Living with the Truth Stranger than Fiction This Is Not About What You Think Milligan and Murphy Making Sense

Wednesday 31 December 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 17


Ah, as Shuggie ere agin. Oor Jim's still aff oan is vishun quest or whiteffer so Ah thought Ah'd fill in fer im an dae a wee refyoo af too thoosanan-eight. Whit cun Ah say aboot thas year? It were pish whit wi credit crunchies an raisin prices, Ah've hud tae resort tae takin books outa oor locul library masel. Sad days. But it wasne aw doom un gloom an 08. At least Americcy goat a shiny new pressydent – Ah think that Lewis bloke frae Hamilton'll dae a great joab noo e's dun wi gokeart racin. Oh an we aw goat t'see tha Deark Knight filum – tha wis no bad. Pity that bloke whit played The Joker had t'go an kick the bucket. Stull, e went oot wi a bang. Mibbe eel get a post-dated Oascar next year. An then t'feenish the year in style did the prince o tha dramaitic ………. pause no go an shuffle aff thas mortal coil oan Chrismas Eve. Tha wis affie sad. Stull, at least BBC4 wull proabably huv a retrospectacle ur sumhin. That'll be gud. Summat tae luk forrad tae.

Anywise Ah've goat the muther un faither aff a hangower thus mornin an Ah needs tae get sobert up so Ah cun enjoy ma swally t'night so Ah'll leaf it thur an wish yes aw a haepy and proasperus too thoosanan-nine … jist dinne get yer opes up, eh? Noo ye’ll ave t’hexcuse me – Ah’ve a hurgent call t’make oan the porcelin tellingbone.



Wednesday 24 December 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 16



Hi, thas as Shuggie ere. Noo us oor Jim's gonan buggered aff tae a monastry ur sumhin t'clear is ead ower the olidays, Ah jist thought Ah'd tak this opperchancity tae pass oan ma ain graitude tae aw yoos oot thur whit's taen the time t'loag oante is bloag an speshly t'those who cud be arsed leavin a wee comment. Yoos aw know tha oor Jim's a senaitif sorts wi aw is poemtry an at but aefta a wee half the wan thing e goes oan aboot (apeart frae aw the shites whit neffer bought is book) as the support an encurrigemint e gets fram aw yoos oot thur. E gets raight tearful, e really does. So me an the missus wid jist like tae raise a glass an say a huge Scoats hanks oan is behalf an we wish yoos aw a very Merry Crimbo an a stoata afa too thoosanan-nine when it arrives. Noo you'll huff tae excuse me cos Ah've goat a barrella Tennants wi ma name oan it. Hugmanay starts the noo as faras Ah'm cunserned.

Monday 22 December 2008

Painting the air

If poems could be created in a trance without the conscious participation of the poet, the writing of poetry would be so boring or even unpleasant an operation that only a substantial reward in money or social prestige could induce a man to be a poet. – WH Auden

Sur - re - al – ism (n.) -(often l.c.) a style of art and literature developed principally in the 20th century, stressing the subconscious or nonrational significance of imagery arrived at by automatism or the exploitation of chance effects, unexpected juxtapositions, etc.

I like surrealist art. I say I like surrealist art. I know what I mean by that, at least I know what I like. But I'm not sure what that is. I know when I see it. I've stared at that definition for a while now. It's seems straightforward enough. But it's a bit one-sided. It says where the work comes from but not a) what the intention of the author might be or b) what we're expected to do with it.

I like the painting in the corner. It's a Magritte. I like it a lot. It's called 'The Empire of Light'. He actually painted a few pictures called 'The Empire of Light' but this is the one I like best, the one he did in 1954. I have a print of it which I bought in Edinburgh in a little arts and craft shop near where that wee dog is commemorated, Grayfriars Bobby. That was probably thirty years ago. And I kept it with me through nearly a dozen house moves, so it must mean something to me especially considering that all my own art, bar two oils, ended up in a skip. I remember the tinkers raking through the skip as I drove away. I wonder if they appreciated any of it?

So what does this painting mean to me? Nothing. Not a soddin' thing. I look at it. I enjoy it in exactly the same was as I might enjoy a sunset. It pleases me. But it doesn't mean anything. When I look at it I remember buying the print. It wasn't a spur of the moment thing. No. I scoured the shops with the express intention of locating a copy of that print. But I can't remember why. What was it about that painting that moved me enough to go out of my way to own a replica of it? It elicited an emotional response. It made me feel good. That was it. And I can live with that.

So, why do I have such a problem with surrealist poetry?

How does a surrealist write? Here is what André Breton had to say:

Written Surrealist Composition or First and Last Draft.

Having settled down in some spot most conducive to the mind's concentration upon itself, order writing material to be brought to you. Let your state of mind be as passive and receptive as possible. Forget your genius, talents, as well as the genius and talents of others. Repeat to yourself that literature is pretty well the sorriest road that leads to everywhere. Write quickly without any previously chosen subject, quickly enough not to dwell on, and not to be tempted to read over, what you have written.

The first sentence will come of itself; and this is self-evidently true, because there is never a moment but some sentence alien to our conscious thought clamours for outward expression. It is rather difficult to speak of the sentence to follow, since it doubtless comes in for a share of our conscious activity and so the other sentences, if it is conceded that the writing of the first sentence must have involved even a minimum of consciousness. But that should in the long run matter little, because therein precisely lies the greatest interest in the surrealist exercise.

Punctuation of course necessarily hinders the stream of absolute continuity which preoccupies us. But you should particularly distrust the prompting whisper. If through a fault ever so trifling there is a forewarning of silence to come, a fault let us say, of inattention, break off unhesitatingly the line that has become too lucid. After the word whose origin seems suspect you should place a letter, any letter, l for example, always the letter l, and restore the arbitrary flux by making that letter the initial of the word to follow. – André Breton, What is Surrealism? (paragraph breaks mine)

This is how it all began. He's talking about automatic writing as we would know it, writing without letting all that nasty thinking getting in the way.

I'm not so sure that what we see presented as surrealism nowadays is faithful to the spirit of surrealism. I suspect it imitates it. Is this Jackson Browne album cover surrealist? It looks as if it might be and, if no one had seen the original, it could probably pass as surrealist, not that that was the intention of the cover artist; they simply wanted to flog an LP.

"Centuries from now, any art that takes new paths toward a greater emancipation of the mind will be Surrealist." So wrote André Breton. Okay, it's not quite a century since Surrealism with a capital S was defined and then redefined a few years later – the Surrealists did love their manifestoes – but I think his point is well taken.

By 1945, the artists and writers that had given this new art form its impetus had become separated and retrospectives were even being promoted, beginning with Max Ernst. And yet the term (albeit more often these days with a lower-case s) persists. It is not the same as it was before and I would suggest that much of this is to do with one man, Salvador Dalí, who, although he moved away from the original Surrealists in method he did an enormous amount to spread their spirit. I would suggest that if everyone was asked to name one Surrealist artist then Dalí would make everyone's top three and probably be most people's first choice. And yet, ironically, the Surrealists purportedly sacked him in 1930s. Not that this stopped Dalí. As far as he was concerned though, and he said so in so many words, he was surrealism and I doubt the man in the street would argue with him. I certainly wouldn't, certainly not in a dark alley.

So much art that I see calling itself surrealist I find derivative, it looks like a poor man's Dalí or a Magritte but I wonder how many writers there are today using the kind of methods that the Surrealists started out with? One of the techniques which I would have assumed the Surrealists would have given their blessing to was that of cut-ups. A precedent of the technique occurred during a Surrealist rally in the 1920s: Tristan Tzara offered to create a poem on the spot by pulling words at random from a hat. A riot ensued and André Breton expelled Tzara from the movement.

So, no cut-ups then.

Dalí was quite clear when he spoke about his art. He admitted that he didn't know what it meant but refuted any assertions that that made it meaningless. Since I've long argued that meaning lies under the control of the reader/viewer this doesn't trouble me, not in principle at least.

Let's have a look at a surrealist poem by Paul Éluard:

The Nakedness of Truth (I know it well)

Despair has no wings,
Nor has love,
No countenance:
They do not speak.
I do not stir,
I do not behold them,
I do not speak to them,
But I am as real as my love and my despair.

It's not very surreal is it? I could have written that. Maybe it's not a surrealist poem just because a surrealist wrote it. How do I know if he's being surreal or not? I'm being facetious. But I'm also being serious. A book of poems doesn't come with a set of instructions. Well, perhaps the occasional one does but I've never come across one. No, all I have are a few words on a page like this. Do I need to know what the author's intentions were before he sat down? Well, if I knew it was a surrealist poem then I could comfort myself with the fact that the poet didn't know either before he set out. He's not being clever. This is not a 'decoder ring' poem; this is not an 'emperor's new clothes' poem; this is merely a random convergence of words on a page and the meaning is entirely at my discretion. I don't feel I can do that with the poem above. It looks thought out. Perhaps Éluard gave up Surrealism in his old age and got a proper job because I have no idea when this was written. It may even have been written before he took his vow of surreality. I could do some research but I'm not going to. I'm going to find another poem.

I didn't find a poem that looked surreal enough for me. I found this. Well, it might be a prose poem. I don't know. I've yet to investigate that twilight zone. Anyway, Benjamin Péret wrote it and Guy Bennett translated it.


Air, in its normal state secretes a steady cloud of pepper that makes the earth sneeze. On the ground, the pepper condenses until it gives the knick-knack in summer and the newspaper in winter. By simply placing the latter in a cool place it turns into a railway station or a sponge, depending on the number of pages. The pepper also condenses at a height of two thousand meters, then falls back to earth in a powder so fine that no one notices it, but the testament to such flagrant uselessness eventually appears as, unbeknownst to them, passers-by inevitably trample it. At greater heights, the pepper nourishes the stars, giving them their lustre.

Painted blue, air makes undergrowth in dry weather; in rainy weather it makes bleach, but is then harmful to man who absorbs large doses of it for it causes ulcers, boils, and damages tooth enamel. Painted yellow, air is used to dress furs and, mixed with powder of cockchafer, cures lockjaw. When sucked on, air is used to repair inner tubes, when salted, it becomes a bed. Warmed between the hands, it dilates to the point of changing into a whip. Torn to shreds and sprinkled with red wine, it gives the maestro, so useful to peasants at harvest time. Dried in the sun and preserved all winter in a dry place, in spring air will give the engagement ring which, due to its extreme sensitivity to variations in temperature, is very fragile and rarely reaches maturity.

Shut up in a closet, air tends to escape so as to blow out the door at the first possibility, taking the shape of a mushroom generally used today to fight wrinkles.

Pickled in vinegar, air gives the porter which, in windy weather, is as runny as overripe cheese. The runny porter is then collected, dried, carefully ground and then sown in a shady spot. Within a month the moon sprouts, emerges from the earth and blooms, for the moon is not a heavenly body as is generally believed, but the pollen of innumerable female runny porter-flowers that rises every evening, whereas the male flowers fall to the ground leaving their seed to sprout again. Every morning the moon plunges into the sea and, as it hits the waves, produces the tides. As it dissolves, the moon gives the sea its salty taste. – extract from 'The Four Elements'

Now that is what I think of when I think of surrealist writing. It's fun enough to read and I quite enjoyed its silliness and some of its imagery especially the idea of painting the air. Now that is surreal. But is it any good? What criteria do I use to judge it?

Anyone can string together disparate images, stream-of-consciousness narratives, idiosyncrasies, or non-sequiturs, but not anyone can do this in a truly evocative way. Or can they? There is method behind the Surrealist's madness, techniques first of all but probably more importantly a state of mind. One would imagine that not everyone is capable of relaxing themselves enough to … let's be poetic about it … free the spirit. I doubt I could. I'm not very good at letting go or going with the flow. Writing is something that I take control of and structure.

But, how to read? Surrealism, as César Aira noted, promoted a new kind of reading, based on a succession of novel images that force the reader into the present, denying the usual mental recompositions that logical sequences allow. Each line or image abolishes the previous one in its straining for the now, the ‘ahora’. (Ahora is Mexican for 'now'.) You, reader, do the work, the free-associating.

Doesn't this all feel like a word-association test? Or trying to make sense out of a dream? Of course the Surrealists were big on dreams and placed a great deal of emphasis on their interpretation. Freud came along and gave what they were doing the rubber stamp of scientific respectability and yet there are those who still maintain that dreams are just random collections of thoughts and that attributing meaning to them is going that one step too far.

The fact is that we humans try and extract meaning from everything and anything. It's a bit of an obsession. And so, when faced with a collection of words like Péret's 'Air' it's impossible for us to admit that it is meaningless. Even if I jumbled up the words our eyes would still flick about them looking for connections. Ultimately the answers we come up with say more about us than the author. Isn't that the end result of reading normal, i.e. not surrealist, writing? Well, yes, up to a point but there is still a significant contribution by the writer, thoughts, opinions etc which we have to gauge against our own thoughts and opinions to see if they remain unchanged after the reading exercise. I don't see that with a surrealist text. The writer has simply saved me the chore of having to collect a pile of words myself to free associate over. Or am I being too harsh? I don't know. I haven't done enough research.

Like most of the stuff I write this has simply been me having a think out loud. I have next to no experience of this kind of poetry although I did used to own a collection of Surrealist Poetry – I think it was a Penguin edition. I'm really just emphasising the fact that I really am shackled to meaning as the end result of the process of reading. Why I look at art differently is a subject for another day perhaps.

I thought I'd finished this article when, by chance, I ran across an interview with Marjorie Perloff, a poetry critic and professor emerita of English and Comparative Literature at Stanford University, in The Argotist Online in which she is asked why abstract art is more accepted that abstract poetry. Considering where I began this investigation I think her response provides a nice coda.

MP: I think there are two answers to this question. (1) visual art, abstract or otherwise, is much more accepted by the public than is poetry. Ours is increasingly a visual culture: a few years ago, I went to a Magritte exhibition at the Armand Hammer Museum here in Los Angeles. It was packed; one couldn't get near the paintings. But if one asked the same people to read surrealist poetry, comparable to Magritte's painting, they would be at a total loss and say the poetry was much too difficult, too obscure. Thus Max Ernst's paintings and frottages are Big Business whereas André Breton's poems are barely known in the U.S. And the same would be true of Dada or Italian Futurism. Kurt Schwitters, for that matter, is well known as a painter, but his poems remain almost unknown!

But (2) "abstraction" in language is a very different thing from abstract painting. I take it by abstract poetry you mean nonsensical? Like Clark Coolidge or Bruce Andrews? I think the hostility to such poetry has to do with the simple fact that words (unlike paint strokes or dabs of colour) inevitably have meanings, and so the reader inevitably wants to "make sense" of a poem and is frustrated when he/she can't. I don't think it's the aura of the museum versus the university classroom. Then, too, poetry is taught especially badly: in even the best high schools the only modern poets read are Robert Frost or Langston Hughes or maybe Elizabeth Bishop and Sylvia Plath. There is no training in HOW TO READ whereas art history classrooms do better by paintings and sculpture

Thursday 18 December 2008

What does mean mean?

Is anything truly meaningless? I think that we're back to the whole 'tree falling in the woods' scenario. If there is no one there to give it meaning then it has none. Meaning is an attribution. It is not intrinsic to anything. In The Day After Tomorrow the books meant warmth, nothing more, and by extension, life. Let's consider the following:

To anyone who doesn't read Greek it's meaningless. Let's translate it:

1 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.

To a Trinitarian this is proof positive that Jesus and God are part of a divine trinity. To an atheist it doesn't prove anything. Of course there are those who will argue that this is a mistranslation, it should read "…and the word was a god" thus disproving the trinity. Whoever would have thought that a single indefinite article would cause so much trouble and, if the damn Greeks were so clever, how come they never thought to use one? Eh? There are those too who think that it can mean anything they need it to.

Without getting tied up with linguistically trying to define meaning, because that will open up a whole can of wormy definitions, the dictionary provides two simple ones:

1. What is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated.
2. The end, purpose or significance of something.

Question: What is the meaning of poetry? Answer: For the purpose of this post poetry has no meaning; it is a facilitator of meaning, a conduit, a means to an end. So, if we boil these down, we have 'intent' and 'sense'. In the process however there is always something lost in translation. No medium is perfect. We've moved on a long way from the cylinders people used to record on, through 78s, LPs, cassette tapes, CDs but even the best quality recording is a poor substitute for sitting in the front row of the audience listening to the band play Dixie. If anything we've moved a step backwards because in the good ol' days that's all there was, live performance.

We all know the story, The Emperor's New Clothes, so I won't bore you with it, and I assume that most of you, at least my readers-of-a-certain-age, will know what a secret decoder ring is.

'Decoder ring' poems are fine up to a point. My wife writes them all the time, usually about me and I never get them. Of course, when she tells me what the poem is about it's obvious but no one else would have a clue to the poem's 'true' meaning. That does not mean the poem is necessarily meaningless to them. They will impose their own meaning on it. Our kneejerk reaction to things is to look for meaning even where there is none. Is it the wrong meaning? Well, it might not be the 'perfect' solution to the problem (because a 'decoder ring' poem is a puzzle to be worked out) but that doesn't mean it's not a viable solution. A spanner is a tool designed for a specific purpose but how many of you out there other than me have used it in place of a hammer or have used it as the handle of a lever? It is not a perfect hammer or handle but it may well be adequate. In a 'decoder ring' poem we have what is actually expressed which may perfectly fit the author's intent but only when the right person(s) read the poem.

Now, an 'emperor's new clothes' poem is another thing entirely. It is where you are presented with an arrangement of words on a page and are told, "This is a poem – make of it what you will," whereupon you are left to your own devices. Now, you can look stupid and say, "I don't get this," or you can hold you hands up and go, "This is simply wonderful!" to cover your embarrassment. I think too many of us are unwilling to play the role of the wee boy who shouts out, "Hey, the emperor's got no clothes on," for fear of ridicule. We assume that the poem has a solution.

I sat down and drafted this post after reading a post by Dick Jones who quoted Simon Armitage, who I have to admit I don't know from Adam. That said, I do agree with what he had to say about poetry:

As far as I can tell, there are two kinds of poets: those who want to tell stories and sing songs, and those who want to work out the chemical equation for language and pass on their experiments as poetry.

I think the answer is all to do with percentages. No one, I don't care who they are, can write a poem where every reader will understand and feel exactly what the writer intended. There is always a trade-off. What is acceptable to one reader will not be to another but when the author is doing as little at 10% of the work and the reader 90% then I think we have to ask questions. In the case of some of the pieces on those sites, all I can say about the authors is that they've provided the words but, at the great Eric Morecambe would have said, "not necessarily in the right order."

Which brings me to the term 'experimental poetry' a one-size-fits-all expression which can be used to excuse the author no matter what, if I might quote Stephen Fry here, "arse dribble" is served up to us in the name of poetry. I have no problem with poets experimenting. I encourage it. I do it myself. I think it is essential. In the best scientific tradition that is how we learn; we have a crack at it and see what happens. One of my favourite poems of all time is an experiment, 'The Locust Tree in Flower', by William Carlos Williams:

The Locust Tree In Flower






I was eighteen, maybe nineteen, when I first read this poem and I'd read nothing like it in my life. It was the very first poem by Williams that I encountered and it was accompanied by a lengthy essay by the Scots poet, Tom Leonard, whom I have blogged about before. In his essay In Praise of Abstraction: Moving Beyond Concrete Imagery, Ravi Shankar (no, the other one), says this:

It presumes too much: that the author has distilled some essence of the locust tree that other language could not adequately convey; that the reader, through contemplating those thirteen words, is able to fill in the blanks and reproduce the kind of feeling that Williams had when he wrote the poem; that subjectivity can, in any real sense, be circumvented, even in a haiku-like verse form.

Williams is oft quoted as saying, "no ideas but in things," and I think this is a good example of that edict and yet I'm puzzled why he felt the need to condense this poem from its original form, which appears on the previous page in my collection of his poetry.

The Locust Tree In Flower
[First Version]

the leaves

of wrist-thick

and old
stiff broken

loosely strung—

come May
white blossom

to spill

their sweet

and quickly

It, of course, is interesting on its own merits – take, for example, in inclusion of the made-up-word 'ferncool' – and yet Williams felt the need to prune away at this until there is almost nothing left. It was months later before I read this earlier version by which time I had fully absorbed the revised poem and even had a crack at a couple in a similar style.

Does Williams's experiment work? It did for me and yet the poem sits alone in his canon. I wonder why he never felt the need to repeat the experiment. Because it failed? Because it succeeded? Who knows? What I hate is a rubber stamp being slapped on any experimental work that basically exempts the creator of the work from any criticism: "Ah, but you see, it's an experimental piece." Experiments fail more times than they succeed. Hockney, the artist, used to get rightly pissed when people raided his bins for paintings and drawings he'd thrown out. They used to see the stuff as genuine Hockney. Well, he couldn't really argue because he'd done the work. It was simply that he decided the pieces were inferior. So, he started putting dirty great crosses through the art and they still raided his bins for the stuff and sold it.

Here's an old poem of mine:


I know.
I know that!
I know that she is.
I know that she is there.
I know that she is there for me
and I am coming.

25 July 1989

I'll do what everyone else does and not tell you a damn thing about it. You can decide if it's an 'experimental', 'emperor's new clothes' or 'decoder ring' poem.

I've had a few e-mail exchanges recently on the subject of meaning. I think there is a tendency on our parts to over think things. Ani Smith pointed me to a blog, well more of a rant really, by a guy called Blake Butler where he…well, rants frankly, about the nature of meaning. He cites the example of a guy going into a store and meeting a woman: what does that mean? The fact is that it could mean a lot of things. The bottom line is that we don't have enough information to accurately determine or assign a meaning to it. So we extrapolate, we invent, we start to do the writer's job for him and make up our own story.

Is that so bad? Well, that brings us back to our percentages again. I would think most readers enjoy being a part of the process, they expect it and look forward to it; others prefer everything spelled out with Dickensian precision – he was getting paid by the word remember. I do expect a writer to tell me what I need to know. They don't have to be blatant about it. People who enjoy crime novels enjoy searching for clues whilst avoiding the MacGuffins and the red herrings. And, if all the i's aren't dotted and the t's aren't crossed at the end it isn't always the end of the world.

The main difference between prose and poetry in this regard is the ratio. With prose we are used to things being spelled out. With poetry we come to the piece expecting to be asked to do a bit more work. Everyone is different. Personally I like a poem that resonates after one has finished it. I want to get the gist of it then and there but I also appreciate it when there are bits for me to chew on afterwards, unanswered questions if you like. It's the same reason I like photographs. There's an antique shop in the west end I sometimes visit and they have a box of these "instant relatives" as Carrie likes to call them.

Another question Blake Butler asked was: "Why can't a bird made into a pillow just be a bird pillow?" It's a good question. Or as Freud might have put it: "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar," although there is no evidence that he actually said that. Metaphor and symbolism are at the core of poetic writing. People who don't like their meanings to spill over out the words their reading should probably steer clear of them. "Why can't you just say what you mean?" is another good question. Sometimes I do, sometimes however it's easier to write about one thing when you're really talking about something else. That's nothing unique to poetry. I had a girlfriend once who used to let me know she was menstruating by using the colourful euphemism: "The painter's arrived." We use picturesque language all the time. We very rarely call a spade a spade.

One last poem before I move on:

The By-Pass

There being no time
and having no place else
I hid what I had to say
in the words,
just out of sight –
unless you were looking.

28 August 1989

which brings us back to our original definitions. Remember there are two:

1. What is intended to be, or actually is, expressed or indicated.
2. The end, purpose or significance of something.

This poem is about communication. The narrator – okay it's me – needed to say something but he is afraid to state his case plainly so he says what he has to say in the subtext of a conversation, bypassing the top-level meaning. My meaning was there but only if you looked for it. It's something we Brits are experts at. The art of innuendo goes back years. In most cases the inference is a sexual one but it can be a romantic one too. For the record, this conversation-within-a-conversation took place on a by-pass. That's what gave me the idea. So there.

But what is the purpose of the poem? Ah, well, I gave it to the – okay it was woman – some time after but without any explanation as to what it was about. It was my way of saying, "Look, what I said to you in the car wasn't what I was actually saying." If she cottoned on she didn't let on. That's what it meant then. What it means now, to me, it reminds me of that time and with hindsight reminds me that I was right to be circumspect. Ah well. You can make it mean what you will.

One last thing, on the far edges of both poetry and prose is surrealism. It is a word that is overused and used incorrectly most of the time. It has superseded 'unreal' as the generic description for odd art and writing but I think that subject deserves a complete post to itself, not that I know a lot about it.

Monday 15 December 2008

There are too many words on the Internet


too_many_words Authors are as much works of fiction as their characters are. I suspect the online world suits most of us down to a T. After all we’re all used to spending our time with a load of fictional characters and, let’s face it, none of you are real, not really real. I have attributed characteristics and personalities to the many people I correspond with day to day but the fact is I know that it's all a fabrication. I even wrote ‘talk to’ and changed it because we don’t talk. I don't know you and you don't know me. There is no time for all of that and so we fill in the blanks – chasms of ignorance more like – with what we need to make our relationships seem more real. This is not a failing on any of our parts; this is simply the way things are in the world in which we live.

I’ve deliberately chosen to stay fairly anonymous when it comes to my online persona. It wouldn’t benefit me to be as secretive as some but, on the whole, I keep details of my private life to a minimum. And this post is not going to be so different but I thought it might be beneficial for people to be aware of some of the stuff that goes on in my head from day to day just in case any one of you out there is under the delusion that all of this is easy. That can be discouraging and really what I want to do is encourage people as much as I can, that no matter what you have to contend with – and we all have something to contend with – you can still make a go of things.

I don’t normally keep a diary – never have - but I started making these notes with the intention of picking the best bits for a blog and this is what I ended up with. I was going to scrap it all and just get on with a normal post but, what the heck. Make of it what you will.

11th November

Today I’m very tired. Of course by the time you read this several weeks will have passed since I was tired. Indeed two or three days, perhaps even a week will pass between this and the last sentence in this article. So, all of you who feel the need to rally round and say, "Buck up, Jim," really don't need to because I'll have either bucked up myself or just got on with it either way, more than likely a bit of both.

I don't often air my woes here. I have woes aplenty let me tell you, says he and then proceeds not to say any more because, let's face it, we all have woes. Today the woe that is attracting the most attention is tiredness. Tiredness shouldn't be an illness. It should be a consequence of all those late nights bevvying and listening to AC/DC. Yeah, right. I wish. What bothers me about the kind of tiredness I suffer from is that I don't get to enjoy myself to feel as tired as I do. I don't think I've ever enjoyed myself enough to feel as tired as I do. Suffice to say I'm tired and a good night's kip isn't going to fix it.

I’ll probably never post this. So, why am I bothering with this? Because it feels good to write. I’m tired but for some reason that tiredness hasn’t spread to my fingers. In fact they're clattering away good guns.

The thing I think I'm trying to say here is the fact that writing is what I turn to quite naturally when there is a problem. I know that the writing this won’t solve anything but it's something to do when there's nothing to do. And we humans don't like doing nothing, and so we pace, make endless cups of coffee, crack our knuckles, fiddle with our hair, etc. etc.

21st November

It's now 2:20 pm on the 21st of November. Hard to imagine that 10 days have passed since I wrote that bit above. I'm still tired. I never expected not to be. Fatigued is the right word but it just feels like a posh word for 'tired'. And, as imagined, I got on with it over the last few days, about 500 words on the novel – but more importantly a new direction – two poems and a blog about collecting things. Not much for ten days. And I've read half a collection of short stories – in spurts. Of course I've kept up with my e-mails and RSS feeds and that's a lot. Their relentlessness drags me down, every day more things to read and to comment on, to show an interest in.

Don't get me wrong, I like the fact that I’m part of a little group here. I even like to think I'm a focal point but my sensible side realises that if I dropped dead tomorrow, or just went AWOL again like I did ten years ago, people would just get on without me. I was just talking to Art about that, about the fact that the last time I dropped out of sight not one person enquired about me, not one solitary bugger. It certainly puts things into perspective. But this is less to do with people not caring than it is to do with the onslaught of information I have to contend with every ruddy day. Every day new things, new people, and I don't have time for them.

When I add an RSS feed these days I go through my list and find one I can delete. I feel quite mercenary but if I'm not getting enough from a particular site – and the 'enough' can be different from site to site – then they get the chop. Of course I then feel guilty.

Everyone is selling something. Mostly they don’t want my money though some of them want that too. But they all want my time: read my blog, reassure me. And I’m no different: read my blog, buy my book. I hate selling.

23rd November

Some online journal has asked me to write a weekly column. There's no way I could commit to that but I've not replied yet. I'd like to say I could do one a month but even the thought of that tires me. I'm finding the Web very needy at the moment. There is so much to read and I feel that everyone is looking for something from me. It's very draining. I go through my feeds and hardly read anything. There are too many words. I keep coming back to that sentence. It keeps popping into my head as has been doing for weeks, months possibly: there are too many words.

I'm not reading much at the moment. I've been buying books and piling them up beside the chair in my office but I'm struggling simply to get through a book of short stories at the moment. I've never been able to devour books like I know some can. There's one site I subscribe to when the girl posts a blog every time she finishes a book and the entries just keep coming and coming. There's a lot about the Internet that inspires me but it also exhausts me. Every day there are more and more things to attend to. I should be glad for the attention. That is the name of the game isn't it? I'm here to attract readers.

I want to write but I have a headache. I slept badly again but I managed another 300 words in the early hours. All dialogue so it feels like more. I'm not writing enough.

24th November

John Baker's posted another section of Out Stealing Timber. I’ve marked it as unread because I feel guilty skipping over it. I can't remember much about what he's written so far and feel bad about it. I like reading his stuff. I just wish it stuck. It's not his fault. And Ani has something new up but there are too many words in it. I'll read it later.

People are starting to comment on my post on Jena's site, the one about inspiration. Ken thinks he can see more of the real me in it. I don't think the real me wrote it. This certainly feels more like the real me today, what passes for the real me these days. I listened to the 2003 version of Tubular Bells this morning and realised that the comment I made about John Cleese in my blog on collecting was wrong. I'll need to fix that but there's no rush.

I'm not sure what to do with this 'diary' blog. I know other people post things like this all the time. I'm just not sure why I should. It's not going in the kind of direction I hoped it might. I'm just rambling. What good would it do? I need to start work on a real post; I'm running out; I've been lazy. My stockpile was to give me time to work on my book but I wasn't expecting this bad turn to last so long. That wasn't a part of the plan.

1st December

I have no idea where this post is going. Part of me wants to bin it. It feels self-indulgent and it probably is. I’ve always tried to ensure that my posts were there to educate people before anything else and I keep asking myself what would people learn from this? That I’m human? We’re all human and we all have bad days. I don’t think it’s wrong to keep that side of me away from the public gaze. That said, I’ve had to encourage two bloggers over the last couple of days both of whom are suffering from depression and the only way I could think to do so was to talk about my own experiences and the fact that you can work around these things. For a long time I’ve kept the mindset that you may not be able to work on what you want (e.g. my book at the moment) so you work on what you can (i.e. this blog).

I wrote to that site today and told them I wasn’t up to do a weekly blog and they were very nice about it and the door’s still open. I should send them some poems and I will when I can be bothered. Only one short story to go in that book and then maybe I’ll think about writing a review. That shouldn’t strain me too much. I think I might take a few days off over Christmas. Other people take breaks so why not me?

My neck hurts. I'll need to stop this. God, pain can be such a pain.

I think that’s enough of me moaning. You get the idea.

So, how much truth is in these diary entries? Some. They’ve been edited of course, cleaned up, bits added in and shuffled around. Like everything I post they’re lies wrapped around truths. I could have posted them unedited but they wouldn’t have been more truthful, simply harder to make sense of.

I did want to get across the fact that my posts don’t just trip off my tongue. They all take weeks to write, a line or two here, a paragraph there. Some are easier than others. This one wasn’t very easy at all. And while I've been working on it I've used up half of my stockpile of posts which I was saving for a bad spell. Just like this one.

Thursday 11 December 2008

Bloody Foreigners


baxter460 I have said this before – and I will no doubt say it again – but I think it's amazing how any one person manages to communicate with another. We encounter the problem all the time online. The world may be shrinking but it is still a very big place and I often have to have a think about what words I choose to use in my blog because I know I'll have to explain them so that my non-British readers will be able to follow me. I don't always do it because oftentimes the context will sometimes make it clear what I'm on about.

In my daily life I don't use nearly as many Scotticisms as you might expect and the ones I do use are often for effect in exactly the same way as I might use an Americanism especially since I've managed to acquire an American wife and a few of her expressions have rubbed off just as she has adopted a few of ours. And, after being here about twelve years, she can just about say Edinburgh right (that would be Edinburruh in case you wondered or at least something quite close to that) although she still gets dollars and pounds mixed up on occasion. Probably the main one I use is 'no' instead of 'not' as in "I'm no doing that," (emphasis on the 'no') although since I changed jobs a few years back and no longer associate with the riff-raff I used to, I've pretty much dropped that. I certainly don't talk like Aggie and Shuggie.

I'm frequently amused when I hear foreigners attempting a 'Scottish' accent just as I expect an American would shake their head if they heard me attempt an 'American' accent because there's no such a thing. I would imagine with big cities like New York there would be a variety of accents just as there is in Glasgow because there are a number of accents. Aggie and Shuggie hail from Govan on the south side of the city. I've never lived there although we did rent a flat in the nearby Gorbals for a couple of years but even then it was in the posh bit. The Gorbals of my childhood no longer exists; all the tenements have been replaced by blocks of flats and even some of those are due for demolition. Ironically there are tenements in the west end that are quite sought after; we rented one there for a year although I wasn't that impressed actually.

I mention that because our landlady had a profound accent, a Kelvinside accent, which sounds, as Billy Connolly so succinctly put it as if someone's talking with jawries in their gob (i.e., marbles in their mouth). The English have a similar accent kicking around which I would classify as 'Hooray Henry', an expression, coined by the American Damon Runyon, I just learned. In both cases the accent is an affected one: Listen to me, I'm superior to you, can't you simply hear it in my voice? A lady from Kelvinside would never in her wildest dreams call the lavatory 'the cludgie' if she referred to the fixture at all.

Let me tell you a story though. No, first let me tell you about Stanley Baxter. Baxter is a veteran comedian and impressionist – he's 82 now – and I grew up with him on the television. Baxter's shows pulled in huge audiences on both the BBC and ITV during his heyday. The Stanley Baxter Show ran for eight years on BBC1 between 1963 and 1971, while The Stanley Baxter Picture Show was broadcast between 1972 and 1975 on ITV. His last main show, Stanley Baxter in Reel Terms, aired on Channel 4 in 1996 and he's actually doing a one-off this Christmas believe it or not.

One of the things he'll be best remembered for is Parliamo Glasgow in which he treated Glaswegian as if it was a foreign language. The two 'words' I think everyone who saw him will remember will be 'noohoosferra' and 'cudyegoa' and these even wound up in adverts Baxter used to do for tea if memory serves me right, e.g. "Noohoosferra cuppa tea" and "Cudyegoa wee biscuit wi that?"

This is the kind of thing best seen rather than talked about although there are a couple of Parliamo Glasgow books kicking around.

You can view a video here along with an interview with Baxter.

Now, I promised you a story. When I was an IT trainer one of my trainees was a lady of Indian extraction although she has a pronounced English accent – Birmingham I believed she hailed from. She wore a sari every day as a matter of course. Anyway, she had moved up to Glasgow to be with her family who ran a small corner shop and, as is typical in her culture, she ended up serving behind the counter. On her very first day a young boy came into the shop looking for 'ginger' and so she tried to sell him a bottle of the spice completely oblivious to the fact that in Glasgow 'ginger' is a common euphemism for any carbonated drink. It was how he responded to her that struck her: "Bloody English," he said before storming out of the shop. What's striking is that it was her accent that he took offence to and not her colour and indeed this says a lot about how the Scots view the English.

Eventually this found its way into a poem, albeit years later. The result you can read in this month's issue of The Ranfurly Review. The poem is called 'Bloody Foreigners'. Taking my cue from Stanley Baxter I also provided a translation.

Monday 8 December 2008

Aggie and Shuggie 15

Duggie: [Knock! Knock!]
Shuggie: Oh, syoo. Whitya afta? Oor Maggie's no in.
Duggie: Aye Ah know that n at. Ah wis achally lookin t'see yoo.
Shuggie: Me? Whit fer?
Duggie: Well, Ah heard oan the grapefine yoo wisa wee bit doon in the dumps cos yoor Jim ada bad refyoo af is book.
Shuggie: Aye, so whit's it t'dae wi yoo?
Duggie: Wull, Ah ran acrass a new refyoo Ah thought ye might no af seen.
Shuggie: Whur?
Duggie: It's oan a site cawd Pursewarden.
Shuggie: Pissed Auden? Af yoor takin Auden’s name in vein Ah'll haff t'gie ye a skelp ye wee nyaff.
Duggie: Ah widne dae that Mista Murduch. At's cawd Purse…Warden. Ah printed oot a hard coapy af it. Ah canne get enuffaf Auden. Luv Auden t'bits Ah dae.
Shuggie: Fine, Ah gets the idea. Wull whit're ye stannin thur fer. Haun it ower.
Duggie: Ere ye go.
Shuggie: Ere thisis no bad, sno bad at aw.
Duggie: Aye, Ah thought yood be fair chuffed wi it.
Shuggie: Ah aim. Hanks a loat, son.
Duggie: Ah wis wunnerin…
Shuggie: Och aye, ere it comes…
Duggie: Naw, it's no like that. Ah jist think yoo might af goat the rang idea aboot me.
Shuggie: Ah caws it as Ah sees it.
Duggie: Aye, but Ah wis oanly hawdin oan ti that Roabert Ludlum fer a mate. Ah didne know whit is wis aw aboot. Ah neffer een peeked intae it. Onest.
Shuggie: Aye, mair thun likely ye didne. Ye know that stuff's the thin end o the wedge.
Duggie: Aye, Ah dae.
Shuggie: Af yer no careful ye'll feenish up oan wi the Dean Koontziz an ye widnae wanti end up like that.
Duggie: No way. No sir.
Shuggie: Aye, gud lad.
Duggie: So…
Shuggie: Look, son, the footie's aboot t'start. Afya fancy cumminin an waitin fer Mags yer welcum. Ah'm lettin aw the heat oot ere.
Duggie: Aye, that'd be smashin.
Shuggie: Wan hing…
Duggie: Whit?
Shuggie: Yer nae a Gers supporta, are ye?
Duggie: No way.
Shuggie: That's awright then. Entrez voos. Mecassa est yoorcassa an aw that. Y'wanna canna Tennants?
Duggie: Widne say no.

Thursday 4 December 2008

When I Was Five I Killed Myself

When I Was Five I Killed Myself is an odd little book. Let me address the little first of all. The book is: 15.2 x 9.6 x 1.4 cm in size. My novel is 19.3 x 13 x 1.3 cm in size. In other words it is two-thirds smaller than the average book not that my book is in any way average other than in size. I did not know that when I ordered it although when I received my copy I felt somewhat let down, about one-third let down if you want to know,

It had a cool title and you always get bonus points for a cool title. There are so many books with lukewarm titles out there. This book is not one of them. It was not simply the title that roped me in, suspicious so-and-so that I am. Oh, no. I read reviews.

The reviewers, clearly a mixed bag of amateurs, all praised the book and considered it a crying shame that it was not better known in the author’s home country. Fine, fine, thought I and then came the clincher: the hero and narrator, an eight year-old boy, was likened to Holden Caulfield. Ah.

I am sure I am not alone in regretting Salinger’s decision to become a recluse but what can one do about it? He can’t have long to go and then hopefully his relatives will see sense unless the bugger burns all the manuscripts he’s supposedly been working on all these years. In the interim the opportunity to read anything with a whiff of Salinger’s genius was worth forking out £2.94 plus £2.75 postage. Although a full-sized book for that price would have been nice.

I said it was an odd book as well as a little book. Well it is. My copy has footnotes. Unusual in itself, yes, but more unusual is the fact that they are in German. The book is in English but the footnotes are in German. Stranger still is the fact that this is a reprint of a novel by an American author, clinical psychologist and professional clown, which was first published in 1981 in a French translation where it became a bestseller and has been read by one in ten of the French population who know how to read. The author was even made a Chevalier in the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.

If I was to stop my review here you’d be tempted wouldn’t you?

But let me tempt you further.

I have already mentioned that the book is narrated by an eight year-old boy. His name is Burton Rembrandt (Not so dissimilar to Holden Caulfield is it?) who is at the Children’s Trust Residence Centre because of what he did to Jessica and like any author worth his salt the author, one Howard Buten, keeps us in suspense for the best part of the book. The girl is not dead – we learn that much quite early on – but whatever it was he did resulted in her being hospitalised. In the first chapter the author plays a trick on us poor readers and makes us think she’s dead.

        When I was five I killed myself.
        I was waiting for Popeye who comes after the News. He has large wrists for a person and he is strong to the finish. But the News wouldn’t end.
        My dad was watching it. I had my hands over my ears because I am afraid of the News. I don’t enjoy it as television. It has Russians on who will bury us. It has the President of the United States who is bald. It has highlights from this year’s fabulous Autorama where I have been once; it was quite enjoyable as an activity.
        A man came on the News. He had something in his hand, a doll, and he held it up. (You could see it wasn’t real because of the sewing.) I took my hands off.
        “This was a little girl’s favourite toy,” the man said. “And tonight, because of a senseless accident, she is dead.”
        I ran up to my room.
        I jumped on my bed.
        I stuffed my face into my pillow and pushed it harder and harder until I couldn’t hear anything anymore. I held my breath.

Needless to say he doesn’t kill himself. It does give you an idea how Burt talks. He’s clearly a reasonably smart kid for eight (he is, after all, the spelling champion of his grade), I would even go as far as to call him precocious, but he also gets things terribly wrong. As you would expect. He knows stuff without fully understanding it. His grammar leaves a lot to be desired but at least Buten takes care to make sure Burt makes the same mistakes consistently.

Because he has his unique way of talking it’s not so hard to see why people might draw comparisons between this book and Catcher in the Rye. Apart from the language and the mental health issues we also have the female lead to take account of. Holden dotes on his sister, Phoebe; Burton dotes on a girl at school, Jessica Renton, a girl described as having brown hair and no braids that always has her hands behind her back. At eight, though, this is less about love and more about finding a kindred spirit in this world. Jessica is far less of a stabilising influence on Burt as Phoebe is on her brother as demonstrated by her behaviour during a spelling bee:

        “Receive what?” said Jessica. Everybody laughed. Krepnik got real mad. “Receive is the word, young lady. Spell it please.”
        “I T.”
        “Jessica, maybe you would prefer to go straight to the office and forfeit you right to be in this Spelling B,” said Krepnik. “Is that what you want? Do you think your parents would find that amusing?”
        Miss Iris said, “Jessica, either spell the word or you may take an E in the spelling for the whole semester. Is that clear?” She was mad too.
        But I thought something. That Jessica is very smart in school and that she would win the Spelling B, and not me. I got very nervous.
        “Receive,” said Miss Krepnik.
        “Could you use it in a sentence, please?”
        “Yes. I like to receive things.”
        “Receive,” said Jessica. “M P X L Y H H O. Receive.”

This is an important section. Jessica is not simply a female version of Burt. Oh no. She is Eve to Burt’s Adam. Burt is not really a bad boy. Curiosity often gets the better of him and he gets into trouble, just like other kids, but he is the one who is bullied, not the bully.

The story is told in two strands in overlapping chapters. Burt talks about what’s happening to him day by day in the Children’s Trust Residence Centre and also relates the events that led up to his being sent there. The first chapter is just there to throw everyone off the scent and the book would survive fine without it but since it generates the cool title I guess it had to stay. It’s only a page and a half long so don’t worry about it.

In the Centre Burt’s nemesis is Dr. Nevele:

“Burt, I want us to be pals. Pals that tell each other things. Because I think I can help you figure out what your problems are, and then help you solve them. You’re a sick little boy. The sooner you let me help you the sooner you’ll get better and go home. Help me, ok?”

Burt’s not playing. He has, what he would call "a conniption fit" (because that’s what his mother calls his strops), and starts throwing things around the good doctor’s office eventually ending up in the Quiet Room which is where he finds a modicum of peace and begins to write out his story literally on the walls of the room. This is also where he meets his ally, an unconventional first year intern by the name of Rudyard Walton (clearly modelled on Buten himself) who, although he denies to his superiors taking any therapeutic interest him, befriends Burt and gains a level of trust; he also speaks up on the boy’s behalf saying that Burt has no purpose being there but no one is interested in his pleas. At one point Burt steals some letters from Dr. Nevele’s office which includes a copy of a letter from Rudyard to Dr. Nevele:

This child is no more of a threat to society than Orphan Annie. (At least he has irises.) The psychoses you seem bent on finding in his young psyche are no more than signposts that give clear directions to a place you’ve obviously never been to: Yourselfville.

Burton’s been double-crossed, and he’s mad. Wouldn’t you be? He doesn’t know it in his mind (forest of trees) but he feels it in his guts (literally, sometimes), and it was partially this double cross that led to the incident with Jessica Renton, and that continues to lead him into tantrums and silences here where he doesn’t belong and knows it.

He is a human being in kid’s clothing. He has the organs and the feelings of his species, but none of the rights. And he is not alone. This country is stewing itself in the notion that you’re not a person until you reach voting and drinking age. It’s wrong.

You don’t get it, Doctor (with all due respect), and because you don’t get it, you can’t give it. Let him go home. He isn’t crazy, he isn’t even strange. We have met the enemy, and he is us.

So there we have it. The age-old battle of the liberals against the conservatives, innovation versus the tried and tested. Yes, ultimately there is a socio-political subtext to this book. It is about the use and misuse of power. Like all kids Burt is subject to a system, to a world he doesn’t understand. There is no right of appeal. All he can hope to do is serve his sentence and grow up in the process. There’s nothing to stop him rattling his cage now and then and he does. One reviewer on Amazon wrote: “I think what's best about it is that the more you read it, the more you wish you could do something about it.” But that’s the thing, just as Burt is trapped in childhood so are we readers trapped on the other side of the page. All we can do is keep turning those pages. And turn them I did.

Seemingly, this book was originally targeted at the young adult market, but it is clearly an adult book. That said, I was intrigued by the comments made on this French site by children as young as twelve; the Google Translate filter is on. I didn’t find myself feeling any less empathetic for the youngsters in the book simply because of my age. If anything it took me back to a time I too rarely try to remember and, now I think about it, for broadly similar reasons. Burt doesn't want to be a kid anymore. But the way he sees it, being an adult doesn't hold much promise either. I know where he’s coming from.

Although the amateur reviews were all glowing not all the professionals were as kind. One said:

The many grammatical errors, which serve as unsubtle reminders that this is, after all, a child we're dealing with here, are simply lazy shortcuts meant to compensate for the overall tone, which is ultimately too precociously self-aware to be believable. – New York Times

I suspect what this reviewer has failed to do is to buy into the whole thing. You simply have to watch children with a clown to see how they do that. Or, maybe I’m being overly generous. Here’s what another had to say:

Buten writes in a style I have never seen before. He captures the childlike voice quite well, but often I am left wondering whether an eight year old boy would really put sentences together in the way that they are in this book. – Jingle

The thing is I have seen that style before, a book called The Way The Family Got Away by Michael Kimball where the narrator is younger than Burt and nowhere near as bright and that book also received similar love-it or loathe-it reviews. All I can say is that whereas I struggled with that book I did not with When I Was Five I Killed Myself and I suspect that the only way any reader will be able to judge the book is by reading it themselves.

I struggled a bit trying to establish the year in which the book was set. It’s not terribly important but I had a suspicion that it wasn’t set in the eighties when the book was written. On further investigation I discovered that the book has since been turned into a film set in 1962 which would have made John F Kennedy president so I suspect the president in the book is actually Eisenhower (1953-61). The film is in French (Quand j'avais cinq ans, je m'ai tue) but for some reason they change Burt’s name to Gilbert, Gil for short. Why do they do that? It’s also been produced as a play in France. I guess they must have really loved that book. In the interview at the end of this review Buten only talks about it being in the fifties.

The book was first published in the States in 1981 under the not-very-inviting title, Burt, and quietly flopped. It has since been re-released and one can only hope the book-buying public discover it. It is a little gem.

I’ve seen the book compared to The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time in which the narrator is a fifteen year-old autistic boy. I’ve also seen Burt described by one reviewer as “an autistic spectrum child” but he is not and all you have to do is read the introduction to Buten’s book Through the Glass Wall where he describes his first encounter with autism to know that he knows the difference.

In that respect the book has more in common with bears comparison with One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest; McMurphy is not crazy but what he experiences and witnesses of psychiatric ‘care’ makes him mad as hell. Burt does meet an autistic boy called Carl while in the Centre but the whole crux of the book for me hinges on the fact that Burt is normal and it’s his normalcy that gets him in bother. Here I differentiate normalcy from conformity: doing what comes naturally is totally different from doing what is expected. What I’m saying here is that there is an important message to this book and one that should put aside any minor quibbles about the accuracy of Buten’s dialogue-writing skills and listen to that message.

Howard Buten, Ph.D., the author of eight novels published in France, is also a performing artist known as Buffo the clown, who has played opera houses around the world. A clinical psychologist (a ground- breaking researcher in therapies for autistic children) he divides his time between Paris and New York. He is the founding director of the Adam Shelton Centre in Paris, a noted clinic for the treatment of autism, a field in which he has worked since 1974.

If you click here you can listen to a fascinating interview with the author recorded by CBC in Quebec which covers his three separate lives. You'll need to have RealPlayer installed for it to play.

Monday 1 December 2008

The long and the short of it (part two)

In our last post we looked at the arguments for and against long sentences. Now let's have a look at how far some people have been willing to go.

What is a sentence?

Up till this point I've taken for granted that we all know what a sentence is. An American linguist, C. C. Fries, counted more than two hundred definitions of the sentence. Simply put, the sentence is the basic building block of written language. In the past, sentences were often defined according to their meaning. For example, they were said to contain "a complete thought". This raises all sorts of questions about the difference between a complete thought and an incomplete one. Nowadays we can't even say with any degree of assurance that a sentence begins with a capital letter and ends with a full stop.

Of course not all definitions are very helpful: A sentence is a grammatical unit that is composed of one or more clauses. A clause is a grammatical unit that includes, at minimum, a predicate and an explicit or implied subject, and expresses a proposition. A predicate is the portion of a clause, excluding the subject that expresses something about the subject.

You get the idea. And because definitions have been stretched to breaking point so have sentences.

Longer and longer

As freedoms slip over the horizons some authors get carried away with themselves. Matthew Cheney's short story 'The Length of the Sentence' is 1109 words long; my own short story 'The Sentence' just beats him at 1127 but neither of us comes close to the last sentence of The Unnamable at a whopping 2671 words. Faulkner managed 1287 in Absalom, Absalom! The best Marcel Proust could come up with was a lamentable 958 though Victor Hugo didn't exactly disgrace himself at 823. Halton Borough Council made a name for themselves with a commendable 630. Check out the link if you don't believe me. Oh, and that Dickens sentence a bit early didn't even get out of double figures. Then again you could add all of those together and you wouldn't come anywhere near James Joyce. The last section of James Joyce's Ulysses, Molly Bloom's soliloquy, includes two sentences, the first one 11,281 words long, the second 12,931 words long. Jonathan Coe's The Rotters Club, published in 2001, has now well and truly smashed that record since the book contains a sentence with 13,955 words, a mere stroll in the park when compared to Nigel Tomm's new book The Blah Story, Volume 4 which consists of a single sentence containing 469,375 words which he then dwarfs in Volumes 16 through 19 which consist of one sentence 2,403,109 words long. To quote Ricky Gervais's comic creation Andy Millman in the role he will forever be remembered for as manager Ray Stokes: Are you 'avin’ a laff!?

So, why did I choose to write a 1127 word story? It was a challenge, to write a story in a single sentence, but I could've got away with two or three hundred. The reason I chose to keep going was to use the sentence as a metaphor; the narrator is someone who has been sentenced, we don't know what for, but the reader feels trapped by this very, very long sentence. I take the weakness of the long sentence and turn it to my advantage. Of course that trick only works once.

I managed a decent enough 196 in Living with the Truth where we get to hear about Jonathan's various fornications and adulteries:

The list was surprisingly long considering all the aspects of his character that were continually conspiring against him in this regard: a Thelma who worked in the creamed biscuit factory who was into older men and something he couldn’t pronounce too well but had definite Latin roots—she put him off custard creams for life; an Allison, a waitress, overweight and eager to please but hard work with it; June, once a regular, who did it to spite her husband (thankfully he never found out who the third party was (“person or persons unknown”)); Rose, a brief holiday romance (well, she thought it was romantic), who wrote to him care of the shop for months after, before taking the hint; Gillian, with the four cats, one called Widget he remembered, who simply wanted to footer around; Maycaroline—“all one word”—with her social worker’s eyes—they met through a computer dating agency (his one and only foray down that path); and, last, but by no means least, boozy Eileen—or, more specifically her breasts, Pinky and Perky (he never knew which was which)—she dozed off while he was doing it—but he did it anyway.

The reason I get away with this, and I don't think I do too bad of a job, is that it's a list, albeit a padded list, but nevertheless a list and lists can just meander on and on until you get fed up and decide to stick a full stop on the end and talk about something else.

Writing a balanced, well thought out long sentence is another thing entirely. In his article Mastering the long sentence, Roy Clark examines two sentences by Annie Proulx, the author of 'Brokeback Mountain', and feels he has come up with a formula:

Make meaning early with subject and verb; clear out some space for an inventory of detail or action; make the length of the sentence fit the length of the content or meaning.

It's a thought. But I'd like to return to something Matthew Cheney said in his post:

A friend of mine sometimes speaks wistfully of "lovely 18th century sentences", the sorts of things written by writers who intended to do with writing what could not be done with speech, and sought therefore to take advantage of writing's inherent, unique qualities -- the sentence as its own art.

I have to say, and for a guy with no great fondness for reading his work out loud, that I had never really considered that. I often read whole chunks of my novels to myself to make sure they flow even though I have no intention of ever reading them aloud; it's a good test I find.

I can still see the long sentence struggling to survive in this 21st century of ours. Thankfully I won't have to suffer too much of it myself. Even the humble sentence is fighting to keep a foothold ever since the sentence fragment bullied its way into our lives. I certainly didn’t get the memo – did you?

The maths behind it all

In the process of researching his post I've discovered that you can boil even the longest sentence down to a single number, the Flesch Reading Ease Score (FRES). Reader's Digest magazine has a readability index of about 65, Time magazine scores about 52; my paragraph was 56.6. 50-59 is considered Fairly Difficult.

The formula for the Flesch Reading Ease score is:

FRE = 206.835 - (1.015 x ASL) - (0.846 x ASW)

  • FRE = Flesch Reading Ease readability score
  • ASL = average sentence length in words or average number of words in sentence (number of words divided by the number of sentences)
  • ASW = average syllables per word (the number of syllables divided by the number of words)

It's not the only system. Many have appeared and disappeared since the 1940s. There's the SMOG Readability Formula, the New Dale-Chall Readability Formula, the Fry Graph Readability Formula, the Powers-Sumner-Kearl Readability Formula and the wonderfully-named Gunning’s Fog Index amongst others.

Looking at my sentence I'm not sure how this works. All I've done is padded out a list. I think you really have to take cognisance of the words. There isn't a complicated word in the whole sentence. It's just long and not even that long. Its length is appropriate to its content.

While I was learning about these different formulae I ran across an article, On the Necessity for Long Sentences, in which the author, a student of philosophy discusses how we express ourselves nowadays. Towards the end he begins summing things up:

Short sentences should only be used for emphasis, especially in a philosophical text. That is Flesch’s fatal mistake. Because everybody seems to write this way, our minds are being reduced to simplistic thoughts, thoughts that cannot be extended beyond the immediate subject and predicate, thoughts that don’t demand that we recall the main idea for more than eight or nine words.

The person who needs those sentences should not be studying philosophy. He should be studying grammar and learning how to read, two vital foundations for philosophy.

Please note that my primary concern here is not with philosophy but with writing. I’m arguing for the long sentence, contending that we have made ourselves stupid by refusing to express a thought that cannot be reduced to a single clause, by putting periods between every clause and sometimes phrase, by eliminating the semi-colon from the realm of comprehension, by compelling students, even in college, to think about matters for which the reading materials they have encountered have disabled them, by developing an attitude of resentment toward any writer that challenges their intellects beyond a single conjunction.

A thing of beauty

A thing of beauty shouldn't need to be explained and a long sentence when handled by a wordsmith is exactly that. I know what Nielsen’s reports all say about the capacity or at least the inclination of those reading online these days but, for God's sake, just stop a second and enjoy the words.

William Faulkner – 'Barn Burning'

The boy, crouched on his nail keg at the back of the crowded room, knew he smelled cheese, and more: from where he sat he could see the ranked shelves close-packed with the solid, squat, dynamic shapes of tin cans whose labels his stomach read, not from the lettering which meant nothing to his mind but from the scarlet devils and the silver curve of fish--this, the cheese which he knew he smelled and the hermetic meat which his intestines believed he smelled coming in intermittent gusts momentary and brief between the other constant one, the smell and sense just a little of fear because mostly of despair and grief, the old fierce pull of blood. – 117 words

Thomas Love Peacock – Crochet Castle

In one of those beautiful valleys, through which the Thames (not yet polluted by the tide, the scouring of cities, or even the minor defilement of the sandy streams of Surrey,) rolls a clear flood through flowery meadows, under the shade of old beech woods, and the smooth mossy greensward of the chalk hills (which pour into it their tributary rivulets, as pure and pellucid as the fountain of Bandusium, or the wells of Scamander, by which the wives and daughters of the Trojans washed their splendid garments in the days of peace, before the coming of the Greeks); in one of those beautiful valleys, on a bold round-surfaced lawn, spotted with juniper, that opened itself in the bosom of an old wood, which rose with a steep, but not precipitous ascent, from the river to the summit of the hill, stood the castellated villa of a retired citizen. – 149 words

Thomas Pynchon, Against the Day

She sang mezzo-soprano and had married almost shockingly young, the boys coming along in close order, “the way certain comedians make their entrances in variety acts,” it seemed to her, and about the time Colfax shot his first brace of pheasant, she had abruptly one day packed a scant six trunksful of clothes and with her maid, Vaseline, reinstalled herself in Greenwich Village in a town house floridly faced in terra-cotta imported from far away, designed inside by Elsie de Wolfe, adjoining that of her husband’s younger brother, R. Wilshire Vibe, who for some years had been living in his own snug spherelet of folly and decadence, squandering his share of the family money on ballet girls and the companies they performed for, especially those that could be induced to mount productions of the horrible “musical dramas” he kept composing, fake, or as he preferred, faux, European operettas on American subjects — Roscoe Conkling, Princess of the Badlands, Mischief in Mexico, and so many others. – 164 words

Virginia Wolff - To the Lighthouse

The gruff murmur, irregularly broken by the taking out of pipes and the putting in of pipes which had kept on assuring her, though she could not hear what was said (as she sat in the window which opened on the terrace), that the men were happily talking; this sound, which had lasted now half an hour and had taken its place soothingly in the scale of sounds pressing on top of her, such as the tap of balls upon bats, the sharp, sudden bark now and then, "How's that? How's that?" of the children playing cricket, had ceased; so that the monotonous fall of the waves on the beach, which for the most part beat a measured and soothing tattoo to her thoughts and seemed consolingly to repeat over and over again as she sat with the children the words of some old cradle song, murmured by nature, "I am guarding you--I am your support," but at other times suddenly and unexpectedly, especially when her mind raised itself slightly from the task actually in hand, had no such kindly meaning, but like a ghostly roll of drums remorselessly beat the measure of life, made one think of the destruction of the island and its engulfment in the sea, and warned her whose day had slipped past in one quick doing after another that it was all ephemeral as a rainbow--this sound which had been obscured and concealed under the other sounds suddenly thundered hollow in her ears and made her look up with an impulse of terror. – 260 words

You can read an analysis of the last sentence here.

Thursday 27 November 2008

The long and the short of it (part one)

There can be no 'correctness' apart from usage.
—C. C. Fries, American academic

Lenin Nair is an interesting guy. His name alone is interesting. And, yes, that's who he's named after (I had to ask). He runs a blog called Cute Writing which I read from time to time. One thing he has a thing about is concise writing, using short sentences and not wasting words.

He's not the only one. I keep tripping over posts harping on at me to cut down on my words but it was one of Lenin's most recent posts that caught my attention and fired my imagination.

Say, an author wastes one word in every five sentences. There are 80,000 words in his latest novel. And there are 4 words in average in each sentence. This means ideally he wastes the first word of every sentence! Okay, here goes my calculation…

Totally 80,000 divided by (4*5) is what we want (is my math correct? I am weak in it). So, it is 4000. Our author wasted 4000 words in his novel. Now, to read those 4000 words, a reader requires one hour extra, let’s assume. And this is highly economical. Most authors waste far more than that.

One more assumption: our author has twenty books in writing (20 best sellers, each sold one million copies). Now, each book makes one hour waste on extra unnecessary words. So, our author makes 20 million of general public hours wasted! It is up to you to calculate how many days, months, or years it is. There are hundreds of best selling authors, and thousands of non-best selling ones, who give more danger to community than someone like Osama bin-Laden. They are delaying a lot of progress by riveting their readers’ attention on their useless words rather than their useful ones. - Why Waste Words in Writing?

Don't you just love statistics? I always have despite the fact I failed my Statistics exam at college but what were the odds on that? Personally I tend to stay clear of them. I don't trust 'em. But this is clearly just a bit of fun from Lenin to make a serious point.

It's something that I find myself running across more and more these days, online articles telling me how to write concisely, how many words per sentence, how many sentences per paragraph – and I am not jesting here. Tell me something, when did words become an endangered species?

I have a problem with all this. Although I agree that some authors do waffle on endlessly and needlessly about a lot of stuff, piling adjective upon adjective – there will always be those – there are also a lot of writers, myself included, who enjoy language for its own sake and relish the musicality of the longer sentence. Writing is not only about the destination (accurately conveying meaning) it is also about the journey (the experience of learning).

Small is beautiful

On the whole I agree that technical writing should veer towards conciseness, clarity and simplicity (the personality of the writer is neither here nor there) but in creative fiction the way the words say things matters every bit as much as the message that those words are there to communicate.

There's always a middle ground and I'd like to think that's where you'll find me; I tend towards the loquacious but steer clear of out-and-out verbosity.

In another article, How to Write Concise Sentences, Lenin provides a nice list of examples of words we often use to pad our sentences. Let's have a look at one here:

Using absolutely, totally, completely, etc: Don’t say “something is absolutely excellent”. Using just ‘excellent’ is enough.

Of course he's right. But he is also completely, totally and utterly wrong. That, by the way, is one of my pet interjections – "completely, totally and utterly" – and I enjoy using it. It's like my catchphrase. One of them anyway. It's not enough to say he's wrong here. I want to really emphasise his wrongness and stamp all over it. Or I could have said: "But he is also wrong, w r o n g, capital letters, bold, underscore AND italics." Or what about: "But he is also wrong. You would not believe how wrong he is. On a scale of one to wrong he's so very, very wrong."

Okay, maybe he's not as wrong as all that but you get my point.

To my mind the inclusion of all these adverbs adds colour to the text and English is a very colourful language. But when does it get to be unnecessary?

In his post Power of Short Sentences, Lenin draws our attention to the opening sentence to Oliver Twist:

Among other public buildings in a certain town, which for many reasons it will be prudent to refrain from mentioning, and to which I will assign no fictitious name, there is one anciently common to most towns, great or small: to wit, a workhouse; and in this workhouse was born; on a day and date which I need not trouble myself to, inasmuch as it can be of no possible consequence to the reader, in this stage of the business at all events; the item of mortality whose name is prefixed to the head of this chapter.

In other words:

Oliver was born in the workhouse.

And this is exactly how the abridged version of the book on Glyn Hughes' Squashed Writer's site puts it.

But just look at what Dickens does in this sentence. He piles insignificance atop of insignificance. He doesn't even name Oliver who is reduced to an "item of mortality". It is a carefully constructed sentence. Of course it could be broken down into smaller sentences but for whose benefit?

Up till now I feel like I've been slagging off Lenin but I think he's the kind of guy who can take a joke. To redress the balance somewhat if I go right back to the start of his blog, his very first entry has this to say:

When you can write simple sentences, you don’t have to write too simple ones:

Tom is a boy. He wears a sweatshirt. He is 5 feet tall. He is fair. He is handsome. He is running. He is…

Now, that looks ridiculous! How about:

Tom is a fair good-looking boy of five feet, wearing a sweatshirt. He is running.

That’s fine and professional. To me, being professional is being subtle. When you see professionals and amateurs at work, you will know this

See, he's not obsessed with brevity for its own sake.

Let's move the focus away from poor Lenin and look at why people have it in for the longer sentence. Here's an example provided by Ken Macrorie in his book, Telling Writing where he talks about what he calls 'namery' the habit of naming things that do not need naming:

He starts with this example:

Juliet and Rosalind are women who fall in love. This is one of the few similarities between these two characters. They are different in age, with Juliet being an impetuous adolescent and Rosalind being a mature adult. This different is illustrated by the manner in which each character falls in love. Juliet rushes into romance and gets married as quickly as possible while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando--a much more rational and logical choice than Juliet's.

Now, on the surface this doesn't look too cumbersome. The sentences are not obsessively short but just because the component sentences are on the short side doesn't necessarily make it good reading. Macrorie provides a streamlined version and it's worthy of note that he doesn't try and force it all into a single convoluted 'clever' sentence.

One of the few similarities between Juliet and Rosalind is that they both fall in love; but Juliet rushes into romance while Rosalind makes sure of her love for Orlando. Juliet is an impetuous adolescent; Rosalind is a mature adult.

There is of course a problem with short sentences as Emma Darwin points out in her post In praise of the long sentence:

Short sentences don't flow. Yes, the next one may develop it. But at each full stop the reader, well, stops. There are several unfortunate consequences. One: rhythmically and therefore mentally the reader has to start up again each time. They may choose not to. Two: because you can't easily link each sentence grammatically and logically to the next, you're relying on the reader to make the connections: to move the story on, to provide their own profluence. Some will, some won't, but none will do it as well and reliably as when you, the writer, provide it. And Three: it's boring to read/hear for any length of time, just as is a single drum beat instead of the stress and slack, the interlocking rhythms of our human existence.

A similar point is made by Matthew Cheney in his post, In praise of long sentences, where he includes a quote from Joseph Williams's Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, the opening paragraph from his chapter on 'Length':

The ability to write clear, crisp sentences that never go beyond twenty words is a considerable achievement. You'll never confuse a reader with sprawl, wordiness, or muddy abstraction. But if you never write sentences longer than twenty words, you'll be like a pianist who uses only the middle octave: you can carry the tune, but without much variety or range. Every competent writer has to know how to write a concise sentence and how to prune a long one to readable length. But a competent writer must also know how to manage a long sentence gracefully, how to make it as clear and as vigorous as a series of short ones.

The online sentence

The main cry for shorter sentences comes from people involved in writing for the Web, shorter sentences, smaller paragraphs, plain English, lots of white space please. Since more and more people are being drawn to the Internet for information does this mean that what they're going to find has been diluted in some way to support the medium? In his article, Web Writing vs Print Writing, Kerry Redshaw explains the science behind these outrageous demands. In printed material, the brain slows down to string multiple syllables together. On the Web, that comprehension is slowed down by another 25% and with that slow down, we often lose the rhythms of sentences.

The Nielsen Report, which he references, provides some sobering statistics:

  • 79% of users scan the page instead of reading word for word, focusing on headlines, summaries and captions.

  • Only 16% actually read word for word what's on the screen.

  • Web readers are 3 times more likely than newspaper readers to limit in-depth reading to short paragraphs.

  • On the average Web page, users have time to read at most 28% of the words during an average visit; 20% is more likely.

  • Of those Web users who do read the entire page, most only absorb 75% of the content.

It's amazing anything goes in at all.

The most important conclusion was that writing on the Web should be 50% shorter than its paper equivalent simply because people don't read what they find online; they scan it and pick out the interesting bits. So we're advised to keep it simple, succinct and scannable.

Interestingly the turning point in sentence construction happened well before computers, with the inception of the pulp detective novel; at least that is what Otto Penzler suggests in the article Pulp Fiction Murdered Long Sentences:

I think it was really the beginning of a different kind of writing. The kind of writing in the world of literature that everyone had been familiar with was Henry James with long sentences, long paragraphs. And then Ernest Hemingway came along and Dashiell Hammett came along and they started to write short, quick, clipped sentences that didn't require lots and lots of description. The pulps provided the perfect springboard for that literary tone.

Middle ground

The real answer is that there is room for both. If you look at this speech by Shakespeare's Henry IV, Part 1 (IIiv) we find the character of Falstaff getting more and more long-winded in his sentences. I've reformatted it to make my point:

But to say I know more harm in him than in myself, were to say more than I know.

That he is old, the more the pity, his white hairs do witness it; but that he is, saving your reverence, a whoremaster, that I utterly deny.

If sack and sugar be a fault, God help the wicked! if to be old and merry be a sin, then many an old host that I know is damned: if to be fat be to be hated, then Pharaoh's lean kine are to be loved.

No, my good lord; banish Peto, banish Bardolph, banish Poins: but for sweet Jack Falstaff, kind Jack Falstaff, true Jack Falstaff, valiant Jack Falstaff, and therefore more valiant, being, as he is, old Jack Falstaff, banish not him thy Harry's company, banish not him thy Harry's company: banish plump Jack, and banish all the world.

To which the prince replies:

I do. I will.

Here we have a fine example of two very different kinds of power. And each is appropriate to the character involved.

In my next post we'll have a look at the lengths to which some authors go to demonstrate the effectiveness of the longer sentence and then we'll consider some of the maths behind it all.

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