Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Classic cuts

Joe Queenan finishes his witty classical primer (an A to Z) this week. If you don't know much about classical, and want to read someone who does, and has opinions that he is not afraid to share, this is for you. Actually, there may yet be a Y and Z, but anyway.

Me, I'm an unreconstructed Philistine, I'm afraid. I knows what I likes and I likes what I knows. I tend to prefer the more cerebral but simple to the florid, so a lot of what Queenan loves is wasted on me. Still, he's very right about Faure.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

U who?

Bono, visionary saint or greedy hypocrite who makes demands on governments to spend in particular ways the taxes that he himself avoids?

You decide.

***

Yesterday, someone was saying to me, people should work. They shouldn't just get something for nothing. He was of course talking about the dole.

So I said, but Paris Hilton doesn't work. She won't ever do a day of it. David Beckham mostly doesn't work. He plays football. I'd do it too if someone would pay me for it! Bono doesn't work. Prancing around singing is not work.

What the guy meant -- what these people always mean -- is that the poor should work. The fortunate do not have to and that is okay. We believe -- I mean the big We not the royal We -- that it is okay to expect the poorest to work hardest. When one says, it is terrible that we use third-world workers in maquiladoras, getting a dollar a day to make our clothes, etc, people don't say, yes, we should be prepared to pay more so that they get more. No, they say, well, it's better than having no work. What they mean, of course, is better for them. Were we in their shoes, we might think differently.

Bono is not on the whole a bad man. He's much lauded because hypocrisy is so common that we barely recognise it. The problem with Bono is that he legitimates other hypocrites: the leaders whom he is photographed with. Like him, they can pretend to be doing something just by being seen. They don't have actually to change a thing because the perception is created that they care simply by meeting Bono. Oh, people think, he must care because he gave an audience to a mere rock star. That's how seriously he takes it. It's almost as though he would meet you or me, were we to demand that he do something about Africa. (This is not the place to discuss Bono's prescriptions for Africa, which are poorly considered.) All politicians care about so far as we are concerned is our perception. Our thinking that they are fixing something is vastly more important than, you know, actually fixing it. I don't claim the same of Bono (after all, he's not trying to get elected; although it can't hurt his record sales to a/ be seen as a crusader on issues that vaguely trouble his likely customers and b/ be seen on TV and in papers alongside iconic political figures); I'm sure he's sincere about his concern.

In any case, Bono wastes his platform because he does not want to alienate the leaders and have them stop welcoming him. He is not so much the rebel now that he is a celebrity. Because the message he should be delivering to world leaders is not "double the paltry amounts you give to the third world" but "cease pursuing policies that make it necessary to give money to the third world" and "cease empowering the bad guys at the expense of the people that I want you to help". Fat chance though. Bono isn't in it not to win it. Ask for more aid and if it comes, you have succeeded. Ask for real change and it will never come, and you are doomed to failure, however glorious.

Me, I prefer the dream. I've never understood those who want to move by inches. I prefer the great leap forward and consensus be damned. I'm more impressed by the Russian Revolution than the parliamentary committee; by Marx or Rawls than by the many "thinkers" who tinker with political systems but don't dare to think big.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Workshop: Stalemate

Now I loved this. Witty, cleverly constructed, well paced and neatly written, this piece is something the writer can be proud of. I would only make minor corrections.

What I particularly liked was the sense of unhurried unraveling, and the sheer viciousness of the protagonists. Here is man’s hatred for his fellow man in miniature.

I thoroughly commend this and thank high in the sky for submitting it.


Stalemate

The cup had an endless pattern in mid-blue glaze running around the bright white china; hills and lakes and floating clouds, bamboo huts on little rocky isles with solitary trees, soaring birds above curly-ended boats whose occupants wore pointed hats and stood with sticks or sat and let themselves be sculled along. As I turned it in my hand

Comma.

one hill or island would start to vanish but another would appear from the opposite side, first higher and then lower, and in between them the birds and boats bobbed up and down to keep to their respective places.

I used my other hand to turn the cup completely round to see if

Prefer “whether” here.

one hill might be higher than the others, or one boat have

Possibly too much elided, and “might have” might be better. Best of all would be “had”, I think.

a different set of figures. I paused, wondering why it should be important to me.

This doesn’t seem to have become clear to the reader either.


I took a sip from the cup. "This tea's cold!" I exclaimed.
"Mine is too",



The comma precedes the quotemark.

said my companion. He was sitting in a chair to my left, dressed in faded blue pyjamas under a tired brown dressing gown. He held his cup in a shaky hand, leaving the saucer on the tea-trolley in front of him.


Excellent, instant scene-setting. We know exactly what we’re dealing with.

"Why didn't you say so? Now you've made me have to find out for myself".

"I was going to, but you said it first".

Love it. These are the small unkindnesses that “friends” visit on each other.


I put my cup and saucer down on my end of the trolley, and he replaced his cup with a slight tremble that made the saucer chime. They floated languidly upon their reflections in the polished wood like water-lillies on a silent pond.

Only one “l” in “lilies”.

"I suppose one of us will have to go and get some more",

Comma first.

I grumbled, reaching for the walking stick that leant against the trolley. "I'd better do it, you're not properly dressed, are you?"

Semicolon, not a comma, if you want to avoid the run-on sentence.

A sudden snatch of birdsong rippled through the room, and then, almost as an echo of the echo, was repeated note-perfect once again, and died away.

Just “then”, which means “and then”.

"A song-thrush", I exclaimed, but he raised his hand and said "A blackbird".

The comma goes before the quotemark in the first quote, and there should be one after “said”.

"You don't know the one from the other",

Same issue.


I replied, then saw in his face that yes, he did know, and cared deeply about knowing it.

"A song-thrush would not have sung the same tune twice", he answered, "but a blackbird only sings a single song".

Write punctuation inside quote marks in these cases. You don’t when it is a quoted word, but always do with dialogue.

I glanced towards the source of the sound. White lace curtains fluttered quietly, like clouds that would be going if they only had a helping breeze to move them on their way. Behind them, the french windows waited, opened wide to the next sounds that might want to enter.

I like the feeling of tension at this point.

"The doors are still open", I said accusingly, turning back to him. "Don't you know how to close things after you?"

"But I thought it was you who came to see me", he said as he looked around him. "Isn't this my room?"

Brilliant! I love the picture you have painted of two doddery old guys, a bit confused but still sharp enough to batter each other.

"I don't think so. It would be in a terrible state if it were yours. And what makes you think that I would come to see you?"

"I'm not dressed", he sighed, and straightened slowly in his chair. "Alright, I'll close them. Give me my stick".

“All right” should be written as two words.

I picked up the stick that leant against the tea-trolley and felt the smoothness of the light brown wood. "This isn't your stick", I said, 'it's mine".

"But why isn't my stick here?", he said in a puzzled tone. "It must be here somewhere, I couldn't have come in without it". He looked around and then began to fumble in the pockets of his dressing gown as though it had somehow managed to hide itself in them.

I’d prefer “as if” here, because it’s not possible for the stick to be there.

He gave up. "You'll have to close them, I'm afraid. I won't be able to get there and back on my own."

"Oh, very well", I said, handing him the stick, "you can borrow it just this once. But don't you lose it or put it somewhere I can't reach. It is mine, you know".

He accepted it, and looked at the handle with a puzzled frown, as though aware that he should have recognised that it wasn't his. He made a movement to get out of the chair, but found that the trolley would be in his way. Sitting back down, he leant the stick against the trolley.

"Here", he said, picking up his cup and saucer, "You just pick up yours, so we can move this out of the way".

I reached out and picked up the stick. "I'll hold this so that it doesn't fall to the floor, shall I?"

"But you won't be able to pick up your cup and saucer, will you?" he asked, putting down his own and holding out a hand for the stick.

"You're doing this on purpose", I said, handing him the stick.

This section possibly ran a little long, but that’s a minor criticism.


I picked up my cup. A fragrance drifted through the room. I sniffed, and said "Jasmine".

"Isn't that a jasmine tree, there, beside the lake?" he asked, putting down the stick against the trolley.

I looked at him, wondering what he was talking about. He had picked up his cup, and was looking at it. I looked back at my own. I could just see the part of an island where a tree sprang out from a rock and stooped to kiss the surface of the water.

"I don't think so", I said, "I'm almost certain it's a willow". I picked up the cup and studied it carefully.

Ther-wack! Chalk up the draw. Excellent conception and beautifully realised. This is my idea of a good short story. And it stuck to the rules!


The copyright in this story belongs to its author, whose right to be identified as the author I respect by affixing his name, and the story is posted here with the author’s permission, their rights reserved.



Stalemate

The cup had an endless pattern in mid-blue glaze running around the bright white china; hills and lakes and floating clouds, bamboo huts on little rocky isles with solitary trees, soaring birds above curly-ended boats whose occupants wore pointed hats and stood with sticks or sat and let themselves be sculled along. As I turned it in my hand one hill or island would start to vanish but another would appear from the opposite side, first higher and then lower, and in between them the birds and boats bobbed up and down to keep to their respective places.

I used my other hand to turn the cup completely round to see if one hill might be higher than the others, or one boat have a different set of figures. I paused, wondering why it should be important to me. I took a sip from the cup. "This tea's cold!" I exclaimed.

"Mine is too", said my companion. He was sitting in a chair to my left, dressed in faded blue pyjamas under a tired brown dressing gown. He held his cup in a shaky hand, leaving the saucer on the tea-trolley in front of him.

"Why didn't you say so? Now you've made me have to find out for myself".

"I was going to, but you said it first".

I put my cup and saucer down on my end of the trolley, and he replaced his cup with a slight tremble that made the saucer chime. They floated languidly upon their reflections in the polished wood like water-lillies on a silent pond.

"I suppose one of us will have to go and get some more", I grumbled, reaching for the walking stick that leant against the trolley. "I'd better do it, you're not properly dressed, are you?"

A sudden snatch of birdsong rippled through the room, and then, almost as an echo of the echo, was repeated note-perfect once again, and died away.

"A song-thrush", I exclaimed, but he raised his hand and said "A blackbird".

"You don't know the one from the other", I replied, then saw in his face that yes, he did know, and cared deeply about knowing it.

"A song-thrush would not have sung the same tune twice", he answered, "but a blackbird only sings a single song".

I glanced towards the source of the sound. White lace curtains fluttered quietly, like clouds that would be going if they only had a helping breeze to move them on their way. Behind them, the french windows waited, opened wide to the next sounds that might want to enter.

"The doors are still open", I said accusingly, turning back to him. "Don't you know how to close things after you?"

"But I thought it was you who came to see me", he said as he looked around him. "Isn't this my room?"

"I don't think so. It would be in a terrible state if it were yours. And what makes you think that I would come to see you?"

"I'm not dressed", he sighed, and straightened slowly in his chair. "Alright, I'll close them. Give me my stick".

I picked up the stick that leant against the tea-trolley and felt the smoothness of the light brown wood. "This isn't your stick", I said, 'it's mine".

"But why isn't my stick here?", he said in a puzzled tone. "It must be here somewhere, I couldn't have come in without it". He looked around and then began to fumble in the pockets of his dressing gown as though it had somehow managed to hide itself in them.

He gave up. "You'll have to close them, I'm afraid. I won't be able to get there and back on my own."

"Oh, very well", I said, handing him the stick, "you can borrow it just this once. But don't you lose it or put it somewhere I can't reach. It is mine, you know".

He accepted it, and looked at the handle with a puzzled frown, as though aware that he should have recognised that it wasn't his. He made a movement to get out of the chair, but found that the trolley would be in his way. Sitting back down, he leant the stick against the trolley.

"Here", he said, picking up his cup and saucer, "You just pick up yours, so we can move this out of the way".

I reached out and picked up the stick. "I'll hold this so that it doesn't fall to the floor, shall I?"

"But you won't be able to pick up your cup and saucer, will you?" he asked, putting down his own and holding out a hand for the stick.

"You're doing this on purpose", I said, handing him the stick. I picked up my cup. A fragrance drifted through the room. I sniffed, and said "Jasmine".

"Isn't that a jasmine tree, there, beside the lake?" he asked, putting down the stick against the trolley.

I looked at him, wondering what he was talking about. He had picked up his cup, and was looking at it. I looked back at my own. I could just see the part of an island where a tree sprang out from a rock and stooped to kiss the surface of the water.

"I don't think so", I said, "I'm almost certain it's a willow". I picked up the cup and studied it carefully.

Workshop: Untitled

I don’t know much about efflux, except that he’s an intelligent sometimes commenter on my blog, so I was able to approach his work fresh, without preconceptions. Alongside his entry, he sent me a couple of other pieces of work, which were interesting (but I won’t go into them here).

I thought efflux made a brave stab at the assignment, for which I thank him for trying, and I commend him for achieving a nice mood piece. It had its failings – mainly technical faults that are easily remedied but importantly I felt that he missed the opportunity to create a good character. I could really feel the edginess and tension (and it hit home because I’ve been standing in these shoes so many times!) but I didn’t know the character. It would make a difficult tradeoff not to lard the piece with too much “interior monologue” (particularly given the constraint of not referring to the past over much) but a bit more flavour would have been good here.

Two major technical points, which efflux must remedy, and others should note. First, it’s essential to keep a tight grip on tense. If in doubt, use the simple past throughout. You’ll rarely be wrong. Mixing past and present will nearly always be wrong, as it was on every occasion here. Second, one should prefer “more xly” to “xer” when one is using a comparative adverb. For instance, “hotter” means “more hot”, not “more hotly”, so that “The sun shined hotter” is a solecism. We say it, that’s true, but we should avoid writing it. I’ll note the instances in the text and give the correct version.

The crowd behind him surged forward

Can a crowd surge any other way but forwards? Can it surge backwards or sideways? I think the word “surge” includes the idea of “forwards” (or “upwards”) and can be written without it. YMMV.

as the 233 Express pulled into the station. To stopping before such a mob, brakes shrieked in objection.

Oh dear. It is already a sin to write your sentences the wrong way round, as I’ve noted before, but the sense of this sentence is lost because “to” is so far separated from the “objection” it should accompany. Placing an element out of position in a sentence emphasises it. It’s called topicalisation, and it’s an important device in English. There is a difference in emphasis, for instance between “I like ice-cream” and “Ice-cream, I like”. But there is no good reason for topicalising what is objected to here, bar a desire to get fancy, and that is never really good reason for anything in writing. Even were the sentence fixed though, the problem would remain that it doesn’t make much sense for the brakes to object to stopping just because there is a mob. I don’t understand the idea.

I also have an unreasoning hatred of “such”, probably born out of its overuse in the things I edit, which tend to be jargon-heavy. “Such a” often means “this” or even “the”. Always check to see whether you could use one of those for preference.

The crowd was hot and tired and absolutely unwilling to wait--they would rush the train before it stopped.

It’s okay to use the plural with “crowd” if you are considering it as a bunch of individuals, but it is absolutely not okay to use it with the singular and plural both in the same sentence. If the crowd was unwilling to wait, it would rush the train.

I also think “the moment it stopped” would work better. The crowd might surge but it won’t rush the train while it’s still moving. It might feel as though it will. Perhaps it would be better to phrase it that way.

He panicked. He edged his toes up to the yellow caution line stretching the length of the platform

Just say “the yellow line”. We all know that it stretches the length of the platform. Don’t overdescribe.

in anticipation of boarding. He was directly pushed absolutely over the boundary. He didn’t bother to try planting himself firmly in position--to push against a crowd was useless, the only outcome was

would be. “was” means that he actually did spill over the edge, but you mean he would if he did push back.

his spilling over the edge and onto the tracks. Instead, he eased himself over to a looser pocket at his left, still at the front of the crowd, without so much forward pressure. He looked left and right. Behind. It didn’t look as if

I prefer “as though” here. Use “as if” generally for impossibilities and “as though” for this kind of comparison.

he would be pulled backwards


If you use “surge forward”, you should use “pulled backward”. I assume you’re American, so you should prefer no “s” on these words.
--those nearby seemed now more interested in the train than him.

“than in him”. “than him” is colloquial for “than he was”, and is slightly ambiguous. Repeating the preposition removes the ambiguity entirely.

He figured his position safe.

It may be that I don’t like “figured” because I’m English, but I prefer “reckoned” in this kind of construction. “Figured” has the connotation “worked out” for me, and couldn’t be used for the sort of ready guess we are meaning here.

This was a commuter line at the start of a long holiday weekend, but it is

Was. There’s no reason to change tense here. The only time you would use a construction like this would be the case in which you are writing in the present tense and look back. I understand why you were tempted to do it: you feel that the thing you are describing is timeless. You are right but you use the main tense to express this. In an ordinary piece of fiction, that’s the simple past.

like this every day. Just today, in a small degree, he felt it keener.

“more keenly”. “keener” is a solecism here. You would write “he felt keener” if you meant he was more enthusiastic, but you mean that he felt it more sharply. Here’s a test to help you work out which form to use. Does the word in question describe the subject of the sentence or the action the subject does?

He felt keener. “Keener” describes him. He is more enthusiastic. It does not describe the manner of his feeling, or anything like that.
He felt more keenly. “more keenly” describes the action he does.

He was safe because the crowd was too busy guessing the exact moment the train would stop. To this, he also now turned his attention. He hoped futilely--if still all-the-more desperately, as if sheer eagerness might make it likely--that he would not end up caught yet again alongside the car, with either entrance stopped far to the side.

“futilely” does not seem right here. “Futile” basically means “without result” (in a concrete sense) but hoping rarely has a result in any case. I think you may have wanted “forlornly”.

Which leads me to one of my favourite etymologies. A “forlorn hope” is of course a pointless, sad hope. “Forlorn” means “sad, abandoned” in English. But a “forlorn hope” is derived from the Dutch for a small advance guard that is sent forwards before the main body of the army: “the lost troop” (because in the days of musketry, the first guys forward generally were mown down; those following were able to close with cold steel before the enemy could reload).

I don’t see any reason to hyphenate “all the more”. Hyphens are the devil’s business. Eschew them where possible and the angels will love you for it. Again, prefer “as though” because you are not expressing an impossibility.

As a matter of fact, a person who is used to catching the same train night after night will well know whether he will be next to a door when the train stops. They always stop in the same place after all.

If this were to happen,

“was to happen”. This is a clear conditional, not a counterfactual, and demands “was”.

his being at the front of the crowd wouldn’t matter.

I can forgive nearly every sin for a correctly possessed gerund. Top marks!

He wouldn’t have any luck squeezing along the car with the idea that he could come at the door sideways, wedging himself in front of whoever was about to enter. Yes, some people manage do to this.

Whoops! First, write “managed”. Again, even if you want to give the idea of habitual managing, you should use the past tense. Obviously, you have your to and do mixed up.


He knew this. He saw them, too.

No comma. You would not write "he saw them, quickly".

But he never had quite managed--he found his manners prevented him.

You could use a semicolon in place of that dash.

Not entirely, of course. He would move. Forward even. It’s just the distance was always the smallest bit further than he could reach.

First, use “it was”. Again, this should not be a present tense.

Many pedants would like “farther” here. Indulge them. Use “farther” when you are talking unambiguously about real distance; “further” when you are talking about metaphorical distance.

A door stopped in front of him.

“The train had stopped, a door in front of him.”
“The train stopped with a door in front of him.”
“The train stopped and a door was in front of him.”
The key idea is that the train stops, not the door.

A passenger stepped off the train and was lost to the crowd.

In the crowd. To be lost to someone or something means that they have or it has lost you, not that it has swallowed you up.

An elbow jabbed him--a flabby body squeezed by.

Prefer semicolons to dashes if you will not write two sentences here.

He boarded second

Who cares?


, and was pushed deep, deep into the interior of the car. They all pushed and pushed further still.

“still further” is both euphonous and more common. Again you might prefer "farther" anyway.

The seats were full when the train had arrived.

I don’t like this. The pluperfect seems a bit clumsy. Just write “The seats were all taken”.

There would be more than four times as many riding out.

Erm. Where the hell are you getting the train from? I’ve boarded the train at some busy stations, and maybe the crowd has doubled, but four times as many? Only when it was fairly sparsely populated to start with. Too much exaggeration in my view.

A few windows not yet flung open were opened. It heated up the thicker it crowded

First, do not write “thicker”. This should be “more thickly”. And “it” didn’t “crowd”. “it was crowded” is correct.

, all the same. Increasing pressure at a constant volume. Or some other such law.

All one sentence. Maybe consider a verb.

All he knew is

Was. Consider this. You meet Marcel. You know when you meet him he is French. He’s still French today, that won’t change. But what you write is “I knew when I met Marcel that he was French”.

it was damn hot.

Use “damned” in writing.

And crowded. He could not reach the handholds. When the train lurched forward, he found he didn’t need to. The crowd held him upright.
He thought it wasn’t too bad. There were those who were worse.

“worse off”

There were those, he thought, who were among the last on the train

“onto the train”. The last on the train is the last to get off, which is the wrong idea here.

, those who had to step off every stop to let through others who wanted out. It is better not to be one of those. It is better to be swallowed here, in the belly, as it were, than one of those. He pondered what they would be, if he were in the belly. They are they regurgitated.

Be careful to read your work back. If you often leave typos, get into the habit of reading it aloud.

The continually regurgitated. The never quite absorbed. The rancid, half-digested.

I quite liked these ideas.

He decided they were the most disgusting. Yet, he would prefer to be among them, than one needing to ask to be let out.

This sentence requires no commas at all.

He shook all this from his head and panted at the air in exhaustion.

You don’t “pant at the air”. You might “pant at a scantily clad woman”, but air is what you pant, not something you pant at. “He shook all this from his head, panting with exhaustion” is a natural way to express this.

What was the very worst

Just write “worst”. The very worst is the worst. There's none more worst than the worst.

about such crowding, even worse than the not breathing, is

was.

that he had no idea where to put his hands. No matter where he put them, he found they were on someone.
Slowly, he became aware of a buzzing in his ear. Slower still

More slowly still.

, he recognized it was speech.

“he recognized it as speech” would have been better. Or “he recognized that it was speech”. Be careful about eliding “that”, because the sentence you end up with may not be entirely readable. Err on the side of including it if you’re not sure.

The copyright in this story belongs to its author, whose right to be identified as the author I respect by affixing his name, and the story is posted here with the author’s permission, their rights reserved.

Untitled
The crowd behind him surged forward as the 233 Express pulled into the station. To stopping before such a mob, brakes shrieked in objection. The crowd was hot and tired and absolutely unwilling to wait--they would rush the train before it stopped. He panicked. He edged his toes up to the yellow caution line stretching the length of the platform in anticipation of boarding. He was directly pushed absolutely over the boundary. He didn’t bother to try planting himself firmly in position--to push against a crowd was useless, the only outcome was his spilling over the edge and onto the tracks. Instead, he eased himself over to a looser pocket at his left, still at the front of the crowd, without so much forward pressure. He looked left and right. Behind. It didn’t look as if he would be pulled backwards--those nearby seemed now more interested in the train than him. He figured his position safe.
This was a commuter line at the start of a long holiday weekend, but it is like this every day. Just today, in a small degree, he felt it keener.
He was safe because the crowd was too busy guessing the exact moment the train would stop. To this, he also now turned his attention. He hoped futilely--if still all-the-more desperately, as if sheer eagerness might make it likely--that he would not end up caught yet again alongside the car, with either entrance stopped far to the side. If this were to happen, his being at the front of the crowd wouldn’t matter. He wouldn’t have any luck squeezing along the car with the idea that he could come at the door sideways, wedging himself in front of whoever was about to enter. Yes, some people manage do to this. He knew this. He saw them, too. But he never had quite managed--he found his manners prevented him. Not entirely, of course. He would move. Forward even. It’s just the distance was always the smallest bit further than he could reach.
A door stopped in front of him. A passenger stepped off the train and was lost to the crowd. An elbow jabbed him--a flabby body squeezed by. He boarded second, and was pushed deep, deep into the interior of the car. They all pushed and pushed further still. The seats were full when the train had arrived. There would be more than four times as many riding out. A few windows not yet flung open were opened. It heated up the thicker it crowded, all the same. Increasing pressure at a constant volume. Or some other such law. All he knew is it was damn hot. And crowded. He could not reach the handholds. When the train lurched forward, he found he didn’t need to. The crowd held him upright.
He thought it wasn’t too bad. There were those who were worse. There were those, he thought, who were among the last on the train, those who had to step off every stop to let through others who wanted out. It is better not to be one of those. It is better to be swallowed here, in the belly, as it were, than one of those. He pondered what they would be, if he were in the belly. They are they regurgitated. The continually regurgitated. The never quite absorbed. The rancid, half-digested. He decided they were the most disgusting. Yet, he would prefer to be among them, than one needing to ask to be let out. He shook all this from his head and panted at the air in exhaustion. What was the very worst about such crowding, even worse than the not breathing, is that he had no idea where to put his hands. No matter where he put them, he found they were on someone.
Slowly, he became aware of a buzzing in his ear. Slower still, he recognized it was speech.

efflux 2006

Monday, January 15, 2007

Being boring

I am boring. I don't doubt it. I'm not a sparkling conversationalist, usually monotone and dull or infuriatingly garrulous, so that you struggle either to drag an answer out of me or to get a word in edgeways. The former happens when I have nothing to say and don't know how to push the conversation along; the latter when I'm enthused about something to the exclusion of everything else (including whatever you want to talk about).

I mostly have nothing to talk about. I do not have an interesting religion. I don't have any at all; no beliefs of any kind. I do not even have the good taste to be Jewish. I am the same peasant my forebears were; none of them in living memory had any religion at all. Except my mother, who has in her time been a spiritualist, a Baptist, a Unitarian, a Hindu, a Buddhist and gods know what other types of believer.

I have no interesting philosophy. I have no firm views on what life is, what it is for or how it should be lived. I indulge mostly in a woolly-minded scepticism, a vague conviction that the pursuit of knowledge is worth while (although worth what I have never figured out). If pressed, I'd say that eudaimonia is a sensible goal for a human being. I am at the same time a resolute materialist and a believer in the human spirit. They don't make easy bedfellows.

Politically, I am a bleeding heart. I have a poorly thought-out notion of equity that I use as a lens to view the world. I think everyone should get a share but I have no good idea of how they can have it. I couldn't be a communist; the "proletariat" are too ferociously dim ever to be allowed actually to run things. I'd be better off without this idea of the world, because it is a lot easier to be a rightist (which is why many choose it as their politics). A belief that the individual is god allows everything to fall into place. Sadly, it does not stand up to even the briefest scrutiny. The individual is a construct of the society they are part of.

I do not have strong views on many things. I am pro-choice but against killing, agnostic but not antireligious, vegetarian but not a proselyte, not anything like a nationalist, although I do love my native land, against this, that and the other but unwilling to march, shout or punch anyone over it.

I am not at all fashionable. I do not like the latest thing, although I do sometimes have it. I like music but I don't follow it all that closely. I like some stuff you've probably never heard of but that's an outcome of catholic taste (or no taste at all) rather than a pursuit of the recherche. There are no Japanese thrash bands in my record collection, and no obscure fifteenth-century German harpsichord pieces. Not even any Stockhausen, although I do have a Steve Reich boxset.

I am poorly read in literature and become ever more so. When I read book of the year lists, I've only ever read one or two of them, if that. I often read half a book and then give up, bored. I tire of the books because I have become incapable of thinking about them. I am incapable of thinking about anything. If I feel thoughts arising, I drink more cheap red wine to kill them. They never lead anywhere good.

I do not have an interesting hobby. I started playing poker when it became popular and I am boringly useless at it. I read the web aimlessly and find nothing very interesting because I am clueless how to find good stuff. I take the occasional bushwalk but I am almost entirely unobservant and the only way I spot wildlife is when I trip over it or it bites me. I paint without any sign of talent and make music that would disgrace a small child, neither very often these days because inspiration just doesn't strike the boring on most days.

I have a boring life. It is only enlivened by domestic strife. Which is thoroughly boring in itself. I have been to the cinema once in a year, the theatre not at all in the three years I have been back in Brisbane. I eat out maybe once every three months. Most places to eat that I can afford are cookie-cutter, uninspired franchise joints, so I don't miss it. I have been to the football a couple of times this season but lacking company made it too joyless and the standard was just too poor to be worth spending $25 on.

But you know all this. You have read this blog and you know how boring I am, because I display exactly these qualities in my posts. Most people who read this blog have taken some opportunity or other to express it to me. Mind you, I am constantly reminded of the words of the Pet Shop Boys' song: we were never being bored because we were never being boring. I know I am bored because I am boring. Do you know it too?

Thursday, January 11, 2007

Casino Royale

Although I'm not a fan of actioners as a whole, I am a devotee of Bond. (Not in a scary, convention-visiting way, but in a watch them at the flicks and again when they are shown at Christmas and so on way). Which means that when I watch a Bond, I'm not so much comparing it with a standard for action films, but with one for Bond films as a genre of their own.

So how does it match up, and how does Daniel Craig, the blond Bond, match up?

It matches up. Big style. I don't think it's too much to suggest that it's among the best of the Bonds, if not the best. With a genre that had begun to show signs of having nowhere to go but bigger stunts and bigger bangs, someone had a stroke of inspiration. They took it back to its roots, capturing the flavour of the original Ian Fleming book. And Craig matches up. Fleming's Bond is not a wisecracking playboy. He is like a dog on a leash, a coiled spring, ready to go off at the slightest provocation. Acting that is not easy, but I could imagine Fleming nodding and saying "that is it", because he captures that tension. Where Dalton brooded and Brosnan capered, Craig is vicious, catlike. He is a dangerous, amoral man, who will do whatever it takes. And ladies, pack spare knickers. You're going to wet yourself when you see his bod. (He looks great in a DJ but they had to shovel him into it: there's a ton of gym hours in him.)

The first half an hour sets the tone. If, like me, you consider "parkour" or free running a bit gay and wholly risible, prepare to have your mind changed. The sustained, thrilling action is simply brilliant. (If you suffer at all from vertigo, prepare to be scared. Part of the action, up on the arm of a crane, is shot in a way that made me almost panicstruck with fear of falling.) And it doesn't let up. It avoids the longueurs of some of the earlier Bonds, in which the convoluted plot had to be explained, by having a simple (and quite ludicrous) story. The dialogue is sharp, and not overlarded with the cheap humour of previous Bonds. And for the aficionado, it is quite faithful to the book (peek through the fingers faithful when Bond is captured by the villain, who does something with a knotted rope that will send a shaft of fear through all grown men).

All this and poker too! (It's rather fortunate that Bond just happens to be a genius poker player, but to be fair, Craig is quite brilliant in the poker scenes, steely and unreadable.) I thought it was a fantastic rereading of the Bond story, with a new Bond who promises to make the role his own (I'm of the opinion that no one has come close to Connery, but that changes here: it's a measure of how good Craig is that I consider that he might be Bond in the same way Connery was), a wonderful villain and a stunning Bond girl in Eva Green. In sum, it's as good as From Russia with love, which makes this my new favourite Bond.

Monday, January 8, 2007

Vale Magnus

In a tiny corner of this world, there are no bombs, no secret prisons with torture chambers, no sectarian murders, nothing of that sort unless you are answering questions about them, those impossibly distant things that cannot infringe on a world made of warm crumpets and tea and the sound of ball on bat. It is a real sadness that that corner of the world is becoming ever smaller, a tinier part of the maelstrom dedicated to simple fellowship, the warmth of being together. The only torturer in that small world was Magnus Magnusson (the mild tickling of Call my bluff does not count). Would that we had a world of a million Magnuses, always finishing what they started, fair and kindly.

Thursday, January 4, 2007

Notes on narratives

I have been thinking about how history is created; how any narrative is created. This includes things that you do not generally consider a narrative, but have the same structural elements: what you think about another person or what you think about yourself.

The "true" story, if we can call it that, the "reality", what actually did happen -- and I am taking the philosophical position that there were physical events that did actually happen -- might be considered to contain x elements. X will be a very large number and immediately there is a problem. X is not the same from all viewpoints. Trivially, imagine this. A man is shot by a gun from in front. But if you are standing in front of the man, looking at him, you might not see the shooter but can see the entry of the bullet. If you are standing behind him, you can see the shooter but you cannot see the bullet's entry, only its exit, if it has one.

It is important to remember, although we mostly do not, that these are all elements that need to be counted in x (the physical facts of the shooting and the viewpoints it could be described from). And I am not saying that the shooting has an independence separate from the viewpoints on it. Not at all. Those who understand the theory of relativity will understand that I am saying there is no separate reality that we can describe. When we are creating a narrative, we are not reconstructing something that exists outside understandings of it, but something that even if fully described would include those viewpoints on it.

Even for relatively simple narratives, it should be obvious that x is a number in the millions. Practically, if we allow that there are favoured viewpoints -- the "facts of the matter" or what happened to a person from their own POV (not how they remember it but how it actually happened and what they actually felt and experienced at the time), x may be a smaller number.

The naive view is that historians, when constructing a narrative, attempt to gather all the pieces of x that they can. They do not, of course. They generally have a shape of the narrative sketched out and place elements to make the story they want. Sometimes they will exclude elements that do not fit. The number of elements that they gather can be called y. Y is a much, much smaller number than x, orders of magnitude smaller. If x is in the millions, y can be in the hundreds.

The problem of history is twofold. First, that the historian must make a picture from y, not x. They will never have x, no matter how thorough their investigation. (If you think you can think of things that could be fully described, you are probably either thinking of something that could not be fairly described as a narrative or you are not quite thinking deeply enough about things that could be said about it or could go to make a fuller description of it. Take for example, a letter. You might say the letter, what is in it, can be fully described. But this is not a narrative, but a fact. And then you can consider that you cannot be sure that the letter is authentic, has not been tampered with, and that the meaning of the letter, the intentions of the author, go to deciding that.) So the historian creates their picture, we can call it Y. It's a representation of X (the "real" story). But here is the second problem. The nature of history is that Y is easily confused for X (just as in science, the model that science uses as its approximation of the world is easily confused for the world, so that people mistake science for the Truth). Sometimes the historian themselves can make the mistake of presenting Y as X: suggesting they have the full story. Sometimes -- Churchill comes to mind -- they are very aware that they do not, and are determined that Y will be their story, will describe events from a perspective that suits them.

But generally what counts for a historian is that the narrative they construct makes sense: whether that sense is something they impose on the narrative or something that emerges, they want it to be coherent, themed. They do not pay much mind to historical narratives' rarely being coherent. This is a real problem because history tends to have an orthodox reading, a narrative endorsed by the mainstream, and those readings of events that differ from it are considered divergent, when the truth is sometimes going to be that those narrating have simply used different elements from X to make different Ys. Each might be as "true" as the other. For those who enjoy postmodernism, you will recognise that my discussion here takes a postmodernist "no view privileged" look at the construction of narratives, rather than the modernist view that there can be a truth to unveil. Modernism ignores that its selection of the true point of view is arbitrary. I don't think there is anything wrong with taking the modernist line, and I do in some respects, so long as you are clear that you have no ground to do so.

Curiously, even though the world is quite clearly full of diversity, history and other areas that use narratives, particularly in the media, take a modernist approach to narratives. In other words, they assume that there is a privileged viewpoint -- a "true story". In some ways, this is essential to them because they are trying to present a coherent view of the world. This is a subject for another post though.

Incomplete narratives do not belong only to history, even if it is interpreted broadly enough to include your or others' personal history. How you think about another person is a narrative. Your "picture" of them is more like a story. But you also make the same mistake that you might with stories. You assume Y is X.

The main problem with creating a narrative is that often the elements that we have do not join up particularly well. We might know what happened at a point but not why, and we might infer a motivation at another point but not know what the person or people involved were doing exactly. So the temptation is to join the dots and use the motivation from one point to explain the action at another. In this way, we weave a whole story from sometimes rather few threads. As for historians, what matters to us is that our picture coheres, that it seems to present us with a whole person, and we need to be able to believe that our picture is "true" in some sense.

A person has x elements. They do not themselves understand or even know all those elements (I am not talking particularly about their lack of understanding of the processes that made them; I am talking more about their not knowing elements of their own life -- none of us has a full picture of what is going on, which is quite obvious on reflection). And we will, of course, know y things about them. We are quite clear with a person that we do not, cannot, know everything about them. However, we are bound to make our picture from x elements and consider that X for us.

Sometimes, we will say "I don't know her very well" but this does not mean that we are relinquishing the notion that we have a picture of them that is in some way whole. It means that we accept that having more elements will allow us to change that picture.

What is problematic is that we do not always understand that X -- all they are -- and Y -- all we know them to be -- are highly divergent. Sometimes this lack of understanding can be almost pathological, but even when we are aware that we have built our picture from very little of what there is to know about them, we still are not clear that what we have built is too whole. I noted that historians sometimes have a narrative already sketched out that they will fill with facts, and this is true too of our narratives about people. We quickly form an idea who they are and then use new elements to fill in that structure. Sometimes we have to stetch the elements we have absurdly much to fit the picture, yet we are not keen -- some very much less keen than others -- to surrender it and build a new narrative.

For my part, I am quite clear that I do not have a complete picture of anybody, not even of myself. I rarely even have a functioning whole narrative for a person. I tend to allow them either to have a more fluid representation if I have several of the x elements, or, as we generally do, to allow one or other of the elements to stand for the whole. I'm not sure where the dividing line is, because, for example, I have many elements for my father-in-law but I tend to conceive of him in quite simple terms. Sometimes people are quite simply easier to manipulate (in your thinking, not as people, although it would probably be even truer of them as people) as symbols than as complex narratives. Because I do not expect to construct a complete narrative, I probably seem less interested in people than they might hope. I am interested, of course, but in specifics, things that interest me in and of themselves. I am not interested in an enquiry into the person aimed at making a fuller picture. That might seem a curious trait in someone who aspires to be an author, but I think it is a failing of authors, not a strength, to feel that a character is constructable from few elements and can be understood by simply acquiring them. Simply making more complicated whole pictures is not enough (by which I mean that you are not doing enough if you simply avoid using cardboard cutout characters, but still have wholly comprehensible characters). You need more, to reflect how difficult to grasp we are, as whole narratives and as people.

Wednesday, January 3, 2007

A lynching

An excellent article on the judicial murder of Saddam Hussein, which stood out from the dross that hacks have been pouring out on this score.

I don't blame them so much. It's nearly impossible to comment on this. One is horrified, yet cannot feel sympathy for a man who had none at all for many of his fellows.

But we can feel shame. In creating a martyr out of Saddam and denying the world the trial he should have had: in our shared court, with fair representation, with full account made of his crimes, his defence of them and a sentence that fits a broader notion of justice than the hot desire for vengeance of his killers, we have done another harm to our world.

Worse, we created him and created his enemies. Too few men tried; too few punished. When history judges us, we know it will be harsh. Like Saddam's, our memorials will be built on the bones of those we allowed thugs and killers to destroy.