Tuesday, 14 February 2012

In which I consider the use of the English language. With specific reference to Rod Liddle and Samuel Beckett.

Posted by Tania Kindersley.

I suddenly thought I should do something about writing. That is the thing I know, after all. Part of the point about blogs is to speak of the thing you know. Some people are really good at making crafty things; some cook food; some bring up children; some take photographs of well-dressed people in the street. So that is what they blog about. I, on the other hand, mimse and muse about any stray thought which staggers across my brain and collapses onto a park bench for a breather. (Klaxon goes off: STRAINED METAPHOR ALERT; walk slowly to the exits.)

I think about words and language and syntax all the time. I suppose I don’t put it here much because it feels like the day job. Also, it can be unbearably pretentious. And there is the distinct possibility that not everyone is as riveted by the semi-colon as I.

I thought about it today because I was catching up with a back edition of The Speccie and I got to Rod Liddle. Rod Liddle is one of those columnists who is impossible to categorise; I should say radical libertarian left if you put me up against a wall and forced me to choose. He is frequently maddening and provocative, certainly on purpose, and you never, ever know what side of an argument he will take next. But the odd thing is that hardly anyone remarks on how well he writes. Here is the first sentence of the column I just read:

‘I’d like, this week, to draw your attention to the United Kingdom’s unjust treatment of some bearded maniacs.’

It’s a genius sentence. Well, all right, it’s not quite it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, but it is very good indeed. It scans, for a start; it contains a lovely internal rhythm. It grabs your attention and pins it to the table. It is mordantly funny, lowly ironical. The comic tone comes somehow from the juxtaposition of United Kingdom, the grandest name for our small islands (as opposed to Britain or Blighty, or the awful, corporate UK) with bearded maniacs. The use of maniac is clever too; he could have said zealot or fundamentalist or terrorist or preacher, and it would not have had the same impact at all.

It is also clever because it sets up the whole premise of his piece in eighteen words. You know, at once, that he is going to be outspoken and contrary on the subject of human rights, bureaucracy, and muddled political thinking. It is almost certain that he will make a counter-intuitive point about rights and the law, that he is going to deal with one of those gritty points of principle which mean we, as a society, have to do things which may make our viscera revolt. Principles aren’t always pretty, or easy, but you can’t just start trimming when the sky grows stormy.

I was thinking about this too because I have just read a book for my researches which is so bad that it made my eyes ache. The infuriating thing is that I’m not even sure it was that useful for my work. I have tortured my poor aesthetic sense for nothing. The prose flopped, limp and tepid, onto the page. No cliché was left unturned. There was an awful tendency to drab repetition. (I have to be a bit careful about criticising people for repetition, since I have a terrible habit of flogging tropes to death myself.) I started yelling, half way through: ‘Where is the sodding editor?’

The writer actually used the expression ‘at the end of the day’ four times. FOUR. At the end of the day is one of those mystery expressions; one day, it does not exist, the next, it is everywhere. It used to hold its literal meaning, until really quite recently. It meant: when the day is over. I’ll see you at the end of the day, one might say, matter of factly.

Now it means: when all is said and done. I suppose people used to go mad over all being said and done; now I miss that old, worn phrase like a brother. For some unexplained reason, at the end of the day came out of football. It was the thing managers suddenly began saying in post-match interviews. I imagine they thought it gave them a philosophical, big picture air. Then it spread, ruthless and cunning as a virus, into all areas of life. Now accountants say it, and politicians, and bricklayers.

It did not exist when Orwell sent off his mighty blast against empty and shop-soiled political language. It was, however, exactly what he was talking about when he said: never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print. I sometimes think that if there were only one rule about writing allowed, that would be the one rule. (Well, that, and nobody knows anything, the immortal line of Mr William Goldman.)

The rule carries a little elasticity around the edges. Sometimes a familiar, comforting phrase is exactly what I want; I really do require a stitch in time to save nine. I think of it like the split infinitive: when I split an infinitive, it damn well stays split. Intent, in this case, is everything. Don’t use some old, thin platitude simply because you can’t think of anything else; only resort to the familiar if there is a particular effect you wish to create.

Language should dance on the page, it should be active and antic and sometimes surprising. It should hop and sing and do jazz hands. I am going to be slightly chauvinist now and say that I think the English language is the greatest invention ever. Sure, we don’t have twenty-seven words for snow; we do not have the elegant collocations of the French, or the delightful portmanteau words of the Germans. But English has a dazzling, shimmering variety and suppleness that you don’t find anywhere else.

I think its brilliance lies in its felonious streak. There is no Académie Française to fence it in; it has stolen shamelessly from any language it can get its hands on. It is a thieving mongrel of a tongue. That is why we have anorak from the Inuit, catamaran from the Tamil, ketchup from the Chinese, fetish from the Portuguese. (Fetish is particularly wonderful, coming not just from any old Portuguese, but specifically, according to my etymological dictionary, from Portuguese sailors on the Guinea coast of Africa. How’s that for good origins?) The simple word crimson has no less than three roots: from old Spanish, via Middle Latin, and all the way back to Sanskrit.

See what infinite variety there is to play with? That is why there is no excuse for at the end of the day. Good writing really can be achieved with nothing more than a little thought. The problem comes when you realise that the thoughts must be thunk every single day. It’s a daily, holy concentration.

I was not born with a feeling for language. When I started, I was roaringly, shamingly bad. I’m not putting up false modesty here. I recently stumbled on one of my early books. It was so egregious it made my eyes water. It has taken me twenty years to learn how to write a decent sentence, and I did that by thinking about it.

This is both daunting, and hopeful. The lovely thing is: anyone can do it. The alarming thing is: it does take a tremendous amount of application. It is the epitome of cliché: practice makes perfect. And it is the shining precept of Beckett – Try again. Fail again. Fail better.

 

Now for today's pictures. It was a low, sullen, dirty day, so I had to get in very, very close on the lovely things, which defied the flat brown light.

The dear old Portuguese laurel:

14 Feb 1 14-02-2012 15-43-10

My adored little box:

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SNOWDROPS:

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More laurel:

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More SNOWDROPS. Sorry about the caps, but I am still that excited. Also, because of the strange weather, we seem to have them before the south, which never happens. Whilst below the border there has been frost and ice and frozen rain, we have gentle Atlantic air, bringing us a frankly odd five degrees:

14 Feb 5 14-02-2012 15-43-41.ORF

One of the very dearest of the Dear Readers asked the other day what the lovely purple things were. They are quite miraculous crocuses:

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So sorry, but can't resist more SNOWDROPS:

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My favourite mossy stump. It might seem odd to have a favourite mossy stump, but I do, and that's all there is to it:

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Most regal crocuses in their close-up. What I love about going in so close is that all the colours intensify and blur and there is the quality of a painting, almost:

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This pleasing effect also happened with the apple blossom:

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The apple blossom came out by mistake in December, when we had a very mild snap. Despite having seen minus sixteen since, the brave little thing is still flowering. It's a big apple tree, with a dropping, willow-like aspect; most of its branches are still quite bare. But there are about five hopeful blossoms, which should not really be here until the end of March. I love them all.

Talking of love – some special stick action:

2012-02-14

Serious face:

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HAPPY FACE:

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And the dear old hill:

14 Feb `5 14-02-2012 15-48-49

16 comments:

  1. Hello! I feel there has been an absence...I've been away and then sick. Anyway I am holed up in bed (it's also half term; my son has been in his pyjamas for to days, is that bad??). My dear mum is here helping out and we just spoke about language. She's in a book club with women who read what she describes as 'ordinary books'. If one reads, she argues, should one not read something extraordinary? My mum is one of the most well read people I ever knew. She introduced me to reading at an early age. We agreed that language is the most important gift...that words are lean and light. Like soufflé. I am reading Alice Munro at the moment and she has the gift...as do you. Lou x

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    1. Lou - always so lovely to hear from you. Sorry to hear you have not been well; hope you are on the mend. Love the picture of you and your mum discussing language. :)

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  2. I love your treatises; invariably what I can think but cannot verbalize. Sometimes, in the middle, I can write a good page or two. I like to come here and wallow in real prose. Thank you.

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    1. Joanne - absolutely lovely thing to say; thank you.

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  3. You are so right about the English language being the greatest invention ever. Other languages are limiting by comparison (at least the ones I know something about). It reminds me of the Cecil Rhodes quote "... you are an Englishman and have consequently won first prize in the lottery of life." I do count myself most fortunate to have English as my first language.

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    1. Jerry - I always feel a bit nervous when I make such sweeping statements, but it is a most glorious language and I do love it.

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  4. Ah, you got me at 'dance across the page' and 'jazz hands'. :)
    What a wonderful way you have with the English language - you celebrate it.

    Your pictures are beautiful. I particularly love the close-ups today. And, of course, that delicious girl xx

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  5. Em - you are always so kind, and particularly appreciative of that Pigeon, which of course makes me very happy.

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  6. At the end of the day...night fell, a veil of darkness silently rolling across the land like a river of...(are you groaning yet!?!)

    I LOVE English (luckily, since it's the only language I know..a little). It's so rich, stealing from everyone and when that doesn't "work", making up its own wonderful words (take that, Academie francaise! Le hot dog! Pfffftt!)

    As for failure, I am reminded of Austrian artist Erwin Wurm's words: "Even bad art is art."

    The smiling Pigeon is beyond words...

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    1. Pat - so glad you love that smiling Pidge. :)

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  7. Wonderful post Tania. I love coming here not only because I enjoy your writing so much, but because you make me THINK. And because of Pigeon of course.

    I do not find it odd at all that you have a favorite mossy stump. I think moss improves most anything outdoors.

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    1. Nancy - what a lovely comment. And thank you for reassuring me about the moss.

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  8. Thank you for the bit about the crocus. I've read of them, seen them in pictures now I know what they are supposed to be. At last we are having buckets of rain, literally buckets. Thank God

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    1. Mystica - so pleased you are getting needed rain. Always so fascinating to get the picture from the other side of the world. :)

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  9. The book that cured me of having to finish bad books was one that was needlessly repetitive. I remember what the book was, and that the phrase drove me nuts, but I've blocked out the phrase the author used! I love your writing, and that there is one place on the Internet I can come and not cringe.

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    1. CatherineMarie - what a very, very kind thing to say. Thank you.

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