Monday, January 11, 2016
I know. I suppose everyone will want to have their say about David Bowie, which goes to show what an important influence he has been.
The very first song I heard by David Bowie on Australian radio, and the first to which I attached his name, was ‘Queen Bitch’, from the ‘Hunky Dory’ album. A song with the words ‘queen’ and ‘bitch’ in the title? Would that get airplay in the US even today?
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo
Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low
’Cause she’s hoping to score, so I can’t see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart, walk out of her mind, oh not her
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that
She’s an old-time ambassador of sweet-talking, night-walking games
And she’s known in the darkest clubs for pushing ahead of the dames
If she says she can do it, then she can do it, she don’t make false claims
But she’s a queen and such are queens that your laughter is sucked in their brains
Now she’s leading him on, and she’ll lay him right down
Yes, she’s leading him on, and she’ll lay him right down
But it could have been me, yes, it could have been me
Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that
So I lay down a while and I gaze at my hotel wall
Oh, the cot is so cold it don’t feel like no bed at all
Yeah, I lay down a while and I look at my hotel wall
And he’s down on the street, so I throw both his bags down the hall
And I’m phoning a cab ’cause my stomach feels small
There’s a taste in my mouth and it’s no taste at all
It could have been me, oh yeah it could have been me
Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no
She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that
What the hell was this song about? It was 1972, I was fifteen years old and I didn’t have a clue. But I knew that it was in some way subversive, and I was hooked. Here was my Elvis, my Beatles or my Rolling Stones: someone my parents would hate.
I was (as usual) a bit behind the times. There were other songs—‘Changes’, ‘Starman’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Space Oddity’—that other people apparently already knew. I was a nerdy, fifteen-year-old sci-fi geek, and here was the stranger in a strange land himself; here was the real Valentine Michael Smith. Those weirdly alien-sounding vocals, the bizarre haircut and make-up, the outrageous costumes. ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. It was all there. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ remains—and I don’t think this will be widely disputed—one of the greatest albums of all times.
Over the years David Bowie continued to evolve and experiment, to excite, baffle and disappoint his fans. I suspect all those who count David Bowie among their favourite recording artists will have their favourite era. This will probably be the era in which they first discovered him. He continued to re-invent himself, never content with the success of the past, never content just to repeat himself, never content to simply please his existing fan base. I always wanted everything David Bowie did to be touched with genius, but not all of it was, of course. I hate some of what he did. But he never gave up. He kept coming back. The ‘plastic soul’ era; the Berlin era; the ‘Metal Machine’ era; the ‘Scary Monsters’ era; the ‘new wave/pop’ era. I didn’t like everything he did; but someone else always did.
Then, later in life, in 2002, he surprised me with what I think is one of his best albums, ‘Heathen’. The next two were not so much to my taste. And the latest, ‘Blackstar’, released on his sixty-ninth birthday, just a couple of days before his death? Weird, certainly. I may hate it. I’m not sure. But, once again, he was David Bowie being out there, very much a stranger in a strange land.
There is, of course, much more to David Bowie’s life and career: his collaborations, his movies, his artwork, his internet savviness. He was always the consummate market expert, even down to the timing of his death. Love it or hate it, ‘Blackstar’ is almost guaranteed to become a classic.
David Bowie was my voice in the early years of the nineteen seventies. He expressed for me all the weirdness I was too timid to express myself. Over the years, even during those eras when I didn’t particularly like his work, he was never far from my thoughts. I always had an eye out for news about him. He has accompanied me through life since I was fifteen years old. He is the ultimate icon for my generation. The deaths of very few celebrities have moved me personally. The death of David Bowie has. I feel I have lost a friend and companion this day.
Sunday, January 10, 2016
Every now and then a new application pops up that will claim to make you a better writer, or that will offer to edit your work for you. Of course, MS Word itself offers to do some of this, with its spell checker and grammar checker, and I think we all know that the results are chequered at best.
I came across an app recently: the ‘Hemingway App.’ It claims ‘to make your writing bold and clear’. It does this by pointing out what sentences it considers hard to read or very hard to read; phrases that have simpler alternatives; the number of adverbs (of which it will specify what it considers to be a suitable number for a piece of writing of that length); and uses of the passive voice. It is called the ‘Hemingway App’ because Hemingway is so often held up as a writer whose writing is ‘bold and clear’, a paragon for all writers since. He is often cited by those whose aim is the extinction of adverbs. Once you begin to look more closely at Hemingway’s writing, of course, it becomes clear this his writing is far from always ‘bold and clear’; nor does he particularly shy away from the use of adverbs.
Any piece of software like this is just begging to be put to the test, and this can be done on their web site here: http://www.hemingwayapp.com. Text can be entered and subjected to scrutiny. Naturally, the first author anyone is going to subject to this analysis will be Hemingway himself. Here is the opening paragraph of For Whom the Bell Tolls:
He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.
The first thing the app does is identify three out of four sentences as ‘hard to read’. Erm, well … Either the software can’t count or it is not able to identify sentences very well. There are only three sentences here. Perhaps the app doesn’t know what semi-colons are. Nevertheless, it highlights the whole passage as ‘hard to read’. Hard for whom, one wonders. It identifies ‘gently’ as an adverb and advises its removal. Really? ‘The mountainside sloped where he lay’ would be an improvement? What mountainside doesn’t slope? So, remove an adverb and generate a tautology. The point is that it slopes gently here and not precipitously. The app apparently has no problem with this sentence opener: ‘There was a stream alongside the road …’ I would consider this passive, but the app doesn’t. As an editor I would change this to: ‘A stream ran alongside the road …’ So … not a great start for the app.
It rated this passage a ‘ten’ (good). The lower the rating, the higher the readability, apparently. It goes up to twenty-four. Even the lowest rating of ‘one’, however, is still only ‘good’.
Here’s a passage from a Hemingway short story:
I guess looking at it now my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty of weight then. I remember the way he’d pull on a rubber shirt over a couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that, and get me to run with him in the forenoon in the hot sun. He’d have, maybe, taken a trial trip with one of Razzo’s skins early in the morning after just getting in from Torino at four o’clock in the morning and beating it out to the stables in a cab and then with the dew all over everything and the sun just starting to get going, I’d help him pull off his boots and he’d get into a pair of sneakers and all these sweaters and we’d start out.
The app gave this a grade of twenty (poor). That it may be—we are harsh critics—but the point of including it here is to consider adverbs more closely. I have highlighted the adverbs; I see ten of them. The app identified one: roly. Which, of course, isn’t an adverb. (Is it even a word without its ‘poly’ partner?) So … the software doesn’t appear to know what an adverb is.
Finally, who could resist entering some gibberish.
Me thinks this um piece of software is crap. But it likum this. Car happy not today. Me good writer ugh.
This (apparently) is a Grade 1 (but still only ‘good’) piece of writing, with no issues at all. Now I understand what I have been doing wrong.
Some might advise caution when using, or even considering purchasing, the Hemingway App. I would never do that, of course.
[By the way, this post rated ‘seven’. I’m not at all sure that I should be happy about that!]
Tuesday, December 29, 2015
This is an interesting book and worth persisting with, despite the flaws that I will mention in a moment. It is difficult to allocate it to a genre. I suppose it fits into the ‘literary fiction’ catchall, but that doesn’t say much. There is almost an air of magical realism about the book. I say ‘almost’, because the elements that contribute to this impression turn out to have a logical explanation: for example, a prisoner finding writing upon the wall of a prison cell that relates directly to his own life. For a moment the laws of nature appear fragile. Almost.
The story begins with a family situation, Howard and his parents, which ends with a death. This then segues into the trial of a young man, Ethan, for murder; he is suspected of being a notorious serial killer. The connection between these two parts of the story is not immediately obvious. This then segues into the story of Jack, which is written by Jack himself on the walls of Ethan’s cell. This, then, becomes a first person narrative, whereas the surrounding story is in the third person. Again, the connection of this story with the other stories is not immediately apparent, but gradually emerges. This is a very successful and clever device, despite the apparent implausibility. Then the different strands of the story begin to interact and are skilfully woven together. Even minor characters in the story—a lawyer, a policeman, a forensic investigator—find their place in the back story that emerges.
This is cleverly done, and I think it works, although I did at times find myself a little confused, wondering if the ‘Matt’ (for example) mentioned at this part of the story was the same as the ‘Matt’ mentioned earlier. I think I had it sorted in the end, although one or two nagging doubts about who was who, when and where, remained.
The characters are well drawn and complex. I particularly liked the character of Jack, whose story is written on the cell wall. I am not always a fan of first person narration, but I think this works particularly well. The writing of this particular stream of the narrative was also of a higher quality.
This brings me to the major flaws of the book. In many places the English is very poor. There is poor grammar and incorrect word choice. I imagine that English is not the author’s first language. Several times, particularly early on, I almost gave up on the book because of this, although I am glad that I didn’t. The language at times is excessively flowery, and the characters and narrator are sometimes prone to lapsing into philosophical discourses. This may work well with an Indian audience (the author was born in India) but less so with a Western audience. Although there are still flaws in the ‘Jack’ narrative, I thought the writing was of a higher quality, at times even acquiring a certain beauty.
Many will be put off by the flaws in the writing, or will not have the patience to wait for the strands of the story to be woven together; but those who persist to the end will, I think, be pleased with the result.
I have decided to no longer rate books using the star system. I don't think it is helpful.
Thursday, December 17, 2015
The former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, recently stated in an article in an Australia newspaper: ‘Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.’
Where to begin with the issues raised by a comment like this?
First of all, I want to make some obvious points, which nevertheless are rarely made. What we believe, we believe to be true. A tautology? Possibly. The point is that we believe ‘facts’, accept ideas, adopt values because we think they reflect reality at one level or another. Our world view is precisely that, an understanding of the world, because we think—at least at some level—that the world is really like that. (It is tempting to put so many of these words in quotation marks, because their meaning is so slippery and elusive.) We may not always be fully conscious or aware of our own basic world view, but it is there if we dig deeply enough.
So, if I believe that the world is created by a supreme, divine being who has some purpose for this world and for me personally, it is an inevitable corollary of this that I think those who don’t believe in such a being are mistaken. Their view of the world is inaccurate, inappropriate—in some way ‘inferior’ to mine—if the superiority of a belief system is measured in terms of how accurately it reflects ‘reality’. (Here come those damn quotation marks again!)
If we hold to a particular view of the world (and who doesn’t?) it is, therefore, somewhat disingenuous to claim, for example, that all belief systems are ‘equally valid’. It is, of course, entirely possible to hold such a view, but it must, paradoxically, exclude those belief systems (most of them, I suspect) which don’t share it. We may acknowledge someone’s right to hold a view that is different to our own, but we nevertheless believe our own world view to be correct. At least provisionally correct; the best we can do at the moment. There remains here, at least, the acknowledgement that no world view is actually complete or perfect; that additional information may require us to modify that point of view; and that perhaps, on some issues at least, the jury is currently out. The more one is convinced of the truth (read ‘superiority’) of our own world view—some might say, the stronger our ‘faith’—the less room there is for such tolerance, ambiguity and uncertainty.
The second point I want to make I will pose as a question: what criteria can we use to evaluate a culture or world view? The difficulty here is that we can only do so from within our own. I know of no way to elevate ourselves above all cultures and adopt some entirely objective perspective. Consider the points I made in the previous paragraph. They reflect my world view. I believe that a certain humility vis à vis questions of truth is a good thing. I believe that some ambiguity and uncertainty about the nature of reality is inevitable. This is not true of all things. Some issues I believe to be settled. For me, the jury is not out on everything. With respect to those things about which my mind is firmly made up, I will be less tolerant of divergent opinions. I will acknowledge a person’s right to a different point of view, which is actually code for acknowledging their right to be wrong. But this acceptance of ambiguity and this (limited) tolerance of other points of view are not shared by everyone. There are plenty of belief systems in which doubt is anathema, in which truth is absolute and unambiguous. People hold to those views as firmly as I hold to mine, probably more so. Am I right, or are they right? Of course I think I am right. But is there some higher, objective position from which I can claim this with certainty? I don’t believe so. They probably do, and they call it god (by whatever name). So even the question of whether there is some higher, more objective perspective from which to determine ‘truth’ may or may not constitute part of someone’s world view. Herein lies the path to infinite regress.
I heard the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say the other day, with regard to diversity: ‘The elements on which we are similar are far greater than the elements on which we are diverse.’ I don’t doubt that this is true, in simple, quantitative terms. Nevertheless, it is always the differences that loom largest in our minds. We may agree about 99% of things, but it is the 1% about which we disagree that occupies our time and attention. Qualitatively, the one per cent comes to matter much more than the ninety-nine per cent. Is this something deeply ingrained in our psyche over the course of evolution? After all, it is precisely the differences between organisms that drive the process of evolution. Psychologically, I think it is very difficult to focus on the ninety-nine per cent and not be constantly drawn back to the one percent.
I always fall back on this position: while I cannot give definitive answers to questions such as these, I think it is important that they be raised. We need to bring questions like these to the forefront of our minds whenever we are considering the important issues with which the current social and political state of the world confronts us. We need to be aware of our own world view and its limitations. We need to acknowledge our own areas of doubt and uncertainty. At the same time, we need to be aware of the issues that are, in our mind, unambiguous and non-negotiable. We need to be aware of what constitute, for us, absolutes, while at the same time acknowledging our inability to justify their absolute status. In doing this we acknowledge the limits of our certitude without necessarily abandoning it. We need to be aware that we cannot transcend our own perspective. No matter how many steps we take along the infinite regress towards objectivity, we always remain securely ensconced within our own limited point of view.
Life is always much simpler for those who live in certainty and are guided by absolutes. Unfortunately, the world is also made more dangerous by them. As long as they live exclusively within a culture which shares their world view—they imagine such exists—everything is just peachy. When they come up against a world view that is different from theirs, war is inevitable.
If for no other reason than that it may help to avoid war and promote the survival of our species, I will advocate for uncertainty and ambiguity every time. This means, of course, that uncertainty and ambiguity are among my absolute non-negotiables. What happens when my belief system clashes with one in which these very things are totally anathema? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be at a dinner party with Tony Abbott and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At such a dinner party they might find themselves surprising allies against me.
Monday, December 14, 2015
What are filter words? These are words we, as writers, use to place a character as a filter between the reader and the experience of that character in the story we are writing. There are a whole host of such words and expressions, and the best way to understand their importance is to give some examples.
As she climbed over a pile of timber she noticed a sudden movement, which made her jump; then she laughed again. She saw a cat shoot out between her legs and run off into the distance, its left front leg dangling loosely. Near her, she watched one of the men begin to pull away bricks and lengths of timber and twisted metal. Kate watched him with intense interest. Then she saw another movement from the corner of her eye. A few feet in front of the man, she realised that some of the debris had begun to stir and fall away. Kate moved in that direction. From a small opening in the rubble she watched a hand emerge. Then an arm and a head. She thought it might have been something human. She decided to step towards it, watching curiously. She stared as the arm grabbed hold of a wooden beam and began to pull. Gradually she saw a body emerge, bloodied like a newborn. Then she watched it begin to crawl over the rubble towards her. The man who had been digging came over, pushed Kate aside, and knelt beside the figure, cradling it gently.
The shaded phrases in this passage are examples of words that act as filters. What does that mean? It means, first of all, that the experience of the reader is filtered through the experience of the character. The reader does not experience the event directly, but experiences the character’s experience of it. It means, secondly, that the attention of the reader is directed towards the character, rather than towards the scene. The reader is watching the character go through these experiences, rather than going through them him- or herself vicariously. ‘She saw a cat shoot out between her legs ...’ The reader is watching her see the cat, rather than watching the cat.
Here is the same passage without most of those filter words/phrases. Apart from anything else, the passage has 28 (14%) fewer words:
As she climbed over a pile of timber a sudden movement made her jump; then she laughed again. A cat shot out between her legs and ran off into the distance, its left front leg dangling loosely. Near her, one of the men began to pull away bricks and lengths of timber and twisted metal. Kate watched him with intense interest. Then another movement caught her eye. A few feet in front of the man, some of the debris began to stir and fall away. Kate moved in that direction. From a small opening in the rubble a hand emerged. Then an arm and a head. It might have been something human. She stepped towards it and watched curiously. The arm grabbed hold of a wooden beam and began to pull. Gradually a body emerged, bloodied like a newborn. Then it began to crawl over the rubble towards her. The man who had been digging came over, pushed Kate aside, and knelt beside the figure, cradling it gently.
In many cases, these filter words are simply redundant. ‘I felt a shiver run up my spine ...’ or ‘A shiver ran up my spine ...’? ‘He decided to go to the shops ...’ or ‘He went to the shops ...’? If a character goes to the shops, the reader can assume that at some point he decided to do so; the reader doesn’t need to be informed of this.
Note that filter words and phrases are used in first and third person narratives alike.
Avoiding these words and phrases should not be regarded as a hard and fast rule. There are sure to be places where their use is fine or even desired. I would simply encourage writers (1) to be aware when they are using these filters and (2) to ask if, in this case, they are necessary or desirable.
Here is a list of some of the words that can be used as filters. I’m sure you can think of others.
to feel (or feel like)
to sound (or sound like)
Wednesday, September 16, 2015
I am always hesitant to discuss Australian politics in this blog because most readers within Australia care only the tiniest fraction more about Australian politics than readers outside Australia. But am I completely deluding myself in believing that on Monday night, when Tony Abbott was dumped as PM, there was a spontaneous sigh of relief across the nation? And did I not, perhaps, hear an echo of that sigh from some of our nearest neighbours?
While I should have been working I have been trawling the internet in search of anything positive that might have been written about Abbott’s legacy. I came up with nothing, zippo, nada. Admittedly, I have not tuned in to any Andrew Bolts or Alan Joneses, Abbott’s rightwing media worshippers. Are they still trying to argue, I wonder, that Tone was a good PM? One rightwing conservative commentator on the TV show Q&A (ABC Australia) on Monday night tried to do so, to an outbreak of derisive laughter. In contrast, when the news of Abbott’s demise was announced on that same show there was a spontaneous outbreak of applause that lasted quite some time. Thirty-nine percent of the audience were supporters of the conservative coalition government led by Abbott.
Those desperate to demonstrate what a good PM he was will no doubt continue to trumpet his three negative achievements: preventing boatloads of asylum seekers from reaching Australian shores, abolishing a tax on carbon and abolishing a tax on large mining corporations. That’s it, the litany we heard on Abbott’s lips from the first few months of his prime ministership to its last days. Only about a week ago Abbott was asked on another ABC current affairs show what he had done for the economy. ‘Well, Lee,’ he replied, ‘we stopped the boats ...’
Abbott’s legacy is laughable. It’s difficult to see how history can ever be re-written on this one.
I do not know how the new PM, Malcolm Turnbull, will turn out in the long run. There is a slight euphoria in the air at the moment. Perhaps it’s no more than the sense of relief you get when you stop hitting your head against the wall. However short-lived, I’ll enjoy it for the moment. Of course, there are some who have unkindly pointed out that a turnip would have made a better PM than Tony Abbott ever did. Tony Abbot was so bad that anyone after him must look good—for a while anyway.
There are many who say of Tony Abbott that he is a ‘nice man’ or a ‘good bloke’. I don’t know him personally, so I can’t say one way or the other. Maybe Robert Mugabe and Vladimir Putin—or a host of other dubious leaders—are also good blokes. Bashar al Assad might be a riot around the BBQ. Hitler loved his dog, Blondi. And before you trample me under foot I am not comparing Abbott to these people. I am merely pointing out that even the worst among us is not devoid of some redeeming qualities. In the end, being a good bloke is simply not good enough: what we need is a good leader. Whether our new PM turns out to be that leader only time will tell. As someone who does not support the conservative side of politics (surprised?) I sincerely hope so.
Friday, September 11, 2015
Presenter: Welcome to the show, Prime Minister.
PM: Thanks for having me, Dee. Always a pleasure.
Presenter: Well, Prime Minister, the big news today, of course, is the ending, at last, of the Middle East crisis.
PM: Yes indeed, Dee, yes indeed. We’re very proud of our achievement. Very proud.
Presenter: It certainly was an inspired idea.
PM: Yes indeed, Dee. It was inspired. Inspired.
Presenter: And whose idea was it to construct a huge, impermeable dome above the whole Middle East and suck out all the air?
PM: Well, Dee, it was a team effort. We like to think, Dee, that, er, we played an important part in this, along with our allies, of course. We’re very proud to have made Australia—and the world, Dee, the world—a safer place. A safer place.
Presenter: But some of your critics will say that the people who actually lived there—many millions of innocent people—paid a terrible price for our safety. I think the opposition leader may have mumbled something to that effect.
PM: Yes, well, Dee, there will always be those ... We are tough on terrorism and evil-doers, Dee. If the opposition wants to be weak on terrorism, well ... We are tough on evil-doers, Dee. Tough. We’ve kept our promise to keep Australia safe.
Presenter: Prime Minister, now that the threat has been removed, I assume we will see some of the tougher laws on terrorism, and laws restricting our freedom—
PM: Well now, Dee. We can’t afford to be, er, we can’t afford to be complacent about these things. We can’t afford to be complacent.
Presenter: Does that mean that you won’t be winding back those laws?
PM: Well, er, Dee, we never know when or where the next threat might arise. We can’t afford to let down our guard.
Presenter: But, Prime Minister, where could such a threat possibly come from?
PM: Well, Dee, we are committed to injecting additional funding into our, er, national security agencies to find out just that, Dee.
Presenter: More money?
PM: Yes, Dee, it’s precisely at this point in time, at this point in time, that our national security needs boosting. We need to identify any potential threat and nip it in the bud, Dee, nip it in the bud.
PM: We will nip any potential threat in the bud, Dee.
Presenter: And have any potential threats been identified, Prime Minister?
PM: Well, Dee, you know, of course, that I’m not at liberty to discuss national security matters.
Presenter: So you will keep the existing legislation—
PM: In fact we have a whole raft of legislation, a whole raft of new legislation on the books, er, Dee.
Presenter: Like what, Prime Minister?
PM: Well, Dee, I can’t go into details at the moment, but suffice it to say, suffice it to say, that if we are going to be proactive, if we are going to nip potential threats in the bud, Dee, we need to introduce measures ...
Presenter: And when will we see these new measures?
PM: All in good time, Dee, all in good time. And we hope that the opposition will allow these measures through, allow them through, Dee, and not give succour to our potential enemies.
Presenter: And you can tell us nothing more specific about these threats or this legislation?
PM: Dee, we have a responsibility, a responsibility, to keep Australia safe. If we were to identify these potential threats, we would be warning them—warning those who wish Australia harm—that we were onto them, and giving them time to dig in. We can’t allow that. We can’t allow it.
Presenter: It’s difficult to see where such threats might come from, Prime Minister. Aren’t you just scaring people by talking up nebulous threats?
PM: Let me just say, Dee, let me just say, that it’s an awfully big universe out there, an awfully big universe, and we have to be prepared—prepared—for any eventuality.
Presenter: Thank you for your time, Prime Minister.
PM: Your welcome, Dee.