It’s all relative really – why some superlatives annoy me

With the Olympics upon us, we’re being bombarded with superlatives – morning, noon, and night.

Fastest. Strongest. Tallest. Highest. It goes on and on.

Yet these adjectives are part of the fabric of our rich (and evolving) language, that permit us to describe and appreciate the wonder of nature around us, as well as celebrate the achievements of our fellow humans.

In geography, they help us locate mountains, rivers, oceans, and lakes – highest, longest, deepest, largest. In history we talk about the longest reigns of monarchs, or the bloodiest battles.

So, in the right context, we can’t really do without superlatives at all.

But they are so subject to abuse – absolutely, and one in particular: BEST.

The problem with ‘best’ is that it’s both objective and, problematically, subjective. [Here’s an interesting analysis of this relative to gymnastics].

In terms of performance, it can denote fastest, highest, or longest, in athletics for example. But it’s not necessarily absolute, final. An athlete can always hope to better his/her ‘best’ performance.

We also use ‘best’ when commentating on how well someone performs a piece of music, for example, or a dance routine. ‘I was not at my best’ implies a below-par performance.

But what has begun to annoy me in recent times is the use of ‘best’ (most often by politicians at their worst) when making claims that make them look not only arrogant or conceited, but also rather silly.

Take two recent examples, both from Prime Minister Cameron, when being interviewed on BBC TV.

When asked about the less-than-ideal security arrangements for the Olympics for which G4S had been contracted to provide (more of that in another post), he replied (and I’m paraphrasing), in relation to the deployment of additional troops: ‘Of course, here in the UK we have the best armed forces in the world’. What arrant nonsense!

And last Friday morning, before heading off to address an international conference on investing in the UK, one of the incentives Cameron cited for such investment was that the UK had ‘the best universities in the world’. Not true! Well, some maybe, according to widely-cited international tables. A little later the same morning he had toned down his claims somewhat to our universities being ‘among the best in the world’.

These constant claims (and I cite just a couple of the many examples which our politicians have spouted) of being ahead of the pack internationally – whatever that is supposed to mean – are, for me at least, quite irrelevant.

What should be asked is whether the armed forces, the universities, or other services for which outstanding status is claimed vis-à-vis everyone else on the planet, are FIT FOR PURPOSE, rather than pandering meaninglessly to national pride or puffing up our national status. Absolutely.

And that’s another word that has become devalued through its current constant and irrelevant usage. ‘Absolutely’ is pervasive in the media as a response to any question that merits a simple ‘Yes’ or ‘No’, ‘Of course’, or ‘That’s right’. I often wonder if this use of ‘absolutely’ is meant to imply a greater certainty than either ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ can offer.

Language evolves, and that’s one of the beauties of English, being such an adaptable language. In the mouths of presenters, pundits, and politicians it often loses its elegance.

Warwickshire country retreats . . .

In the lead up to the Olympics, summer finally arrived last week. It was bright and sunny, hot even, and so welcome after all the wet weather we’ve had for so many weeks.

So we decided to make a couple of National Trust visits, to a couple of country houses about 30 miles as the crow flies to the southeast of Bromsgrove. And they were two very different properties.

Upton House lies close to the village of Edghill, site of the first pitched battle of English Civil War in October 1642. An original house was built on the site towards the end of the 17th century, but the estate was acquired by William Samuel, the 2nd Viscount Bearsted, whose father had founded the Shell oil company. With his private fortune, the house was extensively remodelled as a country retreat (it was never intended as a permanent home) and as a location for his collection of paintings and priceless ceramics.

The house, garden and art collection was donated to the National Trust in 1948. The gardens are not large by country house standards, but beautifully complement the style of the house, with landscaping to the south.

Here’s a link to a web album.

The other house we visited, Farnborough Hall, lies only about 7 miles almost due east from Upton House (just follow the map over the M40 to the northeast). But in this instance, Farnborough Hall is essentially the same house that was built by the Holbech family who acquired the estate in 1684.

And although partially open to the public twice a week during certain months through the National Trust, the house is still occupied by the Holbech family. There’s a nice collection of artefacts collected during the Grand Tour.

The gardens are small, but there’s a fine grassy avenue, about a mile in length, leading to an obelisk (raised in the early 18th century) overlooking the valley below Edghill.

Quirky, eccentric even . . . quintessentially British

Reaction to the Opening Ceremony at the London 2012 Games has indeed been mixed.

Despite the thousands of participants, much of the show remained under wraps, and we did not discover what would be featured until we tuned in.

Several comments on Facebook (especially by Americans) indicated bewilderment at the British sense of humour. Others decried the lack of Wow factor. Here’s a quick summary (and critique) from the BBC website. And here are a few views from abroad (in The Guardian and The Telegraph) and closer to home (in The Telegraph).

From the outset, ceremony director Danny Boyle had stated that he never intended to ‘compete’ with Beijing extravaganza. What he did come up with was an event that was quintessentially British, quirky and eccentric, understated – and full of humour. We certainly didn’t expect to see Mr Bean given a starring role. And if anyone wonders if that was humour that wouldn’t translate internationally, you only have to see how popular Mr Bean is worldwide.

The involvement of HM The Queen (and her corgis) was a masterstroke.

While I found some of the ceremony not as inspiring as I hoped (the NHS section, for example), others were breath-taking: for example, the forging and release of the Olympic rings, the celebration of British music, and the lighting of the Olympic flame.

But the involvement of Paul McCartney was a mistake. At 70, he just doesn’t have the voice for such an occasion. Time for his superannuation (and I say that as a Beatles and McCartney fan), although he’s being tipped for the Closing Ceremony as well. I hope there’s time to pull the plug after watching his [lack of] performance on Friday night. I could level the same criticism at two other celebrity knights – Cliff Richard and Elton John – who [under]performed at the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee concert on 4 June 2012.

One aspect of the BBC broadcast (and in the lead up to the Games – and what I’ve experienced on the TV so far today) that has irked me considerably is the incessant chatter of the presenting team. They just don’t seem to understand when it’s better NOT to say anything at all, and let the images speak for themselves. They could take a lesson from broadcast presenters of earlier years. Even those commenting on cricket on the radio were minimalist in what they said. Today it seems you have fill silent spaces with inane comments. Pity.

It’s all in the genes . . .

It was 1969, maybe early 1970.

I was just leaving the university library at Southampton where I was studying botany and geography. I should add that this was one of my too infrequent visits to the library.

As I headed for the main entrance, I was approached by two teenage girls, one of whom had long, dark, straight hair. They ‘invited’ me to purchase a raffle ticket – I think it was something to do with one of the charity events that students tend to organize each year, and these two girls were at one of the education colleges in Southampton. So I bought a couple of tickets, and then did something rather out of character.

Turning to the girl with long hair, I asked: ‘Is your name Jackson?’

Well, the look on her face made me think I was right.

‘Yes’, she replied, still looking rather surprised.

‘In that case’, I answered, ‘I think you are my cousin Caroline’.

And she was. As soon as I saw her, something inside told me she was ‘family’.

Now I should point out that I had last met Caroline maybe a decade earlier – she would have been five or six, and me about eleven. In some ways it was not such a total surprise, since her father (my dad’s younger brother Edgar) and his family lived in one of the small towns in the New Forest, to the west of Southampton. But I hadn’t made contact with them since arriving in Southampton two or more years earlier, although I had seen Uncle Edgar and his wife Marjorie at the funerals of my grandparents in 1967 and 1968.

Now this memory came to the fore just the other day for a couple of reasons. I’ve been doing some web searches for friends from my university days, so all-things-Southampton were on my mind. Secondly, my youngest grandchild Zoë was born (in the USA) at the beginning of May, and I’d been thinking that she was the youngest of a long line of Jacksons and Healys (Healy being my mother’s maiden name), and wondering what she will make of her antecedents. In just a few generations (my great-great-great grandfather) we’re back to the time of the French Revolution. I also heard in June (via my brother Martin) that my mother’s younger brother Pat had recently died at the ripe old age of 97 – he was the last surviving of eight siblings. Martin had heard about Uncle Pat’s death through his son, Pat – a cousin I did not know I had.

After my dad died in 1980, Martin began a major project to research the family genealogy, which is available online. On the Jackson side of the family he’s been able to trace back to about 1711, and on the Bull side (my paternal grandmother’s side of the family), there’s information stretching back about 12 or 13 generations to around 1480! Other lines – the Tippers and Holloways – can be traced back to 1610 and 1600 respectively.

Martin is going to have a more challenging time of it on the Healy-Lenane side of the family, who hailed from Ireland, Co. Kilkenny and Co. Waterford.

I have now made Facebook contact with cousin Pat, who lives in the Forest of Dean, about 60 miles south of Bromsgrove where I live. And through Facebook, I was contacted by two cousins, Karen and Patsy – daughters of one of my mother’s younger sister Bridie who emigrated to Canada in the 1940s – who live in Indiana, USA and Ontario, Canada, respectively.

There’s only one of my father’s siblings alive – my Aunty Becky, 96, who lives near Newcastle Upon Tyne, and who I’ve visited a couple of times recently since we have been travelling to there to visit our younger daughter Philippa and her family.

But to get back to the genes. As I look at the photos of my parents and grandparents, I can see very clear resemblances of my daughters to one side of the family or the other. Hannah favours, I think, the Jackson side. Philippa is a strong Healy!

I haven’t mentioned anything about Steph’s side of the family: Tribble / Legg. Steph’s parents came from small families. Her father had just one sister, and I believe her mother was a single child, so there’s not the raft of aunts and uncles and cousins on her side of the family as on the Jackson-Healy side. But both Tribble (a West Country name) and Legg are not that common, so I guess if someone with the time and inclination were to look into this side of the family, some quite rapid progress could be made.

Being British . . .

I’m British.

I’m British – from England. Not Wales, Scotland, or Northern Ireland (although half my genes are Irish in origin, whatever that means in strictly genetic terms). Nevertheless British. And it will be sad day, I believe, if the Scots decide to terminate the Acts of Union (1707) and go their own way. Unity in diversity, I say. And let’s celebrate the diversity that defines this country of mine.

But what does it mean to be British? I started thinking about this the other day as I was watching the hearing of the House of Commons Treasury Select Committee on the LIBOR scandal which has so far embroiled international bank Barclays.

Up before the Committee was former CEO, Mr Robert Edward “Bob” Diamond, Jr. – an American. Throughout the hearing Diamond responded to each member of the committee by their first name, and also referred to third parties not present by their first names as well. The MPs assiduously called him ‘ Mr Diamond’, often icily.

There was quite a furore the next day in the press – Diamond’s assumption of familiarity was not only seen as a faux pas on his part (and his advisers), but also extremely discourteous in what was a rather formal situation. But to cap it all, it’s just not the British way – to use someone’s first name without being invited to do so. I have to say it irks me when I receive a cold call and the person on the end of the phone – who’s trying to sell me something, and who I don’t know from Adam – addresses me as ‘Michael’.

Nevertheless I think we are becoming a little more relaxed about this whole issue in our day-to-day relationships. I remember reading some years ago a short newspaper piece on this very topic, in which the author decried the American custom of using first names from the outset – at least for the first 30 minutes! Having worked abroad for most of my working life, using first names is something which I grew to be comfortable with.

Foreigners often are baffled by we British, as this recent article in The Guardian indicates. In the late 1990s, when I was contemplating a career move, I asked my staff in the Genetic Resources Center at IRRI to assess my strengths and weaknesses (which they did quite openly). One of my colleagues, a French population geneticist stated ‘British’ as one of my strengths. On the other hand, my main weakness was ‘Very British’! I’m still not quite sure what he meant.

So what makes me British? Is it an obsession with the weather (although we could be forgiven for this right now, given the appalling weather we’ve had since April)? Or is it the self-deprecating humour, a nostalgia for an imperial past, or our high culinary standards such as fish and chips. Maybe it’s the appreciation of warm beer. On the positive side is our sense of fair play, not winning at any costs (play the game and play it well!), our ability to queue, and cricket, of course (although this does not hold the same status in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland as it does in England).

I like to think that the English, Welsh, Scots, and Northern Irish are all British – in their own ways. I appreciate our ‘national’ differences within a single nation, and that we will be competing as one in the Olympic Games – although I still don’t understand why we are Team GB instead of Team UK. The Commonwealth Games are another thing, however, as is football when nationalism comes to the fore. But those are among the idiosyncracies of proudly being British.

Incidentally, I just attempted (on 8 July 2012) the practice UK Citizenship Test, and scored only 58% (14 correct out of 24). When will someone be along to confiscate my passport? I have to say that many of the questions had very little to do with what it means to be British. And I guess many other native-born Britons would fail the test, as it stands. When faced with choices of say ’10 million, 11, 12 or 13 million’ as the number of under-16s, for me it was a random choice. Not sure what knowing this actual statistic has to do with me being a bona fide British citizen.

The Home Secretary, Teresa May, has announced recently that the test will be revised to include questions of more relevance – information about the rich history and culture of these isles. I just tried out the ‘test’ on The Guardian website and scored 87% – the two I got wrong were random choices – I really did know the answers to the others.

It’s all part of the ‘performance’ culture that grows by the day, which seems to be an obsession these days.