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Summer Books: Beyond Words by John Humphrys

Beyond WordsI once said that on this site, book reviews are much like buses: You wait six months for one, and then several come along at once. Never has this been more true, as I kick off the promised Summer Books series of reviews, which is being published both here on sjhoward.co.uk and over on Trinity Mirror’s Gazette Live.

Less like buses, my quite terrible book reviews often seem to meander around the point, only occasionally reaching any kind of destination, and are certainly not without a few uncomfortable bumps and scrapes along the way. Yet, without further ado, let us begin…

Today, it’s the turn of John Humphrys’ Beyond Words. This is subtitled ‘How Language Reveals The Way We Live Now’. I propose that this subtitle was not submitted by Mr Humphrys himself, thanks to two clues: Firstly, I Don’t Think He’d Approve Of Capitalisation Of The First Letter Of Every Word. In fact, he rails against it in the book. Secondly, his narrative does not address ‘how language reveals the way we live now’. Not really. A much better summary is given by the blurb: “What are the words and expressions that irk, intrigue and provoke John Humphrys?”.

At this point, I should declare an interest. John Humphrys has, over the past four years or so, had the Herculean task of waking me most mornings. His voice, as presenter of Today, has permeated its way into my semi-conscious mind hundreds of times; and when someone’s voice has woken you that often, you feel you know them pretty well. Therefore, provided Mr Humphrys’ book was marginally better than The Da Vinci Code, I was bound to like it.

And like it I do. It’s something of a jolly romp through modern day language. It’s entertaining, it’s engaging, and it makes some interesting points about the development of language. I would say that it follows on perfectly from his previous book, Lost for Words, but I’ve not read it, so I’ve really no idea whether it does or not. But I can say that, as a result of reading this book, I’ll be looking out for that one.

In contrast to Lynne Truss, who, apparently without irony, lamented the decline of formal English in an unnecessarily conversational grammar guide (Eats, Shoots and Leaves), John Humphrys takes a more reflective and analytical approach to changes in language. His tone is equally conversational and laced with humour, but without the repetitive vitriolic condemnation of the reader typical of Truss.

Humphrys’ is a clear, easy book to read. Perhaps it’s the way his voice is imprinted on my brain, but his book reads almost as if one is in the room with him, and listening to a well-argued, highly entertaining monologue. And, unlike lesser authors, Humphrys is not trying to argue that misplaced apostrophes are the cause of social decline: He takes a reasoned approach to his arguments, which makes his conclusions seem all the more valid.

All-in-all, Beyond Words is a great read. It’s interesting and informative, while still be entertaining enough to hold your attention on a nine-hour long haul flight or a relaxing stretch on the beach. This summer, I’d highly recommend it to anyone with even a passing interest in the English language.

» Beyond Words by John Humphrys is available now in the sjhoward.co.uk shop


This review was originally posted here on sjhoward.co.uk in June 2007, and has been re-versioned for the ‘Summer Books’ series of reviews published on sjhoward.co.uk and Gazette Live.

This 1,342nd post was filed under: Summer Books, , , , .

Summer Books

Summers tend to be quite dull in the political world, and I’m fed up of writing perennial posts about the silliness of the silly season. So this year I’m trying something new.

Starting tomorrow, and for the next ten weeks, I’ll be publishing a book review each Sunday evening both here on sjhoward.co.uk and over on Gazette Live – some of them will be re-versioned copies of old book reviews from this site, some of them will be brand new. None of them will be about the latest best-sellers.

Hopefully, that will keep sjhoward.co.uk looking relatively fresh and active over the summer, but primarily I hope it will be reasonably entertaining for you, dear readers – despite (or thanks to?) my complete lack of skill in writing reviews. I’ll still be here writing other things as usual from time to time, but hopefully my posts won’t reek of desperation in quite the same way as previous years’ summer posts.

I guess we’ll find out over the next ten weeks…

This 1,341st post was filed under: Summer Books, , .

Of by-elections and discrimination

Harriet HarmanIn Tony Blair’s day, New Labour were the masters of spin – at their most effective when they did it so convincingly that we didn’t even realise the facts were being spun, or else we were led to believe that we could see through the spinning, when in fact that presentation was the intention all along.

Now, it seems, that’s all gone. Yet, oddly, it hasn’t been replaced by the honesty and straightforwardness we were promised – an honesty many would say was incompatible with politics – but rather by terrible attempts at spinning.

Take the Henley by-election: Instead of pointing out that this is a Conservative seat and virtually ignoring electoral defeat, the omnipresent ‘Party Sources’ are mumbling about victory being secured if Labour keep their deposit. They’re saying that anything over 5% is some kind of win. Oh, brother.

And all the while, Harriet Harman is squeezing out plans to support ‘positive discrimination’ – another bizarre New Labour oxymoron. Discrimination is discrimination is discrimination – whether or not it’s positive or negative depends on your standpoint. Is selecting a member of an ethnic minority to balance out a sea of white faces still ‘positive discrimination’ if you’re a serial killer, or does this only apply when we’re handing out things perceived as rewards?

The same propsals also, apparently, ‘ban ageism’ – the government pretended to do back in October 2006, as covered on this very site. I note that Ms Harman is bounding about stating that doctors should only refuse treatment to elderly patients on clinical grounds – not on the basis of age. Three points: Firstly, doctors are already required to do their best for patients, regardless of age. Secondly, is age not part of the clinical picture any more? Thirdly, does this mean that twelve year olds should be openly prescribed the contraceptive pill? We wouldn’t want to be discriminating purely on the basis of age.

Ageism goes two ways. Why is it that this government consistently pretends that ageism only represents discrimination against the old, just as they pretend that racial discrimination only represents discrimination against ethnic minorities?

And let’s not forget that much of the economic policy underlying the NHS is based on QALYs – Quality Adjusted Life Years. That is to say that if an operation costs £30,000 but will lengthen someone’s life by 30 years then the cost per year gained is £1,000. Such measures in and of themselves discriminate against older people – an 80 year-old’s life far less likely to be extended by 30 years than a 20 year-old’s.  The same treatment is less likely to be cost effective in the 80 year-old purely because of their age. Is this to be overlooked in future? How is NHS rationing to take place now?

I sincerely hope that this is a crappy proposal put forward to distract us all from Labour’s impending Henley hammering. It’s not the best of ideas, because it shows Labour in a bad light, but perhaps not quite such a bad light as being deeply unpopular.

On the other hand, if this is a serious attempt at law-making, then we’re all clearly doomed.

» Image Credit: Original image created by Graham Richardson, modified under licence

This 1,340th post was filed under: Health, News and Comment, Politics, , , , , , , .

Diary for 23rd June 2008

Umbrella Watch: My umbrella has just weathered its first foreign rain – a torrential Torontonian downpour. «

This 1,339th post was filed under: Diary Style Notes, .


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