Alcohol as a hobby


, ,

A feature in the ‘I’ newspaper looked at the rise and rise of the sober student.  Or, to be more exact, the trend towards alcohol abstinence among young people.  The writer’s sources extolled the benefits of avoiding the health issues and social embarrassment that accompany alcohol consumption.  The financial wins – not having to buy rounds of drinks – got a mention too.

But an important point was missed out completely.  Many people like to drink alcohol not because they want to get pleasantly sleepy, but to enjoy the fun and interest that comes from discovering grape varieties, wine regions or whisk(e)y styles.

Non-alcoholic drinks, save coffee, fail dismally to give us the sort of deep tasting experiences that facilitate convivial discussion and note-comparing.  Drinking alcohol is not just about intoxication or chillaxation.  It’s also a perfectly respectable and worthwhile hobby for anyone who appreciates layered, complex tastes and the fascinating culture surrounding its production and marketing.

red wine with copy space


On seeing ‘Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri’


Going to the cinema to see Three Billboards outside Ebbing, Missouri perked me up on a dark and wet Sunday afternoon, but not because it’s a jolly film.  The humour is of the blackest kind.  Grief and guilt hang over the lead character, whose daughter has met a violent end.  But it was absorbing couple of hours, with the strong performances, compelling characters and well-paced plotting adding up to a heady concoction and giving me plenty to think about on the journey home (in the rain, again).

Three Billboards reminded me of one or two other recent movies, notably ‘Nocturnal Animals’.  I wish I’d been able to go to the cinema more often, then I could put my finger on exactly what genre is emerging here, and what to call it.  The tropes are ‘redneck’ towns, desolate roads, murder-rape, grieving parents, revenge and redemption.  The cops are crooked and nasty individuals, or crooked and decent, or a nuanced mix of the two.  A man may start at the villainous end of the spectrum only to clamber his way safely to the moral high ground well before the denouement.  Intriguingly – and maybe it is not a coincidence – both Three Billboards and Nocturnal Animals feature a police officer whose terminal illness gives him a free pass to ignore the rules and do whatever the hell it takes to get some justice for the victim’s loved one.

The small town in Three Billboards is no ‘city of stars’ and the characters are resolutely unglamorous.  But make no mistake: the cast deserves a place at the glitziest award ceremonies this year.


A company name always takes a verb in the singular… or does it?


, ,

If you do a lot of writing in your day job, you’re going to be mentioning companies, organisations, government departments – that kind of thing.  And sooner or later, you’ll be asking

Does a company or organisation take a singular or plural verb?

Is it…

  • Microsoft keeps its customers informed
  • Microsoft keep their customers informed?
  • The United Nations is a waste of space
  • The United Nations are a waste of space?

Many people have got mildly stressed over this singular/plural dilemma.

That’s why I thought I’d do my bit to clear up the confusion by taking a look at whether and when a company etc takes a singular or plural verb.

US v British

If you’re from the USA you’re probably scratching your head and wondering what the problem is.  For you, a company name nearly always goes with a singular verb.

However, speakers of British English tend to use either singular or plural.  The latter is especially popular in speech.

I’m afraid there are no hard-and-fast rules (then again, perhaps this is a good thing).  The most respected style guides vary.  But I like to have a rule of thumb, and mine says that a company or organisation is ‘it’.  In other words, the verb should be in the singular, as in Microsoft is doing well (after all, Microsoft is a company, and we wouldn’t say ‘the company are doing well’, would we?).  Similarly, The United Nations consists of many members, but we should consider it a single entity.

Here’s an example from Wikipedia, with both the verb and the pronoun in the singular:

  • Basalt Rock Company… was founded in 1920…It later branched out into the ship building business

In theory, the same rationale should apply to a collective noun such as team, where a collection of parts are considered a single whole:

  • Manchester United is doing well this season (as it happens, Man Utd is a company as well as a team)

However, British English loves to use the plural – especially for its sports teams, as in this line from the Daily Mirror the other day:

  • Manchester United are interested in 16-year-old Benfica forward Umaro Embalo

So is it simply that – a matter of personal preference or which side of the Atlantic you call home?

What are we talking about – the company or a bunch of employees?

Well, there’s actually a bit of logic to steer you towards either the singular or the plural.  In both the USA and UK, it’s good practice to base your choice on whether you mean it’s the company as a single entity that is thinking/saying/doing in the context of the sentence, or whether you are referring to the individuals (or at least some of them) within the company.

  • The Big Pizza Company wants to expand overseas (singular)
  • The Big Pizza Company are at loggerheads over the proposal to cut the pay of middle-tier managers (plural)

See the difference?  In the second sentence, we’re talking about the parts that make up some or all of a company.

I have my own favourite two-second test to decide whether to use the singular or plural.  If the company is in ‘business-y’ mode – reporting profits and losses, plans and mergers and so on – then it’s a single body:

  • Biggs Agency has reported a 10% increase in sales (singular)

But if the sentence is dealing with ‘people’ stuff – internal activities, office parties – I think of the company as 6, 12 or 300 individuals (any number, really), so I use the plural.

  • Biggs Agency are having their regular Friday night drinks in an unusual place this week (plural)

Do you have your own preference?




The look of a teacher


“Are you a teacher?” the woman at the station ticket office called out to me as I walked away from her window, tickets in hand, in search of a coffee.

She had never seen me before.  I wasn’t accompanied by uniformed school-age children.  No mortar-board perched on my head, no chalky patches stained my fingers.

“No, I’m not.  Why do you ask?”

“You look like one, that’s all”

I was wearing black shoes, grey trousers, blue-and-white checked shirt.  Nothing about me screamed ‘teacher’.  Maybe my specs lent me an academic air, but myopia doesn’t pick and choose between professions.

I was flummoxed.

But she wasn’t way off target.  For much of last year and the first six months of 2017 I was a teacher of English to speakers of other languages, mainly to corporate types.

I returned to her window.  “Well, actually I am one in a way.  I got back recently from teaching English as a foreign language in Mexico City.  But I’m not a teacher-teacher.”

Over coffee, I mused over her curious question.  Somehow, in the half-minute we spent discussing my best ticket option, she must have picked up some sort of teacher vibe.

I’d like to know precisely what it was.  I am also wondering whether I’ve become like a teacher because I’ve been teaching or whether I’ve always had a teacherly aura about me (despite being a latecomer to that line of work).

Over the years, a few people I’ve known well have pointed to my patience and liking for grammar, suggesting that I should consider teaching (they have Latin tuition in mind).

But neither my personality nor liking for words had been on display while I was buying my tickets.  So whatever possessed the staff member to say what she did remains a mystery to me.

Perhaps I should have questioned her further, just as any switched-on teacher would do.

teacher image


We all need some mystery in our lives


, ,

I’ve always liked wandering around churches.  Whether simple country church or great cathedral, a visit will leave me with a blend of happy-sad melancholy evoked by the memorials to the dead mixed with gratitude for the moment of rest from the crazy world outside.

I’m not a practising Christian, and find the faith’s main tenets hard to get my head around.  I’m probably in the ‘pious agnostic’ category, though leaning very definitely towards an abstract spirituality.  The intellectual sticking points, such as the Virgin Birth, are one thing: but the other real problem for me is that the average British church does little to foster my spirituality and even less to help me experience anything profound.

A sense of mystery is integral to Christianity.  To stir a man’s sense of mystery is to open up the path that leads him to a more spiritual life.  It’s in this respect that I find Anglicanism wanting.  The Church of England’s buildings and services may move me, but they only move me in an earthly fashion.  They have little in the way of other-worldliness to conjure up something greater in my soul.

I don’t spend time in Orthodox churches, but it could well be that the Byzantine icons associated with them would have an altogether more powerful effect on me than anything Anglican.  As the writer Vesna Goldsworthy suggested on Radio 3’s Private Passions earlier this year, these icons may be ‘flat’ in the sense that they don’t take advantage of the rules of perspective, but their pattern-following, stylized quality encourages the viewer to surrender to the mystery of the divine.  They are not really painted to be scrutinised by us, the viewer on the outside.  They exist for God; in Vesna Goldsworthy’s words, ‘your individuality doesn’t’ matter’.  For them to do their spiritual work on us, we first need to remove our individuality.

At a very different place on the Christian spectrum, I am surprised to be drawn to the slightly kitschy effigies of Christ found in, for example, Mexican cathedrals.  I am quite sure that if I attended a service in a suitably prepared state of mind, with the right music to help me along, ornamentation like this could do for me what Protestant churches cannot.  That is, provide the visual stimulus necessary to suspend my worldliness and lift my soul to a higher plane.


15th century Albanian icon

A university challenge


, , ,

University should not be pre-job training but an opportunity to study something challenging and interesting

Many teenagers who picked up their GCSE grades a couple of weeks ago will now be turning their attention to the start of their A-level courses this month.  Some may be thinking further ahead, about what they are going to spend their three years at university studying.

For some, the course will be business studies.  For others, psychology or marketing or media.  All very interesting, I’m sure, but for me ‘business’ and ‘marketing’ and so on belong in job descriptions and not in university degree titles.  By choosing these sorts of courses, students are shirking a valuable rite of passage and missing out on a time that should be devoted to immersion in less obviously practical subjects, a time when they should be studying for the sake of studying.

I can appreciate why the youth of today (God, that makes me sound old) veer towards business studies or advertising or similarly fashionable subjects.  It’s to get a head start in the overcrowded job market.  Yet it’s almost cheating, like an athlete who sets off before the starter fires his gun.  Meanwhile, students who spent university reading Jane Austen or getting to grips with Hegel and Kant are left scrabbling to catch up.

I’ll admit that I’m biased towards that most ‘useless’ bunch of subjects, the arts, partly because I wasn’t any good at the sciences (or, to be frank, at anything really apart from Latin).  I share the view that university should be a time for plunging ourselves into studies that are not necessarily useful in the old nine to five but which will leave us feeling intellectually or culturally enriched.  English literature, philosophy, or even a good solid non-arts subject like maths.

Students can then start to learn something more vocational once they are out in the real world.  They’re plenty young enough when they graduate.


So now, students: for the ultimate arts subject, how about history?  History has it all.  When it’s not drumming vital reasoning skills into your young minds, it’ll develop that great if now sadly rare skill of writing well and constructing essays.  The study of history will get you considering more than one point of view.  It’s a discipline the Twitter ranters could do with learning.  What’s more, even if you can’t stop yourself rejecting out of hand the other guy’s way of thinking, history will still help you to articulate your own.

This reminds me that I was quite impressed by the tape recordings an A-level history teacher used to play of distinguished professors firmly but politely and eloquently disagreeing with each other on the subject of the Wars of the Roses.  One even claimed that there was no such thing as the Wars of the Roses.  Even better, these conversations inspired Rob Newman and David Baddiel’s TV spoof (hugely popular and much imitated in my university days) in which a drily erudite discussion of the Enclosures Act between two crusty old dons degenerates into an exchange of puerile insults.

But back to your history studies.  The mental tools you will use to interpret what you read in your history books can be applied to texts you encounter in the news media.  All those troubles that are talked about now, from fighting in Afghanistan to white nationalism in the USA, are consequences of events that occurred and policies that were enacted centuries ago.  The world affairs of today are links to and reminders of the past.  And they are the ‘history’ of the future.

So I like to think that a good number of successful GCSE students will in due course put their names down for history degrees.  At the very least I hope that enrolment numbers in 2019 will hold up well against previous years.

For this to pass, students will have to stand firm in the face of parents hassling them into opting for lesser courses, those that look more obviously relevant to their first office jobs.


A few good things


Side-by-side with the tinned beans in my mother’s kitchen cupboard were some interesting foodstuffs given to her by my brother.  There seemed no point waiting for Mum to open them, so I did the honours myself.

Here’s the background: last Christmas my brother bought a variety of quality goods and put them in a box for her.  He did the same for me, too.  The previous year he gave her a generous assortment of goodies pre-chosen by some hamper company.

These ‘luxury’ items, which were at risk of passing their best-before dates unappreciated, have given me small but notable moments of happiness.  More importantly, they point to a possible source of consolation in the years of middle age that stretch somewhat dauntingly ahead of me.

For what I need to do is buy the best I can afford of anything – anything at all, even when we’re talking little things like biscuits or sausages.  In fact, especially when we’re talking little things like biscuits and sausages.  They’re luxuries that won’t make a huge difference to my financial health (there is only so much one can spend on a biscuit), but could have a disproportionately beneficial effect on my sense of wellbeing.

It is not about showing off and splashing out, or spending much more than I need to.  It’s more to do with valuing something because you had to pay a little more for it.  A worthy ethic, in a world which over-consumes all manner of cheap tat.

Those Christmas packages have introduced me to nougat from Italy that was chewy yet light with a taste bursting with almonds.  I’ve had good coffee, good Cornish salt and tinned fish of the superior kind.  I’ve been perking up lowlier food with help from a jar of subtle smoky barbeque sauce.

One warm August day, the festive season just a blurry memory, I opened a tub of sugary biscuits from Spain.  I’d never tried these long, hollow cigarrillos de Tolosa before, but had sometimes eaten similarly shaped biscuits.  By the second of the four bites it took me to finish one I had turned away from the book I was reading to give the sweet thing my full attention.  Blimey, I thought.  You’re good.

It was hard to explain exactly why it was good, why it was so much better than its inferior lookalikes.  It didn’t have any special ingredient.  It hadn’t come freshly made from a deli.  All I can say is that the initial crunchiness and ensuing mouthfeel were just spot on.

This trading-up can go further than food, of course.  You can write OK with a cheap biro – but a pleasingly shaped pen that cost you more than 25p is another pen altogether.

If you’ve got considerably more in the bank than me, then how about a handcrafted table?  A flatpack job from a retail park big-name outlet will support your laptop and tea mug quite adequately – but the more bespoke table is more likely to ooze ‘tableness’, to bring quiet pleasure when you stroke an idle finger across its surface.

As a journal devoted to good craftsmanship and slow journalism, perhaps aimed at outdoorish hipster types, suggests in its raison d’etre, it’s all to do with loving ‘the grain of wood and the smell of paper’.

We buy more biscuits than we do tables, naturally.  But here’s a thing: the extra satisfaction fine biscuits bring will make us eat less of them.  So we don’t need to buy as many as before.

Those of us who are single or sharing food with just one or two discerning others don’t have the same concerns as parents of youngsters who wouldn’t know a fine biscuit from an Asda jammy dodger.  That’s why we should not flinch from spending a little more in future, and show our respect for the artisans and purveyors of fine foods by going for quality over quantity.



Putting the apostrophe in its place



There’s no escaping it.  It’s here right now in a street near you

It’s the misplaced apostrophe, widely called the grocer’s apostrophe.

Getting it wrong

Its name is a touch unfair, as grocers are neither better nor worse at grammar than anyone else trying to earn a modest living.  But it’s a grocer’s lot in life to be constantly rewriting his labels as the price of fruit and veg fluctuates.  And so we get:

Apple’s: £2/kg
Brussels’ sprouts: £1.50/kg

In truth, the worst offenders are pubs and restaurants, thanks to the trend for writing menu highlights and witticisms on pavement blackboards (and this doesn’t only happen in urban hipster enclaves).  Sometimes there’s so much writing they need two blackboards.

Just as crime rises as a city’s population expands, so it is with words: the more there are, the more the chances of mistakes occurring.

So we have offences such as:

Todays’ special’s
Its summer! Try our salad’s
Salmon with new potatoe’s

Getting it right

Let’s assume that you too have been guilty of getting it all wrong.  How can you do better in future?

To start with you need to know that we use the apostrophe in two very different circumstances.

Firstly, contraction.  It stands in for missing letters.  To make ‘It is summer’ shorter, we take out an ‘i’ which is why our specials board above should read ‘It’s summer!’

It’s no different to ‘do not’ becoming ‘don’t’, or all those negatives of other verbs like ‘should’ or ‘could’ (althought ‘will not’/’won’t’ is a strange one).

The reason for the errors in our grocer examples – the unnecessary apostrophes – is less obvious, but still quite simple to grasp once you know it.  He or she has forgotten that the plural of apple is just apples.

Sprouts have a connection with the capital of Belgium, which is why they are Brussels sprouts.  They are in no more need of an apostrophe than Worcestershire sauce (Worcestershire’s sauce would be a bit of mouthful, pronunciation-wise).

restaurant blackboard

Now to our second circumstance – possession, or ownership.  If the house belongs to the man we say ‘the man’s house’.  If the noun is in the plural, and that plural ends in an ‘s’, (some plurals, like ‘children’, don’t end in ‘s’) we shift the apostrophe from before to after that ‘s’.  Hence the boy’s treehouse becomes the boys’ treehouse.

In fact, even this possessive use is a kind of contraction.  At least, it is if you go back to Old English, where they used an -es ending to indicate possession: the boyes treehouse.  You could think of the apostrophe as standing in for the ‘e’.

So there you have it, my quick guide to the apostrophe, whose abuse causes such pain to the grammarian.

Which leads me to wonder this: is there really such thing as a grammarian?  It doesn’t sound like a real job.  But maybe we’ll deal with that matter another day.


Pain-free ways to practise your Spanish



I nearly called this how to practise your Spanish without too much (S)pain.  Ho ho!

But seriously, many adult learners find that getting to grips with a new language is not exactly laugh-a-minute stuff.

Of course, there has to be a bit of grimy work there somewhere.  For instance, when memorising irregular verbs.  But if you want to stick at your language learning long-term, you’ve got to enjoy it.  It’s no different to starting an exercise regime.  Make it fun and sociable, and you’re much less likely to get fed up and chuck it all in.

You have an advantage compared to language learners of previous generations.  It’s called the internet.  So step #1 should be to make the web your language buddy and bookmark some sites you reckon could be useful.  The online dictionary Spanishdict will conjugate verbs for you as well as give some pretty good examples of how new words can be used in a sentence.  Sign up to get its ‘word of the day’ mails.

If you find grammar daunting, or just consider Spanish verb forms a bit of a turn-off, then I’m afraid you may come across a few web pages that could put you off foreign languages for life: beat a hasty retreat, should you land on them.  Click here to see the kind of thing I mean.  Actually, I quite like this sort of stuff myself.  But not everyone is like me.  Which is probably a good thing.

Here are my tried-and-tested-and-not-too-painful Spanish learning strategies:

Writing whatsapp messages.  In Spanish, por supuesto.  I do this quite a lot.  Once you’re friendly with a Spanish speaker, you can have an authentic, live quick-fire ‘conversation’ with them.  If you want to use some fancy grammar or vocabulary, do as I do and look things up on a tablet or other device just before you type your end of the chat.  Get your phone set up for the Spanish language to benefit from some handy prompts as you write.

Writing emails.  For lengthier, more considered writing, email’s the answer.  Tell your Spanish-speaking acquaintance about what you’ve been up to this week.  You can make it simple or, if you’ve time on your side and want to stretch yourself, be more elaborate.  Either way, try to use at least one word or phrase that’s new to you.

Reading newspapers.  Get clued up on world affairs and practise your Spanish reading at the same time.  If you really want to multi-task, eat a bowl of cornflakes too.  I like to look at El Universal, a Mexican paper.  Because I’m over the age of 40 I do prefer to buy a ‘paper’ paper (if you know what I mean) and smell the ink, listen to the rustle of the pages…. but now I’m back in the UK I make do with the online version.

Reading Buzzfeed.  If pop culture is more your thing, try Buzzfeed’s Spanish-language sites (for the Mexican one, click here).  You don’t have to be an instagramming millennial to get some value out of Buzzfeed.  The snappy format is perfect for picking up a lot of varied language in small doses, even if you’re not all that enamoured of the highly practical advice in 20 ideas para experimentar con el estilo gotico.

Language/conversation exchange.  Make contact and meet up with a native Spanish speaker who wants to practise their English.  There’s so much to talk about when you sit down with someone from a different culture.  I find it works well if the other person’s English is much more advanced than my Spanish.  Some nice café vibes make it work even better.  Check out the Conversation Exchange website to get started.

Finally, some motivation for you.  You might begin to ask yourself, “what’s the point?”.  Unless I live in a Spanish-speaking country or am lucky enough to have multiple holidays each year, I’m not going to actually need and use Spanish very often, right?

Well, researchers have found that the process of language learning can boost your problem-solving skills.  It puts the brain to work.  Further up life’s road, it can even help to stave off Alzheimer’s.

For my part, I like to think of language learning as a pleasant intellectual challenge.  More useful than doing the newspaper crossword, at any rate.


When a situation becomes ‘a million times worse’


Conservative ministers “should be under no illusions that a lot of people are very, very angry at their disastrous handling of Brexit, which has made a difficult situation a million times worse.”

So says Tom Brake, a Lib Dem MP, about his party’s plan to join the ‘pro-Brexit’ march during the Conservative Party conference in October.

Well now.  If a difficult situation has become a million times worse, just how bad is it?  As bad as the sun exploding and life on earth succumbing to a slow and jolly painful death?  Alas, he doesn’t elaborate.

It beats me why he cannot simply say that a difficult situation has been made “even worse”.  Or perhaps “far worse”, if he believes the whole Brexit deal-or-no-deal thing is going to get really dire.   To make useful sense of what he is on about, we could quite easily picture a scale spanning neutral to bad/difficult to really bad.

Saying something is “millions” times worse or better, or applying it to quantities, reminds me of playground boasts: “I’ve got millions and trillions more than you”.

If Mr Brake has a case, and maybe he does, maybe he doesn’t – who am I to say? – he undermines it by going in for such hysterical hyperbole.

If the situation truly is a million times worse than it was, then he should already have given Britain up as a totally lost cause, and be on a plane a million miles away.

airplane silhouette