Against all odds

中国日报网 2013-04-09 14:04



Against all odds

Reader question:

Please explain this sentence, particularly against all odds: Against all odds, it looks like he is headed for a full recovery (from the leg injury).

My comments:

Against all odds means against all expectations.

“He” broke his leg. After performing surgery on him, doctors said he would not be able to, say, walk properly again, let alone run and play like before. The doctors knew what they were talking about. They were speaking from experience, from the record books, taking into consideration all similar cases about leg injuries etc. and so forth.

And yet, he appears to be making a full recovery, and that is to everyone’s surprise.

That’s what it means to do something “against all odds” – achieving something when people don’t expect you to.

Odd is anything unusual, i.e. something different from what is normal or expected. For instance, we say someone looks odd today. We mean to say that they’re wearing an odd-looking pair of trousers for instance, or acting strangely in general.

We also talk of something as an “odd happening”, and that means something like that doesn’t usually happen. Snow in April for instance seldom happens here in Beijing. If it does, it’s an odd happening, an unusual occurrence.

Oh, here’s a passage from Wuthering Heights, approaching the end of the book, which I read the other day (not for the first time):

We buried him, to the scandal of the whole neighbourhood, as he wished. Earnshaw and I, the sexton, and six men to carry the coffin, comprehended the whole attendance. The six men departed when they had let it down into the grave: we stayed to see it covered. Hareton, with a streaming face, dug green sods, and laid them over the brown mould himself: at present it is as smooth and verdant as its companion mounds—and I hope its tenant sleeps as soundly. But the country folks, if you ask them, would swear on the Bible that he walks: there are those who speak to having met him near the church, and on the moor, and even within this house. Idle tales, you’ll say, and so say I. Yet that old man by the kitchen fire affirms he has seen two on ’em looking out of his chamber window on every rainy night since his death: and an odd thing happened to me about a month ago. I was going to the Grange one evening—a dark evening, threatening thunder—and, just at the turn of the Heights, I encountered a little boy with a sheep and two lambs before him; he was crying terribly; and I supposed the lambs were skittish, and would not be guided.

‘What is the matter, my little man?’ I asked.

‘There’s Heathcliff and a woman yonder, under t’ nab,’ he blubbered, ‘un’ I darnut pass ’em.’

I saw nothing; but neither the sheep nor he would go on so I bid him take the road lower down. He probably raised the phantoms from thinking, as he traversed the moors alone, on the nonsense he had heard his parents and companions repeat. Yet, still, I don’t like being out in the dark now; and I don’t like being left by myself in this grim house: I cannot help it; I shall be glad when they leave it, and shift to the Grange.

Anyways, take “the odds” as a collection of calculations and estimations about the chances of something occurring – It is a term most often used in the betting game. The odds represent the chances of something happening or not. If the odds are high, then something’s likely to happen. If the odds are low or long, as they say, then it’s very unlikely to happen.

Against the odds?

Once again, unlikely.

Here, I’ve picked two media examples of doing something against the odds – both examples are from The Guardian and, oddly enough, both involving Margret Thatcher, the Iron Lady who passed away on Monday:

1. against the odds:

She is firmly a part of Hollywood's liberal elite, who describes herself as part of “the Left”, but Meryl Streep has confessed developing a strong admiration for Margaret Thatcher after playing her in a film.

Streep – who is in the running for her third Oscar for her role in The Iron Lady – said playing the role had given her a greater respect for a woman who succeeded in a male-dominated world.

“I was aware of her very early on and, even though her policies were not popular, to say the least, in my circles, people were kind of thrilled that a woman had become leader,” she told the Radio Times.

“When I was in college the professions open to women were so few – there were very few women that went to law school, no one dreamed of being a corporate head, it was out of the question.

“You could, perhaps, become leader of a company, maybe if they made make-up. You could be editor of a magazine but only if it was a woman’s magazine ... that’s the world that Margaret Thatcher entered and then rose right to the very top and it’s extraordinary.”

Streep is active in the campaign to build a National Women’s History Museum in Washington and at a recent fundraiser quoted Thatcher: “If you want something spoken about, ask a man. If you want it done, ask a woman”.

Playing the former prime minister had made her respect what Thatcher achieved against the odds, she said. “The more I learned, the more my view of her changed. Wherever you stand on her policies, and many people didn’t like her, the scale of her influence and the fact that she got things done was extraordinary,” she said. “And the mental, physical, spiritual energy that it took to live every one of those days as head of the government was phenomenal. It’s really humbling to consider that she was at 10 Downing Street for ten-and-a-half years. I admire that achievement. I stand in awe of it, even though I didn’t agree with a lot of her policies.”

- Meryl Streep develops admiration for Margaret Thatcher after starring role, The Guardian, December 27, 2011.

2. against all odds:

The first time I met Margaret Thatcher, I swear she was wearing gloves. The place was her office at the Department of Education, then in Curzon Street. Maybe my memory is fanciful. Perhaps she had just come inside.

But without any question, sitting behind her desk, she was wearing a hat. The time was 1973. This was the feminine creature who, two years later, was leader of the Conservative party. Steely, certainly. The milk snatcher reputation absorbed and lived with. Lecturing me about the comprehensive schools, of which she created more than any minister before or since. But a woman who, at the time, thought that chancellor was the top mark at which she might aim. Conscious of being a woman, and incapable of pretending otherwise. Indeed a person – with a chemistry that repelled almost all the significant males in Edward Heath’s cabinet – who could never become the party leader.

Being a woman is undoubtedly one of the features, possibly the most potent, that makes her ascent to power memorable, 25 years on, in a way that applied to no man. Harold Macmillan, Alec Douglas-Home, Heath: they seem, by comparison, evanescent figures.

Thatcher is remembered for her achievements, but more for a presence, which was wrapped up with being a woman. Several strong women on the continent have risen to the top, but this British woman, in Britain of all places, became a phenomenon, first, through her gender.

The woman, however, changed. The gender remained, its artefacts deployed with calculation. But it was overlaid by the supposedly masculine virtues, sometimes more manly than the men could ever assemble. She became harder than hard. Sent Bobby Sands to an Irish hero’s grave without a blink. Faced down trade union leaders after her early years – apprentice years, when Jim Callaghan’s Britain was falling apart – in which the commonest fear was that the little lady would not be able to deal with them across the table.

Thatcher became a supremely self-confident leader. No gloves, or hats, except for royalty or at funerals, but feet on the table, whisky glass at hand, into the small hours of solitude, for want of male cronies in the masculine world she dominated for all her 11 years in power.

Draining down those 11 years to their memorable essence, what does one light upon? What is really left by Thatcher to history? What will not be forgotten? What, in retrospect, seems creative and what destructive? Are there, even, things we look back on with regret for their passing? Would we like her back?

I think by far her greatest virtue, in retrospect, is how little she cared if people liked her. She wanted to win, but did not put much faith in the quick smile. She needed followers, as long as they went in her frequently unpopular directions. This is a political style, an aesthetic even, that has disappeared from view. The machinery of modern political management – polls, consulting, focus groups – is deployed mainly to discover what will make a party and politician better liked, or worse, disliked. Though the Thatcher years could also be called the Saatchi years, reaching a new level of presentational sophistication in the annals of British politics, they weren’t about getting the leader liked. Respected, viewed with awe, a conviction politician, but if liking came into it, that was an accident.

This is a style whose absence is much missed. It accounted for a large part of the mark Thatcher left on Britain. Her unforgettable presence, but also her policy achievements. Mobilising society, by rule of law, against the trade union bosses was undoubtedly an achievement. For the most part, it has not been undone. Selling public housing to the tenants who occupied it was another, on top of the denationalisation of industries and utilities once thought to be ineluctably and for ever in the hands of the state. Neither shift of ownership and power would have happened without a leader prepared to take risks with her life. Each now seems banal. In the prime Thatcher years they required a severity of will to carry through that would now, if called on, be wrapped in so many cycles of deluding spin as to persuade us it hadn't really happened.

These developments set a benchmark. They married the personality and belief to action. Britain was battered out of the somnolent conservatism, across a wide front of economic policies and priorities, that had held back progress and, arguably, prosperity. This is what we mean by the Thatcher revolution, imposing on Britain, for better or for worse, some of the liberalisation that the major continental economies know, 20 years later, they still need. I think on balance, it was for the better, and so, plainly did Thatcher’s chief successor, Tony Blair. If a leader’s record is to be measured by the willingness of the other side to decide it cannot turn back the clock, then Thatcher bulks big in history.

But this didn’t come without a price. Still plumbing for the essence, we have to examine other bits of residue. Much of any leader’s record is unremarkable dross, and Thatcher was no exception. But keeping the show on the road is what all of them must first attend to, because there’s nobody else to do it. Under this heading, Thatcher left a dark legacy that, like her successes, has still not disappeared behind the historical horizon. Three aspects of it never completely leave my head.

The first is what changed in the temper of Britain and the British. What happened at the hands of this woman’s indifference to sentiment and good sense in the early 1980s brought unnecessary calamity to the lives of several million people who lost their jobs. It led to riots that nobody needed. More insidiously, it fathered a mood of tolerated harshness. Materialistic individualism was blessed as a virtue, the driver of national success. Everything was justified as long as it made money – and this, too, is still with us.

Thatcherism failed to destroy the welfare state. The lady was too shrewd to try that, and barely succeeded in reducing the share of the national income taken by the public sector. But the sense of community evaporated. There turned out to be no such thing as society, at least in the sense we used to understand it. Whether pushing each other off the road, barging past social rivals, beating up rival soccer fans, or idolising wealth as the only measure of virtue, Brits became more unpleasant to be with. This regrettable transformation was blessed by a leader who probably did not know it was happening because she didn't care if it happened or not. But it did, and the consequences seem impossible to reverse.

Second, it’s now easier to see the scale of the setback she inflicted on Britain’s idea of its own future. Nations need to know the big picture of where they belong and, coinciding with the Thatcher appearance at the top, clarity had apparently broken through the clouds of historic ambivalence.

Heath took us into Europe, and a referendum in spring 1975 confirmed national approval for the move. Prime Minister Thatcher inherited a settled state of British Europeanness, in which Brussels and the [European] Community began to influence, and often determine, the British way of doing things. She added layers of her own to this intimacy, directing the creation of a single European market that surrendered important national powers to the collective.

But on the subject of Europe, Thatcher became a contradictory figure. She led Britain further into Europe, while talking us further out. Endeavouring to persuade the British into an attitude of hostility to the group with which she spent 11 years deepening their connection must take a high place in any catalogue of anti-statesmanship. This, too, we still live with.

One also can't forget what happened to the agency that made Thatcher world‑famous: the Conservative party, of which she seemed such an improbable leader. Without it, she would have been nothing. It chose her in a fit of desperation, hats and all – though it quite liked the hats. It got over a deep, instinctive hostility to women at the top of anything, and put her there. Yet her long-term effect seems to have been to destroy it. The party she led three times to electoral triumph became unelectable for a generation.

There are many reasons for this. But Thatcher was a naturally, perhaps incurably, divisive figure. It was part of her conspicuous virtue, her indifference to familiar political conventions. It came to a head over her most egregious policy failure, Europe. She lost seven cabinet ministers on the Europe question, a record that permeated the party for years afterwards. It still does. So the woman I met in Curzon Street, dimpling elegantly, can now be seen in history with an unexpected achievement to her credit. She wrecked her own party, while promoting, via many a tortuous turn, Labour’s resurrection.

The last time I met her was after all this was over. We had had a strange relationship. She continued for some reason to consider me worth talking to. Yet I wrote columns of pretty unremitting hostility to most of what she did. It became obvious that, while granting that I had “convictions”, she never read a word of my stuff.

For years, in fact, she despised writers, except those who did her speeches. Why don’t you get a proper job, she once sneered at me. Yet, at that last encounter, her tone was different. She had just finished the first volume of her memoirs, which she insisted was all her own work. This has been a terrible labour, she said. It was all very well for me to write books. I was a professional writer. She was not a writer. It came very hard, getting the words and paragraphs in the right order, a task for which, she eventually admitted, she had hired some help.

But now the history was what mattered. Getting the record straight.

Making sure the verdict wasn’t purloined by others. Everything has its season. Promises. Action. Words. Hats. Gloves. Handbag. Now it was the turn of the words, and no one, of course, would, against all the odds, do them better than the lady who, 25 years before, once thought the sky was beyond her limit.

- Margaret Thatcher left a dark legacy that has still not disappeared, by Hugo Young,, April 8, 2013.

Hugo Young was a political columnist for the Guardian from 1984 until 2003 and biographer of Margaret Thatcher. He wrote this piece in 2003, two weeks before he died.




About the author:

Zhang Xin is Trainer at He has been with China Daily since 1988, when he graduated from Beijing Foreign Studies University. Write him at:, or raise a question for potential use in a future column.



If you play your cards right

Tried and true

Time to connect the dots

These results do not square with expert predictions

Bad sport?

(作者张欣 中国日报网英语点津 编辑:陈丹妮)




















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