Archive for February, 2008

The last flight

The following piece was written in response to a challenge to write a poem of exactly one hundred words on the theme ‘May-day’. Ever since 9/11 I have been haunted by the thought of what it must have been like to be on the flight-deck of one of those doomed aircraft. I offer this in deep respect.

Nine Eleven 2001
He’s got a gun…
There’s more than one…
Mayday! Mayday!
He smashed Pete’s head…
The guy is dead…
Mayday! Mayday!
He’s at the controls…
God save our souls…
Mayday! Mayday!
He’s changing track…
We’re going back…
Mayday! Mayday!
He’s flying too low…
The towers! No!
Our fate…
Too late!
May…

Boyhood recalled

A nostalgia piece today – something I wrote to try and re-create the feelings of a nine-year-old boy during the Blitz. Just history to many, but very real to those of us who lived through it.

From my bedroom window (1941)
There was a raid last night. As soon as the siren started to wail, Dad called out: “Come on, children – downstairs!” I put on my dressing gown, without turning on the light, and peep out between the bedroom curtains. Searchlights are fingering the sky. I hurry downstairs, with my sister Joan close behind.
The bed on the larder floor is already made up. Joan and I snuggle under the eiderdown – like sardines, with our heads at opposite ends. Dad says this is the best place for us, because the larder window has no glass (it’s made of that metal with little holes in it) and the ceiling is the smallest in the house, if it should fall.
Mum and Dad have a sort of mattress thing under the kitchen table. Dad keeps his special air-raid tray close by. It has a torch, in case all the lights go out; a candle and some matches, in case the torch doesn’t work; four corks, for us to bite on so that we don’t bite our tongues off when the bangs come; four little brown envelopes with our ear-plugs in, so that our ear-drums won’t burst; and a little bottle of brandy – “just in case”, says Dad. Mum says he’s a very methodical man.
Soon we hear the throbbing of the bombers overhead. Some of the boys at school reckon they can tell the difference between a Junkers and a Dornier. I just pretend that I can. Now there comes the crack of ack-ack guns, and the deeper crump of distant bombs. When the raids first started Joan and I thought it was all rather exciting, but now we just want it to be over so that we can go back to sleep.
Eventually the all-clear sounds and, after a bit, Dad says: “Well, I think that’s it for tonight. Might as well all get back to bed.” We trail upstairs again, and Dad comes into my bedroom with me. After checking that the door is closed, so that no light would show, he opens the curtains and we look across the Downs to the north. There is a reddish glow in the sky. “Looks like the City caught it again,” says Dad. “Right, lad – back to bed!”
Now it’s morning, the sun is shining and I’m looking out across the back garden. I hardly notice the barrage balloons hovering in the distance. My thoughts are all on the big walnut tree that stands in the corner of the lawn. Its trunk forks near the ground. I’ve been climbing the right-hand side for ages; I know every branch and twig. But the left-hand trunk is different: it’s smooth and bare for several feet and quite unclimbable. The only way to get into that side of the tree is to leap, like Tarzan, from a crotch on the other side, catch hold of a horizontal branch and swing yourself up so that you can hook your legs over. I’ve been thinking about this for days. I wonder if, today, I’ll have the courage to do it…..

Are you affected by effects?

I used to have a boss who was never sure whether to write ‘effect’ or ‘affect’. Whenever he got to the word, he would ring me up for advice – and cheerfully admitted that he could never remember what I told him from one time to the next.

It is confusing, I know. And it’s made worse by the fact that each of them can be either a verb or a noun (though affect as a noun is pretty rare and a bit archaic). I tend to think of them in their verb forms first:

effect = to carry out, to execute, as in “my plan is to effect changes” (think of the initial ‘e’ in effect and the initial ‘e’ in execute.)

affect = to have an influence upon, as in “those changes will affect a lot of people“.

It does get a bit trickier though when effect is also a noun – as in “if I effect those changes, the effect will be to affect many people” .

Then, to make matters worse, there is an alternative meaning of the verb to affect, linked to the word ‘affectation’, as in “he affects a slight foreign accent “.

In the end, you just have to rely on your memory. Or, failing that, ring up a subordinate. You might find that effective.

Hindu temple

Time for another photograph, I think. This is a section of a shot I took of an Indian temple in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. The amount of detail in these figures is amazing – all of them, I presume, representing stories from Hindu mythology. There is an echo of European art of the Middle Ages in the way the more important personages are shown larger than the minor figures.

Writing goofs

When I was at school (a very long time ago) I was taught how to write. I don’t mean just how to form letters; I mean how to put words together so that their meaning is clear and unambiguous. And I was taught that it is important to spell correctly, to observe certain rules of grammar and syntax, and to punctuate in a way that aids understanding.

So deeply were these rules ingrained that, to this day, I just cannot help wincing when I see them broken.

I am aware however that, in the intervening years, a more relaxed approach has come in. Younger people have been encouraged simply to express themselves, and not to worry about ‘correctness’. Indeed, the pendulum has swung so far that oldies like me are made to feel like fastidious old pedants, fussing on endlessly about things that don’t matter.

I was particularly glad, therefore, to come across Joanna Young’s blog at http://coachingwizardry.typepad.com/confident_writing/. She, it seems to me, has the right approach. She advocates the correct use of language, not for its own sake, but for what it says about you and your organisation, as well as for that clarity and precision that we all strive for.

Her ‘five common grammar mistakes’ chime precisely with those that most commonly make me wince these days. They are:

  • Confusing it’s and its
  • Confusing they’re, their and there
  • Confusing your and you’re
  • Using apostrophes to try and create a plural
  • Forgetting to use apostrophes to show possession
The first and last of these are, of course, linked. People write “the book and it’s title” because they think the apostrophe is needed to indicate possession – forgetting that “its” is a possessive pronoun in its own right, just like ‘his’ and ‘hers’, whereas “it’s” is just an abbreviation of “it is”. Yet one sees this error in the copy of major advertisers, whose (not ‘who’s’) agencies really ought to know better.
So – thanks, Joanna, for highlighting these points. I’m on your side!
Oh – and one more thing that makes me wince: the creeping use of lower-case”i” for the first person singular.

Obscurity rules?

I was reading some modern poetry the other day. At least, that’s what it called itself. Frankly, to me it was unintelligible. A jumble of words – some of them misused – without any apparent structure and making no kind of sense.  I tried speaking it aloud, to see if the sheer sound of it would strike sparks. Nothing happened

In this particular instance, I made a comment. I didn’t say the piece was rubbish (though that may have been what I thought); I just said that I didn’t understand it. The author’s response was that he didn’t give a damn whether I understood it or not .

This is what irks me about so much modern art. Surely the purpose of art, in any medium, is to communicate?  Art isn’t created in a vacuum. Nor should it, in my opinion, be created purely for the gratification of the artist.  If it fails to communicate – to arouse some emotion in the viewer or reader or listener, or to provide some new insight into human experience – then surely something is wrong. And I think it is deplorable for the artist to be indifferent to that failure.

Yes, of course some people are too thick, too unimaginative, too insensitive to respond in the way the artist would wish. But if a majority find his work incomprehensible, should he not worry? Should he not wonder if he is saying what he is trying to say in the right way?

I am not for a moment suggesting that everything should be ‘dumbed down’, to be accessible to the lowest common denominator. But obscurity for its own sake leads, in my view, to incomprehensibility being seen as a virtue; to rubbish being sold for thousands simply because rich men want to pose as connoisseurs.

There is modern poetry, modern art, that is mind-blowing, life-enhancing; but beware the man who doesn’t care whether he connects or not.

Getting feedback

It’s just a month since my book was born (the gestation was somewhat longer) and at last I am getting some feedback. People have actually read it, which in itself is gratifying, and the reactions – from those who take the trouble to contact me, at least – are favourable.  “A fascinating story, and one that you tell well.“You write with clarity and economy.” All very pleasing to the ego; but I must guard against getting smug and complacent. I dare say there will be those who are less enthusiastic, or even downright disappointed. As with any book, so much depends on people’s expectations.

A further test will come in a couple of weeks, when I give my first talk to a local book-group; twelve ladies (yes, they are all ladies) who will no doubt have firm opinions and will expect me to account for what I wrote, and how I wrote it. That might be a chastening experience!