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Saturday 28 May 2011

In Praise Of Adaptability

My father loved books not only for their contents but also as objects. He loved the smell of new books. He could also love some productions that were so old the insects that had once lived in them were no more than stains – but the content, Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, or Bacon’s Essays, for example, had to be strong enough to bear the ageing of the book. At one time he regularly used petals as book marks.

I never quite shared that enthusiasm for the book as an object, but yes, there are some beautiful, even sumptuous productions. One childhood favourite that I remember was a large illustrated edition of A Thousand and One Nights.

But when words alone are involved I only want something clear and clean to read.

Now, for my birthday, my very amiable children have given me a bottle of champagne – and a Kindle.

I have to say I love it. These days I like to set the size of the print. I’ve bought too many books with tiny print in the last few years. Often, if I'm using a reading lamp, I get a distracting shadow of the print on the next page behind the words I'm trying to pick out.

Now my reading can easily be held in one hand, is as clear as I like it and ‘turning’ a page dislodges no dust or paper scurf.

Reading about a book and downloading it within seconds is gratifyingly novel. Not having to use a book mark is also a sort of freedom.

Does the Kindle change the reading experience? I don’t think it does, though I will say I am enjoying the re-arrangement of the experience.

I’d even say, so far at least, that it brings me into a more obviously direct contact with the point of a book, its contents. I find I get into the book more quickly – there are less preambles, no distracting cover. Just you and the writer.

Monday 9 May 2011

A Landmark - Innit?

The news that innit has achieved the status of an acceptable Scrabble word made me pause this morning. Do I like it? Instinctively, no. Do I find its usage interesting? Definitely, yes. What is interesting about it is not so much that it has achieved recognition as a way of saying isn’t it?, but that it also serves for doesn’t it?, aren’t we?, won’t you? etc. In other words, it is the equivalent of the French n’est-ce pas?, the Spanish ¿verdad?, the German nicht wahr? and so on. In linguistic terms, surely a landmark moment?

For centuries, the English language has been undergoing a process of simplification – or if you like, streamlining. It’s ancestor, Anglo Saxon, was a highly inflected language – with lots of different word endings to denote tense, person and grammatical case – quite similar in that respect to Latin or modern German. Gradually, most of these endings have been shrugged off, leaving a few remnants – such as the ‘s’ in he/she plays as opposed to I/you/we/they play. English words today are a bit like plasticine – the same word, with no alterations or additions, can be used as a noun, a verb or an adjective, just by changing the order of the words in the sentence. This suppleness, together with its part Latinate, part Anglo-Saxon origin vocabulary, as well as more recent imports from other languages, makes for a marvellous range of possibilities. It has been an evolutionary process and, as I have said elsewhere in this blog, I believe in evolution.

Will I begin to use innit? I don’t think so. Am I in favour of encouraging children to speak correctly so that they can learn how to read more easily? Definitely.

At present, innit seems to be mainly used in the south of England by the young. Will it start to creep over boundaries and begin to be used more widely?

I will observe from a respectful distance and watch it flower or shrivel.

Monday 2 May 2011

Lost Children, Lost Parents

A few days ago Ernesto Sabato died. He was 99 years old, just a couple of months short of his century. He trained as a physicist but turned away from science and became a novelist and essayist. His novel The Tunnel, written in the forties, is probably his most famous, praised by, amongst others, Albert Camus and Graham Greene.

An Argentinian, of Italian and Albanian extraction, he later became more famous for what is usually referred to as The Sabato Report – an examination of the atrocities committed by the military dictatorship that collapsed after The Falklands War – or the Malvinas, as the Argentinians call the islands. He described this task as ‘a descent into hell’, but with scrupulous attention to detail he and others enumerated and detailed what they could.

Most people have heard of ‘los desaparecidos’ - literally the disappeared or ‘missing’ -, a word used to describe those that vanished, that is were killed, during the dictatorship. But today I want to talk of the children of the ‘disappeared’. They were often whisked away and adopted by ‘more suitable’ families. That is, families that supported the dictatorship.

In Argentina, events were so recent and raw that great efforts at reconciliation and examination were made to lay the dictatorship to rest. In Spain however a different approach was used. When Franco died in 1975 almost everybody was keen to move on, turn the page.

I am not recommending one approach or the other. The Argentinian dictatorship was relatively short and brutal. Franco’s was much longer. Either way, casualties and injustices persist. Some of these injustices are finally being faced.

For the entirety of the Franco regime, children were removed from ‘unsuitable’ parents to be ‘re-educated, and placed with 'suitable families’ for adoption - in return for money. As late as the early seventies sedated mothers gave birth to be told later the child had died and the body had already been disposed of. This was, with connivance of governmental and religious authorities, untrue. A month ago in a small town called Chiclana, near Cadiz, a meeting was held to inform those affected about the steps they should take to lodge a complaint with the investigating judge.

There are several hundred, possibly several thousand people in Spain, presently trying to establish contact with a child or parent. In Chiclana, and throughout the province of Cadiz, women of what the Spanish call humilde (humble) origin are coming to terms not just with the idea they were lied to, but also with trying to trace a person they thought was dead.