove the tears of boredom.  “Yes – Bahrain, Belgium, Bolivia, Botswana, and Brazil” I sing out alliteratively.

So after three months, 20 posts and 2,500 hits and a world of a million readers just waiting to be captured I thought I’d got it cracked!

But no I hadn’t. 

It had taken me hours of effort to get to this zenith of success. Hours of heartbreak and tantrums, not to say tears. My newly acquired son-in-law who has proved to be an inexhaustible supply of IT knowledge is, I am sure, questioning the wisdom of marrying into this family; because it is he who has been on the receiving end of wailing and teeth gnashing emails that rail about the vicissitudes of computer-speak.  Evening after evening I sat snorting and snarling at the computer as I engaged with  a whole variety of help pages and forums (for the purist this should surely be fora and I fully agree – but the spel chequer won’t allow it and anyway no one else seems to mind). All this online assistance served only to confuse even further and I tumbled like Alice down one blue-lined and underlined rabbit hole after another, each becoming more foetid then the next with over-information, until I slung out another foul-mouthed and repetitive email distress rocket to the now long suffering and eternally patient son-in-law.

It was round about this time of high anxiety and even higher blood pressure that I discovered that I was reading the word ‘varnish’ on a computer software ‘help’ page, a word that I felt would have been happier in the context of wooden floors and antique furniture. I was so confused that I fled to Wikipedia for intellectual support and protection and was given none. I could not understand the language let alone the explanation. “Now is the time,” I mused, “to say stuff it and stick to what you know and stop trying to be clever.  Just carry on writing and don’t worry about trying to increase audience figures.” And so I did.

Then I discovered a potential measure of success – an indicator of a blog gone right perhaps. An increasing number of bizarre spam messages.

Does this curious and irritating phenomenon happen at a certain threshold of views I wonder? It certainly explains the unusual number of views that I started getting from Poland, Russia and the Ukraine because a number of spams have included hyper links to a variety of web pages with addresses that have no vowels, allude to dodgy pharmaceutical products, and have the telling “pl” and “ru” suffix in the domain names. I appear to have become a vehicle for flogging genuine Louis Vuiton Handbags (genuine - yea right – tell that to Louis), green coffee extract (which sounds faintly poisonous), something to do with self-tantric massage (the mind boggles – in a rather exciting sort of a way), and making a modest income in US dollars from home while being happily encumbered with bumptious toddlers. Other than the extreme annoyance that these advertising bandits are using my space – my effort to hawk someone else’s wares, not even their own mind, someone else’s, I fail to see what possible income there can be derived from posting clearly devious adverts about obviously faux Hermes and Gucci leather products on an intensely passionate (so I would like to believe) piece on the decimation of the world rhino population. No one but a blithering idiot (obviously excluding handbag salespersons) – or a not particularly subtle piece of software could make such an ironic mistake  . . .  but there you have it – nut-shelled and ship-shaped – there is nothing subtle about this business

What characterises these communications is that they are mostly empty folksy comments couched in bland terms designed (I suppose) to fit in with almost any blog posting and supposed to persuade the reader  to open their own innocuous blog which is entitled “health tips and green coffee beans” (green coffee again!)  but actually leads you to an Uzbekistani porno page -  I know because I’ve been there . . . once. Oh and they are all signed by the same nice chap named “Anonymous.”

I recently had a lovely spam, from my old mate Anonymous, which read:-
"We're a group of volunteers and opening a new scheme in our community. Your web site provided us with valuable information to work on. You have done an impressive job and our whole community will be grateful to you. Feel free to visit my web site “Arizona outlet malls"
I was so busy feeling pleased and successful that I almost forget that the posting that Anonymous was referring to was another piece of whimsy about throwing balls for dogs but I do hope that it has added value to their community efforts . . .

So, here I sit after having now been blogging for a little under 10 months. I’ve posted 43 articles of a variety of subjects with an admitted bias towards my cat, mountaineering and trekking, and fat-headed attempts at engagement with the “third world.” The number of hits I have had far exceeds my initial (admittedly low) expectations, and recently the daily hit rate has accelerated. However I have received only 29 "real" comments and a massive 780 or so spam comments - all of which have been filtered out by Blogger - for which I am very grateful! But I wonder to what extent my hard work is being read by real people as against spamming machines?

I blog because I enjoy writing. If I do get comments then it is to an extent a validation of what I have done - which is very nice. I don't think however that I am writing and posting to elicit comments. Broadly the validation of my efforts lies, in my mind, in the number of hits that I have achieved - and it is the uncertainty surrounding those statistics that is exercising my mind.

I don't really mind the hundreds of senseless spam comments that are trying to persuade me to purchase erectile dysfunction cream but it is the implication in my mind that "hits" are in fact "bot-hits" and the thought of that pisses me off!

A last comment from faithful old Anonymous –
“Outstanding post but I was wanting to know if you could write a litte more on this topic? I'd be very thankful if you could elaborate a little bit more. Appreciate it! Have a look at my blog:- Trying to get pregnant.”  This on a posting about eating snake . . .
What the hell - so long as I can entertain or stimulate real readers the spammers, can as far as I’m concerned all go to hell in a handbag, a dodgy Louis Vuiton one!

What do you think?

Ivan the Spammer, busy at it in his cellar
in Uzbekistan.
With acknowledgement to the late Austin Hleza