The Superlative Death of Gerund Clause

Gerund Clause (1938-2010) was the world’s finest grammatician. Even at primary school, he would terrify playground bullies with his diachronic inflections and became known as a powerful allusionist at the end-of-term school performances.

At university, he studied chemistry with metallurgy and wrote his thesis on the extraction of iron from irony. He was a popular young man, full of complements, but also an incorrigible show-off, frequently disrobing the female students with a well placed copula.

After university, he astonished military advisors to the government by splitting an infinitive from forty paces and was immediately employed as grammatician-general to the army.

Gerund enjoyed a successful career with the army. It was said that, during the Cuban Missile Crisis, he dismantled an atomic bomb with just a question mark. He became famous in the United States for his reported speech to the UN Security Council, describing members of USSR politburo as “oxymorons”.

Continuing his work with the army, Gerund was considered for the Nobel Peace Prize after his vigorous campaign to replace explosives with expletives in NATO combat operations. Unfortunately for global security, his diacritics defeated the policy and Gerund quit the military in 1978.

After leaving the army, Gerund moved into domestic policy. He became known as “The Postmodifier” after a number of measures to streamline the US mail service. In the 1980s, he proposed the legalisation of prostitution in urban areas and suggested that government levy a new syntax on the vice industries. While working in vice control, Gerund uncovered a multi-billion dollar criminal enterprise that was extracting heroin from the female protagonists of nineteenth-century English literature.

Although unconventional and not always succesful, thanks to his considerable achievements, Gerund rose to a high preposition in the US government. He retired from public service in 1999 at the age of 60.

In his retirement, Gerund spent more and more time on his scientific interests. He deepened his understanding of astronomy by studying the phrases of the moon and, in 2001, he successfully demonstrated that spacetime was not infinite, but infinitive. In his spare time, he bred race pidgins.

In his 70s, Gerund returned to the political themes of his youth and, in 2009, he wrote a blistering attack on the selfishness of modern society, diagnosing the entirety of Western civilisation with a self-obsessed malaise he called “Meiosis”.

Sadly, last year, Gerund died of a parasitic gap to the brain. He will be remembered as a great man, whose motifs were always pure and who always had a simile for everyone he encountered. He leaves behind his loving wife, Polysyllabic (68) and daughter, Anaphora (41).

The world mourns the loss of a great figure of speech.

Repose

There’s a repose to your room.

Six vases stand on the table in the centre. In each one is a withered flower. Withered of one, withered of another. The petals lie curled up on the table, dropped on the floor, all shades of decay, from crackly burgundy to dusty velvet. I can’t make out the original, but it looks like it might have been budded roses.

The fireplace stands, but the fire is out: deaded coal dust. The lamp is no more lit, hiding the corner where I know the bed does sit. The whole room could be a mausoleam, or a museum piece. Nothing on the walls is unfamiliar, but it’s all cast with a silty pallor.

That picture over there, I took that: a sunny day in Brighton. You’re laughing, I remember, behind me, laughing at the cameraman and his so serious sunsets. But apparently it was worth it, there on your wall, after all.

The carpet is fudgey. My feet seem stuck and I can’t budge inwards. I can’t creep to look at books on your shelf, or the papers you hide in their covers, to twist and turn over the oddments that scatter the room. On the mantelpiece, what is the meaning of that elephant? I’ll never know now. A simple shiny lacquer elephant, still standing where you placed him, faithful, trunk swung. But I can’t move.

I know it is there, there in the corner, by the lurk of the lamp, the lamp you never let me touch. I never switched it off at night, I never switched it on in the dark mornings. The lamp was always the gatekeeper, daring me: when you have the lamp, you have the girl. I couldn’t touch the lamp now, not now. That would violate some unwritten rule of repose.

But I know it’s there, there in the corner. Lurked by the lunky lamp, the bed humps, angle poisoned. The bed I know, with its sheets and shivers, the smells when you clump the duvet down, the secrets of underneath pillow. All that soft sheer thread-count-a-million cotton to smooth out and repose. In your repose.

Fancy a Butcher’s?

His mother was the village butcher. She always dressed elegantly, often in full-length evening dress with a string of pearls around her neck. Then, over her beautiful dress, she would throw her butcher’s apron – the purest white, all the better for showing up blood.

He hadn’t known any different; she’d always been his mother, the village butcher. Every day she’d open the shop very early to take the carcass deliveries, Then she’d prepare the cuts of meat, lovingly, handling the sharp knives with a dexterity that her father would have been proud of. Then she’d serve the village regulars, slicing, dicing, mincing to order and her day would end in time for her to walk down to the school to pick her only son up at the gate.

No, her little boy had never known different, but he’d been told by the neighbours that his mother had been quite something in her day, before she’d taken on the family business, quite something.

When she was young, in the blossom of adolescence, she’d had, they said, the boys of the village wrapped around her little finger. But, they said, there was no one for her but Andrew Hammond. No one remembered Andrew half as well as they thought they did, but everyone said that he had been the pride of the village: the golden boy.

They remembered his clean sweep at the school sports day: 100 metres, 400 metres and long jump. They remembered his single-handed demolition of The King’s Head ‘A’ in the darts. They remembered his hat-trick in the final of the West Harkshire Under 19s. And they remembered, perhaps best of all, his shining smile, as featured, almost every week, on the front and back pages of the Croxford Herald.

And it had never shone more than on the day he was murdered.

It was the night of the school dinner-dance. His mother had gone with Andrew, of course. They were the prince and princess of the village, the luminous couple, the day-dream dancers. They said she wore a dress of pure gold that night, with a simple pearl necklace that lit her face just so. But her face had been dark that night, they said. They said that his mother and Andrew had had an argument, about what no one ever found out.

But it made no difference: still they danced and danced around the village hall, her shoes tapping on the wooden boards and his smile reflecting off the mirror ball brought down for the evening. Nothing could take away from their luminescence, from her beauty and his athleticism. Everything was well, it seemed. But that was the last smile anyone ever saw on Andrew’s golden face.

They never found out who did it, who stole the knife from PG White the butchers and who had made the precise cut above the Adam’s Apple to remove the head, found in ditch on the road leading out of the village.

They told him that his mother had never taken another boy after Andrew – out of grief, they said. She had taken over the family business when PG White himself died not long after. They said it was God’s justice that Andrew Hammond had begotten a golden child before his horrific end. They said that his mother was an angel in her virtue, living her quiet life since, slicing, dicing and mincing.

But every time he watches his mother, in her long dress and her white apron, making another incision to the neck of a pig, he can’t help but wonder what really became of his father.

Bad Romance: Changes in Pop Lyrics, 1960 – 2010

After inadvertently being exposed to some of this modern “popular” music, I was struck by the lyricists’ choice of words. The subject matter seemed to be quite, er, explicit. There seemed to be an emphasis on going out to parties, getting girls drunk and then having sex with them. Or, if the singer was a female, it seemed to be about going out to parties, getting drunk and then having sex with guys.

I don’t mean to judge this kind of lyric – I’m sure the music back in 1960 was just as boring in its own way – but what interested me was the change in content. I don’t remember listening to Cliff Richard singing about foreplay. So I asked myself how have lyrics changed in the last fifty years?

For this experiment, I took the lyrics of all the #1 hits of 1960 and the lyrics of all the #1 hits of 2010 and compared them.

Changes in the Music Business

Firstly, here’s a note on the change in the music singles business. There has been a trend in recent years for songs to be promoted heavily, hit the #1 spot and then moved on quickly. This explains the difference in sample size between 1960 and 2010.

  • 1960: 16 #1s over 50 weeks at an average of 3.13 weeks at #1. Longest: 8 weeks at #1.
  • 2010: 35 #1s over 53 weeks at an average of 1.49 weeks at #1. Longest: 3 weeks at #1.

With a sample size for 2010 more than double that of 1960, for a fair comparison between the two I refer to word frequencies as a percentage of the total words for that sample. Here we got then.

I, Me, My, Mine

Our lyricists appear to be more selfish these days.

  • In 1960, #1 songs had a balance between “You” and “I”, with “You” just about more popular, appearing as 4.34% of words. 
  • In 2010, 5.76% of words are “I” and only 4.05% “You”.

Does this pronoun switch signal a change in focus for lyrics, putting “I” at the centre, rather than singing songs for “You”. Has the romance of song-writing died?

Love Lost

  • In 1960, the fourth most common word in lyrics was “love”. “Love” was more popular in songs than “the”. [This is what I meant by 1960s songs being boring in their own way!] “Love”, “loved”, “loves”, “lovely” and “lovers” made up 3% of all words in #1 songs from 1960. 
  • But by 2010, “love” had fallen to be only the twenty-sixth most common word, appearing as just 0.72% of the total words.

No kissing!

The collapse of romance in pop songs between 1960 and 2010 is also shown by an even more precipitous fall in the use of the word “kiss”.

  • In 1960, “kisses” and “kiss” made up 0.53% of words. 
  • In 2010, this was down to 0.06%.

Yo, bitch!

I could go on.

  • In 1960, the female protagonist of songs was called “baby”, “dove”, “girl”, “honey”, “dear” – or even “maid”
  • In 2010, the female protagonist is “baby” (or “babe”), “girl” (or “gurl”), “honey”, “lady” or “bitch”

Not altogether romantic.

Shake or sex?

  • In 1960, the most sexual excitement to be found in pop songs were “shaking”, “kissing”, “teasing” – or “marriage”
  • In 2010, we have a bit of “kissing”, but also “fantasies”, “sex”, “foreplay” and straight-out “fucking”.

Lonely or just alone?

There is also an interesting nuanced change to do with loneliness.

  • In 1960, the protagonists were occasionally “lonely”
  • In 2010, however, they are never “lonely”, but only “alone”

It seems to me that this implies a temporary condition that could be corrected by a visit to the local “disco” for some “bitches”, rather than the 1960s long-term loneliness of “devotion” that led to “heartache” for the hero.

Disappearing up its own…

And it’s these discos that represent the most fascinating change between pop songs of the 1960s and the pop songs of today. It’s a change that has come about in lyrical “plots”.

In 1960, there were scarcely any mentions of singing or songs (0.0006%) – or anything else to do with music, but in 2010 an astonishing 1.47% of words are to do with clubs or discos, dancefloors or DJs, clubbing or raving and raves, singing or songs. That’s twice as frequent as references to love in these songs.

  • Does this mean we are a more sexualised culture, interested only in the lust that can be found on a pounding dancefloor? 
  • Or does it just mean that our lyricists can’t think of anything better to sing about? – perhaps because it’s all been sung before, by the singers of the sixties. 
  • Or is it something to do with the rise of the music video? Singing about romance, devotion and marriage just isn’t that exciting. You can’t really make a compelling music video with that, can you? It’s much easier to hire some hip-hop honeys, pack them into a sweat-stained nightclub and wheel out the disco lights. 

Sex sells.

Review of Shirin Ebadi: The Role of Women in Promoting Peace in the Middle East

This is a review of a lecture given by Iranian lawyer, human rights activist and Nobel Peace Prize winner Shirin Ebadi. It took place at the School of Oriental and African Studies on 2 February 2011.

When she came into the room, Shirin got a rapturous welcome from the crowd, packed into the stairwells, in the aisles and on every seat. The international press, students, alumni, her family – all were here. She was introduced by Baroness Kennedy, President of the Board the Governors at SOAS, who called her a personal heroine.

Shirin qualified as a judge but, after the Iranian revolution in 1979, she was demoted to a menial clerical position. She battled for many years for her position and eventually was allowed to practice law in her homeland in 1993. I was reminded of the long battle that Nelson Mandela faced to practice law in South Africa under Apartheid. Thirty years ago she was just an Iranian woman trying to make her way in the world, but her life was taken over by exigencies, by circumstances, and perhaps she had no choice but to become a heroine, in defence of her own life.

And so we listened to this human heroine, in translation.


Who is Responsible?

“The Middle East is in turmoil and the people ask, “Who is responsible?””

There are three reasons for the current turmoil, Shirin says. They are, in increasing level of importance:

  1. The Palestine-Israel conflict.
  2. The intervention of outside powers in the region, the US/UK in Iraq, for example.
  3. The lack of democracy and widespread human rights violations.

1. The Palestine-Israel Conflict

“Until there is peace here, there will be no order in the Middle East.”

The Oslo Agreement is just a document on paper, Shirin says. Radical extremists on both sides prevent the Oslo Agreement from being fairly applied. Violence from one side, leads to worse violence from the other side. In addition to its immediate effects, the Palestine-Israel conflict has been a source of other conflicts, for example between Hamas and Fatah. The crisis has also been exploited by governments.

What role can women play?

Women are opposed to the continuation of war. Palestinian and Israeli mothers have formed the Committee of Mothers for Peace. They negotiate dispute resolution between Jews and Muslims, always with the question: how long must we mourn our children?

However, in political peace negotiations, their voice is not heard. It is the war mongers who “negotiate”, but peace negotiations will bear no fruit without including women. Women may not have political positions in Palestinian politics, but they are the voice of civil society and are very important. The peace negotiations collapse because they exclude feminist movements. 50% of the world is female. You can’t ignore 50% of the world and hope for peace.

2. The Intervention of Outside Powers.

The Middle East is resource-rich and avaricious nations want their resources. The excuse is always to “advance democracy”, but the result is always a rise in Islamic fundamentalism – and the first target of Islamic fundamentalism is always the rights of women.

What role can women play?

Women in Iraq have set up committees to try and create working opportunities and training. Iraqi women are struggling, not only against the Islamists, but also for their national sovereignty.

This intervention by foreign powers stems from the main reason for the current turmoil in the Middle East: a lack of democracy.

3. The Lack of Democracy.

If the Middle East had strong democracies, they would not allow foreign powers to intervene in their domestic politics. It is crazy that Saudi Arabia spend $60bn on purchasing weapons from the US when their own people don’t have welfare. Sadly, for various historical reasons, countries in the Middle East do not have real democracy.

Even supposed “democracies” are not true democracies and their leaders are not fairly elected. For example, in Syria, the presidency is now hereditary, Bashar al-Assad taking over from his father Hafez. In the UAE, there are no elected parliaments; they are appointed by the king. The same is true in Jordan, Kuwait, Yemen and Bahrain. The only exception to this is Turkey, who do have a better level of democracy.

Iran claims it has elections every two years and that this makes it a democracy. But in all the elections, candidates must be approved by the “Guardian Council”. Any criticism of the government will result in the candidate being refused the right to stand for election. The Guardian Council is made up of twelve members: six directly appointed by the Supreme Leader and six others elected from a selection chosen by a man who is, in turn, hand-picked by the Supreme Leader.

For the elections in June 2009, three hundred names were put forward, but only four were approved by the Guardian Council. All four had previously held important posts in government, including one previous prime minister.

Therefore the most important problem in the Middle East is the lack of democracy.

The End of the Age of Dictatorships

There has been a patriarchal culture in the region for years and women suffer. There are also large gaps between the social classes. Many are deprived of their rights. Freedom of expression is also limited.

But for how long can dictators rule by military coercion? Now, in Egypt, Tunisia and Yemen, the people are asking for their rights. The age of dictatorships is over. Thanks to technology, people are getting closer and are able to organise. Look how quickly the people of Tunisia got rid of Ben Ali and now the same will happen to Mubarak and then in Jordan and Bahrain.

The protests started in Iran many years ago, the latest episode was seen in June 2009. Millions of people protested peacefully, but were met with violence and bullets. You can see all of this on YouTube. Then the government lied about what happened; they said that the bullets were fired by protesters. Many journalists were arrested to clamp down on the real news getting out. Reporters Without Frontiers report that Iran has the highest number of journalists, writers and bloggers in prison.

The economic situation in Iran is dire at the moment. Economic growth in 2009 was 1.6%, lower than Afghanistan and Iraq. So, despite the violence, the people haven’t given up. The government has increased executions: from January this year, there has been an average of two people executed per day. But the voice of protest is heard louder every day.

When the Egyptian people started to protest, the Iranian government said: “Listen to your people!” But what about when the Iranian people protest? The Iranian government says that there must be free elections in Iraq – can we have them too, please?

What role can women play?

“The rights of women and democracy are two sides of a balance.”

You can’t be democratic and deny 50% of people their rights. Women’s rights are the forerunners of democracy.

The feminist movement in Iran is the biggest and oldest in the Middle East. It began a hundred years ago with the constitutional revolution, while Turkey was still under the Ottomans and there was still a Czar in Russia. The strength of the movement is also explained by the fact that there are many highly-educated women in Iran. More than 65% of people at university are women. There are female professors and senior administrators.

But the laws passed after the revolution are discriminatory against women. For example, the value of a woman in law is half that of a man.

“My brother would get twice the compensation that I would if we were involved in the same road accident.”

The testimony of two women is worth the same as that of one man. A man can have four wives and divorce without reason. It is very hard for a woman to get a divorce. A married woman needs the permission of her husband to travel.

These laws are simply not compatible with the level of education in Iran. For example, the current health minister is a woman: does she need her husband’s permission to travel abroad to take Iran’s seat at the World Health Organisation? What if he refuses? The legislation is not compatible with the society, therefore the feminist movement is widespread.

There is no leader of the movement, there are no regional branches, but it is present in every home that believes in equality. And the movement is stronger for this: there is no one person to imprison or assassinate. That a woman can be arrested for “seeking equality” only makes the movement stronger. Results do come, too: for example, in 2004, the custody law was amended in the woman’s favour.

In my opinion, the Green Movement used the feminist movement as a role model. There are no leaders to depend on, it is also a horizontal movement. Women have also been at the forefront of the Green protests.

Democracy can only be achieved through peaceful means, not through guerilla warfare. The Committee of Mothers in Mourning meet every Saturday and carry photos of their children and simply look at each other in silence. They throw birthday parties for people in prison so that no one will forget them, held in their homes in order to evade street protest clampdowns.

Iranian women’s groups sent messages to Egypt and Tunisia, urging women to make sure they protect their rights. Just getting rid of a dictator won’t make everything fine. Another could take his place, perhaps he might have a different ideology, but it is the same dictatorship.

In Tunisia, the secular society is relatively strong. Women are now saying that they want equality. Rashid al-Ghannushi says he is not another Khomeini, but still Iranian women must warn them of the possible dangers of revolution.

“I am confident that democracy and peace will come to the Middle East.”