Digital Ischemia


Highbrow Raising

I was recently accused of ‘highbrow’. This concerns me. Firstly, I feel my content is far too eclectic and mongrel to be highbrow. Highbrow implies refinement. Not smut. Secondly, why is highbrow pejorative? Why must it imply elitist exclusivity (an intellectually snobbish way of saying intellectual snobbery)? Should we not maintain the dynamic range of subject matter? Or, conceited to say so, but even raise the level of debate? Rather than, say, BBC-style, dilute to the lowest common denominator.

There is surely demand for miscellaneous, middle-aged, middle-class, morally philosophic pedantry? I will not be smart-shamed! No, as always happens when I’m challenged, I will be defensive, obtuse and perverse.

What is it about Benjamin Britten’s writing for strings that makes them sound as if they have been recorded in mono? There is some characteristic compression in space, pitch and amplitude that seems perfectly suited to the recording technology at the time. After all, his name is an anagram of tin bert. Bert being a technical term in the sound engineering world, for which I have not yet found satisfactory definition, but surely subtly modifies the derogatory ‘tinny’.

Where Mr Britten and I can share common ground, I believe, is in a penchant for the night male. Sadly that only works as a homophone, a fact that Mr Britten might appreciate, as one whose aural orientation was for his own generation.

This is the night male crossing the border,
Breaching the fence and restraining order.
Obsession, fixation, denying he bored her:
These are the terms of his psychiatric disorder.

Past new cut grass and mower-scarred boulder;
Trailing his phlegm over his shoulder.
Snorting noisily as he passes,
Silent smiles from his punch-bent glasses.

Left hand on down-pipe, right hand on ledge,
Anything for pleasure, scars give him edge.
Hauling up buttocks, embedded with grime:
The gradient’s against him, he’s in decline.

Birds turn their heads as he encroaches,
The full moon blushes at photos he poaches.
An un-neutered cat howls at her mate,
Then squirms away, hissing with hate.

In the dorm he passes no-one awakes,
But a jug in a bedroom gently shakes…

Hm, my mental stylus seems to have skipped to AC/DC… Yes, it’s Night Prowler. But ghastlier yet, the tune is something else: Night Fever. Yes, the Bee Gees. No one can possibly need YouTube karaoke support for that, so I offer it merely for citative rigour. One song to the tune of another, but not at all what Humph intended. And Benjamin must be rotisserating in his monochrome satin shroud. WH Auden has surely evaporated in a plume of disgust. Still dismissing me as highbrow?

As it turns out, the only nocturnal emission in my vicinity is something that quips in the night. Promising but thus far I am haunted only by a bird. Of the female gender. If it actually is Ms Tawny Owl. But this is more my desperate grasping, ahem, than the confident result of research.

Quizzing the internet for “identify nocturnal bird call site:uk” returns primarily, reassuringly, the enquiring mind of the RSPB: where did you see it? Um, garden. How big? Approx. 40dB. What colour of feathers? Black. Type of beak? Open. Doing what? Calling! What colour legs? Black. Unfortunately only my answer to the first question is acceptable to the RSPB, reducing the ‘field’ of potential results to a mere 157. ‘Call’ themselves bird experts.

The rest of the search results are lifestyle magazine-style articles discussing, silently, an arbitrary selection of nocturnal animals. Or—shudder—amateur bird nerds querying forums about their own personal encounter which sounded like (a) a dementor, (b) boiler pipes freezing, (c) a cow being unwell, or (d) a maniacal laugh. No help.

History is written by the victors.
Self-help guides are written by the lucky.

We all want to be helpful, to share our good fortune, but I think lifestyle gurus over-estimate their level of control in the process. Their personal random sequence of experiences and behaviours become the magical formula to fix everyone. Their perspective on the world becomes the universal panacea. Then the marketing kicks in. Marketing, ironically, alienates me. Marketing ironically, ironically, might get my attention.

Book introductions are a good gauge of the author’s effort and commitment. I enjoy openers along the lines “I just can’t put into words the rollercoaster experience of the past few years”. Oh please try. Oh, you have. Oh dear, I can’t seem to stop the book snapping closed.

While we’re in the realm of people volunteering unsolicited advice, I particularly love the half-baked ones.
“You can easily calculate how much protein you should eat with this formula: Your body weight X 0.5 = grams of protein to eat.”

I should eat half my body weight in protein? Daily? Seems unlikely.
Do you mean my body weight in kgs? Then about 25g protein? Seems inadequate.
Surely you can’t mean my body weight in imperial measures if you’re talking about grams of protein?! Less than 4g protein? Ridiculous.
Pounds then? American style? Sigh. Then I should eat 54g protein per day. That’s the first one that sounds believable.

Or, of course, perhaps you mean per week or per year. But I have now spent so much cognitive energy on this ‘easy’ calculation I will need to protein binge for the rest of the year. Last pernickety thought: multiply by a half rather than divide by two? Maybe your arithmetic needs a little more protein.

That’s your sneak preview of my 2020 Edinburgh Festival Fringe show: Fussy ain’t Funny. That should lower the highbrows.


Eradicating It

“It was a dark and stormy night.”
There’s a reason this phrase is often parodied. Best by Snoopy. But that’s not exactly my issue.

What is ‘it’? A non-gender-specific pronoun. We should use ‘it’ when there is preceding context identifying a subject. Otherwise the reader or listener will be stranded on a sandbank, caught up in wondering to what we refer. The subsequent narrative won’t make sense.

Ah, but, you say, ‘it’ has become a grammatical placeholder for the subject, so we can reorder the words, or simply form a sentence. It’s raining. What is ‘it’? A cloud? The sky? The weather? A grammatically correct construction for an intransitive verb. ‘It’ doesn’t do rain to anything, ‘it’ just rains. ‘It’ is semantically redundant. ‘It’ is not even context. ‘It’ is a waste of characters. Since we’re evolving language anyway, particularly in speech, let’s just say ‘raining’. Or ‘rain’.

The night was dark and stormy. Is that any less poetic? Less gripping? Is the word order critical? Sequence of images? But now I take issue with ‘dark’: dark night is a pleonasm, like small dwarf or toxic poison. Like beginning a letter “I am writing to you…” I may be overthinking ‘it’. Did the writer mean moonless? That would be atmospheric.

The night was stormy. Admittedly that has less impact. But we could add any of a plethora of other adjectives instead of dark to set the scene. Not even fancy ones, just a simple, menacing term. But I’ve wandered away from my trivial tirade.

English is brilliant, eh? Six words at least that mean the same in any instance – oh, aye: synonyms. Six ways to say anything.
It was a dark and stormy night.
The night was a dark and stormy one.
The night was dark and stormy.
The night was moonless and stormy.
That night was moonless and stormy.
The moonless night was stormy.

There must be a label for these different sentence forms. But why start learning grammar now?

More motivating is what to call my crusade; what motto for my revolution. Rule one of attitudinal change is be for something, not against. Be pro-peace, not anti-war. Give your energy to that which you wish to see, not to the state you oppose, otherwise you perpetuate ‘it’.

I do not discuss any current political leaders who are anathema to me; I do not protest their visits. I suspect they enjoy any sort of attention, in the worst tradition of narcissistic PR. I say give the airtime to events we want to encourage. I use my small fizzle of power to support that which I endorse. I buy products from countries with progressive politics.

So I’m not anti-it, I’m pro-specific-subjects. Aye, that’s gonna look great on my banner.

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