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CONTEXTUALLY YOURS (article first published : 2001-11-2)

Let’s begin by tipping our hats to V S (Sir Vidia) Naipaul, who has joined the ranks of British winners of the Nobel Prize for literature. There have been only eight British winners of the prize, and only three of them were native-born Englishmen – William Golding (1983), Winston Churchill (1953) and Bertrand Russell (1950). Naipaul himself is a Trinidad-born Hindu Brahmin, but he is a heartfelt devotee of European life and English letters; he lives in the Wiltshire countryside.

I confess that I have always found him difficult to read, but I have a great admiration for him nonetheless. According to a Weekly Telegraph interview: “he has infuriated Tony Blair and his government by calling them plebeians for dumbing down culture and learning in Britain.” Accusing Labour of cultural vandalism, he said “It is terrible, this very plebeian culture, an aggressively plebeian culture that celebrates itself for being plebeian. For the first time in 50 years of living here [in England] I feel depressed by a government. I am depressed by their dreadful use of rhetoric, the misuse of language.”

Well, Sir Vidia, many of us in South Africa know exactly how you feel, and your words are music to our ears. But you think you’ve got troubles? Perhaps I can cheer you up a little by giving you a glimpse of what you are missing by not living here. I am indebted to the columnist Hogarth in our Sunday Times for what follows.

The Standing Committee on Home Affairs was trying to account for the failure of the Director-General to sign his contract. It was suggested that the simplest solution would be to invite him to come and explain himself. The chairman of the Committee, Aubrey Mokoena, objected strongly: “Don’t mix the issues. Don’t throw everything into the pot and make a potpourri. I don’t want Home Affairs to be a potpourri; I don’t want a salad situation.” To invite the Chairman would be “to shoot like a thunderbolt.” He added that it would be “an imbroglio.”

There is a real talent at work here; making an idiot of yourself in three languages can’t be easy. I’m tempted to offer Mr Mokoena the Naipaul Prize for Dreadful Use of Rhetoric – Tony Blair and his government are mere beginners in comparison – but the competition from Mr Mokoena’s fellow politicians is pretty fierce, and we don’t want to act prematurely.

The word potpourri is interesting. We usually understand it to mean “a fragrant mixture of dried petals, leaves, spices etc”, though it can also mean “a mixed stew”. In this latter meaning it is a synonym for the less-familiar olla podrida, and the original French and Spanish terms mean exactly the same: “rotten (putrid) pot.” The mind shies away from thinking what sort of stew such a pot might have contained, and it’s certainly a far cry from the genteel ambience of fragrant dried petals. Perhaps the stew started out as “well-hung” venison.

As for imbroglio, it is defined as “a confused mass or heap; an intricate or perplexing situation, a tangle” – not a bad description of Mr Mokoena’s own adventure on the wilder shores of language. Nice one, Mr Chairman.

Contextually yours, Ulysses Online




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