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business models, strategies and technologies

Reconsidering the F-word

Breaking the profanity barrier in a natural science romp – and revelling in a bookshop’s intellectual maze

Ten Million Aliens by Simon Barnes is an entertainingly erudite romp through the weird and whacky wonderfulness of the animal kingdom – thought-provoking but not too nerdy. Ideal for bedtime reads of a few chapters guaranteed to make the mind switch channels from the day’s mental endeavours.


Somehow it also re-awoke childhood echoes of My Family and Other Animals, the autobiographical work by naturalist Gerald Durrell, recounting the halcyon childhood years he spent on the Greek island of Corfu between 1935 and 1939. I think this Penguin classic (yes, Penguin Classics came much later!) was read out loud to us at school, and it’s only after this Simon Barnes experience half a century later that I’m suddenly remembering the experience and also realising what an effect it ended up having on my subsequent writing style.

But it’s not really discourses rooted in the animal kingdom that are the point of all this.

From gobsmacker expletive to gentle adjective

The F word (not “fat”, nor “feminism” – the other one) has been on the naughty list all my life. I spent a big dollop of parental years earnestly convincing various sprogs to at least be exceedingly careful about using it, and to be judicious about context. But at the same time, I have to guiltily and hypocritically admit that I myself revel in using this forceful gobsmacker as a singularly effective expletive to demonstrate force, commitment and eagerness (though not in the boardroom or any such venues).

What Simon Barnes here succeeded in doing (page 321, etc.), with a deft and probably unintentional sleight of hand, was to elegantly transmute the word from a condemnation-laden expletive (refined to the ultimate by Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It) to a subtly well-considered adjective that has vastly different connotations and a much more introspective gentleness – “f***-me” as an adjective. As in “f***-me moments of sheer wonder”. And for that, sir, I thank you.

In terms of earth-shattering innovation this may not rank alongside inventing the wheel or cracking nuclear fusion, but it did make me think and rethink one particularly contemporary taboo. And rethinking given assumptions is what this blog is all about.

Chipping away at classification

On the surface, Ten Million Aliens may only be a “lightweight” book by a British journalist who also reports on tennis and cricket (note the “put-down” inherent in this use of the journo moniker – apologies, sir). But it seems part of a whole genre of books that have been bringing good writing, skilful punditry and solid scientific knowledge to the once-drier realms of non-fiction (A Short History of Nearly Everything by Bill Bryson, The Incredible Unlikeliness of Being by Alice Roberts, The Fabric of the Cosmos by Brian Greene and Gut by Giulia Enders spring to mind).

But this book also achieved the big  feat of rekindling my interest in the monumental intellectual challenges and convolutions of Finnegans Wake and Ulysses by James Joyce. That is no mean achievement. And for that, too, I thank you, sir.

An emporium of empowerment

My jaunt through Mr. Barnes’ musings would never have happened had it not been for Politikkens Boghal bookshop on Town Hall Square in Copenhagen. This hallowed establishment is my ultimate justification for the value of traditional bricks-and-mortar business. It’s a bookshop where I can almost always be sure of discovering exciting books that I would never otherwise have dreamed of considering buying – but it’s not just the books. it’s also new topics, new subjects and new tangents. Books and angles that I would never have considered looking for or embarking on without having seen them before me and browsing through them with hand and eye. This gets to places Amazon cannot reach.

I can honestly say that this one bookshop has done more for my intellectual development (high-fallutin’ word for Joe Bloggs here!) than most of my fancy education. It’s an establishment that I consciously, actively and viscerally look forward to visiting. There aren’t many shops or companies I can say that about – reminds me of the iconic “refreshing parts other beers can’t reach” advert.

Unfortunately for this venerable Copenhagen bookshop, all this goodwill doesn’t wholly translate into sales spikes every time I cross their threshold. Any such visit usually requires major purchasing restraint – I’d have arms like a gorilla if I had to carry home all the books I’m tempted to buy, and I’d need a new house to accommodate all the bookshelves. Don’t talk to me about e-books – somehow there seems to be a business opportunity lurking here …