Wednesday, 30 November 2016

November index

  • Here's the long-awaited November index.


Tuesday, 29 November 2016

'Apolitical ponce' - W. H. Auden in the OED

Another TLS blog dusted off and presented for your reading pleasure. This one comes from September 2014, those balmy blue-remembered days.

W. H. A. in the O. E. D.

The W. H. Auden Society Newsletter has appeared more or less annually since its inaugural issue in April 1988. Plainly designed, wonderfully rich in content, scholarly but not academic, it's an indispensable omnium gatherum of all things Auden – eccentric, eclectic, unpredictable and endlessly fascinating.
My favourite Newsletter item dates back to the fourth issue (October 1989) when a young Toby Litt, long before he achieved fame as a fine novelist, contributed a dazzling little essay entitled “From ‘Acedia’ to ‘Zeitgeist’: Auden in the 2nd Edition of the OED”. (Before I go any further I have to gratefully acknowledge my debt to his essay as a source for this blog.)
Litt begins his piece with a quotation from Auden, taken from an interview in 1971:

One of my great ambitions is to get into the OED as the first person to have used in print a new word. I have two candidates at the moment, which I used in my review of J. R. Ackerley’s autobiography. They are ‘Plain-sewing’ and ‘Princeton-First-Year’. They refer to two types of homosexual behaviour.

Auden’s ambition was realized posthumously with the appearance in 1989 of the twenty-volume 2nd edition of the Oxford English Dictionary, now available online as "OED3", from which the following definitions are taken.
An admirably explicit definition of “Princeton-First-Year” cites Auden’s piece on the Ackerley autobiography (My Father and Myself) in the New York Review of Books:

"Designating a form of male homosexual activity in which the penis is rubbed against the thighs or stomach of a partner.
1969 W. H. AUDEN in N.Y. Rev. Bks. 27 Mar. 3/4 My guess is that at the back of his mind, lay a daydream of an innocent Eden where children play ‘Doctor’, so that the acts he really preferred were the most ‘brotherly’, Plain-Sewing and Princeton-First-Year.”

A later citation comes from the TLS, with a discreetly explicit Latin tag:
1980 Times Lit. Suppl. 21 Mar. 324/5 ‘Princeton-First-Year’ is a more condescending version of the term ‘Princeton Rub’; that is, coitus contra ventrem.

When it comes to “plain sewing” as a euphemism for both buggery and masturbation, the OED has it both ways:
“plain sewing n. (a) Needlework which is functional or practical rather than decorative; (b) slang [popularized by W. H. Auden (compare quot.1980)] , a sexual activity of homosexuals involving mutual masturbation.”
Auden enriched the language of the tribe far beyond this subversive promotion of mid-century gay slang. He appears 766 times in the second, four-volume OED Supplement published from 1972 to 1986, including quotations from works co-written with Christopher Isherwood, Louis MacNeice and Chester Kallman. Most of these citations are not for being the first person to have used a new word in print, but are included to show a change or extension of meaning. (While this is an impressive total, Shakespeare – by far the most frequently quoted single author – is the source of 33,300 quotations, of which 1,600 come from Hamlet alone.) 
That Auden came to feature so prominently in the OED is partly down to the time he spent as Professor of Poetry at Oxford between 1956 and 1961. He became an acquaintance of R. W. Burchfield, a lecturer at Christ Church (Auden’s college) and, from 1957, the editor of the second supplement to the OED. Burchfield, though he had a low opinion of the poet's linguistic scholarship, decided that Auden should be among the major writers whose work merited special attention from the compilers.
Of Auden's 700-plus citations 110 are original coinages, of which around half are hyphenated compounds such as “angel-vampire”, “swan-delighting” and suchlike poetic figures that have never entered the mainstream; a further twenty-two appear under sub-headings as additional definitions of words already in existence. In all, there are twenty-eight citations (including the entry for “Princeton-First-Year”) for which Auden is credited as the first writer to use the word in print, a lexical horde that in part reflects the poet's camp and ramshackle character. Toby Litt writes:
“Among Auden's more notable citations are: the first pejorative use of ‘queer’, the first printed use of ‘ponce’ to designate an effeminate homosexual, of ‘toilet-humour’, of ‘agent’ in the sense of a secret agent or spy, of ‘dedicated’ to mean a person ‘single-minded in loyalty to his beliefs or in his artistic or personal integrity’, of ‘shagged’ meaning ‘weary, exhausted’, and of ‘stud’ for a person ‘displaying masculine sexual characteristics’. Further curiosities are the first printed appearance in English of the surrealist term ‘objet trouve’ and the first printed use of ‘What’s yours?’ as an invitation given by the person buying the next round of drinks.”
Not included in the Litt list but noted by Mendelson in his introduction to the reprint of Auden's The Prolific and the Devourer (1939) is the poet's use of the term 'apolitical', its first appearance in print. Other Auden-sourced coinages include "Mosleyite", "Disneyesque" and (from 1941) "butch", in the sense of aggressively masculine. 

Where would we be without him?

Monday, 28 November 2016

On literary tattoos

Another of m recycleded blogs from the Times Literary Supplement. It's about tattoos in general, and literary tattoos in particular:

Written on the skin

The Skin Projectlaunched in 2003 by the American artist Shelley Jackson, is a 2,095-word short story “published exclusively in tattoo form, one word at a time, on the skin of volunteers”. The first word – which is “skin” – adorns Jackson’s wrist in Baskerville font, and she stipulates that each volunteer, once issued with their word, should likewise employ a “classic book font such as Caslon, Garamond, Bodoni, and Times Roman”, adding that the tattoo “should look like something intended to be read, not admired for its decorative qualities”.
Prompted by my belated discovery of this I’ve been looking (and often flinching) at online images of other “literary” tattoos, of which there are thousands. The same “decorative qualities” proscribed by Jackson are very much on display as, wrenched from their printed context, lines of prose and poetry are elaborated with baroque fonts, fancy scrolls and curlicues and much use of faux-Gothic script, more Motörhead than Montherlant.
Literary tattoos fall into two broad categories: photorealist portraits of authors and quotations from their work. Most common is a quotation, drawn for the most part from a small cohort of hip writers. Kurt Vonnegut is very popular, with numberless Slaughterhouse-Five fans sporting the author’s laconic coda “So it goes”. So too is Charles Bukowski, William Burroughs, Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Vonnegut, Jack Kerouac and J. R. R. Tolkien. People also seem to favour lines from childhood classics (The Little PrinceHarry Potter) and high school staples (Maya Angelou, J. D. Salinger, Harper Lee and Edgar Allan Poe), but there are some surprises, such as the nine lines from Little Gidding covering the back of an English teacher from Hawaii, who writes: “I chose to tattoo the first four and last five lines together (I didn’t have the guts at the time to go whole hog and tattoo the entire section. I wish I had.)”
There is a perhaps inevitable trend for literary tattoos among celebrities. Johnny Depp, the epitome of Hollywood cool, has Joyce’s “Silence Exile Cunning” (sic) in big faux Gothic script on his forearm. Lady Gaga is inked with lines from Rilke; Angelina Jolie with Tennessee Williams.
Leafing through Eva Talmadge and Justin Taylor's The Word Made Flesh: Literary tattoos from bookworms worldwide (2010) and looking at the associated online archive I couldn’t find a single literary tattoo I liked. I’m deeply sceptical about the self-commodification involved when asserting non-conformism and individuality by shelling out on an epidermal doodle, but I wanted to get an opposing view so I asked a good friend about it. He’s a writer in his fifties and has “Voyaging through strange seas of thought alone” emblazoned on his chest because (he says) it’s his favourite line in English poetry and because he “thought it was funny to have Wordsworth tattooed on oneself”. When I asked him why he didn’t quote the full line from The Prelude (“A mind voyaging . . .  etc”), he replied, reasonably enough, that it wouldn’t fit. Then I asked him about tattoos in general, and literary ones in particular, and he said: “People I know see it as a continuous point of reference and don’t give two hoots about being thoughtful or cultured. It’s often because they want a tattoo but want to show they have a certain degree of awareness of the process”.
A casual census suggests that the practice of literary tattooing is largely confined to youngish American fans of cultish American authors, though it’s becoming more popular in Britain. It’s made me wonder which author’s portrait and which quotations I would, if so minded, have inscribed on myself. Do I really like anything I’ve readthat much? Then I thought of the fine opening lines of the poem “Liverpool” by Michael Donaghy, who died the year after “The Skin Project” (a quarter of the way through, according to the last report) began and didn’t live long enough to see the rise of the literary tattoo:
“Ever been tattooed? It takes a whim of iron,
takes sweating in the antiseptic-stinking parlour,
nothing to read but motorcycle magazines   
before the blood-sopped cotton, and, of course, the needle,     
all for — at best — some Chinese dragon.
But mostly they do hearts”
“It takes a whim of iron” might be my own choice for a discreet inking – in Times New Roman, of course, or even Gill Sans, and in legible 12-point.

Quotation © Michael Donaghy from Collected Poems courtesy of Pan Macmillan

Sunday, 27 November 2016

Seen here sharing a joke

Here's author Mike McCormack (left) with your blogger (right) moments after he was awarded the 2016 Goldsmiths Prize for his superb novel Solar Bones.

    Picture courtesy Maeve Curtis

There was a time, not so long ago, when newspapers would routinely employ the caption 'Seen here sharing a joke' beneath any picture of two chaps (always chaps) clearly not sharing a joke. 

We weren't sharing a joke, but were both buoyed by the unexpected and richly deserved recognition for a remarkable literary achievement. There were two other very strong contenders on this year's Goldmsiths shortlist, both from writers with Irish backgrounds: Anakana Schofield's superb Martin John and Eimear McBride's The Lesser Bohemians (which is even better than her magnificent 2013 debut A Girl Is a Half-formed Thing). Both of these have found their place in the world, and offer further proof (not that it's needed) of an extraordinary revival of Irish writing, and of experimental writing generally. 

The trophy Mike is holding is based on the meandering line left by Uncle Toby's walking stick in Tristram Shandy, which has become the Goldsmiths' Prize logo.


This years' trophy (each year being a one-off design)  also resembles the children's toy in which one has to navigate the tight curves of a metal tube with a metal hoop, setting off a buzzer whenever the hoop touches the tube. You know the kind of thing I mean. I have no idea what it's called. Does anyone?

The Goldsmiths was the first big prize for Solar Bones. It recently scooped (why do we say 'scooped'?) the 2016 Bord Gáis Energy Irish Book Awards as Novel of the Year. There are bound to be many others, and rightly. It's a wonderful, original, pitch-perfect evocation of a life, profoundly moving, serenely beautiful. I wrote about the novel for the Literary Review, describing it, perhaps glibly, as 'Proust reconfigured by Flann O'Brien'. It really is that good. The final sentence of my draft review was cut, but here it is:

This is about all of us, now and forever after, and unquestionably one of the big books of 2016.

But it's not just a book of the year. This one will last.

Buy a copy direct from the excellent publishers, Dublin-based Tramp Press here.



Saturday, 26 November 2016

On Coventry Patmore

Coventry Patmore died on this day in 1896. The house he lived in is a few minutes' walk from here: Highwood Lodge, 85 Fortis Green, Muswell Hill. 

Coventry Patmore (1823-1896)

Besides having an excellent name - one to rank alongside Somerset Maugham and Tennessee Williams - Coventry Patmore was an enormously popular poet who wrote The Angel in the House, a domestic epic providing the recipe for a happy and lasting marriage. It makes today's feminists spit feathers but we should make allowances - things were different then and only a simpleton will judge the past by present standards with what E. P. Thompson called 'the massive condescension of posterity'. Time passes, things change.

Having said which, feminists at the time were not among his admirers. Virginia Woolf loathed Patmore's verses. Having said which again - isn't is at useful, necessary even, to have evidence of such long-abandoned patrician attitudes? Long-abandoned by most of us. I mean, although looking around I begin to wonder.  In many parts of the world patriarchy is in rude good health and many a religious head honcho would denounce Coventry Patmore as a dangerous radical.

In the preface to his Collected Poems of 1886 he wrote, half-pleadingly:

I have written little, but it is all my best; I have never spoken when I had nothing to say, nor spared time or labour to make my words true. I have respected posterity; and should there be a posterity which cares for letters, I dare to hope that it will respect me.

Are we living in an age that cares for letters? I'm afraid Dame Posterity, a notoriously fickle mistress, has not been kind, and Coventry Patmore doesn't enjoy much of a poetic afterlife. You can look him up on the internet but don't expect to be blown away. By way of small consolation he's remembered by the great Ogden Nash in this Clerihew:

Walter Savage Landor
Stood before the fire of life with candor.
Coventry Patmore
Sat more.

Even better, there's the following which is (I think, but apologies if I'm wrong) is by John Julius Norwich:

A pat on the head
Sends me happy to bed;
I wish, how I wish you'd do that more.
Cold words and neglect
Leave me wretched and wrecked;
Don't send me to Coventry, pat more.

Friday, 25 November 2016

On vocal fry

The 2016 Saltire Poetry Prize (about which I blogged yesterday) was awarded last night to the excellent Kathleen Jamie for The Bonniest Companie, which won not only that individual category but was also the competition's overall winner - the Scottish Book of the Year. Congratulations to her. It's especially gratifying to see a poetry collection winning a big prize open to fiction, biography and other writing. I'll pick up a copy of The Bonniest Companie as soon as I can. I remember admiring her collection The Queen of Sheba when it came out - improbably - twenty years ago. You can listen to her reading some of her work here.

Now back to business. Here's the fourth of my blogs originally written for the Times Literary Supplement,  hereunder thriftily recycled. It's about a current and near-ubiquitous vocal trait that seems to be shared by most anglophone women under thirty.

On vocal fry

If you don't admire the American animated cartoon series Adventure Time it's almost certainly because you haven't seen it yet. In the post-apocalyptic land of Ooo, Jake (a protean dog) and Finn (a boisterous boy) share a treehouse from which they set out on pocket odysseys, sometimes involving the monstrous Lemongrab, a maniacal dictator whose catch phrase is a shrieked "Unacceptable!" It's wildly original with more wit, intelligence and flair packed into each eleven-minute episode than you'll find in a clutch of modern novels. That the two leading characters share their names with the protagonists of Iris Murdoch's debut novel Under the Net (1954) is - perhaps unintentionally - part of its great charm.
One of many memorable minor characters is the shallow and self-absorbed Lumpy Space Princess, an airborne purple blob sporting a tiara. Her voice combines a strangulated babble of high-rising terminals (i.e. the upward inflection? At the end of declarative statements?) with a now-commonplace linguistic trait originating in the Pacific Northwest of the United States and known as “vocal fry” or, variously, as “pulse register”, “laryngealisation”, “pulse phonation”, “creak”, “popcorning”, “glottal fry”, “glottal rattle”, “glottal scrape” and “strohbass”. 
Vocal fry is produced when the airflow through the glottis is very slow and the vocal cords vibrate irregularly, about two octaves lower than the frequency of normal vocalization. It usually occurs at the end of a long utterance. It seems  impossible to reproduce here but you can hear it performed (and amusingly deconstructed) in this video by a droll American vlogger called Abby Normal
Normal suggests that one aim of vocal fry is to express affiliation with a hypothetical elite by adopting a cool, detached and “unimpressed” register, suggesting a jaded cultural palate and a snooty if unfounded omniscience. It has been further suggested that vocal fry is an attempt to add gravitas by adopting a deeper, more “masculine” register. (This is nothing new to those of us who recall the extraordinary recalibration of Margaret Thatcher's range.)
This creaky vocalization has been on the rise among British speakers for some time now, especially, on radio programmes involving youngish contributors acting in a critical capacity, or speaking as a representative of some body or enterprise. It can be difficult to understand speech acts in which the real emotional or intellectual content is veiled by an aura of ennui.
A challenge to contemporary authors is to represent linguistic phenomena such as this in written form. Punctuation and a few long-established tropes aside (CAPITALS for shouting, italics for emphasis, an unspacedstreamofwords suggesting breathless excitement), mainstream writers haven't gone far in the search for new ways of representing speech. Authentic utterance is full of repetition, redundancy and hesitation – “to ‘er’ is human”, as the poet Michael Rosen says. These are usually removed from otherwise “naturalistic” dialogue and from (say) transcribed interviews for the simple reason that they would drive the reader nuts.

Thursday, 24 November 2016

The 2016 Saltire Prize

Another literary prize - Scottish, this time.

The Saltire Society's Poetry Book of the Year Award for 2016 has a shortlist described by the organisers as "hotly contested'. It features Kathleen Jamie and Don Paterson, two of the 1994 ‘New Generation’ Poets for, respectively, The Bonniest Comparie (Picador) and 40 Sonnets (Faber & Faber). They are both 'names' although I'm always wary of that 'generation' thing. It has a lot to do with marketing, of course, and seems a mixed blessing, something a writer either grows out of or fails to live up to. A new generation arrives, surely, every few years? By which I mean that I (born in 1959) would see myself as belonging to a younger generation than Martin Amis, who is only ten years older than me. He came of age in the 1960s, I did so in the 70s. Different times. I need to work this up into a theory.

But back to the Saltire. Also shortlisted are John Glenday for The Golden Mean (Picador), Peter Mackay for Gu Leòr / Galore (Acair Ltd), Vicki Husband for This Far Back Everything Shimmers (Vagabond) and J O Morgan for Interference Pattern (Jonathan Cape). Regular readers of Salvete will know that I am a great admirer of Morgan's poetry. I last blogged about him here and I also reviewed his last two collections, In Casting Off and Interference Pattern, for the TLS earlier this year.

Morgan combines technical virtuosity with a complex sensibility; not one that chooses to express itself emotionally and confessionally but intelligently and allusively. He's the opposite of a tub-thumper and (as I said in my TLS review) appears to share the view advanced by T. S. Elot, now unfashionable, that poetry is an escape from the personality, not an expression of it.  His poetry deserves and rewards close reading, and re-reading.

It's especially appropriate, then, that he has also been shortlisted for this year's T. S. Eliot prize, which has prompted his publishers Cape to reprint Interference Pattern, his fifth book. I never recommend Amazon - you can buy a copy (and support an independent bookseller) by using

The Saltire shindig takes place this evening in Edinburgh. More on this tomorrow.

Wednesday, 23 November 2016


I recently discovered the online abbreviation YKINMK (standing for Your Kink Is Not My Kink), sometimes expanded to YKINMKBYKIOK (Your Kink Is Not My Kink But Your Kink Is Okay). The latter sounds a generously tolerant note - why not do the thing you do as long as it doesn't frighten the horses? A more recent discussion informed me that the acronym is not quite as amiably tolerant as I assumed, and appears in some quite unsettling contexts. Ah me, such times we live in.

Here's a recycled TLS blog from a few years ago about an unusual sexual preference to which YKINMK seems a likely response. 

Love letters

World is crazier and more of it than we think,
Incorrigibly plural.

Louis MacNeice’s lines come to mind in any consideration of objectophilia – also known by the German term Objektophilie (OS) – a profoundly strange sexual orientation expressed through an intense physical and emotional relationship with inanimate objects. Media coverage tends to adopt a chortling and prurient tone when reporting cases such as that of a thirty-seven-year-old former soldier named Erika LaBrie, who went through a “commitment ceremony” in 2008, taking as her partner a major Paris landmark and changing her name to Erika La Tour Eiffel. She pictured her spouse as female: “What we have is real and if it's only real to me and it's only real to her then that's fine”.
The objects of OS affection are jaw-droppingly bizarre – an electronic keyboard, the Twin Towers, a length of fencing, a guillotine, a particular bridge, buttons, a roller-coaster, a ferris wheel, a family saloon car. Nothing, it seems, is off-limits. Of particular interest to those of us with a literary bent is the case of Eva K., a woman from the Netherlands who has an intense relationship with words that exceeds any run-of-the-mill logophilia. Writing on an OS website in 2011 she said: “To fall in love with a word, a logo or a name has always been something entirely normal to me. As a young girl I already felt an exceptional, inflationary attraction to the spoken, and most of all to the written word, which no other person around me seemed to understand.”
Much more than a mere liking for a particular word or phrase, hers is a passionate and compensating obsession. She cannot imagine romantic relations with a human being and has never, she says, felt any attraction to others, in this respect seeing herself as an androgynous, asexual being.
Her emotional investment in words is complex and sophisticated, involving what she describes as “the most delicate fine tuning which is comparable to experiencing music or art”. She adds: “During my life there must have been over 50 very special words and names I was madly . . . passionately in love with. I have documented them all . . . Being in love with a word means: All the things one would experience when in love with a person; all emotions associated with adoring feelings of love, romance and erotic sensitivity.
Eva consummates her desire “through the making of graphic creations. I usually design my own artworks with the words, sentences, or names I love”. She is “powerfully attracted” to Russian, Polish, and Latin and, although no linguist, has an affectionate regard for grammar rules and particular lexical items, declinations and conjugations: “It is about specific combinations of letters. The kind of typeface plays a big additional part. In general I do not like words written entirely in CAPITALS, but prefer Capital + lowercases. There are a few typefaces I really love in which my words appear in the most attractive way. In my letter-object-artworks this is the typeface I habitually use.”
OS has been linked to psychological conditions including Asperger Syndrome, sexual trauma, gender dysphoria and synaesthesia. It seems to me that objectophiles in general, and Eva K. in particular, present, in an extreme form, a tendency to be found in many creative artists and writers. There are writers whose fictions – if only in the mildest way – seem to me to take an objectophile perspective on the world. There is Nicholson Baker, for example, with his intense scrutiny of library systems; J. G. Ballard, with his concrete flyovers and eroticized automobiles; William Burroughs. And that’s just the Bs.
In myth Endymion aimed high and fell for the moon (and why OS isn’t known as an Endymion complex is a matter to ponder) and there is no end of erotic objectification in literature – Volpone’s feeling for gold goes beyond the merely miserly.
It’s impossible to make sweeping statements about such a complex condition although research suggests that many objectophiles are female and cheerfully polygamous. Eva K. continues: “My deepest emotions have always been shared with written words, names, and languages. However in the past I have had romantic attractions to public objects from here in the Netherlands and also outside of the Netherlands. Among them was a world-renowned hydraulic flood barrier in Holland who was my love for six years as well as a wonderful floating crane and a few other public buildings that I have shared an objectum-sexual love.”
A scholarly account of the condition is “Love Among the Objectum Sexuals” by Amy Marsh, DHS, ACS, available online in the Electronic Journal of Human Sexuality (Volume 13, March 1, 2010).
Eva K. concludes: “Words, names, and languages always were my greatest and most passionate loves . . . and will probably remain so as long as I live”.

Tuesday, 22 November 2016

Cellar door and other euphonies

Another from the archive. Following yesterday's recycled  TLS blog on Word Aversion, the irrational loathing of innocuous words, here are some thoughts on what amounts to its opposite: words and phrases that prompt a pleasurable, if equally irrational, reaction.

Cellar Door and other euphonies

There is a charming branch of linguistics called phonoaesthetics – the study of the intrinsic pleasantness (euphony) or unpleasantness (cacophony) of the sound of certain words, phrases and sentences – and the English compound noun “cellar door” has long been cited by phonoaesteticians as an example of a word or phrase that is beautiful purely in terms of its sound and regardless of any meaning. That is to say foreign speakers with no knowledge of English whatsoever nevertheless recognize something intrinsically attractive in this three-syllable sequence of phonemes, from the sibilant “c” in “cellar” to the very lovely diphthong in “door”.
Cellar door. Cellar door.
An article in the New York Times (February 11, 2010) cited the novel Gee-Boy (1903) by Cyrus Lauron Hooper as the first written mention of “cellar door”’s particular allure. Of the novel’s main character the author writes:
“He even grew to like sounds unassociated with their meaning, and once made a list of the words he loved most, as doubloon, squadron, thatch, fanfare (he never did know the meaning of this one), Sphinx, pimpernel, Caliban, Setebos, Carib, susurro, torquet, Jungfrau. He was laughed at by a friend, but logic was his as well as sentiment; an Italian savant maintained that the most beautiful combination of English sounds was cellar-door; no association of ideas here to help out! sensuous impression merely! the cellar-door is purely American.”
Purely American? Mneh. And one has to point out that many of the words in this list aren’t English in the first place, begging the question: what are the equivalents, in other languages of “cellar door” to English speakers? The poet Michael Rosen opts for “libellule”*, the French word for dragonfly, and it would be interesting to put this to the test with a group of non-francophones (from which, alas, he would be excluded).
But to return to “cellar door”, which causes all kinds of nice things to happen to the lips, tongue and palate when it is uttered. I wonder if part of its appeal is down to the ghostly presences it contains: the homophone “adore”, or a whiff of the French “c’est la”. (This gallic echo reminds me of the 1970s BBC television presenter Larry Grayson whose catchphrase “Shut that door!” reportedly derived from his attempts to say “je t’adore”. “Cellar door” was also the inspiration behind the name of the television production company Celador, responsible for such  popular entertainments as Who Wants to be a Millionaire?)
In 1935 the drama critic George Jean Nathan used the euphonious phrase to put the boot into Gertrude Stein:
“Sell a cellar, door a cellar, sell a cellar cellar-door, door adore, adore a door, selling cellar, door a cellar, cellar cellar-door. There is damned little meaning and less sense in such a sentence, but there is, unless my tonal balance is askew, twice more rhythm and twice more lovely sound in it than in anything, equally idiotic, that Miss Gertrude ever confected.”
What, one wonders, was Gertrude Stein’s favourite word or phrase? Henry James plumped for “summer afternoon”. Dylan Thomas opted for “helicopter”. In a recent Guardian poll at the Edinburgh Book Festival, Tim Lott admired “mnemonic”, Ann Widdecombe “rodomontade” and Neil Gaiman “ineffable”. Alasdair Gray’s choice was “plakkopytrixophylisperambulantiobatrix” (the title of an unfinished poem by G. K. Chesterton).
Cellar door?  Helicopter? Summer afternoon? For me there is no contest.

Monday, 21 November 2016

Word Aversion

The Times Literary Supplement ran a regular blog for some years, to which I made occasional contributions. The blog has now been replaced by a feature called First Person (to which I have also contributed).
For the next week or so I plan to recycle some of my old TLS blogs which will (I hope) be new to you. This will give me a break as I start a new full-time job today and will need to learn the ropes, if ropes there be. The first blog dusted off for your reading pleasure is this, from September 2014):

Word Aversion

The concept (new to me) of Word Aversion is described by the linguistics professor Mark Liberman as:
“A feeling of intense, irrational distaste for the sound or sight of a particular word or phrase, not because its use is regarded as etymologically or logically or grammatically wrong, nor because it's felt to be over-used or redundant or trendy or non-standard, but simply because the word itself somehow feels unpleasant or even disgusting.”

According to Liberman, common words prompting revulsion include not just the obvious ones such as “pus” or “ooze” or “scab”, but also “squab, cornucopia, panties, navel, brainchild, crud, slacks and fudge” (these last four surely constitute the name of an advertising agency). As it happens I have an intense and perhaps cranky loathing for a particular word which we'll come to in a moment, a word used frequently by a character in a Martin Amis novel,
In The Zone of Interest Amis explores the spacious literary terrain between Joseph Heller and Primo Levi, featuring a malign nonentity of a concentration camp commandant by the name of Paul Doll. Amis has given this functionary an idiolect that is immediately recognizable and unsettlingly familiar: a complacent middle-management register, a chortling, affably pedantic, utterly reasonable tone that reminds me of certain of today’s public figures. Doll is, Amis insists rather too often, “a normal man with normal needs”. His worldview is expressed in pompous, pedantic and leaden aphorisms: “I also find that Martell brandy, if taken in liberal but not injudicious quantities . . .”,  or “one can’t ‘go mad’ and throw the money around as if the stuff ‘grew on trees’”. Those pincer-like inverted commas tell their own story. But if there's one word that pins him down it’s the word I’m most averse to:
“Whilst she could clearly see she had shaken me to the core . . .”
“. . .  whilst the luggage was stacked near the handcarts . . .”
“Whilst I can take a joke as well as the next man . . .”
And so on. Amis has chosen well in choosing “whilst”.
“Whilst” is a word that never fails to irritate me, not simply because it’s an unnecessary and unattractive alternative to “while”, but because it’s employed as part of the pervasive culture of “customer care”. Here are three examples gleaned on a quick stroll around my neighbourhood this morning:
 “This car park is reserved for customers whilst using the bank.”
“We apologise for any inconvenience whilst work is in progress.”
“Please wait here whilst your order is being processed.”
 And a very familiar recorded telephone message: “Please hold the line whilst we try to connect you”.
American readers will find “whilst” merely quaint, and possibly affected, but on this side of the pond there's a terrible tendency to prefer “whilst” to “while”, especially in public notices. It's not simply that “whilst” is outdated, it comes with a certain hidebound attitude – prim, supercilious, self-righteous.
Compare  “amongst”, “betwixt”, “unbeknownst”.
Especially “unbeknownst”. They all share – for me at least – a false Arthurian whiff, a saloon-bar, fake bonhomous resonance, something that implies thoughtful reflection and careful discrimination and eloquence but usually expresses the opposite. (I am relieved to be informed by the editors at the TLS that the “st” of “whilst” and “unbeknownst” are dropped as a matter of house style – and that “betwixt” is never used, on pain of summary sacking.)
Perhaps I am too sensitive. But then as Professor Liberman points out, word aversion isn’t rational. If you’re wavering about usage, the advice from Wikipedia is reasonable enough, and runs thus: 
“If you’re unsure which to use, choose ‘while’ (especially if you're an American).” 
Or, if you prefer: don’t use “whilst” unless you want to sound like a camp commandant in a Martin Amis novel. 

Sunday, 20 November 2016

Writers on film

Author sightings in film. Three examples come to mind:

Dylan Thomas can be glimpsed in a crowd scene shot on Pendine Sands, near Swansea for the 1951 film Pandora and the Flying Dutchman starring Ava Gardner and James Mason, directed by Alfred Lewin and with cinematography by the great Jack Cardiff. Thomas is little more than a blur in a brown suit, but it's him alright. The discovery caused a ripple of excitement as (rather surprisingly) no moving images of the poet were known to exist. You should be able to find the clip online.

T. S. Eliot appeared in front of the camera in a short 1936 documentary called Cover to Cover, a production sponsored by The National Book Council, directed by Alexander Shaw and with a commentary written by the superbly-named Igenlode Wordsmith. It depicts the production of an imaginary novel from the completion of the manuscript to its arrival in a bookshop. Eliot is the only poet - and only modernist - in a group of writers speaking straight to camera, and this is what he says, in full:

It’s no more use trying to be traditional than it is trying to be original. Nobody invents very much, but there is one thing to be said for contemporary poetry that can’t be said in favour of any other, and that is that it is written by our contemporaries.

This deadpan observation was made at a time when most contemporary poets were not writing modern poetry at all and were, if anything, fiercely opposed to the experimental. The other writers featured in Cover to Cover were Dame Rebecca West  ('It is quite true that great writers have more often been men than women. But then, you see, women have other work to do.'), Somerset Maugham (then the most famous living author in the English-speaking world) and the Punch humorist A. P. Herbert, all stolid embodiments of the anti-modernist tendency in English letters. 

And finally, and best of all for my money, there's the appearance, unnoticed until more than sixty years after the film's release, of Raymond Chandler in a scene from Double Indemnity (1944), the noir masterpiece for which he co-wrote the script with the director Billy Wilder. Walter Neff (played by Fred McMurray) leaves his boss's office in the insurance company for which he works and walks along a mezzanine past a bilious-looking bespectacled character reading a magazine. That's Chandler. And if you tell me that Chandler's not a poet I'll sock you in the kisser, pal. Watch it here.

Saturday, 19 November 2016

You say 'ceramics'

The American novelist Elizabeth McCracken once tweeted:

My new affectation is going to be pronouncing MacBook as though it were a Scottish surname,  as an iamb & not a spondee.

This immediately reminded of a favourite scene in Howard Hawk's movie The Big Sleep (1946), a film made up entirely of favourite scenes. It was the director's first movie and was based on Raymond Chandler's second novel, published in 1939. The screenplay was by William Faulkner, mostly. The scene I'm thinking of climaxes, improbably, in two different pronunciations of the word 'ceramics' - as a dactyl (wrongly stressing the first syllable) and as an amphibrach (correctly stressing the second).

The private detective Philip Marlowe (played by Humphrey Bogart) is investigating a crooked bookseller called Arthur. Gwynne Geiger. Fans of the film and lovers of Chandler's novel will know why. We see Marlowe in the Hollywood Public Library, consulting a book about collecting rare first editions. Marlowe in a library is (to use Raymond Chandler's odd simile from Farewell, My Lovely) "about as inconspicuous as a tarantula on a slice of angel food". His researches complete he hands the thick volume over to a female librarian who says "You know, you don't look like a man who would be interested in first editions." To which Marlowe replies, as he sidles away:

"I collect blondes and bottles, too."

His unambiguous masculinity thus established we cut to the street, outside A. G. Geiger's bookstore. In Chandler's novel Marlowe says:"I put my voice high and let a bird twitter in it." In the film Bogie flips up the brim of his hat, puts on some sunglasses and adopts a prissy, high-pitched lisp. You can watch the ten-second scene here.

The exchange between Marlowe and the hard-boiled faux-bookseller Agnes Lowzell (played by Sonia Darrin) is worth setting out in full - an almost a verbatim lift from the dialogue in Chandler's novel. All that's lost is Marlowe's sardonic description of her ('She approached me with enough sex appeal to stampede a business men's lunch').

AGNES: Can I be of any assistance?

MARLOWE: Uh, yes. Would you happen to have a Ben Hur, 1860?

AGNES: Of what?

MARLOWE: Would you happen to have a Ben Hur, 1860?

AGNES: Oh. A first edition?

MARLOWE: (tutting impatiently) No, no, no, no, no. Third, third, the one with the erratum on 
page one-sixteen.

AGNES: I'm afraid not.

MARLOWE: How about a Chevalier Audubon 1840, the full set of course?

AGNES: Not at the moment.

MARLOWE (peering over his sunglasses):  You do sell books, hmm?

AGNES (gesturing) : What do those look like, grapefruit?

[They bicker briefly and Marlowe asks to see Geiger, the proprietor.]

AGNES: I said Mr. Geiger is not in.

MARLOWE: I heard you. You shouldn't yell at me. Now I'm already late for  my lecture on Argentine cera-mics. I guess I won't wait.

AGNES: The word is cer-a-mics. And they ain't Argentine. They're Egyptian.

MARLOWE: You did sell a book once, didn't you?

Dialogue © Warner Brothers / The Estate of Raymond Chandler

As thunder rumbles on the soundtrack he leaves the shop and crosses the road to the Acme Bookstore, there to encounter Dorothy Malone, one of the few women in Hollywood who could give Lauren Bacall a run for her money. Marlowe quizzes her about the same two books and, without even troubling to look them up, she confirms her expertise by saying that no bookseller would have them for sale, leaving us to infer that such editions don't exist.

She's right on both counts. There never was a Ben-Hur 1860 with an erratum on page 116. Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ by Lew Wallace was first published twenty years later, in 1880. There was no erratum on page 116 of the third edition (and why even the most obsessive bibliophile should be so keen on that hypothetical edition is part of the fun). 

A Chevalier Audubon 1840 is  another dead-end, as a cursory glance at the Wikipedia entry will confirm. There is no such thing as a Chevaller Audubon 1840.

The set-up in The Big Sleep is wonderful: the idea, first of all, that Bogie's Marlowe goes to the Hollywood public library not to research first editions but to pick up the language used by collectors, then to use it in a kind of double-bluff.

It could be that, having established to his and our satisfaction that Geiger's operation is not wholly legitimate, he brazenly signals his strategic deception by deliberately mispronouncing 'ceramics' (with that stress on the first syllable); allowing her to correct him and crushingly clarify the precise type of ceramics featured in the lecture for which he claims to be late.

Back to MacCraken's iambs and spondees. As a child I recall being entranced by the word 'Entrance' which appeared etched on the glass door of a department store in our seaside town. I've ever since been particularly aware of such shifts in stress patterns, in such commonplace words as the verb and noun forms of 'record'. And I remember being startled on hearing Glenda Jackson's emphasis on the second syllable of 'oregano' in the film A Touch of Class (1973). She won that year's Academy Award for best actress. 

Some stress patterns change over time and it may be a generational marker. I was taken aback recently by a distingusihed TLS staffer, one to whose literary and linguistic standards I always happily defer, who insisted that 'biopic' should be stressed on the second syllable, to rhyme with 'myopic'. Words fail me.