May, 2016

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The amorality of language

Lena Riefenstahl is perhaps a poster child for immense talent put to a terrible use. The films she directed changed the way propaganda was delivered and some of the techniques she developed are still used today in film-making, advertising and documentaries. But originally they were put to use to make propaganda films for the Nazi regime. What she did with her skills does not lessen her abilities, but nor does it excuse how she applied them.

The problem with talent is that it need have nothing to do with morality. Morally good people (let’s not get into what that means for now) can be inept, and people who swim in moral sewers brilliant.

Writers are no exception to this rule, of course. And fortunately most of the time, the contrast is not as extreme, but good writing techniques can still be used for a multitude of purposes.

This struck home recently when the front page of the Daily Telegraph jumped out at me. The app version looked like this:


I recognised three things at the same time. One, the headline was misleading. Two, it read more like how a fiction writer would have written it (is it a metaphor or a simile, I can never remember the difference?), and three the name of the person who wrote the article.

Let’s start with the author. I came across Allison Pearson years ago at a literary event. It was one of the corporate ones and I was one of two males in a large room in a hotel near the office. I always seem to get invited to the rugby. I don’t want to go to the rugby, I want to go book-based events. I only got to go to this one because the person who was supposed to be invited couldn’t go at the last minute. The other author there was Mary Horlock, who had written a book set in Jersey which I subsequently bought (and enjoyed). On the day I was conscious of how quickly we form an opinion about someone, based both on what we notice and on what we don’t notice but what our subconscious processes for us. I came away not wanting to read Allison Pearson’s books, which is almost certainly totally unfair, but there we are. I can’t read everything and whether I warm to an author in person or not is a filter at my disposal. It’s like the cover that plays such a role in which novels we buy. It’s not logical, the cover does not tell you whether you will like the book, and yet I still find myself buying a book because the picture on the front tells me a story. It might not be the story inside the book, but by then it’s too late and I’m hooked.

So, the article in the Telegraph. As I said, it employed loads of fiction’s tricks. The Grand Canyon metaphor – much more memorable than saying “the numbers aren’t consistent”. Then taking the abstract concept of migration and turning that into the story of the fictional Piotr who comes for a few months, then ends up staying, bringing his wife and children and so on. It’s what works in fiction, humanising an issue, bringing it down to a single individual’s experience. In this case, it makes the article very readable, creating a concern about what might be going on with the Piotrs of the world. And of course, it’s much worse than that according to the article. We have the picture of pregnant women being turned away from maternity units. Well written, though: the husband who “has to drive 35 miles, with his wife groaning like a stricken moose”. And then we have children with bursting appendices unable to find a hospital bed, always good for reaching our most basic sympathies.

Except that it’s not that accurate. Great story, pity about the facts. If you are interested in the basis of the counter-arguments about the facts, you can find a good summary here:

You can get off with the facts being out in a novel, as long as they aren’t facts that matter to the story. You can’t (or shouldn’t be able to) in non-fiction, especially not if you are using them to support an argument for or against something.

My point here, though, is less about the facts – though they matter – and more about the way in which good writing can be used for any purpose. It is oblivious to morality, which is something where we have to bring our own sense of right and wrong into the equation. Personally I found this article horrendous for its unsubstantiated allegations, but others might well feel the points being made justify a less measured use of language. At the end of the day, language is just one of the tools at our disposal. How we use it it up to us.

Seventy plus years old and still going strong

Perhaps the difference between good books and the truly great books is that the latter remain relevant long after their authors have died. I have no idea if that is at all defensible as a thesis. Someone has probably spent longer than thirty seconds thinking about it.

John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath has suddenly shot up my list of books that would be on my short list for a desert island. In fairness, that’s because I would rather have ten books and one song than ten songs and one book, so I know I am cheating, but still.

I have to confess that I have a lot of catching up to do on the books I am supposed to have read. For which read authors who are long since dead. I am berated at home for being quite happy to have read mainly post-1945 German fiction, and the same charge could be applied to me when it comes to English language literature. In my defence, I have read Goethe, Schiller and Lessing. I just didn’t really like them. And don’t get me started on Thomas Mann. I spent an otherwise pleasant summer reading his very long Magic Mountain book. It was very long, did I mention that? Not a lot happened. Actually, I think nothing really happened. Certainly nothing that I can recall. When I got back to university, it turned out that nobody else in my year had even bothered. I wasn’t too sure they were wrong about that.

But Steinbeck is not in that category. In fact, if you asked me what book politicians should read in 2016, my answer would be Grapes of Wrath. It puts a human face to the misery we hear about every day.

I started reading the book after asking a colleague at work what his favourite book was. This was one of his top three. And then I got a bit stuck. The dialogue is hard going, written in Oklahoma dialect. I don’t think we would do that now. It makes picking up and putting down the book quite difficult, and as I read a lot that way, in the odd few minutes waiting for someone or something, that did not help. The real impetus came when LoLo announced she was reading it (she found it on a Kindle and just decided to read it) and was already about as far as I was. Then it became a competition, then I missed a few hours sleep to get it finished. The last third just flew by.

The book is the story of the Joad family, tenant farmers who are forced to leave their farm and home in Oklahoma when the bank forecloses on the land. This does not come as a huge surprise to them as it has been happening all around then. We then go with them on a journey to California, where they have been promised jobs, a new home and peaches. They travel in an old car (I learned the word “jalopy” and a host of other words from this book, all of which are, I now know, well known to an American). Three and a half (an unborn baby) generations are travelling together with, they hope, enough money to get them to California, but not much more. We learn about 1930s cars and their tyres, the American economy, and mostly about family and human relationships. And I ended up thinking that, if we had heeded the warning Steinbeck gave in his novel, we might not be in the mess we are today.

Steinbeck takes an unusual approach to the structure of the book. He moves between general descriptions of what is happening in the place the Joad family is about to arrive at to their actual experience. Sometimes he does this by bringing in unconnected characters in the place they are nearing, giving us a sense of what they are about to go through. This starts off as being confusing but we soon get the hang of it. And later on, we start to get more commentary on what is going on in the world around the Joads. Take this example

And the great owners, who must lose their land in an upheaval, the great owners with access to history, with eyes to read history and to know the great fact: when property accumulates in too few hands it is taken away. And that companion fact: when a majority of the people are hungry and cold they will take by force what they need. And the little screaming fact that sounds through all history: repression works only to strengthen and knit the repressed. The great owners ignored the three cries of history. The land fell into fewer hands, the number of the dispossessed increased, and every effort of the great owners was directed at repression. The money was spent for arms, for gas to protect the great holdings, and spies were sent to catch the murmuring of revolt so that it might be stamped out.

I suspect Joseph Stiglitz would find some common ground with those sentiments in 2016. And Steinbeck gives the same message in more philosophical terms, and in only one sentence:

The quality of owning freezes you forever into “I,” and cuts you off forever from the “we.”

There are some wonderful descriptions throughout the book. This was one of my favourites – for the last three words.

About mid-afternoon child bathing began, and as each child was caught, subdued, and washed, the noise on the playground gradually subsided. Before five, the children were scrubbed and warned about getting dirty again; and they walked about, stiff in clean clothes, miserable with carefulness.

Steinbeck portrays the mother in the family – “Ma” – with a wonderful sense of her strength and resilience in the face of whatever happens to them. She adapts, she adjusts, and she shows that what matters most to her is keeping her family together. She expresses her view of life – and the difference between men and women – in these lovely few lines – where you also see the way the dialogue is written:

Man, he lives in jerks—baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk—gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an’ that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river, it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is goin’ on—changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on.

If the theme of the concentration of wealth, then in California, now throughout the world, is not enough relevance for today, we see the Joad family as one of thousands of migrant families. Here is Steinbeck’s description of the change of attitude towards refugees and migrants which we have experienced over the last year:

Then from the tents, from the crowded barns, groups of sodden men went out, their clothes slopping rags, their shoes muddy pulp. They splashed out through the water, to the towns, to the country stores, to the relief offices, to beg for food, to cringe and beg for food, to beg for relief, to try to steal, to lie. And under the begging, and under the cringing, a hopeless anger began to smolder. And in the little towns pity for the sodden men changed to anger, and anger at the hungry people changed to fear of them. Then sheriffs swore in deputies in droves, and orders were rushed for rifles, for tear gas, for ammunition. Then the hungry men crowded the alleys behind the stores to beg for bread, to beg for rotting vegetables, to steal when they could.

And does this not sound awfully like the attitude of many towards the refugees arriving on our doorstep:

The sheriffs swore in new deputies and ordered new rifles; and the comfortable people in tight houses felt pity at first, and then distaste, and finally hatred for the migrant people.

On a slightly happier note, there are many moments of human kindness throughout the book, and these remain in your memory long afterwards. The couple who let the Joads use their tent when a member of the family was seriously ill. The encouragement the family received in a camp which was run by the residents in a humane and caring manner, even if it could not address the fundamental economics of the times. And I was reminded again today that there are little acts of kindness being carried out all around us. This little garden in a small town near us made me think of what Ma Joad would have been doing if she were alive today:


Grapes of Wrath is remarkably relevant to our current world, despite being over seventy years old. But when Steinbeck finished it, this is what he had to say about it:

It isn’t the great book I had hoped it would be. It’s just a run-of-the-mill book.

Gosh, these writers are never happy.

How’s it going?

Every few months, I have a few people ask me in quick succession “how’s the book coming on?” Here is today’s answer.

I have tried just starting somewhere and seeing where I get to. The answer is a lot of different places, none of which bore much of a resemblance to the others.

So I tried being really planned and plotting out each scene. It was sort of helpful. It meant I knew at least where the end was. And I did manage to follow it for a while but I could feel things starting to veer off when characters stopped doing what I wanted them to. Let me pause on that for a second.

Right, it’s not some writers’ conceit, it’s very real. Try having a conversation with a real person. You are – or think you are – in control for the first sentence you utter. Actually, maybe the first word. Then the other person has a reaction. It might not be obvious externally, maybe they are not even listening properly, which is a reaction in itself. But by the time you get to the end of the first sentence, all control has been lost. Because you don’t know what the other person is going to say, what they are thinking, what they are feeling. You might think you do based on knowing them well, being able to finish their sentences, being their parent. But nobody is consistent all the time. Good days, bad days, long days, worries we know nothing about, the weather, our breakfast, how we slept – our reaction to the same words said by the same person can be radically different from one day to the next. Just think how the words “your mother called” can elicit an entirely different response depending on whether you were trying to get hold of her to take her out to lunch or thought she had died when you were a child. Two extreme ends of a scale, but you get the point.

And characters are no different. They have good days and bad days. They react badly to something that should be good and well to what should be a disaster. Or not. Half the fun is putting them into a situation and then seeing what happens. And you have a sense of whether their reaction is “real”, in the sense of what a real human being might do. Sometimes I stop and say, that would never happen. I’m sure we’ve all had that feeling when reading something and a character says or does something and we think “eh? Where did that come from?” Hopefully there’s something to come that will explain it. Other times it’s just not quite right.

So my current approach is to try to  be a few scenes ahead of where I am in the story, with an idea of how we might get to the very end. Where everybody dies. Well you didn’t expect me to give the real ending away, did you? Sometimes – like right now – I know where we will be in a few scenes, but not how we get there. And all I can do is try to work it out as I go along. Yesterday I wrote part of a scene and then stopped because I was just confusing myself with what was going on. I picked it up today thinking I would just cut my losses and go back to where I was before, then I skimmed through it and thought, I can work with this. Everything can be edited. So I kept going, got to a “good bit” and realised that it hadn’t been a total waste of time. It needs about two thirds hacked out, but that can come later. And tomorrow I will find out how this particular scene plays out. It could end well or it could end badly – for the characters as well as for me. We will see.

So the answer to the question is really as simple as “keeping going.” And that’s all right.

The (lack of) money blog

Summer came yesterday and I decided that reading Steinbeck with this view was worthwhile postponing my blog for a day:


The girls had Highland dance exams on Sunday afternoon so this became my writing office for a few hours (until I realised that my skin had not been exposed to sunshine for about six months and maybe I should sit in the shade for a while):

Bench under tree


I haven’t forgotten the theme that I didn’t write about last week, and you’ll have seen that I didn’t write a second blog on it last week. Instead, I’ve started writing a short story to try to show the issue in a different way. It turns out, of course, that I have to learn how short stories are constructed first, so short does not equate to quick when it comes to writing it. A little at a time at the moment.

Here’s something to think about. Can you name ten authors? Twenty? Fifty? A hundred?

They are the ones making the money. Probably, and maybe not even them.

The sobering fact is that writing does not earn the authors very much money. And it’s getting worse.

The median income (that’s some statistics thing, it’s an average) of professional authors in 2013 was £11,000. In 2005, it was (inflation adjusted for the nerds) £15,450.

When I started my first “proper” job in 1997, my salary was £13,250. Yes, I remember these things. I might have had a degree, but it had nothing to do with my job, I knew something close to zero about the area I was working in, and yet I got paid a lot more than a professional author.

I remember my German professor casting scorn on me when I said I was thinking of working at a university. “Do you know how little lecturers get paid?” he asked me. “I don’t care about that,” was my reply. He closed that conversation down with “And it’s because of people like you that it doesn’t get any better.”

Both are symptoms of the operation of the market, aren’t they? The market that knows, if not how to value something, at least how to price it. That will be the same market that had no idea how to value synthetic collateralised debt obligations (yes, they’re a real thing) that huge financial institutions were buying and selling. Why should that market be able to price something as subjective as a novel?

So maybe it comes down to what we individually value and therefore what we collectively are willing to pay for.

A hot chocolate in a cafe costs somewhere around the £2.50 mark. Maybe it will last fifteen minutes before it goes cold, and too many of them are bad for you. So a book costs somewhere between one and three hot chocolates, will last for hours and hours, can be reused, and is generally good for you. But we seem to prefer to pay for hot chocolates.

I recently read something which made me stop and think. Of course, I thought “I’ll remember where I saw that”, which equates to “I’ll Google it when I need to find it again.” That didn’t work out so well. But the gist of it was “you shouldn’t have to work in financial services to be able to afford to write.” Maybe not, but it’s too close to the truth.

But there’s something about creating something out of nothing, something that has not existed before and only does so because it’s come from somewhere inside of us. Music, art, writing, anything “creative” – a few people make a lot of money from it, most people do it for the love of it. And I think it’s worthwhile doing because value cannot always be measured in currency.

Plus I get to work under beautiful trees on a lovely sunny day.

The pencil geek blog

This might be the week I write two blogs. There are a number of news items that I have been linking together in my head, taking me from Goebbels to a warped concept of religious freedom to drivers treating the city centre as a rally course to students being punished for telling their university they have been raped.

That is, however, something I need to write when the emotion from today’s writing session has abated. Which leaves me with pencils. Pencils do not have emotions. Pencils are good today.

I started with the idea that I needed a laptop and monitor to write. And when it comes to editing, I am pretty sure I was right. But the longer I go, the less I want any technology anywhere near me. And the more I am convinced that, for me at least, there is something about the physical act of writing that is different from a keyboard. It might just be that I have spent many years writing e-mails and papers at work on a keyboard to be able to switch to using the same instruments for a very different type of writing.

I go back and forth, though, particularly to and from my Neo, but when I hit a dead end, I find myself with paper and pen again.

Except that it’s pencil and paper. And I think I have settled on a perfect combination (“a”, not “the” perfect combination. There might be more than one.)

Rhodia is the best paper I have ever found. And the fact that the covers are orange is a bonus. The paper is just ridiculously smooth. The only paper I use if I have a choice. I buy it in batches of ten pads now.

And then there is the question of the pencil. The American influence suggested Ticonderogas – the yellow ones you see in a great many films once you start looking for them. It helped that Costco started selling them by the hundred after years of only being able to get them via eBay at a somewhat inflated price. Lovely pencils. But not for extended writing time. Their softness is lovely for writing notes, not for writing pages.

When it comes to inflated prices, how about $40 a pencil?

Enter the Blackwing pencil. No, I had never heard of it either. I’m still not sure how I came across it. Fortunately it was after they started making them again and individual ones were no longer going for $40.

I’m a convert. It has nothing to do with the famous people who have allegedly used one in the past. It’s just a tool, like a typewriter, a pen or a computer. If it works for you, great. I don’t think there’s much more to it than that. It’s easy enough to try them out and see what feels right.

This one works for me. And last week, it got better.

It turns out I go through pencils at quite a rate. Even the firmer version of which I had a couple of boxes loses the sharp point relatively quickly, after a few lines. Which means constant stopping to sharpen it. And I ended up with little stubs of pencils which look quite funny.


There is a now a new version. My version, it turns out. There’s a story behind it, which is utterly irrelevant to whether it is better than what they had before. But it is quite interesting anyway, and it gave me the (now obvious) answer to that sharpening problem.

The design of the pencil was influenced by what John Steinbeck’s son thought his father would have wanted it to look like. Where the “look” is driven by its purpose. To get out of the way. So it is entirely black, even the lettering is embossed black on black. Apparently gold lettering would be a distraction. In which case, Steinbeck would have struggled to get anything written in the age of the Distractanet. But the graphite core is harder. And harder is better as long as it writes as dark.

It’s pretty perfect. Four lines before sharpening becomes more like a page at a normal, slow speed. Apparently Steinbeck (this is the geeky part) sharpened his pencils at the beginning of a writing session and had them all in a container. When one lost its sharpness, it went into a second pot and the next pencil came out. Until today, I thought that was a bit much. Then I started to get up speed. And I found that I had no time to twist the pencil slightly to keep the point sharp. And I was glad I had paid attention and had twelve sharp and ready to go. Suddenly I was going through them at a rate of knots, switching a dull one for a sharp one and just keeping going. No need to sharpen as I went along.

I recognise that this is all utterly pointless if you are writing on a laptop, when you are going to have to go for some time before you wear out the keys. Although in my defence, it is a lot cheaper to replace a pencil than a keyboard.

I liked the story, but I liked the pencils better. And I now understand why Steinbeck had a hundred pencils ready to go. At 4 or lines each, you soon run out of pencil. Good job they are still making them, otherwise my little pot would be empty.