Neither Here nor There by Bill Bryson

or   How to write a ‘Hugely Funny’ Travel Book.

Bill Bryson
Anglo-American non-fiction writer, Bill Bryson: born 1951.

Step one: Choose a common phrase like, There and Back to See How Far it is, Head you Off at the Pass, It’s a Long Way to ……, you get the idea, and make it your title.

Step two: Collect anecdotes of your coming of age (COA).

Step thee: rack your brain for your pubescent sexual fantasies (PSF).

Step four: make a list of your own foibles (SD = self-deprecation).

Step five: have handy anecdotes from other trips to the same places  (SP).

Step six: if you’re an American living in Britain, collect phrase and stories that put down the Yanks or the Brits. (OPD = own put downs).

Step seven: collect puts downs of a nerd that gets put down a lot by your targeted audience, like the Irish, the Mormons, the Kiwis, etc. (NPD = nerd put downs)

Step eight: you’ll also need some RPD’s – racial put downs.

So, let’s begin.

Chapter One. Of course, you start with a journey. However, if the journey is a little boring you can always rely on a PSF:

I fanaticised about “…finding myself seated next to a panting young beauty being sent by her father against her wishes to the Lausanne Institute for Nymphomaniacal Disorders, who would turn to me somewhere over the mid-Atlantic and say, ‘Forgive me, but would it be alright if I sat on your face for a while?”

and you can then tack on an NPD which has OPD overtones:

“In the event my seatmate turned out to be an acned string-bean with Buddy Holly glasses and a line-up of ball-point pens clipped into a protective plastic case in his shirt pocket.”

But if you find yourself on an inspirational roll you can continue this novel scenario:

“I spied a coin under the seat in front of me, and with protracted difficulty leaned forward and snagged it. When I sat up, I saw my seatmate was at last looking at me with that ominous glow.

‘Have you found Jesus?’ he said suddenly.

‘Uh, no, it’s a quarter,’ I answered and quickly settled down and pretended for the next six hours to be asleep, ignoring his whispered entreaties to let Christ build a bunkhouse in my heart.”

It’s important to understand that such ‘stories’ don’t necessarily need to come from the trip you are now writing about, nor do they necessarily need to have happened at all. Let’s call it comedic license.

And of course, when in Germany, it’s likely that funny incidents are few and far between but there’s always a good PSF to come to your aid:

“I had only signed up for German [as a boy] because it was taught by a walking wet dream named Miss Webster, who had the most magnificent breasts and buttocks that adhered to her skirt like melons in shrink-wrap.”

Or, as in his few pages on Cologne, he begins with an RPD about the woman running the statin café who ignored him because he ignored her:

“This is the worst characteristic of the Germans. Well, actually a predilection for starting land wars in Europe is their worst characteristic, but this is up there with it.”

He then segues into an SP about a previous visit to Cologne when he stayed in a cheap hotel and read soft-porn magazines that other guests had left behind. He then contemplates the massive cathedral and comments on its size with a little OPD:

“You can understand why it took 700 years to build – and that was with German workers. In Britain they would still be digging the foundations.”

Without any nicer things to say about Cologne Bryson indulges in a reminiscence about flying on a 747, and regaling the reader with the lack of American know-how of audio electronics – a bit of ODP – and praising the Japanese “for filling my life with convenient items like a wristwatch that can store telephone numbers, calculate my overdraft and time my morning egg” – a sort of reverse RDP. He then cuts short his Cologne stay when he spies a non-stop porno cinema in the train station, which one would’ve thought would’ve given Mr Bryson an extra beat of his heart but it instead caused him to high-tail it out of Cologne and head for, ironically, Amsterdam.

His stay in Hamburg is similar: he complains about the ugliness of the prostitutes, the smallness and expense of his carpet-less hotel room, the sex-shops – “nothing compared to those in Amsterdam” – although he does praise their ingenuity when it comes to manufacturing and promoting sex dolls. He indulges in a little RDP, ODP, SP and then tops it off with a lengthy analysis of why beautiful and stylish German women don’t shave their armpits; like “a Brillo pad hanging there. I know some people think it’s earthy, but so are turnips …”

Oh, and he also hates dogs.

It seems that Mr Bryson understands well his potential readership: the kind of travellers that other travellers try to avoid.

However, after reading the dense prose of our human stains in the stories by Tsiolkas, a house-brick sized Moorhouse about mores, political and sexual, in Canberra in the 1950’s, and the ethereal beginnings of literary modernism in Joyce, I thought I needed something light.

Neither Here nor There (1992) is entertaining-ish, undemanding, diverting, and completely forgettable, but don’t let it inform you about Europe.

Access to all 46 formats and editions you can find here.

No Friend but the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison by Behrouz Boochani

Translated by Omid Tofighian

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Omid Tofighian is Lecturer in Rhetoric and Composition in the School of Literature, Art, and Media and Honorary Research Associate in the School of Philosophical and Historical Inquiry at the University of Sydney.

Although Tofighian is the translator, he acknowledges over a dozen people involved in getting Boochani’s original text smuggled from Manus via WhatsApp and Facebook into his hands.

One aspect I was always conscious of was that Behrouz was writing in Farsi, not Kurdish. He was writing in the language of his oppressors, even though he is a fervent advocate of Kurdish culture, language and politics. And the book was being translated into the language of his torturers.

I saw this translation opportunity as a chance to contribute to history by documenting and somehow supporting the persecution of forgotten people; translation for me, like writing for Behrouz, is a duty to history and a strategy for positioning the issue of indefinite detention of refugees deep within Australia’s collective memory.

Janet Galbraith lic

The book is dedicated to Janet Galbraith who coordinates and facilitates the writing group Writing Through Fences, an organisation that collaborates with incarcerated refugees (or previously detained refugees) and amplifies and supports their writing and art.

 

____________________________________

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Kurdish-Australian writer and asylum seeker, Behrouz Boochani. Winner of the Non-Fiction Prize and the Victorian Prize for Literature at the Victorian Premier’s Literary Awards, 2019. 

“In 2013, Kurdish journalist Behrouz Boochani was illegally detained on Manus Island.

He has been there ever since.”

Australian law would object strongly to the word ‘illegally’, international law may not.

On a truck bumping through the dense Javanese jungle on a dark and bumpy track heading to the beach, even asylum seekers aren’t immune to the hazards of public transport,

A loud, obnoxious and completely inconsiderate Kurdish guy forces everyone to breathe his cigarette smoke throughout the trip. He is accompanied by a gaunt wife, adult son, and another son, a little bastard. This kid has his mother’s physical features and his father’s character. He is so loud he torments the whole truck, treating everything as a joke, and annoying everyone with his impatient and disruptive manner. He even gets on the nerves of the smuggler, who yells at him.

Finally after much shouting, rudeness, and disrespect as the over-wrought passengers jostle for space, the rotting boat heads out to sea

like a heavily pregnant mare cantering carefully across a dark prairie of water,

where there isn’t enough room for everyone to sit or lie but those who can, sleep.

Even the normal physical boundaries between families has fallen apart. Men lie in the arms of another’s wife, children lie on the chests and bellies of strangers…the young Sri Lankan family, whose bond is maybe the strongest of all on board, has fallen apart. The husband is in the arms of the man next to him, the wife has her head on the bicep of another man, and their child has ended up across the thighs of a different woman.

Those who aren’t sleeping are vomiting as the waves get bigger and pound the leaking boat … then the bilge pump fails …

This whole mess / In the darkness of midnight / Looks like death / Smells like death / Embodies death / The cries / The screams / The swearing / The knocking about / The sounds of the small children / The heart-wrenching and painful sounds of the little children / These sounds transform the chaotic boat into hell.

Why don’t the people, who just hours earlier were in danger of death from the waves but now on the deck of the Australian ship listening to those same waves lick and lap harmlessly against the hull; why don’t they yell and laugh with happiness at their salvation? They sit quietly and still. Even Boochani doesn’t know why. To the Australians they must seem like, like, cargo, soundless cargo, salvaged from the sea.

Boochani has known death and fear; as a young man he wanted to fight for the liberation of his homeland, but he chose the pen over the gun. Was he a coward? Afraid of death? Then on the ocean he faced both fear and death. Saw fear in the faces of others and felt it in his guts, tasted it on his tongue; the ocean provided him with the most intimate relationship with fear and death. Now he is judged and locked up by people who know neither of these two things. Maybe he should’ve been a soldier, at least he would be shot at by people who, like him, knew about fear and death. It would be an equal fight. Just, even.

Boochani tried twice to get to Australia. He encountered fear and death on both attempts. As he scrambled onto another ill-prepared boat for his second attempt he had to admit that such an action wouldn’t be possible but for courage and foolishness. Returning to Iran, unthinkable! He was aware of his fellow travellers not really knowing any of these four demons: fear, foolishness, courage, and death. They soon would.

I’m stopping! I write this post as I read – as I usually do when reviewing a book, but it’s hard to know what not to cut and paste to show you, let you see what it sounds like because everything is worthy of quoting; every line is full of something, something worth passing on. I want to show you all of it. So, do it; just read it.

Writing allows us to “come to understand another’s point of view in the most profound way possible.” (Erica Wagner, writer, critic, and a Man-Booker Prize judge, twice)

I will continue to read this book, not out of a need for entertainment, but for enlightenment, understanding. I’ve only ever seen asylum seekers on the news, voiceless bodies behind wire. The Australian Government has not wanted us to hear what they have to say: journalists are banned on Manus and Nauru. This is the first time I have the opportunity to hear what the Australian Government does not want me to hear. That is why I will read it to the end; as I hope you will too.

You can buy the eBook ($14.99) from Pan-Macmillan here.

You can buy the Kindle version ($US11.99) here.

Arnold Zable, an Australian writer is also part of this story. You can read his SMH article and watch a short trailer for the video Chauka, please tell me the time, here

Watch Behrouz’s videoed acceptance speech, here. He was not allowed to attend the Award’s Presentation.

Unfettered and Alive: a memoir by Anne Summers

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Anne Summers: journalist, feminist, and writer. “If we constantly rewrite history to fit how we see things now, we forget how things used to be and, equally important to future scholars, how we used to see them.”

Anne Summers and her publishers have produced a handsome book, and it begins, unusually, with a letter to her thirty-year-old self: Dear Anne, and so, consequently, it’s written in the second person; and it sets the beginning as at that time, when she was thirty, and summarises what went before which was told in her first autobiographical work, Ducks on the Pond 1945-1976 (1999).  So this, a re-cap, is a neat and imaginative way to catch you up, especially if you haven’t read the earlier work; which is, by the way, now only available on Amazon US at $115.64 for the second-hand hardcover, which is cheaper than the $191.89 for a second hand paperback! However, if you can’t find a copy anywhere else, here’s the link.

For someone who, from an early age, felt profoundly at odds with what the Adelaide world of her Catholic childhood promised her: an identity based on a man and the success, or otherwise, of their children and a future slowly fading into cranky old age and invisibility, she has stubbornly and courageously shunned all of that and forged her own path that has turned out to be something like an open-ended roller-coaster. It’s a crackling tale: ecstatic highs and scary lows; and all along the way the reader gets an insight into the characters she engaged with and the history we all lived through, all in a chatty and self-effacing tone that has you barracking for her as she strides around yet another corner into the unknown, including South Africa, the badlands of western Pakistan – without a hijab, and later as Chair of Greenpeace International which took her, well, everywhere.

anne summers 1980
Anne Summers at the National Press Club during the 1980 CHOGM meeting in Australia directing a question at British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher. photo: Allan & Unwin

The personal is also covered. Her uneasy relationship with her parents, especially her father; the painful rediscovery of her paternal grandfather; there’s treachery and betrayal from colleagues and friends; a health scare; and finally meeting the love of her life, and that started in the photo-copy room! He’d been around all along!

The political years of this chronicle cover Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Howard, and Rudd/Gillard/Rudd: a turbulent, often frustrating – for us, I mean – but never a boring time in Australian politics. Of special note is her calling out the appalling misogyny Prime Minister Gillard received at the hands of the shock jocks, political opponents, and a particular, but faded, cartoonist. Her insights and insider status make fascinating reading as seen from her media perspective (her attitude to Keating changed; her attitude to Howard didn’t); and then in the middle of all that her successful empire building (and spectacular fall!) at the top of the media tree in New York “…if I can make it there, I’ll make it …..” you know how it goes! Well, she did and then, almost immediately, she didn’t!

But when down, or idle – something she hates – an opportunity passes her window or, more usually, she creates one, and so grabs it with both hands and she’s off again!

Running through all of this, is her strong advocacy for the rights of women; their professional fulfilment, all their wishes, needs, and ideas taken seriously, and the universal understanding that they make mistakes but deserve to, and be allowed to, try again. What a rich, informative, and fulfilling read this is.

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2011 Australia Day postage stamp featuring Dr Anne Summers AO.

I’ve known Anne for a few decades usually meeting with mutual friends over a sumptuous meal and a bottle of good red wine or three but I wasn’t prepared for the breadth and depth of her worldly participation nor her personal honesty.

I find scheduling reading time a sign of a good book; but you’ll also need to schedule a breather now and then. Don’t read this in bed. You’ll never get to sleep.

You can find the book here, and the kindle version here. For Indonesian readers you can find the book here.

Be very careful when Googling Anne; you’ll undoubtedly get the English Ann Summers (Ann, no ‘e’) who is a designer and marketer of raunchy women’s underwear.

 

 

Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind by Yuval Noah Harari

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Yuval Noah Harari, Israeli Historian and Professor of History at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

For a man who likes fiction, and who usually only reads fiction, I found myself, because of Christmas, with 4 new non-fiction books on my bedside table: Anne Summers’ memoir, Unfettered and Alive; Colm Tóibín’s Mad, Bad, & Dangerous to Know: the Fathers of Wilde, Yeats and Joyce; Stephen King’s On Writing, and this one, Yuval Noah Harari’s Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind (2014).

The first I have because Anne Summers is a friend; the second because I am a fan of Colm Tóibín and I collect everything he writes; the third was a Christmas gift from my sister; and the fourth was a grab-bag gift from the festivities of Christmas Day. They all interest me, in fact many non-fiction books interest me, but volumes of fiction always got in the way. Even now, there are seven novels hovering ready to pounce and to grab my attention.

Let’s start with Harari’s definition of history: the development of elaborate human structures called cultures which the organism known as Homo Sapiens began to form about 70,000 years ago. Once I read this I knew I was in safe hands and that I was going to, not only find out stuff that would fascinate, but that it would all be in accessible language.

Sapien’s time on this planet is a very short period in the cosmic time frame: if you could squeeze the time from the beginning of the universe to the present day into a 12 hour period, Homo Sapiens would have first stood upright at about 11.59.

The book is full of fascinating detail and remarkable insights. Homo Sapiens was not the only Homo species to exist at the same time but the reason Sapiens prevailed and destroyed the others – as one theory goes – is not because of our strength or our brain size – the Neanderthals had bigger brains and bigger bodies –  but because of one fundamental difference: our cognitive ability, via language, to imagine things that do not exist: fictions like religion, nationalism, honour, human rights, politics, literature, and (the only fiction that everyone in the world believes in) money.* These mental constructs were what enabled Homo Sapiens the where-with-all to organise themselves in large numbers. Large crowds of people, from 2,000 to 100,000 individuals can organise themselves to behave well and orderly for many hours to witness the outcome of a competition (football) or the staging of a story (Wagner’s Ring Cycle). If you put only 500 of our nearest relatives, the chimpanzees, in a theatre there would be chaos. Of course, large crowds of humans can degenerate into chaos but only when the acceptable boundaries, rules; i.e., agreed constructs, that all members of the gathering adhere to, or believed would be adhered to, are broken. For example, the premier of Stravinsky’s ballet Rite of Spring.

And fundamental to the success of our ability to co-operate in large numbers is our obsession with social information: gossip. This fascinating topic and its historical necessity I’ll leave for you to read about.

English suffers from the absence of the third-person singular and genderless personal pronoun. We have plural ones: themthey, and their, and they are allowed to be used in singular form (“Each writer needs to be merciless when re-writing their work” – his/her is no clumsy), but the long standing acceptable way around this problem has been to use the masculine singular personal pronouns: he, his, and him.  Harari raises the finger to such ‘traditions’ and opts for the feminine: she, her, and hers. A nice touch, given our current social and linguistic shenanigans around gender. It puts it firmly in the 21st century.

The language is not simplistic but is easily digestible – you need to read it with the TV off –  and is peppered with humour, irony, and hyperbole. It’s a wonderful read, entertaining, enlightening, and often astounding.

You can watch and listen to an excerpt from Harari’s TED talk (June 2015) on “Why Humans Run the World” here.

Everyone is reading this book and the two that follow it: Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow (2016) and 21 Lessons for the 21st Century (2018). They are everywhere. If you haven’t seen a copy you’re either blind or have just returned from Mars.

* Money was created many times in many places. It’s development required no technical breakthroughs – it was purely a mental revolution. It involved the creation of a new inter-subjective reality that exists solely in people’s shared imagination. Money is not coins and banknotes. Money is anything that people are willing to use in order to represent systematically the value of other things for the purpose of exchanging goods and services. Money enables people to compare quickly and easily the value of different commodities (such as apples, shoes and divorces), to easily exchange one thing for another, and to store wealth conveniently. Sapiens, Page 197

 

Arguably. Essays by Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens (1949 – 2011) Anglo-American author, columnist, essayist, orator, religious and literary critic, social critic, and journalist. “What can be asserted without evidence can also be dismissed without evidence.

This book is for dipping into.

The essays, 97 of them, are entertaining, enlightening, short, but sometimes challenging, and not just because of the subject matter, literature, science, history, politics and more. They are challenging because his language can be of a higher form and one should read this book within easy reach of a dictionary, app or paper; and that’s a good thing, as we all should not let an unknown word pass us by. Hitchens was a prolific writer, but he also was a prolific reader: every essay is full of references, anecdotes, comparisons, opinions, and so wide-ranging and eclectic is his accumulated knowledge that one wonders when he had time to sleep, eat, and raise a family.

Most of the writings in this volume were first published in magazines or newspapers such as The Atlantic, Newsweek, The New York Times Book Review, Slate, Vanity Fair, Foreign Affairs, among many others.

Just a glance at the Contents page will throw up depths of interest that one can look forward to plumbing: Abraham Lincoln: Misery’s Child; In Defence of Foxhole Athiests; The Dark Side of Dickens; W. Somerset Maugham: Poor Old Willie; Stephen Spender: A Nice Bloody Fool; Harry Potter: The Boy Who Lived; Why Women Arn’t Funny; So Many Men’s Rooms, So Little Time; Charles, Prince of Piffle; The Swastika and the Cedar; North Korea: A Nation of Racist Dwarfs; you see what I mean?

His asides are where the fun is:

” … Bertrand Russell, who could have been world famous in several departments, from adultery to radicalism …”

” … [Isaac] Newton spent much of his time dwelling in a self-generated fog of superstition and crankery.”

re Jessica Mitford. “These themes – of kinship and class, flight from same, residual loyal-ties to same, commitment to revolution, and stiff-upper-lippery in the face if calamity – recur throughout this assemblage of Jessica’s correspondence. ”

re W. Somerset Maugham. “Despite his exile and his increasingly distraught public and private life, Maugham eventually received an honour from the Crown – but it was for “services to literature” rather than for literature itself, and this distinction represents all the difference in the world”, as bitchy as his subject is arch.

What I have learned from Mr. Hitchens:

The French ‘ban’ on the burka can be seen as not a ban at all: it is a lifting of a ban on women being able to choose their own attire, and it is a lifting of the ban on women being able to question clerical, ie male, authority, and to be free to communicate to fellow humans face to face.

Isn’t it ironic that the Promise Land that god promised the Jews, a promise that was finally fulfilled, is the only bit of land in the Middle East that doesn’t have any oil.

“Jewish humour, boiling as it is with angst and self-deprication, is almost masculine by definition.”

The fundamental tenant of Christianity may contain its own unravelling: we are created bad, but commanded to be good.

The Magna Carta was not written in English. Of course it wasn’t; look at its name!

The Sixth Commandment, Thou Shall Not Kill, has nothing to do with pacifism since Moses told his Levite faction after receiving the original tablets containing the Ten Commandments from god on Mt. Sinai, to “slay everyman his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour” (Exodus 32:27-28). Killing for honour, revenge, or conquest is not really killing at all. The three monotheistic religions were born in extremely violent times and they continue to be violent religions to this day. Maybe God meant ‘murder’ and he was mis-translated. So, we must remember that the problem of ‘authority’ in the first 1500 years of Christianity was solved by having it all ‘wrapped up’ in languages that the majority of adherents could not understand; its mysteries being decoded by a select few: a ‘special caste’; and recoded many times since.

And while we’re on the subject of The Ten Commandments, it seems they were specifically written for men who had staff: “Thou shall not covert thy heighbour’s house, his wife, nor his manservant, nor his maidservant, nor his ox, ass, …” lumping his wife (wives) in with all of his other chattels.

Kurdistan (The Other Iraq) is (was) marketing itself as an investment and tourism hub.

America’s first military tussle with the world of Islam was from 1801-1805, The Barbary Wars, which not only gained US access to European trade but created the U.S. Navy.

The meaning of the phrase ‘tumbril remark’; his examples are hysterical.

How it feels to be ‘waterboarded.’

The etymology of the phrase ‘blowjob’ and who will, and who will not, do it.

An intelligent person sifts out the truth with a lot of ‘senses’, far more than the original five; hearing and understanding words being the least of them.

Hitchens died at the age of 62 in December 2011 from pneumonia, a complication of oesophageal cancer (he was a nicotine addict; by his own reckoning he smoked 15,000 cigarettes a year ). Although his death came before the rise, and now continuing decline, of IS, his essays on the politics of the Middle East and north Africa give important insights into the recent history of these regions; and it’s recent history that seems, paradoxically, the easiest to forget.

One of his last pieces, from May 2011 in Vanity Fare, gives an enlightening and humorous account of how the language of the Bible has been used, politically, commercially, and sect-affirmingly to, not only sell bibles, but to make them accessible to absolutely every one, like an offering in a “cut-price spiritual cafeteria”. Only in America could there be published bibles called “Extreme Teen Study Bible” or “Policeman’s Bible” or, my favourite, “One Year New Testament for Busy Moms.”

But what one is left with after browsing in, flipping, and giggling through this entertaining volume is his precise and educative use of the English language. It may be of an un-coffee-table-book shape, given its fatness, but the coffee table is where it should be; or, at least, somewhere as easily accessible. Happy dipping!

You can get this book in various formats, including audio CD, here.

Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border by Colm Tóibín

 

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Young Colm Tóibín

In a pub in the little cross-road town of Cullaville, just two fields north of the border between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland, the bar has two till-drawers: one for Euros (Irish currency) and one for the British pound. More than 200 formal and informal roads (tractor and foot paths) cross the border and it isn’t often clear for travellers which country they are in; sometimes it may only be the change of the speed-limit that may give them a clue, sometimes nothing at all.

Alastair McDonnell, an MP from Belfast has been flooded with queries, following the Brexit vote, from his constituents about what will happen if the border becomes ‘hard’ again. It’s possible that come the reality of Brexit (2019 says British PM, Therese May) little border towns like Cullaville will potentially become the EU’s back door to Britain.

Anne Devlin, a resident of the North who buys her petrol in the South where it’s cheaper, said, “Brexit got everyone talking, that’s for sure. It reminds everyone who is who, where is where, north or south, the Troubles, all of that.” It’s been only 18 years since the last bomb exploded during the religious-based conflict that claimed more than 3,500 lives.

With the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985 between the UK and the Irish Republic the path was finally set for peace but which didn’t come for another 13 years with the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. In the summer of 1986 Colm Tóibín walked the border in preparation for his account of the feat published the following year: Bad Blood: a walk along the Irish border. Actually it was more like a ‘drink’ along the Irish border: Colm likes his ale.

For a border that may now need to be re-fortified, given the European refugee problem that doesn’t look like slowing down – certainly not within the next two years, its ‘hardness’ may have many other repercussions. Sometimes it runs through the middle of someone’s field; in South Armagh (the North) there is a shop whose “doorway itself was the border, the outside of the shop being in the North, every entry and exit involved smuggling”; and not only that, where the border separates County Fermanagh (the North) from County Caven (the South) there is a house where “the border went right through like a slicer through a block of cheese.

The house was a small, modest, old-fashioned cottage. When I knocked on the door a man in his sixties came out. His name was Felix Murray, I discovered, and the border ran through his house in which he and his two brothers lived. These days, he said, all three slept in the North, but there was a time when one of them had slept in the South. ‘Only an odd time now,’ he said, ‘we sleep in the State’. There was a sofa in the kitchen, he pointed out through the window. Where you could sit and let the border run through you.”

This was 20 years ago and things may be a different now but as you can see from the image below, the border to this day, seems a long way from logical.

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His early non-fiction shows the development of Tóibín’s style later employed, to some extent, in his novels; his first novel, The South, was published in the following year, 1990. His fiction shows his debt to journalism with his plain unadorned prose, seen here in Bad Blood.

“I told him I was writing a book. He invited us in. He didn’t say anything. The front room of the house was small and comfortable. There was a fire lit. A television and a video machine stood in the corner.”

Compare this is a passage from his second novel, The Heather Blazing (1992),

“His grandmother was in the kitchen with his Aunt Margaret and his Aunt Molly who was married to his Uncle Patrick. Two of his cousins were in his the back room in cowboy suits. They all stood round as Eamon distributed the presents. Stephen sat by the fire, huddled in against the wall with his legs crossed. He opened his parcel slowly and smiled when he saw the book.”  Short, bald, unadorned sentences.

Tóibín trusts his readers to do most of the descriptive work and gives them great responsibility to fill in the detail, so much so that in his latest novel, Nora Webster (2014) no place or person is described: every reader has a hometown, its feel and smells, and every reader knows a nosy neighbour or a favourite aunt and Tóibín relies on this reader-experience. In this way Toibin’s work, for readers, becomes very personal. A reader from Melbourne, Australia, on finishing reading The South, slept with it under her pillow for two weeks.

In 1989, even though the border may have been on the map it wasn’t, in a lot of places, on the land (large white crosses had to be painted on roads to make the border visible to British helicopter pilots), but it was in people’s hearts. Back then it was all about tension in the air but a stiff upper British lip, this is in the North, was still the way people behaved.

At dinner in a hospitable family house in the North the first course served was beetroot soup. Toibin, from the South, innocently commented that it was called borscht, and it was a great favourite of the Pope’s. That word hung in the air like a fart. Everyone stopped listening and became immensely interested in their soup and the care it took to not let it spill on the white tablecloth. No-one spoke.

Religion was not at the heart of it but at the bottom of it.

“Yes, one of them said, the older people maintained that the accidents were a sort of revenge for what was done to the Grahams. God, you know, did I understand? It was God. It seemed like a large number of young people from the same area, I said, to be killed in accidents. They nodded grimly. I said I didn’t think it was God. No, they agreed, they didn’t either. It was just something which was said.”

Since Brexit the talk now is again about Irish re-unification: Gerry Adams, leader of Sinn Fein (once a terrorist organisation, now a major political player), said that since the vote by the North against Brexit (56%) a referendum over unification was necessary, Michael Martin leader of the main opposition party in Ireland agrees; Arlene Foster, first minister of the North, thinks such a move would be ‘a folly’.

When Tóibín walked the border the air was still tense. Now a lot of golf is being played and it’s a nice place to be a cow. In people’s lives now the border is a shadow: it’s crossed for shopping, for school, for selling. No-one wants it to become a frontier again. What everyone wants is for the leaders in London, Brussels, Dublin and Belfast to manage Brexit while preserving the peace and allowing the economy to flourish. They’ve got 2 years.

A Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by Steven Pinker

Steven Pinker pic
American psychologist and language expert, Steven Pinker

If you are bored rigid by style guides, grammar tomes, and ‘How to write’ books, skip this one. However if you are fascinated by the building blocks of a sentence; how English has changed; and the black, white, and beige of grammar rules then keep reading.

Steven Pinker, the American “Rock Star” psychologist and a Professor in the Department of Psychology at Harvard University conducts research on language and cognition and has penned many popular and accessible books on language, the mind, and thought. His latest book is this one which came out in 2014 and for which he received the International Award of the Plain English Campaign.

Generally commentators on the English language fall into two broad camps: the prescriptivists, those who believe there are rules that define how language should be used, and that mistakes result from breaking those rules; and the descriptivists, those who believe that a language is defined by what people do with it. You may recognise the former as “sticklers, pedants, peevers, snobs, snoots, nit-pickers, traditionalists, language police, usage nannies, grammar Nazis, and the Gotcha! Gang” but Pinker also damns the latter as “hypocrites: they adhere to standards of correct usage in their own writing but discourage the teaching and dissemination of those standards to others, thereby denying the possibility of social advancement to the less privileged.”

Pinker is the chair of the Usage Panel of the famously prescriptive American Heritage Dictionary but he quotes the editor as saying, “We pay attention to the way people use the language”, a clearly descriptive view. Pinker, like most writers and readers, sit on the fence. Their anchor? Clarity and meaning. There are words that we continuously mis-use, such as decimate to mean ‘destroy most of’ instead of ‘destroy a tenth of’. There is no point in using the word in its original meaning if the reader or listener believes it to mean something else. The old prescriptivist rule of ‘never split an infinitive’ only exists because of the early English need to squeeze the language to fit Latin rules. The Latin word for the English verb to go is a single word ire; it’s impossible to split a single word but splitting the English word is of course possible: ‘to boldly go where no man has gone before’ is fine by Steven Pinker, and most people, I suspect.

His chapter 3, The Curse of Knowledge, is a delight and has cleared up that old annoyance illustrated in the following cartoon

Giving Directions cartoon TNY

“The curse of knowledge: a difficulty in imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” When someone gives you inadequate (to you) directions that they think are obvious (to them) and ends with the phrase ‘you can’t miss it’, you usually will. See! It’s their fault, not yours.

And did you notice I used the plural pronoun they for a singular subject someone? This has been common usage for over a century and solves the English language’s lack of a neutral singular pronoun. Oh, and did you notice I began that sentence with the conjunction, and? This was something that was considered the grammatical sin of sins in the 60s and 70s but has again been used for centuries.

However the last, and longest chapter Telling Right from Wrong will give you a lot of joy, understanding, and the edge in arguments about where to put that comma, when to use lay and lie, and the sometimes acceptable use of an adjective when the grammar police insist on an adverb.

Eggs over easily

P.S. In a student exam paper, recently, there appeared a sentence that confused everyone. “It would be a great idea if we went to the park tomorrow.” This is a sentence about the future but with the modal verb would, and the auxiliary past tense verb went. Using the future form sounds strange: “It will be a great idea if we will go to the park tomorrow.” No, the past tense is correct. This is called factual remoteness as Pinker explains with the example, If you left now, you would get there on time. “The if-clause contains a verb which sets up a hypothetical world; the then-clause explores what will happen in that world, using a modal auxiliary. Both clauses use the past tense to express the meaning ‘factual remoteness’.”

Note the full stop after the quote (not ‘ ….remoteness.’”). You’ll have to read the book now to find out what Pinker says about this (or is it that?).

You can by the kindle edition, and paper editions, here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen by Mary Norris

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Mary Norris, the New Yorker’s Comma Queen

Punctuation may not be the most riveting of reading matter but for those of us who ‘get off’ on grammar, it’s a small diversion. Marry Norris has been working at The New Yorker since 1978 and her revelations of how the magazine works, and the characters who work there, are fascination enough. However with chapters called “Comma Comma Comma Comma, Chameleon” and “A Dash, A Semicolon, and a Colon Walk into a Bar” you know that her tongue is firmly in her cheek. However I do note that in her few pages on ‘the serial comma’ (some call it the Oxford comma, named by them who decreed it should be used, but it is used more by the Americans than the British), that’s the one before the ‘and’ in a series (or list), she is rather snobbish about its use:

Chances are that if you use the Oxford comma you brush the crumbs off your shirtfront before going out. The British get to have it both ways: they deride us Americans for our allegiances to a comma that they named and then rejected as pretentious.”

If you don’t use the Oxford comma you run the risk of the following, “This book is dedicated to my parents, Alan Jones and God.”

I didn’t “laugh out loud” as the jacket cover said I would (although you might in her chapter on symbols, F*ck This Sh*t), but I certainly had a constant smile on my face; except when it came to the hyphen.

I use these rarely except in a compound word (a made up word) like in the phrase ‘a comma-bashing critic.’

A bird-watcher is a watcher of birds; a bird watcher would be a bird that keeps an eye on things.”

As for the dash, a long hyphen, I never use it and never see the need to; commas will do very nicely.

I did enjoy finding out about something new: the diaeresis (pronounced ‘die heiresses’), also spelt dieresis. It is those two little dots over the vowel to denote the beginning of another syllable; for example, naïve, Charlotte Brontë, and coöperation (see Mary, I use the Oxford comma). Not to be confused with the German umlaut which denotes a change in the vowel’s pronunciation.

It is often said that texting will be the death of punctuation, if not spelling; but I don’t think so as long as there are people who punctuate their texts.

Punctuation was invented to facilitate reading aloud: from the pulpit originally. However we do this rarely these days and so the use of punctuation can often be individualistic; and if so all that Mary asks is that you be consistent.

Anyway the bottom line is that punctuation to prose is like music to film: it should never overpower that which it is there to enliven.

How Novels Work by John Mullan

John Mullen pic

English writer and academic, John Mullan

-oOo-

Works like this are gleaned from what novels become not how they are made. A more accurate title, if accurateness is what a title should contain, is How Novels Are.

If you are interested in such things, Mullan gives you a detailed description of the building blocks that he describes from a considerable collection of novels. Don’t worry if you haven’t read them all; one of the beauties of this book is that it whets your appetite for some of the books you had no intention of reading, such as Underworld by Don DeLillo, which is a novel that sets out to describe the second half of the 20th century via the ownership of a single object: in this case, a baseball. Mullan’s descriptions of novelistic tools also throw some intellectual light on those books you may have recently read that left you feeling a little underwhelmed: in my case Adam and Eve and Pinch Me, a ghost story by Ruth Rendell.

However don’t be fooled into thinking that these tools sit in the novelist’s brain like paint on an artist’s pallet waiting to be chosen. This is not true.  No novelist thinks “Today I’ll begin a romantic mystery via a split-narrative, with a parenthetically obsessed first narrator, in an attempt to personalise her skaz, who cleverly murders the plain speaking (no contractions) second narrator where the clue to the crime rests on an ekphrasis, in the first chapter, that is proven to be false in the last causing the revelation of a huge, but oh-so-clever, coincidence that will have critics falling over themselves to categorise the bloody thing”… maybe I’ve gone too far but I think you know what I mean.

Novelists tend to write what interests them, and, more importantly, what interests them the most is how to write, describe, conjure, and explore something that up until that point they had no idea how even to begin; and there’s the crux of it all: who was the artist that, when asked how do you start a picture? said, “you start with a mark on a white canvas”. Ditto for writing a novel.

John Mullan has been Professor of English at University College, London, since 2005 and is currently head of the English Department. He was General Editor of the Pickering & Chatto series Lives of the Great Romantics by Their Contemporaries, and Associate Editor for the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.  He is also a regular TV and radio broadcaster and a literary journalist; he writes on contemporary fiction for the Guardian and was a judge for the 2009 Man Booker Prize. Since How Fiction Works was published in 2006 two other volumes have hit the stands: Anonymity. A Secret History of English Literature (Faber and Faber, 2007) and What Matters in Jane Austen? (Bloomsbury 2012). He is host of the excellent Guardian book club.

“Symbolism in a novel is risky because it presses meaning on the reader.” This is one of the rare references to the reader and quite an important one. Unfortunately he spends little time discussing the role of the reader; or maybe such investigation has only risen in importance since 2006. There is now a strong literary theory called readers response theory …

“which gained prominence in the late 1960s, that focuses on the reader or audience reaction to a particular text, perhaps more than the text itself. Reader-response criticism can be connected to post-structuralism’s emphasis on the role of the reader in actively constructing texts rather than passively consuming them … reader-response criticism argues that a text has no meaning before a reader experiences—reads—it. (www.poetryfoundation.org)

That landscape of Uncle Harry gathering cobwebs behind the broom cupboard or the script in your bottom drawer doesn’t mean a thing until someone has a reaction to it, be it small (it’s alright) or big (Wow! How wonderful!): art isn’t art until someone consumes it.

This idea that there is an active role for the reader in literature is demonstrated by Colm Toibin’s latest novel Nora Webster (Penguin 2014). It’s a moving tale of a recently widowed middle-aged woman, mother of four, in 1960’s Ireland who finds her way back into her own life; one without her husband. No place or person is described. When Nora’s neighbour, an inquisitive old biddy from down the road, comes calling to look about a bit the reader is left to provide his or her own image of an ‘inquisitive old biddy from down the road’. This isn’t hard to do as most of us know of such a character from our past (or present). A grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters is all that is needed to conjure up in the mind of the reader exactly what Toibin wants; it isn’t important that your ‘grocery store where a bell rings when a customer enters’ may not be geographically like the one in Toibin’s memory, but it’s the idea, the atmosphere, the tone, the times, that Toibin is after; and that the reader can provide.

Of course there are wonderful novelists who describe people and location in great detail but there is something nourishing for a reader when all that is needed is a key (“a belly held in by straining buttons”) that unlocks a memory for a reader and provides everything that is needed for the character (location) to come to life.

I found this book fascinating, despite its neglect of the role of the reader. It almost doubled my ‘to read’ list.

Although Mullan is an academic the prose of How Novels Work is leveled at the general reader but if you are more academically minded try How Fiction Works by literary critic James Wood (Jonathan Cape 2008) who attacks the information, fundamentally the same as in Mullan’s book, but from a completely different angle.