Poetry in motion

Driving into Oxford on the A40 last night, I noticed a couple of those illuminated signs passing on road safety messages.

These messages said “Think! Don’t Phone Whilst Driving.” In this context that “whilst” looked decidedly wrong. Not technically, but in terms of voice. You don’t want a commanding message from the highway authorities to come across like a 19th century poet reading a slim volume of verses to an audience of admirers.

“Whilst” sounds archaic, which is surprising because it is a more recent word than “while”, which most of us would have used in that space. “While” is Old English; “whilst” is late 14th century. “While”, from Indo-European roots, was originally a noun, meaning a portion of time. It retains that use, but it is also a verb (“We whiled away the afternoon watching daytime TV”), a preposition (“While we watched daytime TV , the house burnt down”), an adverb and a conjunction.

“Whilst”, which is first recorded in the Cursor Mundi, the Middle English verse history of the Christian universe, has only the latter two uses. As an adverb, “I ate an ice cream whilst driving”. As a conjunction, “I read a book whilst I drove”.

I think I’ve got that right. Modern grammar is a lot more complicated than the “name of thing”, “doing word”, “describing word” stuff many of us learned in primary school. Almost any attempt to “parse” a sentence is subject to challenge, and this one is no exception. If you ever want an argument, try posting a contribution on one of those message boards where the hardcore grammar nerds hang out.

The main point, though, is that “whilst”, that late arrival, is on its way out.  The Americans don’t really use it at all, and we generally reserve it for situations in which we want to be consciously archaic or courtly. If, for instance, that sign were offering advice on the safe way to ride your velocipede, it wouldn’t be so peculiar.


JAMs tomorrow

Politicians, charities, thinktanks, medics and other authority figures love lumping people together and giving them snappy and patronising labels. This week the Joseph Rowntree Foundation gave another outing to JAMs, those who are “Just About Managing”, a term taken up with enthusiasm by the great May herself.

The Foundation’d report, published this week, is astonishing. By my reading, 19 million people are either “just about managing” or not managing at all. That number increased by four million between 2008/9 and 2014/15. They all fall short of what is called the “Minimum Income Standard”, either by a lot or by a small amount.

For some reason the JRF’s webpage announcing the survey doesn’t include the value of the MIS. It’s very hard to find it anywhere on its site. If you move in those circles, you’re supposed to know it. The political/thinktank/charity world likes to speak to itself.

In fact, it’s a lot of money: a lot of money if you are genuinely poor, that is. For a couple with two children it is £40,366 a year. The JAM group includes a lot of middle class people. Indeed, we are British and we like a moan, so it is hard to find anyone who would admit to anything other than “getting  by” or “struggling a bit” or “just about managing”: if you have an £800,000 mortgage on your £1m house, and you have two kids in private school, and two cars, a couple of ponies and a couple of subscriptions to a gym, you are probably “just about managing” too.

In the hands of Teresa May and others, “just about managing” is a moral judgement. The JAMs whose votes she is soliciting are the deserving poor: indeed, they are not even poor. A useful piece in The Sun this week sought to define the term using a report from the Policy Exchange, another “think tank”. Reporter Emma Lake notes that Policy Exchange describes JAMs as the people who “make the country work”.

“The report says they have a strong commitment to family life, do not take expensive holidays and while they are not poor they do not have significant disposable incomes or set aside large amounts for their retirement.” She gives a figure of between £19,000 and £21,000 for individuals as the minimum income standard.

The Policy Exchange’s JAMs manage to get by each month, but depend on a regular salary. If wages don’t move, and prices increase, they’re screwed.

Nonetheless, they can take comfort from the support of the Prime Minister. As she said in her first speech as PM, “”I know you’re working around the clock, I know you’re doing your best and I know that sometimes life can be a struggle. The Government I lead will be driven, not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours.”

The Government she leads is going to be disastrous for those people, thanks to Brexit, but that’s an argument for another time. I’m more interested in what I call the CBAs, for “Can’t Be Arsed”. These are people who may have reached the Minimum Income Standard, either by working in jobs they despise and are despised for doing or  through the benefit system.

A town like Cheltenham, apparently pretty and middle class, is ringed by estates where some people are simply left out of our current political considerations because they don’t, or can’t, participate. I went to an estate this week that is so poor its branch of Bargain Booze has closed. Instead it will be getting a British Heart Foundation furniture shop, selling to the poor the nice stuff the middle classes have given away.

The poor tend not to know they can get the middle classes’ giveaways for nothing, by using Freecycle or Freegle, or they are too exhausted and disorganised to do so. Nor do they know about something like FutureLearn, where they can do genuinely useful and enjoyable courses for nothing. They know about Poundworld and Poundland, so useful for Rizla papers, but they are a long way from where they live. The same goes for Lidl and Aldi, which sell better fresh food than the middle classes are buying at Sainsbury’s. They’re too far away or they Can’t Be Arsed.

What do we do about them, Mrs May? Give them access to a helpline?


Foreign bodies

Last night I wandered into what I thought was a quiet bar/restaurant, looking for something quick and good to eat. I had been there for a few minutes when in wandered a small group of young friends, no more than 21, two girls and two boys. They had guitars in cases and an accordion, and they were very warm towards each other in a most unBritish way.

They were slightly swarthy, seemed excited to be here, had obviously been busking on the street and spoke in a language that was quite impenetrable to me. I thought maybe Romanian, because of their looks, or something slavic. So I asked them where they were from.

“Bilbao”, they said. “Spain”.

They were not the world’s most successful buskers. They only knew three songs and were retiring upstairs in the Youth Hostel (for this, I discovered, is where I was) to learn some more.

“Are you staying in Britain?” I asked.

“Yes,” said one of the girls. “We are students. At the university.”

“But what language were you speaking?”

“That’s a hard language.”

“Not for us.”

And then we all laughed.


The middle of the night

Like many of us, I tell people they can call me any time, day or night, if they are in any sort of trouble or if they are having some kind of crisis.

No one ever does, because they think I am the kind of person who is going to get upset, or they don’t wan’t to bother me, or they don’t want to wake
me, etc. But I really don’t mind. I quite like being awake in the middle of the night, and after that first reflex jolt when my sleeping brain detects the rude arrival of the audio wave from the apparatus, I am ready to chat.

I gave a young relative my number and told him to call me any time, with his parents being away on a trip, and he did. It was 12.50 and I heard the ping of Facebook Messenger on my phone. I don’t know whether I helped him (the ‘conversation’ mostly consisted of “I’m fine! I’m really fine!”) but I hope so.

Did I go back to sleep? Pretty much. It was cold and I am developing a cough. Now that, rather than a call from a relative, will keep you awake.

After a run of bad sleep, I was contemplating using the addictive and nasty Zopiclone, but made an amazing discovery. I was just cold. A blanket on the bed and I was good for 5am, which in my view is not an early start. If I’d put a pair of socks on I would probably have slept even longer.

In matters psychological, look for the simple things first: you have a gnawing pain inside, you’re probably hungry. You feel weary, you’re probably tired. You feel like you have a broken heart… you probably have a broken heart.

In Sickness and the National Health

Would anybody like to hazard a guess as to where and when this picture was taken?

I’m not absolutely sure, but I think it was about 1949, in or around Cossham Hospital, Kingswood, Bristol. I think the cute gamine on the far right with the silent-movie expression and a claw for a hand (I can’t think what else it is) is my mother, Zena B. Penrice, then a student nurse.

The point of exposing my deceased mater to ridicule is to ask you to think a little about the NHS we have now and the one we had in 1949. When this picture was taken the cobbled-together institution was probably about a year old, and people were having lots of fun. In the old charity hospitals, like this one, nurses and doctors (female and male respectively) would dress up at the drop of a hat and perform gang-show routines for the patients, whom they had often got to know well.

The reason they knew their patients so well is that they were brought in for long periods. There were very few treatments. Mostly people were put to bed and given a nice long rest, if they had something that could be cured, or allowed to die without undue doctoring if they didn’t. The nurses did nursing, with a lot of emphasis on cleaning, bedpan changing, and bedside manner. The doctors were God. Between the student nurses and God, came the Staff-nurses (step forward future Staff-Nurse Penrice), the Sisters and, most feared and respected, Matron.

Cossham Hospital, and places like it, did its best to give patients peace, stability and nursing care at a time when social problems – poverty, hunger, unemployment, domestic violence, etc – were as bad or worse than they are now. You might be going to die, or you might get better, but you could expect to be treated kindly. Then you’d go back to your hellish life on the Hillfields estate, where your drunk of a father would knock you about, but at least you’d had some respite. There were no trollies in corridors.

That, I would say, is the NHS of the mind that the British public feels deep affection for. Certainly there are plenty of politically motivated “I heart the NHS” movements, but finding people with real love for it, either among doctors or patients, is increasingly difficult. Middle class dinner parties (a tautology) are increasingly full of people saying “I love the NHS, but when it’s your own child/partner/parent you have to do the right thing, even if that means going private”. And who, really, can argue with that?

So what went wrong, and what can be done about it? Well, we could do without a lot of shroud-waving of the sort recently espoused by another organisation that constantly claims to be adored, the BBC. A week of non-news about old people in distress and discomfort, followed by a pious assertion that “everybody gets treated” doesn’t help anyone. Nor, really, does a call for a special NHS tax, although as a short-term measure it has something to commend it.

I come from an NHS family, and have been receiving treatment for 40 years for what they tell me is a lifelong, incurable, life-shortening condition that has to be controlled by powerful medication I should take every day until I am burnt at the local crem. I see a lovely CPN every month and we have a nice chat. He’ll probably be laid off soon.

I think I have a reasonable idea of how the service has changed and what might be going wrong. It is both simple and complicated, and its not just about the hospitals being overwhelmed by frail old people who should be culled, as the BBC reports inadvertently suggested.

I have more to say about this (of course I do) but that can wait. I may even get controversial.





Why are there no business dramas on television?

Here’s a piece I wrote in 2007 for Management Today that I hope remains relevant today, especially for aspiring TV writers like what I am.

The mood in the boardroom is tense. The young man in the chair addresses the meeting: “I am proposing a change in the reporting procedure for board meetings. It will save a lot of time in future if we can have written reports from the various department heads.” The department heads grumble, before moving on to the next item on the agenda. “We’re having something of a bottleneck with our container traffic through Geneva to Milan,” says one.

It doesn’t sound like a recipe for excitement, but The Brothers, the BBC drama in which this scene appeared, was essential Sunday evening viewing in the 1970s. People rushed home to see it. Vicars cut short their sermons. The cast were regularly mobbed, especially abroad; they even released a Christmas record in Holland. Indeed, drama series set in the world of business were a staple of British television from the early 1960s right through until the start of the 1990s, when they disappeared from our screens. The loss is television’s: business is a world of colourful characters and dramatic stories, but you wouldn’t believe that from watching the box, where it is represented only by The Money Programme, the shenanigans of The Apprentice, the bear-pit of Dragons’ Den, and an occasional, villainous role in paranoid dramas like The Whistleblowers.

Things used to be very different. In the 1960s, the years of Harold Wilson’s supposed technological revolution, industry was considered  exciting. In 1963, The Plane Makers, made by Associated Television, dealt with the development of a new British aircraft. It began with scenes of shopfloor conflict, but ATV’s boss Lew Grade found them boring, reasoning that viewers –  who might very well have worked in manufacturing – did not want the noise and grime of the factory when they were at home. The result was a new and more glamorous spin-off, The Power Game, which ran until 1969. In it, former plane-maker John Wilder, now Sir John, became a rapacious merchant banker.

In 1965, the BBC launched a rival series called Mogul, about an oil company of the same name. After one series, it was renamed The Troubleshooters and focused more on oil exploration, but it still found time for boardroom struggles. It was followed by The Brothers, featuring a family haulage firm called Hammond Transport Services. A soap, in essence, with a lot of bedroom action, it still featured stories about the company’s expansion plans, union conflicts, and struggles between the three Hammond brothers and their late father’s mistress for control of the company.

Then came Howards’ Way, created by the same producer, Gerard Glaister, as a similar family saga, but more aspirational, with boats replacing trucks for up-market appeal. A cut-price British Dallas, it was heartily mocked by the critics – “a Kentucky Fried Series, in which ingredients are selected by computer and blended in a Moulinex” – but watched by a weekly audience of 12 million. It came off the screen three days before the resignation of Mrs Thatcher, and, in a sense, marked the end of the business drama in Britain.

What live on are workplace-based comedies, many of them – The Smoking Room,  for instance – following the lead of The Office, in which Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant depicted the petty tensions and dramas of working life over 14 episodes while scrupulously avoiding showing anyone doing any work. And there are also, of course, the ‘reality’ shows, factual soap operas set in real workplaces, for instance ITV’s long-running Airline, based on the day-to-day travails of EasyJet and its passengers . Such programmes have the undeniable advantage of being cheap to make.

What’s missing, though, is straight drama that takes business and entrepreneurship seriously. Agent Mark Berlin says the television writers he represents are simply not coming up with those ideas. “It’s just fashion,” he says. “Something isn’t perceived as an area that you should write about.” Partly that may be due to a lack of relevant experience. Wilfred Greatorex, creator of The Power Game, had been a successful journalist and had at least mixed with business people. Today, says Berlin, “most people who are writers have started out as writers. They write about what interests them, and business just hasn’t arisen. Most writers probably feel so removed from that world that it doesn’t  particularly occur to them. They don’t know it.”

Helen Farrall, a successful writer of series television, confirms writers’ reluctance. She recalls working on Emmerdale when a storyline arose about the inheritance of a farm, a perennial plotline in family business series: “We would sit in story conferences and none of the writers liked writing business stories:  they thought it was boring. They thought the audience weren’t interested in it.”

But does this prove that, as is sometimes suggested, that the whole creative world has a deep-seated antipathy to business? “I think you could make too much of that,” says acclaimed drama producer Tony Garnett, whose CV runs from Cathy Come Home in the Sixties to This Life, the quintessential series of the Nineties. “Writers will take a story from wherever they can find it.”

But Garnett points to problems with depicting business in television series. Drama depends on what they call “the precinct”, which is where the action happens. A place of work can be a good precinct, but it has to be “sexy”, and business is no longer seen that way. Secondly, the characters have to be people the television audience can identify with. When business features today, it is seen from shopfloor level, looking up, as in Paul Abbott’s factory-based drama Clocking Off. And business stories are only a means to an end: generating emotion. “I think the perception, rightly or wrongly, is that viewers want sex stories, they want affairs, they want intrigue,” says Farrall. Interestingly, though, while big business and the boardroom have effectively disappeared, entrepreneurship –  of a sort –  is a staple of the soaps. But it’s a poor shadow of reality. Real life has Philip Green; television has Ian Beale.

In general, though, the boardroom is shunned in favour of more immediately exciting precincts: hospitals, doctors’ surgeries, police stations, vets’ practices, legal firms. “It’s no accident that cops & docs are the mainstay of one-hour series drama, and have been from the beginning,” says Garnett. “The leading characters can be made very sympathetic. And the stories walk through the door every week. There is a crime, it has to be solved, our leading character can solve it. He solves it and there’s closure at the end of the hour. It’s very neat and satisfying.

“And with cops & docs, it’s a matter of life and death. People in business think it is, but it ain’t.” That said, Garnett is more open-minded than most about the possibilities for business drama. His company World Productions created Attachments, the most recent home-grown attempt, which dealt with the rise and fall of a dotcom company.  It was not a popular success. Heads of Drama and others with commissioning responsibility have since reverted to their most conservative instincts. “People are playing it very safe at the moment,” confirms Farrall, who is currently working on the daytime soap Doctors.

Garnett himself is more open-minded. “Because you can’t do every show about a cop or a doc or a lawyer,” he says, “we are always trying to think where we can find a new precinct that will give us some drama and allow us to show people where the world is going.” He notes, for instance, that there has never been a series drama that reflects the rise of women in the boardroom, or anything that represents Britain’s shift away from manufacturing towards financial services.

“But it’s a difficult nut to crack. How do you make those rich flash bastards sympathetic to the audience?” And yet, as we talk he warms to the idea. “A really good machiavellian power-hungry villain would be a great character. Look at J.R. That might get an audience. Haven’t the last few years been about aspiration and conspicuous consumption? You’d think that it was in the air to do a show like that.

“You’d better write it,” he suggests, “and we’ll do it. There is a gap in the market, as your readers would say.”

Television tycoons.

John Wilder (Patrick Wymark).

In The Plane Makers  (1963-65), Wilder was the hard-nosed managing director of Scott Furlong, manufacturers of a new aircraft. But ATV boss Lew Grade found the format boring and brought Wilder back as a merchant banker and corporate predator in a new series, The Power Game (1965-69). Wymark, a mild man in real life, was sufficiently convincing that several companies offered him a seat on their boards.

Brian Stead (Geoffrey Keen).

In the BBC’s Mogul (1965) and then The Troubleshooters (1966-72), Stead was a ruthless and shrewd operator who rose to be managing director, while battling health problems. Keen’s young daughter found his character so unappealing that she would sit on the stairs with her hands over her ears rather than watching.

Paul Merroney (Colin Baker).

Paul Merroney arrived in The Brothers (1972-1976) as a Machiavellian financier who seizes control of the Hammond brothers’ haulage company and tries to drag it into the 1970s. Baker was once punched in the street by a man enraged by his character’s behaviour.

Ken Masters (Stephen Yardley).

In Howards’ Way (1985-1990), Masters introduced a new kind of businessman, a medallion man (it was the 80s, after all), lecher and all round wide-boy who struggles to get the better of the series’ old-school businessmen, like Charles Frere (Tony Anholt), who consistently underestimate him. Britain’s answer to J.R. Ewing.

Mike Baldwin (Johnny Briggs)

Owner of Baldwin Casuals, the clothing factory in Coronation Street, as well as a nightclub, a garage and various other businesses. A terrible employer and a notorious lecher, he apparently had 25 girlfriends and four wives before being written out with Alzheimer’s and a heart attack.

Ian Beale (Adam Woodyatt)

The sole survivor from the first edition of EastEnders, Beale has at various times owned a knitting business, a mobile disco, a catering company, a café, a loan sharking business, a fish and chip shop, a bric a brac shop, a property empire, and a garage. He also found time to marry three times, make a suicide bid, and to survive a murder attempt. Regularly voted one of the most hated characters on British television.

C.J. (John Barron). In The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin (1976-79),  David Nobbs’ satire on business life, C.J. was the overbearing boss of Sunshine Desserts. Nobbs apparently intended him to be an entrepreneurial figure, but Barron played him as an old-school manager who could only speak in clichés: “I didn’t get where I am today… ” he would begin, employing the catch-phrase more than 60 times in three series.

J. R. Ewing (Larry Hagman)

The most notorious villain of the 1980s, J.R. was a monstrously greedy and egomaniacal oil baron in Dallas (1978-91). Originally a minor character, he rapidly took over the show, especially when he was the target of a murder plot. The identification of his assailant – “Who shot J.R.?” became an international obsession.

Alexis Carrington Colby (Joan Collins)

In Dynasty (1981-89), Alexis was a female J.R. Ewing. Head of Colby Oil, her scheming and double-dealing character was apparently modelled on Livia in I Claudius. Credited by creator Aaron Spelling with turning the show around. Dynasty always had a distant relationship with reality. At one point Alexis’s daughter was abducted by a UFO.

Peter and John (Hugh Laurie and Stephen Fry)

In a series of sketches in A Bit Of Fry And Laurie (1989-1995), Peter and John were a pair of shirt-sleeved businessmen, struggling with John’s ex-wife Marjorie for control of Derwent Enterprises, knocking back giant Scotches, and booming business clichés at each other with the assistance of the sort of maiden-aunt oaths that were heard only on early-evening television: “Hell, Marjorie would float her own grandmother as a holding corporation and strip her bare of preference stock if she thought it would hurt me. Three pints of damn and a chaser of hell blast!” A thinly-veiled parody of Howard’s Way.

Mike and Luce (Justin Pierre and Claudia Harrison)

In Attachments (2000-2002), Mike, a DJ, and Luce, with a publishing background, are a well-meaning couple who try to turn a hobby website into an Internet business. In the process they find themselves turning from heroes to villains as things fail to go according to plan and they have to adapt to commercial realities. Mocked by the geek community for its supposed inaccuracies, it was scuppered by bad timing: the dotcom boom that inspired the series was over by the time it hit the screen.

David Brent (Ricky Gervais)

In The Office (2001-2003), David Brent is manager of the Slough branch of paper merchants Wernham Hogg, although he prefers to think of himself as a “chilled-out entertainer”. Vain, self-deluded and self-interested, he convinces himself that he is both liked and respected by his staff – “A friend first, a boss second” – when his petty dishonesty and thoughtlessness ensure he is neither. A comic creation on a par with Basil Fawlty and Captain Mainwaring, he is also an object lesson in how not to manage.

What Trump Means

Mystery surrounds the exact timing of the event, but at some point, possibly as late as the turn of the 20th century, the forebears of the President of the United States dropped their German name, Drumpf, and became the Trumps.

It seems unlikely that they noticed that, in far-away England, their new name was a slang term for a noisy bodily function. To quote the Oxford English Dictionary, a “trump” is “the act of breaking wind audibly”. The dictionary’s first citation is from Farmer & Henley’s slang dictionary, published in 1909, but as a verb it is recorded as early as 1552, in Richard Huloet’s Abcedarium Anglo Latinum, an English-Latin dictionary. To express “Trump or let a crakke, or fart” you use the Latin verb crepo.

The explanation for the slang expression, of course, is that “trump” was the original name for what we know as the “trumpet”, a noisy brass instrument. From the French trompe, the word came into English at the turn of the 14th century. It is used in the Cursor Mundi, the anonymous verse history of the world composed around 1300: “Wit harp and pipe, and horn and trump.”

It is used also in the Wycliffite bible of the late 14th century, but by the time of the Tudor bibles it had been replaced by “trumpet”, from the French trompette, that name originally signifying a smaller version of the brass instrument.

“Trump” was not only the instrument, it was the sound the instrument made. (Think of Nellie the Elephant, who says goodbye to the circus with a “trumpety-trump, trump, trump, trump”.) By extension, it came to mean the act of speaking out in a trumpet-like or strident fashion. Just right for a presidential candidate, though possibly less so for a president.

If the Drumpfs considered the connotations of their new name, it seems unlikely that they worried about its undignified associations on these islands. (There is also an obsolete Scottish homonym, meaning “a thing of little worth”.) They may, however, have been more enthusiastic about another homonym, the “trump” used in winning card games and, figuratively, in life more generally.

A “trump” is a card of a suit which temporarily outranks cards of the other suits. The OED’s first citations come from John Foxe’s Actes & Monuments, better known as the Book of Martyrs, first published in 1563: “Cast thy tromp unto them both, and gather them all three together.” He is advising on how to strengthen one’s faith under duress, and talking metaphorically. The cards represent Christian virtues, and the “trump” card is a Christian heart.

Apparently the word was a corruption of the name of an earlier card game, “triumph”. Speaking of which, to achieve an unexpected triumph is to “turn up trumps”. The idiom is first recorded in Grose’s Dictionary of the Vulgar Tongue, in 1785, although the association between “trump” and success is much earlier.

The verb “to trump”, meanwhile, has its own associations, possibly derived from the card game. To “trump” someone’s story or tactic is to beat it. In Tudor times, to “trump” was to deceive or cheat. To “trump in [someone’s] way” was to hinder or obstruct them. Those are gone now, but we still have the vestige of that usage. “To trump up” is to invent, forge or fabricate. It is first recorded late in the 17th century, but it is still with us in the shape of “trumped-up charges”.

People can be “trumps”. In 19th century slang, a “trump” was a fine fellow. “Well you’re a trump and I like you all the better for it,” says Zephyr, one of Mr Pickwick’s roommates in Fleet Prison. In Australia and New Zealand, meanwhile, a “trump” is person in authority*. Eric Partridge, the great slang authority, recorded this as Great War slang among New Zealanders, who spoke of “the Trump of the dump”. Later still, among Australian troops, “Trump” came to mean commanding officer. One consolation for the new Commander-in-Chief.

* Post-truth alert. I haven’t checked this with an actual living Antipodean. But I’m sure it’s true-ish.