Syntagma Digital
Editor, John Evans

Sherlock and I


I was pleasantly surprised recently to discover that my first book shared a publisher with Sherlock Holmes (ie Sir Arthur Conan Doyle).

George Newnes also published Tit-Bits (don’t go there!) whose occasional contributor, Alfred Harmsworth, founded The Daily Mail. It’s amazing what you turn up when you start digging.

My book — stifle that yawn — was on technical writing and was the first thing I did after university. Like most hopelessly dedicated writers I find I can scribble some thousands of words on any subject that I know nothing about, say, botulism.

Of course, one prefers the topics closest to one’s heart, in my case, psychology and mysticism. So why write a book on technical writing, which I didn’t even know existed as a separate subject? It was a bit of a misunderstanding actually, a pattern that was to repeat itself in later years… often to my considerable advantage.

The first job I did was advertised as “Writer Wanted”. Great, I thought, just up my street.

At the interview the first question I was asked was “Do you know Atlas?”

I replied, “Yes, I’ve got one at home.”

“You clearly don’t then! Never mind, we’ll soon teach you. It’s only got a thousand words and they are all in the Oxford dictionary.”

It was explained that Atlas was a drastically cut down version of English comprising mainly technical terms strung together with the bare minimum of connecting tissue. Shakespeare it is not.

I was intrigued, so accepted the offer. The work itself was so boring, I decided to write a book in the intervals, of which there were many. Hence my first published title was Technical Writing, which was commissioned by Newnes. Hi Sherlock!

I couldn’t resist adding some purple passages to the book which must have confused the engineers trying to make sense of it. The section on style of writing quite perplexed a few of them. Here’s part of it:

There exists a considerable body of opinion which believes that technical English is a subset of the language with only a tenuous dependence on the real thing. The idea is that such texts as are written would be immune from misinterpretation and could convey technical descriptions in man- or machine-readable form. … It remains a strange phenomenon that technological man, with all his complex artefacts, should look to the future in terms of the palaeolithic past.

Despite that, they have made impressive strides lately among those who believe that technology and its implementation is enough to guarantee human happiness. They have certainly struck a chord with the stereotypical engineer who is “a whizz with wires and things” despite his semi-illiteracy. The reply to this tendency lies in a statement by the French historian, Renan: “La verite consiste dans les nuances” — “Truth consists in shades of meaning”.

It went down a treat and I was soon looking for a new job. Life just isn’t fair sometimes. But at least I was now a published author.

PS: And, yes, I know the title should be “Sherlock and me”, but “I” sounds a lot grander, even if grammatically incorrect. Grammar isn’t everything!

John Evans

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DIARY: Stormy weather, Apostolic Succession, Local rags, Poppycock Watch: Penguins, Profundity of the Week

The River Exe in flood

As I write this, the wind is screaming past my office window, rain slashing into the glass. Our major river, just 200 yards away, is brown and angry and lapping at the top of the flood defences. It doesn’t bode well.

There was catastrophic flooding here in the late 1960s which prompted the building of substantial preventative barriers along the river banks. The problem is, they were built to defend against a one-in-40 year emergency. By my reckoning they are well past their timeout.

The Council is reported to be trying to raise money to finance new works aimed at a one-in-100 year episode. Given the nature of official response times, that will not be soon. It will take another disaster to get things moving fast. Not much breath is being held around here.

If David Cameron needs any incentive to slice away at the grotesque European Union budget, let him consider how much we need that money here in Devon.

Keep it in the family, Dave!

* * * * *

I have never believed in the concept of Apostolic Succession — that someone appointed by their predecessor carries a special mark or mission to succeed them.

Most religions do this. Leading Buddhists are said to be able to trace their spiritual lineage all the way back to Gautama Buddha 2500 years ago, despite the many holes in the early lists of enlightened teachers.

One can see that a reputed connection with the Founder, however tenuous, might add a little glitz and authenticity to a sitting leader, but in practice it has never guaranteed success, either in religion or in politics.

Thus the rejection of the appointment of women bishops by the Church of England Synod on roughly those grounds — women can never be part of an Apostolic lineage because they weren’t there at the beginning — leaves me uneasy about the future of a great institution that is failing to adapt to the present moment.

Ministry in the Church is mainly about empathy, not intellectual jousting; dealing with people in trouble and distress, not putting an elegant case before one’s peers.

The difference is profound and women are much better at it than men, which probably accounts for the fact that half of priests are thought to be homosexual.

In any case, the tale has little truth in it. We know that Rome excised women out of the early Jesus story, especially the enigmatic Mary Magdalene (almost certainly Mary of Bethany, not a woman of the night), who has her own gospel in the Gnostic tradition and was said to be the best, even the highest, of the apostles.

We’ll never know the true story, but we can take the broadest and most generous view. Why would the Almighty object to that?

Time for a change, surely?

* * * * *

Daily Mail, has sold its local and regional newspapers to a consortium led by ex-Mirror man, David Montgomery. Thus the illustrious name of Northcliffe has been lost and “Local World” arises like a phoenix.

Northcliffe’s list of titles was valued at £1.2 billion just months ago, but were sold for a paltry £110 million, showing how their profitability has tumbled off a precipice in the online age.

Indeed, the daily local papers are to be replaced with weekly ones, something that has already happened in the West Country. A few, such as the 150-year old Western Morning News remain, but for how long?

Montgomery has been speaking of a string of quality websites, reminiscent of the big dailies, gradually taking over from the printed page.

Although I’m a website man myself, I do appreciate a real newspaper, hot off the press, for more comfortable reading at the weekends. That’s when monstrous property supplements dominate the news and features sections. In the Sundays a dozen other bits and pieces are added too.

There’s no ideal solution, but the bottom line is that they must all be profitable. Syntagma wishes David Montgomery well, but wonders if he’s more romantic than visionary.

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
Pearson, publisher of the Financial Times and various academic strands, has issued a trading statement confirming that it has reached agreement to combine Penguin Books with American Publisher, Random House. In other words, to sell it to the German media giant, Bertelsmann.

So passes one of the last great British publishing houses, thrown into the global melting pot where bottom line counts for more than quality.

Like local papers, national publishers are becoming treasures of the past. So long as Penguin maintains its immense backlist, we can just about endure it, I suppose.

* * * * *

Profundity of the week
“An atheist is a man with no invisible means of support.”
John Buchan, author of The Thirty-nine Steps and later Lord Tweedsmuir, Governor General of Canada. He was also editor of The Spectator, around 1900 — bet you didn’t know that!

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

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DIARY: The rise of Sigma 4, Poppycock Watch: Another amorphous blob, Mail it, Waiting for Godling, Profundity of the Week


Returning after a short break to find pandemonium reigning across the land, it’s hard to know where to start.

Such are the overwhelming tensions in the world right now, it might be restful to begin with the Yawn of the Week: the return of the Higgs Boson.

Yes, everybody’s favourite imaginary “particle” is back with a bang, so to speak. Never has a speck of dust caused such a commotion.

Those very excitable folk over at the Large Hadron Collider in Geneva have teamed up with the obsolete Tevatron Collider in America to scale the heights of Sigma 4 delirium.

What is Sigma 4, you’re asking? It’s a step on the road to Sigma 5.

Er … and that is basically just a number on a list where 5 is at the top. Quantum science really is easy when you pay attention.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the Higgs. This minute smudge (theoretical, at this stage) has, it is claimed, been discovered at last. At least some people think so. Others are less sure, and most are frankly incredulous, including this diarist.

Their last “discovery”, you may remember, was that neutrinos could travel faster than light, something totally verboten in this universe, at least by the demigod Einstein.

Their blushes were spared by the useful discovery of a faulty connector plug. The world sighed with relief. We couldn’t have speeding neutrinos joyriding all over the universe, could we? Mein Gott!

But back to the Higgs. Tomorrow something will be announced. Nobody quite knows yet, which gives the impression that they’re busking somewhat.

Maybe they need another faulty plug. Can anyone help?

* * * * *

Poppycock Watch
These are interesting times: a new banking scandal of Wagnerian proportions before the last one is mended; the House of Commons seething over David Cameron’s serial flip-flops on an inevitable EU referendum — can any man hold so many conflicting opinions at one time? — and a general sense of monumental disintegration.

It’s beginning to get serious.

My first inclination was that David Cameron is not up to being a Prime Minister for our times and should go. On further in-depth consideration, a more nuanced view prevailed: David Cameron is not up to being a Prime Minister for our times and should go before the end of the month.

It peeves me to say so since I began as a staunch supporter of the man. He’s articulate, presentable, pleasant and, at first glance, eminently prime-ministerial. His problem is, he has no settled views of his own, which indicates a deficiency of character.

To coin a phrase: like a cushion, he assumes the shape of the last person who sat on him. A major flaw in the armoury.

He appears to relish the Lib Dem element in the government because it allows him to be vague on every issue, and even change tack in mid stream. In short, he’s the most exasperating leader we’ve had since Tony Blair.

If only he could see it, the electorate yearns for a clutch of decisive policy stances from their government now — not after the election — especially on membership of the European Union and an end to soggy coalition rule.

Britain needs strong leadership, not an amorphous blob. If we did, we could draft in the Higgs Boson.

* * * * *

The astonishing success of the Daily Mail continues. At the time of a brutal contraction of print journalism, the paper seems to transcend the zeitgeist.

Our small, riverside local newsagent was packed to the gunnels with copies on Saturday morning. Apart from the normal pile in the racks, there were two heaps on the floor and yet more on either side of the till.

I counted just six copies of our daily regional paper on the shelves. Interestingly, it’s owned by Northcliffe, part of the Daily Mail group. Such disparity says a lot about modern demographics as well as tastes.

On top of that, we read that the Mail Online is now the most visited newspaper website in the world, even in America, a notoriously insular market.

A recent site I edited, with a largely American readership, had lengthy comment threads dominated by stories from the Mail Online. The commenters were mostly intelligent professionals.

True, the juicy, bikini-clad celebrity stories in the right-hand column has a lot to do with it, but in these dismal times, any success is to be heartily applauded.

* * * * *

Do you get the impression, as I do, that we are all waiting for something to happen? Something pretty nasty.

But what?

* The Eurozone could collapse in a heap, cutting a swathe through dozens of banking dominoes.

* Iran could use the West’s current distraction to create mayhem in its sphere of influence by shutting the Straits of Hormuz and blocking the world’s oil supplies.

* A major Middle-Eastern country could descend into chaos.

I regret having to announce that the worst has already happened:

Tony Blair wants to be Prime Minister again.

* * * * *

Profundity of the Week
“Time is what keeps the light from reaching us. There is no greater obstacle to God than time.” Meister Eckhart, 13th century Catholic mystic.

John Evans

… who is the author of The Eternal Quest for Immortality: Is it staring you in the face? Available from Amazon and all good booksellers.

A Mystic in the Modern World is coming soon.

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Political Snippet: Education is one area the Coalition must get right


Watching PMQs an hour ago, I was struck, as I often am, by how many politicians are stuck in grooves carved in stone decades ago.

Dinosaurs — a word used by the Prime Minister in another context — are alive and well and thriving in all parties, but especially Labour, and particularly in education seen as a class issue, not a learning opportunity.

Yesterday, I read an article on education by Bel Mooney of such poignancy and sense of loss, that I believe it should be read by all politicians across the House and beyond:

The gamekeeper’s girl aged nine, her magic century-old exercise book and humbling lesson for today’s schools

If that isn’t a game-changer I don’t know what is. Backed up by hard evidence, its message is unanswerable, even perhaps by the bigots in the educational establishment.

So let’s all get behind Michael Gove’s Free Schools and Academies initiative, while simultaneously urging him to go even farther and faster.

For education is one area the Coalition must get right.

John Evans

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DIARY: Big Bangs galore, Nobel peace, Tory party at prayer, Sage and onion, Swivelling eyeballs, Lost in symbols

Mouse Whenever I write about CERN’s Large Hadron Collider, it’s impossible not to laugh at the scale of the mess this £6 billion pile of junk has produced.

You may remember it was turned on in September last year, in the presence of Andrew Marr no less, and was immediately shut down when it threatened to burst into flames. Mind you, considering that some people thought it would consume the whole universe, I suppose we got off lightly.

Naturally, it hasn’t worked since.

When I last wrote about the contraption, I was tempted to say, “all they need now is to find Osama bin Laden has been working there for five years”.

No, far too implausible.

Well, we are now told that a nuclear physicist at CERN, working in the atomic energy department, is a prominent member of Al Qaeda’s “North African wing”, and has been linked to an attempt at nuclear terrorism in Britain.

The Large Hadron Collider at CERN aims to “recreate the conditions at the time of the Big Bang”.

Be careful what you wish for.

* * * * *

American Presidents should never be given the Nobel Peace prize whatever the circumstances. The job involves the post of Commander-in-Chief of the world’s most powerful military forces, as well as its largest nuclear arsenal. At any one time, this immense power will be in theatre somewhere in the world.

Semantically, it’s just possible to claim that military might is a force for peace rather than war if used wisely and sparingly. That would be reinforced if it’s not operated as a silent weapon to browbeat less powerful states.

The controller of the world’s Sword of Damocles should not in practice be a candidate for such a prize.

A President Obama with a Nobel Peace Prize in tow will be like Sampson without his hair, bound by psychological chains never ever to flex the superpower’s muscles in a straight confrontation.

That, in itself, is a dangerous position to be placed in.

* * * * *

Someone in my position should never mention other writers’ typos or spelling mistakes. I make too many myself.

Occasionally, though, it’s hard to resist. Take this blooper on page 4 of Saturday’s Daily Mail (print version):

“… the Shadow Chancellor’s plans to raise the retirement age to 66 ten years ahead of Labour and institute a one-year pray freeze …”

I would not be at all surprised if the Church of England resigns its role as “the Tory party at prayer”.

* * * * *

David Cameron made an interesting speech to the Conservative Party Conference on Thursday.

It induced both wild enthusiasm and torpid shrugs across the commentariat. Some loved it, some scoffed, even on the Tory side of the argument.

I hate political triangulation. Even a small amount ruins a dish, like too much sage in a pudding. It’s a common trick. A politician faces both ways at once to gather votes from opposing groups. Thus Gordon Brown says one thing to his conference, but the opposite to an audience of bankers in the City.

Triangulation is fundamentally dishonest, it’s soon spotted by the electorate, and produces increasingly diminishing returns as time passes.

David Cameron spoiled what was largely an excellent speech on Tory values by refusing to see the flaws in the NHS and the wildly expensive Sure Start scheme.

I’m sure the focus groups warned him off touching them. I recognize too that he can’t do it all in his first Parliament as Prime Minister. But a promise of improvements to both services by cutting waste and bureaucracy, would have chimed with the rest of his message and not left an overwhelming taste of sage in the mouth.

* * * * *

At the risk of being dubbed “swivel-eyed” I can’t resist another mention of the Lisbon Treaty. Note the new demonic tag applied to anyone unafraid of pointing out the fascism inherent in the latest Brussels power grab.

While I was disappointed by the small part Lisbon played in the Leader’s speech at Manchester, I’m now persuaded by fellow swiveller Daniel Hannan’s analysis of the situation, backed up by inside information from Cameron and Hague.

We must assume that the Czech President, Vaclav Klaus, will have signed a slightly modified treaty before the British election. To wait in hope gives up our powers of action.

Hannan hints that it may be no bad thing, because a subsequent negotiation could repatriate powers stretching back to the Maastricht Treaty in John Major’s day.

The danger is that an inexperienced team may not be tough enough in the bargaining rounds, conceding much that needs no concession. In particular, we should demand opt-outs from the Presidency and all foreign affairs, including the proposed High Representative, the diplomatic corps, and the EU army.

Trade should return to these shores too. Negotiating our own trade deals around the world would add a lot to Britain’s prestige and bring back a fleetness of foot to UK business.

Needless to say, legal issues, the City, and social matters need also to be brought back into the fold.

I think many of us would settle for such a deal.

* * * * *

Dan Brown’s latest novel The Lost Symbol, practically drowns in symbols. Wherever you look, there they are, symbols galore. There’s no rest from the little critters. Every wall is plastered with them, monuments are symbolic in themselves, the villain of the piece is tattooed from head to foot in symbols.

It’s a good job the hero of the tale is Professor of Symbology at Harvard University. Without the Prof the book would be incomprehensible.

It’s a wonderful romp, though. The action never stops, and while some passages are almost unbearably gruesome, you’ll be hooked to the end.

Of course, if I were to tell you what “the lost symbol” actually is, it would save you a lot of time and a little money.

The lost symbol is … a common household object.

Work it out for yourselves.

John Evans

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