I stand down by the shed, with the red mare’s head on my shoulder, talking of life and complicated families and the odd twists of human psychology. The sun thinks about coming out, and then changes its mind and goes sullenly away. The mare is covered in mud and growing her teddy bear coat for winter. She is content. I love her very much.
I think about the oddities of the things that make one human happy, and the things that make another human sad. I think particularly about the small things. Poor Matthew Parris just wrote an article about what a furious mass of crowd rage he had uncovered when he dared to write something disobliging about UKIP. He is an old school, one-nation Tory, rather courteous and thoughtful, and the intemperance of the Kippers made him despair. Underneath his article, all the furious people came out and were ruder than ever. It’s all ad hominem with them, although they could not see the irony. This fury on the internet gets a lot of press, and there is an odd herd mind which takes hold on message boards. I don’t know why it astonishes me that the readers of those two old grand ladies, the Speccie and the Telegraph, leave by far the rudest comments. They are much more polite over at the Staggers, and much funnier at the Guardian.
I do mind the rudeness very much, but just at the moment I find myself fixated on the absurdities of the unimportant. I really do mind about the absolute lack of spelling and grammar. It’s not just on news sites, where some of the crosser comments use English which looks as if it were randomly selected by a bot. It’s on every forum I visit. Breaks for brakes, should of for should have, you’re for your. I like playing with the language, and will merrily split an infinitive so it damn well stays split. I will rashly end a sentence with a preposition, and sometimes invent new words. (I do not think that wibbly is found in any dictionary, although it is the only satisfactory adjective for the soft lower lip of the glorious mare.) I make typos and sometimes completely forget how to spell.
I know I’m a writer, and it is my job to use the English language. I know that I am a nerd, and it is my obsession. But it’s so easy to write simple, clear English. Anyone can use a full stop, or put a capital letter at the start of a sentence, or understand the apostrophe. I find the trashing of such a beautiful resource almost physically painful.
Once I’ve got onto this hobby horse, and galloped off in all directions in the manner of a Daisy Ashford hero, I become fixated on tiny expressions which drive me batshit nuts in the head. It used to be jargon which had this effect. For no known reason, I grind my teeth every time someone says they are going to grow a business, rather than a pot of mint. Now, it is growing wider than dead management-speak. Today, a government minister said that the world needed to ‘wake up to’ the problem of Ebola, and instead of fretting about a fatal pandemic, which would have been the correct reaction, I grew furious over that unlovely phrase. In a similar manner, I want to throw things every time a person says ‘it’s down to you’. It used to be ‘up to you’. Where did this awful ‘down’ come from? Even Lord Fellowes has smuggled it into Downton Abbey. Don’t even get me started on ‘end of’, or ‘TB’ for thoroughbred, or ‘hun’ as an abbreviation of ‘honey’. They fly like stinging arrows to my idiot mind.
My old dad always said that once you got the irritation there was nothing you could do about it. Some poor hapless person would annoy you in some way, and, after that, they could say nothing right. They could be the nicest person in the world, but every word out of their kind mouths would be nails on the blackboard from then on.
It’s so irrational. How on earth can it matter, when the world is so oppressed, whether someone chooses to say end of, or TB, or use he as the universal pronoun? (I get particularly livid when people do this with horses, as if they are writing off ALL THE MARES.) Talking of generalisations, I find the universal we even more distressing, particularly when it comes to women. We all want to lose half a stone; we all obsess over shoes; we all crave the latest must-have. What is this we of whom you speak? And while I’m on the subject, ‘must-have’ causes me daily offence. It is wrong on about eight different levels.
On the other hand, there are lazy tropes and worn phrases of which I am fond. I rather like ‘back in the day’, which drives one person I love demented. I use ‘old-school’ far too much. Almost every single one of my metaphors has an equine aspect. (There is a lot of galloping, and many, many prairies.) My skies are almost always the colour of some pigeon or other – doleful, despairing, or desperate. Practically everything is dear and old – Scotland, the weather, Blighty, TS Eliot, the hills. I’m always ransacking the most obvious parts of Shakespeare – the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, the sorrows not in single spies but in battalions, the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to. When I was editing the manuscript of the book, I found myself shamingly unable to kill all the darlings that should have died. I have developed awful little tics and twitches, and indulge them far too often.
Taste is so odd. Why do I love green but hate yellow? Why does it drive me mad that everyone has started using the redundant So to start every single sentence? Where did my adoration of Scott Fitzgerald come from, when I cannot wear Nabokov? (This is particularly wrong, since Nabokov is supposed to be the ultimate writer’s writer.) Why do I worship Nina Simone, but find myself left cold by Michael Jackson?
Those are my Friday questions.
Now I’m going to watch the racing. It has not only the great beauty of the thoroughbred, but also a glittering language all its own. I love every single racing expression. Racing has a lingua franca which stretches across nationalities and cultures. It is tribal but not exclusive. It is the sound of my childhood, the voice of my father, and it never ceases to thrill me.
Still no time for the camera. Just this dear old face:
As I have made the complaint about bad English, the irony gods will ensure that there shall be at least three howlers in this post. I’ve read it through twice, but my eyes have gone squinty. I rely on the Dear Readers to point them out and save me from myself.
Have a lovely weekend, wherever you are.