Saturday, June 25, 2016


For some weeks now, I have been obsessed by the “Polygon” puzzle, in the appropriately named “MindGames” section of
The Times newspaper. The aim is simple enough – create as many words as possible from a ring of seven to nine letters, while always including a further letter in the centre of the ring.
This is simple enough, but the rules The Times impose on the puzzle drive me to distraction. Your words must be of a minimum length (usually three or four letters), and must be listed in the Oxford Concise English Dictionary. They must also not be capitalised words or proper nouns, plurals, comparatives or superlatives, adverbs ending in -ly, or be a conjugated verb – I can say I “hate” these rules, but I can’t say I “hated” them. Even worse, your results are given a rating. For example, if you find twelve words, that could be “average,” with 17 listed as “good,” 22 as “very good,” and 28 as “excellent.”
I know I have enough of a vocabulary to make myself understood, and nothing is more important to me than being understood, but these rules are enough to sow some doubt. If my final score breaks through the “average” level into “good,” that is a cause for celebration. On the other hand, there is an enormous difference between how many words you know, and the number you would actually use yourself.
Trying a test on the site, part of an American-Brazilian research project, reveals I have a vocabulary approximated at 32,200 words, within the adult average of 20,000-35,000 words. However, with the test asking how much fictional literature I read, and my answering “not much” (well, not when compared to non-fiction anyway), the message is that those who try to learn the meaning of one new word every day might be better served by reading a Stephen King novel instead, where the style and context of the language used is just as important.
Learning a new language exposes how many words are actually needed to be “fluent”. Basic English, developed in the 1930s as an aid for teaching English as a second language, has a beginner’s vocabulary of only 850 words, before expanding to a general list of 2,000 words ( Looking at this list, I can only see what I am not likely to use – “chauffeur,” “cognac,” “suchlike,” and what the hell is an “overshoe,” apart from the bottom of a trouser leg?
The only lessons to take from this exercise is to always have the right tools to say what you want to say, read as much as you can, and stop doing word puzzles in newspapers.

[In case anyone started the puzzle at the beginning of this article, here are the results. There are no ratings for how well you do, and the only rules I am imposing are a minimum of four letters, with no proper nouns: ceil, ceric, cering, cicely, cine, circle, cire, clergy, cleric, cline, cling, clinger, clingy, crine, cringe, cringle, crying, cycle, cycler, cycling, cynic, genic, glyceric, glycine, lice, lyric, nice, nicely, nicer, recycling, relic, rice.]

Saturday, June 18, 2016


There’s nothing like a dystopian vision of the future to spark a conversation. Many science fiction stories comment on the state of the world by showing how it will get out of hand, unless the reader does something to stop it. This was what I had in mind when I tried to answer this question: what would be the two words that would bring Britain to its knees?
My answer was FINAL CAKE, for the prospect of no more cake, no matter how much a flight of fantasy that actually sounds, would tear a bigger hole in humanity than if something ever happened to, say, money, which is just as unthinkable. If “no more cake” is something that could ever happen, it is the sort of event that will hit when it is too late for anyone to do anything about it, having taken its existence for granted for too long.
Cake is entertainment. Cake is talked about as much as it is eaten. People are more likely to watch someone baking a cake on television than do it themselves and, with the level of artistry expected on “The Great British Bake Off” - for “artistry” is a word used more than “skill” here – anyone that bakes a cake will have their worth as an artist, and as a person, judged by that cake. To arrive at any meeting with a cake you made yourself will speak more about you, and invite more questions about your craft, your decisions and your temperament as a result, than having bought one from a shop. Perhaps, the person that bought the shop-made cake could get off more lightly, as everyone scrutinises what those layers of sponge say about how your friend’s mind works.
Cake is business. The growth in self-employment in the last ten years, especially after the financial crisis of 2008, has fuelled a boom in businesses that cater to the sweet tooth, as people look to how their abilities can be made into a service. The point where a hobby becomes a livelihood does makes getting hold of a hand-crafted cake, always that little bit more desirable than a shop-bought one, easier to reach than ever, but if you can’t bake for the love of it anymore, would your cake taste as good?
Cake is time. The points where we choose to break routine have become routine themselves. Elevenses, tea time, the dessert that follows dinner, birthdays, Christmas, any reason to celebrate – we have found a way to work cake into them. The diet industry would not exist without cake. I do not need to explain that any further.
Now I can look someone in the eye and tell them that I wrote an article about cake, I don’t feel that I want a slice for real – at least, not right now, possibly tomorrow. Perhaps, this really is the beginning of the end.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

EU-A-GO-GO [3]

Thirteen days from now, we will have discovered our destiny, as the referendum on whether the United Kingdom should stay in the European Union has taken on more meaning than was ever intended. While the original 1975 referendum on the UK’s membership of the “Common Market” was more centred on the price of food, with its talk of butter mountains and wine lakes, this vote has blown past concern over the economy, and even over migration, becoming a moment when we are expected to decide what sort of country we want to live in... at least, that is how it seems to me.

Last Monday, I took delivery of my postal vote, which was completed and sent away the following day. While I am in the seemingly enviable position of no longer having to listen to the slanging match being played out in our 24-hour news cycle, having heard enough to decide which way to vote, I am experiencing as much anxiety over the result as I did when Scotland voted on independence in 2014.

I didn’t have a vote for that one but, if Scotland had voted to leave the UK, I would surely have had a migraine, as I consider myself more to be British than English, and taking Scotland out of the equation would be like putting your hand through a spider’s web of cultural identity built up over centuries. Cultural identity is why I also consider myself to be European, but this is more a way of saying “not American,” in that we just don’t think or do things in the same way.

However, Britain is often seen as “in Europe, but not run by Europe,” taking a phrase used by then Conservative Party leader William Hague at the 2001 General Election. While the UK had originally joined the European Economic Community, and had a referendum on that, it has not yet had a referendum over the change into the European Union, created by the Maastricht Treaty in 1992. The referendum we are having now is the culmination of over twenty years of feeling that we are dealing with more than we have signed up for – it is not a case of whether you agree with laws that the EU has set, it is whether we should be accepting them at all.

This is where the issue of British national identity has been used to colour the debate – that we can only properly exercise that identity if we have full control over our own affairs. The growth of the United Kingdom Independence Party seen in the last ten years has come from turning it from a one-issue group, grown from the original Anti-Federalist League that opposed signing the Maastricht Treaty. However, in becoming a right-wing populist party, in opposition to the main three parties, meant that voting for UKIP to leave the EU means you have to subscribe to their other policies too, and the ideology that formed them, which would be difficult for some. Would this also mean that, if we voted to stay in the EU, would a UKIP win in a general election undo that decision?

The wanting to have a simple non-partisan vote on EU membership can be traced back to the Referendum Party of 1994-97, which shared UKIP’s Euroscepticism, but only existed to put the issue to a democratic vote – if it was, the party would disband. In the 1997 General Election, the Referendum Party did not contest seats where the candidate most likely to win had wanted the same thing as they did, but wound up folding after its leader died. With the Conservative Party back in power by themselves from 2015, voted in on the promise of a referendum before the end of 2017, the argument over having a vote was now decided.

In that case, why are we having the referendum in 2016? Is it because of the ongoing migration issue, or the increased clamour of the public and politicians to have the vote, or is it David Cameron, who had resisted the calls for the vote, but changed his mind in 2013, simply wants the matter dealt with once and for all? The answer is most likely all of these, plus any others you can think of.

Because so many people have wanted this referendum, the debate is almost perfunctory, as the ramifications of leaving or staying in the EU is only informed guesswork. We have no idea of how the rest of the world will really react to the final decision, and there is no option of maintaining the status quo either.

This feels very much like a referendum on the sort of country we see ourselves to be, as how we want to be governed is only a part of that. All I hope is this – that the final decision of the people is respected, and that it is enacted in the interests of everyone.

Saturday, June 4, 2016


Last month, the Co-Op, as no-one ever called it “The Co-Operative,” began returning to its original 1968-93 “cloverleaf” logo, and I approve of this very much.
The reason for the new-old look is to recapture the image of a strong, ethically-minded group of services owned by its customers, moving on from the issues that plagued its bank, and providing focus at a time when Co-Op innovations, such as the traffic light food labelling system, and the selling of Fairtrade products, are now expected from all retailers. When the John Lewis Partnership is doing as well as ever, selling the benefits of your business to your customer, and hope in an ideal form of business, is more important than ever.
The Co-Op logo is a stout stamp of confidence that, in these times, fits within the space of an app icon on a phone, looks unlike anything else out there and, most usefully, can be spotted from a mile away. It is inextricably linked with what the business stands for that nothing else can possibly work. The design agency North, responsible for the revamp, were sensible in using an identity that they already knew works. Here’s hoping it works for them.
This has all caused me to be nostalgic for the Co-Op fridge freezer we used to have at home, with the bold logo fixed to a corner. It lasted for at least twenty years, meaning I also get to be nostalgic for the times when everything had to be made to last. With the increasing rate of technological advancement, nothing can ever be around long enough to break down completely – it rendered my last desktop computer as useless after six years, and my current one may be thwarted earlier than that.
However, what has struck me the most is that the original shade of blue is being used around the logo. It is the sort of blue you see on an old poster fixed to a shop window, long enough for the yellow ink to have faded, followed by magenta, leaving a cyan that cannot be erased. If the design can be interpreted as retro, as it is too symbolic and functional in nature to be kitsch or camp, the colour makes it timeless.
I am wary of nostalgia as a matter of course, preferring to use the lessons of the past in preference to wallowing in it. Why use remembrance of the good times to paper over cracks in the present, when it can be used to talk about the future? It’s a good way of making you think about where to buy teabags.