Archives de catégorie : Culture

Linguistic challenges

Yesterday I was having lunch with a friend from Sierra Leone, when one of her friend’s, a British woman, happened to come by. « I can’t quite place your accent, » she said to me.

Although it’s been nearly 12 years since I left the UK, I’ve never stopped feeling British, and holding similar identities to when I left. But perhaps like with ageing, you change subtly in ways that don’t really register with your own self. I’ve had a number of people say to me over the past few weeks that my accent was « difficult to place », and that people weren’t sure it was British. Canadian was one recent suggestion. South African is a common one.

These sorts of comments can come as a surprise – have I really changed? In my primary cycles, I don’t have many British people, though my boss is British. I speak English with the kids, though their speaking is tinged by Sierra Leone. Otherwise, I’m speaking French at home. A lot of the aural media I consume (podcasts) are American or from Africa. I’m pretty sure Freetown has had an impact on my English, though I’m not best placed to say.

As one linguistic anecdote, I left the UK in 2006 when people (if I recall correctly) said ‘Two thousand and six’ (or is my mind playing tricks on me?). Skip forward, and I still find that I say ‘Thousand and eighteen’, but it’s taken me a while to realise that other people say ‘twenty-eighteen’. This morning, when I was wondering how I came to take a wrong turn in the road, I realised that in French it’s ‘deux milles dix-huit’, and that perhaps this was the reason I was not saying 20-18. Or perhaps the English language took a left turn after I left into making 2012 as two numbers, while I continued along the path of calling it two thousand and twelve.

This thing with accents can make you think that perhaps you’re losing your moorings. But whatever I’m drifting into, I’m quite happy to be there.

Status quo-ers

The weekend saw the sad loss of journalist-critic A. A. Gill, someone I grew up reading every week in the Sunday Times. I would devour his restaurant reviews even if I never had the slightest intention of visiting the high-class London restaurants he recommended. Instead it was the jaw-dropping style of the sentences and wit.

A friend posted one of his quotes today: « The interesting adults are always the school failures, the weird ones, the losers, the malcontents. This isn’t wishful thinking. It’s the rule. » This ties in with something I’d wanted to write about for a while – something that I’ll call the conceptual division between those who seek to thrive within the status quo, and those who look to change it.

We like to divide people – introverts and extroverts, men from Mars etc. As I see it, the status-quoers/system-battlers division is a useful one, with me firmly in the status-quoers camp. Particularly through working with colleagues, I realise that I have a strong tendency to put up with the world as it is, seek to excel within the rules, and not get too frustrated about the overall system. It’s the sort of approach that shows itself in good performance at school (not challenging the system), but doesn’t end up doing much to radically change the world.

We almost certainly need both. System-battlers seem to live in a world of constant frustration (in part because they struggle to understand how others can put up with the system) – this can waste a lot of energy and not accomplish much. But status-quoers are often blind to how they could much better results by doing things differently.

Drinking cultures

For reasons that will be explained in another blog post, I’ve suddenly got quite a bit more free time on my hands, which has given me the chance to head out for drinks with some of my male colleagues on Fridays. It leaves me again reflecting on the role of alcohol and drinking.

Firstly beer. I can’t say I’ve ever enjoyed drinking beer and so I only do so very occasionally. I’ve probably drunk less beer in my entire life than others drink on a heavy night at the pub. Un-needed calorie consumption turns me off a little bit, but the fundamental truth is that it just tastes bitter to me, and not in any enjoyable sense. So, I find myself a little jealous of the beer drinkers. I can’t reward myself with a beer at the end of a hot day. Beer isn’t the wonderful refreshing and relaxing drink it is for others. I don’t have a liquid item that I can keep in my fridge and break out when the good times roll.

Then there’s wine, which I do drink – I suspect part of that is making a statement that ‘I’m not morally against alcohol, and let me show you’. But when I think about it, the plain truth is that wine leaves me almost entirely neutral – it’s an unusual taste in my mouth, neither bad nor particularly good. It certainly doesn’t set the pulse racing.

As we left the bar last night, a friend lined up some strange flaming shots, which in following the lead of others, we knocked back. I’m not sure rationally what this was about either. Did any of us enjoy the taste of the shot? I suspect not. Did it come at a financial price? Yes. Did it give us more alcohol to make us relax more? Perhaps marginally. But I suspect the main reason behind why this act was done, was to do with male bonding, a shared experience, and overcoming a difficult challenge.

It all still leaves me thinking about what all this gives us. Some clearly find drinking pleasurable, which I’ll just have to accept as true. Alcohol seems to help relax as well; stories start flowing (there’s a tipping point in any night (from the perspective of a sober listener) when they become rather too long and without a point), and there’s a sense in which a good time is had. For some people, it might also encourage them to switch off, dance or speak to the opposite sex. It seems like a lot of effort for very little gain, and that if you pursued the same goal through other means (say hiking up a mountain, or playing sport), you could get better results.

Going back to drinking though, there’s almost no drink – alcoholic or not – that can reach me. I enjoy tea, and drink a lot of it, but I don’t need it in my life like others seem to need coffee. It’s a British treat – a mild subtle pleasure but not something to excite. Beyond that, I’d almost me tempted to say water or sometimes a smoothie or milkshake can give me a degree of refreshing pleasure. But liquids just don’t do it for me. This is rather odd, because when it comes to food there’s no shortage of pleasure to be had. So now, when going out, I regularly order water – something that would be unthinkable five years ago. I think part of this, is that natural process in your mid-30s, when you come to accept who you are, give up trying to be something else, and for you drinking just doesn’t do anything magical.

So perhaps while others drink, I should just order a Tiramisu.

Books read in 2015

For the father of a newborn, it’s been quite a good year for reading, in the main encouraged by the fact that I’ve not been able to live with my family for most of the year. I suspect 2016 will not be such a literary year.

Looking down the list leads to a few quick thoughts:

  • There were works from the canon like Augustine and Seneca that were a bit of struggle and I’m not sure I benefited much from them.
  • More Christian books on the list this year than for a while, which was a good thing and a resolution at the beginning of the year.
  • The Bonhoeffer biography would be my pick for the best book of the year. An inspiring account.
  • Two other books I greatly enjoyed were ‘Watching the English’ (a humorous anthropological study of the English) and a recently-finished history of early evangelicalism (18th century). Both books were so intellectually stimulating in part because they shone a light on things that are extremely close to who I am and so felt very personal.
  • 12/32 concerned Africa (not including Augustine). 1 book was in French.

1. Costly Assumptions, by Gbile Akanni
2. How to write fiction, by Guardian masterclass
3. Down and out in Paris and London, by George Orwell
4. Confessions, by St Augustine
5. Didier Drogba, by Ian McShane
6. The Reason for God, by Tim Keller
7. How I Made It, by Modupe Taylor-Pearce and Brian James
8. Debout-Paye, by Armand Gauz
9. The Memory of Love, by Animata Forna
10. King Leopold’s Ghost, by Adam Hochschild
11. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, by Eric Mataxas
12. Black Swans, by Nicholas Taleb
13. Sir Francis Drake, by John Sugden
14. Americanah, by Ngozi Adichie
15. Whites, by Norman Rush
16. Here I stand, by Roland Baintan
17. The State we’re in, by Adele Parks
18. The Art of Travel, by Alain De Botton
19. Meditations, by Marcus Aurelius
20. Write Away, by Elizabeth George
21. Mrs Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf
22. Born to Run, by Christopher McDougall
23. The Heart of Me, by Paul Sika
24. Grit to Great, by Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval
25. Journey without Maps, by Graham Greene
26. Watching the English, by Katie Fox
27. Africa’s New Oil, by Celeste Hicks
28. Instruments in the Redeemer’s Hands, by Paul David Tripp
29. What is a Healthy church?, by Mark Dever
30. Grumpy old men, by Stuart Prebble
31. The Rise of Evangelicalism, by Mark A. Noll
32. The Golden Hour, by Todd Moss

Radio and me

I won’t always be able to say this, but up to now, I’ve spent most of my working life predominantly producing radio reports. Those early days travelling back from university to read the weekend news on Rugby FM (in the town of Rugby), to that first job as a local BBC reporter (and some time news reader). It was what I spent most of my time doing in Congo and Cote d’Ivoire. I think I got pretty good at it – one of the comments I’ll most treasure after leaving the BBC was that my reports had really given people the sense of being in Cote d’Ivoire. I wasn’t a great investigative reporter, and perhaps I sometimes pulled my punches, but I did like creating a multi-layer soundscape and making radio that was about sound rather than recorded studio scripts.

Radio is an interesting beast though. It is at once incredibly influential (certainly in this part of the world), but also strangely undervalued. Most people can’t name their favourite radio journalist, but tv journalists become celebrities. A radio report is almost impossible so share on-line, and when was the last time a radio piece went viral? A beautifully crafted television report can get incredible plaudits, but who appreciates the beauty of good radio reporting? You get the sense of creating beautiful pieces that vanish into the ether, never lasting any longer than the news programme itself. I never got the impression my Ivorian friends and peers were paying attention either.

Now I’m in communications, I still get the chance to make use of a variety of multimedia skills; video, photography, and of course writing. But radio is the one muscle that no longer gets exercise, unless it’s sync-ing audio for a video project.

To finish on a slight tangent, radio no longer has much of a place in my media consumption either, depending on how you define it. I listen to a lot of podcasts, especially while driving or exercising, and many of these are simply radio shows that are downloadable (‘Start the Week’, ‘In our time’ etc). But the broadness of broadcasting doesn’t much appeal to me anymore. My particular tastes and interests make me unlikely to find something on the radio at the particularly moment I tune in that I find interesting, or pitched at the right level. I also have less interest in ‘news’, which sensationalizes the ‘latest thing’ even if we don’t have a great understanding of its causes or long-term impact. I’m aware that serendipity is important (we should leave room to be surprised by things outside our narrow range of hobbies/interests), but there seems too much chaff in with the straw. Online news sites mean you can get what you’re interested in extremely fast, and click away as soon as your interest has been exhausted (or research more if you want to go deeper).

I do miss radio. It’s simplicity seemed to approach a level of purity – a cheap recorder, getting into the midst of the action, and then rushing back to the computer to edit. You could create a good mixed report in around an hour, fighting the clock to get it sent to London and on the air. I’m not an amazing photographer or video-maker, but this is where I now need to focus my attention.

Feeling human

I sometimes try to put my finger on the essentials that make West Africa so different from Dubai or perhaps Western Europe. One recent idea I’ve been dwelling on is that in West Africa you feel like you exist, whereas elsewhere you might as well just be a ghost. Let me explain. In West Africa, when you (and we could dig deeper into what I mean by ‘you’) walk the streets or drive in your car, people are looking at you. Eye contact is taking place. People you pass in the street might say something to you, men and women will look you directly in the eye. Old people will say hello, children will wave and try and engage in conversation. Random people will approach you. Humanity and society just feels like it’s more real.

You could easily reply – that’s because you’re a foreigner with weird skin colour. And there may be an element of that. But when my wife gets in a bus in Abidjan, there is much more a sense that this is a gathering of humans. Exchanges will take place – greetings, and then commentary, and then discussion, and then shared jokes.

On getting drunk

In the West, when you choose not to excessively drink alcohol, you immediately miss out on two things – getting drunk, and the shared experience of a (drunken) night out. You may think you’re only saying no to alcohol, but what you’ll actually be saying no to is bonding with friends, shared experiences, comradeship and adventures. You may be very open to the latter experiences, but you will have inadvertently said no to them. You won’t do silly things with your friends, you won’t both share trying to recollect what happened the night before, you won’t be there for the 4am kebab, you won’t find solace with your friends as you all nurse hangovers. You won’t be part of the collective pronoun in ‘Did WE do that?’ You may be dying to do those things, but in most cases the door will be closed. It’s like those who fight a war together, win a sporting trophy or succeed in a work project. Instead, you’re on the sidelines. In short, you will be alone and uninvited, and between you and others there will always be a chasm.

The writing life

I’m close to finishing ‘How to be well-read: a guide to 500 great novels and a handful of literary curiosities‘ by John Sutherland. It’s a book I bought on a whim after a recommendation from blogger/economist Tyler Cowen. It’s full of useful bite-sized articles on novels I’m sure I’ll never get around to reading (how many of us read more than 500 novels in an entire life-time?).

What I’ve found most useful is getting an overview of the literary canon (or at least Sutherland’s sometimes curious vision of it). What are the ingredients and ideas behind good literature? Following the general trends – adultery, murder, suicide, war, alcoholism and abuse are common themes. Happy marriages either don’t exist for writers or they don’t make good material. At several times I’ve thought: how come I and apparently many of my friends are in extremely happy marriages when for novelists fictional marriages always fail? Writers frequently have lives that follow many of these themes, and it’s clear that many fiction writers are simply transforming their own non-fictional experiences (which also explains why writers frequently write about writers). Many of the best literary works seem to have faced a rough ride getting into print, or never to have been applauded in their day. Many writers die penniless – and even unpublished – in their own life time.

So if you want to be a writer and have a boringly happy life, you might struggle. And even if you write the best novel in the world, there’s a good chance publishers will turn their noses up at it, and even if you publish a masterpiece, you may be long gone by the time your genius is recognised.


For someone who used to spend much of his working life producing reports for the wireless, I listen to almost zero radio nowadays, at least in the traditional sense. Instead, I’m totally hooked on podcasting (which can just be a glorified word for listening to radio programmes in a more flexibile way). Podcasting is something that doesn’t get the buzz it once got, and particularly in the African context I almost never see people discuss it, even though radio is such a successful medium on the continent. I’m really not sure what’s behind this – is it because iTunes is less popular (difficulty of credit card payments/popularity of Android/PCs)? Podcasting will probably always be something of a niche market for people who crave quality speech radio content and self-education.

For me it works like a dream. I’ve been listening a lot as I’ve been doing marathon training, and hopefully I’ll continue. My main listening times are during the commute to work and while doing exercise. Do I miss out on much by not listening to the radio? Not too much I think. I do miss hearing well-crafted radio news packages, which are a little appreciated art form. But perhaps being of a slightly elitist bent, I find the talkshow / chatty styles that seem to predominate now as less useful at getting you lots of quality information you can use. Too much chaff with the wheat.

Here are some of the broad brush strokes of my podcast listening. Looking down the list I think it’s a quite well rounded mix, and a good illustration of the strengthens of podcasting. You can cater for all your niche private interests, with high quality content automatically downloaded from sources all over the world.

BBC Radio Four – I get a selection of BBC documentaries, and some firm favourites; Start the Week (weekly intellectual discussion show), In Our Time (academic discussion on an intellectual theme e.g. The Medici, the Atom, Quantum physics), From Our Own Correspondent (colour from BBC reporters, and also good for keeping up to date on the news), More or Less (helps understand modern stats and excellent for good-to-know stuff) and Front Row Weekly (summary of the best bits of the weekly high-brow arts and culture show).

This all helps to keep me feel reasonably in touch with what’s going on in the UK, particularly culturally. Otherwise, my fear would be that in the future I return to the UK totally out of touch. I may not be able to go to the theatre, but at least I can know what’s on in the West End.

Sermons – I catch a few sermons – from St Helen’s Bishopsgate in London and from Mark Driscoll at Mars Hill. Podcasting has been a real asset for the modern church and you can now listen to the very best teaching anywhere in the world. This was particularly helpful in West Africa where church teaching was often tailored for people from a different background.

Photography – I’ve been listening to This Week in Photo for a couple of years now. It’s a good weekly update on the latest photo gear and developments. I feel guilty now about being one of those people who spend more time listening to talks about photography than taking pictures, but – at my most optimistic – I think it gives me regular info which is building a foundation for the day that I take photography more seriously.

Development – I subscribe to Owen Barder’s occasional longer development podcasts (Development Drums) and the shorter Wonkcast from the Centre for Global Development.

Finally, there’s a long-tail of podcasts on odd interests, or that aren’t always so regular. For the last few months I get the 15 minute weekly Writing Excuses podcast to help teach me more about fiction writing, the Longform podcast on longform journalism, an Advanced French podcast, the Accidental Creative self-help podcast, and plenty more.

Screen time

Computers have of course revolutionised the modern world. But it’s also difficult to escape the screen – so much of what we do now is computer-based. So after a day of work, what do I want to do in the evenings? Write blog posts, check social media, read news articles, practice photography, edit video, even start writing creative fiction…everything involves being at my laptop. And for my wife, it’s just me carrying on working. Even reading now involves a Kindle. It’s hard to know how to escape, But so many of my personal goals involves more time behind a computer screen. What to do?