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View from Vitalia: Of signs, stones and leaks

In the sixth instalment of his new blog, Vitali Vitaliev talks about political correctness and the importance of seemingly little things.

Little details can often speak volumes…

While driving home from Gatwick airport one rainy evening a couple of weeks ago, I saw in front of me a bright-yellow Roadworks sign, with unusual, from my point of view, wording. Instead of the habitual ‘MEN AT WORK AHEAD’, it ran simply: ‘WORKFORCE ON THE ROAD’.

The difference may not seem that huge, but for an Anglophile like me, who has always admired all those little and often quirky (read eccentric) signs (not just road signs) of Britishness, it was an unwelcome change, for one cannot imagine a sign like ‘MEN AT WORK AHEAD’ in any other English-speaking country (and I had visited most of them). You saw it – and immediately knew you were in England. So, call me weird, but to me that unsophisticated sign had become an undisputed symbol of Britishness, or Englishness, if you wish, alongside the Houses of Parliament, Westminster Abbey and red double-decker buses.

Well, we all know of course, why the old wording on the sign was changed. The reason is in just two letters – P and C, which stand for political correctness, a generally positive social phenomenon that has come to us from America. Sadly, like many other good things, PC is often taken to extremes. As a result, it gets distorted and becomes the opposite of what it was supposed to represent. The same super- politically correct effort has created such linguistic mongrels as ‘fireperson’ and ‘sportsperson’, instead of ‘fireman’ and ‘sportsman’;  the horribly tedious and somewhat unctuous ‘server’, instead of ‘waiter’ or ‘waitress’; insipidly neutral ‘performer’, instead of ‘actor’ and/or ‘actress’, and of course the slightly scary ‘workforce’ instead of ‘men’. 

No purist, I have nothing against referring to God as She (I actually quite like it), but I will never put up with monstrous and tongue-breaking ‘fireperson’ and ‘sportsperson’.  

Using politically correct neologisms is easy. Much easier than changing one’s misogynistic attitudes, say.  Just as replacing old door plates and street names in the former communist countries (as they are doing now in my native Ukraine) does not make them automatically democratic. I would even dare to assume that many of those who had been found guilty of sexual harassment and similar offences were happy to pay lip service to gender equality by saying ‘sportsperson’ and using – ungrammatically, yet politically correctly - ‘they’ instead of ‘he’ or ‘she’.

Not everything has been lost, however. The other day, I was thrilled to see on BBC TV News, a lovely young lady in smart Navy uniform interviewed in front of Buckingham Palace, where the Royal Navy (including the interviewee herself) was performing – for the first time since the reign of Elizabeth I – the famous Changing of the Guard ritual. “Able Seaman Alex Stacey”, ran the subtitles.

I sincerely hope that the editor of the programme was not immediately sacked for using the seemingly ‘male-chauvinist’ ‘Seaman’, instead of the politically correct ‘Seaperson’(!), or even ‘Sailor’.  Seeing Alex Stacey described as ‘Seaman’ hugely improved my mood and even made me hum to myself a song with a melodious, if a bit politically incorrect refrain. As someone who treasures his job and reputation, I am not telling you which song it was!

Just like ‘She’ appears to me the right pronoun to use when speaking about God, the same applies to the beautiful city of Venice, which I recently had a chance to visit briefly. My tongue simply would not turn (a nice Russian expression) to call Venice ‘it’, or ‘he’, let alone ‘they’.   

At some point during that visit, my attention was drawn to a huge pile of plastic rubbish: bottles, discarded cups, carrier bags and so on. This hillock of waste was in striking contrast with the famous Rialto Bridge, near which it was piled, and with Venice itself - precisely the intention of the local environmentalists, who chose the location deliberately. The sign on top of the pile read (in English): “More than 8 million tonnes of plastic makes its way into the oceans each year.”

I later found out that the Society of Marine Biologists was behind that powerful display.  The location could not be more telling and more appropriate, for Venice itself has suffered hugely from pollution, created largely by the millions of visitors it receives each year. A significant improvement was achieved recently after giant cruise ships were finally banned from entering  the Grand Canal and the adjoining parts of the Lagoon. I saw one such liner, MSC Musica, ‘parked’ in the Port, well outside the city centre. But even from there, that floating skyscraper totally dominated the fragile urban gem that is Venice by making by far the loudest architectural statement in its vicinity. It was like a piercing scream inside a Carthusian monastery.

All those man-made slugs, special rubbish-eating bacteria and other technological and biological ways of fighting waste are of course extremely important. Yet, just as theatre starts with a cloakroom, waste disposal must start with culture and ethics of each of us. On my way to work, it pains me to watch the drivers on A1M  motorway tossing rubbish thoughtlessly out of their car windows. At home, my mornings routinely start with picking up junk food wrappings and empty bottles, dropped the previous night by the passing pedestrians, from my own front garden… In short, as a favourite writer of mine once said: “It is commendable to fight for cleanliness, but it is often much more effective just to sweep the floor!”

Back to the importance of little things. And little objects too, although that particular one, discovered by my wife in Venice, was not actually that tiny. She found it on her plate while we were having dinner in a restaurant near the same Rialto Bridge. It was a medium-sized black gravel stone, carefully hidden under the layer of Spaghetti alle Vongole. Luckily, she spotted it in time, before it ended up on her fork and then in her mouth. Instead, it ended up in the above-mentioned pile of waste, to which we added it on the way back to the hotel. Before leaving the restaurant, I approached the chef, showed him the stone and advised him to include a new dish - Spaghetti alle Pietri – in his dinner menu (‘pietra’ is ‘stone’ in Italian).

That stone in the pasta was obviously a bad omen. On arriving home, we discovered that our boiler had leaked in our absence, and the house was flooded with stinking water. It took us over two hours to convince a plumber to come and see us (or rather our boiler). It was next to impossible, and – perhaps for the first time in my 30 years in the West – I felt like I was back in the USSR.  The voices answering different emergency numbers we called were the often same. They either demanded extravagant fees – enough to buy not just a new boiler but at times a new house too, or asked for our credit card details (which, as my bank has warned me repeatedly, should never be given to anyone on the phone). Modern technology seemed to be on the fraudsters’ side, and we could see countless plumbers’ websites transforming their contents in front of our eyes by adjusting to our search (“Our reliable 24-hour plumbers are at your service” etc – not so!).

In short, we felt helpless and hopeless, as if under siege, being in the hands of  that mysterious and omnipotent plumbing mafia. Until… Until, almost by accident, I found the number of the company called LeakGeeks (I just liked the name). A polite, intelligent and soft-spoken young man turned up on our doorstep in half an hour. And another half hour later, the boiler was fixed. For one tenth of the price, demanded by vulture plumbers over the phone and no call fee. Thus my belief in humankind (and in Britain) was restored. Due to that seeming little thing – a leaking boiler!

In the end, as usual, another reader’s story from the emails received in response to my broken lightbulbs mini-quiz, summed up in issue 11 of E&T magazine. Today it comes from my long-time correspondent Denis Sharpe:

One day my father went to start his car and discovered the battery had been stolen. Because of a shortage of lead (and most other things), when buying a new battery one was supposed to hand in the old one for recycling. If you didn't you were charged more for the battery. I seem to remember a figure of £12 which at the time would have represented about two weeks wages. The garage actually sold him an old failed battery for five shillings (25p) which he then handed in to the same garage to buy a new battery at the reduced price. The police did eventually recover his stolen battery but by then he'd already bought the new one.

Incidentally on car batteries, at one time they used to fail slowly, gradually getting worse and worse and less able to crank the engine. Many dodges were employed to get a car with a failing battery started (taking out half the plugs, boiling water poured over the induction manifold, draining the radiator the night before and refilling in the morning with hot water). These days batteries seem to fail suddenly, working perfectly for years then one morning they are dead.”


I will now be on leave for a couple of weeks or so, but will be back with you soon.








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