Saturday, 15 December 2007

The Unloveliness of Modern Times

I’ve just finished Ackroyd’s The House of Doctor Dee and am stunned. Not only is it superbly well-written, it dips into the gold of truth, which makes it one of those rare books: one that changes the substance of the reader. An alchemical book in all respects.

The sections set in Dee’s time of the sixteenth century are written so gorgeously that it makes the sections set in the present tedious by comparison. This is something that troubles me, how the past can throw the present into the shade. Towards the end, John Dee asks the author, ‘Why not write of your own time? Why do you fly from it? Is it because you fly from your own self?’

I find it impossible to write of my own time. This age lacks all colour and interest, not least in language. Oh, that we could say something like, ‘I could easily answer your fond comparisons, no doubt taken from some flibber-jibber knave that feigns tales. But I am not disposed to argue the matter.’ Instead I gaze in sorrow at fashions that are unspeakably dull and unflattering, and listen to language that lacks all colour and the texture of variety. Write of my own times? Some succeed. I think of nature writers, or travel writers, or poets such as Laurie Lee (although even he was nostalgic). But write a novel reflecting modern times? Oh, my chin falls at the prospect. Take a look at David Mitchell’s Cloud Atlas to see a perfect portrait of the horrible decline of language from the loveliness and nobility of the nineteenth century into the monosyllabic gobbledegook of the future.

Arise, England! Learn to love words again! Learn rhythm and variety! Claim your amazing inheritance!

Wednesday, 12 December 2007

Endangered Species No. 2 - the indent

Once upon a time, all text was continuous on the page. The only division was into chapters to denote a change of topic. The Greeks devised a slash mark called the paragraphos to separate one idea from the next, and it came into the West, I believe, via the printing house of the Venetian, Aldus Manutius. The modern symbol for the paragraph break is found on the toolbar of Word, but it's only used to show us the hidden line breaks on a page.

I don't know when starting a new line with an indent began, but it was certainly before the invention of the typewriter. When that piece of new technology arrived, writers had to push the carriage back to the left and hit the tab. Ah - what a moment. It could be a brief but useful respite from typing (no RSI in those days), or it could be a means of self-expression. When the carriage returned to base it rang a bell, so in typing classes, in order to be top budgie, all you had to do was make your bell ring more often than anyone else's; and in your employment you sent the carriage back hard enough for everyone to know what you felt about your job. When word processors came along, they rightly emulated the use of the return bar and the tabulated indent, but unfortunately it is a silent process offering no respite at all.

Bob advises me that the way to do paragraphs in this blog is simple if retrogressive: use the space bar. It seems not to work: in preview I lose all the indents. I've looked into it further and Wikipedia says that if you use the p code at the beginning and at the end it will form paragraphs - will it heck: it just gives you a double-line space. I think I can safely declare the indent to be an endangered species.

Modern simplicity has much to recommend it. Back in the 70s I was told off by my boss in a publishing house for not indenting each line or using commas when typing an address on a letter, but I simply could not see the point of all that time-wasting. Perhaps I've grown into my boss, but I abhor the business practice of separating paragraphs by two line spaces and no indent, at least I abhor it as a general application. The style does have its place and its use. In fact I use it all the time when writing reports on novels, in which I tell the authors not to use it.

Open any novel and you will not find the text laid out that way. If it is then it has been produced on the cheap by chimps. Agents and publishers still want to see manuscripts in double-line spacing. If you use the new-style paragraphing, it not only looks repellant - especially in dialogue - but it wastes acres of paper.

The indented paragraph is literary. It presumes intelligence on the part of the reader, the ability to follow a flow of ideas. Bite-sized, bullet-pointed information is for corporate reports and other low forms of the written word.

Tuesday, 11 December 2007

Endangered Species No. 1 - the semi-colon

I first noticed semi-colons in the novels of Melvyn Bragg. No doubt I'd been introduced to them at school, but I'd never used one. Having come across this tadpole of punctuation while trying to analyse the beauty of Bragg's style, I picked it up and took it home.

These days the fashion is for short sentences. We think they make our work pacey. In fact they make it monotonous. In the quest for variety, the semi-colon is a very useful tool. The rule is simple: it separates two related sentences. Either side of the semi-colon there will be a verb somewhere.

Example: Semi-colons are vital for good writing; they are, however, best used sparingly.

Another current virus, set fair to infect the future, is the new style of paragraphing. I'll save my spleen on that one for another day. Meanwhile, anyone know how to do the proper kind on a blog?