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I’ve been an aspiring poet for so long that I’ve begun to wonder if I’ll become an expiring one before I get there; and after that, perhaps, an inspiring one. Which made me wonder if there are any other spirings to be done. Dispiring, for example, which might be connected to despairing. And then there’s the matter of Church Spiring. Did the word come after the structure, or was the structure named for the word?

There is of course, spiralling, which is usually associated with destruction, but surely could be upwards too.

The only answer was to look it up. I’m still in the Age of Paper when it comes to looking things up, and have a collection of dictionaries going back to 1659 (Blount’s Glossographia (of hard words)…which, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, has in the case of my copy the word GLOSSOP in gilt capitals stretching half-way across the spine. The gilder, presumably recognised his mistake and decided to quit while he was behind…How he would got GRAPHICA on anyway I have no idea as he was already more than half-way across. Perhaps I’m being sexist, with that ‘he’, but surely a woman would have plotted it out more effectively to begin with?

Aspire obviously wasn’t considered a ‘hard word’, but Aspirate features with breathing, aspiring or influence.

From the sublime to the correctly lettered, I turned to the Shorter Oxford. Here were spires in abundance, and some of them, seemingly quite disconnected from each other. A thread of the two pages of entries…from Spiracle to Spirituous gives enough ideas, metaphors, similes and straight meanings to fill a small thesis; but at its core, I sensed the connection of movement, through breath, towards creation:

 

So here’s a creation from many years ago, not about spires, though perhaps touching on inspiration, but about that Age of Paper, and other ages, that might be passing:

 

A Premature Obituary

 

Poetry’s finished, he said. Yeah! I heard that.

And the wheel. The wheel’s off the road.

And fire’s out. Fire’s dead in the water.

But flint knapped blades are in, and obsidian.

Great for cutting meat. Useless with paper.

But paper’s done. That’s another thing off the books.

 

Don’t get me started on food. Sugar’s passé,

Sweetie. Fat’s in the fire, or would be

If that weren’t ashes. Salt’s old hat. We’re through

With that. All art and culture’s for the vultures.

It’s all gone out with the ark: obsolete.

Not a spark of intelligentsia left.

 

But some dodo, you can depend on it,

Even as we speak, ’s writing a sonnet.

 

(Mike Smith, c2007)

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I had a ‘fork ’andles’ moment in Wigton today…. I’d gone into a local DIY shop to look for some cork tiles. I need to cover a shelf I said, and need some cork. The man showed me some glue. I need the cork, not the glue, I said. He pointed to the tin….cauk…. (RIP,RB)

There was a pithy little snippet cropped up during the Scottish referendum campaign, where an observer commented on a pro-independence demand: ‘Freedom!’ The comment was, ‘from what?’ The answer would have been instructive, no doubt…but it’s that word freedom which was in my mind today. This morning I made myself a cooked breakfast…a rare weekend treat for me. I included a ‘free range’ egg. That reminded me of an American asking what ‘range eggs’ were? Nobody, I think, expected a small plastic effigy when they saw the slogan ‘Free Nelson Madela,’ but I wonder how many have asked, as Kowalski did once in a story that foundered, ‘what’s he in for?’ when they saw the sign I saw once that exhorted us to ‘Free Buxton Water!’ (Ever since, I’ve harboured a desire to write a story with a character called Buxton Water, but I haven’t yet managed it – feel free to. We could compare notes, stories!)

We’re back, of course, to an old favourite of mine: ‘the fat policeman’s wife’ game. I’ve played this with students and writing workshop members before now, but it originates in a Grammar of Modern English, published in the seventies by a Professor Mittins. It’s a great little grammar, making an almost computer-like analysis of how English works. Prime among the mechanisms is that of proximity: we associate the meaning of words with those of the words they are nearest to. Thus, in the phrase ‘the fat policeman’s wife’ we have no way of knowing which is fat – of course, neither of them would be today! Mittins calls the error ‘squinting’, where the middle word could relate to either of the ones beside it, which is where my American friend was caught. The other two examples are slightly different, but you don’t need me to tell you in what way!

English! Doancha luv it!

Mike’s poem L’On Y Danse is one of  the guest poems on the Acumen website and features in the current issue (Acumen #86)…You can find it here.

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD being cock-a-hoop in Heidelberg

BHD says:

I recently sent an old writing buddy of mine a copy of a short story I’d just written.  He wrote back to say he liked it, but that the last word was unnecessary, the sense it conveyed being implicit in what had gone before: its meaning could be taken for granted. It went without saying.

I wrote back to him, pointing out that the very last word was the whole point of the story. What ‘goes without saying’ can be left unsaid for so long that we’re in danger of forgetting it, and that particular story, by saying explicitly what could safely be left implicit, was intended to bring the issue back to light. My hope was that the reader would be surprised at the inclusion, because, obviously, ‘it went without saying,’ didn’t it? That moment of re-evaluation, of doubt, and eventual re-assertion was the view that the story was bringing him to (and, seemingly had!). The events described were to give context to the concept, the context in which the word’s meaning might, and perhaps should be obvious to all!

Readers don’t always find what we want them to in our stories (or poems come to that), which sometimes is no bad thing…but often in short stories I find there are elements at the end that seem to be bolted on…That favourite of mine, Weep Not My Wanton, for example (by A.E.Coppard) has a whole scene following the shocking revelation that is the climax of the story…if we think the story is the events being described. Why does Coppard add that scene, I ask myself every time I read it, and the answer I give myself  reveals what I think must be his purpose in telling the story. (I’ve written about Weep Not My Wanton both here, and on the Thresholds blog, and on Liars League website if you want to go searching!).

I’m not going to reveal the title of my ‘excessive’ story, but if you come across it, I hope you’ll think that last word was unnecessary too, but only after having thought about it.

Earlier this weekend (which means Friday and Saturday) Facets of Fiction Writers Workshop, and Carlisle Writers Group staged a pop-up Bookshop in Waterstones, Carlisle. Thanks to everyone who helped, and especially to those who visited the stall and bought our books! Especially, specially, thanks to Waterstones Bookshop, who made the space available to us, provided what we hadn’t thought to bring, and encouraged us all around. We couldn’t have done it without you Waterstones! And Watch That Space – because we’d like to come back!!

Now available in Paperback!

Now available in Paperback!

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

I’ve just had a stroke of luck (rather than the luck of a stroke). I’ve found my copy of Blount’s Glossographia!

It’s one of the first English language dictionaries (interpreting hard words) ever to be published. I’d never heard of it, of course, but stumbled on this tatty copy at a book fair many years ago. There’s no date of publication, but textual clues suggest 1659, and pencil notes from previous owners suggest 1674. Oldish then, compared to most (let’s be fair, to ALL) of the other books on my shelves. The printing could be much younger, though the layout is early. The paper is poor, thin, and without the chain lines of that thicker C18th version. The ink, in places, has started to rub off!

More surprising perhaps, is that it cost me £2 (two quid!). Of course, it is a tatty copy. The title page and prelims (whatever they were) are missing, and had been for a long time: An (arguably) C18th century hand has written in black ink ‘Blount’s’ above the heading to page (1) ‘A’….

The spine’s off too..but tucked in, which is good, because it has the word Glossop, a town in Derbyshire(?) in gilt capitals across it…ending in an unlettered space long enough to get ‘ogr’ on, but nothing else -and what’s that beautifully executed ‘P’ doing there anyway? And how are you going to get rid of it…?

Imagine the gilder, hammering away! Perhaps he was a Derbyshire man….getting on famously…G,L,O,S,S,O,’ and that ‘P’ just slipped in (sometime between now and 1659), and there it was…buggered (that’s a technical term in bibliographic circles, I believe).

Which, I have to confess, does endear me to this particular copy, and I’m glad to have it back. There are 706 pages, the last of which bears the inscription ‘finis’, which is reassuring. I have several old dictionaries, and dip into them from time to time. Whatever the age of the book’s construction, the ‘hard words’ it ‘interprets’ are from the mid C17th, and that’s the real interest.

The hardest part of Blount’s is the use of a heavy Gothic script for the actual words….but you can usually work out what they are, from the more easily read definitions (and the order of course). I looked up ‘Gig’, to give a me a link to the next bit, but found instead ‘Gilp (Sax.) a brag, a boast or ostentation,’ which is still a link….but not the one I would have gone for…:

 

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAmbiguous Encounters, Tuesday, 26th May, 6.00pm, The Open Book, Wigtown. Short stories from Marilyn Messenger & BHD http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/1508981485

 

Language is a funny thing…. well, other people’s language is; and our own if we can slip outside of it and look back, nome sayin?

My title for this week’s blog-post is taken from Tom Wolfe’s novel, Back to Blood. That’s the one! He uses the phrase to signify the ‘neg-speak’ of Antoine, one of the minor characters. Unnerstan? He uses that too.

We ask the question, not quite rhetorically, that implies we’re not quite confident we have been understood, or even listened to. You know what I’m sayin?

Doesn’t it make you, sometimes, want to answer, of course I know what you’re effin saying! Do you think I’m some kind of moron? But of course, la politesse holds us back, init?

I installed my initial language programme, as most of us do, in the first three to five years of life. Naom Chomsky reckoned there is a brain function that more or less switches off after this time – which is why we have such problems learning second languages. Since then I’ve been taking updates. It won’t have been quite the same initial package as my contemporaries got; not in the same street, not in the same town, definitely not in the next county; over the border. It won’t have been quite the same initial job-lot as the three year-olds a few months earlier, a couple of years later either? You know?

As to the updates, well, they’ll have varied from house to house, from day to day too. Consider the fact that I couldn’t even have explained it in these terms, if I had been my father. Install? Updates? There was a famous book in the nineteen fities, written by a nun who had left her order. Over The Wall, I think it was called. In interview she was asked about the changes in the world since she had gone inside. It wasn’t the technological changes, automobiles, radio and TV, jet ‘planes, that surprised her most, but the changes to the way people used language. Knowhaddamean?

We’re all speaking our own languages to some extent: translating the languages spoken to us; parents to children; locals to incomers; stranger to stranger.

The invention of the printing press cut across all this; seemed to set some sort of standard. What it didn’t do was to popularise, or democratise, the telling and receiving of stories. In fact, it may have done the exact opposite.

Stories and storytelling not only go back to the origins of language, they may have been one of the prime reasons for developing it – and my guess is that it developed in individuals, one language at a time. They knew what they were trying to say – others tried to work out just what that was.

Would the invention of writing have constrained this? Did the invention of printing tighten the noose further? Reading and writing are skills built upon an already existing language, aren’t they? And the casting of stories into print, which must be deciphered, rendered them unavailable to those who had not learned that skill.

Literary people will celebrate the obstacle, which, like the maxim gun, ‘we have got, and they have not’, because they have their hands on the font and galley. It is their stories that suddenly can be disseminated more widely than any voice can reach, in a single telling, and seemingly, for all time. And those who can’t read? Best learn, or be deemed unimportant, however good a speaker, or thinker, you might be. The digital revolution though, has put everybody’s finger on the keypad, threatening a breakdown of that hegemony.

Earlier in the week, David Crystal, author of a definitive study of English, and given the definitive article as ‘the authority’ on the language by Radio 4, threw his weight behind the efforts of a north-eastern head-teacher to learn her pupils (dilated or otherwise) some standard English! The further we cast our voices, he seemed to be saying, the more ‘standard’ we should make them. Yet, he also said, that there was a place for the local dialect, t’auld twang, as it’s called round here.

I’ve often thought that when people stop talking to each other their languages will drift apart (The Mackwater Seam, in Talking To Owls was based on this premise); the more they talk to each other, the more closely their languages will conform (the poem ‘Doggin’ In’, which I think reached the dizzy heights of publication in the Loweswater parish newsletter, picked up on the theme).

Closer too, as writers, as makers and tellers of story, there’s a place for our individual voices, our individual languages. They are what make

the stories our own, and that’s what makes them worth something to the people who read and hear them. Got me?APennySpitfire-frontcover

TalkingtoOwls

Calling Names:  What’s the dog’s name? You might be asked; and you might answer, I have no idea, but we call it Mutt.

Names are usually almost meaningless, but not quite. Sometimes they imply meanings by echoing other words. Sometimes they conflate meanings by the co-incidental marriage of their different elements. Sometimes they sound like actual words, but ones that we haven’t heard before. Sometimes they seem to be distorted versions of words that we know. Sometimes they are perfectly simple words from languages that we have forgotten, or not yet encountered.

Names are hygrospic of meaning. They draw it to themselves. Even randomly chosen names, plucked blindfolded from a telephone directory or voting register, seem to take on the the qualities of the characters to whom they are attached, or vice-versa. I’m writing about writing of course, and about the fictional characters we create, and how we identify them; but it all seems to be true of real life too!

A wartime friend of my father’s was known to his comrades as Blackie, to his first wife as Vin, and to his second as Mel. His passport would have recorded him as a Melvin. He was the inspiration for Derek Fitton, the protagonist in my novel, A Penny Spitfire. Derek is known variously, as Dec, and Dirk. These changes mark out the trajectories of real, and of fictional lives, as BHD and Me well know.

I was adopted into a Strickland family, on my mother’s side. They could trace their roots from the midlands, where I was born and grew up, back to the north of England, in what is now Cumbria. Stricklands were, and I believe still are, rare in the midlands, but in Cumbria they were a landed family ‘of Sizergh’. A Hornihand-Strickland was one of the seven men of Moidart, who welcomed Charles Stuart in his ill-fated 1745 to seize the crown of the Union. Strickland is a corruption of Stirkelond, a patronym of Dutch origin, brought into Scotland in, I believe, the fifteen hundreds, where it left the word ‘stirk’. Herd (and herded) in the border country, it was not a word in currency in the midlands where I grew up. Stirk isn’t in my edition of the OED, but went on to be steer, I shouldn’t wonder, when the Scots took cattle ranching across to the USA. Dogies and Spreidhs, and other such Scottish cattle culture words can be found in Rob Gibson’s Plaids and Bandanas, one of a whole genre of books about the Highlanders, in which some interesting origins of English words (also not in my OED) can be found.

Another name from my childhood was Hole, a surname deed-poll-changed by its owner to De Laney, which implies a story all on its own. If names work by suggestion, subtley influencing the reader’s reaction to characters, and to stories, they must also operate on the subconscious of the writer. They evoke associations we are not conscioulsy aware of. I recently wrote a story with a protagonist called Wynwright. I was well aware that the name was a slightly skewed version of the more common ‘Wainright’, and that it held elements that sounded like ‘win’ and ‘right’, but I had entirely overlooked the famous writer of mountain guides. Yet, the story begins with my character putting on his walking boots! I often recall that opening line of Moby Dick: Call me Ishmael, but I can’t remember any other mention of the name throughout that long novel. Stories are often named after their heroes, or villains, and have been since antiquity, for the Greeks gave us the word for the practice: eponymous.

Surprisingly perhaps, the absence of names can be as potent as their presence. Without names we have to find some other way of identifying our characters: labels, in effect. My Wynwright interacts with a character described as ‘the man’, or ‘the stranger’. In another story I have ‘the peanut headed man’. In this story the four central characters exchange names – though the reader does not hear them all, and the protagonist, who is named, resents the cultural imperialism of being subjected to the practice. In Lord of the Rings, the rather formal Peregrine (from peregrination, a circular journey, there and back again) and Meriadoc, are reduced to Pippin (a type of apple), and Merry (a state of mind valued more for its innocence that its intelligence). In a section I couldn’t track down to cite, I seem to recall, perhaps Gandalf, saying how he would hate to see the hobbitry subject to tyranny – but the adjectives he usesto describe that hobbitry are astonishingly patronising.

I remember a Rhodesian who had fled his homeland, losing almost all his possessions, in the late nineteen seventies. Telling me of his ‘bleks’, he asserted that they were ‘like children’. So they may have been, but that ought not to have been so, and if they were, must surely have been the consequence of the regimes under which they were living, and had lived. In the movies too, labels tell us as much about the labeller as about the labellee: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly springs to mind. Names are a seque away from masks and cloaks, uniforms and badges, whether or not you are a caped crusader. Black hats, and white hats, verbal or visual, explicit or implicit, give off the atmosphere of character, and of story in just the same way as the events that have taken place in a house are said to give off theirs. They manipulate the way we enter, and the carefree or cautious way we move through it.

Feeling for Figures, by Mike Smith

 

At the risk of murdering, I’m going to dissect a piece of story.

My intention is to examine the way prose fiction works. My knife is the metaphor of the emotional button.

Could it be that stories work by pushing a series of emotional buttons in the reader? Words are the fingers, and mostly they push gently, raising no more than the consciousness of meaning. At others they prod more vigorously, arousing responses like trepidation and fear, anger or compassion; feelings of titillation or excitement. Every now and then they give us a multi-fingered stab that brings on those feelings of terror and pity that Aristotle talks about in his theory of poetics.

If that is the case, then we should be able to detect the process at work in any piece of writing, unless it is so incompetently written (or we are so obtuse) that it raises in us no understanding or emotion whatever!

I picked a book at random and flipped it open. So, my text is the first three paragraphs of Angela Locke’s novel, Dreams of the Blue Poppy (Hale,2007). This is an overtly emotional book, a three tissue weepie (even on a second reading!), so if the theory didn’t work here, it would be a trash-can exercise.

I considered the words of the three paragraphs sentence by sentence, after all, that’s how they would be read normally. I’ll take you through the first of those sentences in detail.

 

‘It was not until her grandson, Charles, had been born, on that April night, thirteen years ago, that Maud had felt hope was reborn again in that frail creature’ (Locke, p28)

 

No Hemingway short sentence here, at 30 words, but of them I make only 7 of heightened emotion (HE), and only one of very heightened emotion (VHE). That leaves 22 that are only tickling our responses, giving us meaning and understanding, setting up the HE & VHE words to be understood. These are the ‘its’, ‘that’, ‘the’ and so on, the logical bones of language. The other eight are worth looking at in some detail. By my reckoning they are: grandson, Charles, dramatic, night, hope, reborn, frail and creature. Their placing in the sentence makes them effectively into pairs of words, which I think enhances, increases, their emotional impact. ‘grandson’ and ‘Charles’ are bound together, rather than separated, by that comma, which, like a sleeping policeman, slows us down as we pass over them. Similarly ‘April’ binds ‘dramatic’ and ‘night’, adding its pennyweight to their values. ‘was’ fulfils a similar function for ‘hope’ and ‘reborn’, and of course ‘frail’, which was my only VHE word, stands directly in partnership with ‘creature’. In fact, in some ways those four pairings, taken in order, are a story in themselves, almost the story of the book, certainly the bones of its mainspring.

Their story, ‘Grandson Charles-dramatic night-hope reborn-frail creature’, gives us character, setting, and trajectory, the emotional threat in ‘frail creature’, coming after the high of ‘hope-reborn’.

The second sentence is shorter, at 14 words, and I found three HEs in it, but no VHEs. They do appear in the first six words of the sentence though, that intensity powering them up, and also throwing its weight hard against the emotional strength of that final HE-VHE combination which ends the previous sentence. Taking the two sentences as a pair, this gives us a swell of emotion within the larger paragraph.

That paragraph has two more sentences, a ‘quiet’ one of 14 words in which only one word poked its HE head above the surface, and a final one of 21 in which I found four VHEs. These were ‘trapped’, ‘crippled’, ‘prisoner’ and ‘fluttering.’ Again, I was struck by the story implied in these four words alone, and their button pushing was strengthened by the HE words that supported them: ‘Charles’, ‘ever’, ‘bath chair’ (treated as one), ‘ever’ and ‘heart’. In fact, almost half the words in this sentence are emotionally active, being HE or VHE. This is a highly charged sentence, and ends the paragraph on another emotional crescendo.

What I think this shows is that patterns of rising and falling emotional button pushing can be detected at both the sentence level, and at the paragraph level. This was an opening paragraph of a chapter too, and perhaps the place for a powerful start (or re-start, taken in a book-level context). In fact, when I went on to look at the next two paragraphs, both with more, and generally longer sentences, I found them quieter, with VHEs and HEs only sparsely scattered throughout.

By the time I’d got the resulting grid of statistics out though, I was beginning to doubt the value. Another reader might not identify the same words, nor score them as I had. Was I being consistent even, let alone objective in my scoring? I wanted to give words both higher, and lower scores, in subsequent paragraphs, than I had before. Short sentences seemed to make their words stronger. Clusters of words seemed to do the same. The effects of language are cumulative. Much humour, for example, works by incremental additions, not terribly funny in themselves, but riding the waves of laughter already created. Get an audience, or a reader, really laughing, and the most banal, even serious things, will seem, to them, to be hysterically funny. So the emotional content of the words cannot be viewed as stable and intrinsic, but must be, to some extent, a product of context.

Yet there is no doubt, spikes of emotion were identifiable in both sentences and in paragraphs, and even over the three paragraphs I looked at, the same rising and falling waves could be detected in the chapter as a whole, and they were created by the emotional loadings of individual words. I have no doubt that the chapters too, in the context of the whole book, would show the same patterns.

That was when I realised that though the statistics do not matter in themselves, the process of acquiring them had made me pay attention to the way in which the words create the emotional experience of reading the novel. More than that, the absence of consistency and objectivity which I felt had undermined the analysis was precisely where its value lay, for it was the effect of the pressing of my emotional buttons that I was in fact studying, rather than the activity of the presser!

The data produced are useless, but the lessons might not be. They are that it is a minority of words that do the job of story, and that the majority of words are in a supporting role; that combinations of words will have an impact greater than the sum of their parts; that the patterns of emotional intensity will be created at every level of the writing, of sentence, paragraph, and chapter. The numbers are not important, but an understanding of how we extract them, and why we perceive them to be there, is.