Tuesday, 11 September 2012

What are words for?

Today, I used my writing for good rather than evil.

(Of course, I don’t ever use my words for evil, I just like a catchy first line, because I can be a bit of a tart like that.)

One of my eight deadlines is for an outstanding charity. I’ve always sent off middle-class first-world guilt direct debits. These are entirely self-serving. If some smiling women send me a picture of a tap that I paid for, so they don’t have to walk ten miles with buckets on their heads, then I may have the illusion that I am a half-decent human. But as I get older I think just whacking off some soul-salving cash is not enough. Now, I get the brilliant opportunity to give my time, and whatever small skills I have, for a greater good.

The charity needs words: for reports, for fund-raising, for brochures, for its website. I can do words. This morning, I sat down to tackle the thing seriously.

It is possibly the most difficult kind of writing I’ve ever done. I’m used to goofing along in my own whimsical, shambly way. I play about with language, indulge in wild idiosyncrasy, gallop off on tangents. If you are writing something for a serious operation with a serious purpose, you can’t do that. You have to do fairly sober prose. You have to write like a damn grown-up.

The original report inevitably included, as these things always must, some of the business words and tropes that make me sad. There was a bit of delivering, which my Twitter followers will know makes me twitchy. (My contention is that parcels are delivered, not policies or social change or the Olympics.)

I wanted to strike them all out, but then I realised I could not, quite. They really were there for a reason. If a grave corporate operative is reading this thing, wondering whether to make a grant, she may expect some of that business-speak. It acts, I think, as a shorthand for seriousness, as much as I may hate it. It is, in its own weird way, the language of the tribe. It’s no good me hectoring them in poetic-speak and expecting them to get it.

At the same time, what this particular operation does is not only magical and inspiring and life-changing, but very idiosyncratic indeed. I did need to reflect that, and I did want to make a few hairs stand up on the back of people’s necks. So I frowned and wrangled and compromised and cast about for the finest of fine balances.

It made me think about different kinds of writing, and what all those words are for. My secret project, I may tell you because I know you won’t breathe a word, is a novel. I have been in the world of non-fiction for a few years, and now I go back to stories. As I do that work, I am thinking all the time of movement. There is no time for too much of your philosophy, Horatio; there must be pace, the pulling threads that carry the reader through a story, a sense of momentum. There must be the evocative, all the time, in the most economical way possible.

I think, as I write: can the reader see that? I am painting with words, something I have not done for ages. Rather like the riding, it comes back to me, a little rusty from disuse, stored in muscle memory.

On Twitter, a sort of writing I take oddly seriously, and which interests me, there is the need for pith and punch. Just one hundred and forty characters to make your mark, in a crowded timeline, in people’s hectic lives. I yearn for the Noel Coward talent to amuse. He would have been brilliant on Twitter. The best tweets are immediate, surprising, and, like a Saki short story, often have a little lemon twist in the tail.

Then there is the blog writing. Here, I move uneasily between theories and approaches, acutely aware of the newness of the medium. A new Twitter companion said something kind about the blog today, and I was overcome with joy and blushes. But every compliment is a challenge. It’s all very well if someone likes it, but that only means that I now have a standard to uphold. Tomorrow must be better. I can’t give in to tiredness or self-indulgence, but must tap dance and sparkle. Here, the Dear Reader lives large in the front of my mind.

At the very same time, I think the blog has a bit of latitude for self-indulgence. It is my thing; it is free; no one is obliged to take down this book. Part of its pleasure is that I may look back, and see what I was doing with the mare in March, or have little sentimental readings of Frankel’s great triumphs (I am ashamed to say these sometimes bring tears to my own eyes, which is the equivalent of laughing at your own jokes), or read the funny thing the Youngest Cousin said when she was three. It’s like a delightful scrapbook in that way, and I don’t apologise for that.

But then there is the importance of the compact. The Dear Readers give time; the least I can do is offer some half-decent prose. My feeling is that I can be indulgent about subject matter if I can do it in antic sentences. If I give you some roaring adverb action, then you may forgive the fact that I bang on about racing, in which you may have no interest. (Unlike some hard-line writers, I adore a finely chosen adverb, and a good adjective too. I am not Hemingway, nor was meant to be.)

What then of the days when I am shattered and my brain goes phut and my creaking fingers crawl over the keyboard, nothing light in them? Does that mean rank failure? That is why I always hover over the Apologise button; that is why my own private report card says Must Try Harder.

I think perhaps that here the purpose of the words is to divert, in its most lovely, shining sense. I used to use this space for ranting, quite a lot. There would be some political scandal into which I would wade, or something that infuriated me on the Today programme. Ha, I had my forum; I could convert the unconvinced. Watch my incontrovertible arguments win the day. See my rampant feminism roar.

Now, the comments which give me the most profound pleasure are those which talk of the ordinary. Someone is struggling with a degree; someone is battling with melancholy or endless demands or just too much to do. They stop here, and say something like: you took my mind off it, or you cheered me up. My younger ambitious self would have baulked at this; I wanted prizes and bouquets. I wanted cash and love. Older, and more bashed up, I think the tiny, mundane act of diverting is the good prize, after all. It is a small act of connection, to do with the kindness of strangers and our shared human hearts. I think, as I often do about the benign side of the internet, that there is something magical in that.

And perhaps too, in the end, words don’t always have to be for something. They can just be fine things in themselves.

As I was writing this, I found myself putting in that ‘nor was meant to be’ line. I do this quite often; those old references are stitched into my writing mind. I’m always bashing on about slings and arrows, and the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. I went back to Prufrock, at whom I had not looked for a while. One of the things I love about TS is that often I don’t understand what he’s on about. The Wasteland in particular is stuffed with classical references I do not get; some of it is even in German, which I do not speak. It does not matter. I read it for the words alone. Prufrock is more comprehensible, but even after a hundred readings, I am sure that I miss some of its finer points. None of that matters. The words exist, work, dazzle off the page, as their very own selves. They do nothing except be, in some mysterious, harmonious beauty.

Like this:

No! I am not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be;
Am an attendant lord, one that will do
To swell a progress, start a scene or two,
Advise the prince; no doubt, an easy tool,
Deferential, glad to be of use,
Politic, cautious, and meticulous;
Full of high sentence, but a bit obtuse;
At times, indeed, almost ridiculous—
Almost, at times, the Fool.

Shall I part my hair behind? Do I dare eat a peach?
I shall wear white flannel trousers, and walk upon the beach.
I have heard the mermaids singing, each to each.

I do not think that they will sing to me.

From The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock, by TS Eliot.


Pictures of the day are from the archive. Too distrait to take the camera out this morning. Instead, a random selection:

11 Sept 3

11 Sept 5

11 Sept 7

11 Sept 8

11 Sept 10

11 September 1

11 Sept 9

11 Sept 8-001

11 Sept 9-001

11 Sept 12-001

11 Sept 11

11 Sept 12

11 Sept 15


I realise, suddenly, that today is 11th September. That was a day when words failed. Even now, it is hard to write about it meaningfully and well, without falling into false sentiment. But it should always be marked.

And on a happier note, words are easy for the great victory of Andy Murray in his first grand slam. Hurrah for the Flower of Scotland! And bloody well done. And go, Andy, go. As I woke this morning to the news, I hoped that all those nasty, carping people who have complained of his supposed surliness, just because he would not vamp for the camera, who insisted he was a grumpy Scot, who suggested that he was not really much good at the tennis and did not have the bottle for the big occasion are EATING THEIR WORDS. And feeling very, very silly indeed.

He’s an exceptionally talented young man, and he’s nice to his mum and he loves his dog, and that should be good enough for any human.

And one very final PS:

For those of you interested, the mare’s wound has healed. I did not sleep last night for worrying, which is why this blog is a bit mad. I rushed up first thing, and all swelling had gone and a neat scar sat where there had been a cut. Carr and Day and Martin Wound Cream, by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen, is possibly the most miraculous product I have ever used, and for those of you with horses, I cannot recommend it highly enough. (As I rub it on, I think: how clever the Queen is to know about it.)

Really, really am stopping now.


  1. Is it just me, or is the whole world swirling with so much emotion today that the only sense I can make of it is to take the hound for a run. We have a beach, it is rather poor, but perhaps we will hear mermaids...

    Your generosity with your words adds to the whirl of it, but in a good way.

  2. It is so timely for me to read this - I need a little reminder every now and again. I am reading a book which suggests that being oneself is important to happiness. I know that I have masqueraded as many other types of people, other than myself. But the thing most true to myself is reading and writing. I remember feeling embarrassed not so long ago, when someone asked me what my hobby was and I said (before I caught myself and thought of a more cosmopolitan answer) that I liked to read and write. There was silence. I realised my answer had fallen on deaf ears and instead I should have said 'waterpolo' or 'bungee jumping'! I felt like my hobby did not exactly mean living LIFE! But of course when I read what you write here I realise that words ARE life. Isn't that the whole point?! Of course, why was I doubting myself??!!

    So there you go.

    Much love from the South,
    Lou x

  3. I came here almost by accident...and keep coming back because I love language (English, at any rate, since that's the only one in which I feel remotely capable) and I particularly love how you play with it, seriously and/ or in fun.
    I have written (as a journalist) and continue to write (in my diaries, sounding off online); I don't consider myself a "writer".
    I draw (pencil and charcoal mostly) and more recently have been trying to learn how to paint in oils. I love AND struggle with my art. And that is pretty much the answer I give when asked who I am, what I do.

    XX Pat (back in Belgium after visiting family in Florida)

    PS I also think your photographs are beautiful.

  4. Your words always bring me some good. :)
    Today especially, as I lost my main contract writing oh-so-serious words for a big corporate. I am torn between being secretly thrilled and terrified. Maybe an opportunity...

    Very excited to know a new novel is in the works! And, like Pat, I think your photographs are stunning - as are your subjects x


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