Saturday, 21 January 2017

Art of the one-liner: wit and grit for a deadly hit

Gary Nunn in The Guardian

For a while, I had the perfect tagline on my dating profile, and it was all thanks to the wit of Carrie Fisher: “Instant gratification takes too long.”
It alerted me to the dimmer bulbs in the chandelier. “Your tagline makes no sense. What could be quicker than instant?” Blocked! 
But: “Great Postcards from the Edge quote there” = date request! 
Alas, that led to little success so I’m again taking Fisher’s advice, as echoed by Meryl Streep this month: “Take your broken heart, make it into art.” The art I’ve decided to make is to discover the world’s best one-liner. This one’s for you, Carrie:
Some one-liners are so great, they’ve become their own cliches. Some characters deserve their own category for speaking almost exclusively in them - take a bow, Oscar Wilde, Dorothy Parker, Groucho Marx, Mae West, Mark Twain, Maya Angelou.
What makes a great one-liner? Certainly not an inspirational quote in an infuriatingly pretty font over an evocative filtered landscape. They are more likely to be bawdy, rambunctious and not always kind. The edge makes them memorable, although that’s not to say they can’t be profound.
Straight-up humour isn’t enough: the funniest one-liners have a sardonic, sarcastic or even bitchy undertone. The dreamier ones need a tinge of sadness or bitterness. Those offering guidance need to insinuate it’s advice the author of the phrase wistfully - or bitterly - wishes they’d taken themselves. Concision is essential. 
Some wordplay will make the ‘inspirational’ one liner forgivable for its linguistic merit. Don’t state the bleeding obvious: tell us something counterintuitive, or something that reveals the grit of your struggle and how you’ve mastered words as your response.
Retorts are out; if you need someone to rack up a line for you to knock down, then strictly speaking that isn’t a one-liner. It should include all its wit, grit and tips in that standalone line. Metaphors, self-deprecation and genuine poignancy are in.
With those criteria in mind, here’s my - unapologetically subjective - stab at the shortlist of the world’s greatest one-liners of all time:
“It costs a lot of money to look this cheap” - Dolly Parton
“I used to be Snow White, but I drifted” - Mae West
“My face looks like a wedding cake left out in the rain” - WH Auden
“I can resist everything, except temptation” - Oscar Wilde
“Better to be looked over than overlooked” - Mae West
“There are two kinds of people in the world: Those who believe there are two kinds of people in the world and those who don’t” - Robert Benchley
“If you can’t explain it to a six-year-old, you don’t understand it yourself” – Albert Einstein
“Faith: not wanting to know what is true” - Friedrich Nietzsche
“Anything that is too stupid to be spoken is sung” - Voltaire
“Copy from one, it’s plagiarism; copy from two, it’s research” - Wilson Mizner
“Moral indignation is jealousy with a halo” - HG Wells
“I’ve had a perfectly wonderful evening, but this wasn’t it” - Groucho Marx
“Every love’s the love before in a duller dress” - Dorothy Parker
“War is God’s way of teaching Americans geography” - Ambrose Bierce
“If you haven’t got anything nice to say about anybody, come sit next to me” - Alice Roosevelt Longworth (and Shirley MacLaine in Steel Magnolias, of course)
“Happiness makes up in height what it lacks in length” - Robert Frost
“If you think education is expensive, try ignorance” - Derek Bok
Just brilliant
“You can lead a horticulture, but you can’t make her think” - Dorothy Parker
“There is only one thing in the world worse than being talked about, and that is not being talked about” - Oscar Wilde
“When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time” - Maya Angelou
“When you’re going through hell, keep going” - Winston Churchill
“Before you leave the house, look in the mirror and take one thing off” - Coco Chanel
“Sometimes the questions are complicated and the answers are simple” - Dr Seuss
“At 18 our convictions are hills from which we look; at 45 they are caves in which we hide” - F Scott Fitzgerald
“We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars” - Oscar Wilde
“It is never too late to be what you might have been” - George Eliot
“No one can make you feel inferior without your consent” – Eleanor Roosevelt
“If everything is under control, you are going too slow” - Mario Andretti
I can relate
“Being a writer is like having homework every night for the rest of your life” - Lawrence Kasdan
I’d best wrap this up because:
“He that uses many words for explaining any subject, doth, like the cuttlefish, hide himself for the most part in his own ink” - John Ray
And finally, take all these with a pinch of salt because:
“The aphorism is a personal observation inflated into a universal truth, a private posing as a general” - Stefan Kanfer
What do you think is the world’s best one-liner?

Might cricket ban close-in fielders some day?

Michael Jeh in Cricinfo

Following Matt Renshaw's concussion injury, a respected cricket writer posed the question: will we ever get to the point where short leg, bat pad and silly mid-off are banned in international cricket?

In junior cricket in Australia that is already the case. I'm not sure if it is the same in places like India, where the art of spin bowling (and batting against it) will be poorer for such rules. More realistically, given the litigious climate we inhabit, can a fielder refuse the captain's instructions to field in a position that compromises his or her safety? Especially in professional cricket, where livelihoods are at stake, what are the health and safety implications of deliberately putting an employee in a dangerous position, knowing full well that serious injury is a possible outcome?

Barely 40 years on from when Tony Greig wore a motorcycle helmet while batting, it is almost as rare to now see a first-class cricketer batting in a hat or cap.

I have seen the helmet policy change radically - from wearing one being optional, to having to sign an indemnity form if you didn't wear one, to it now being a case of "no helmet, no play" at my local cricket club. This transformation has taken place in the time it has taken my son to progress from Under-8s to U-13s, accelerated no doubt by the Phillip Hughes accident (even though Hughes was wearing a helmet at the time).

In first-class cricket, the rules are so ridiculous that you are allowed to bat in a cap, but if you wear a helmet, it has to meet certain design specs.

Can a fielder refuse the captain's instructions to field in a position that compromises his or her safety?

I remain convinced that this blind faith in helmets is breeding a generation of cricketers who are sometimes technically inept, attempting to pull off the front foot instead of getting inside the line of the ball, or trying to play shots when ducking may have been wiser. In the last two weeks, at least four international batsmen have been hit in the head in Australia and New Zealand. Musfiqur Rahim was the most serious of these cases.

Even bizarre accidents can sometimes be predictable. Umpiring in an U-9 game recently, I refused to allow a batsman to face up because he was not wearing gloves. The opposition coach (also a parent) took exception to my decision, arguing that his son was prepared to take the risk. My counter-argument was that I was not prepared to put my fielders at risk if the bat flew from his hand on a hot, sweaty Brisbane morning. The acid burn of the wrath I incurred hurts less today as I view the replay of Peter Nevill's injury in the Big Bash.

A few years ago Queensland Cricket, in a noble but futile attempt to improve the "spirit of cricket" on the grade-cricket scene, ran a workshop where every captain of every club in every grade was forced to attend an event that tried to encourage a less abrasive, more sportsmanlike atmosphere. If a captain did not attend this workshop, his team lost points if he subsequently captained that season.

On the night in question, when each group was given a different hypothetical situation to mull over (for example: what do you do if an overnight not-out batsman turned up ten minutes late the next day because he was tending to his sick child?) I raised the issue of bowlers and fielders making threats against the batsman along the lines of "I'm going to f***ing kill you." My point was that even if it was not meant literally but taken to signal they were going to bowl aggressively at the batsman's body, once those words were said, if the batsman was actually killed (or badly injured), would there be a case to answer for premeditated assault occasioning bodily harm or worse? Would witnesses (fielders, umpires, non-striker) be asked to testify, under oath, as to whether they actually heard that threat being made, regardless of whether they thought it was meant literally or not?

Gautam Gambhir leaps to avoid getting hit by a shot from Michael Clarke in Delhi, 2008 © AFP

On hearing my question, the first-grade captain of another club stood up in disgust and said that if the evening was going to descend into complete farce with questions of this nature, he was taking leave forthwith. And that was the general consensus in the room: ridiculous question, it will never happen, can we move on to more realistic scenarios please? The hypothetical question I posed was never addressed. Many in the room thought I had pushed credibility too far.

Sadly, vindication is often a dish served cold, but it has a sour aftertaste. It wasn't long before we had the coronial inquest into the death of Hughes, and many of those same questions were posed by the coroner, Michael Barnes. We never quite got to the bottom of the matter, but the coroner was sufficiently unconvinced to note: "The repeated denials of any sledging having occurred in the game in which Phillip Hughes was injured were difficult to accept. Hopefully the focus on this unsavoury aspect of the incident may cause those who claim to love the game to reflect upon whether the practice of sledging is worthy of its participants. An outsider is left to wonder why such a beautiful game would need such an ugly underside."

So what's next? Players (employees) taking legal action against selectors for unfair recruitment policies? Suing your cricket board for making you play while injured? Been there, done that, thanks Nathan Bracken!

Can a batsman who has scored more runs in first-class cricket (Callum Ferguson, for example) make a case for unfair dismissal or discrimination if they jettison him after just one Test for an X-factor cricketer (Nic Maddinson) whose numbers don't quite match up and who is given three Tests? Ridiculous? Yes. Possible? Yes.

No bat pad? No leg slip? It might be a bridge too far. It will change the face of cricket forever, of course. But it won't be the first time that an outlandish suggestion morphs into an everyday reality.

Thursday, 19 January 2017

If you were an elephant

Charles Foster in The Guardian

If you were an elephant living wild in a western city, you’d be confused and disgusted.

You’d have one two-fingered hand swinging from your face – a hand as sensitive as tumescent genitals, but which could smash a wall or pick a cherry. With that hand you’d explore your best friends’ mouths, just for the sake of friendship. With that hand you’d smell water miles away and the flowers at your feet. You’d sift it all, triaging. Category 1: immediate danger. Category 2: potential threat. Category 3: food and water. Category 4: weather forecasts – short and long range. Category 5: pleasure.

Grumbles from trucks and cabs would shudder through the toxic ground, tickle the lamellar corpuscles in your feet and ricochet up your bones. You’d hear with your feet, and your femurs would be microphones. As you walked 10 miles for your breakfast you’d chatter with your friends in 10 octaves. A nearby human would throb like a bodhran as subsonic waves bounced around her chest.

Even if it swayed with grass instead of being covered in concrete and dog shit, the city would be far, far too small for you. You’d feel the ring roads like a corset. You’d smell succulent fields outside, and be wistful. But you’d make the most of what you had. You’d follow a labyrinth of old roads, relying on the wisdom of long-dead elephants, now passed down to your matriarch. You’d have the happiest kind of political system, run by wise old women, appointed for their knowledge of the world and their judgment, uninterested in hierarchy for hierarchy’s sake, and seeking the greatest good for the greatest number.

No room here for the infantile phallocentric Nietzscheanism that is destroying modern human culture. If you were a boy you’d be on the margins, drifting between family groups (but never allowed to disrupt them) or shacked up with your bachelor pals in the elephant equivalent of an unswept bedsit (though usually your behaviour would be gentler, more convivial and more urbane than cohabiting human males). Your function would be to inseminate, and that’s all. Government would be the business of the females.

‘You’d hear with your feet, and your femurs would be microphones.’ Photograph: Bruno Guerreiro/Getty Images/EyeEm

You’d be a communitarian. Relationality would be everything. It’s not that you couldn’t survive alone, although there would certainly be a survival benefit from being a member of a community, just as humans live longer if they are plugged into a church, a mosque or a bowling club. Yes, at some level your altruism might be reciprocal altruism, where you scratch my back if I scratch yours, or kin selection, where you are somehow persuaded to sacrifice yourself if your death or disadvantage will preserve a gene in a sufficiently closely related gene-bearer. But at a much more obvious and important level you’d be relational – joyously shouldering the duties that come with community – because it made you happy. Why do elephants seek out other elephants? Not primarily for sex, or for an extra arsenal of receptors to pick up the scent of poachers, or because they assume that the others will have found particularly nutritious food, but because they like other elephants.

This should be terribly unsurprising. Yet many humans will be surprised. That shows how fully we’ve fallen for the anthropocentric lie that only humans have minds and real emotions. The lie is the high-water mark of scientific fundamentalism. Fortunately it’s going out of fashion now, but for years it paralysed the study of animal behaviour.

As an elephant, you’d have a mind. You would, no doubt at all, be conscious. All the evidence agrees. None – absolutely none – disagrees. You’d have a sense of yourself as distinct from other things. When you looked out contemptuously at humans, wondering why they ate obviously contaminated food, opted to be miserable and alone, or wasted energy on pointless aggression and anxiety, it would be your contempt, as opposed to generic elephantine contempt, or reflexive contempt that bypassed your cerebral cortex, or the contempt of your sister. It would be you looking out, and you’d know it was you.

‘You’d have a mind. You would, no doubt at all, be conscious.’ Photograph: Palani Mohan/Getty Images

The American ecologist Carl Safina argues that elephant X can understand the relationship that elephant Y has with elephant Z – whether it is a kin relationship or simple friendship. Just think about that. Think about what it entails for X’s knowledge of itself; for X’s ability to think itself into the head of another, and for the way that X must articulate to itself the concept of a third-party relationship. Perhaps elephants are explaining the world to themselves by formulating, evaluating and selecting propositions – a faculty we tend to think of as uniquely ours.

That will be too much for most. Indeed, it’s a mistake to assume that in order to have a mind one has to have a mind that is like human minds. So let’s just say that, according to the evidence, it’s not obviously ridiculous to invite you, the human, to imagine yourself as an elephant. There’s some biological justification for what sounds like a whimsical, sentimental literary device. You and the elephant both have minds, wrought from the same stuff. And your minds engage with the world using the same devices. Your neurological hardware differs only in sensitivity: sodium and potassium surge in the same way through the same molecular gates when you and the elephant step on a nail; the same ancient hormones mediate pleasure, anger and stress. “If you prick us,” ask the elephants (using a chromatic orchestra of sounds, and well over 100 distinct body movements), “do we not bleed?” Indeed they do.

We can be cautiously Beatrix-Pottery with elephants. When the temporal glands near their eyes stream in circumstances that, for us, would be emotional, they’re crying. When a bereaved elephant mother carries her dead baby round on her tusks, or trails miserably behind the herd for weeks, her head hanging down, she’s grieving. When other elephants sit for hours around the body of a dead elephant, they’re mourning. When they cover an elephant corpse with soil or vegetation, or move elephant bones, they’re being reverential. When they cover a dead human, or build a protective wall of sticks around a wounded human, they’re showing an empathic acknowledgment of our shared destiny that we’d do well to learn. These, dear reductionists, are, as you would put it, the most parsimonious hypotheses.

 ‘You’d smell water miles away and the flowers at your feet.’ Photograph: Simon Eeman/Alamy Stock Photo

If elephants have minds, and minds (as seems likely) can extend beyond the brains in which we conventionally assume they’re situated, we’d expect them to tune into distant elephants, and perhaps into the minds of other species too. There are some tantalising hints that they can. Safina was told by a keeper at a Kenyan elephant sanctuary that the resident elephants knew, from distances well beyond the reach of ordinary senses, that other elephants were on the way – just as Kalahari bushmen know, from 50 miles away, just what a hunting party has killed, and when it will return. When the elephant whisperer Lawrence Anthony died, two groups of elephants that he’d rescued came to his house on two consecutive days. They hadn’t visited for a year.

Perhaps one of the reasons we’re so keen to deny non-human creatures minds, consciousness and personhood is that, if they’re people, they’re embarrassingly better people than we are. They build better communities; they live at peace with themselves and aren’t, unlike us, actively psychopathic towards other species. They know, and take account of, a great deal more information about the natural world than we do.

Back to the shamanic fantasy: you’re a city elephant. You’ll inhabit the city much more intensely and satisfactorily than most of its human denizens. All your senses will be turned fully on. You won’t, like most woefully unsensual humans, use only your eyes, and then translate the visual images into self-referential abstractions with only a slight and dysfunctional relationship to the real world. You’ll be much more properly local than any cockney, New Yorker or MadrileƱo, though you call Africa your home. You’ll know far more of the city than any geographer, historian, zoologist, botanist, policeman or lover. By trying to become an elephant, you might become a much more thriving human.

Be careful, though. You’re likely to end up dead because someone wants a couple of your teeth.