Monday 3 October
I have acquired a new 'smart’ phone (not of the combustible variety). The only trouble is that the phone is smarter than the user. I soon discovered that I was struggling to find my way around its various functions. The retailer advised me that I could book a free 'guru’ appointment, at which one of their experts could give me a guided tour. Armed with a list of questions, I duly met Hashid, a very pleasant and helpful young man. He was clearly used to dealing with technological duffers like me and knew how to put them at their ease. The points that were confusing me were soon explained and I left the store feeling much more confident. After a day or two of behaving like a child with a new toy, I have settled down to use the device sensibly. I shall, however, refrain from displaying it ostentatiously in public places.
Wednesday 5 October
The Scottish Government is seeking views on the governance of the educational system, including the relationship between local authorities and schools, the powers of head teachers and the role of national bodies such as the Scottish Qualifications Authority, Education Scotland and the General Teaching Council for Scotland. Towards this end, a consultation document has been issued, with a foreword by John Swinney, cabinet secretary for education. It has come in for criticism from some parents on the grounds that it is full of 'insider’ professional language and that some of the questions are only meaningful to those who have a good understanding of how the current arrangements work. At a meeting in Glasgow one parent said that 'the questions are completely impenetrable’, while Eileen Prior, executive director of the Scottish Parent Teacher Council, commented: 'Scottish education is full of jargon and there has been no attempt to adapt or remove it in this document'.
The poor quality of the writing in many official documents has been apparent for years. It takes many forms, not just the difficulty it often presents to those outside the policy community. The tone is often boastful and assertive, with little supporting evidence. There are clumsy repetitions of words and phrases. Instead of a coherent case, certain key concepts are employed to control the discourse (in the present case these include excellence, equity, empowerment, partnership, collaboration). Where questions are posed, these often serve to limit rather than open up discussion. All of these features demonstrate the use, and abuse, of language, in the exercise of power.
An ironic follow-up to the adverse comments on the governance consultation was a response by a government spokeswoman. She was reported as saying: 'The government review is an opportunity to openly debate how we can best empower parents, teachers and communities and ensure we have a system in place that is accessible and easy to understand'. Leaving aside the split infinitive ('to openly debate’), which is inelegant but not a hanging offence, this response not only fails to address parental concerns but demonstrates the same linguistic infelicities as the original document.
Tuesday 11 October
'Escape to the country’ is the title of a popular television programme which plays to the romantic idea that rural living is much more attractive than the urban rat race. Quiet surroundings, open spaces, pleasant views and a slower pace of life are all seen as part of the appeal. The downside – poor transport, few shops and limited access to medical facilities – tends to be forgotten. And the notion that people who live in the country are much nicer than their urban counterparts might be questioned. Agatha Christie’s fictional village, St Mary Mead, in which her amateur detective Miss Marple exercised her formidable skills, turned out to be a hotbed of malicious gossip, strong passions and vengeful actions. Behind the pretty exteriors of the chocolate-box cottages, lurked all sorts of destructive rivalries and jealousies.
Christie’s portrayal has recently been endorsed by another writer, Anthony Horowitz. He has said that villages are often full of anger and hatred and serve as 'incubators for the worst human traits’. Mistrust and suspicion can fester and build up to provoke extreme behaviour. Whereas in a city, negative feelings are dissipated because of the many demands of urban life, in a rural setting they can easily get out of proportion and lead to malicious actions. The darker side of human nature does not cease to show itself just because people live in an attractive landscape.
Horowitz cited a line from a Sherlock Holmes story in which it is said that 'nowhere is more evil than an English village’ and added 'I live in Norfolk so I should know’. He would be well advised to check social networking sites to see if this remark has provoked any hostile responses from the locals. Some readers may be tempted to claim that Scottish villages do not exhibit the same tendencies and that rural Scots are uniformly friendly and charming. That view should be added to our growing list of national fantasies.
Friday 14 October
I once received a compliment about my writing – at least I think it was a compliment – from a colleague who said that it was 'as smooth as calm water on the surface, but there were broken bottles lurking just underneath’. What I took from this was that there was usually a sharp edge to my writing which might not be apparent on initial inspection.
I was reminded of my colleague’s remark on reading a spirited attack on academic language in the current issue of the Oldie magazine. The author gave examples of bloated, impenetrable sentences, full of abstract nouns and with no sense of style. He attacked the 'wordiness, pomposity and obscurity’ of much academic writing and the proliferation of 'unreadable articles’ in many journals.
The process of accepting articles for publication in an academic journal is an interesting one. Submissions are generally subject to an anonymous refereeing process, involving at least two people who are knowledgeable about the subject. At its best, this can work well, with constructive comments and helpful suggestions as to how the article might be improved before publication. As someone who has been through this process many times, both as the writer of articles and as a referee, I am quite well placed to comment on positive and negative aspects of the experience.
On one occasion, for example, I submitted an article to an Australian journal, received favourable feedback within 10 days, with a few recommendations for additional material. I revised the piece and it was accepted by return. By contrast, another Australian journal took many months to offer comment on a collaborative article written with two colleagues. When the referees’ reports did appear, one was reasonable, but suggested a number of changes, while the other was decidedly hostile. The paper, it was said, was insufficiently abstract and theoretical and should not be accepted for publication. This referee’s report was very badly written, exhibiting the kind of pretension complained about by the contributor to the Oldie magazine. My co-authors and I did some more work on our article and submitted it to another journal, where it was soon accepted.
The academic community, like many other professions, contains its fair share of people obsessed with their own importance and determined to defend their territory. Anonymity allows them to be unpleasant, in some cases downright nasty, without fear of reprisal. Some like to see many citations of their own work when they are refereeing articles. Others are resentful of anything that might seem to challenge their particular expertise. One powerful professor (now dead) used to boast that nothing could be published in his field unless it had first crossed his desk for approval. Arguably that had the effect of creating an intellectual 'cul de sac’, from which that area of inquiry is still trying to recover.
Monday 17 October
I had been looking forward to watching the television programme reporting the results of a poll to determine Scotland’s favourite books. Readers were asked to make their choice from a list of 30 drawn up by a trio of literary luminaries. The programme took the form of a countdown of the top 10, which included such diverse texts as James Hogg’s 'Confessions of a Justified Sinner’, Muriel Spark’s 'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie’, Irvine Welsh’s 'Trainspotting’ and Alasdair Gray’s 'Lanark’. There is bound to be a subjective element in any such exercise and a separate survey carried out by the Guardian newspaper produced a different outcome, with only three of the same books featuring in the top 10 of both lists. But I suppose the main point is not to reach agreement but to promote books and encourage more people to share in the pleasure of reading.
I must confess, however, that the programme disappointed me. The BBC poll was supposed to be about the preferences of members of the public, but no ordinary reader appeared on the programme. Instead, several of the books were featured through readings and recommendations by various 'celebrities’ (actors, entertainers, a musician). Those who did not merit such treatment had to make do with commentary by the presenter, Kirsty Wark. The climax was the revelation that 'Sunset Song’ by Lewis Grassic Gibbon topped the poll. And who appeared to promote it? None other than our first minister, Nicola Sturgeon. What a coincidence that Ms Sturgeon’s favourite book just happens to be the nation’s as well. We were told by her that the heroine of 'Sunset Song’, Chris Guthrie, personifies 'the story of Scotland’ and that the book should be seen as an ‘early feminist novel’.
I too think highly of the work of Lewis Grassic Gibbon, though ‘Sunset Song’ would not have been top of my list. What I object to, however, is a programme about books being used to provide a platform for a politician who is not exactly short of media opportunities. Is this an example of BBC Scotland executives rolling over in the face of criticisms of its coverage of Scottish politics? If so, I doubt if it will impress many viewers.
Friday 21 October
This week, to the astonishment of my family and friends, I have been pronounced 'normal’. What has led to this unlikely conclusion? For some years, I have been advised by doctors that my blood pressure is on the high side and prescribed various medications. All of these produced unpleasant side-effects so, when I retired, I resolved to stop taking them. I told my GP and accepted full responsibility for any consequences. I immediately began to feel much better. Earlier this year, however, after a routine check, I was persuaded to resume medication. Within a few hours of taking one low-dosage tablet, I felt quite unwell and was below par for a fortnight.
At that point, I decided to move to another medical practice. My new doctor put me on a 24-hour monitor, which gives a more accurate picture than a single reading. The results indicated that I was within the expected range for my age. I was advised that no medication was required and that I should 'maintain an active lifestyle’.
Naturally this was good news and I couldn’t resist sharing it with a number of people. I was brought down to earth by the reaction of a woman with whom I often exchange pleasantries. She said: 'Don’t get too excited. All this indicates is that your blood pressure is normal. It tells us nothing about your mental state'.
Monday 24 October
I put the finishing touches to a talk I am due to give tomorrow to the Ayr branch of Opportunities in Retirement, an organisation for the over 50s. Some months ago, in response to an invitation to address the members, I offered the title, 'Writing as retirement therapy: confessions of a mischief maker’. Now that the occasion is imminent and I have reviewed my material, I feel that perhaps my title promises more than I can deliver. However, I shall do my best to entertain as well as to offer some insights into the pleasures and pitfalls of writing. I also have a few painless exercises for members of the audience to encourage them to have a go themselves. If I manage to avoid turning them into a lynch mob, I shall regard that as a satisfactory outcome.