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Screaming into the Abyss

There was a nice gag at the end of ‘The Now Show’ on BBC Radio Four last week, when they asked the virtual audience for their recommendations about how best to pass the time while we wait for some sense of normality to return.  One listener suggested in a deadpan style that her plan was simply to go outside and scream into the abyss – at least, I think it was a joke!  It did get a laugh when I put it as an agenda item at this week’s Senior Leadership Team meeting, so I recommend you try it at work – unless, of course, it is a bit too close to the bone for comfort. 

Tempting as it would be this week to deconstruct Boris and the Chuckle Brothers’ press conference on Saturday evening, with questions about what on earth those graphs were supposed to show, why Chris Whitty cannot use a remote control clicker to change his own slides and what was really going on during the two hour delay at the start, it may be best just to accept the reality of the situation and get on with it – at least until it all changes again in a couple of weeks. 

It is hard to feel optimistic about too much at the moment, but I count myself very fortunate that my wife and I were able to get away for a few days last week to go up to Scotland to see our daughter at university.  If you follow our podcast series, you will know all about her experiences, which are remarkably positive despite everything that is going on.  We were not able to visit her flat, which I am sure pleased her immensely because it meant she did not need to tidy up, but we were able to meet her for lunch each day, as well as taking advantage of the Fife coast and a trip to the V&A Museum in Dundee. 

With opportunities for socialising in the evening more limited, there was plenty of time to read.  If you like a good murder mystery, you might enjoy Lucy Foley’s latest thriller ‘The Guest List’.  It is the follow up to ‘The Hunting Party’, and it follows the same structure and format, telling the story from several different perspectives and building nicely to the ‘whodunnit’ ending.  What could possibly go wrong, with a group of dysfunctional thirty-somethings meeting for a wedding party on a remote island off the west coast of Ireland, where a peat bog hides a lot of grisly secrets?  Quite a lot, as it turns out!  There was a somewhat unnerving obsession with boarding school rituals and initiation ceremonies, which seemed more akin to the 1970s than the early 2000s, which is when they must have happened according to the plot, but I was also struck by the splendidly unsubtle product placement that permeated the book, with references to candle makers, perfumiers and clothing suppliers that seemed unnecessarily blatant, as well as no doubt being well beyond the experience of all but a few of the male readers of the book, me included. 

I am still playing catch-up with Bill Bryson’s books, this time reading about his travels through Europe in 1990 in ‘Neither Here Nor There’.  It was interesting to see how so many of the stereotypes that we still place at the door of our European neighbours were echoed in the book by an American, albeit one who has lived in England for many years, and I particularly liked his observation that we used to build civilisations and now we just seem to build shopping malls – though perhaps not for much longer.  But it was also clear that a lot has changed in the thirty years since he wrote the book, most obviously the fact that his visit to Yugoslavia took place just a year before the war that ripped the country apart. 

There was a review of one of his other books from an Australian magazine that read: ‘Bryson arrives at his destination, finds a hotel, checks in, meanders around the neighbourhood, visits any museums or public monuments he happens to encounter, has a couple of drinks, eavesdrops on a conversation or two, then goes to bed.  A year later, people on three continents are hospitalised as a result of ruptures caused by laughing so hard at his account of the experience.’  While I agree up to a point, I think I have probably had enough of the formula for the time being because, while it can indeed be very funny, it can also be a bit repetitive after a while. 

My favourite holiday read therefore goes to ‘The Etymologicon’ by Mark Forsyth, which is a fascinating dipping of the toe into the origins of some of the words and meanings in the language we use.  For example, did you know that the Latin word for sausage was ‘botulus’, from which English gets two words?  One of them is the lovely ‘botuliform’, which means sausage-shaped.  The other is ‘botulism’.  As Forsyth says, ‘Sausages may taste lovely, but it is usually best not to ask what is actually in them.  Curiosity may have killed the cat, but it was the sausage-maker who disposed of the body.’  He adds that in nineteenth-century America, the belief that sausages were usually made out of dog meat was so widespread that they started to be called ‘hotdogs’, a word that obviously survives to this day.  He concludes that sausages are stuffed with pork and peril.  They do not usually kill you, but they can.  

An early nineteenth-century German physician, Justinus Kerner, identified a new disease that killed some of his patients.  It was a horrible malady that slowly paralysed every part of the body until the victim’s heart stopped and they died.  Kerner realised that all his dead patients had been eating cheap meat in sausages, so he decided to call the ailment ‘botulism’, or ‘sausage disease’.  He also correctly deduced that bad sausages must contain a poison of some sort, which he called ‘botulinum toxin’.  Over time, doctors came to realise that just a tiny amount of this toxin could cause the muscles in the face to become paralysed, slowing the aging process despite creating the inability to express emotion.  Sausage poison is not a very glamorous name, and nor is ‘botulinum toxin’, but ‘Botox’ has a ring to it.

In my favourite section, Forsyth explains that the longest grammatically correct sentence you can make in the English language is: ‘Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.’  Apparently, rhetorically, the sentence is an example of antanaclasis, which means that it keeps using the same word in different senses.  Buffalo is the second largest city in New York State, a buffalo is a large animal and ‘to buffalo’ means to bully, so: ‘Buffalo bison (whom) Buffalo bison bully (then) bully Buffalo bison’.  I find information like this fascinating, so I clearly need to get out more, which may prove difficult in the weeks ahead.  It is therefore a good job that I can keep people entertained at home, both with grammatical subtleties and high-quality jokes.  A buffalo (European ox) is not in fact the same creature as a bison (American ox), as you may know. What is the difference between a buffalo and a bison?  You can’t wash your hands in a buffalo! 

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