Wednesday, May 17, 2006

Captured happy forever

I am listening to Jimmy Little's cover of Cattle and cane. It's a brilliant song, which reaches across time and place to drag a man back to short pants and snotty nose days.

I remember the warm jam sandwiches on the beach with my mum and my sisters. We ran through the sand, careless in the summer sun, rolled down the dunes, played dog and rabbit on the towans. I do not remember anything about summer that was not fun.

I remember riding on my bike through the back lanes around Hayle. I would cycle for miles and eat my packed lunch in the hedgerow. Sometimes, I would cycle with Eric down to Leedstown and further, always finding new ways, new places, new worlds only two, three miles from home.

I remember football on the rec, huge games thirty-a-side that were more like huge, roiling rucks than the beautiful game. Sometimes older boys would fight with fists while we cheered them on. Once we queued because some girl was having a gangbang but I didn't want that to be my first time so I walked away when I was three away from taking my turn. Maybe I was afraid that she would say no to me. That is who I am: the boy who when the whole village is fucking some chick thinks he will be the one she says no to.

I remember wearing my dad's brothel creepers with my hair stiff with gel, parading up and down the Memorial walk, looking for rockers to taunt. One time, we found them, a gang come down from Truro or somewhere else distant and we punched it out with fists and chains out the back of the Co-op.

I remember walking across the roof of KB's house, out of my brains on the contents of Mr B's liquor cabinet. They never had me round for tea again. My dad made me drink water until I begged for no more and his solicitude was like a kiss.

I remember sitting in a backstreet cafe with H. She was crying because I was leaving. I was not crying but my heart was broken. My beautiful home, my nation, the sea. I had to leave it all. My father had decided to move and I, fifteen, could not choose to stay. I have never had a place to be ever since, always restless and insecure, always wanting more and finding less and less until all I have that I value is a picture of a laughing boy, out on the sand with his sisters, the salt wind blowing his hair, captured happy forever.

Wednesday, May 10, 2006

My black sun

I no longer fear dying because I no longer think this life is worth having. I no longer fear dying because I no longer think this life is good. I cannot find joy in it but I do not feel low or angry. I feel exhausted, the little I had gone, wasted. It has dwindled and I am now a shell.

Sometimes I laugh when I watch my children's playing and I say I wouldn't miss that. But I wish they had never been born. What a thing to do to them. I hold their faces in my hands and I think what a cruel thing that they should even exist; what a cruel thing that they should grow to hope, to burn, to live, and lose it all, sooner or later, in their own dark sun of pain.

I want to walk away. I want to run away down a long, lonely path into the silent, bereft wilderness of dwindling years of being hated but not being present to feel it. I am just walking up and down on the spot. I hate everything that I do and everything I could do. I wasted everything I have because I do not know how not to.

I do not know anything. I have packed encyclopaedias into my stupid fat head and I do not know anything. I am no longer sad about it. I do not know how to be sad. I am spinning in a void, my own black sun, shedding no light, cold and dead before I have been born.

Wednesday, May 3, 2006

On possessing gerunds

As I was driving home from dropping Zenella off, I saw a billboard that made me think again about gerunds (well, to be honest, made me think about blogging about gerunds).

The sign said: "Remember your son rebelling with a motorbike. Retirement is payback time." This is a clear example of a gerund's being used without its being possessed. (Anyone who loved that self-reference and hasn't read Goedel, Escher, Bach is directed to do so forthwith.) In the following, I should note, I'm using "correct" in a narrow sense. I do not consider the sentence I am discussing incorrect in a strict sense, because this usage is probably more common than the "correct" one. I mean only that it is incorrect for someone who wishes to use gerunds strictly correctly.

Why is it incorrect? How can you tell? You have to ask yourself a simple question. What are you being asked to remember? Your son, right? Wrong. You are being asked to remember the rebelling your son did, specifically that he bought a motorbike to rebel. If you are struggling with this, ask yourself what circumstances would need to exist for you to be commanded to remember your son. Do those circumstances exist for most people who are reading that billboard? No. Furthermore, the second sentence confirms that what we were talking about in the first sentence was the rebelling, not the son.

So this sentence should read: "Remember your son's rebelling with a motorbike." That would gladden Fowler's heart.

Generally, experience and thought will show you what is a gerund and what just looks like one -- in most cases, a participle. It's important to be clear what each is. A gerund is a noun, which describes the action of a verb. "Rebelling" in this case means "the act of rebelling". Whenever you are talking about the act as a thing, you are using a gerund. Participles are adjectives. They describe the noun that they are attached or adjacent to. "Remember your rebelling son" and "Remember your son's rebelling" are clearly different ideas, describing different things. In the former, the son, clearly; in the latter, the act of rebelling, clearly.

Look at this sentence: "I am preparing for you/your coming". This is an easy one to stumble over. Surely, you might say, you are preparing for me, so it's "I am preparing for you coming". But if so, what is "coming"? What is its part in this sentence? Why, if you are preparing for me, did you not simply say "I am preparing for you"? Well, the reason you didn't is that what you are preparing for is my arrival. See how much easier that sentence is with a word that is unambiguously a noun. A good test for gerunds is to replace them with a similar word that is unambiguously a noun, or even that is not so similar but you feel it works the same: "Remember your son's comeback with a motorbike" is clearly enough the same sort of sentence as the one we're considering.

This would all make things easy if it were not that you can use participles after nouns in some cases. Look at these sentences:

He is not aware of the tax applying to his investment.
He is not aware of the tax's applying to his investment.

Both are perfectly correct, but they do not have the same sense. Sets of sentences like this are why some are careful with gerunds. The distinction in sense is lost if you are not.

The first sentence means he is not aware of the tax that applies to his investment. The tax has not been previously defined. You could in principle replace "applying" with "that applies". "That" clauses -- defining clauses -- function similarly to adjectives. They "define" the noun, just as an adjective does. So it should not be surprising that they can interchange with adjectives. "Which man did you talk to? The man looking like Elvis." This construction is often used in speech but is not incorrect in writing. You would normally write "The man who/that looks like Elvis", which is more euphonous.

The second sentence means that he is not aware that a tax that has already been mentioned applies to his investment. You cannot replace "the tax's applying" with "the tax that applies" for a simple reason: the gerund is not defining the tax. Indeed, in a sense, the tax is defining the gerund!

Smarter monkeys among us will have grasped that there is a simple test you can do to decide whether you have a gerund, which will require possessing, or a participle, which does not, when it follows a noun. Ask whether it can be replaced with a defining clause with "that".

Look again at "Remember your son rebelling with a motorbike." Can it be recast as "Remember your son that rebelled with a motorbike." No. You are not remembering this son rather than another one! Son is already defined by "your".

To wrap up, we can ask "What if I was being asked to remember my son? Would I write the same sentence?" Actually, no. It would still be wrong. Without digressing into a technical discussion of why (but bear in mind that "the man looking like Elvis" is marginal in written English), I'll give the correct sentence and leave it at that. One would write: "Remember your son, rebelling with a motorbike." This construction is analogous with a "which" clause. You are being given more information about a previously defined noun. Which son? Your son. And here's more about him: he rebelled with a motorbike. You will nearly always want a comma when you use a participle after a noun that it describes. Look at "Here comes the king, walking slowly." Compare with "Look at the king, walking slowly" and "Look at the king's walking slowly." In the former, one is directed to look at the king, who is, as an aside, walking slowly. In the latter, one is directed to look at the act of walking slowly that the king is doing. The former is, of course, ambiguous. It can also convey that one is directed to look at the king while walking slowly oneself. You might prefer the first reading because it is more natural. But compare "Look at the king, taking your time". Now you very much prefer the reading that the participle defines you, although the other reading is again possible (as a matter of syntax; it would be hard to make a context in which it was semantically sound).

This leads us to a simple rule of thumb for deciding whether to possess "-ing" words. Ask whether you can write the sentence with a comma between the two nouns. If you are satisfied that you can, you do not have a gerund. If you feel you cannot, possess it.

Tuesday, May 2, 2006

Heroes of mine

When I was a child of Zenella's age, I wanted to be a miner. It seemed to me impossibly glamorous, a proper vocation for a man, to become a hero of the working class. I did not know that people would think I was too smart for it and that I would lose my vocation, any sense of purpose and, finally, my sense of pride in where I came from.

But I never lost my admiration for the brave men who risk their lives underground. The fear of something's going wrong must be tremendous, ever present, almost paralysing. To be able to withstand that without flinching is something to admire.

I will not say anything about the blackhearted men and women who exploit miners, who allow mines to decay into places of extreme peril in their pursuit of the fast buck. They are not worth even the time it takes to express contempt for them. I will spend my time instead in saying that my thoughts are with the two guys awaiting rescue at Beaconsfield, who survived for five days without food or good water.

Some say that our heroes are warriors, worse that they are those who send warriors to die for, all too often, schemes that have no great benefit for those who perish in their pursuit. Some say that they are the stars who fill the middle pages, and sometimes the front pages, of our newspapers, mannequins whose purpose does not extend beyond being looked at. But I say that the men and women who build our world, who grub up the means of our subsistence and the materials we build our shelter and infrastructure with, those who maintain our world and the comforts we take for granted, and those who cart away the shit when we are done with it, they are our heroes. Without them, we are monkeys out of the jungle, lost and homeless. They are the heroes in my world and I will raise a glass when the Tasmanian miners are brought from the deepest darkness into the glare of the limelight.