Notes from underground

يارب يسوع المسيح ابن اللّه الحيّ إرحمني أنا الخاطئ

Archive for the category “Language”

Fake news about fake news

Does fake news exist?

The term “fake news” gets bandied about a lot, but like other terms, such as “political correctness”, “conservative”, “liberal” and “terrorist”, the definition is vague and when you see it in print, it is often not immediately clear what the writer means by it.

Is there such a thing as “fake news” and if there is, does it differ from related terms like “media spin”, “disinformation”, “misinformation” etc?

Some people vehemently deny that there is such a thing as fake news, and insist that it is merely media spin, but reports like this one show some of the characteristics of fake news EXPOSED: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA | News24:

News24’s investigation into the owners of and started earlier this year as part of a much broader investigation into the originators, enablers and funders of fake news websites in South Africa.

Ironically, it was the very fact that Ramatseba wanted to make money from his website that revealed his identity. It was also the same social media used by Ramatseba to distribute his fabrications that proved instrumental in identifying him.

In this case the primary characteristic of fake news is the desire to make money. The article gives a detailed picture of how and why fake news is produced and propagated.

I suspect that some popular news tropes, like “white genocide” and “Russian interference in US elections” are based on this. If you want something to attract lots of clicks, post a fabricated or exaggerated story that plays on or feeds people’s fears, and you will get lots of clicks and lots of lovely lolly rolling in.

People often assume that the motive is ideological. “The Russians” are trying to influence US elections, and everyone knows that the Russians are linked to Putin. But perhaps most of it is Russian internet entrepreneurs harvesting clicks and making money by playing on US political rivalries and fears of “the other side”.

In South Africa, the irony is apparent when it turns out that it is black people like William Mahlatse Ramatseba who are seeking to capitalise and make money out of white people’s fears and racism towards black people, and it is White Monopoly Capital organisations like Bell Pottinger that profited by stoking fears of “White Monopoly Capital” among black South Africans, for profit, of course Deal that undid Bell Pottinger: inside story of the South Africa scandal | Media | The Guardian:

Bell Pottinger was accused of stirring up anger about “white monopoly capital” in South Africa. Material including a video interview with Ajay Gupta, which had never been publicly circulated, was leaked onto South African media.

Bell Pottinger was accused of inciting racial tension, and operating fake Twitter accounts to mount racially driven campaigns.

Fake news certainly does exist, and it is different from old-fashioned media spin.

But fake news does sometimes get mixed up with media spin. Take the News24 headline above: The Unisa employee who manufactures fake news to divide SA. The words “to divide SA” are misleading, because they don’t quite fit with what the rest of the article says. If we read the body of the article “to make money” would have been a more accurate reflection of the content, but in a society where making money is seen as a good activity, and dividing people as bad, “to divide SA” might attract more readers (and thus make more money), than using a more accurate description. It’s true that the overall effect would be to divide people, so it’s not exactly fake news. But the spin is to create the impression that that was the intention, while the body of the article shows that the intention was to make money. See how complicated it gets?

And in a country where some people are talking of making “entrepreneurship” a school subject, nobody wants to call William Mahlatse Ramatseba what he is, an entrepreneur.

Concerning the “white genocide” trope, one finds things like this:

But clicking on it reveals that there is no such site. Perhaps it is a fake news site that has since been taken down, but I saw that site referred to in an an answer on the Quora website that  got 68 upvotes. Fake News works because there are people who want to believe it.

Having said all this can one make some tentative definitions of these terms?

Here is my attempt:

  • Fake News — articles purporting to be news that are completely or partly made up. Their main purpose is clickbait, with the primary aim opf making money for those who post them. Those who promote fake news don’t care whether those who read them believe the stories or not. The important thing is that they click on the links to bring revenue to the fake news vendors.
  • Disinformation — articles purporting to be news, but which, like fake news, are completely or partly made up. But unlike fake news, where the intention is to make money, in the case of disinformation, the intention is to get people to believe the false story. So Fake News stories manufactured as clickbait may be propagated as disinformation by those who want others to to believe them. The primary intention in disinformation is to deceive.
  • Misinformation — false information that is spread unintentionally by people who do not know it is false. This may be either fake news or disinformation that is passed on by those who believe it, or simply something that was misheard or misunderstood.
  • Spin — genuine information that is presented in such a way as to create a false impression, or to manipulate people’s opinions about it.

Thoughts? Comments? Can anyone think of better definitions?


Toxic and Narcissist

No, I don’t really want to read this book.

The description on GoodReads just reminded me that “toxic” and “narcissist” seem to be among the most popular words on social media currently, and the book blurb struck me as ironic, since probably the most narcissistic thing you can do is to see other people as toxic and to want to protect yourself from them.

One of the primary characteristics of narcicissim as a personality disorder is to project one’s own failings on other peopl;e and denouncing them for it, which seems to be just what seeing other people as “toxic” entails.

Perhaps it goes back to Ayn Rand, who attempted to subvert the Christian moral order by proclaiming selfishness a virtue and altruism a sin.

Fundamentalist Christians are sometimes criticised for their judgementalism, proclaiming certain people as sinners, and therefore to be despised. But the same judgementalism can be found in quite secular circles too, when one classifies certain people as “toxic”. The same judgmentalism lies behind both.

For Orthodox Christians the season of Great Lent, which is approaching, is preceded by several Sundays whose themes urge us to recognise these tendencies in ourselves and to engage in an ascetic struggle against them, for example the Sunday of the Publican and Pharisee (which falls on 17 February in 2019).

For some (depending on which Lectionary you use) that is preceded by the Sunday of Zacchaeus, and Zacchaeus was the paradigm case of a toxic person. And did Jesus delete him? No, he invited himself to dinner.

So as a Lenten (and even pre-Lenten) discipline I suggest the elimination of the words “narcissist” and “narcissism” from one’s spoken vocabulary, and to avoid liking, sharing or otherwise endorsing or propagating posts that use the term on social media.

I likewise suggest that the same be done with the word “toxic” when applied to human beings or human characteristics. It should continue to be OK to use it of non-human beings, like snakes, spiders and socks.


Bleak House

Bleak HouseBleak House by Charles Dickens
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I thought I had read this book a long time ago, and had even marked it as “read” in GoodReads, but I think that was because it was shown to me in one of those book compatibility tests, now hidden behind a “More” button. I soon realised that I hadn’t read it before, and I was probably thinking of Dombey and Son.

I was moved to read Bleak House because I had just read Black House, in which the characters read it, and I’m glad I did, because I think it is one of Charles Dickens‘s best novels. As it was published over 160 years ago there have been countless reviews of it, and so I won’t try to review it, but rather comment on a few themes.

I found it rather difficult to get into, because Dickens has a large cast of characters, introduced piecemeal, so that the connections between them only become apparent much later. It also seems to cover several different genres. Quite a number of Dickens’s novels have a storyline that is entwined with a moral crusade. In this case there are at least two moral crusades, one against rapacious lawyers, and another against people whose obsession with abstract causes leads them to neglect ordinary human relationships and become increasingly selfish and self-centred. So the heroes of the story are those who embody unselfish love. In a sub-plot it is also a crime novel, and from another point of view it can be seen as a love story.

One thing that strikes me about this is how it contrasts with the philosophy of Ayn Rand, who detests altruism and propounds the virtue of selfishness. She claims, in a rather contradictory way, that altruists are all self-centred, and that altruism is at its core selfish, therefore altruism is bad and selfishness is good. And she gets pretty preachy about it in her novels.

While Dickens appears to be making a similar point about the self-centredness of altruists like Mrs Jellyby in the novel, he ascribes it to a somewhat different cause. Those who are addicted to the Cause, whether it’s development in Africa, winning a law suit or fashion (Deportment with a capital D) manage to persuade themselves that they are being unselfish when at their most selfish.

But Dickens comes to a different conclusion. The characters who are so wrapped up in the Cause that they have no time for people lack love. People like Mrs Jellyby might gladly give their bodies to be burned, as St Paul says in I Cor 13:3, but if they have not love, it is worthless.

In this sense, Bleak House pleads for Christian values as strongly as Atlas Shrugged pleads for capitalist ones.

Another thing that struck me about it was the language, which seemed surprisingly up to date. I had no difficulty in understanding it, which shows, perhaps that in many ways English has changed remarkably little since Dickens’s day. But I suspect that while we may have little difficulty in understanding Dickens’s language, he might have considerably more difficulty in understanding ours. It is not that words have changed, but things have changed.

And perhaps for that reason I would not recommend that most of Dickens be read by anyone under 40. I think if I had read this in my teens, as a school set work, say, a lot of it would have gone right over my head. Or even in my early twenties, at university. For a start, I wasn’t aware of the difference between Common Law and Equity until I was in my 30s and researching genealogy. There are some books that people can enjoy at different levels at different ages, Gulliver’s Travels for example. Quite young people can enjoy the stories as adventure stories in strange place. As they grow older, they can appreciate other aspects, like satire. But in Dickens, with a few exceptions like A Christmas Carol and A Tale of Two Cities, the ground floor and first floor are not there. Bleak House starts on the third floor, and though it may sometimes go higher, it rarely goes lower.

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Hooked on Quora

Quora is a web site where people ask stupid questions which sometimes people try to give sensible answers to.

Well, not altogether, but that was my first impression.

I discovered Quora when someone suggested it as a suitable site to promote my book.

I had a look at it, and saw no way that it could be used to promote a book, at least not the kind of books I’ve written. But if you scroll down through all the stupid questions, perhaps one in 20 is one that can be answered, and one in 40 is one I could answer. Everyone knows something about something, and so if you go on Quora you’ll probably find something you can answer. I haven’t thought of many questions I’d like to ask. But when it’s 15 minutes till supper time, and I’m not cooking, or even if I am, I fill in the time with a quick look at Quora, to see if there is anything I can answer. some only need one-line answers, so it fills the time in nicely before I have to go and stir a pot or something.

Q: My physics teacher is a flat-earther, what can I do?
A: Be thankful that it’s your physics teacher and not your geography teacher.

There are a few problems about the site. For one thing, it stopped me answering questions on my desktop computer. Something they tweaked on their software, I think, and that’s were I usually am working just before supper. It still works on my laptop though.

Also, it asks a question I know something about, like the main differences between Christianity and Islam, and suddenly it regards me as an expert on Islam, and shows me lots of questions about the most abstruse Islamic theological terms.

And occasionally one can have fun with some of the strange questions.

Q: Why does a tracksuit look bad on a Caucasian?

The answer I should perhaps have given was “Just Google ‘Caucasian national dress'” and click on “Images”.

I mean, do you really think anyone, and not just a Caucasian, would look better in a tracksuit than in this?

If you want to look really cool, dress like a Caucasian.

Apart from the sartorial tastes of Caucasians, one sometimes finds questions that are clearly school or college assignments, and someone is trying to get someone else to do their homework for them,

Some questions already have lots of answers, and I look at them, and “upvote” the best of them, and don’t bother to write my own answer unless the others are all bad. And so far all my answers have got upvotes, and none have got downvotes.

And some answers don’t answer the question, but go into a long analysis of why the questioner asked the question.

Q: What system of government did South Africa have under apartheid?
My Answer: A race oligarchy.

But someone else had answered that apartheid wasn’t as bad as everyone said it was and a long apologia for apartheid. But the question wasn’t whether it was good or bad, but what the system of government was. Apartheid was not a system of government, it was an ideology that gave rise to a policy. A system of government is something else.

Well, I go to the site, and the first question I see is:

Q: Why are white people so aesthetic?

Can you answer that?

The dragons of Ordinary Farm

The Dragons of Ordinary Farm (Ordinary Farm Adventures, #1)The Dragons of Ordinary Farm by Tad Williams
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Lucinda and Tyler Jenkins go to spend the summer holidays on their great uncle Gideon’s California farm, but they find it has weird animals and even weirder workers.

The book has some quite interesting ideas, but many of them are hardly developed, and there are too many inconsistencies in the plot, characters and dialogue.

In children’s books, the age of child characters is often quite significant. The story opens with a boy called Colin eavesdropping on his elders. From his behaviour it seems he is about 7-8 years old. The great niece and nephew, we are told, are about his age. But when they arrive, it seems he is much taller than them, and to them he seems almost grown up. So physically his age moves to about 14, but mentally he still seems much younger. Lucinda therefore must be about 12 and her “little” brother about 9 or 10. Except that Tyler, we later discover, was given a watch for his 12th birthday, so that bumps Lucinda up to 14 or so, and Colin to about 16 or 17, especially when he starts pretending to be a businessman.

Lucinda and Tyler later meet three children from a neighbouring farm, the older two are about the same age as them, but the third is younger. But when they appear in the dark, they can’t be adults, because they are small children. In my experience, 14-year-old girls are often as tall as or taller than their mothers. If, as in Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland growing and shrinking children is part of the plot, fine. But if it isn’t, it’s just a distraction.

The characters are inconsistent in other ways, too, almost manic-depressive (or whatever that is called nowadays). The farm has secrets, like the origin of the weird animals, which the visiting children are supposed to be told some time, but have to discover for themselves, and at times are kept almost as prisoners. Sometimes interesting information is revealed about the characters, in a way that looks as though it is going to be significant for the plot, but it is then never mentioned again.

One of the characters is revealed to be a tutelary spirit, the genius loci of the farm. Lucinda and Tyler do not question this, or ask what it means. Presumably they know already. Perhaps that information was put in for didactic purposes — get the readers to look up “tutelary” in a dictionary, or Google for genius loci. But there’s little point in doing so, because no more information is imparted, and no use of it is made elsewhere in the story.

Another rather annoying thing is that though the book is obviously set in America, the British publishers have rather insensitively and inconsistently changed the language and spelling for British readers — rather as the Harry Potter stories were changed for American readers. So there is lots of schoolkid slang that sounds horribly inauthentic because it has been changed in this way and so belongs to neither one place nor the other. There also references to computer games and the like which will probably make the book appear dated in a very short time. Too much use of contemporary slang can make a book quite unreadable after a few years.

So I can liken the book to a partly complete jigsaw puzzle, which has quite a lot of pieces that belong to a different puzzle altogether — the things, like the genius loci that are introduced in the story, but not subsequently used.

So was it worth reading?

For my purposes, yes.

I’ve been writing a sequel to my children’s novel Of wheels and witches, and am looking for inspiration by reading other children’s books in similar genres to see what works and what doesn’t. So it’s as much an exercise in writing as an exercise in reading.

This one taught me quite a lot about how not to write a book. For one thing, if you are going to write a book like a jigsaw puzzle, then give the reader the pieces, all the pieces and nothing but the pieces. Too many pieces in this book seem to be from a different puzzle, and contribute nothing to the picture in this one, and some seem to have missing surroundings, so they are introduced and then isolated and not mentioned again.

It also taught me to be careful not to let characters become caricatures, collections of characteristics rather than persons, behaving inconsistently from one moment to the next.

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More misused English words that make people look silly

A couple of weeks ago I tweeted a link to an article 20 misused English words that make smart people look silly — Quartz that I thought was somewhat dated. It listed commonly confused word pairs of about fifty years ago. But there were a lot of words missing from the list that are commonly confused today.

I can’t remember when I last heard or saw anyone confuse accept and except. But I read and hear people confusing deny and refute every week.

When an election is in the offing, I hear newsreaders on radio and TV talking every day about people who are “illegible to vote”. That may be a pronunciation error, but it certainly creates confusion in the minds of listeners and viewers.

And even policemen are now apparently beginning to confuse perpetrators with suspects. Surely they should be trained to know the difference.

  • Deny — to deny something is to asset that it is not true.
  • Refute — to refute something is to produce evidence that it is not true.

It is sad to see the way the media connive at politicians’ lies when they report that they “refuted” something when they only denied it.

For more on the deny-refute difference see here: Rebut, Refute, Deny

  • Perpetrator — someone who has done something bad, like committing a crime
  • Suspect — someone who as been identified as the possible perpetrator of a crime

Bear in mind that speaking of “an unknown suspect” is a contradiction in terms. It means you think you know who did it, but you don’t know who it is. The perpetrator is someone who commits a crime, whether known or unknown. A suspect is someone you think was the perpetrator.

The difference between deny and refute also shows up another difference, but this time between US English and most other dialects of English, where the term moot point has almost opposite meanings.

If you deny something and I don’t accept your denial, it becomes, in my South African English, a moot point — that is something debatable, on which we may agree to differ, but differ nonetheless. If, however, you refute it, there can be no further debate, and it ceases to be a moot point, that is, it is no longer open to debate.

In US English, however, the meaning of moot point is almost the opposite: a moot point is not something open to debate, but rather something not worth debating. Something to beat in mind when you read something by authors using a different dialect of English from your own. Eish!



Steinbeck: American or British?

Cannery RowCannery Row by John Steinbeck
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Cannery Row in Monterey, California, is a place of fish processing plants, a marine biology lab, a grocery shop and a brothel. Steinbeck describes some of the characters who live there, and the efforts of a group of semi-homeless people to organise a party for the marine biologist who runs the lab, and is regarded as a benefactor by most of the people who live on the street.

It reminded me of Last Exit to Brooklyn, which is written about the other side of the USA, and may have been inspired by Cannery Row, but this one is much lighter, and there is more humour.

One thing I did find rather annoying, however, is that the edition I read was published in the UK, and the publishers had decided to use their own British house style for spelling and terminology. House style is all very well, but when it is obviously alien to the setting of the book it is distracting. So “curb” has been changed to “kerb” (or has it? Maybe Americans in general, or Steingback in particular, spelt it that way in the 1930s). It made me pause and wonder what other liberties the publishers had taken with the text. Would a bunch of down-and-outs living in California in the 1930s really have filled a truck with petrol? Or would they rather have used gasoline? Or did Americans actually speak of petrol back then, and is gasoline thus a more recent innovation?

In some books this might not be so important, but Cannery Row is mainly about the place and the people who live in it — the plot is pretty sketchy. So inauthentic dialogue is a distraction for the reader.

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What is terrorism?

Fifty years ago the National Party regime in South Africa passed the Terrorism Act, which basically defined terrorism as opposition to the National Party and its policies, especially the policy of apartheid.

It made me particularly aware of the way words can be misused for political propaganda, and the entire Terrorism Act was an exercise in political propaganda — by defining their opponents as “terrorists” the National Party government hoped to frighten (intimidate, terrorise) doubters into supporting them. The Terrorism Act made nothing illegal that was not already illegal under numerous other laws, though it did increase the powers of the police to suppress opposition without interference by the courts.

So I became aware that “terrorism” and “terrorist” were weasel words, that could have the meanings sucked out of them as weasels were reputed to suck eggs. And since I was already a language pedant, I became yet more pedantic about words like “terrorist”.

I looked up “terrorist” in my Concise Oxford Dictionary:

terrorist, n. One who favours or uses terror-inspiring methods of governing or of coercing government or community.

Note that governments can be terrorist (as the National Party government was back in 1967 when they passed the Terrorism Act). And note too that it is not applied to individuals. An armed robber may inspire terror in his victims by the use of violence or the threat of it — to hand over valuables or reveal the means of access to them, eg by torturing someone to reveal the PIN of a credit card. But the robber is still a robber, not a terrorist.

The recent mass shooting in Las Vegas, USA, has opened up this particular debate again — here’s an example in the graphic on the right, which appeared on Facebook soon after the shooting.

At the time of writing, police investigating the crime said that they had not discovered the killer’s motive, and it is his motive that would determine whether or not it was an act of terrorism. Perhaps further investigation will show that it was an act of terrorism, but for the moment it is too early to say.

For it to have been an act of terrorism, one has to know which community he was trying to coerce into doing what and why.

What his victims had in common was that they were Country Music fans attending a concert. If it can be shown that his aim was to intimidate country music fans into not holding concerts (any concerts? open-air concerts? only concerts in Las Vegas or concerts anywhere?) then yes, he was a terrorist, and his shooting was an act of terrorism.

But not every mass shooting is an act of terrorism, and not every mass murderer is a terrorist. Perhaps in this case the killer was just a misanthropist, and the concert-goers were just a convenient target for his misanthropy.

Before coming to hasty judgments about such things, read this article Six things to know about mass shootings in America | News | World | M&G:

Journalists sometimes describe mass shooting as a form of domestic terrorism. This connection may be misleading.

There is no doubt that mass shootings are “terrifying” and “terrorize” the community where they have happened. However, not all active shooters involved in mass shooting have a political message or cause.

And check here to see if you can pass the terrorism quiz.

A terrorist always has a clear message: this is what will happen to you if you carry on doing this, or if you don’t do that. Often the message is “support us, or else (this will happen to you)”.

If the message the perpetrator is trying to send is unclear and difficult to determine, the chances are he isn’t a terrorist.


Nauseating words

I’ve occasionally read articles about words that people hate. Apparently one of the most disliked words in the English language is “moist”.

But this article reminded me of two of my least favourite words — 2 New ‘Harry Potter’ Books Are Coming This October:

Harry Potter fans have yet another reason to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the iconic wizarding franchise: They’re getting two new books this October.

For me two of the most nauseating words are “franchise” and “brands”, but “iconic” comes a pretty close third.

Harry Potter is a fictional character in a series of books. Why call him a “franchise”? Why are so many sports teams called “franchises” nowadays. These words do have proper uses. I have no objection to referring to a fast-food joint like KFC as a “franchise” where it means that they have been licensed to use the KFC brand and logos even though they are independently owned. But call it a franchise when referring to their business model;, not to the stuff they sell (ground up chicken beaks and gizzards called “nuggets”).

But how many authors have been licensed to write Harry Potter books? How many sports teams around the world (or even the UK) have been licensed to call themselves “Manchester United” or “Norwich City”? As far as I know, one and one only in each instance. That doesn’t make them a franchise, or anything remotely like it.

And all this talk about “brands” — are you interested in “brands”? Yes, I’ve seen online questionnaires that ask that. Should I say yes, I’m interested in brands. I really do prefer KFC to Ford, for example. Fried chicken gets me from A to B so much faster than a motor car, Dettol plays much better cricket than the Titans.

But perhaps I’m alone in this. “Brands”, “franchise” and “iconic” don’t seem to have made these lists, no matter how high they are on mine “Moist” And 28 Other Gross-Sounding English Words That Everyone Hates | Thought Catalog, and 11 Gross-Sounding Words Everyone Hates To Hear, According To Science.

The SAfm radio station has a Sunday morning programme on media, and “brands” feature pretty prominently in it.

Samuel Maverick

It all makes me rather sympathetic to Samuel Maverick, whose name entered the English language because he never branded his cattle. Unbranded cattle that did not belong in the herd were called “mavericks”. Later it came to be applied to people who didn’t follow the herd, like politicians who didn’t toe (or nowadays “tow”) the party line. Like Makhosi Khoza. I suppose that’s why I like to read the Daily Maverick. And why I would like to see Makhosi Khoza as our next president.

So the more talk I hear of “brands”, the more I think of Samuel Maverick. No matter what else he did, he made an important and much-needed contribution to the English language.

The Mountain of Adventure (more Enid Blyton)

I’ve just reread yet another Enid Blyton story from my childhood. I’d already read The Enid Blyton Story, about her life and work, and reread The Secret of Killimooin (the first Enid Blyton novel I read), and, as I noted there, while there are some children’s books that adults enjoy reading, Enid Blyton’s books are not generally among them.

So should kids read Enid Blyton? I say yes, because her books can encourage a love of reading.

A blogging friend, Clarissa, recently asked about something related to this. She quotes someone as saying:

If I were to stand up in a faculty meeting and say “The really good students are the ones who read Dickens [or the equivalent in whatever language you were educated in] for pleasure when they were young” I’d be called elitist. Maybe even racist.  American anti-intellectualism spans the spectrum from (literal) know-nothing conservatives to touchy-feely egalitarian leftists.

Clarissa goes on to ask if this is true, because she might be inclined to say the same thing.

I’m not sure if it is true that the really good students were the ones who read Dickens as children, but I am fairly sure that the really good students I’ve had to teach were the ones who read books as children, because they were the ones who were able to make the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. An important stage in that transition is reading for pleasure.

Our middle child (who is now 30-something) wanted to go to school and learn to read because he desperately wanted to read The Lord of the Rings for himself instead of having it read to him. He was rather disappointed that he wasn’t able to do so after his first day of school.

Some years ago I was responsible for training self-supporting clergy in the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. They came to the training centre for one weekend a month, and then for 10 days at the beginning of each year. Their previous education levels varied tremendously — from four years of primary school to university graduates. Because they were part-time students, much of the training was based on reading, and I soon discovered that many had not made the transition from learning to read to reading to learn. About half of them sere school teachers, and their reading skills were the poorest of all the occupations represented. A grade 7 Maths teacher, for example, had a Grade 6 reading level.

We got some reading training equipment and spent part of each training session in trying to improve reading skills, but also moved the emphasis of the training from book study to other forms of instruction, which put them on a more equal footing. Those who could not read well were not stupid. They could talk just as intelligently as the readers. So yes, I could say that thinking that students who read Dickens were the best students could be elitist.

So how would it have helped them if they had all read books like The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield as children? (Both books have donkeys in them).

The Mountain of AdventureThe Mountain of Adventure by Enid Blyton
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was the first book by Enid Blyton that I actually owned. It was given to me as a birthday or Christmas present when I was about 9 or 10 years old, and I loved it. It featured children riding donkeys in the mountains, a mountain with caves and secret passageways, a mad scientist conducting sinister experiments, and a helicopter. I read it several times.

I also read several other books in Enid Blyton’s “Adventure” series, but none were as interesting or exciting as this one. The Valley of Adventure came close, but didn’t quite make it, though it did teach me about stalactites and stalagmites and the difference between them.

Now I’ve just reread The Mountain of Adventure as an adult, and several things stand out, including many of the same faults that I had noted in The Secret of Killimooin. There was the over-use of exclamations (What a surprise!) in both the text and the dialogue. The food porn. The constant pointing out of the obvious.

Yet, for all its faults, to my 10-year-old self the story was interesting and exciting.

I notice some other things in reading it as an adult, however. One of its effects on me as a child was that if familiarised me with idioms that could probably be called literary cliches. They are things that people rarely say in real life, but often say in books, and they came with a flash of recognition — so that’s where I learnt that phrase!

Here are some of them:

  • you’ll come to a bad end
  • the coast is clear
  • while the going’s good
  • it will be the worse for you
  • beside himself with rage
  • taste of their own medicine
  • a coward, like all bullies
  • if looks could have killed
  • smell a very large rat
  • spilt the beans

I was aware of all those idioms, but it was in rereading The Mountain of Adventure I became aware of where I had learnt them.

So would the self-supporting ministry trainees have benefited from reading The Mountain of Adventure or David Copperfield, and would either have made them elitist?

One of the criticisms of Enid Blyton is that she was elitist, and her characters were all middle class.

I think of Wilson Mthembu, one of the Zululand self-supporting ministry trainees. I know nothing of his childhood or where he went to school, but he had got as far as Standard 2 (Grade 4), and he was a shopkeeper. How well could he identify with four middle-class English school children in the book?

Well, the children are not at home in the suburbs, but on holiday at a Welsh mountain farm, where the life is not all that dissimilar to rural Zululand, where there are donkeys, like those the children ride. And having some people speak English and some speak Welsh is not all that different from the English-Zulu divide in Zululand. And, as a shopkeeper, Wilson Mthembu is a member of the bourgeoisie.

The mad scientist might be a bit out of place, but that’s the essence of adventures — strange things happening.

Then there’s the helicopter.

And I recall that around the time that Wilson Mthembu was attending the training course, they were filming Zulu Dawn not far away. One of the stars, Burt Lancaster, broke his arm, and was taken by helicopter to the Charles Johnson Memorial Hospital to have it strapped up. He got out of the helicopter and there was a crowd of kids rushing towards the famous film star, but they ran straight past him and went to look at the helicopter.

And David Copperfield? Well he may have ended up as middle class, but he didn’t really start off that way. So I don’t think that is very elitist either.

A friend gave me a copy of David Copperfield for my 12th birthday. I think he’d told his parents that I liked reading, so they thought I’d like that. But I put it on a shelf and carried on reading Biggles (I’d graduated to that from Enid Blyton by then), and only read David Copperfield years later.

What’s the difference between Blyton and Dickens?

Most 10-year-olds can appreciate Enid Blyton because she tells a simple story. But Dickens is more complex, and it is not the books that are difficult so much as the understanding of human nature. Reading Dickens requires children to have an understanding of adult human nature which most children do not have. It is not reading difficulty, but experience of life that makes the difference. Blyton’s adult characters are crude and over-simplified, but they are fairly easy for children to interpret with their experience of adult behaviour. Dickens’s characters are much more complex, even though they do sometimes seem to have exaggerated characteristics, almost like caricatures. But it is easy for children to miss the irony

When I was at university one of our English set works was Northanger Abbey. I had not a clue what it was about, and missed the whole point. I read it again later, after having read a few books in the genre that Jane Austen was satirising, and only then did it make sense. It was like reading it for the first time, because that was after I had read Melmoth the Wanderer.

So no, I don’t really think it’s elitist to think that students who had enjoyed Dickens as children might be better students. But I think they might also be better students if they had read Enid Blyton.

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