Further to previous posts on this theme – negative formulations, the language of avoidance – I thought it’d be worth examining the idea of ‘sobriety’.

My lifelong understanding of sober is of it meaning ‘straight’, or, in relation to drinking, ‘not drunk’. This is reattained within hours of drinking, depending on what you drank how much of when. I’d also apply it as an antithesis of intoxication in general. Not high, not totally wired. There is in addition the more general usage pertaining to seriousness, or at least attempting to be serious; strait-laced, straight-faced. Wearing a sober suit.

Something about the ways it can be used, though, means I hesitate before applying it lightly as a term for what I’m trying to achieve.

I mean, I am aware that something resembling a duck, that walks and quacks like a duck, is likely a duck. If you want to call me ducky, feel free. I’m not avoiding or denying anything, just querying terms.

The Wikipedia page on ‘sobriety’ is unambiguous. It’s all about the booze.

Sobriety is the condition of not having any measurable levels or effects from alcohol.’

This seems to narrow things considerably to a quite specific definition, ignoring any more general meanings, as well as application to other substances people might use to access their particular ‘click’.

The sobriety referred to there is linked to preconditions such as ‘sustained abstinence’ from drinking. Again, that *is* what I’m attempting, but, gah, the idea of ‘not doing something’ implied in the word abstinence! The concept of ‘self-denial’ also, where what I’m trying to foster is more an idea of… self-indulgence? Just in ways different to ones I’ve used since way back?

Regarding ‘effects from alcohol’, we must be talking here about something beyond the physical effect of having-had-booze. That (not inferior or superior) effect of the need for a drink, sometimes some weeks, months or years away from any having been consumed… That urge is important to get to grips with, but it is not associated exclusively with booze (or other substances).

Still on the wiki, I found this sentence arresting:

‘Someone who abstains, but has a latent desire to resume use, is not considered truly sober.’

Considered by whom? one might ask. It is here that I make ‘ah, but, yeah,’ faces. Any latent desire to resume use is separate to a conscious state of being sober, surely? Not a barrier to sobriety, but a distinct aspect one can process more effectively when sober and abstemious?

Saying you’re not supposed to entertain those feelings at all seems an unreasonable height of bar.

So, yeah, not sure about ‘sobriety’ in that sense. Etymologically, sobriety comes from the Latin sobrius (not intoxicated), as well as the word sobre found in various European languages, stemming from the Latin super, meaning ‘above’.

Latent desires or not… Sobriety indicates being over something.

Of course, I’ve heard the suffix ‘-narian’ to describe people of certain ages before, but for some reason only as applied to people of advanced seniority. ‘Octogenarian’ for 80-somethings, or ‘sprightly septuagenarian’ – alliterating and slightly patronising for the 70-somethings. The combination of polysyllabic term with high multiple of years accrued seems an appropriate fit.

Today, however, fumbling about for something Q-based to post that wasn’t simply a quartet (or quintet) of Queen videos, I discovered that there is – perhaps somewhat obviously – a list of words to describe age groupings for every decade (except, as far as I can glean, between the ages of 0 and 9, though I welcome further input on this).

Some of the nouns have pleasing suggestive qualities, such as sounding a little like Dr Who villains (denarians), or warring factions in a Swift pamphlet (vicenarians vs tricenarians; advocates of pure hedonism ranged against an officious clan that requires supporting paperwork signed in triplicate? Something like that.).

And, to the point, I was interested to discover that as I am between the ages of 40 and 49 I am a quadragenarian, with all the solid, square connotations implied in all of that, as well as the suggestion of being vexed with non-specific thigh pains. In my fifth decade.




With that in mind, here is a single Queen video:



Put your feet on the ground
Put your hand on your heart
Lift to your head to the stars
You’re a quadragenarian.

‘Nīðing’ used to be about the worst thing you could call a Viking. Languages change, but there always seem to be insults.

While reading about Jeremy Clarkson not thinking before he opens his mouth this week, I have had lots of thoughts about language, words, and the wording worders that use them.

Clarkson is a British broadcast and print journalist. He hosts BBC show Top Gear, a magazine prog about cars, and also writes a middle-aged blokish column of comment and rants in The Sun newspaper. He is someone whose recycled ideas, lumpen delivery and signposted humour have never appealed to me, but I can see why he might to certain tastes.

Anyway, he seems to be making a habit of putting a big racist foot in it recently. Apparently using, but not meaning to, because it is not in his ‘lexicon’, ‘the N-word’. Also in trouble for actually saying, as an aside, while an Asian was in shot, ‘slope’: Clarkson and his producer somewhat disingenuously claiming no awareness of this as a derogative term for Asians, the lying C-words.

I mean, though, really, rather than get offended or defensive, when Clarkson starts speaking I just think ‘Oh, F-wit speaking’ and tune out. Yet I believe him and co-presenter James May in their disavowal of racism. Having read the Clarkson canon, and having seen his shows, his loose lips, currently sinking the ship of his career, seem to be passing what might be most kindly termed ignorant anachronistic jokes: schoolboy puns and wordplay based on “equal opportunities bigotry – I don’t care who I offend!”. Offhand comments, often at the expense of ethnic minorities, LGBTQWERTY people (and that was a Clarkson-esque joke), etc. Not done with overt malice, but as a kind of teen/toddlerish boundary testing, quick to weigh in with apologies and qualifiers as soon as anyone says ‘Hang on, what did you say?’

It is ignorant, in the sense of JC probably not having experienced bigotry himself much, simply not knowing, standing up for ‘common sense’ and against ‘political correctness’, perhaps with a dash of ‘libertarian’ thought that ‘free speech’ is simply saying whatever you like whenever you like with no consideration of context or consequence.

Anachronistic, because I see in Clarkson’s persona the influence of 20th century writers and artists, who regularly threw in ‘offensive’ words to question the value, meanings and definitions of words, to shock but to ‘reclaim’ them. To be clear, though, while this influence may be there, Jeremy Clarkson’s sweaty posho Tory petrolhead demeanour is not that of Lenny Bruce, or Richard Pryor, or Robert Anton Wilson, for three male examples, and it’s not the 1970s. While we may still today need our minds unshackling, Clarkson is at best fumbling for the keys while attempting the same things as these people. What he says and does comes across as ill-considered and foolish.

This is me being kind, by the way. I don’t really think he’s attempting to emancipate us from mental slavery in his daring choices of language. I think he’s a bit of a spoon. But let’s lay off Jezza. I’m sure he has some very good gay, black friends. And it’s not just him.

Indiscriminately lobbing word bombs around is ill-considered anyway. If common sense suggests that some people are or could be upset when you say something, then you should seriously think about what will happen if you do say it, even as a joke. Really think about it. Bear in mind the impact what you say might have on someone, someone that hears you, or someone that hears about you saying it. If you believe using a word is harmless, or that because you have worked out your post-everything linguistic certainties it’s all OK, consider what your hearer will think you think.

Is that what you want them to think? Then speak on, sweet lips.

“It’s their problem if they get upset.”

It is their problem that they are upset, as it is yours that you have upset them. Conversation is not a one-way street.

Perhaps you are of the school that they’re only words, arbitrarily-defined strings of characters, and that we need to get over them. Just to be clear, I agree with this as a theoretical position. You may hold that one can say what one likes, and then sow your discourse with semantic landmines… You are probably only good company for a limited time before your aggressive testing of everyone else’s social norms begins to grate.

As I suggested, I don’t think Clarkson fits into any of these boxes. I do think he’s a bit of a fannyballs. I mean, what the F-word is he doing? ‘The N-word’, as it is still being termed, and it is probably safe to say in the face of coy media reporting and cultural assumptions that the word is not “nīðing”, ‘the N-word’ has a complicated heritage. As Russell Simmons wrote, it is:

…probably one of the most controversial words in the history of the English language.

It has multiple connotations, and it is almost certainly best avoided, in whatever company you are keeping, unless you are all happy with it. You certainly do not start doing playground verse with it, on camera, thinking perchance that nought ill may come of such a scenario (sorry, turning into Russell Brand there, forsooth).

‘It was a discussion on semantic intolerance!’
‘I was being ironic!’
‘Yeah, but black people use it all the time!’
‘Oh, but I was spelling it with the variant “a” at the end!’

[Sound of palm and face intersecting]

You can’t use violent mentalities anymore.
– “I can’t wait”, Ol’ Dirty B-word

Lenny Bruce on the issue (difficult, given both content and delivery):

I would tend to side with Bruce as well, given that he seems to be talking about an enforced semantic shift based on overuse not suppression. Maybe we like having these taboo terms, though, that we love to hate. We can dance around them, feel naughty about using them. This is what gives the words power, as Lenny Bruce suggests.

Contrast this, though, with the memory hole prescriptive approach advocated by Harriet Harman (who, note to non-UK readers, is often referred to in the (political right-leaning) press as “Harriet Harperson”, mocking her supposed relentless and apparently humourless political correctitude).

What, whatever context, ever? Whatever ever? Whatever ever?

Bit absolutist, perhaps. Yet racial stereotyping and thoughtlessness and what we say to each other ARE problems. It’s not any particular words, though, I think, that are the issue. There will always be some new word that takes over, when people try to shock, or get a laugh, or jab a finger in somewhere painful.

The older I get, the more I consider it, the less true the old proverb ‘sticks and stones’ is in practice. Broken bones heal, but word harm can fester in the brain. Words have physical power. Spells are called spells for a reason, as the carvers of runes understood it. To not see that that power is sustained in modern language… well, you’d have to be a really silly Clarkson.

Having long used the phrase “I’d read the back of a cereal box” to illustrate my keen logophilia, I am gladdened and unsurprised to discover that it is not just me. There is a Facebook group – so it’s official – called “Reading off of cereal boxes”, with five thousand or so people that also “like” to feed their minds while they feed their faces.

When I were studying (he offered his credentials as they peered into a suitcase that was filled with bottles of snake oil), classes in lit. theory suggested this kind of activity was essential. Cereal boxes, drinks adverts, pop videos could, as well as novels, poems and newspapers, be read as having equally profound importance. Everything is a “text”. The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls. Religion is the smile on a dog.

With all this in mind, let us draw our attention to the back of a detergent product container, a box of soapy un-delights that transfixed us with horror this morning. It sat squat on the sideboard, its malignant duck egg blues, baby imagery and fake handwritten verse dragging us to hell as we read:


‘I’m a little toddler
short, not stout

feel my jumper,
soft, no doubt…

When I get
all dirty,

hear me shout:

“get the box
of liquitabs

The copywriters of Procter and Gamble, household goods conglomerate, display an open contempt for poetry, sense and decency. A burlesque of the touching traditional nursery rhyme “I’m a little teapot”, their doggerel spits in my face, sticks in my craw, deposits jobbies in my smalls drawer. A familiar and trusted rhythm, explicitly linking the joys of laundry with the joys of parenting, the joys of singing catchy songs with trips-off-the-tongue brand loyalty.

“…and pour me out”. Dum dum dum dum. Emphatic. Tea time! “…of liquitabs out!”. Dum dumdumdum dum. Limping. Shoehorn still sticking out the back of the baby booties.

And “liquitabs”! A ghastly and ungainly neologism, a dark demon summoned from the dread realms of Copyright, the sort of tyrannical monster word a diminutive TM or R might hover around, fawning. Across the chamber I stand frozen in horror, one hand scrabbling at the door, the other pointing a trembling finger as I shriek: IT DOES NOT SCAN.

If they called it what it is – a sachet, a capsule – it would scan. Two syllables. Bish, bosh. Lunchy. They could have high fived each other round the flipchart. It would still be awful, yet it would at least fit properly. But NO! They soiled the soft jumper of all that is harmonious and true. “Get the box of ravening lions out!” calls Caesar Augustus, appalled patron of the arts.

P&G’s open contempt for poetry, sense and decency continues, should you be rash enough to check out softeningyourworld.com. Perhaps the clue is in the URL. Here you are, being flannelled into a mindset, a mode of living. The sort of thinking that would be glad to see your toddler pulling a box of Fairy detergent out from under the sink with muddy fingers and a knowing expression, as you all start to hum the “Box of Liquitabs” song. Softening Your World. You want but the fey magic of FAIRY to waft its wand o’er you and your brood.

I don’t think I’m making too much of this. In fact, if a word-loving dad were not already apoplectic about a bit of advertising fluff, the Procter and Gamble-supporting deals and magazine website supersavvyme, linked to from softeningyourworld, might just burst his pipes.


“Little wins for you, mum.”
“Hi, dad here! … What, nothing? No little wins for me? But… how am I supposed to recreate the catwalk looks? Is my inner wow not worth freeing? I see. What about my ability to land the perfect on-trend hair colour? …well, I find this very hard to believe. What’s that? “Treat your man to an irresistible shave.” Right, a link to some razors. Not talking to me though, are you? Are you really suggesting that the single male you could find to mention on your 1950s timewarp website is SEAN BEAN? One does not simply walk into a society constructed on gender stereotyping and consumer isolation! Oh, one does. Sorry! Carry on.”

And I back out of the wesbites, the focus groups, the chat rooms, stepping aside to avoid this avalanche of wrongheadedness. Rural-dwelling people, extolling the virtues of Febreze to blot out the smell of earthworms and mud. Really, seriously, though. What are we doing? We are letting these people – with ears of brightly-laundered cloth and the sweet smell of simulated countryside insinuating itself along their spindly fingers and close-shaven armpits – run our lives, persuade us that we are impure beings in need of stuff to clean us, de-hair us, buff us, scent us, that the lumpen, clumping, unlovely words we read should be on-trend, on message, on their forums.

Perhaps needless to add, our little toddler and we shall not be joining in this corporate chorus.

One might even, were one so inclined, go as far as to suggest that Procter and Gamble, and all their little wizards of the dark word arts, can get fucked.

What the student might have meant to write:

“Both Shakespeare and Orwell use the emotion of love to interesting effect.”

What the student wrote:

“It is also interesting to see how Shakespeare and Orwell make love.”

[If you have any similar examples – typos, Spoonerisms, unintentional smut – perhaps you’d like to share them with everyone.]

(“We can write what we wanna write… we gotta make ends meet before we get much older.”

Yes, reader, yes. The title and opening quote of this post come from “You’re The Voice”. Perhaps, after gigoid, a pearl from aural grit.

I quite like it, though, really. Bit of a ‘God’s jukebox’ thing, I think it was, the other morning, tunes bustling into earshot with an important message, “talking here to me alone”. John Farnham (and four-person songsmith committee)’s monster triumph of the spirit hit features lyrics that might be “really about” self-expression, world peace, or just trying to create a pop song, with metaphorical guns being held in people’s faces, demands of the (highway)Man, this “you”, these “we”.

It has been a long-standing understanding of mine that all writing can be interpreted as being about wrestling with the act of writing in some way. Well, words can be interpreted as being “about” pretty much anything, obvs. Linguistic ambiguity, like beer, is cause of and solution to the world’s problems.

I mean, though, the nub of my crux, what am I actually on about? I write about writing a lot. I write, when not posting here, about how much “writing” I’m not doing, or think I’m not doing, when I am, in fact, writing. I get stuck. I agree quite a lot with BS Johnson’s assertion that ‘Telling stories is telling lies.’ I’m fascinated by writing in itself, not so much by content, a lot of the time. I love the way words work, that people like to work with words. I love when people think they’re being really clever with words, sentence structures. I love when they manage it and when they fall on their arses. I love how different concerns can be foregrounded so vehemently, or drily, or comically/badly, subtly. I love and hate the absurd consequences of words, personally and globally. Words, these weird collections of glyphs, strings of sounds or characters, that people take so seriously, that are used to justify or excuse, or predict or prevent, command, forbid, caress and charm.

Words stop me writing, a lot of the time.

The writer Will Self is enjoying an opinion gig at the BBC, where he’s undertaking a project to introduce greater lexical variety to the populace through his postulates. I agree with what he says in a lot of ways, but then I’ve always been a bit of a Word Babcock, adjusting my glasses at the knowing reference, digging the sesquipedalian shuffle. Anyway, Self has been among the recent input – with the teaching – getting me thinking about gigs, about my interests, about writing, what I want or need to write about. This activity that, when I let it, helps me work out meaning in life.

For the first time in as long as I can remember, I am writing happily, without as much of the self-consciousness, apathy or loathing that stops me from bothering. Just getting it out, y’know? As the Pope said to JFK.)

So, yes, that, and, I’m going to be a dad in October.

(Apols to RZ, like, 50 yrs ago)

Like, 06.40 or something – he’s guessing – and lazy Henry is waking up in the bathroom the morning of the Grand Male Grooming Treat Birthday Present Spectacular (Guaranteed Hot Towels, Face Massage, Flame On! &c), bought with love and deep meaningfulness by Alain ‘Sipping’ Bull and Mike O’Trophy, his two favourite correspondents and long-term advocates of the entire removal of the large beard growing like tubers since about November 2011.

‘Y’know,’ Henry says aloud in the bathroom mirror, contemplating his features, ‘I read in the Kindle Sunday non-papers that facial hair is what all the A-list boys are sporting, so my first reaction was predictably contrary…’ He percusses out an over-elaborate laugh for every syllable of the last two words, wide-mouthed mugging, then his shoulders and features relax. ‘Plus it’ll be a weight off my face. So that’s one of them taken care of!’ His knowing asides into the electric toothbrush twitch his mouth again briefly, and he grabs a pad and pen for the rest of the revelation, seeing as he’s just off the john, letting it all fall out… ‘As above, so below… little high, little low, and today lazy Henry don’t need anyone’s help to know which if any way the wind blows, no sir, no,’ he thinks, wafting a hand, striking a match and trying not set his pad alight. ‘I’m blaming it on the Chinese food or the boogie or the Queen and her Government or anyone but me… Trumper for Men! Hmmm, bring it,’ he says as he reads off the bottle of scent, pondering his imminent future, soon to be fresh faced and full of wonder, heading out the bathroom door, intent.

‘December was fine,’ he thinks, chewing his pen and sat in his best seat by the window, ‘winter beard has been keeping us warm, but then January swept in the new, and February has come and nearly went…’ and in a sudden deceleration, his anxiety parachuting out behind, he thinks ‘Here we are, now, again.’ Teeth set and brow knits. Sat looking at his netbook, Henry gets all performance anxiety, beside himself, running his fingers through his beard, twirling. Feeling the whole instantaneous digital age imminent singularity blues thing, he instead falls to reading Tarantula, half-vaporised contrails, spidery handwritten notes from the jet age, and its 10,500 resonances help reassure him a bit. Like, a bit.

‘So,’ he says, nodding, breathing shallow, ‘so, j’essaye un essay on the single transferable thought… okay, Ray K, ok,’ Henry acknowledges over his shoulder, cracks his knuckles, ‘okay, digital love, but… no, no, no, no, no no NO! Mama mia.’ He seizes up. ‘Too little to say, too much time, too much time to be without love, not enough reason to give it all up.’ And then all of a sudden the group finger seems t’be pointing in his face and he’s batting it away shrieking, right clicking but there’s no more new tabs opening, no way out, and ‘I’m a man, not a mouse!’ he squeaks feebly, but they carry on a pointy pointy anyway, til Henry falls to his knees for shrieving, trapped, 100 years behind a thicket of accusatory digits… ‘Free me!’ he wheezes, but time bends, his back creaks, his bough breaks and any day now he’s suddenly imprisoned, trombone shot of him clutching the bars at the window while Laughing Miss Prision and the Agley Gang ride off, having tricked him into taking their place in the cells.

Right Now! With a whoomph of breath Henry shakes his head and he’s awake, not in gaol but still on his knees, praying in front of a glowing screen and curling a finger round his chin feeling all pre-shave and ready for the shearing. Getting to his feet, lips pursed slightly, he thinks “Well, what about this writing, then?” and lets the little thought storm break over his parched brain, lines jag out and discharge into the parchment, fingers, nibs and typewriter hammers sparking, forging something, finally, about something or other.

Later, dapper, showered and shaved and sitting over a more relaxed fifth double espresso, he reads somewhere else about time crystals and the idea seems to make sense in his head – yes, he strokes a ghost beard, yes, his eyes narrow, yes, crystalline rhizomes in the 4th dimension form in seconds/millennia, of course, – but strikes him as being very difficult to make clear when all he has are the insubstantial hieroglyphs bequeathed him by his Uncle Geoffrey. ‘Even words, especially words, especially these words, aren’t helping,’ he explains on a postcard sent in duplicate to Mike O’Trophy and Alain Bull, timed to arrive also by simultaneous teleportation link.

While the little ring tone boops hoopily, the green tea-drinking native American says deadpan ‘You know, I actually never met Mike O’Trophy, but he sounds like a real fun guy.’ Henry rolls his eyes and says ‘Jesus,’ without heat, and Mike nods his head, sliding into shot, one-third split screen, with that Robert De Niro lower lip. ‘Yeah, Him too,’ he says, and him and Bull virtually high five as Henry’s putting his coat on, now just a little embarrassed by it all, reaching for the Further On switch and saying ‘Please can we go now please?’

This episode has been brought to you by Curzon Cologne.