We have been hearing a great deal recently about the “Byzantine” constitution of the Liberal Democrat party. The Rennard affair has exposed how complex the machinery is and how difficult it is for the party leader to get anything done.
The Byzantine Empire – the Roman Empire of the Middle Ages – had a very bad press from historians until quite recently. Among the many undesirable features of this corrupt, decadent, priest-ridden absolutism, so we were told, were a top-heavy bureaucracy and a great deal of devious court intrigue. Hence, in a 20th-century usage, “Byzantine” signifies not just a fine style of architecture but a rotten style of government.
But there is another way of looking at it. The Greek-speaking eastern Roman Empire survived its western sister by nearly 1,000 years. It held back the tide of Islam in Asia for nearly six centuries, regaining territory after every setback, until it was crippled by the western stab in the back of the Fourth Crusade in 1204. How did it manage this remarkable feat? It was very good at turning economic strength into military and naval power, through the “thematic” system of military land tenure and other means. And one of the reasons it was able to do all that was that it was the only state in medieval Christendom with anything like a modern civil service.
You could argue that “Byzantine” should really be a byword for clever, efficient administration and heroic resilience in the face of adversity, but I don’t suppose that will happen soon.
Onions is onions: One of the crucial virtues of a good copy editor is a well-informed imagination. Last Saturday, the Magazine published a recipe for “Roast rack of deer with leek and potato stovies”. But reading the recipe, and imagining how one would cook the dish and what it would be like to eat, one soon realised that it was actually onion and potato stovies. No leeks mentioned.
It looks as if the writer changed his mind about which vegetable to use and forgot to change the heading, and an editor bunged the copy in without imagining the dish.
Unamusing: Our Tuesday story about the Public Accounts Committee report on the royal finances appeared under the following headline: “We are not amused: Queen told to rein in her spending.”
I wish people would drop this cliché about “We are not amused”. It is quite likely that Queen Victoria never said it, and to trot it out every time anything happens that might be displeasing to the Queen is not amusing at all.
On Tuesday we reported a day of evidence in the News of the World phone-hacking trial. A reporter told the court he had got a job after he told the editor how he could bring in exclusive stories. That, he said, was “the kerching moment”.
That set me wondering what the verb “kerch” might mean. Surely the word that mimics the ring of an old-fashioned mechanical cash register should be spelt with a hyphen: “ker-ching”.