A sense of humour

Thinking back to my last post, on the subject of language….

NVC, Nonviolent Communication, is an organisation founded by Marshall Rosenberg several decades ago. (Check out the book.) The name speaks for itself. It sets the benchmark high.

Humour, surely, is non-violent. And yet …

A weeks ago (23rd March) in Central London  more than a million marchers kept their sense of humour. Below are a few placards:

We know about cliff edges in Cornwall….Brutalists against Brexit….Even Tesco has better deals….Without free movement we can’t get rid of Nigel and Boris….I’m British. I’ve taken to the streets I protest. Things must be jolly bad….I wasn’t old enough to vote. I am now….I’d rather run through a field of wheat….I’m so angry I could make a placard…On second thoughts…

The Sun newspaper absolutely failed to bring any humour to the party. ‘Snarky little placards’ is how The Sun describes the placards. Who I wonder came up with that joyful phrase? (Likewise, ‘No sane person is impressed, even by 5.6 million Remainers signing a petition.’)

Humour can breed hostility. I don’t think most marchers set out to goad. Their humour was simply a way of handling what they saw as a disaster. But it riled the other side…

George Orwell in his pamphlet ‘Politics and the English Language’ (1946) is concerned about the language of debate, at a rather more elevated level than The Sun. But his message is clear.

‘All issues are political issues, and politics itself is a mass of lies, evasions, folly, hatred and schizophrenia. When the general atmosphere is bad, language must suffer.’

When the atmosphere is bad, even humour is drawn in.

We are treading on egg-shells.

Taking time out

Time for taking time out from writing this blog. If I put that down, in writing, then maybe I won’t renege on it.

And why take time out?

Politically we’ve reached another point of stasis. Theresa May is calling for cross-party cooperation which she doesn’t deserve for a nano-second, and won’t get. Corbyn has amazingly a significant lead in the opinion polls. Brexit is anyone’s guess. Which way will the worm (yes, worm) turn?

When I started this blog I’d hoped to bring in a little bit of humour from time to time. Politics could be fun as well. But that seems like another age. That’s another reason for taking a breather.

A third reason, and maybe the best – summer holidays are upon us.

And, as for me – I’m about to move house, to a wild corner of Gloucestershire, where Labour ousted the Tories last month. There’s a canal, and steep hills, streams cut deep, and a hundred years ago Laurie Lee was growing up in the Slad valley maybe two miles away. If I write over the coming months it will be of birds, bees and flowers (we shall see!), and sunrises, or the Cornish coast path, if I escape that way. Any discussion of politics is out.

There was a R4 discussion (one final comment!) this morning about critical thinking. They referred to the fact that rolling news can be the enemy of critical thought but couldn’t understand why one young person preferred not to listen. Not listening or watching is the answer. Don’t get wrapped up in the big roll.  Find other ways to access news – take it in at your own pace, with time to assimilate.

That’s what I will do over the summer. It’s what I do already.

When I can, when furniture and books are unpacked, I will chill out. Walk the hills, or run, or get myself a small boat and a paddle, or a motor, and row or chug down the canal. That would be a good summer.


All about books

A friend of mine lent me ‘Ex Libris: Confessions of a Common Reader ‘ by Anne Fadiman. And I will be forever in her debt.

Lending books – something Fadiman doesn’t have a chapter on in her wonderfully erudite and obsessive and mesmerisingly enjoyable book. I’m sure she does lend books to friends but books are for her, as they are for me, about ownership. Norma will get her book back – and I’ll buy my own copy.

One problem when you borrow a book: you can’t annotate – scrawl untidily in the margins. For Fadiman a well-annotated book is better than a clean one – so much better a used and loved and cherished book than a virgin tome, maybe even (sacrilege) with pages still uncut.

She loves typos, as we all do, especially if we’ve been editors. And I started my publishing life as a Penguin copyeditor. She quotes a prize find from a friend of hers, a sentence in a manuscript sent to a San Francisco publisher:

‘Einstein’s Theory of Relativity led to the development of the Big Band Theory.’ (Could, I wonder, E be for Ellington and M for Miller?)

She’s also wonderful on plagiarism, and I fully acknowledge my source. Ex Libris, by Anne Fadiman.

‘One day when Sir Walter Scott was out hunting, a sentence he had been trying to compose all morning suddenly leapt into his head. Before it could fade, he shot a crow, plucked a feather, sharpened the tip, dipped it in crow’s blood, and captured the sentence.’

I like this and would like to replicate it, out on one of my walks, or long-distance runs, but I don’t hunt, and I don’t think I’d be too keen on plucking a dead crow. Writing in blood? Maybe. To establish an undying bond, over a dead crow? Maybe not. But there are sentences which occur, phrases, at the wrong moment, with no pen or pencil to hand, and typing into ‘notes’ on my iPhone seems a bit feeble. So what to do? I could carry a catapult and practise my skills, in the manner of David, with a stone or two. But I might kill a Philistine and miss the bird…

Fadiman having put aside a much-loved pen now uses a word processor. And she does what I do, she ‘moves the rejected phrases to the bottom of the screen, where they are continuously pushed ahead of the text in progress like an ever-burgeoning mound of snow by a plough’.

Great, but snow hardly describes my mis-spellings and mis-statements. I’ve used the same ploy writing serious e-mails, pushing rejected text to the bottom just in case it’s useful. Then forgetting it’s there and sending the e-mail with gibberish attached.

Both Fadiman’s parents were writers. A distinct advantage, if you as the offspring are also that way inclined. If not I guess you take up pogo-stick dancing, or similar, and pretend that’s your passion. It’s not just in the blood that books are found. They’re also out there, on the shelves, in your library, your attic. (‘No way will we have books in the dining-room,’ I remember being told.)

My problem is that while the shelves are bespoke and individual shelf heights can be adjusted, that means removing all the books from one section of my library, adjusting the shelves, and then discovering that, yes, you can now display your art books upright, but you’ve no longer room for those awkward over-sized B-format Penguins. I can cope with the Adeles (A-format), it’s the Emperors that cause the problem.

Fadiman quotes from three-times prime minister William Ewart Gladstone’s inspired and obsessive 29-page tome ‘On Books And The Housing Of Them’. He fantasised about library shelves on (tram)rails, so the shelves can be pushed together, and pulled out as need be. But maybe not in my sitting room, which doubles as my main library. (The Benedictines at Douai Abbey spent £1/2million on doing just that, building a wonderfully compact library containing tens of thousands of volumes from the libraries of now defunct and monkless monasteries. The books had nowhere else to go. How often are they consulted, I wonder? Theology I guess does go on forever.)

They read aloud a lot in the Fadiman household. Not least bedtime reading, when she and her husband read aloud to each other. She approves of the poet Heine, who ‘read Don Quixote to the trees and flowers in the Palace Garden of Dusseldorf’. That’s the kind of snippet I like. Not just any book, or any place. And not just quoting or murmuring, but reading aloud to the trees and flowers.

There were empty benches in the Parks in Oxford this afternoon. The sun was shining. I had my book with me, I could have sat down – and read aloud. I had trees and flowers all around me.

Books do get squashed between other books, and if they’re thin and almost spineless, they’re forgotten. A problem I recognise. But worse for me is having to tuck books behind, in a second rank, as a necessity, being the only way I can house all my books. (Yes, I have thought of buying a large house in the country, or a small house, with one very big room. Two can share a single bed, and we all had galley kitchens once.)

My Penguins, hundreds of them (once a Penguin always a Penguin), already on an unreachable top shelf, have a front and a back row. (The back row isn’t happy.) I’ve catalogued them all, so I know what’s there, but sometimes it seems almost quicker to go out and by a new book.

But, one big advantage – surprise. ‘I never knew I had that,’ I’ve exclaimed a few times.

Gladstone believed that his shelving system might ‘prevent the population of Great Britain from being extruded into the surrounding waters by the extent of their own libraries’. Maybe he imagined a future where we’d all be literate, and we’d put away all trivial pursuits, and buy books, and read – but instead we have our televisions, and our computers. We and our surrounding waters are safe…

I’m on the side of libraries, but say that to almost anyone these days and they look askance, they look amazed. Serious bibliophiles who mull and mutter through endless happy hours in libraries were then and are even more now a breed apart.

I will continue to mull and mutter.