Category Archives: language and grammar

Nice Shell Suit. Was it Designed by Fibonacci?

Who or what is a Fibonacci?  Can you eat it?  Do you listen to it?  Is it a bird or a plane?  Is it a fashion designer?

Whatever the truth of this, although I am as ignorant of fashion as to be fashion-comatose, I am in fact aware that Versace was a designer.  I also have the impression that he was a nice guy.  I don’t know why – maybe because he was friends with Elton John and Princess Diana; maybe because I saw him interviewed at some point.  Anyway, I was curious enough about his death, which was eerily close to that of Diana, to click on to the first episode of a new BBC drama, ‘The Assassination of Gianni Versace’.  Assassination might seem a little over the top, but ‘over the top’ is something of a theme here as is evident from the first scene where Versace is shown waking up and going through his morning routine in a Miami house decorated like a tackier version of Versailles.  So far it’s a highly compelling drama with some similarities with The Talented Mr Ripley:

A serial killer meets and murders Versace because – well, we don’t quite know why, and that’s the intrigue.  With murder there must always be one element of mystery: either we don’t know who has been killed, or (more commonly) we don’t know who killed them.  But far more interesting are the why mysteries: why on earth did a guy who’d had a casual fling with Versace then go to his house and shoot him in cold blood?  Will he be caught?  And if so, will the police discover why he did it?  Will the courts?  Will we?  Therein lies the intrigue: I can’t believe I have to wait till Wednesday for the next episode.

Now, as I’m sure you all know, a Fibonacci is None of the Above – neither a fashion designer nor an Italian dish nor an opera singer: it’s a sequence of numbers, sort of like Pi, which seems to be present in nature as well as geometry and architecture.

Like Pi it is a never-ending sequence: I’m not sure to how many decimal places Pi has been calculated now but the Fibonacci sequence goes on forever and is much easier to calculate, being a mere matter of addition.  It goes like this:

Starting with one, each number is the sum of the previous two.


That’s it.

So, starting with one, you get one again because you’re adding one and zero, and then it goes:

2,3,5,8,13,21,34,55,89,144… and so on.  Add infinitum (lol).

What’s the point of it?  Well, it occurs in many natural objects: spiral shells, for one; cauliflowers, for another.

It also has applications in geometry and architecture: this slide sequence also covers the Golden Ratio which has applications in both classical architecture and in the proportions of the human body, and uses the number Phi (I said it was like Pi):

And in an exciting new development I have decided to use the Fibonacci series in my latest novel ‘Tapestry (a picture of modern Britain’.)  This means that the first two chapters will have 1000 words each and the last chapter about 48,000.  I have no idea if it’ll work, but it’ll be interesting to see.

Kirk out



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Nobody Understands Thee. What Tu Du?

I am happy to report that depression is lifting; this is thanks in no small part to actually writing about it.  I am all too prone to interacting with people only when I feel good and hiding away when I’m depressed, thinking that no-one will want to know me in this state and that all I’ll accomplish is to bring everyone down.  But to write about it honestly has been very therapeutic and has allowed lots of other people to open up about their depression: I’ve had many messages of support as well as testimonies from others about what they are going through.  People have offered to visit or meet with me; people have said they miss me and one friend even said I was fantastic.  This has given me a real lift.

I guess you could say in these situations you find out who your friends are: it used to be that one would distinguish between intimates and strangers by the use of pronouns.  A lot of languages still do this, such as French, Spanish, German and Italian, using the informal ‘tu/du’ to distinguish intimates from more formal contacts.  Of course it can also be a way of indicating status, which is why the equivalent probably died out in British English.

Interestingly, when Quakers began, one of their distinguishing characteristics was that they addressed everyone as ‘thou’, this being the informal pronoun (the equivalent of ‘tu/du’) and thus putting everyone on the same level.  The odd thing is that, thanks to ‘thou’ surviving in religion, nowadays it sounds formal rather than informal.

The trouble is, no-one knows how to use ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ any more.  So here’s my handy guide.

  1.  ‘Thou’ is equivalent to ‘I’ and ‘thee’ is equivalent to ‘me’.  Examples: ‘what dids’t thou say?  I gave it thee.’
  2. the verb form usually ends in ‘est’ contracted to ‘st’, as in ‘did’st, could’st, hast (the ‘d’ is forgotten)
  3. the possessive is ‘thy’ with a noun following and ‘thine’ without: ‘thy socks be wet’; ‘these socks be thine.’

Here’s a fuller guide to using ‘thee’ and ‘thou’ correctly, so you’re not caught out.

Don’t be like the person who posted this joke on Facebook:

A 19th century Quaker farmer woke up in the middle of the night hearing noises downstairs. He crept down the stairs, cap-lock rifle in hand to discover a burglar in his living room. He took aim and announced in a loud clear voice, “Excuse me, friend, but would thee please move? I am about to shoot where thee is standing.”

The correct version should of course be: ‘Excuse me friend, but could’st thou please move?  I am about to shoot where thou art standing.’

Oh, and if you want an archaic plural of ‘you’, try ‘ye.’

Kirk out


Filed under friends and family, God-bothering, language and grammar

The Thought Police Dismisseth Us

There is much debate at the moment about policing our thoughts; in fact we are probably only a whisker away from yet another compound verb: to thought-police.  But this is nothing new: people were policing thoughts about sex for hundreds of years, especially during Victorian times when even the legs of chairs would get covered up lest men get lustful thoughts about a shapely calf.

People didn’t only police thoughts about sex.  Where certain forms of expression are taboo, thought-policing (there, I’ve done it myself now) cannot be far behind.  Hence servants, for example, would likely censor rebellious thoughts about their employers – or women about their husbands.*  When I was a child you couldn’t swear in public, and when a show-jumper called Harvey Smith raised two fingers at the cameras, he was hauled over the coals for it.

In the age of deference the Royal Family never needed to worry about policing the press, because they policed themselves.  After all, it’s not that long since the offence of sedition was abolished (2009) though in practice it was defunct long before that.

Nowadays nobody is hanged, drawn and quartered for treason; nor are they imprisoned, as poor old William Blake was (probably falsely) for sedition.  But careers can be ruined and lives made impossible by a reckless tweet or a drunken misdemeanour; and last year an MP accused of sexual harassment killed himself:

So I reckon we have about the same level of self-policing; it’s just that the areas and the punishments have shifted.  But there’s a problem: whereas in the past it was pretty clear what was taboo and what wasn’t, nowadays it can get a little confusing.  Some things are obvious, such rape and molestation; but some aren’t.  Is it OK for a boss to ask out a female subordinate?  Is it OK if I tell a black guy his dreadlocks are amazing?

As it happens I did offend a guy recently by not realising he was Jewish.  I was looking for a beanie-type hat (I have to say his skull-cap didn’t look very traditional) and when I asked him where he’d got it he said frostily he’d bought it online.  When I said I was looking for something similar he said, in tones of ice, ‘you could try some Jewish websites.’

Then again, how was I to know?  The guy wasn’t dressed in traditional Jewish gear, he didn’t have a beard or long hair; he was just standing in line at the supermarket in a t-shirt and jeans.  He could have just said, ‘I’m Jewish and it’s a skull-cap,’ whereupon I would have apologised, instead of spending the rest of the day feeling foolish.

I guess we’re still working these things out.  But complaints about self-policing are not new: I remember people back in the ’70’s moaning about not being able to use the word ‘gay’ any more.  Gay people retorted that it was a fair swap, since they’d given back the word ‘queer.’  (Mind you, they’ve taken it back since and amended it…)

Yep, it’s a minefield out there.  But just because it’s complicated doesn’t mean we can get away with being an arse…

Kirk out

* in fact the killing of a husband by his wife was until 1826 a form of ‘petty treason’ as distinct from ‘high treason’.



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The Indifference Engine

As you probably know, the Difference Engine is a proto-computer designed by Charles Babbage to do something called polynomial calculations (polynomial being the sort of word you hear bandied about and just nod as though you understand, after which it’s too late to ask.)  But the Indifference Engine is something else entirely, and has to do with public debate.

The point of debate used to be to enlarge on topics, to test out arguments against counter-arguments and maybe arrive at some sort of conclusion, and along the way to learn something and even to change people’s minds.  But nowadays public debate is becoming more and more gladiatorial: a contest where the only interest is in the outcome.  Who won?  Who lost?  Who was ‘shut down’?  Whose arguments ‘killed’?  We cheer for one side and boo the other and rejoice or fume at the end, depending on the outcome.  It’s basically a boxing match.

As far as the actual arguments go, they are not tools for debate or food for thought but weapons – and the upshot of all this, for many, is indifference to whole swathes of reality.  Forget your nuanced arguments – sock it to us with a slogan.  You can keep your if’s and but’s – what we want is a knockout punch.  Nobody cares about the grey areas.  If a politician is accused of sexual assault he’s probably guilty (or probably innocent, depending on which side you’re on.)  There’s no examination of the evidence; no ‘wait and see’ – we want a judgment and we want it now.

Tragically this may have led to someone taking his own life.  Yesterday Carl Sergeant, a Welsh Labour MP who had been accused of sexual assault by three women, committed suicide.  We don’t know – and may never know – whether he did so because he was guilty or because he couldn’t cope with the burden of accusation.  Nothing can be inferred from his death – though you can bet your life that the media (social and otherwise) are inferring it left, right and centre as we speak.

Whereas it seems to me highly likely that Harvey Weinstein was a predatory creep, since so many women have come out and told similar stories about him, it does not follow that every man accused of such crimes is guilty.  There needs to be a process.  Evidence needs to be gathered and assessed.  And not by us, that’s the point.  We don’t know who’s guilty and who isn’t – and we don’t like not knowing.  We must have a judgment and we want it now.

This indifference to evidence, fact and nuanced argument greatly depresses me.  I think I need to play around a bit on my difference engine…

Kirk out




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I Have A Dead Ringer

Yes, it’s all too horribly true: my phone ringer is dead.  Or maybe it’s sleeping; either way on any of the various occasions when it is supposed to make a noise – alarm, text, call, facebook message, facebook update, reminder and god knows what else – it is content to make a sudden purr like an intermittent cat.  In other words it does everything it should do when it’s on silent, but it isn’t.  I have checked and double-checked the settings; I have (in the time-honoured way) turned things off and on and on and off again and still it persists in purring.  So I must perforce consider the meaning of the term ‘dead ringer’.  Jeremy Irons (once my favourite actor) plays twins in a film of that name, Meat Loaf sang about it and the Radio 4 programme features it.  So what is it?

The origin of the phrase is apparently from horse-racing: ‘dead’ meaning ‘exact’ (as in ‘dead heat’) and ‘ringer’ meaning a horse falsely substituted for another which it resembles.  Hence a dead ringer, meaning an exact lookalike.  At least I’ve always understood it to mean a lookalike, which makes the radio 4 concept somewhat paradoxical don’t it?

Still it’s a fun programme: Tom Baker is a staple and they do Boris Johnson brilliantly:

Here’s the Meat Loaf song:


and here’s the film:

A short one today but what do you expect?  My ringer is dead…

Kirk out

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Crossword Crossover

It’s funny the things that cross over from real life into blogland and the things that don’t.  As I said before, I’m very bad at telling people about this blog; but I am also quite bad at telling my readers about some things that happen in real life.  Viz: crosswords.  I have got into the habit of starting each day with – well, first of all with a pot of tea and second of all with a conversation (see previous posts) but third of all – once I’ve checked email and Facebook – with the Guardian crossword.

I began these when I felt stymied in my work.  Either no words came, or else the ones that did were dull and uninspiring; or they were interesting but like hair after washing I couldn’t do a thing with them (I’ve never understood that comment about hair, by the way) – anyway, I decided that a cryptic crossword would sharpen the wits and enable me to do more of the things I like doing with words – or more of the things that words like me to do with them.

At first it was hard.  I’d been used to solving the Telegraph cryptic with a couple of co-conspirators: and let me tell you, doing the Guardian alone is a whole new quantum level of difficulty.   The online-ness of it does help though, because one of the major drawbacks to a paper crossword is that you can’t make too many mistakes, wheresas with online crosswords you have a ‘check’ button so that you can try out different ideas without committing yourself.  If all else fails, you can hit the ‘reveal’ button.  So in some ways it’s easier.

And does it help with the words?  Well it certainly gets the brain going in the morning, and I’m a lot better at solving them than I used to be.  Cryptic clues help you to see words in a different way (a ‘flower,’ for example, is often a river) and to search your memory-banks for synonyms and your lateral brain-waves for homophones and lookalikes.  There are many tricks crossword-compilers use to construct their clues; and I’m constantly finding out new ones.  The Rev. Spooner is a staple, indicating that the beginnings of words have been swapped over.  Anagrams are near-universal: you also find the ends or beginnings of words chopped off, or else alternate letters used.  It’s a whole ‘nother language: it’s English but not as we know it – in fact there’s so much I could say about this that I’m going to go away and think about it and put it in a whole ‘nother post.  Or maybe a series of posts.

Anyway, here’s the link if you want to try one yourself: I recommend the Quiptic if you’re new to these.

Kirk out




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Lay Your Head on the Writer’s Block

I’m never quite sure what writer’s block is.  I know it refers to an inability to write, but what actually counts as writer’s block?  If you sit staring at a screen for hours without writing a word, does that count?  Or is that too short a time?  Does it have to last at least a few days or weeks before you can call it writer’s block?  And when I wasn’t writing at all between the ages of eight and twenty-four, was that writer’s block?  Or was it a crisis of identity?

Aside from the question of how long it lasts, what kind of thing is writer’s block?  Is it the complete inability to write a single word?  Or does it mean you don’t write anything you’re remotely satisfied with?  If it’s the latter, I’m in trouble – because ‘not remotely satisfied’ describes nearly every day’s work for me.  But if it’s the former I’m OK because most days I manage to write something, even if it’s only a blog post.  Which is why I’m so glad I have this blog, because on really bad days where I can’t string two morphemes together, I can at least manacle a blog post into position, run it up the flag and see if anyone salutes it.  A blog post is usually less than 500 words; it’s achievable and, with the click of a button, it’s published and ready to read.

OH has an interesting view on overcoming writer’s block.  In the same way that Michelangelo saw the sculpture as being hidden within the stone

you could regard writing as ‘taking away’ everything which is not the story.  I’m not sure how cutting things away works when faced with a blank page rather than a lump of rock, but it’s worth thinking about. *

In ‘His Dark Materials’, Phillip Pullman wrote of the subtle knife which cuts windows between different worlds, ‘you may have intentions but the knife has its own intentions.’

This is an idea I try to bear in mind when writing a poem; that when writing I may have intentions, but the poem has its own intentions too.  Nevertheless, the blank page can be a very intimidating thing to overcome, so when I have a bad day and think all my thoughts are worthless, I try just to write, believing that anything is better than nothing and reminding myself without a first draft there can be no second draft, no finished version.

I guess the process of writing is hard to fathom, else there would be no such thing as writer’s block.  But it’s clear that writing begins with thought.  Thoughts occur in the mind, and the writer selects which of them to commit to paper: so maybe writer’s block begins here, at the level of thought.  When the mind is a blank, the page will be a blank.  However, in my experience what is more likely going on is that the mind is not producing anything your critical self deems worthy of using; hence a good exercise when blocked is to write whatever comes into your mind, no matter how nonsensical or seemingly worthless.  James Joyce did this, and look what he managed to produce just listening to the babbling of his mind!

Interesting things happen when we let go of controlling our thoughts.  And out of this arises poetry.

And I know it’s not the day for linking to it, but I’m going to link here to the Insecure Writers Support Group because this post is relevant.

Kirk out

*Sounds like some bizarre version of scissors, paper, stone…


Filed under language and grammar, my magnum hopeless, novels and longer works, poems, short stories