Monday 14 December, 2020

The public agent

John Brockman, one of the best literary agents I know, at lunch in the Groucho Club; looking suspicious but not in the least grouchy.

Quote of the Day

”A desk is a dangerous place from which to view the world”

  • John Le Carré

Musical alternative to the morning’s radio news

Sharon Shannon | Blackbird


If you don’t know Sharon Shannon’s musicianship, then (respectfully suggests) maybe it’s time you did.

Long Read of the Day

“A damn stupid thing to do”—the origins of C

An abridged — but to geeks fascinating — history by Richard Jensen of the evolution of the C programming language. Not for everyone, but if you’re interested in the history of computing, it’s gold dust. And eminently readable. I guess it helps if you’re lucky enough know some of the people in the story (which I do). And I still have my copy of the beautiful Kernighan and Ritchie paperback introduction to the language


John le Carré RIP

Fabulous obit by Sarah Lyell. Sample:

Mr. le Carré’s own youthful experience as a British agent, along with his thorough field research as a writer, gave his novels the stamp of authority. But he used reality as a starting-off point to create an indelible fictional world.

In his books, the Secret Intelligence Service, otherwise known as M.I.6., was the “Circus,” agents were “joes,” operations involving seduction were “honeytraps” and agents deeply embedded inside the enemy were “moles,” a word he is credited with bringing into wide use if not inventing it. Such expressions were taken up by real British spies to describe their work, much as the Mafia absorbed the language of “The Godfather” into their mythology.

“As much as in Tolkien, Wodehouse, Chandler or even Jane Austen, this closed world is a whole world,” the critic Boyd Tonkin wrote in The Independent. “Via the British ‘Circus’ and its Soviet counterpart, Le Carré created a laboratory of human nature; a test-track where the innate fractures of the heart and mind could be driven to destruction.”

In a career spanning more than a half-century, Mr. le Carré wrote more than two-dozen books and set them as far afield as Rwanda, Chechnya, Turkey, the Caribbean and Southeast Asia…

Great stuff. Worth reading in full.

French fries, Coq au Vin, le weekend and other tricky questions

Further to A Song for Brexit (see last Saturday’s blog) I’ve been pondering the way language and ideology get intertwined. Remember when the French President, Jacques Chirac, refused to back the Bush-Blair invasion of Iraq and enraged US legislators refused to allow Congressional caterers to serve “French fries”? From then on they had to be called “Freedom fries”. (Ironic that, given what happened to Iraq and the Middle East generally as a result of that particular adventure.)

The wicked point of the A Song for Brexit sketch was that if the UK left Europe then the French wanted their words back. No more ‘joie de vivre’, RSVP’ or ‘cul-de-sac’, among many others. The problem is that, as some wag once observed, “French is spoken in every language.” The only English word I would think of that the French had appropriated was “Weekend”. (I know: there are probably others, but I couldn’t think of them at the time.)

Yesterday, after a bout of nostalgia triggered by a nice email from an academic colleague who had decided to repair to his holiday house in France until the UK finally sorted out what it was going to do with the virus, I set to and cooked Coq au Vin for supper. But when my wife was putting some of the surplus into the freezer for subsequent consumption, she began to write Coq au… on the label and then paused. Should it henceforth be merely Chicken Stew?

Doesn’t have quite the same ring to it, does it? And she can’t call it Chicken Casserole either. Hmmm…

Other, hopefully interesting, links

  • Listen to Barack Obama reading the Preface to his memoir. The audio version gives you a good sense of the man. Jason Kottke thinks it’s better than reading the book. I can believe it. Link.

  • Kazakhstan’s President is addicted to photoshopping his image. Nice piece on Motherboard.

This blog is also available as a daily email. If you think this might suit you better, why not subscribe? One email a day, delivered to your inbox at 7am UK time. It’s free, and there’s a one-click unsubscribe if you decide that your inbox is full enough already!