2 October 2014

Fence music

The North Sea is relatively broad where bounded by Scotland and Norway, but tapers further south. Last December a northerly gale coincided with the highest tides for over sixty years, funnelling water into the narrowing gap between England, southern Denmark, Germany and Holland. The result was a tidal surge.

North Norfolk took a pounding. At Salthouse the shingle-bank was breached; at neighbouring Cley the beach was almost completely reshaped, exposing long-forgotten debris and burying grassland under thousands of tons of shingle.

These new shingle “tongues” are some slight recompense for the degradation of the adjoining marshes, a nature reserve. Because Britain is so crowded and its coastline is so disturbed, shingle-nesting birds such as the little tern and ringed plover are having a grim time. Extensive sections of the tongues have therefore been fenced off for them. The fences comprise stout wooden posts between which galvanized wires are stretched, and to which the wires are stapled.

As I walked along the beach the other day I became aware of a low humming which at first I mistook for the sound of distant machinery. It was coming from the fence.

The fence has been erected by experts. The legs of most of the staples are arranged diagonally and not quite driven in to their deepest extent, so allowing the wires to expand and contract along their whole length. At this particular spot a wire was touching a staple and its fence-post in such a way that the wind had set up a resonance. When I reached out and touched the wire, the humming stopped; when I removed my finger, it failed to start again. Some earlier quirk had set the humming up, but the conditions now prevailing were not conducive to resumption.

Further along I encountered more humming, broadly similar, though each specimen was distinct. Some vibrations allowed themselves to be cancelled, while others smoothly or hesitantly resumed. They were inward and introspective, quite different in character from the moaning one hears in telephone wires.

A line of telephone poles runs out from the village to the beach. Their wires are particularly plaintive. Indeed the whole landscape here is wind-noisy. At the visitor centre for the reserve there is a medium-sized turbine whose blades whir furiously in a stiff breeze; the massed reedbeds rustle and sway; by the entrance to each bird-hide is a notice reminding one not to let the door slam; the wind augments the power of the breakers on the shore; and so on.

But it was the little voices of the fence that caught my fancy. They are a manifestation of the universal sound, the Om, produced by the action of energy and matter upon itself: in this case, air impinging on and being deflected by tensioned steel.

Had it not been for the tidal surge, those wires would have been somewhere else, possibly still in a coil, or even unmade. Had it not been for the precise strength and direction of the breeze, I would have walked by, oblivious of the detailed relationships between staples, wires and posts, which themselves had been created through best practice by the contractor. Their exact spatial position had been determined jointly by the sea and the charity that manages the reserve.

The fence, this accidental harp, is a child of the sun, which also composes its music, for the sun directly and indirectly causes the pressure differentials in the atmosphere that give rise to wind. The sun is the source of everything – on Earth. Yet it is only a peripheral speck in a peripheral little galaxy.

Some years ago I came across the work of Alan Lamb, who composes musique concrète derived from the wind in Australian wires. His compositions give a glimpse of the otherness of the cosmos and the preponderance of happening that lies outside our immediate experience, like the calving of icebergs or the grinding of tectonic plates, the birth and death of stars: and even a tidal surge. It all appears indifferent to its creatures and their interests, yet we are an integral part of it. On reflection I don’t think I’d want it any other way.

12 September 2014

The wellsprings of fiction

In 1946 George Orwell published an essay entitled “Why I Write”.

Putting aside the need to earn a living, I think there are four great motives for writing, at any rate for writing prose. They exist in different degrees in every writer, and in any one writer the proportions will vary from time to time, according to the atmosphere in which he is living. They are:

(i) Sheer egoism. Desire to seem clever, to be talked about, to be remembered after death, to get your own back on the grown-ups who snubbed you in childhood, etc., etc. It is humbug to pretend this is not a motive, and a strong one. Writers share this characteristic with scientists, artists, politicians, lawyers, soldiers, successful businessmen – in short, with the whole top crust of humanity. The great mass of human beings are not acutely selfish. After the age of about thirty they almost abandon the sense of being individuals at all – and live chiefly for others, or are simply smothered under drudgery. But there is also the minority of gifted, wilful people who are determined to live their own lives to the end, and writers belong in this class. Serious writers, I should say, are on the whole more vain and self-centred than journalists, though less interested in money.

(ii) Aesthetic enthusiasm. Perception of beauty in the external world, or, on the other hand, in words and their right arrangement. Pleasure in the impact of one sound on another, in the firmness of good prose or the rhythm of a good story. Desire to share an experience which one feels is valuable and ought not to be missed. The aesthetic motive is very feeble in a lot of writers, but even a pamphleteer or writer of textbooks will have pet words and phrases which appeal to him for non-utilitarian reasons; or he may feel strongly about typography, width of margins, etc. Above the level of a railway guide, no book is quite free from aesthetic considerations.

(iii) Historical impulse. Desire to see things as they are, to find out true facts and store them up for the use of posterity.

(iv) Political purpose. – Using the word “political” in the widest possible sense. Desire to push the world in a certain direction, to alter other peoples’ idea of the kind of society that they should strive after. Once again, no book is genuinely free from political bias. The opinion that art should have nothing to do with politics is itself a political attitude.
He also says:
What I have most wanted to do throughout the past ten years is to make political writing into an art. My starting point is always a feeling of partisanship, a sense of injustice. When I sit down to write a book, I do not say to myself, “I am going to produce a work of art”. I write it because there is some lie that I want to expose, some fact to which I want to draw attention, and my initial concern is to get a hearing. But I could not do the work of writing a book, or even a long magazine article, if it were not also an aesthetic experience. Anyone who cares to examine my work will see that even when it is downright propaganda it contains much that a full-time politician would consider irrelevant. I am not able, and do not want, completely to abandon the world view that I acquired in childhood. So long as I remain alive and well I shall continue to feel strongly about prose style, to love the surface of the earth, and to take a pleasure in solid objects and scraps of useless information. It is no use trying to suppress that side of myself. The job is to reconcile my ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us.
In my view an overt political agenda can be toxic to the relationship between the reader and the story, particularly if the reader’s beliefs are at odds with the author’s. Samuel Goldwyn is said to have declared, “If you have a message, call Western Union”. That Orwell succeeds so well with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty-Four is down to his gifts as a storyteller.

Vladimir Nabokov had no time for political fiction. He is scathing about Dostoevsky:
My position in regard to Dostoevsky is a curious and difficult one. In all my courses I approach literature from the only point of view that literature interests me – namely the point of view of enduring art and individual genius. From this point of view Dostoevsky is not a great writer, but a rather mediocre one – with flashes of excellent humor, but, alas, with wastelands of literary platitudes in between.
This is belied by evidence that Nabokov had read, closely, most if not all of Dostoevsky’s work. Dostoevsky was a polemicist, for sure, but he was a greater artist than Orwell, with a deep interest in and sympathy with the human condition. He also had a better sense of humour than Nabokov gives him credit for. Some Dostoevsky is laugh-out-loud funny (e.g. when Nikolai seizes Pyotr Pavlovitch Gaganov by the nose in Demons; that whole book can be taken as a monstrous joke). Nabokov’s jokes are just as good, though quite different (e.g. the entire character of Charles Kinbote in Pale Fire, the portrait of Lolita’s all-American mother, and of course entertaining felicities and plays on words throughout).

So Nabokov put poetry above polemic. Yet he adored Dickens:
All we have to do when reading Bleak House is to relax and let our spines take over. Although we read with our minds, the seat of artistic delight is between the shoulder blades. That little shiver behind is quite certainly the highest form of emotion that humanity has attained when evolving pure art and pure science. Let us worship the spine and its tingle.
If Dickens’s novels aren’t polemical then I don’t know whose are.

Towards the end of his essay, Orwell informs us that:
All writers are vain, selfish, and lazy, and at the very bottom of their motives there lies a mystery. Writing a book is a horrible, exhausting struggle, like a long bout of some painful illness. One would never undertake such a thing if one were not driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand.
Unfortunately he goes on to say:
For all one knows that demon is simply the same instinct that makes a baby squall for attention. And yet it is also true that one can write nothing readable unless one constantly struggles to efface one's own personality. Good prose is like a windowpane. I cannot say with certainty which of my motives are the strongest, but I know which of them deserve to be followed. And looking back through my work, I see that it is invariably where I lacked a political purpose that I wrote lifeless books and was betrayed into purple passages, sentences without meaning, decorative adjectives and humbug generally.
Trying to define “good prose” (for fiction, at any rate) is a waste of time. Orwell’s writing is so transparent that it is dead to the subtlety and music found on every page of Nabokov. Then again, Nabokov is perhaps too much the stylist. When reading him we are never far from a suspicion that he is showing off: that the subject-matter interests him less than the language with which it is expressed. In Nabokov the second of Orwell’s “great motives” (aesthetic enthusiasm) predominates.

Orwell says he wanted “to reconcile [his] ingrained likes and dislikes with the essentially public, non-individual activities that this age forces on all of us”. If he was a public writer, Nabokov was essentially a private one; and it is in the territory between the public and the private that we find the fifth and most interesting motive for writing fiction.

Apparently without fully realizing what he is saying, Orwell mentions the “desire to see things as they are”. He goes on to say that “at the very bottom of [authors’] motives there lies a mystery. … [One is] driven on by some demon whom one can neither resist nor understand”.

That demon is surely the quest for self-knowledge. It is the religious need to find evidence that our lives are not meaningless.

The tyro writer is usually unaware of any such demon – or angel. His motives are those listed by Orwell. His personality is such that he likes embroidering personal anecdotes: my Irish grandfather, when accused of exaggeration or outright untruth, would reply that he was merely an author whose books had never been published. Our tyro progresses from these petty lies to more elaborate ones, on paper, and is likely to tap into the primeval need to tell and to hear stories. The storyteller’s vanity looms large, together with unrealistic expectations, but he has withal a poetic impulse and this needs to be satisfied. Depending on the quality of that impulse, his early work will be more or less readable. As his career advances and his technique improves, he will begin (assuming he is not a complete dolt) to be gripped by the possibilities of language and the opportunities that fictioneering gives him for exploring the grand puzzle of his existence.

Pablo Picasso is credited with saying “Art is the lie that tells the truth”. A novel can be inherently more truthful than any history or biography, but a novel written with an agenda, whether commercial or political, cannot be a faithful reflection of the unique experiences and inner world of its author.

One measure of the truthfulness of a book is its longevity. Most if not all of the books we regard as classics are truthful, which is why we still read them. They may also be admirable in some other way, but it is to their truth that we chiefly respond.

If writing a novel is an exercise in self-exploration, why should its author – besides hoping for payment – want to see it published? Sometimes, in fact, he doesn’t, but usually he does, because he wants validation, praise, and possibly fame. These will all feed his vanity, especially in the early stages of his career, but unless he offers his work to the world and gets some feedback he will never know whether he has struck a chord with anyone else. He will not “connect”, to use E M Forster’s word: recognition that others feel as you do is the prime motor of both the storyteller and his listener, and I contend that the urge to find it is the deepest source of literary art.

To Orwell’s four motives, then, I’d like to add this fifth. In conclusion I would also like to say that for all his superficial insouciance, Nabokov was a serious artist. I feel I know the Russia of his childhood, the nostalgia of the émigré, what it is like to be a foreigner living in America. He has risked sharing these and a multitude of other confidences; he opens our eyes to the beauty of his synaesthetic world; and in a profoundly polemical fashion he upholds whatever is courageous, noble and virtuous. That is my little tribute to a great writer at the furthest end of the spectrum. His fiction deserves to endure.

30 August 2014

Some superb fonts

If you spend much time staring at computer text, you ought to consider very carefully which fonts you use.

Philipp H Poll and his team have provided us with the elegant and readable Linux Libertine. It out-classes Times New Roman by a country mile. The package includes Linux Biolinium, which is an open-source replacement for Linotype’s Optima.

Click to enlarge

Linux Libertine looks great when printed, and if you want serifs on your display font then Libertine is your man. However, I’m coming to prefer a sanserif face, and a monospaced one at that, and Ralph Levien’s crisp and humane Inconsolata is now my first choice for the screen.

18 August 2014

Whither Hither and Thither?

These three words, for a long time merely literary, have gone out of fashion altogether except in compound use (“hitherto”, “hither and thither”) or when the writer or speaker wishes to introduce a whimsical note (“whither Obama now?”). It is a shame, because their loss also deprives us of shades of meaning.

The modern replacement for “hither” is simply “here”, doing away with the sense of movement. Consider these quotations from the dictionary: “Come hither unto me” (1550, and by the way “come hither” is still, just about, used adjectivally to describe a coy, arch, or seductive look bestowed by a woman); “hyther tendeth al prudence and pollycy” (1538). I believe that “hither” is the intensive form of “here”. The command “bring him hither!” implies “from that place to this” more imperiously than “bring him here!”

Likewise, “thither” intensifies “there” and “whither” intensifies “where”.

“Here”, “there” and “where” are ancient words, as one might expect of such important tokens of meaning. “Here” and “there” are closely related: the latter probably grew out of the former, a pleasing idea since we always start from “here”, unless of course we are Irish and giving directional advice (“I wouldn’t be starting from here”). “Where”, however, comes to us through the interrogative Anglo Saxon form “hwár?”, which is a relative of “hwā?”, “who?”

“When”, “what”, “where”, “who”, “why”, “which” and “how” all begin with aspirants. This somehow suggests, to me at any rate, the state of ignorance. When we are puzzled or confounded by something we often exhale through partially pursed lips. Might the initial aspirant have arisen, in the very deepest past, from association with this? After all, words have to begin somewhere. If they are onomatopoeic (e.g. “crow”, “crash”, “whip”) their etymology is easy to explain, but the expression of abstract ideas is so subtle that there must originally have been some common ground, however tenuous.

One of our vital abilities is to take things for granted. Without it we would never get anything done. Yet sometimes it is instructive to stop and consider an aspect – any aspect – of life to which we have never before given much thought. These three words, passing from use, remind us of the mutability and great age of our language, that gigantic construction built from nothing but a need to understand the other fellow and in turn tell him what we think. English is more than a means of communication: it is a teeming city, continually being redeveloped, partially demolished, rebuilt, the product of millions of minds and sensibilities.

Below the ground, slowly becoming buried by new layers of construction, the archaeology is there for anyone who cares to dig.

11 August 2014


I think I have found the perfect software for writers – for this writer, at least.

My ideal features are:

1. Distraction-free mode.

2. Choice of any installed display font, colours and spacing, plus automatic indentation of first line of paragraph.

3. Ability to load and save plain text, with normal access to the filing system. This is most important to me, since plain text can easily be loaded into a tablet or e-reader, or converted (for example with jEdit) into html; or simply edited with another app.

4. Find-and-replace (with regular expressions if possible).

5. Word-count.

FocusWriter by Graeme Gott provides all this and much more. It has the following extra advantages for me:

1. Cross-platform. It runs under Linux, Windows and Apple’s OS X. I have a Linux desktop and a Mac laptop.

2. You can define any number of “themes” (i.e. customizations of the display) and easily switch between them.

3. If you move the mouse pointer to the right of the screen, a scroll-bar appears.

4. If you move the mouse pointer to the left of the screen, you can access a navigation bar which shows the first line or two of every “scene” in your text, the start of a scene being definable by any string you choose. The current scene is highlighted. Keystrokes allow you to move a scene up or down in the navigator and hence in the text.

5. A single keystroke will select a whole scene: useful when counting words.

6. The line currently being edited can be highlighted; or rather, the other lines can be dimmed. You can also highlight the three current lines, or the entire current paragraph. These settings are switchable using keystrokes, so you can quickly turn highlighting off when you move from editing to reviewing.

7. FocusWriter supports smart quotes (including global replace of straight with curly quotes) and allows for easy insertion of special characters.

8. FocusWriter is Open Source software. It is free to download and use, though I strongly recommend “tipping” Mr Gott because he has put a great deal of thought and effort into this program over the last six years and is still developing it.

There are other features which for me are not so important but you might value:

1. A decent spelling checker with the option to check as you write.

2. A motivation tool that lets you set a daily work-target (time spent or words written).

3. Besides plain text, FocusWriter will load and save in rich text (.rtf) and Open Document (.odt) formats, so you can preserve italics, bold, superscript, etc.

4. You can have multiple files open at once, selectable via a tab-bar that appears when you move the mouse pointer to the bottom of the screen. A status bar also becomes visible then, showing you statistics. These are configurable and can display word-count, number of pages, number of paragraphs, and/or number of characters. The way the program counts words and the nominal number of words to a page are also configurable.

Until recently I used PyRoom as a distraction-free editor (see here), but bemoaned the lack of a search function and devised a clunky workaround. FocusWriter is infinitely better.

On a sidenote, I also use AutoKey (Linux) and Keyboard Maestro (Mac). These allow one to define, among other things, customized keystrokes. Thus if I press Alt-S (Linux) or Ctrl-S (Mac), the word “said” appears at the cursor; keys Z, X and C are reserved for the names of the three principal characters in any story, etc. Pretty much anything you can do with the keyboard or mouse can be assigned to a hot-key. AutoHotkey does the same for Windows users.

To keep track of character-names, locations, chronology and whatnot I use a LibreOffice Calc spreadsheet running in another workspace. Combined with FocusWriter, this gives me all the features I shall probably ever need.

3 August 2014

Opinion piece

There is a line I encountered at school, and have always remembered, from the Roman playwright known as Terence: nihil ad me attinet, “it does not concern me at all”.

The Latin has a pleasing concinnity and the idea it expresses is worthy of reflection. In an increasingly opinionated world, having no opinion on a tendentious subject is a difficult position to maintain. It is the only honest position if you have no direct knowledge of the subject in question. A corollary is that you should be wary of what you read and hear (even when editorial bias is not obvious). Ask first “cui bono?” and then wonder where the money leads.

But what if you do have direct knowledge and that knowledge is so detailed that you can speak with authority? This, the obverse of happy ignorance, is, for a thinker, even more lethal to a firm opinion. Dostoevsky says (Notes from Underground, 1.5) “ ... the direct, immediate, legitimate fruit of heightened consciousness is inertia, that is, the deliberate refusal to do anything.” The French proverb “to understand all is to forgive all” implies much the same thing. The more you know about something, the less you realize you are entitled to adopt a stance on it.

Violent opinions are expressed either by the unthinking or by those with an axe to grind. Somebody living one of Socrates’s unexamined lives looks no further than the opinions he has absorbed ready-made. In discourse with others with a similar background, his opinions are reinforced and gradually assume the properties of prejudice, so that if evidence contrary to his beliefs is adduced he will reject it. He wants you to believe as he does because your agreement helps confirm that he is right.

The unthinking are manipulated and reprogrammed by more informed and crafty people, people with an agenda (usually political or financial, or both). The intellectuals of the Frankfurt School are one such group, and they have had spectacular success in moulding opinion. Or we may cite the way Edward Bernays harnessed Freudian theory to pioneer the techniques of public relations to which so much of our commerce and polity has become thrall.

This post too expresses an opinion. Am I grinding an axe? Perhaps. Clearly, I want your agreement or constructive disagreement. Then there is the effect that the piece might have on your opinion of me. With luck you will think me a clever fellow; equally my references to Terence, Socrates and Dostoevsky might not flatter you at all, but make you decide I am nothing but an elitist and a show-off.

Or it may simply be that the idea for this piece has been long gestating and I was suddenly taken by the impulse to give it form.

18 July 2014

A nice new word

Quote of the week, with the bonus of a new word for me!
"Obviously Amazon has a very definitive point of view on what should be done in the publishing business. Those in the publishing world are not totally copacetic with it," Moonves said.