Sunday, March 22, 2020

Halving it

When I was doing a Writing Course years ago, I remember being appalled when asked to cut down a short story by half. Impossible! 

But, no, it's not, and the good thing was that it gave me confidence to edit more effectively in the future. No line is ever inviolable, and no word is so perfect that something else can't substitute for it - if you need to chop things back. The great thing about the English language is that you can almost invariably find a synonym for any word. 

I posted the following on Facebook today: 

For years we've been getting the nasal spray Flixonase in a plastic squirter. Simple and not too unenvironmental.
Now the product has morphed into a wide plastic package - the kind you have to use an axe to get into - and most of what's inside the package is air. Not only do these packets take up much more room on the shelf at the pharmacy, but they are a total waste of resources. Neither the packaging nor the container is reusable in any sense.

I attached photos of the package, front and back, including one of the previous models for comparison.

Plenty of room on Facebook, so I could use as many words as I wanted, and play a little with the text. 

But I wanted to put the same thing on Twitter, and of course, even with their doubling of the size of a tweet a couple of years ago, you're still limited in how many characters you can use. 

So I called on my old skills, and produced this:

For years the nasal spray #Flixonase came a simple plastic squirter. Now it's morphed into a wide #plastic package, and most of what's inside is AIR. Not only does it take up more room on the pharmacy shelf, but neither the packaging nor the container is #recyclable in any sense.

Exactly 280 characters!

In the tweet there are 50 words, or 280 characters. In the FB version there are 85 words, and 449 characters.

Yes, of course, a few interesting things have gone - like the bit about the axe - but in general nothing important has been lost. It can sometimes be a struggle to get your text down to an allotted number of words (newspapers are usually the most keen to keep words to a certain fixed figure) but it's doable, and what's more, it's good for your editing skills in general. I've had to review several books over the last few years that looked like they'd never end - a 1000 pages seemed to be the minimum some authors could tell their story in. Except it wasn't. It was indulgence, and the editors at his publishing house should have told them so.

So when it comes to the point where you have to cut that massive tome down that you've been writing for several years, just think: do I want to publish a Facebook version, or a Twitter one? The latter may well help your book reach more readers.

Friday, March 20, 2020

You great wazzock!

We were on holiday recently, and my wife bought me a Code Break puzzle book from the $2.00 shop (it cost $2.50, which seems slightly odd, but maybe altering the name of the shop to the $2.50 Shop wasn't worth the extra fifty cents).

Unusually for a puzzle book, I'd discovered some new words. The compiler obviously didn't like to go for the mundane, so we had SCHMALTZ, GRIPPE and ENCYST in one puzzle. None of those were unfamiliar, but the following three made me check the anagram app on my phone which is usually a pretty reliable source for checking the validity of a word.

These three were: WAZZOCK, MAJOLICA and OSMIUM. Plainly I should know the second and third as even Blogger doesn't think them unusual, but it put a red line under WAZZOCK, which means it thinks it's suspect. Word (the Microsoft programme) on the other hand, seems quite happy with it, although not with its alternative spelling, WASSOCK.

Well, Blogger and Word, it isn't suspicious at all, in either spellings. And it's a useful word which obviously no longer gets the room in most people's vocabulary that it deserves. Know someone who's stupid or annoying? That person is a wazzock.

It may be a newish word. Certainly most dictionaries I could find online seemed to think it had originated in the twentieth century. The Urban Dictionary, on the other hand, a dictionary I don't always find entirely reliable (which may be just that I'm ignorant of a great deal of slang) claims an interesting history for it.

On the basis of the Urban Dictionary's explanation WAZZOCK is the sort of word that I'd have expected to find in David Crystal's The Disappearing Dictionary. This isn't a thriller about a book disappearing from someone's library, but about many English words - many delightful ones - that are no longer used, except, in some cases, in remote parts of England where local dialects are still more common.

Here are a bunch just to give you some examples:

abundation, aizam-jazam, awvish, bemoil, brackle,cank, craichy, cramble, giddling, hask, illify, knivy, lozzuck, nesh, poweration, queechy, ronkish, scorrick, splute, work-brittle (which doesn't mean work-shy).

To give you an idea of how useful some of these words are, here are the meanings of four of them.

aizam-jazam, in spite of it looking foreign, and difficult to get your teeth around, merely means equitable, fair and square. It might be a word to face up to your lawyer with when you think he or she has been overcharging. Or you could just save your teeth and call them a wazzock.

bemoil just means covered in mud, and seems like a word we could resurrect for rugby players. 'They were so bemoiled, half the pitch went with them into the dressing room.')

queechy means sickly, ailing, feeble. This one could be useful in describing someone with Coronavirus.
'Doctor, I think I've been hit by this pandemic.'
'Yes, you do look a bit queechy.'

And last, scorrick means a fragment. Crystal gives a wonderful sentence in dialect using the word: ‘Ah thowt ther would ha bin summat left, bud ther waant a scorrick.’ [Translated: I thought there would be some left, but there wasn't a scorrick.]

A plate in the Majolica style
[courtesy Getty Images]
If this word sounds familiar, it may be because in some parts of England it's pronounced sceerick, or skeerick (this is the spelling I'm more familiar with, here in New Zealand). And it has exactly the same meaning.

Time to resurrect some of these wonderful words, I think!

Oh, BTW, Majolica [often pronounced Maiolica] is a type of pottery in which an earthenware clay body (usually a red earthenware) is covered with an opaque white glaze (traditionally a lead glaze including tin), then painted with stains or glazes and fired.

And Osmium (from Greek ὀσμή osme, "smell") is a chemical element with the symbol Os and atomic number 76. It is a hard, brittle, bluish-white transition metal in the platinum group that is found as a trace element in alloys, mostly in platinum ores.

So now you know...

Vex and trip

This column first appeared in Column 8, 8th September, 1993

My self-imposed moratorium on a certain word rhyming with ‘vex’ must come to an end. The reason? The overwhelming emphasis this week on the word rhyming with ‘vex,’ and a companion word rhyming with ‘trip.’

Can I ask: If you were the mother of seven and came into a load of money after your husband died, what would you spend it on? Most mothers-of-seven would probably answer: ‘On getting the bills paid. Or buying the kids (or grandchildren) some extra clothes. Or putting aside for their future, especially their education.’

I don’t think most mothers-of-seven would decide that forming a male strip act and taking it on tour was a top priority.

Dreams are dreams, okay, and we all have some secret ambitions we’d like to fulfil. But this must be classed as one out of the box.

Male strippers are certainly in vogue. Due to the overwhelming financial (though hardly artistic) success of a play on the subject of male strippers, our local professional theatre is now presenting A Sequel.

We’re warned in the ads that some scenes ‘may offend, intimidate or excite audience members.’ We’re told in the review that people who’d find it difficult going to see a proper strip show can feel more relaxed about going to see a play on the subject.

The puzzle is why do people want to go and see other people strip at all?

For years we’ve heard the cry, ‘It’s degrading for women to strip.’ How come it isn’t for men? Or are we back to that piece of  nonsense proposed by the video censors: men are less easily demeaned than women?

Perhaps because men are the ‘oppressors’ and have all the ‘power,’ (fat chance!) they’re taking the opportunity to oppress their victims still further – by stripping in front of them.

The Listener presented a cover story about a male and a female stripper. The man said something significant: He felt he still had to keep one part of himself for himself – that is, he never exposes himself completely. But why expose himself at all?

I know work is difficult to get, and I can see that certain unemployed members of the community might decide that this was the road to success, but what’s the cost in the long term?

A certain newspaper now has columns advertising – euphemistically – Adult Entertainment. Strippers appear increasingly amongst the ads for ‘escorts,’ a number of which I’m sure really mean ‘prostitutes.’

There are two unsavoury aspects to all this. First, the ads sometimes appear alongside the church notices, a matter of ‘inappropriate juxtaposition.’ No doubt someone will point out that Jesus spent a good deal of His time ministering to prostitutes; therefore the neighbourliness of the ads is appropriate. However, I don’t think Jesus expected that prostitutes, once they’d seen His light, would continue in their occupation.

Secondly, classified ads must ‘conform to the newspaper’s standards.’ Am I wrong in thinking those standards have broadened their broadmindedness more than a little?

That’s the classifieds. Amongst the entertainment ads is one for a certain lady now touring the country. She’s been a centrefold in Penthouse, Hustler, and so on. She’s an X-rated star of porn movies. Need I say more?

I thought, as a nation, we were already pretty much obsessed by that subject rhyming with ‘vex.’ The trouble with obsessions is that they’re never satisfied.

In the murkier depths of our beings, we’d possibly all find lascivious corners that would leer at what ought to be other people’s privacy. (I mean, of course, something quite different to normal married privacies.) But what value is there in yielding to these murky depths?

When it comes to certain words rhyming with ‘vex’ and ‘trip,’ are we made to be creatures that wallow, or creatures that soar?


Update, 20.03.20
Interesting that this was written four years before The Full Monty appeared. Certainly this is an entertaining and well-made movie, though there always seemed to me to be a disconnect between putting on a strip show (and once only) and the idea that these men had lost their sense of human value. The argument didn’t quite work. Where would they go after the show was put on? Hardly into full-time strip work, you’d think? And would it be likely to give them employment in another profession?

Saturday, February 15, 2020

Moving house and writing up my life

It's been nearly two months since I last posted here - once upon a time I posted most days, sometimes more than once a day.

There's been a lot going on in our household - selling our house, for one thing, and trying to find somewhere else to live for another. At the moment we're 'boarding' with my daughter - who bought our house. So in a sense, things have hardly changed at all. She and her partner and foster boys had already been living in the house a year or more when she bought it, due to circumstances beyond her control. So it was no big change for any of us!

But we are looking for another house. The market, however, has gone crazy in our city. Once you could sell your house and find another easily because it was a buyer's market. Now it's completely the opposite: sellers are the winners, and buyers, if not quite the losers, are certainly having trouble buying something else. The prices are moving upwards at such a pace that if you leave it too long, what seemed a good sale figure on your own house, suddenly becomes not enough when you go to buy something else. And that goes not just for bigger houses but for little townhouses, units, places known as 'doer-uppers' - which usually stands for a place that going to take a good deal more than you paid for it to actually live in it.

When I last posted, I 'reprinted' a piece from 1994 which first appeared in a column I used to write - called Column 8. My intention is to keep on posting these columns (if they're not completely and utterly dated). There were five years of them originally!

But what's held me back from doing that, in part, is that I've been typing up more than 700 printed pages of a journal I kept from 1989 to around 2000. The journal was originally on an earlier computer, and thankfully I kept a printed copy of it. However, it had felt risky for a long time that I only had it on paper, so it's now all back on computer again. Amounting to something like 500.000 words, I guess.

More recent journal notes, from 2000 on, were typed straight onto computer, and copied from one model to another as time went on. And well and truly backed-up online.

When we began to tidy up things that we own in the present house, preparatory to a shift, we got rid of a lot of it. As you do. Including lots of papers and things that were really no longer of value. But I decided to keep a bunch of around 45 exercise books I'd written in over the years. Some of them are completely full; some have empty pages. Most of them relate to my spiritual journey - they might be classed as letters to God. Usually written in the morning, often at white heat (if my handwriting is anything to go by), and, to my surprise, more full of insights than I'd expected. Others relate to the craft of writing - various different approaches to encouraging myself and keeping my writing skills honed.

I've begun typing these books up too, and inserting the entries (which are mostly dated) in amongst the journal entries. It's intriguing how the more down-to-earth journal stuff contrasts with the spiritual. I might not live long enough to complete the task. But I'll give it a go!

Photo courtesy of F. Muhammad from Pixabay 

Monday, December 23, 2019

Unexpected Holiday

This column first appeared in Column 8, 20th July, 1994

My wife reckoned I couldn't write this column without mentioning that I've had the 'flu - I don't know what she means. I reckoned I'd avoid mentioning Ruth Richardson.
As I write this I've had a blackout-of-brain for at least three days - an unusual event in case any wish to comment on that last statement. So I'm having to wing it a bit this week, since I find that dredging myself out of bed to write a column has been about the last thing my beleaguered body desired to do.
I hear that some people have managed to survive having this strain of 'flu for three weeks - remarkable! I couldn't make mine last much more than the aforesaid three days before I found myself back on normal household duties.
In fact, there was a great deal of unsympathetic imitation of a certain television ad in which a rain-soaked gentleman climbs the stairs requesting hotties and chicken soup. Unlike this fortunate fellow, I frequently had to get my own hotties (except when the Aged Parent* lent a hand). This included one horrendous low point at 5.30 am when the unbearable cold in my previously mentioned beleaguered body couldn't stand it any more and Demanded To Be Warm!
The low point of My Illness was the day Ruth Richardson announced her forthcoming retirement from Parliament. My brain was drifting in and out of radio's National Programme, and every hour they told me the same three pieces of news, so that by the end of the day I could recite the material along with the announcer.
I'd never been aware before just how boringly repetitious the news is on the radio. Not enough happens in any one day in this quiet country so I suppose they have to keep repeating it until something really interesting comes along.
During the morning Kim Hill dissects every word, thought and remembrance of things past. At midday Geoff Robinson from Morning Report returns - after the announcer has Read The News Again. Geoff then repeats it (for the really slow) and discusses it, analyses it, gives us other people talking about it, and just when you think it's all finished, along comes the announcer again to Read You The News which is no whit different to the stuff he read half an hour before. That's for those who might want to check how many times the man from Federated Farmers stuttered.
Late at night they go through the whole routine again, though on this particular evening they managed to lose some of their recorded interviews and played them out of sequence. That added some variety - of the pinch of salt kind.
Predictably, some said, Ruth Richardson had been very generous in waiting until the Maritime Bill was on the water. Predictably, some wondered, surely she must have been just a teeny weeny bit upset about being dumped from the Finance job? Predictably, Michael Laws (who has to say something about everything - rather like some columnists), told us it was all sour grapes and she couldn't have chosen a worse time to leave.
She'll do well, of course, since her name on its own will sell the new business. I mean, when you've set a country to fiscal rights, you must be able to do something about the old investments, eh what? You'll note that they didn't call the business Mr and Mrs Wright's** Financial Consultancy - nah, it just don't taste the same, somehow.
By Friday I had managed to weep my way through a mildly amusing video called King Ralph - weeping only because my eyes ran of their own accord.
And later I coped with reading a bit more of the 1474 pages of A Suitable Boy. I'm nearly halfway there - at page 610 - as a result of my confinement to quarters. This paperback is so heavy to hold, however, I found it difficult to avoid toppling over in bed.
The true relief of Mafeking occurred, I'm sure, when a friend gave me a bottle of whisky - for medicinal purposes. Following an ancient recipe, I downed an occasional glass of warm milk, with sugar and a wee dram of firewater stirred in.
Sweet to the taste, very soothing - and plainly anathema to 'flu bugs.

*Aged Parent: the name my mother, who lived with us for more than twenty years, occasionally appeared under in these columns.   Borrowed from Wemmick's Aged Parent, in Great Expectations by Charles Dickens. 
**Mr and Mrs Wright: reference to Ruth Richardson's married name.


This column first appeared in Column 8, July 13th, 1994

While taking a few days off last week, I caught up with an old movie called 42nd Street, one of those behind-the-scenes-stories about the trials and tribulations of producing a big Broadway musical.
The producer (permanently-on-the-edge-of-a-nervous-breakdown), had to face a major crisis when his leading lady (still-madly-in-love-with-her-old-vaudeville-partner) broke her ankle the night before the big try-out in Philadelphia.
Where to find a replacement? In the chorus line, of course: the male juvenile who couldn't dance for rocks in his socks knew the new star was there all the time. After a rigorous five hours of I-can't-do-it!-rehearsal, she carries off the leading part with aplomb and panache.
Such things never happen in real life, of course - or do they?
Apart from watching a video or two on my holiday, I tried catching up on filing my newspaper cuttings. Amongst them I found a Christmas letter from a friend in England, and thought I'd drop him a note the next day to bring him up to date.
David, my friend, has worked at the Royal Opera House in London for 20 years or more, first as a repetiteur (him what teaches the singers their notes by repeating them until the singers have got them glued onto their brains), and more recently on the admin side. He's also conducted occasional performances.
Before I started the letter next day, I glanced at the ODT's News Digest section. And did a double-take of a significant kind: David, this very same friend, was mentioned in dispatches.
And why? Seems that during a performance of the opera Manon at the Royal Opera House, the lead baritone had fallen sick at the end of the first act. And the understudy had been sent home for the evening.
What to do?
David and the producer of the opera took counsel together, and came up with a stand-in job between them. David would sing the part from the wings, and the producer would go on stage and mime it in front of the audience.
The ROH is an enormous place to fill with a human voice, and I've seen more than one singer swallowed up in its cavernous spaces. David can sing, but for all that he's hardly what you'd call an operatic baritone. How he managed to make his voice heard from the wings is beyond me. Perhaps he was fitted up with some subtle form of microphone: a real no-no under normal circumstances in an opera house.
So standing in for the star does happen in real life - and I've experienced it happening at least one other almost-as-amazing time.
I was sitting in my Tooting Bec flat in South London some 20 years ago, listening on the radio to a performance of CarminaBurana at the AlbertHall. The baritone soloist was winging his way up through the high notes of his part when he came to a stifled halt: a strange shuffling and scuffling was heard on the airwaves - along with general wonderment from the audience.
It was a warm night; the Albert Hall was packed for the Proms season. We learned that the stuffiness and heat had overcome the poor baritone, all wrapped up as he was in his dress suit. Possibly he ran out of air from scaling heights which baritones are not wont to scale. (A couple of days later, on television, we would see the fellow tottering backwards into a row of first violinists, with music stands, chairs and musicians scattering in all directions.)
The management were save by a most remarkable thing: a young man who'd recently sung the same part in a production in the north, leaped up from his seat in the audience, raced round backstage, offered his services to the perplexed management - and was accepted! They tucked him up in a tuxedo, and whisked him on stage, where he proceeded to sing as though he'd been contracted to do the job.
And he too carried it off with panache and aplomb.

Tuesday, December 17, 2019

The writer's brain is a con-artist

Because my wife is working this week as well as through the Christmas period, I have some time to try to get moving again on The Counterfeit Queen, which has had a long time sitting on the back burner due to all sorts of family issues going on

Yesterday I went through and summarised each chapter that had been written in first draft* – fourteen chapters in all. The fourteenth ended in a kind of unsatisfactory waffle after having a nice twist in the middle of it. The fifteenth chapter had stopped after a few paragraphs, because I really had no idea what I was doing anymore. 

The previous chapters had begun to diverge from the (hard-won) synopsis to a great degree, and if I’d followed the plan as laid out I’ve have been going round in a large circle with more secret tunnels and more imprisonments. Even now it’s hard to get away from the latter – and secret tunnels want to creep in, in droves in this book. 

Courtesy Gerd Altmann, Pixabay
So this morning I began what I’d already planned to do over the weekend: rewrite the synopsis so that it was more in line with what had now changed in the draft. And then things started to go off on other tangents. Immediately my brain said, I’m too tired for this. Let’s go back to bed.'  I pointed out that it's only eleven in the morning. 

The brain talking like that is a sure sign that I need to push forward, but sometimes pushing forward requires the opposite:a step back. This morning I tried this approach: pushing myself to put words down, and then leaving them for a bit, coming back, finding my brain has been working away in the meantime (in spite of claiming to be too tired). Already this has given me a better way forward. 

I’ve also realised that because the section starting with the end of chapter fourteen is the climax of the second act, essentially, it can’t be just more 'stuff.' It has to be that turning point when things either go all well for the heroine or they fall apart completely. Falling apart completely is the more interesting way; it will give the third act more action, action that brings everything to a resolution as well as tidying up all the loose ends. 'Sounds like a lot of work,' says my brain. I don't disagree. 

Anyway, I’ve written down several things that at this point in the story are hanging or could be disasters if not handled properly (by the characters rather than me). I need to make sure I structure this sequence/scene rightly, otherwise it won’t have full impact. The brain is saying…’I’m tired, can we go back to bed?’ and giving me the lame excuse that I was awake at five this morning and surely that’s a long enough day already.

But the brain is a con artist. It claims to be tired when what it actually needs is the stimulation of a challenge. Throw something its way, and it will chew on it while you're not looking and come up with an innovation or solution that you hadn't expected, in fact, would never have thought of. (If that makes any sense.) 

I've lost count of the times I've given into the brain's so-called tiredness, gone for a snooze, tossed around for a while trying to get comfortable, and then found that the brain has solved the problem and wants to get up and going again. 

*When I say 'first draft' I actually the first draft of this current incarnation of the book. There have already been at least two unfinished drafts. But at least each new draft makes more progress than the previous one!

Saturday, July 20, 2019

Wodehouse on writing

I've been re-reading What Ho! The Best of Wodehouse over the last few weeks, and what a great book it is. There are chapters and short stories in it that are perfect gems of comedy writing. 

Towards the end of the book are some letters he wrote to W. Townend - just a few out of the hundreds he wrote - and one in particular is of interest to writers struggling to get their book to come together. Here is a man who had been writing for decades at this point - he was in his late fifties - and yet the first paragraph here shows that even after all his experience as a writer he could still struggle to get things right when it came to the story working out as he planned. 

The notes about this particular book are interrupted at the end of each paragraph by comments about other writing he was doing...

I’ve been meaning to write for ages, but I’ve been tied up with The Luck of the Bodkins. I find that the longer I go on writing, the harder it becomes to get a story right without going over and over it. I have just reached page 180 and I suppose I must have done quite 400 pages! Still, it is in good shape now...

I finished The Luck of the Bodkins on November 20th, and ever since have been in a sort of coma. Do you get like that after a big bout of work?...

Meanwhile, The Luck of the Bodkins was coming out with great difficulty. Have you had the experience of getting out what looks like a perfect scenario and then finding that it won’t write and has to be completely changed?...

By that time, I was struggling with the last chapters of The Luck of the Bodkins. Usually when I get to the last fifty pages of a story, it begins to write itself. But this time everything went wrong and I had to grope my way through it all at the rate of two pages a day. I began to get superstitious about it and felt that if I could ever get it finished my luck would be in. On November 29th I was within four pages of the end and suddenly all the lights in the house went out and stayed out. Still, I finished it next day, and it is pretty good, I think. Frightfully long – 362 pages of typescript – it must be over the 100,000 words...

Saturday, June 22, 2019

Acting and writing...books

The first book I published, Grimhilda!, was based on a stage play. This turned out to have both advantages and disadvantages. 

One disadvantage for the book version was that I had a script that worked on stage, and lines that dovetailed into each other. But a book doesn't need page after page of dialogue: there has to be action, and we have to be able to 'see' the characters. You need to free yourself from the limitations of the stage, and have your characters move through their 'scenery' in ways that aren't possible in front of audience. It took quite a bit of rewriting to bring the book to this point. 

On the advantage side, I already had dialogue that had proved itself on stage. When it came to writing the book, the best moments in the story had quality dialogue ready to go. (Though it was a task to ditch great bits of dialogue that worked on stage but weren't needed in the book! It's not easy to ditch lines you're fond of.) 

One other thing helped with the writing of the book. In the first decade of this century I had the chance to appear in several plays. There's nothing like having to learn dialogue, and then perform it as though it's coming straight from your own brain, to make you very aware of what works on stage. 

The plays had been written over the last hundred years, so there was a variety in style. It depends on how old a play is as to how the dialogue is written. Early 20th century plays are dialogue-heavy, and require actors to speak longer phrases and sentences, an art in itself. This doesn't mean that they necessarily sound old-fashioned. The playwrights of the early 20th century were masters of subtlety and give their actors wonderful opportunities to develop characters. 

Later plays can still have longer speeches, but they tend more towards shorter dialogue, and bursts of words tossed back and forth between two or more actors. This is a different skill for the actor and a different approach for the playwright. 

So how does this relate to writing dialogue in books? There's a tendency in fiction, now, for speeches to be shorter and snappier, and apparently (though not necessarily) more realistic. Furthermore, the author can insert information about how a speech is delivered, how a character is feeling, what action takes place at the same time, and much more. I've been re-reading some of the best P G Wodehouse; it's interesting to see how long a gap there sometimes is between what one character says and another answers, because Wodehouse often writes hilarious material about the characters between their lines of dialogue. These insights into things beyond the dialogue are of course only possible in books. 

Anyway, this post came about because I read a piece by Jennifer Zang, in which she recommends that writers (especially screenwriters) should take some acting classes in order to give them a better sense of how dialogue works - especially in films. But her comments apply to books as well. 

Acting requires you to think about why the character is speaking, it enables you to understand economy of words (I've been in plays where the director has cut swathes of dialogue in order to move the play along) and it assists you to understand the emotions behind the words. 

All things of great value to authors. 

Jennifer Zang's article is entitled: Five Reasons a writer should take an acting class, and appears on the Save the Cat website. 

Wednesday, June 19, 2019

A long-forgotten letter

In my pieces for Column 8, a column I wrote weekly for about five years back in the nineties, I more than once played round with words and how the English language seemed to have lost a lot of useful ones. 

I've been typing up an old journal from 1996 over the last months, and came across the following entry. I said at the time it was a piece after my own heart. It was originally a letter to the Editor in the New Zealand Listener, published on the 27th January, 1996. The writer was John Ruck. Kim Hill was a very popular broadcaster at the time, and more than 25 years later her gravelly voice can still be heard on Saturday mornings. 

‘Kim Hill’s use on National Radio of the word ert to describe breast implants that should have been inert, but weren’t, makes me wonder how many other potentially useful words lie rusting on our lexicographical scrapheap.

Couth and gruntled have already emerged from the shadows, of course. But what else might we find with a bit of judicious backforming?

Well, there’s delible. It means ‘easily erased,’ as in ‘use something delible, like a 6B pencil,’ or ‘the Democrats have made a delible impression on our national politics.’

Trepid might slide timidly into our language. Truder would be a welcome guest. And ique (pronounced eeek) must eventually be found everywhere.

Note that, to be useful, such decapites [he gives the two letter es an acute accent] must be shorter than the words or phrases they replace; in these hectic times, a syllable saved is a syllable gained.

So poverish just too long to enrich our vocabs. But pologist (for example) is much snappier than ‘public relations consultant’ (he of the hevelled appearance and peccable morality.)

Hey, how about dertaker for the fellow who has to dig ‘em up again? Is becile too facile for a member of Mensa?

Interested readers who find other treasures may care to forward them to Kim Hill for possible transmission. Terested readers, on the other hand, might just as well turn the page.’

I hope the Listener and Mr Ruck will both forgive me for copying this here, but it seems to good to be lost in the archives of a magazine. 

Wednesday, May 22, 2019

More on proprioception

More from John Jerome's book, Stone Work, on the subject of proprioception. Page 148 

Wading on through fallen leaves, I make one more small mental obeisance to proprioception, to the entire sensory universe that gives me a self to take out for walks like this. My head tells me this is true – that the sense are where the self comes from – but it is a touch too psychological, and therefore fuzzy, for my tastes. I’m more comfortable with the harder edges of physiology and physics. Ah, that’s it: proprioception is where physics and physiology come together. That must be why it fascinates me so. It’s the tool that helps you get the physics right, the means by which you get the pleasure out of physics. It is the internal rigging that locates the body in time and space, the three-dimensional internal map of the body that redraws itself, realigns itself, with every move you make.
I’ve been thinking and writing about proprioception for ten years now, in one forum or another, and keep failing to get its wonders adequately set down, the impossible riches brought to us in those mysterious moments when information turns into experience. Can’t find a way to say it hard enough, can’t sing that clear, clean line.

My frustration reminds me of Lewis Thomas’s essay ‘On Embryology’ in The Medusa and the Snail. He is speaking of the process that at some point switches on a single cell and allows it to grow into the brain. ‘No one has the ghost of an idea how this works,’ he says, ‘and nothing else in life can ever be so puzzling. If anyone does succeed in explaining it, within my lifetime, I will charter a skywriting airplane, maybe a whole fleet of them, and send them aloft to write one great exclamation point after another, around the whole sky, until all my money runs out.’

John Jerome on proprioception

Back in the mid-nineties I read at least two books by John Jerome, who was a kind of essayist, but whose essays usually encompassed a whole book. The first, The Writing Trade, was greatly inspirational to me early in my writing 'career.' I enthused over it in my journals. 

The second, which I don't remember a lot about now except that I enjoyed it greatly at the time, was called Stone Work, and basically looked at the issue of building a stone wall. In July 1995 I copied out a shortish section of the book into a journal I was keeping at the time. Here's the extract from round about page 144:

October in the woods is a forced march into the sensory life; I am armed with, let’s see, the capacity to discern shapes, motions, and colours, to perceive smells, hear sounds. I can also touch things, feel their textures, taste them if I dare. But that’s about it, in the way of experiencing the woods. Except, that is, for proprioception, self-sensing, without which I couldn’t get into the woods to enjoy them. Proprioception is the sense that makes the first five work, that fetches pleasure (and pain and everything else) and brings it home to us. It is seldom mentioned except among psychologists, an almost secret capacity that explains a huge part of how we experience the world..

Surgically deafened songbirds were found to sing their songs as well after the surgery as before. (Science can be hideous.) They sing, we must assume, by how the song feels to sing, rather than by how it sounds. (But then any division of the sense is arbitrary. Auditory clicks produce measurable electrical activity in the optic nerve. Are we seeing these clicks? Is the eye hearing them?) To sing by feel rather than sound is to sing by proprioception. The proprioceptors are nerve endings embedded throughout the muscles, tendons, and joints of the body that read and report on relative position of body parts, on movement, loading, acceleration and deceleration. They make the musculoskeletal system the largest sense organ of the body, a receptor as well as an effector. Proprioceptors are the neural devices that weigh and judge and perceive whatever we do with that muscle, from performing eye surgery to hitting high C to levering a two-hundred-pound stone into place in the footing of a wall. They tell us where we are and what we’re doing as we are doing it; they are our connection to the present tense of physical action.

Some of us get very good with our proprioceptors. Those who do are frequently called athletes, or performers. Playing a violin concerto, for example, may be as dazzling a demonstration of proprioceptive capability as man has yet devised. (And oh, by the way, it’s hot in the hall tonight, your fingers will have to rewrite the music to fit the sag of the strings as your performance goes along.) Those of us who don’t get good at proprioception are called spectators.[1]

A group of athletes is asked to rehearse the skills of their sport in their minds alone, without actual movement, while wired to electronic sensors. The sensors indicate that the motionless athletes are actually firing the same muscles, in the same sequence and with the same timing, that they would if they were actually performing the sport. That is, the physical act is in the musculature as well as the mind.

When I do manage to listen to the cries of birds, where I feel it is in my throat – in the place where singing would take place, if I could sing. I can’t fly either, but when I watch bird flight as I do more often than I listen I feel it in my shoulders. I watch with my shoulders. I’m sure that what is so lovely about bird flight is not simply what the optic nerve sends to the brain, but also what the brain sends to the muscle. The flight of birds is so lovely to me precisely because so much more of my sensory capacity is involved than vision. The guitarist listens to music with his fingers. The fingers may not actually be moving, but that’s where the signals are going, are being picked up. I swear it. I’ve watched musicians listening; I’ve seen their fingers twitch.

Proprioception is the connective tissue of the sensory system, the sense that orchestrates the other five, that ties them all together into a coherent representation of the world. It is how one walks, sings, lays stones. It enhances the degree of contact of a kiss. How can we think our pleasures only come through the other five?

Monday, May 13, 2019

Thomas Hardy, the Time-Worn Man

Some time ago I read Thomas Hardy, the Time-Worn Man, by Claire Tomalin. Not the most cheerful or pleasant character, but interesting, and the book is notable for Tomalin's often ironic comments. These are some extracts that I noted at the time. The page numbers refer to the Large Print edition and the sections in italics are my comments. 

Page 100: 
Poor Hardy, suffering pangs of guilt for even thinking of imitating great writers. He needed someone to tell him it is what writers have always done, teaching themselves by imitating what they most admire. [Hardy had used shorthand to hide his suggestions to himself about imitating particular phrases he enjoyed from the works of various poets.]

Page 107 - [Horace Moule (the black sheep of the Moule family, depressed and often alcoholic) wrote to Hardy]
...he sent Hardy some good advice on writing: 'the grand object of all in learning to write well is to gain or generate something to say.' [Italics in original]

page 180 - [Minny Thackeray (the author's daughter) married to Leslie Stephen, the editor of the Cornhill, comments after a small dinner party, about Hardy.] 
'the evening was a wild chaos. I tried to drown my cares in drink but it only affected my feet and not my head. Mr Hardy is a very damp young man and dampness I abominate.' No doubt Hardy was nervous and trying too hard, faced with a daughter of the great Thackeray. Her remark was snobbish: a gentleman is not damp. 

page 210 - [Leslie Stephen writing to Hardy, who'd asked his advice on critical reading]:
...'if you mean seriously to ask me what critical books I recommend, I can only say that I recommend none. I think as a critic that the less authors read of criticism the better. You, e.g., have a perfectly fresh and original vein, and I think that the less you bother yourself about critical canons the less chance there is of your becoming self-conscious and cramped. I should therefore, advise the great writers - Shakespeare, Goethe, Scott, etc, etc, who give ideas and don't prescribe rules.'

page 228 - [Thomas and Emma finally visit his family.] 
Six adult Hardys and Emma in the cottage meant it was crowded, and you can imagine the men going out to look at the garden together to get away from the women's tongues. 

Page 429 - [after one of Hardy's later poetry books was published to little acclaim (the First World War didn't help)]:
In January 1915 Virginia Woolf sent a letter thanking him for the sonnet on her father Leslie Stephen included in the collection, going on to say that she considered it to be 'the most remarkable book to appear in my lifetime.'  Her singularly enthusiastic tribute has to be put in context: a few days after writing she was overtaken by an acute mental breakdown and became incoherent.