In which The Author has one foot in the past and one foot in the future
The strange unexplained phenomena related to the reappearance of Dodge This have continued apace this week.
I was in Aberdare Library earlier, up to my ears in a recent Welsh dictionary, New Hart’s Rules, and previously unexplored regions of HTML, when an old friend appeared.
To begin at the beginning …
On Tuesday night, I bravely/foolishly/insanely (delete as applicable) volunteered to create and manage a blog for our local Plaid Cymru branch. Everyone else in the group knows I’ve got a couple of blogs already, and that when it comes to Magic
, I’m the go-to guy. I mentioned a few things we could do once it was online, and got the go-ahead.
I made a start yesterday by setting up a dedicated email account and registering a subdomain of WordPress. Next, I painstakingly copied out all the text from our 9 Step Plan (not to be confused with the 12 Step Plan), and was wondering what to do next. I knew we had to have the Welsh and English text, of course, but I didn’t know how to set up two parallel columns.
I spent some time browsing the themes, but didn’t find anything that would fit the bill. I went to the support forums, explained what I was trying to do, and asked if there was a template which I could adapt for our purposes.
I wasn’t especially surprised when the answer was ‘no’. The best alternative was to set up two subdomains – one for English and one for Welsh – and link them together on the main menu. That was about as far as I got yesterday, and I remarked upon the fact on Facebook.
My very good friend John J. (who knows vastly more about HTML than I ever will) saw my status and sent me a handy list of codes for the extended character set. I’ve dabbled in Unicode, of course, but I’ve never explored the extra bits of HTML. I was running short of time, so I just set up one draft page for the time being and left it to cook overnight.
This morning, I dived back in and had a look at the work in progress. Cerith Griffiths, our candidate for the Welsh Assembly elections in May, had sent me some photos overnight. They needed a bit of tweaking, but after a little while I was happy that they’d be suitable to put on the site as a header and a Gravatar. I made a nice little watermark, used GIMP to add it to the pictures, and then went back to the dashboard.
By midday I was deeply immersed in the HTML editor, stretching my fairly rudimentary grasp of web design to its absolute limits, and had at least three windows open in GIMP so that I could manipulate the photos. I was also monitoring my email account in Firefox, and trying to follow an almost-helpful online guide to laying out text online in another tab.
Pace Alice, who was famously asked to believe six impossible things before breakfast: I was deeply immersed in the HTML editor, stretching my fairly rudimentary grasp of web design to its absolute limits, and had at least three windows open in GIMP so that I could manipulate the photos. I was also monitoring my email account, and trying to follow an almost-helpful online guide to laying out text online.
People still ask me why I don’t use the computers in the library for this sort of thing.
I’m not a Welsh speaker, which made the whole job even harder than usual. It turns out that WordPress allows users to have the interface yng Nghymraeg, which sounded like the perfect idea for our users. Add a quick link between the subdomains, and Robert is your father’s brother.
It wasn’t that straightforward, of course.
While I was playing in the settings menu, I discovered that WordPress allows you to post in a couple of hundred different languages, with scripts and everything to make it a truly global affair.I selected Welsh as the language for the interface. The page updated, and I had a flashback to about 2006, when Microsoft announced a Welsh language add-on for Windows. I decided that it sounded like a worthwhile feature for Word, so I installed it without a second thought.
Have you ever tried to do a System Restore in a language you don’t understand?
It turned out that Microsoft’s add-on didn’t just enable the software to access Welsh characters and vocabulary – it turned the entire computer into a presenter on S4C.
Anyway, I was making decent progress, and was still up to my ears in code when a familiar shadow fell across my desk. Imagine my surprise when Rowland D., former Aberdare Leader editor, Plaid Cymru stalwart, and long-time drinking companion of mine rocked up out of nowhere.
I’d emailed Rowland about half an hour earlier, along with the other members of the local branch, to ask them for their bilingual contributions to the Home/Cartref pages. I had no idea that he was in town today, and looking for someone to raise an elbow with.
‘I was just thinking the very same thing!’
I saved my work and we legged it to Thereisnospoon.
Rowland headed back to Cardiff about two hours ago. In the intervening couple of hours we had a good chat about Plaid Cymru, the election in general, the election campaigns (ours in Cynon Valley, his in Cardiff South & Penarth), and – of course – gossip about the good old days of journalism.
I showed him the latest edition of Hart’s Rules, which (along with Fowler) made up the bible for journalists and editors back in the day. Rowland got out of print journalism in the late 1980s, just as the new technology was coming on stream. He never had to experience the joys of Unicode, HTML, XML, and all the other fun aspects which I’ve been coming to terms with over the past eighteen months or so.
But we did both come to journalism in an age when catchphrases and euphemisms (mainly, but not exclusively, drawn from Private Eye) were common currency. I didn’t pursue a career in the profession myself, of course, but I love to read accounts of heroic drinking and scandal in the great days of Fleet Street.
[A digression: When Rowland first came onto Facebook, I had the perfect profile picture for him. My very good friend and fellow proofreader Rob H. has been collecting Private Eye since before I met him. I knew he could provide me with the material I needed. Sure enough, a few days later he sent me this little gem, which used to head the Eye‘s ‘Street of Shame’ column in the late 1980s.
Rowland was highly amused by it, and used it as his profile picture for a while. It was only when a few of his old Celtic Press colleagues remarked on its appropriateness that he changed it back.]
Anyway, it would be a shame to let some of these old saws get rusty through disuse. I’m doing my best to keep them sharp and active, in the face of remarkable resistance.
I’ve lost track of the times I’ve used the phrase ‘I made my excuses and left’ in this very blog. The last time I said it out loud, I introduced it with the words, ‘As we used to say when I was writing for the Sunday People back in the 1950s …’ It fell on deaf ears. The girl I was talking to is probably in her early twenties. I doubt if she’s ever read a newspaper in her life, let alone one of Britain’s most notorious scandal sheets. Come to think of it, in another decade from now it’ll be possible to meet people who’ve never seen a printed copy of the Independent, never mind the News of the World.
[A digression: Tony A., the biggest piss-artist I know who’s still capable of moving under his own steam, asked me a few months ago whether you could buy the Sunday Pictorial. It was probably a good thing he asked me, really. Nobody else in the pub would have had a fucking clue what he was talking about.]
Another good phrase from the Private Eye days is ‘tired and emotional’. I think it’s fair to say that I’ve been tired and emotional on occasions. I thought it was pretty much synonymous with pissed, personally.
Rowland told me that he’d described himself thus to a friend in Cardiff one night.
‘I’d never describe you as “emotional”,’ she replied.
See, totally lost on young people.
The first time I ever spoke to my friend Florence, another old comedy line came to mind. That evening, I put a status on Facebook saying that I’d been ‘discussing Ugandan affairs’ on the train to Cardiff. It went over most people’s heads. Florence was born in Uganda. Ross D. caught on, luckily; otherwise, it would be as unfunny as most of the stuff on BBC 4Extra’s ‘Comedy’ Club.
That’s why it’s good to collect comedy catchphrases, slogans, one-liners, throwaway gags, and other silly asides. You can chuck them into a conversation with people who think Little Britain is the funniest thing ever broadcast in the UK, and reduce them to hysterics.
I don’t know how many times Vicki F. and I raided the archives of The Goon Show, The News Huddlines, Monty Python and The Two Ronnies for material when we were first writing Dodge This. We wrote an entire episode in Spanish, with Polari and English subtitles, just to honour the wonderful comedy creations Julian and Sandy from Round the Horne. I’m pretty sure we ripped off some lines from Victor Borge, Vivian Stanshall, Rowan Atkinson, Douglas Adams, and a host of other great writers as well.
In 2009, I was in a Creative Writing workshop with some fellow English students. Apart from the lecturer, I was the oldest person in the room. We were looking at a poem by a young woman who’d grown up in the Middle East when her parents were working out there. She recounted a strange episode from her early teens. She’d sort-of overheard a conversation between her father and an Arab merchant who’d come to their village. She didn’t understand what was going on, but she heard the words ‘camel’, ‘car’, ‘yacht’, and so forth.
It was only when she was older that she realised that the guy was trying to buy her to be one of his wives.
We all sat back, fairly shocked by this. I decided that Barry Took and Marty Feldman, writing in 1966, would save the day.
‘Here’s a useful tip,’ I said to the class. ‘Never try bartering in camels. People have never got the right money, so you have to have your change in goats …’
When was the last time you heard anything that brilliant on the BBC, eh?