What a Card!

Just as the sending of holiday postcards has [mercifully] almost completely died out, the sending of Christmas cards is a dwindling occupation, according to recent news articles. Reasons given include the cost of postage and the rise of popularity of social media.

In our household we still send cards, although in a true portent of how life will become in the future, the number of cards we must send has reduced.

Among those of us [mostly older] who uphold the tradition of sending cards there are various methods of acquisition, from those who manufacture their own-from family photos or recycling last years’ to my own preferred method of buying charity cards. The purchase of the cards is probably the most pleasurable part of the process, since many of the major charities’ cards are sold by volunteers in our local library along with wrapping paper, gift tags and so on.

I am sorry to say that my criteria for choosing are not altogether altruistic in the sense that I tend to choose by design rather than choice of charity. This year, for example I was much taken by a design featuring a shelf of books on winter and Christmas-related topics. Steering clear of anything religious I eschew biblical scenes such as the night sky over a fictitious Bethlehem, camels, three ships or whimsical stables. I also reject ‘humour’ in the form of comical Santas, reindeer or snowmen in cartoon poses. I don’t like glittery snow scenes either.

It must be tricky for card designers to produce originality nowadays. Old masters are acceptable, as is anything well drawn or a stunning piece of photography.

With a few exceptions the writing of Christmas cards is not a task I enjoy. The exceptions are the cards for people with whom I have little contact apart from this. There is a friend from student days, a friend from single-dom days [whose card, by tradition must be from one ‘Archers’ character to another; this year it was from Lilian to Justin-a story line only die-hard Archers fans will understand].

In an unprecedented effort, this year’s cards were written early in the month. This was in order to apprise those of a Luddite nature that we have moved house. There are few of them, now-friends and relations who do not use email, let alone social media.

As we begin to receive cards it is clear that the early writing formula has succeeded, with cards from the ‘once-a-year’ contacts plus a smattering of cards from our neighbours. Notable among these is a ‘home-made’ card from the single gentleman at number 2. He has already done sterling service as the basis for the character, Jeffery Marsh in my story ‘The Courtyard Pest’ [see last month’s posts for the story] and has much more potential for creative fact and fiction. The card, in a large manila envelope is shoved through our letter box. An autumn leaf has been glued on to a piece of gold card-clearly recycled from some packaging, although one corner of the card is missing as if torn off. There is some hastily scrawled writing ‘Happy Xmas’ in red, replicated as Happy New Year inside. Has he taken irony to an unprecedented level? We can only hope…

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Say What you Mean!

 

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It’s a rare day now if the news does not begin with some horrific atrocity having been visited upon innocent civilians somewhere in the world. Little wonder that authorities, civil agencies, police forces etc have become jumpy. But I had to laugh when I read the story, today of a young boy in Lancashire having to be questioned by police because he’s written that he lives in a ‘terrorist’ house.

What he’d meant to write was ‘terraced’; an easy mistake to make, although I expect the dreaded OFSTED terrorists would themselves have something to say regarding the spelling standards of the ten year olds at the school. The internet is littered with student howlers such as this, many of them hilarious: Q. Where was the American Declaration of Independence signed? A. At the bottom.

See what I mean? Most demonstrations of lack of understanding are amusing, at least. But I’d guess that this time, with the way people feel about terrorists the incident was less entertaining and rather more uncomfortable. In any case, the family of the child has complained at his having been interrogated.

But it makes me wonder what proportion of the world’s problems are caused by communication difficulties. I’d say most of them [that is if you interpret communication loosely and include body language and cultural customs as well as written and verbal communication]. Then there is a further complication in the explosion of technical means of communication-email, texting and social networking; so many ways that misunderstandings begin. And once a misunderstanding has begun the difficulties can escalate in the tap of a key. I’m not suggesting a terrorist wearing a suicide belt can be talked out of their ‘mission’ here, but I’m guessing that the circumstances that have lead to extremism may have begun with communication mismatches.

I’ve just experienced this with members of my own family whilst attempting to set up a meeting from our spread out locations. I’m guessing the email I sent expressing my own thoughts was interpreted in a negative way that was not meant, resulting in an entire cancellation of said meeting. Ho hum…

For anyone who is interested in writing [anything] all this misinterpretation teaches a strong lesson in how to use language. We should be clear and concise. We should have an unambiguous, unmistakeable image in our own mind before we set finger to keyboard. Our understanding and knowledge of spelling and grammar should be comprehensive.

Verbal interactions involve their own difficulties, don’t they? We evolved using both sound and body language in our dealings, making a phone call more of a tricky action than we imagine. I ‘m sure the blind must become adept at hearing every nuance, double entendre and omission in a conversation but most of the rest of us will not have developed this skill.

Perhaps we should all revert to our most basic ways of showing others what we think or feel. After crying, the first thing a baby learns is to smile. We can’t smile in emails, texts or phone calls but hey-help is at hand with emoticons. There you go! Forget Esperanto. Use the new universal language.

 

Pass!

One of the phenomena I’ve noticed in the process of getting older is the process of things passing me by. Some of them pass by from my not having noticed them, some from my not liking them and some from my not knowing about them in the first place.

Is this a natural part of ageing? In his dotage my father took impressive steps into the world of new technology when he not only mastered some elements of word processing but also managed email [albeit in a somewhat antiquated manner, beginning all mails with ‘Dear’-letter fashion, unable to quite take in the informality]. He never got to grips with surfing the net, fearing the exposure of his personal details, perhaps his previous role as secretary to the parish council or membership of the village history society.

The phenomenon of ‘Things passing me by’ has crept upon me despite efforts to keep up. I feel it is the tip of a large iceberg, the top of which is visible, the underparts carrying a mass of culture, technology and who-knows-what-else I cannot even dream of. But here are some of the items on the top-the visible-part of the obstacle:

  1. I know what a smartphone is. I own one. But aside from texts it is rarely used, or even switched on, except for an occasional look at internet, as long as it is not too onerous to access. Most of my smartphone is a mystery. I don’t use the camera. It took me over a year to be able to swipe to answer a call [my call-answering is still not reliable]. I haven’t been able to memorise the number. It has passed me by.
  2. I understand that apps are applications. I just don’t use them. It seems that as soon as I have made the effort to acquire one something else has superseded it. ‘WHAT?’ friends and relations cry, ‘You don’t use ‘Picsnap’ or ‘Instabomb’? How do you manage to live? Surely everyone does ‘Smype’? No, they don’t.
  3. Hit TV programmes. I like thrillers. I like corny, old-fashioned cop detective shows, [like soon-to-be-axed ‘New Tricks’]. I can’t get to grips with ‘Game of Thrones’-nor do I want to.
  4. Talent shows. X-Factor, Britain’s Got Talent et al. Contrived, hyped and wearisome. The only exception I make is for ‘Strictly’. I recognise few of the ‘celebs’ but I like the dancing, although the programme, with its padding, pretend humour and feeble, contrived banter is nowhere near as good as it was in the beginning. I do not, however feel enslaved to watch every episode.
  5. Contemporary music. By which I mean Rapping [I know it is all social comment/poetry and all that, but I can’t conceive of the likes of Tiny Someone, Master Monotony or Kanter East as actual music], Plastic pop [of the ‘boy’ and ‘girl’ band kind] and that monotonous, thrumming, repetitive techno you are so often assaulted by in European bars. Give me a blast of Eric Burden delivering his stark rendition of ‘Bring it on Home to me’ any day of the week.
  6. Piri-Piri chicken, Nando’s etc. Where and when did Piri-Piri spring from? I went into a Nando’s for a coffee once.
  7. Dresses worn with leggings. No. Pass by. Please.

If all this sounds curmudgeonly it is probably because I am becoming a curmudgeon. Kay Sera.

It’s Only Words

                Does it matter if language disappears? Languages, of course have been disappearing at the rate of knots for many years. Some have never had any written form, so can only be sustained by anyone who cares enough to perpetuate them. There are around 6,700 languages spoken in the world but half may be lost before the century ends. Many would say it was a good thing, a blessing; that it might lead to less misunderstanding, more global cohesion, but our language is what defines us. It is our frame of reference and the means on which our culture rests. Cavemen communicated with their paintings on the walls, their own language, then came hieroglyphics and so written language developed in myriad directions.

                As a child at primary school, learning ‘English’ in the fifties, the exercises I undertook were very different to those taught and practised in schools today. There was nothing specific to address ‘speaking and listening’. Our early writing was ‘copy writing’. Those who’d whisked through their first set of reading books [‘Janet and John’ for me] and picked up the basics could begin their own amoebic scribbling, writing ‘news’ or rudimentary stories. We laboured over grey workbooks, completing page after page of exercises that involved completing phrases and sayings eg ‘a stitch in time saves ____’ or ‘many hands make light ____’; or we’d have had to learn collective nouns- ‘a ______ of geese’, ‘a _____ of sheep’, ‘a ______ of fish’ –or even, ‘a flock of _____’!

                Oddly, I enjoyed completing these exercises. They were like games or puzzles to me, except that I was not allowed to race ahead with them, or if I did my prize was to ‘help’ someone who was struggling, not a task I relished.

                I would guess there are few children-or adults these days who would know what the collective noun for porpoises is or what you should not put all your eggs in. But does any of it matter? I feel that it does, because the more our language shrinks, the less we have at our disposal to make ourselves understood, and misunderstandings are the cause of many of the world’s troubles.

                Texting, emails, symbols for words, abbreviations, acronyms-these are all the tools of expediency that we’ve come to expect, and from which we can never look back. This is progress. But I still say that the bedrock of language must never be dumbed down, never be forgotten, or we will have less to communicate with than the cavemen did!