November 10, 2013 § 1 Comment

IN SHORT: Non-Fiction: 09 November 2013

AMSTERDAM: A History of The World’s Most Liberal City by Russell Shorto (Little, Brown, 358pp; £25)

“Amsterdam is a pokey place”, Shorto admits, but in comparison with bigger, brasher cities, it has traditionally been a testing ground for freedom, a beacon for political liberalism, religious tolerance and social equality. It has also always been a city long in its cultural and artistic reach. On the other hand … Shorto’s tender, truthful love letter to his adopted city admits that it has recently had a bit of trouble on all these fronts and grants that casual visitors translate them into free love and legal highs when they’re running about from one licensed brothel and hash bar to another. Even a mayor of Amsterdam has said “craziness is a value.” From the 1300s, when the first canals were constructed, the city has come to terms with the sea from which it derived its power and riches. Shorto’s lively book is true to its salty, contradictory character.

ANTI-UGLY: Excursions in English Architecture and Design by Gavin Stamp (Aurum, 260pp; £16.99)

If we are anti-ugly, we must first define beauty. Is it, in terms of architecture and landscape, the picturesque, the classical, the sublime? Or, since architectural historian Stamp spent a decade in Scotland, the simply bonny? They are all very different in the perception of the beholder, and Stamp is realistic enough to recognise that “today’s eyesore can become tomorrow’s masterpiece”. This collection of his unedited journalism, contributed from 2004 to the architecture and fine art magazine ‘Apollo’, mostly concern the Englishness of architecture and design. He makes an exception for the Gothic Revival sensibilities that informed the famous Eglinton Tournament in Ayrshire in 1839 because it inspired many of Stamp’s principal interests, especially Victorian architecture. He has been “banging on” about his enthusiasms, including railway stations, war memorials and churches for so long that he perceives elements of autobiography in these acute, erudite, elegant and amusing essays.

WHO TOUCHED BASE IN MY THOUGHT SHOWER? A Treasury of Unbearable Office Jargon by Steven Poole (Sceptre, 212pp; £9.99)

Steven Poole hauls the jargon words of business and bureaucracy out of context and interrogates them ruthlessly for meaning. Mostly, he finds non-meaning. That envelope you’re pushing is empty. He has linguistic sense and sensibility on his side when he objects to obfuscation by buzzwords. What‘s said in the office should stay in the office, but it doesn’t. It leaks; it goes viral; it is seized upon by journalists, politicians, spin doctors and celebrities, loose-talkers of all sorts. It is remarkable how jargon is deliberately power-driven, macho, energising. Perhaps office work is so dull that it has to be dramatised, dressed up as more important and urgent than it really is. There is a case for loose or ludic language, but overuse of jargon is like telling a joke too often. Listen, guys: a matrix is really only a spreadsheet. And bases are for baseball players. Live with it.

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