Sunday, 31 March 2013

Figures shimmering with vitality

My favourite television viewer discovered in the course of writing Armchair Nation was George Mackay Brown, the reclusive Orcadian poet and writer who rarely left the islands (or, in fact, his Stromness council flat, except to go to the pub). When Orkney finally got television from the Meldrum transmitter through a sea of static in the mid-1950s, he railed against it as a dark avatar of all that was corrupt about the modern world, but he gradually relented, acquiring a rented black and white ‘stone age’ set, then a colour one, and finally – in the 1970s and 1980s – becoming a virtual addict. He often used his weekly column in the Orcadian newpaper to talk about the programmes he had seen.

Watching Scotland disintegrate in the 1978 world cup in front of a colour TV, he wondered: ‘Is there something strange and perverse in the Scottish character that allows the brimming cup to fall and shatter on a stone?’ He became a fan of the snooker, and marvelled at how a new pair of glasses had transformed watching the sport: ‘Figures shimmering with vitality, with intent vibrant faces, were striking balls of amazing solidity and vivid colours’. He also grew to like the daily quiz show Countdown: ‘Letters is my trade, and so I ought to be good at the word-making, but my mind goes numb and after a few seconds I give up … strangely enough, I can do the numbers better.’

He never missed the science programmes on BBC2. After one Horizon programme, Hello, Universe!, broadcast in March 1981, he wrote this:

‘An astonishing thing transpired. Even supposing our message got through to a very distant planet, its journey there would take 40,000 years. The planet’s reply would take a further 40,000 years. At the end of that time we of 1981 would long have been kirkyard dust, and the earth itself perhaps a cinder … Sitting lonely, late at night, in a council house in Orkney – as one shuts off the TV and, beyond the window, the innumerable star-systems wheel – one realises that one is not lonely at all. However isolated, in a croft above the seashore or on a hillside, we are involved with homo sapiens, we live on a teeming ant-hill of a planet, between skulls and seeds.’ 

Brown’s newspaper column had such a distinctive voice – a mixture of lyricism, naivety, misanthropy and good-heartedness – that when I finally reached the end of them (the last appeared just a few weeks before his death in April 1996) it felt like saying goodbye to a friend.

Tuesday, 19 March 2013

Those impurities we call meaning

When I am marking students’ essays, one of the commonest things I write in the margin is ‘not a sentence’ – which of course is also not a sentence.

I love sentences. ‘And the words slide into the slots ordained by syntax,’ writes Anthony Burgess in his novel Enderby Outside, ‘and glitter as with atmospheric dust with those impurities which we call meaning.’ Sentences are ways of shaping and reshaping the world, creating little universes of sense and meaningfulness. A sentence is a beautifully logical system of relationships in which, as Stanley Fish writes in his book How to Write a Sentence, ‘no word floats without an anchoring connection within an overall structure’.

In her book The Writing Life, Annie Dillard tells a story about a fellow writer who taught creative writing at the same American college as her. She was asked by a student if she thought he could be a writer. Well, she replied, do you like sentences? Dillard says that she understood immediately what that meant (I’m not sure whether the student did): he was being told that ‘if he liked sentences he could begin’. She recalls a similar conversation with a friend who is a painter: ‘I asked him how he came to be a painter. He said, “I like the smell of paint.”’ Sentences, in other words, are the raw material of writing – and if you don’t have a feel for them, you’re like a painter who can’t stand the smell of paint.

One of the problems I have with the managerialist language that has pervaded public institutions, including universities, over the last few years is that it is surely responsible for some of the ugliest sentences to have been crafted since the Phoenicians came up with that bright idea called the alphabet about 3000 years ago. These sentences seem to assume that writing is easy and straightforward – that just by welding together a few abstract nouns, passive constructions and verbless participles you are communicating with another human being. I would be tempted to say that this is what the anthropologist Bronislaw Malinowski called ‘phatic communication’ – communication just for the sake of it, with no meaningful content. But that’s being too kind. Really it is anti-communication, a combination of PR, bullshit and arse-covering that exhibits a profound mistrust of language and, by extension, social life.

Please don’t tell me that none of this matters and that worrying about the position of words in a sentence is just being picky. Who was it who said that all poets are pedants in disguise – or was it that all pedants are poets in disguise? To paraphrase Kenneth Tynan after he saw Look Back in Anger for the first time, I’m not sure I could love anyone who didn’t love sentences.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Management of what? Management for what? Management. Management. Management. The word sticks in one’s interface. Please excuse me if I dare to laugh, but I know that each age, even each decade, has its little cant word coiled up inside real discourse like a tiny grub in the middle of an apple.’ – Dennis Potter

Sunday, 17 March 2013

Boneheaded about bone conduction

Graham Kemp writes with a correction to ‘The sound of my own voice’, my post of 25 February: ‘It’s true that bone conduction makes your own voice sound deeper than you sound to others (or to yourself in a recording), but putting your fingers in your ears blocks air conduction, and so makes your voice sound even deeper.’

Of course, you could always stick with my initial explanation – I did get a B in my Biology O Level, after all (I think). But since Graham is Professor of Musculoskeletal Biology at the University of Liverpool, I think I might go with him. In any case, a few seconds’ self-experiment is enough to prove him right.

I have been boneheaded about bone conduction. Mea maxima culpa.

Sunday, 10 March 2013

The old heart stamping in its stall

I’m working in the university library at the moment. Libraries are no longer cathedrals of silence and so the soundtrack to my work is students talking to each other on their phones. I don't mind any more and have got used to the noise, mostly filtering it out along with the PA announcements and that buzzing-bee sound emanating from headphones. But ohmigod: if Richard Dawkins could hear how much young people say ‘ohmigod’, I think he would give up trying to convert us all into rational humanists. The conversations are sometimes fraught: fallings out, insecurities, anxieties, broken hearts and other mind-forg’d manacles. He said, she said. I guess it could all be filed under what the poet C.K. Williams called ‘the old heart stamping in its stall’. A seat of learning, with all the outward signs of institutional respectability – computer screens, bookcases, photocopiers, quiet study spaces – is also a repository of invisible, unfulfilled desires. Where do all these desires go? Maybe they are like radio waves, and when they are spent on this earth they travel at the speed of light to other galaxies to perplex extraterrestrials on temperate planets. More likely they are useless and go nowhere, like a horse stamping in its stall.

‘My daughter lives in a girls’ web of thrills and tensions invisible to me,’ writes Kathleen Jamie in her book Sightlines. ‘She frets about who said what to whom, and who sent what text; sometimes whole days are spent in fallings out and makings up and social anxiety. I wan’t to say it doesn’t matter. “It does matter!” says my daughter, and she’s right.’

Yes she is. I wish I could say to them it gets easier, but we just carry on like this till we drop, caught in this web of thrills and tensions, caring too much about what other people said or didn’t say. Although most of us would rather not talk about this on a phone in the library.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Every living creature exists by a routine of some kind; the small rituals of that routine are the landmarks, the boundaries of security, the reassuring walls that exclude a horror vacui; thus, in our own species, after some tempest of the spirit in which the landmarks seem to have been swept away, a man will reach out tentatively in mental darkness to feel the walls, to assure himself that they will stand where they stood - a necessary gesture, for the walls are of his own building, without universal reality, and what man makes he may destroy.’ - Gavin Maxwell, Ring of Bright Water

Sunday, 3 March 2013

One kind of loneliness

Aeon magazine, a new e-magazine that publishes a substantial essay by a different author each day, is well worth a read. I particularly liked this essay by Olivia Laing on loneliness:

Some deluded people turn to writing as a cure for loneliness, which, as this quote from Rebecca Solnit suggests, is a bit like banging your head repeatedly against a brick wall to cure a headache:

‘Writing is lonely. It’s an intimate talk with the dead, with the unborn, with the absent, with strangers, with the readers who may never come to be and who, even if they do read you, will do so weeks, years, decades later. An essay, a book, is one statement in a long conversation you could call culture or history; you are answering something or questioning something that may have fallen still long ago, and the response to your words may come long after you’re gone and never reach your ears – if anyone hears you in the first place … Writing is a model for how indirect effect can be, how delayed, how invisible; no one is more hopeful than a writer, no one is a bigger gambler.’ - Rebecca Solnit, Hope in the Dark: Untold Histories, Wild Possibilities (2004), pp. 64-5

There’s a book of short stories by Richard Yates whose title I have always loved for its alliterative loveliness and its strange precision: Eleven Kinds of Loneliness. But actually, I am with Laing. There is really only one kind of loneliness, the one that is 'like being hungry ... in a place where being hungry is shameful, and where one has no money and everyone else is full' and that is 'like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired'.

Mundane quote for the day: ‘Nothing can match the loneliness of a pianist in a large hotel. All around him is just a hum of cocktails and small talk; he is more alone with his melody than he would be on an island. Yet at a particular moment, he stops and people applaud. You are doubly astonished: there was an end to this music then, and people were listening? He was playing something and he was not playing in vain? He seems stupefied himself. But he well knows, in the secret depths of his soul, that this applause only breaks out because his music has fallen silent, a silence these wild things notice in much the same way they notice the sugar melting in their glasses. So, like the bald prima donna, he quickly starts up with a new tune.’ - Jean Baudrillard, Cool Memories (1990), p. 223