Padraig Colman

Rambling ruminations of an Irishman in Sri Lanka

My Dog Tosca

A version of this article appeared in Lakbima News on February 13 2011. For some unaccountable reason they chose to illustrate it with stock photos of fluffy cute puppies rather than use the pictures of the real Tosca which I provided. I restore the real Tosca here.

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Some people have pets thrust upon them. I don’t mean in the Richard Gere kind of way (that story about a gerbil was an urban myth apparently). I mean that, although I did not have much experience of pets as a child, now I am surrounded by animals. A misguided aunt gave me a tortoise called Cuthbert whom I was too young to understand or appreciate. It seems that I killed him trying to wake him up not realising he was hibernating. As Dorothy Parker said on hearing of the death of President Calvin Coolidge, “How could they tell?”

We briefly had budgie that my father won in a raffle. It was very cranky, refused to speak or sing and pecked us whenever we went near it. One day we found it at the bottom of the cage, toes curled up. Perhaps its depression was induced by an identity crisis – he was called Paddy, as was my father (whose real name was Jeremiah), my uncle, my cousin and my goodself. I was too young to understand how cruel it is to keep a creature of flight in a cage. As William Blake almost wrote: “A budgerigar in a cage/Puts heaven in a rage”.

I tended to avoid animals after that but in later life they started coming after me. I was once sleeping with the windows open during a hot Wimbledon summer when I woke to find a black cat on my chest. This was Charlotte who had crawled across the roof from next door. After that, she often used to come through the back door and sit on my lap watching TV. Charlotte was particularly fond of football – one could see her head moving from side to side, as she intently followed the flow of the play.

My good lady wife suffered from a similar kind of animal magnetism, initially with cats. Bumble was dominating her household when I first met her but I understand Socks had preceded him as an uninvited guest. Bumble expired but soon Lucy, Uncle Monty and Maurice took up residence. Throughout our married life, we have found that there is some kind of feline equivalent of Facebook which allows the animals to know when a space has become available.

We took three cats with us to Ireland. When they departed in various ways, three Irish cats arrived to replace them. We brought those three with us to Sri Lanka. In Ireland, three disreputable dogs came to the house every day to take us for a walk.

Since coming to Sri Lanka over eight years ago, we have been inundated with dogs through no fault of our own. I had thought about writing something called “Reigning Cats and Dogs” but found that someone had already used that title. We first lived in rented accommodation in Bandarawela. The owners claimed to be animal lovers but threatened to poison a couple of street bitches that hung around the place and ordered their workers to beat them. Those people have since gone to their heavenly reward.

I noticed Tosca on my way to the kade. She had a horrible abscess hanging out of one eye but had a very benign expression. Dogs are not supposed to smile but she seemed to do so, beatifically. She seemed to take to us and, somewhat nervously started approaching our house. One night we noticed her sleeping in a drain near the house and she was not alone. A female companion, who later became known as Daisy, was huddling with her for warmth.

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We gradually, in the face of disapproval from the owners and the neighbours, adopted these two as our own, although we could in no way believe that we owned them.

Unfortunately, Tosca, in particular, became prey to the rampaging males of the area and was often subjected to gang-rape. One rather timid fellow we named The Suitor, was doing the business when Hendrick, a disreputable one-eyed old roué who lived on the estate and considered he had prior rights, urinated on him in mid-coitus.

The result of all this attention was a litter of pups. One very small one died soon. Two of them were later found homes and given the names Lucky (a bad choice) and Sando. More of those later. Silky remained with us and is still here today in the home we moved to six years ago.

When the pups were first born, Tosca was perhaps not an ideal mother. One got the feeling that she thought a different kind of life was her due. She remained rather plump after the pregnancy and she reminded me of one of those 1950s blonde pneumatic movie stars like Mamie van Doren or Jayne Mansfield (I’m showing my age here, readers). She would often abandon the pups and come to hide from them with us in the sit-out. The little monsters always managed to find her and squawk and bite and scratch at her abused undercarriage.

Luckily, we knew a good vet who was able to perform surgery at our home to remove the abscess from the eye and to sterilise her. A lot of veterinary attention was needed. On one occasion, she seemed very ill and was hiding in the bushes. The vet thought she might have been poisoned. We took her to the Veterinary Faculty at Peradeniya where she was admitted for observation. Tosca loved motor travel. In fact, she demanded to get in whenever we went shopping. Children looked in and told their parents there was a beautiful dog in the car. She serenely took such compliments as her due. If she saw another dog passing by she would bark at it imperiously.

The journey to Peradeniya was not too difficult, but Tosca clearly did not think the accommodation was up to her standards. When we went to collect her after six days she was very huffy and walked briskly to a white car and demanded to be let in. Unfortunately, it was someone else’s car.

When we moved to our own house, Tosca, Daisy, Hendrick and Silky came with us. The intricate social dynamics of this ménage, particularly the antics of Tosca and Daisy in their lesbian love nest, must be the subject for another article (or scholarly thesis or porn movie).

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Tosca continued to enjoy her status as motor-mutt with the plus of long walks through the tea estate and mud-baths, the dirtier the better. She is no longer with us. Like most street dogs, she once had a home with humans who abandoned her. She endured with dignity. She survived a long time after being diagnosed with mouth cancer. I am not ashamed of appearing sentimental when I say that I hope we added something to her life.

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In the New York Review of Books, Catherine Schine reviewed an animated movie version of JR Ackerley’s wonderful memoir My Dog Tulip.

“What strained and anxious lives dogs must lead, so emotionally involved in the world of men, whose affections they strive endlessly to secure, whose authority they are expected unquestionably to obey, and whose mind they never can do more than imperfectly reach and comprehend. Stupidly loved, stupidly hated, acquired without thought, reared and ruled without understanding, passed on or ‘put to sleep’ without care, did they, I wondered, these descendants of the creatures who, thousands of years ago in the primeval forests, laid siege to the heart of man, took him under their protection, tried to tame him, and failed—did they suffer from headaches?’

Weasel Words and Cryptolectic Crap

This article appeared in Lakbima News on Sunday February 26 2012

 

 

The subject of my lecture today, ladies and gentlemen, is a four-letter word beginning with ‘c’ and ending in ‘nt’. One school of thought holds that ‘CANT’ comes from the Gaelic cainnt, which derived amongst groups of travelling people in Scotland and Ireland. We are talking here about the people whom the Irish are now forbidden by Political Correctness to call tinkers.

 

The most widely known form is “the Cant’, known to its native speakers in Ireland as Gammon and to linguists as Shelta.

 

In linguistics, cryptolect, the technical term for cant, is the argot or jargon of a group, often implying its use to exclude or mislead outsiders. Dr Johnson defined cant in his dictionary as “a corrupt dialogue used by beggars and vagabonds”, “a particular form of speaking peculiar to some certain class or body of men”, “a whining pretension to goodness, in formal and affected terms” -‘barbarous jargon”.

 

Today’s dictionaries define CANT thus:

 

(verb) To talk in an affectedly solemn or hypocritical way

 

(Noun) The vocabulary and language peculiar to a particular group or sect.

 

Chambers Dictionary, in its modern definition, comes close to Johnson’s scorn: “to speak in a whining wheedling manner; to use language whose meaning has evaporated from continued repetition; to use the specialised vocabulary or jargon of thieves, politicians, lawyers, etc.”

 

Notice how thieves, politicians and lawyers are lumped together. Today we can also include multinational corporations, advertising agencies, bankers and NGOs among those who develop and utilise arcane verbiage to fool the rest of us.

 

I have to confess that I was once guilty of producing cryptolectic crap by the yard myself and found it quite easy, way back in the early 1990s (“back in the day” as current cant would have it) when I worked as a “management consultant” in the National Health Service. Those were the days when Kenneth Clarke (who later became a cigarette salesman and is currently UK Minister of Justice) was introducing NHS “reforms”. An awful lot of cant was disgorged to try to hide the fact that the “hidden agenda” was to privatize the NHS under the guise of making it more “businesslike”. The reports I wrote, which,( in order to please our “team leader” who was obsessed with cant phrases like “leading-edge initiatives”) were full to the brim with meaningless phrases and were published by Her Majesty’s Stationery Office. If anyone comes across one of my reports, please do me a favour and burn it!

 

In those days, it was called “management speak”. It got worse under the Blair administration and continues to thrive today. Orwell spotted cant long ago and commented: “As soon as certain topics are raised, the concrete melts into the abstract and no one seems to be able to think of turns of speech that are not hackneyed: Prose consists less and less of words chosen for the sake of their meaning, and more and more of phrases tacked together like the sections of a prefabricated hen-house”.

 

What is sinister about this is not that it is simply a matter of inability to write clearly, or a foolish desire to impress by following a fashion. There is a deliberate aim to obfuscate, to exert power by using an esoteric mode of discourse that the unchosen ones cannot hope to understand. This is bad for democracy. Opacity, false complexity and meaninglessness serve a purpose.

 

Cardinal Newman acknowledged the danger of precision: “Mistiness is the mother of safety. Your safe man in the Church of England is he who steers his course between the Scylla of ‘Aye’ and the Charybdis of ‘No’ along the channel of ‘No meaning’.”

 

A cliché is a phrase that has become worn out and emptied of meaning by over-frequent and careless use. Many clichés probably started life as folk-wisdom. They can, on occasion, be useful common currency. They communicate simple ideas economically and are often a means of conveying general sociability. A cliché is an analogy characterised by its overuse.

 

Brian O’Nolan’s day job was working for the Irish government as a senior civil servant. In his free time he was a morose drunk who wrote very funny books under the pseudonym Flann O’Brien. He also wrote a column for the Irish times under the name, Myles na gCopaleen. One of his themes in the column was war on stale language. Here is an excerpt: “The Myles na gCopaleen Catechism of Cliché. A unique compendium of all that is nauseating in contemporary writing. Compiled without regard to expense or the feelings of the public. A harrowing survey of sub-literature and all that is pseudo, mal-dicted and calloused in the underworld of print.”

 

Linguistic barbarity

 

In the world of management-corporate-NGO-speak, perpetrators of linguistic barbarity often seem proud of their utterances as if they have newly-minted the cliché themselves and are presenting it to a grateful world for the first time. How often have you heard people referring, without a hint of shame, to ”a level playing field”. That seems to be a reference to team sports like football. There have been football clubs who did not have a level pitch – I think Yeovil Town was one of them. When my team, Gloucester City, played away at Yeovil, any disadvantage that Gloucester suffered was not because of the fact that they had to play uphill. At half-time the sides swap ends, so for 50% of the game Yeovil would have to play uphill.

 

I have had the dubious honour of editing papers for an NGO. This meant being exposed to the horrors of academic jargon as well as NGO miasma. An example of a newly-constructed metaphor follows. It cannot be criticized for staleness. However, it is not a helpful image: “The first view often permits the ‘ideological pole’ of the continuum to speak too loud whereas the second view typically bends too much towards the ‘material pole’.” Are they speaking Polish?

 

Here’s a good one I saw recently: “A holistic strategy for community-driven development.” What has that got to do with the price of fish? Not as drastic as a holistic, cradle-to- grave approach.

 

We all like to at least appear to be against sin. Who could complain about the noble aim of “enhancing development practitioners’ facilitation skills for the capacity-building of gender-disadvantaged women”? Go for it!

 

NGOs are very fond of the word “sustainable”. The late Alexander Cockburn noticed this in a signing

statement made by President Obama: “Over the last several years, my Administration has developed an effective, sustainable framework for the detention, interrogation and trial of suspected terrorists…” Sustainable torture?

 

I have read that in a spirit of “participation”, NGO victims in Sierra Leone now have words like “empowerment”, “capacity-building” and “stakeholder” “governance”, “civil society, “facilitators’ and “disadvantaged” tripping off their tongues. These people have clearly undergone a “paradigm shift”. A blogger recently commented that these people “view the aid industry as a profit-making machine, … one needs to know – the language to be able to understand when opportunities arise and how to benefit.”

 

Rebecca Leaman writes: “The buzzwords of business-speak have evolved, in part, as a shorthand way of letting us refer to complex ideas with just a few words. Every sector and every interest group has its own special vocabulary and the non-profit sector is no different. Given that it’s the very nature of human languages to evolve over time… it is what it is. Where’s the point in fighting that losing battle, when we could be using jargon to our advantage instead?”

 

NGO-speak is a common language only in that it reinforces a sense of community between NGO workers, to the exclusion of the rest of humanity. Irish president Michael D Higgins, addressing the “voluntary sector” said he has searched for the word “citizen”, in their communications but instead

encountered references to “service users” and “clients” and “client bases”… This sets off a certain alert in my own mind. Is the language doing the same damage in all of the sectors, and is it not one of the functions of critical thinking to find an appropriate language to deal with the purposes which one is pursuing? Higgins said there should be a “language of citizenship” rather than one of bureaucracy . “That in turn is based on a philosophical assumption about the worth of the person you are dealing with.”Higgins is a poet. Remember that Shelley claimed that “poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world”.

 

A business training website says this: “Jargon can be a powerful tool for creating images in the minds of your associates or customers. Get to know some jargon terms and learn to use them properly, in the right context and at the right time in the conversation or presentation.”

 

That’s how they manipulate us and mess with our minds.

Julie MacLusky

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