On rent

Lacking a sizeable inheritance—those long-lost great uncles just keep on refusing to die—I cannot afford a house in this staggeringly over-priced country and so, at the age of 39, still need to rent my accommodation. Having recently moved back to Oxford, I have been searching for a new place, and this has been something of a challenge.

It’s actually been some years since I paid any formal rent anyway. I am something of a vagrant: in York I largely stayed with a friend, who charged me a generously low rate, and was fairly relaxed about me paying as and when my patchy student finances had the resources. Subsequent to that, I stayed at my brother’s house in Bath for a year, where we made ad hoc arrangements as suited us. Intervals in Brazil have largely involved cadging rooms with friends too, and since arriving back in Oxford in February yet another friend has kindly put me up with few requirements other than a few cleaning and cooking duties. But as of early May, I shall be an official tenant again and, to use the technical expression, fuck me is it expensive.

I have viewed a large number of properties, both sole rental and sharing, in this delightful city. Lodging was one possibility, but nothing seemed suitable: Mrs Sarasvati had a room in her house in the ideal district of Jericho; when I went to visit it I found her to be a charming and intelligent Indian woman with whom I had a long conversation about Sanskrit literature, all the time trying my hardest not to notice the wallpaper peeling away from the walls and the mildew glaring out from the cracks, odourously indignant that its stale solitude was to be breached. Another house with a spare room, very close to my current temporary digs, was owned and inhabited by Piers Delafontaine—one of that class of posh, miserly skanks who are clearly far too U to lower themselves to cleaning, but too tight to pay someone else to do it for them. Neither seemed suitable.

At the other end of the scale, sole rental made my eyes water and my wallet weep quietly in my pocket. A glorified bedsit on Iffley Road—nice, but so small that if you breathed in too hard there was a risk of the walls caving in—would have cost over a grand a month, and a cheaper “flat” on Abingdon Road turned out to be three unjoined rooms opening onto a shared hallway, thus necessitating a lock on each room door. My ability to lose keys, lock myself out, or—on more than one occasion—break off the key in the lock of a door ruled out this option. Being stranded, half-naked, in a cold, shared hallway because I had managed to flush my keys down the loo during a night-time visit would almost certainly be the fate awaiting me there—probably within the first month.

I have, finally, found somewhere. It is a big shared house: expensive but not gratuitous, and I shall be sharing with a two German girls, an Irish guy, and a Frenchman. A nice mix of people, and one which comes with the added benefit that the household would give Nigel Farage an aneurysm. We can but hope, at least.

On quirkiness

There has of late been far too much reason and reasonableness here; I fear you may be at risk of forming the impression that I have become becalmed and moderate, that my irascibility has waned (would that then make me rascible?) or my intemperateness mellowed. So no more—for now, at least—of this fair-minded, egalitarian take on language. It is time for some inordinate and excessively opinionated dogmatism; the fact that it also happens to be right is merely an incidental detail.

I speak now of the word quirky, and I speak particularly of those who self-identify as such.

Let us set out what a quirk is: it is, in the metrics of personality, the tiniest, feeblest, most unambitious deviation from the mean imaginable. It is measured on the Planck scale: no smaller unit of character is possible. To boast of one’s quirks is like Holland boasting of its hills: better remain silent on the topic than draw attention to an absence.

To say “I am quirky”—almost universally qualified by a subsequent but—is little more than to say “I am almost the dullest, most stultifyingly drab individual you will ever meet. I am so thoroughly banal that even the facts that I sometimes wear odd socks and spread my Marmite a little bit thick stand out against the insipid dreariness that otherwise manifests my poor excuse for a personality. I feel, therefore, that I have to emphasize these, yet such a timid milksop am I that even then I do so half-apologetically, with a little self-deprecating titter, and quickly qualify it to assure you of my fundamental mundanity. There is nothing about me that is wonderful, ambitious, energetic, scintillating, or in any way within the widest gamut of the concept of characterful; even saying those words makes me blush with embarrassment. I am dreadful: run, you bright, shining things, run! For I am a black hole of charisma, the antiparticle of charm, the very heat death of the psyche.”

I hear, of course, a potential response. “We have been reading your blog,” the quirk-defenders say, “and we are not impressed. There is a thread that runs through it which, from your posturing about Art, through your sneering at the English countryside, to your defence of the vulgar and the uneducated in language, shows that you are a shallow and crass man incapable of appreciating the subtle, the sophisticated, and the sublime and who, being fortuitously possessed of some rhetorical weaponry—though more of the character of the blunderbuss than the sniper rifle—uses his firepower to, under the pose of intellectualism and egalitarianism, attempt to blast everyone else down to his own churlish and uncouth level. That you cannot appreciate the gentle delights of the quirk, the blameless pleasure of the foible, or the piquant sting of the peccadillo is unsurprising; your raging against them is but the sound and fury of the idiot.”

“This is an impressive argument,” I counterthrust, “but I am suspicious. Your assertion, with its nested subclauses, fondness for the rule of three, calculated and excessive splitting of an infinitive, and its deliberately casual nod in the direction of Shakespeare, looks remarkably as though it was written by none other than myself, and thus can be seen as little more than a callow ploy to spin this post out by a couple more paragraphs, and to descend into one of those bouts of smugly self-referential post-modern-schmost-modernism which seem be one of my—bah!—quirks, and that amuse almost certainly no-one but me. I cannot, therefore, take it seriously and must throw it out as an analysis of my character, however true it may ring.”

There is no answer to that, of course.

On punctuation

There is within me a great, raging conflict, an unstoppable force meeting an immovable object, that keeps me awake at nights—neurological fuck-ups notwithstanding—and it concerns the matter of writing.

As a sociolinguist, albeit of the dismal, failed variety, I know that there is no such thing as “correct” or “incorrect” language use; that we acquire our habits of speech from our social environment; and that to assert that certain forms are truer, more accurate, or better is to impose a distasteful and discriminatory social elistism that sets the particular patterns and habits of the privileged few as an unjustifiable standard, and then uses them as a stick with which to beat people who never had exposure to these norms and cannot therefore be reasonably expected to reproduce them.

As an editor, however, I know that there is a right way to do things, and that you just did it wrong.

The sociolinguist wins, almost all the time, but there is an interesting issue around punctuation where the waters are a bit murkier. Speech is, of course, punctuated; but the mechanisms of punctuation are very different to those of writing: pauses, gestures, facial expressions, and non-verbal cues such as (in English) tone and intensity. Written punctuation is a very different matter: it belongs entirely to the realm of literacy, and literacy is a secondary skill that supervenes upon language use and is learnt rather than acquired.

We learn a great many skills as children, some formally (such as arithmetic), other less so (such as wedgie technique). In the context of formal learning, it does not seem as egregiously unjust to propose certain favoured norms, as it is no longer the case that the naturally-acquired habits of a few are being imposed upon and in contradistinction to the habits of the majority. We all must learn the norms of literacy and, as long as the proposed norms do not surreptitiously support or reinforce the spoken behaviours of the elite, then I cannot find it in myself to object too strongly.

Punctuation, then, seems a clear position where the editor in me can flex his muscles a little. Spelling, less so: we may have standardized spellings, but these could be seen to be imposing certain pronunciations over others. But punctuation is so arbitrary and independent of lexical content that here, at least, I feel I may be entitled to allow myself a little prescriptivism.

Does this mean, then, that I decry the grocer’s apostrophe—as more than a few people think I should?

Well yes, and then again, no. I cannot deny that I wince when I see it but—cursed egalitarian that I am—I rather feel that in this class-bedevilled society certain groups of people have access to higher-quality education than others, and that members of that group with access to only the poorest level of schooling are more likely to go on to be grocers than, for instance, Old Etonians. I don’t like to see the grocer’s apostrophe, but I find it very hard to lay the blame at the door of the individual who has written the sign. The putatively terrifying deficit aside, we are one of the richest nations on the world and, if we are to promote cross-dialectical norms in even this one small matter, it seems a piteous failure of our society if we cannot manage to educate everyone about it.

  1. In fact, of course, “you just did it wrongly.” Case in point, however: both forms are equally understandable, and the insistence on the “correct” use of the adverbial form just results in a cumbersome and ugly locution, not to mention ruining some of the effect by terminating an humourously over-emphasized phrase on an unstressed syllable.
  2. Though when the sign was written by a member of exactly that elite who do insist that the uneducated emulate the forms of the educated, the matter is maybe slightly different.