Circumlocations

Houses of Parliament with scaffolding and Westminster Bridge, late 20th century (credit: Bikeboy, Geograph http://www.geograph.org.uk/photo/2975216)

Circumlocution. The use of many words where fewer would do, especially in a deliberate attempt to be vague or evasive.
— Oxford English Dictionaries

There’s a old adage about how you can tell when a politician’s lying: when their lips move.

Well, that’s quite a cynical take on politics and those who are involved in politicking, but we often have a premonition that this adage has the ring of truth, don’t we? We’ve listened to and watched enough ministerial statements, panel discussions and live interviews to make that judgement; and we don’t always need their explicit body language to confirm it — whether from tone of voice, stumbles over phrases, shifty looks or too much unasked-for detail, these can all give the lie to many public utterances.

And in the era of fake news we cynics note with increasing frequency the evasions, the contradictory tweets, the prevarications and, above all, the smugness that such high-flying lowlife bestow on us with a complete and utter disdain. A recent interview with the British defence secretary on ITV merely underlined such disdain as the interviewee three times gave bland circumlocutions to a frustrated interviewer. Would that more of these cowardly entities that avoid accountability for their decisions and actions could, along with the interview, be similarly ‘terminated’.

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Looking for the moral

The story is told. I think I now see the judicious reader putting on his spectacles to look for the moral. It would be an insult to his sagacity to offer directions. I only say, God speed him in the quest!

I have noticed that many bloggers post apposite quotes from time to time on their blogs. Stuff from a book they’ve read. Something a writer in the public eye has written or said in an interview. Sometimes they post a collection of quotes they’ve liked, rather as compilers of commonplace books used to do in olden days.

Commonplace books? If you didn’t know they were, maybe still are, a bit like literary scrapbooks but without the cutting and pasting. (At least one hopes not — it would be awful to imagine books being vandalised in such a way, rather as dealers remove prints from vintage books to frame and sell to people who want to add cachet to their mock Tudor semi-detached homes.)

Anyway, I digress.

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Poetry matters

I’m not a poetry kind of guy. I don’t curl up with a book of verses to lose myself, or quote passages to fellow aficionados. Poetry I find over-stimulating in a way that’s different from prose. For me the discipline is like solving cryptic crosswords or puzzling out brain teasers: it requires effort from what seems a specific part of the brain and, to be honest, I’m quite lazy.

Not that I’m poetically bankrupt. I appreciate a good turn of phrase, a mind-blowing metaphor, a piquant simile or log-jams of alliteration. I use them — you may have noticed — all the time in posts. It’s just that to put all that into a bag marked Poetry is somehow … just not my bag. It may be to do with it seeming pretentious. Or possibly trite. It could be that I’m put off with all the white space around carefully formatted stanzas. And certainly volumes of verse epics strike me as expeditionary excursions to be avoided.

Thus I’m embarrassed to say that I find myself to be conflicted, even compromised. Because, my dear readers, I write poetry.

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National Unicorn Day

Albrecht Dürer’s Rhinocerus (1515)

I’m sorry if you are offended by what I have to say, but I’m not a lover of kitsch. As today is apparently National Unicorn Day (at least in the UK) I thought I’d just mark it … but without the oodles of rainbow glitter that most seem now to be associating with this much maligned creature.

The celebration, we’re told, is being held this year on the 9th of April and is “dedicated to the respect and support of mythology [sic] and nonexistent creatures”. My thoughts on mythological and nonexistent creatures are briefly summed up in this review, but I’m not totally allergic to fiction featuring the one-horned creature (for example, Peter Dickinson’s The Ropemaker, reviewed here).

And of course, my own avatar is of a unicorn in a warning triangle — a tip-off that some fantasy may be met in the blog — though it’s entirely a coincidence that I currently happen to sing in a local a cappella group (specialising in medieval, Renaissance and Baroque music) called … the Unicorn Singers.

Are you celebrating this day? Or were you as unaware of it as I was until I looked at social media?

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Monstrous

I wonder how the young Mary Shelley would have reacted to the knowledge that her novel Frankenstein would still be attracting interest two centuries after its first appearance. Would she have been amused or bemused to see a report like this?

You will remember the social media frenzy after The Sun accused students sympathising with Frankenstein’s Creature as ‘snowflakes’. The paper was rightly ridiculed for its anti-intellectual stance and apparent misunderstanding of Mary Shelley’s intentions. The story refused to be a 24-hour flash in the pan, however, as the paper tried to mount an indefensible rearguard action.

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This post has no title

Ross-on-Wye bookshop

You know how it is. You make yourself a resolution that you will or won’t do something. Then you yield just a little to temptation. Before you know it you’re in full flight to somewhere where you weren’t planning on going to be heading in the first place.

So it was with reading challenges / goals. I wasn’t really going to do any this year. Except read more. Then I succumbed to one that I wasn’t going to take too seriously. And then …

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Parallel lines

How many narratives are there, and how are they put together? Why are we often satisfied with some stories which, when described, sound trite or clichéd while other more complex tales, more diffuse or with an unexpected ending, fail to please or even prove unwelcome? Are we doomed to merely know what we like and to only like what we know?

I ask all these questions because I sometimes find different fictions I come across — and occasionally even non-fiction narratives — following parallel paths towards a similar conclusion even though they may not be obviously related in any way. And it turns out I may like them equally well even while unaware of those similarities, possibly because I’ve subconsciously recognised that they follow patterns that I find familiar. What might the impulse be that unites so many plots that superficially appear dissimilar?

I’ve read a few studies in my time about how stories are structured. There is the Aarne-Thompson tale types classification (named after Antti Aarne and Stith Thompson, subsequently refined by Hans-Jörg Uther) which undertook to analyse folk narratives around the world, finding many commonalities; most discussion of folk- and fairytales refers to this system. There is Vladimir Propp’s Morphology of the Folktale (1928) based on analysis of classic Russian fairytales, which I found strangely alluring despite its complexity.

I’ve also read Eugène Dorfman’s The Narreme in the Medieval Romance Epic: An Introduction to Narrative Structure (1971), which examines how many medieval romances appear to follow similar structural patterns. Then there’s Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces (1949) which tried to include all culture hero tales in a schema he called the monomyth. We mustn’t forget Christopher Booker’s often irritating study The Seven Basic Plots (2004) which attributed the success of many narratives to their following a limited number of templates, sometimes singly and at other times in combination.

So many approaches, so few answers in common. Is there another way to come at these conundrums, or at least suggest an alternative approach to why we seek out and enjoy particular patterns?

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