Sunday, February 24, 2013


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Sunday, December 16, 2012

Is Chevrolet a word?

Dictionaries are always a matter of general interest, but one development has been escaping popular attention, just when it has become very interesting. They have acquired a newly realized freedom to become much bigger, in fact of unlimited size, if they are to be used only on-line. Most obviously, this should allow many more of the obscure or little-used words of our language to be included in any collection. But much more importantly, it means that if they want to, dictionaries can now record many hitherto rejected items from a whole class, that contains millions of words. These are the “proper nouns” – those that are usually spelt with a capital first letter, including people’s names, place names, trade names, even Latin biological names. Many recent dictionaries have included some, but only a small selection from what is out there.

For some time I have been trying to persuade the editors of the Oxford Online dictionary to add a few more, and have scored two successes so far: Spitfire and Hurricane. One other suggestion was Hiawatha. They didn’t reply to that one, perhaps because it was already on its way, prompted by someone else. There are now in fact two entries with that headword, duly numbered 1 and 2, although each of them has every appearance of having been written in ignorance of the other one’s existence
I should have begun by saying that my qualifications in such matters are slight, but not entirely nonexistent. That’s the first thing you should ask about any self-appointed commentator on lexicography. I am really just an 85-year-old retired forester, but I did once spend ten years as the editor of a prestigious scientific information abstracts journal, which taught me a lot about words. It was exactly at the time when that whole business was being computerized, in the 1980s. And most importantly, the journal was not an insular one, but used English as the world’s lingua franca, which it is, and which is how Oxford should see it, even more than it does now.

My recent dealings with Oxford Online were first prompted by the word “thrang”, well known to me from my childhood dialect. I looked to see if it was recognized by Oxford. It wasn’t in the Online version, but I discovered a mention of it in the OED, under the headword throng, which quotes it from Burns’s Twa Dogs. This got the attention of the Online editors, who say they will include it. They also found a quotation from Wordsworth, which probably clinched the decision.
When you dip into dictionaries, one thing leads to another – they are notorious for it. I found myself looking to see if these authors’ names are in. They are, along with those of a large number of other famous people. But I am sure you could find many more, from the specialized reference works.

This led to the question, had these new proper noun entries been considered by categories, such as “famous people”, possibly with subdivisions for “writers”, etc., as you might expect from the tidy minds of Oxford? It seems likely that they had been, and also that “famous names” are seen as a very special type of proper noun. But what other categories might be looked for?

My first choice for investigation may seem a strange one: Swiss cantons! But it does have some advantages as a test case. It is an easily manageable number, and you know exactly where you are with them. There are 26, including six that count as three pairs of what used to be called “half cantons”. One thing is for sure: the editors of Oxford Online had never made any attempt to deal with this little group systematically. Only seven are actually mentioned as cantons, and one of these only in the article about the Müller-Thurgau grape! That, incidentally, provides my first example of the dictionary’s common use of a “word” (in this case Thurgau) which it doesn’t itself include as such. Of the 26 relevant place names, six are in with no mention that they are the names of cantons as well as of cities, mountains, lakes, etc. These are Zurich, Lucerne, Basle (cross-referenced at Basel), Neuchâtel, Geneva and Jura. There has been a suggestion that both kinds of omission are deliberate, the missing canton names being seldom referred to in English speech or writing. However, any such claim is weakened by Vaud being in, while Valais is out, and still further by the inclusion of Zug – which may have got in as being “the Swiss tax haven”, although that is not mentioned. Or maybe it is there just because it is the smallest one; the editors, or some of them, having an obsession with things that are the highest, deepest, largest, smallest, longest or widest of their subset. This would imply, however, in spite of all the evidence to the contrary, that somebody did look at a list of the cantons. Vaud and its capital Lausanne are treated differently from all the rest, in that they have two entries, the one on Vaud being cross-referenced to Lausanne, but not vice versa.

I should add that all 50 of the states of the USA are in – as well as all 50 of their capitals, each of them with its own headword, although only about ten of these towns are widely known outside North America.

I followed this with some less intensive studies, which produced rather similar results. I won’t go into the details here, but one of them at least is worth mentioning. In the category of “ocean currents” I was surprised to find one specimen of shoddy lexicography quite unworthy of Oxford. There are two entries, for North Equatorial Current and South Equatorial Current, the former in the Atlantic and the latter in the Pacific. In reality, as quick and easy googling confirms, there are three sets of three currents, North, South and Counter, all of them important, in each of the three oceans concerned, the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific

Place names, taken as a major category that includes things like ocean currents, are now being given the same sort of treatment as the names of famous people, with a large number of new entries. Selecting them, however, is obviously a major problem. It is very easy to make more suggestions for consideration. My own would include Ailsa Craig, Arthur’s Seat and Corryvreckan! Or perhaps more importantly, a few of the Scottish and Irish sea lochs or loughs (Linnhe, Fyne, Foyle, Swilly) to add to the selection of freshwater land-locked ones.
Finally, I got on to the category which explains my title: the “marques” of motor vehicles. The exceptional jeep is in as a headword, defined as: “trademark/ a small, sturdy motor vehicle …”. The only ordinary marque with its own headword is Rolls-Royce, presumably included because of its metaphoric use. The first definition for it is: “trademark a luxury car produced by the British Rolls-Royce company”. That is not really quite good enough – the company that makes the car is now German owned, and the dictionary does not mention aircraft engines. There are separate entries for Rolls, Charles Stewart, and Royce, Sir Henry (who is mentioned as a designer of aircraft engines), with more or less adequate cross-referencing.
Try the other end of the luxury scale: Austin. There is a headword article, Austin, Henry (1st Baron Austin), which mentions not only the car company but also the famous “baby Austin”. Then you can find Morris, but only if you look under Nuffield 1st Viscount (William Richard Morris) – the other way round from Austin! This entry also does at least hint at the existence of a car marque, with its mention of an “automobile [sic] factory”.

The principle is now clear. Headwords must refer to people, not cars! You can follow up with Benz, Daimler, Ferrari, Ford, Honda, Opel, Porsche, Renault, and perhaps others that I have not thought of. One curious case is that of the Volkswagen. To find any mention of it you must know that it was designed – at Hitler’s request – by the same Porsche, Ferdinand who gave his name to the luxury car. In all these cases, it seems reasonable to point out that the dictionary is using the marque name as a word in its texts, while refusing to recognize it as one. These are not words, they say, but only trade names. But what logic can there be in saying that a trade name – or any proper noun – is not a word?

If you wanted to include some of the other marques on this system you would have a problem. The name of Durant, William, the man mainly responsible for creating General Motors, is apparently not a famous one in Oxford. You could of course have an entry for General Motors, but they don’t seem to have thought of that. So there are no entries for Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, or Oldsmobile. One of the oddest of all my discoveries, however, is that Chevy is in as a headword, and its definition cannot avoid using that non-word, Chevrolet!
This stupid system extends to other categories. It is what had got Messerschmidt in, while excluding Hurricane and Spitfire. It also accounts for the absence of commercial vehicles like Leyland or Tata, or motor cycles like Triumph or Harley Davidson. Like Durant, neither Harley, William S. nor Davidson, Arthur is a famous name, even if they are now commemorated by the product.

The truth is, I think, that proper nouns used to be excluded from dictionaries solely because the publishers were scared off by the untold millions of them. Now they are letting them in by a system of special exemptions, first and most obviously, famous people and place names but also, on a much smaller scale, a few others that take their fancy, like Rolls-Royce – as well as Bovril, Marmite and Vegemite. This last one, I would guess, was admitted with some reluctance, to keep the Australasians happy. Generally speaking, however, the main rational ground for selecting proper nouns ought to be frequency of use among the English-using people of the world, as deduced from the corpora. If a request were put out for suggestions I think it would animate an army of volunteers, just as the OED has always depended on its “readers”.

It has nothing much to do with my main argument, but I cannot resist pointing out that, while Oxford Online is in many ways a most admirable dictionary, some of its ancillary features are a joke. Do look up Bucephalus and read the list of “Other words in this category”! There is much more of this kind of thing throughout the dictionary, which can only mean that the overstretched staff cannot find time to check on what their mad computers are doing. Greatly increased staffing will be needed to publish many more of the enormous list of words which have become possible, and I think desirable inclusions. But if the printing of dictionaries stops, there will be a lot of highly qualified people available. And trade names are surely the best bait for more advertisements to pay for it all. If they are handled as unobtrusively as the relatively few that are already there, users will have nothing to complain about.

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Scores of Years


We old men – and, yes, I do mean men – are much given to claiming special knowledge of this or that. We may or may not occasionally have some justification. There is one subject, however, that we do all know about, and that is old age itself.

Is there anything to be gained by passing on what I am learning? I suppose other old people may be interested in making comparisons. However, I am more concerned with the young. It is they, for the most part, who have to put up with us old ones, and maybe it will help if they can learn a little about what we are thinking and feeling. And they will know a little more about what to expect themselves some day, if they live long enough.

How old is old? The allotted span used to be three score years and ten, “or four score with good health”. In very recent times, for people with access to modern medicine, good health has become increasingly common, so it seems reasonable now to set the first mark at eighty. That accords with my own experience. I didn’t feel old in my seventies, but as soon as I entered the extra decade, just three years ago, I did imagine that I had moved into a new phase. I am an old man now.

Nothing is more evident than that the decays of age must terminate in death

1 – Sentiments and presentiments

The quotation is from Dr Johnson. I didn’t take it from the original, but found it in John Wain’s biography. It comes from one of the Idler essays, supposedly a more light-hearted collection than the earlier Rambler ones! To a younger reader it may seem a sombre thought, but the very point I want to make is that to me it is no longer a gloomy one. It is simply something that I am constantly aware of. In a way it is what old age is all about. Old age and dying are inseparable features of life. This comes into everything we do – our travel plans, the books we choose to read, house improvements, financial plans, and just about every aspect of daily life. I remember an old aunt of mine buying a new carpet. “I didn’t get a very expensive one,” she said, “just good enough to see me out”. A typically lowland Scots slant on the matter.

For my present purpose I am, of course, concentrating on death that comes at its proper time. Like everyone else who has seen out their full span, I have known more than enough deaths that have come too early. One in particular, that of my own first wife, taught me all there is to know about what it is to be the survivor, having watched helplessly as her light went out, and faced the devastating reality that nothing could bring her back.

No doubt we all have our own conceptions of death. Mine is a very simple one. It will be the end – in my case of a life that began with the union of two gametes in January 1927, in the dark, cold depths of a Scottish winter. I can make nothing of ideas of life after death, of an immortal soul, or of another (“spirit”) world. If people want to embrace such concepts, let them. But to me they seem to be no more than the ultimate in wishful thinking.

I have never been afraid of death, but I do hope that it won’t come in one of its worse forms, like the slow mental deterioration my mother endured, the cancers that killed my father and my brother, or the way my wife died from leukaemia. I’d much rather go to sleep one evening, and just not wake up. The genetic indicators are against me, and dementia is already knocking at the door, but you never know your luck.

The best death I ever heard of happened in Cyprus. There was a man in his late sixties, known to everybody as “Mouskos”. He had been Secretary for Agriculture. Because of this connection, he took a real interest in the Forestry College, of which I was the Principal, and we saw him frequently when he came to visit his father, who lived in a very small village just down the hill from our bigger one. This father was a remarkable man in his nineties, whose pride and joy was his apple orchard. One day he had climbed up into a tree to do some pruning and, apparently without warning, fell out of it, dead. If only we could all look forward to something similar! Mouskos inherited the orchard. He too must be gone by now, but I doubt if he ended his days as happily as his father.

When I was about 65 I consulted a doctor, who was young and perhaps not very wise, about some aches and pains. He said: “You’re going to have a lot of trouble with this arthritis, in your eighties”. He has been right, but only in part. My knees are increasingly dysfunctional, but unlike other victims of arthritis I have known, I get no pain worth mentioning. Every time I go for a check up, I can give an ever lengthening list of joints that are causing some trouble. The main concentration is from the knees down, while my arms and hands have so far got off lightly, and my hip joints, touch wood, seem to be unaffected. To set against my reduced mobility, I am always assured that I look young for my years, and that my heart and lungs show no sign of decay.

As a forester, I am an inveterate planner, but now I have run into a major difficulty. The key date is missing. In theory it could be anything between today and about 2035, but family history suggests that sometime in the next five years, or maybe ten, is most probable. Even this range of probabilities is only a guess, and not much use for serious planning. I can’t stop trying to arrange my future, but now I call it stochastic or contingency planning, the hoped-for contingency being that I am still there to put a plan into effect.

I ask myself what would I really like to do with my remaining time. I’ll come back to this major question in Chapter 4. I think that part of the answer might be to become migratory, and spend some of my time in each of my two homes. Neither is really mine. In Scotland I rely on the kindness of my oldest son and my daughter-in-law, and in Java all our property is legally my Indonesian wife’s. But will my deteriorating knees allow me to travel, supposing there is no cure for them? I should find out better in 2012, when I have the beginnings of a plan to make another trip to Europe – if I’m still alive and mobile enough to do so.

I am in Java now partly because I like it – for a long list of reasons, starting with the climate we have up here in the hills – and partly in fulfilment of a promise to my wife, that if she stuck with me (in England, Nepal and Sri Lanka, as it turned out) until I retired, I would live in her country for the rest of my days. She accepts the migratory idea, however, and I also think that if I could somehow plan that the last migration was northwards, she would join me in Scotland for a while.
I even try to plan for her old age, as she is a lot younger than me, but in the end I have to accept that she will do things, with help from our children, her own way. Quite unlike me in this respect, she is content that “the Lord will provide”. And after all, she can claim that He always has done so, so far.

2 – Memories

I have acquired an unusual stock of memories. I lived for the first 20½ years of my life in Scotland – the reason for this well remembered number is that it was the minimum age for entering the Colonial Forest Service. Then I worked in Tanganyika Territory, Scotland, Uganda, Papua New Guinea, Cyprus, Cameroon, Somalia (briefly), Indonesia, England, Nepal, and Sri Lanka, before retiring to Indonesia. I also travelled quite a lot in Europe, North America and the Caribbean, Africa, the Middle East, and India.

What kind of things do I remember? I have been to see a good many of the places that draw people from far away. One or two have left particularly vivid impressions. Petra in Jordan takes pride of place. I have been there twice, once long ago, when it was out of the way and had relatively few visitors, and once more recently, when many coach loads were arriving daily. Surprisingly, the second visit was the more memorable of the two, partly because new excavations had revealed more of the site, and partly because I had acquired at least a little more knowledge of what I was looking at.

This second visit also illustrated other features of the memory system. My archaeologist second son was with the party, and our travels had taken us to see some of his own efforts to dig up the past – a much older past than Petra’s. The personal touch must have done something, and no doubt some little incidents helped, such as a ritually buried skull being uncovered just as we arrived at a related site, by one of the archaeologists then at work. There was also the many-layered comedy of an officious tour guide telling my son not to climb on the ancient buildings, when this at least locally well known archaeologist was actually examining the experimental replica of a stone-age house, which he himself had had built. My heightened perceptions of all that desert country have even left a clear picture of a very modern creation, a guest house designed by a most remarkable architect, who had used “free forms”, local materials, and candle light, to outstanding effect.

In a more general way, what I remember best out of all these years are often tiny incidents, that may have been over in a minute or two. For instance, I once opened my front door in Cyprus on a fine summer evening, to find a very large brown owl standing on the doormat. It looked at me, and then, with no undue haste, took off on its completely silent wings. Unforgettable.

A clearly remembered sequence comes from a visit to the forests of the Sierra Nevada, in California. I was duly impressed by the redwood trees, and even more by the sugar pines with their immensely tall, clear, cylindrical stems. The picture that really sticks, however, is of a little family of chipmunks, unafraid of humans, that were playing around a fallen log, foraging for pine seeds. I am not very fond of the word “cute”, but if ever it has seemed right, it was in its application, by my American guide, to these little animals.

The chipmunk is a very small kind of squirrel, and if I recall another encounter with a different kind of squirrel it may be at some risk of over-representing them in my set of memories, but here it is. I was with my first wife, June, on a visit to Schönbrunn, the old imperial palace on the outskirts of Vienna. We were passing one of the small religious shrines in the park, when I saw something moving inside it. The shrine had no wall on the front side, but only vertical iron bars. On the altar there was a little red squirrel, eating an acorn – they are said not to be able to digest acorns, but that is certainly what this one was chewing. It obviously realized that it was safe inside the bars, and scarcely bothered to look in our direction, so we stood and watched it, at very close range, for ten minutes or so. What grabbed our attention was its neat, tiny forepaws, rather like minute human hands, and its dexterity in manipulating the nut with them. But even apart from this detail, it was an extraordinarily beautiful little creature, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed indeed. The only thing that I can recall from inside the gorgeous palace is the emperor’s austere sleeping arrangements, based on a very ordinary single-sized iron bedstead.

It is said that some children prefer big toys, and others small ones. I was definitely in the second camp, and in my case at least the preference carried over into my adult life, which is probably why little squirrels came to take precedence over big elephants, giraffes, lions, etc. On at least one occasion it extended from the animal world into the plant one. I was on the visit to Edinburgh’s Royal Botanic Garden that has always been obligatory on my home leaves, and went to see a new cold greenhouse that had been put up to hold alpines or rock plants, perhaps those that were thought too delicate or too valuable to plant out in the open. I was brought to a halt by a single potted plant, which the gardeners had evidently recognized as something special, and had put on view in isolation, in quite a wide space on the shelf. It was a daffodil from Iceland, no more than a quarter of the size of an ordinary daffodil. It was like the work of some supreme jeweller, perfect in every tiny detail. The only near-adequate word that came to mind was exquisite.

I feel guilty because people don’t figure in my memories as much as I think they ought to, as fellow humans. It is almost like having a mild retroactive form of autism. I know that if I met almost any of those that I once knew well, even if they were miraculously preserved as they had been decades ago, I wouldn’t recognize them, or be able to attach names to faces.

Even my grandmother, parents, brother, and first wife would be only partial exceptions, their appearance still familiar, however, from the old photographs. There are a few people, in addition to family members, who are well remembered for the parts they played in my life – about half a dozen schoolteachers, two or three university teachers, Professor Anderson from my few years on the Edinburgh University staff, the Instructors at the Cyprus Forestry College, and above all, that most remarkable forester, Ober-Professor Walter Bitterlich of Salzburg. But even in their cases, they are remembered in terms of what they said and did, rather than as people to whom I had any sort of personal attachment. It is a little difficult to explain what I mean, but to take the extreme case of my own mother, I know that as a small child I must have been bonded to her with excessive closeness, but now I remember her from a later period, for her intellectual and moral virtues, and as an influence on how I have tried to live. I try to picture her also as she must have been even earlier than my first memories. One old photograph in particular captures her beauty, and I am sure it went with great good humour and vivacity. A mother to be proud of.

As to the women closest to me in my adult life, there are two relevant stories that I have often told. On our honeymoon in 1953, June and I were visiting St Paul de Vence, in the hills above Nice, when we were accosted by a gypsy woman who proposed to tell my fortune. I refused, and she eventually desisted from her importunities and went off, calling something to me in her very strong Provençal accent. June was much amused, and translated it as: “There will be two women in your life!”. I met the second one, Theresia, in Samarinda, in Borneo, towards the end of June’s life, and maintained an innocent relationship with her until some eight months after June died, when I married her. It is that first meeting that has left a picture in the mind, of a striking young woman opening a door, to tell me that the people I was looking for were not at home. Her striking appearance owed much, but by no means everything, to the way she was dressed, in two towels, a very large one wrapped round her, and the other piled up like a turban on her hair, which she had just been washing, after her afternoon shower. In all the ways that matter, the gypsy has been exactly right.

3 – What might have been

I don’t like the fashion for “alternative history” – what would have happened if the Nazis had successfully invaded Britain after Dunkirk, and all similar imaginings. Come to that, I have never liked historical novels (with the one major exception of War and Peace) or any other mixture of truth, or the search for it, with fiction.

For all that, I have not been able to resist wondering, occasionally, how my life might have gone if it had taken the other way at one or two of its forks. Most obviously, suppose June had recovered from leukaemia, which I think she might have done a few years later, with the great advances that have been made in that branch of medicine. Or of course she might never have contracted it at all. She would have joined me in Oxford and, I should think, made a name for herself in post-colonial studies, with the added confidence supplied by her own African experiences.

Theresia and her two children would have become a fading memory, possibly never even visited or seen again, and quite likely I would never have known Nepal or Sri Lanka, and certainly not everyday life in Java. By the way, I have now lived here for thirteen years – which is longer than my stay in any other home. And I have been married to Theresia for longer than I was to June.
Eventually, June would almost certainly have wanted us to retire to her beloved France, and I certainly would not have resisted.

This alternative story would have had some considerable attractions, but I am in no doubt that, on balance, life has done very well by me, even if it gave June a raw deal – which left me with no remnant of belief in a just or benign god, or providence. Fortunately, as it has turned out, I have been able to hold on to important parts of my old life, especially contact (although never enough) with our children and grandchildren, in whom part of her lives on.

At the same time I have built up a whole new and very rich experience of family life of a quite different kind. As it happens, I think that this circumstance throws some light, for my benefit, on one of the great questions of our times, the relations between the “developed” and the “developing” world, fascinating and endlessly complex as they are. But, as always, it is the direct personal contacts that matter, and I think that in having an Indonesian family as well as a Scottish one I am blessed far beyond my deserts.

4 – What’s left to do?

I have asked myself, what is the point of storing up more memories for my old age, when I already have more than enough memories, and probably not very much more old age? However, it is a false question. I haven’t spent my life until now in pursuit of memories, but just to live it, and there is no need to think of what’s left, in any other way than that. A better idea, it seems, is to try to fill some gaps in what I already know, about things that have interested me.

My son Matthew has been particularly helpful in seeking out for my delectation a great many of the old cinema classics that are now available on DVD. I missed many of them when I was spending my days in remote parts of Africa. And of course he has thrown in, for good measure, some of the more recent masterpieces from France, China, Japan, and Mexico, or wherever, that I would never have found on my own.

I promise myself that on any further visits to Europe I’ll take any opportunity – and even make opportunities – to visit some of the main art galleries. I did go to the Scottish National one on my last visit "home". The National Portrait gallery in London is another target, as one of my lifelong interests has been in biography. And I hope a plan concocted with my French daughter-in-law, Marianne, will come off some day – to see a few things in and around Paris, with particular mention of the collection of Toulouse-Lautrec prints in the Bibliothèque Nationale. There are a few individual pictures that I would go to a lot of trouble to see, the latest addition to the list being one of the portraits of Dr Johnson by his friend Joshua Reynolds, which comes across with astonishing force even as an illustration in Wain’s biography. It is noted there as being in the Tate, which is in any case yet another target for a visit.

I have begun to think of myself as something of a dix-huitièmiste, if only at the lowest conceivable level. I got this rather pretentious term from Wain. One would suppose that he had taken it from a French source, although it is not in my edition of the compendious Harrap dictionary. I have been taking a renewed interest in Burns, as well as Johnson (and therefore Boswell), and also Adam Smith and David Hume. This last I have gone back to in a rather limited way, because eighteenth-century philosophy is doubly hard going – but at least his Dialogues concerning Natural Religion is perfectly readable. My near-idolatry of Jane Austen goes back a long way, while Fielding’s Tom Jones is also an old favourite. And I ought, for example, to look into Swift and Defoe again, as well as some of the “Augustan” poets, who were out of fashion when I was at school.

I am sadly lacking in knowledge of the key French sources. I read Rousseau’s Confessions once, but didn’t like it. I wouldn’t even know where to begin with Voltaire – Leonard Woolf solved that problem by taking the entire works with him to Ceylon. The great encyclopaedias of Diderot or Buffon must be heavy going indeed, however enlightening they are.

I should also try to learn something more of Goethe, mainly an eighteenth-century man, I think. Although I can struggle through German prose, it would have to be in English. I did once get around to mail-ordering a book of his poems, but was put out when I found that it didn’t include the only two that I already knew – Kennst du das Land …, and Röslein auf der Heide.

As for other eighteenth century achievements, I have long been convinced, for instance, that Cook was by far the greatest navigator of them all (and that his contemporary Bougainville is but a pale shadow by comparison). I once set out to read Beaglehole’s edition of the Cook journals, but was thwarted by the first volume having gone astray from the Nicosia British Council Library. Maybe I should try again somehow, but it would be asking a lot of the old brain.

I am unmusical, but at least willing to go along with those who tell me that the eighteenth century wins again, and that Mozart is still the top man. This view has been reinforced by my Austrian experiences. To have suggested anything else in the Bitterlich house in Salzburg would have been blasphemy, probably leading to summary expulsion. And one of my very few memorable opera experiences has been to see and hear Die Zauberflöte in Vienna itself.

Until recently, my thoughts on how best to spend the remaining years (or months – who knows?) turned mainly to travel, but now that I have increasing difficulty in getting around, these thoughts have been reduced to planning how I am to get back to Scotland at least once more, and how I might fit into other people’s travel plans, when I can cover the ground mainly in their cars. One rather unexpected gap which I filled in last July was the Burns country around Ayr; I had already seen most of the places where he passed the later part of his life, in and around Dumfries. If everything goes favourably, I might see a little more of France, next time and perhaps southern Spain, where I now have an invitation from a lady I first met in Tanganyika in 1954, when she was one year old.

Old friends and family of my own generation are indeed thinning out rather drastically. My Finlayson grandfather had only five F2 descendants, and there are only two of us left, the other being my “young” cousin Frances, easily accessible by (free!) bus to Aberdeen. I have one surviving friend from university with whom I am still in touch (and there can’t be many others still alive). Donald insists on continuing to drive, although actually older than me, so we can probably have a jaunt somewhere interesting.

Saturday, December 27, 2008

Old men forget more

For my title, I thought that Shakespeare’s remark, as it stood, was slightly off course. And I somehow managed to remember that it had already been taken, by Duff Cooper, no less. So I have added the word “more”. Perhaps I should have inserted “and women” to keep the feminists happy, or at least to treat them equally. I might also have ended with “and they ramble on”, which is just what I propose to do. My main point, however, is that everybody forgets. Old people just do it more, and more often. Also, while I presume that it was the long term that Shakespeare had in mind, the old can often remember that quite well. What they really forget is what they just heard, or did, or failed to hear or do, a few minutes ago.
Be that as it may, when I recently wrote a little essay on Robert Burns, as my personal celebration of his 250th birthday, I had the devil of a job remembering the titles or first lines of some of his poems and songs, which had once been very familiar to me. Now I fear that I will have similar troubles with anything else I write. This is a pity, for I think writing is a good pastime as you become less mobile, and better for the brain than reading, or watching television.
Remembering names can be a serious problem. I regularly forget the name of my destination when I get on the minibus to come home from our town centre. I say that some day I will forget my own name, and who I am, and I am not sure that this is just a joke. When I wake up in the morning I often don’t know where I am, not only in what house, but even in what country. (I should explain that I have lived in nine different ones, and I dream about them). Then I depend on visual clues, rather than trying to remember where I was when I went to bed the night before. And alcohol doesn’t come into the story.
In spite of having read How the Mind Works, by that fellow – what’s his name? – I have really no idea of how the brain deals with memory. When I was in charge of the Commonwealth Forestry Bureau, some thirty years ago, one of our recurring topics for coffee-break chatter was just this, the human memory. My colleague, Cliff Elbourne, said there were two theories. However, it was all only at a kind of folklore level; in those days the relevant neurological study of the brain had hardly begun.
One of the two theories was the “shelf” one, which said that if your memory is full and you add a new item at one end of the shelf, something will be pushed off the other end to make room for it. We agreed that this is an unlikely story, which doesn’t correspond to the easily observed facts. The other hypothesis was the opposite one, that the more you put in, the more efficient your memory becomes, and that its capacity is virtually limitless. That doesn’t seem quite right either, and in fact one of the popular phrases of the time, in our sort of business, was mnemonic overload, which did appear to relate to a real phenomenon, and which implies that there is indeed some limit on capacity. But it can be nothing like so simple as a linear movement, by which the most recent input ejects the oldest items in the library.
This business we were in was rather like a highly specialized kind of editing. We were trying to keep track of all the world’s serious scientific literature that had some relation to forestry and forest products. Collectively, we had to read everything we could get hold of from the adjacent library, in many languages – predominantly English, French, German and Russian. We depended to varying degrees on there being English summaries attached to the articles in Chinese, Finnish, Japanese, etc.
If possible, we had to recall any relevant earlier work on the topic of each paper, partly in order to report any such link, and partly to detect either plagiarism, or the author’s own multiple publication of the same material (which is surprisingly common). Finally, we had to produce abstracts, working to a particularly detailed set of “house rules” about the way they were written. All this, when I first began, was done without any computerized way of looking things up. The more you had to consult printed reference material the longer it took, until the process became hopelessly uneconomic. You don’t need much imagination to realize that a good memory was essential, and that a very good one was a great advantage to the abstractor – and in principle also to me, as the final editor. Nobody, and certainly not I, could emulate my predecessor, Percy Beak, famous in our little circle of fellow workers, who carried in his head a detailed memory of half a century’s worth of scientific and technical writing about forestry. At the other end of the scale, in the training of new staff, mnemonic overload was certainly a problem.
It was actually before this time, when I was in my 40s, and hardly to be called senile, that I began to notice what I thought was a strange phenomenon. Particular words were becoming especially hard to recall. The one that hit me first was parallax. I had come across the term, and the practical problem it denotes, when I acquired my first “real” camera, a twin lens reflex Rolleicord, when I was about 20. The small displacement between its viewing and taking lenses had to be allowed for if you didn’t want headless portraits.
Then, when I got into “relascope” studies, and was looking for instruments that could measure very small angles subtended at the observer’s eye, I found that the navigator’s instrument, the sextant, was ruled out by this same thing, parallax. The effect of it is altogether negligible when measuring the angle between sight lines to a distant horizon and to the sun or a star, but not for targets, such as tree stems, that are relatively close. I had found a small, almost pocket-sized sextant on the market, which should have had less parallax, but even that was no good. The surveyor’s answer, of course, is the theodolite, but I wanted something much simpler and more portable. So, between one thing and another, the term itself, parallax, had once been very familiar to me, but a few years after these experiences I noticed that I could never bring it back to mind when I wanted it in some other connection, which was maybe once every few months.
Then parallax was joined by another, quite unrelated word, obsidian. I knew of it very well as the rock, a natural glass, that is used in stone tools, as an alternative to flint, and later I was to come across it as the material used in making trinkets for sale to tourists in parts of Java – where I first learned that (unlike the T-model Ford) it comes in several colours, including white, as well as black. But then, for a long time I just couldn’t recall the word when I wanted it. I would be trying to say to my wife: “Let’s go and get a stock of those bangles and things, for Christmas presents, the next time we are in Giriwoyo. You know, the things they make from …”. I tried to find a mnemonic: Ob, for example, is the name of a Siberian river, but then came the usual trouble with mnemonics; I couldn’t remember that I had to think (a) of a river, (b) that it was in Siberia, and (c) that it was called the Ob. And even if I got that far, ob… didn’t necessarily produce …sidian.
One oddity is that both parallax and obsidian are now easy to recall (as I have done here) perhaps simply because I have come to think about them so much. But unfortunately their places in my list of blanks have been taken by a long and rapidly expanding number of other words. They are nearly all nouns, predominantly “proper” ones, and most particularly the names of places and people. I not only forget them, but also mix them up. It can be embarrassing. Just this morning I addressed my favourite niece by the name of one of the dogs.
If you try to laugh off such things as being due to senility (“premature senility” I would say when it first began) you always get the same response, from people of all ages, down to teenagers: “Oh, everybody does that”, they say, which may be true. If so, it would still be interesting. But how many people really do get this initial alarm bell effect, with striking individual words like parallax and obsidian? And of course, when senility does set in, and you do begin to forget just about everything, it isn’t true any more to say that “everybody does it”.
I have also had a few rather notable specimens of a different kind of memory failure. When my first wife died, I found that she had kept all the letters I had ever written to her. On looking through them I found a sequence covering several weeks, when I had been in Scotland, and she in Cyprus. I have been totally unable to recall the occasion for this reversal of a more usual pattern, and there was no clue in the letters. There must have been some quite ordinary explanation for our being where we were. Why had I blotted out the memory of it? This blackout may have been for some psychological reason rather than a simple neurological malfunction – not but what the two modes of explanation may be concerned with the same physiological phenomenon. Freudian, people say, but what might Freud have had to say about this one?
Then, on reaching four score years, I wrote my autobiography, and in doing so discovered, for example, that I had no memory of my three sons coming on school holiday visits to either Cameroon or Indonesia, until they reminded me that they had done so. I can’t think of any reason why my subconscious would want to forget my sons’ presence – which is not to say that Freud himself couldn’t have thought of one.
But do we really forget whatever our subconscious minds don’t want to remember? The idea is commonly accepted, and yet I don’t think it is generally true for me, at least. I have a large number of memories (that I never mention to anyone) which I would much rather forget, but can’t. Wouldn’t you expect the subconscious to cooperate? I hasten to add that they are mostly about foolish actions, not criminal or immoral ones.
Turning now to things that you don’t forget, but remember particularly well, one story says that the past is not recalled as a film sequence, but only as still pictures, frozen in time as “snapshots”. I think this may be another myth that isn’t generally true. I am sure, for instance, that my memories of our little donkey, Nicky, on an East African beach, are real continuous action shots. He used to attack me, rearing up and threatening me with his hooves, when I would grab his legs and throw him off. It wasn’t something you would easily forget, although it wasn’t really dangerous. With expert help from my wife, I did train him out of it, eventually.
I was once given an extraordinary window on someone else’s memory. It was highly memorable as an occasion, but I am not able now to recall the many details of what it was about. This first wife of mine, the one who had been my companion on the beach, died when she was only 50, and her mother, some 25 or 30 years her senior, survived her. The usual symptoms of senility were beginning to appear, and the process had no doubt been accelerated by the traumatic untimely death of her only child. One day the old lady launched into a long story about a ball she had been to, talking about it as something very recent – it could have taken place just the previous evening. This was in 1977, and there was internal evidence in her tale that the ball had actually been held in about 1920. She talked about it for half an hour or so, in great detail – who was there, what the other girls had been wearing, who had danced with whom, and all the usual chatter about such occasions. That really made me wonder about “how the mind works”. There must be some huge kind of store, like the Google one, only even more unimaginable.
One part of the recall mechanism, that I read about fairly recently, concerns the images that have once registered on the retina. Some people have the ability to learn long passages of the printed word by heart. I once knew a middle-aged lady, a specialist in English literature, who could spout a great many pages of the classic nineteenth century novels. I now think the probable explanation was that at some level of consciousness she could bring back what had once been projected onto her retina, and read it. What makes this extraordinary idea credible is that in a lesser way the ability is quite common, and when I first heard of it I recognized it as something that I do myself. Quite often, as I am going to sleep, my closed eyes see pages of text. I can move to different parts of the page, although not with total control. Unfortunately, when I try to read what it says, I can only pick out the occasional word, and can seldom make any sense of it. However, I can usually recognize from the typography that it is a book or a magazine that I had been reading that day. Something in the brain can store text, and presumably other retinal images, very much as a computer can, all ready for later viewing, or printing out. The really surprising part, I think, is that it can sometimes bring them back, as it appears to the conscious brain, to the eye.
There is at least one potentially risky trick that the truly senile memory plays. I think of it as confusing the intention with the action. You intend to turn off the gas, and forget that you haven’t actually done it. I got into this kind of trouble, but less dangerously, once or twice, when using my credit card to get cash from the machine, and forgetting to retrieve everything. The cure, which is working so far, is to go through an invariable routine, ending with a double check. Is my card, with the cash, and the payout slip, actually in my wallet? Next, this is me, putting the wallet into my left-hand trousers pocket. Then finally, I must look to see that I have left nothing lying around in the booth.
An old friend of mine suffered in his last few years from very severe short-term memory deficit of this kind. However, it was far beyond what most of us get; he remembered nothing. His solution was to compile minute-by-minute plans for his routine day, all written out in a compendious notebook, with a column for each day, in which he could tick off the items as soon as he had attended to them. The most obvious problem, of course, is that in ordinary life your activities don’t fall so simply into the same repeated pattern. But he was a remarkable man, heroic I think you could say, and he did manage to keep going, with his wife and other helpers never too far away. This case must have been caused by a total failure of some essential brain mechanism. The more ordinary cases, by comparison, are not such a complete failure, but just little breakdowns here and there.
My own mother’s mental processes went downhill quite rapidly in her final two or three years. The doctors said it was because a progressive blocking of the arteries was cutting off the blood supply to the brain. They had no cure to offer. It was a sad business, first the difficulty in remembering names, then the people the names belonged to. Then there came growing confusion as to where she was, or how to get to somewhere else, such as into another room, and finally forgetting how to do things, like getting dressed, or even eating and drinking. I don’t think that my own troubles have the same cause, and I certainly hope that they don’t have the same result, although my symptoms, especially the forgetting of names, are sometimes worryingly similar to her earlier ones. I tell myself that, like most octogenarians, I am getting steadily worse, but much more slowly than my mother did, which encourages me to believe that the cause is not the same.
I am fond of aphorisms, and one of my favourites is an old Scottish one: “Little wit in the heid gaes muckle work to the feet”. When I was young I heard it very often from an aged great-aunt, typically when she would get up and go to another room to get something, and come back without it, having forgotten what it was she went to get, or even that she had gone to get anything at all. This kind of short-term memory failure is, I think, by far the commonest mental symptom of advancing age. There’s not a lot you can do about it but, for example, if I have something in my hand that I know is going to have to be taken up or down stairs, I place it conspicuously on the first step where it won’t be forgotten. Writing things down, or elaborate routines, like my credit card one, can help. But the more sensible response is to realize that I have plenty of time on my hands to make an extra trip to get that glass of water, or whatever, and that the exercise will probably do me good, even if it is a bit tiresome.
There are some branches of learning that really demand a good memory. When I was a first-year forestry student we had a lot of contact with our medical counterparts, and they were much given to complaining about their anatomy classes. They said that almost the only requirement was that they should remember the names of every small protuberance of every bone, plus a large number of muscles, nerves, etc. But in fact most biological studies include taxonomy – the classification and naming of distinguishable groups of organisms. Then anyone who is into botany, for example, ends up with a huge number of names in his or her head. Even a poor botanist like me could at one time have put a name to the great majority of British wild flowers, as well as both native and introduced trees, in both Latin and English, with a few Scottish ones thrown in (like the “bluebell” to which the English give the strange name of “hare bell”). And eventually I must have known many hundreds of names in quite a variety of languages. Now they have nearly all evaporated, so that when asked for a name, I often have to say yes, I know that plant well, but I have completely forgotten what it’s called.
Modern teachers make much of the obvious truth, that memory is not the same thing as intelligence. They then draw the illogical conclusion that they should not require their pupils to learn anything by heart – except, presumably, when they have to learn their lines for a part in a play. Perhaps it was a little overdone in my time, when we had to learn many historical dates, and a lot of “locational geography”, like the names of a great number of rivers. Nowadays all this is referred to deprecatingly as “trivia”. One problem, certainly, is to know where to stop. At one time I could have named all the British counties, and all the sovereign states in the Americas, on the outline maps that were provided. Not all the states of the usa however – although curiously enough I can almost do this last exercise now (or could until recently) as a result of my interest in their history and current affairs. However, I can’t do what many Americans can, and name all 50 state capitals. There must be a happy medium. At one extreme, I think it displays a most deplorable ignorance when somebody says: “Indonesia – that’s in Bali, isn’t it?”. But I have to admit that I myself had never even heard of the mighty Mahakam River in Borneo – comparable to the Rhine in size, if not in geopolitical importance – until I went to live on its banks for a couple of years.
Then there is spelling, and spelling bees, highly specialized memory tests that are a national sport for American children, imitated in other countries, but I think out of fashion in Britain. When I was small, adults would regularly ask me if I could spell such and such a word – always chosen from the same very limited collection. Ipecacuanha was a great favourite, and Mississippi produced a little rhythmic mantra – “em-eye-double-ess-eye-double-ess-eye-double-pee-eye”. Another geographical one was Antananarivo, the capital of Madagascar. Later, unfortunately, it was changed in international usage to the French Tananarive, but we have now reverted, thankfully, to what I suppose is the Malagasy form. Today, I have more trouble with Massachusetts – why do they double the t but not the second s?
Whatever the unthinking young tell you, it can by no means be said that a knowledge of correct spelling is useless. There are sound arguments for getting it right, and by far the greater part of the work needs human memory. Computers can help if you make mistakes, but you would be setting them a very large task indeed if you wanted them to discriminate between, say discrete and discreet, as you went along with your typing. The main logical problem, as we all know, is that spellcheckers will accept anything that is a word, even if it’s the wrong one – dairy, say, when you meant to type diary. I have to confess that I was never very good at spelling. I think it must say something about the mental processes, however, that although I very often can’t remember the right answer, I do seem to have a special store in my brain for the words (or perhaps rather, word types) that I’m not sure about. Each of them sets off the warning that I must check with the dictionary, whether on the computer or in that beguiling volume I keep on my desk, the New Oxford Dictionary of English. Is it wierd, or weird?
I have no doubt that I could find more to say about memory, if I looked into the subject on the Web, but this is meant to be just a personal account, so I’ll leave it at that, in the hope that at least one or two of the points I find intriguing will be of some interest to others.

Saturday, October 18, 2008


For the last sixty years or so, I have been building up for myself what I used to think was an impossibly extreme or idealistic personal view of human freedom. I would like to see the abolition of all controls on movement, in the sense of travel or migration.

I have never seen this as an irrational objective; on the contrary I believe that it is supported by philosophers (for example Bertrand Russell, citing Hobbes) who have seen freedom of movement as the most basic of freedoms, and who rank it even above freedom of speech. And we are all in favour of freedom, are we not?

Moreover, it is encouraging to realize that nearly everything I oppose has been created by a quite modern tendency, so that it is not inconceivable that the opposite one can get under way and gain momentum. Before 1914, which is less than a hundred years ago, people were far freer to travel than they are now. In fact, I think only the notoriously unfree Ottoman empire really took passports seriously. The present-day world is based on the powerful idea of nationalism, which has produced a huge administrative apparatus to apply legislation about citizenship, immigration, passports, visas and work permits, as well as the taxation of "citizens" and the benefits to which they are entitled. Then guarded frontiers are not only supposed to keep people in their appointed places, but also to be a check on the movement of criminals and the things they carry, such as narcotics, stolen goods, or ill-gotten cash. Sometimes diseases are also to be kept out.

Behind nationalism there is the animal instinct for territory. It is usually the male animals who insist on acquiring it – and on herding their females into it. But it must be a long strange set of links that connects this primitive instinct to the motives of the present inhabitants of the USA, for example, who try to prevent or limit access by people of other "nationalities".

There have always been voices raised in favour of freedom; it is the common theme of Scottish literature. But if you want a really extreme view, think of John Lennon's lyric, Imagine. It would sweep away, not only national sovereignty, but religion too, and leave us with "nothing to die for". Even for me it seems too much to expect (and I ask myself, paradoxically, are we not supposed to be prepared to die for liberty, which we hold dearer than life itself?).

As my life has unfolded, I have acquired a personal stake in all this. I now find that I am aBritish citizen “by birth”, as are my three sons by my British first wife, two of their wives and all of their children. My first daughter-in-law has retained her French nationality, not that it matters much now that they are all in the European Union. My fourth son, by my second, Indonesian, wife is also British by birth. He too has married an Indonesian, and they have one son, who is British – although born in Indonesia. I also have two Indonesian step-children, and I am told that, although in English law a step-child is the same as a "biological" one, these two do not qualify as British citizens, and need visas to enter the country.

Would it not be better if we were all primarily just human beings, global citizens? Then the separate states of the world would have no business deciding where we can live, travel, or work. I want to be a free man, not just a free Brit.

The present state of affairs is quite mad, and it generates still more madness. There are all sorts of lunatic disputes, when common sense goes out of the window. I recall great arguments about the nationality of children whose British parents and grandparents had spent their lives as missionaries in China. Other cases have included the dishonorable repudiation of the British passports that had been given to the "Uganda Asians" and to people in Hong Kong. Or consider the notorious "virginity tests" that the British government used to impose, to distinguish between real and fake immigrant wives. Recent news is of Gurkha soldiers having to fight for the right to enter or reside in Britain, faced with the preposterous argument that they have not had a sufficient connection with the country – the Gurkhas!

A far greater madness, which is going from bad to worse, is that "immigration control" is killing people in large numbers. It is murderous. At one time it was the "boat people" from Vietnam who were in the news, now it is mainly those trying to enter the USA and the EU from the south. Most disturbingly, many otherwise intelligent and humane people seem to be almost unaware of, or unconcerned by, the deaths of thousands of people from sub-Saharan Africa trying to make their way by sea to the Canary Islands, mainland Spain, or Italy. Why are decent people everywhere not simply demanding the abolition of the system that produces such results?

An old-fashioned test of what is good, sound legislation is whether it is enforceable. The main receiving countries admit to having millions of "illegal immigrants", so the current laws are obviously failing this test. Efforts to enforce them are costing huge amounts of money. The fence being built along the southern border of the USA is only one of the more conspicuous examples. Much money is also being wasted by the other side, on the payments made to criminal organizations that promise to help people to circumvent the barriers. This money is in fact not just wasted, but is put to truly criminal purposes by the gangs involved.

On behalf of their citizens, most governments say that they don't want to prevent, but only to control immigration, and even to encourage it, so that it is beneficial to the receiving countries. The question then becomes, what kinds of people are we short of? It is not very difficult to see the other side of this story. If you deplete Africa of its trained doctors and nurses you must do damage far greater than any benefit obtained in Europe or America. Picking and choosing your immigrants in this way is based on very questionable economics. Even counting the exact costs and benefits to the receiving country is not easy. What is more important is that “control” is as much of an affront to the basic principle of freedom as total closure would be. And it still leads the excluded groups, in desperation, to put their lives at risk. The better idea, for all
concerned, was:
Give me your tired, your poor,
Your huddled masses …

which now reads so strangely on the Statue of Liberty!

It is not so very long ago that East Germany, as it then was, was denounced by the “free world” for denying its citizens the right to leave the country, and for shooting those who tried to do so. Apart from the draconian enforcement methods, they had as good a case for wanting to keep their most useful people, as the western governments have had for taking them away from poor countries. But surely the moral is that real freedom for individuals must work in both directions.

For about 450 years Europeans moved freely into all the other continents, stealing land and natural resources, killing people (incidentally or deliberately), slaving, and imposing oppressive "imperial" political and economic regimes. Now they want to stop people – who have no such malevolent intentions – coming in the other direction. Whatever arguments are put forward about the economic, administrative, or “cultural” (often meaning religious) problems of taking in new immigrants, it seems obvious enough that in most cases the real underlying basis of opposition is simply racism, which is mad.

The creation of large regional groupings of countries has complicated matters. This is particularly the case of the European Union. Other groupings have done something to free the movement of goods and money, but very little (or in some cases nothing at all) to free the movement of people. For the EU it is rather as though a new "nationality" is being created. It is, or soon will be possible for people from Bulgaria to travel to, reside, and work in all other parts of the EU. But not people from the Ukraine, for example. The inclusion of Turkey is opposed, especially by the French government, and may never happen. Yet it is Turkey, not the EU, which is alleged to fall short on "human rights". And if their government is not all it should be, it is hard to see why the freedom of individuals should be denied; one might even expect the opposite result.

The existence of the EU shows that answers can be found to the difficulties of taxing a freely mobile population, and providing them equitably with social benefits. Indeed, these problems were foreseen long ago, when federated sovereign states were created, and good enough solutions were found.

Meanwhile there are always calls for the frontiers of the EU as a whole to be made harder to penetrate. It is this last development that leads one to wonder whether the world is moving in the right direction. Are we only creating fewer, bigger, stronger, mutually exclusive units? Or will the EU go on expanding? Can one even dream that some day it might include Russia? Or Egypt? Or Morocco? And eventually, the whole world – at least in its role as the ultimate "Free Trade Area", where there are no more barriers to the free flow of people, as well as of money and goods. Could this at least be adopted as the rational long-term goal, by everyone who
thinks about such things?