Monthly Archives: December 2012

Paxman and the Angels

‘Samson wis a mighty man

he fought wi the cuddy’s jaws

he fought ten thoosan battles

in his crimson flannel drawers’

In the Bible, Samson is conceived by a woman previously thought barren and becomes a notable hero of Israel, smiting the Philistines before falling from grace through his infatuation with Delilah, which leaves him ‘eyeless in Gaza at the mill with slaves’ – from where he makes a rousing final comeback which literally brings the house down.

It might seem a long step from Samson to Test cricket, though to be sure, he would be a mighty run-maker, smiting his opponents hip and thigh to all corners of the ground with his patent ass’s jawbone bat (not that Test cricket is all about scoring runs, as we shall see). However, it was not his imagined prowess at the crease that prompted me to make the connection, but rather the angel that announced his nativity.

Samson is not alone in having his birth heralded by an angel: there is Isaac, and John the Baptist, both likewise born to women thought past childbearing age, and of course Jesus himself. One view might be that such angelic annunciations must be a great boon, not only reassuring the prospective mother of her offspring’s future greatness, but also announcing it to the public at large, or at least anyone in the vicinity (and word would surely spread); but modern readers might make them grounds for scepticism.

That is what set me thinking about Test cricket. At the start of the week, an irate listener texted the BBC to deplore the glacial rate at which England captain Alistair Cook and his partner were scoring runs on the penultimate day of the fourth and final Test in India. This complaint earned a swift rebuke from one more knowledgeable -‘You haven’t really grasped Test cricket, have you? Why should England jeopardise all the good work of the past few days – and with it, the series – in pursuit of runs they do not need? This isn’t tedious – it’s enthralling: Test cricket of the very highest order.’

The first man thought he knew what cricket was all about – scoring runs and taking wickets – and seeing neither happen here, concluded it was tedious. The second, watching the same action, was able to relate it to the wider context of the match (where England had a slender lead) and the series (which they led 2-1) and see it for what it was – a situation balanced on a knife-edge, a titanic struggle with one side determined to stay in, and the other trying all they knew to get them out. Runs did not matter; what counted was wickets. If England could keep theirs intact, the game would be drawn and the series won, the first such victory in 27 years.

The first man’s error is an interesting one: I think it has a parallel in the reading of stories, especially nowadays, when we (in the ‘West’ at least) have lost the habit of storytelling and are apt to confuse it with other things, like news reports or historical records (I feel there is another parallel here, in the way that photography has obscured our understanding of painting, but that is a subject for another day). Some people might seize on the angel in the story of Samson (and the others) as grounds for doubting its veracity; others, equally, might assert that the mention of the angel (in a sacred text) is proof that such beings exist. Both, I think, are mistaken, in a similar way to the man complaining about slow scoring in the Test match: they don’t understand what they’re talking about.

Stories are retrospective, in the sense that (regardless of how they are told) they look back over a sequence of events which form a whole of some sort: in other words, they are complete, and have unity. That is what makes them stories, and distinguishes them from life, at least as we experience it, from its midst. The beginning of a story can only be fully understood with reference to its end: why it begins where and as it does. Those of us who make our trade in writing stories know that the beginning is often the last part to receive its final form. (There is a parallel here with music, and the opening bars of a symphony, say – once we are familiar with the piece as a whole, we listen with greater understanding – indeed, our understanding of how each part works to create the whole may deepen with every hearing – and that capacity to give more each time is a good index of great art).

I can imagine how some might find this explanation exasperating.

[enter Jeremy Paxman, looking inquisitorial, a sheaf of papers in his hand.]

‘So, Mr Ward, was there an angel?’

‘There was an angel in the story.’

‘But was there an angel?’

‘In the story? Yes, there was.’

‘Never mind about the story! Just answer ‘yes’ or ‘no’ – was there an angel?’

‘Jeremy, that is like saying, ‘never mind the Test series, why aren’t they scoring runs?’

(Paxman looks blank)

‘Let me put it another way, Mr Ward, was there really an angel?’

‘Yes, there really was an angel in the story.’

‘Forget about the story! If I was walking past Samson’s mother’s house some nine months before his birth and looked in at the window, would I have seen an angel, yes or no?’

‘That is a hypothetical question.’

‘So there was no angel then?’

‘Why do you think that matters?’

(spluttering) ‘It matters because if there was no angel, then the story isn’t true!’

‘I don’t follow you.’

(patiently, as to a slow-witted child) ‘The story says there was an angel. Now either there was an angel, or there wasn’t. If there wasn’t, then the story isn’t true.’

‘How do you make that out?’

(splutters)‘Because the story says there was one!’

‘Ah!’ (slow-dawning-of-the-light face) ‘I don’t think you’ve got that quite right, Jeremy. The story doesn’t say ‘there was an angel’.’

‘It doesn’t?’

‘No, the story says there was a man -’

‘A man?’

‘Yes. A man called Samson, who was an extraordinary fellow.’

‘But what about the angel?’

‘Well, that heralded his birth, as befits an extraordinary fellow.’

‘But you said there wasn’t an angel!’

‘No, no. I never said that -’

‘You did! Just now – (checks notes, reads triumphantly) “the story doesn’t say there was an angel.’’’

‘Ah! You’ve misunderstood. The story doesn’t say, ‘there was an angel,’ the story says, ‘there was a man – called Samson, an extraordinary man, so extraordinary that his very conception was heralded by an angel.’

‘So you’re saying there was an angel, then?’

‘Yes. In the story. I thought we’d established that?’

(with a great effort of self control) ‘But what about outside the story?’

‘There is no outside the story. The angel only makes sense within the context of the story, just as Alistair Cook’s innings makes sense only within the Test match and the Test series. Just as a particular sequence of notes has its meaning only within and as part of the symphony of which they are the opening bars.’

(Paxman, shaking his head in disbelief) ‘that’s it – we’re out of time!’

(gathers up his papers and withdraws, muttering)

‘Why can’t he just give a straight answer to a simple question? grrrrr’

[door slams]

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SET OUT YOUR STALL (first published in The Author, winter 2012)

The editorial in the autumn issue [of The Author] seemed to me as incoherent and

confused in its argument as the image that concluded it: ‘writers

must dig their heels in, stick to their knitting, and stick to their

guns.’

What, all at once?

The gist of what was said is this: times are changing, but we

shouldn’t; we should stick to what we have always done, because

only the few can hope for success from self-publishing; without

middlemen to arbitrate, we would have to rely on the slenderest

chance that our work would reach its public; we do not yet know

who these arbiters will be, so we must insist (how? to whom?)

that our work is valued, and not give it away or price it low; we

should knit ourselves guns, nerve our heels, etc.

But the faults attributed to the changed situation are the very

ones that bedevil us now, namely that few have a chance of

success, and that for most of us, the prospect of reaching the

public is dependent on fortune more than merit. And sticking to

what we have always done just means resigning to others the

responsibility for investing in our work and profiting from it.

What is overlooked is the real potential for change that now

exists thanks to something mistakenly dismissed as fantasy.

Writers can now reach their readers directly, and many do, via

websites, blogs, Twitter and Facebook, often in combination,

and not at their publisher’s behest but on their own account; in

this, they are no different from hundreds of other entrepreneurs

in other lines of business who have found that they can open a

shop online and sell anything from bicycle components to artisan

leatherwork around the world without the need for premises on

the high street. The only difference is that writers (one hopes)

might have an edge in skill and imagination when it comes to

presenting their wares.

This is not the same as self-publishing, but it is the

precondition for it. If I make my shopfront sufficiently attractive

and interesting, and take the trouble to find out how best to direct

my target audience to it, people will come just as surely as they

will to skilled online retailers of other goods. What I then sell

them is up to me: certainly I can give them enough of a flavour of

my wares to let them know what is on offer. With no great

expenditure, I can produce – without recourse to anyone –

ebooks that can be read on any available machine, and I can price

them as I see fit. If I prefer, I can enter into partnership with a

printer and produce my own physical books and sell them the

same way. That will cost me upfront, just as it would to buy in any

other goods that I hope to sell on at a profit.

The assertion that ‘without mediation, the aptly named

“information overload” will overwhelm us all’ is another instance

of presenting as a future threat what already exists as a present

reality. It is the mediators – publishers, agents, reviewers – who

are already overwhelmed and without any certain way of

identifying what is worth reading from the vast tide of

submissions that come their way. Tales of famously successful

works that were rejected numerous times are too well-known to

need repeating, while a visit to any bookshop will show that even

for those works that do reach the shelves, the quality is widely

variable. The system is not in danger of becoming dependent on

serendipity: it already is.

There is a confused notion that the middlemen and arbiters are

performing a service for the public (and writers) by sorting the

gold from the dross: what they are actually doing is trying to

make money by picking winners with inadequate equipment

from an impossibly wide field of runners. It is in their interest to

pick a book that they think the public will buy, and having picked

it, they will make every effort to sell it, with the more powerful

able to command far greater resources than the lesser firms.

But it is the public, as Johnson may have said, who are the

ultimate judges: if they are pleased, it is well; if they are not, there

is little profit in telling them why they should have been. So why

bother to second-guess them? Set out your stall and see what they

think.

What now exists – that did not before – is the means not only

for writers to communicate direct with readers, but for any who

love books to tell the world what delights them. Forget the sideissue

of dismally repetitious and potentially faked Amazon

reviews; go and look at the independent blogs and websites of

literate people who love reading books and like talking about

them. They, not Amazon, agents or high street bookshops, will

be the new arbiters: people will very soon find those whose

judgement they trust.

So, put down your knitting, put away your gun, get on your

toes and take a look at what a lot of independent artists are

already doing online; find out about e-publishing formats and

what you need to produce them; research websites and crowdfunding

(remember publishing by subscription? Same thing)

then invite a group of your fellow writers to form a co-operative,

and go and speak to a local printer or artisan bookmaker; and

make a beeline for any local shops that might sell books – not all

of them will be bookshops, but if they showcase local artists on

the wall, they may be open to putting local writers on the counter.

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‘Them was the beds I saw!’ (as th’oul’ gunnock said)

When young, my brother and I had a book called (I think) The Prophecies of the Brahan Seer (indeed I believe it was this one), which dealt with the life (and somewhat unpleasant death) of Kenneth Mackenzie, also known as Coinneach Odhar or the Brahan seer, who was celebrated for having what in the Highlands is called ‘the second sight.’

It came to my mind because of a family saying associated with it, which seems to me to shed light on some of the things I have been thinking and writing about, particularly in relation to language and metaphor.

The family saying, ‘Them was the beds I saw’ (as th’oul’ gunnock said) is best explained by giving its history. I had thought it had its origin in the Brahan Seer book, but since that was written in 1899, I think it could only have been in some later commentary added to the text, perhaps as a footnote. As I remember, this concerned a man who was credited with having the second sight. In his youth, he had a dream of looms flying in the air; in his old age he lived long enough to see the first primitive aircraft thrashing through the sky, all wings and wire and canvas and whirling propellers. Whereupon he asserted, pointing at them, ‘those were the looms I saw!’

(By the same whim of disrespectful youth that branded the gentleman ‘an old gunnock’ we converted ‘looms’ to ‘beds’ for no better reason than to mock further one we clearly thought an old chancer, desperate to get credit for his ‘gift’ on the strength of a highly fanciful resemblance. From then on, any attempt to ‘draw the long bow’ or tell a tall tale on the part of one of us would be met by the other’s pointing at some wholly unbedlike object and proclaiming, in a rustic peasant accent, ‘them was the beds I saw!’)

Now that I am getting on myself I feel that old gentlemen should perhaps be treated with more respect; in any case, I think the story casts light on a number of things now of interest to me.

First, it touches on the ambivalent nature of ‘seeing as’ which I began to deal with here. But it also touches on another ambiguity which might not seem relevant, though I think it is, namely the different senses in which we use the words ‘prophecy’ and ‘prophet’.

It is evident that in our youth we were deeply sceptical both about this man’s supposed gift and the sincerity of his claim to have predicted the coming of the aeroplane – and of course, the two go together: if you don’t believe it possible to foresee the future – or that a particular person can – then you will approach anything that is offered as proof of that with a mind already closed and looking to find ways to ridicule and dismiss it.

As a matter of fact, I think we were willing to entertain the general possibility of seeing into the future, if only because it made life seem more exciting; but about this man, we clearly had our doubts, and thought his identification of a loom and an aeroplane more than far-fetched.

I have to say now that I think we were a little hard on him. As I said elsewhere Vita Sackville-West defined metaphor as ‘expressing the unknown… in terms of the known concrete.’ Now here is a man who knew nothing of aeroplanes but was familiar with looms, who has a dream of some complicated machinery flying in the air – it seems perfectly reasonable that he will describe them in those terms.

What interests me here is the twofold process, first of interpreting something you do not understand in terms that you do (and the limitations that imposes), next of recognising that same thing in an unexpected guise, and identifying the two.

It seems to me that the very ambiguity that here makes ‘seeing as’ vulnerable to scoffing – that it leaves open the possibility of interpreting any future event as the fulfilment of any past prediction (and we see this in play with notoriously obscure predictors like Nostradamus) – can also be a strength: it allows us to accept that our expectations may be satisfied in a wholly unexpected way; it gives us flexibility and interpretation as weapons against a rigid dogmatism (often backed by vested interest) which insists that ‘this, and only this, is what is meant here.’

Where we need such flexibility is at exactly the point where we have begun to outgrow ideas that are important to us – or, more accurately, have lost our sense of the language they are expressed in. These ideas have been valuable to us, they inform our culture and we have a strong attachment to them, yet now they have begun to seem hidebound, mere empty words; we can no longer relate to them. Is our only option to abandon them (and all that they stand for) or can they be revived, refreshed? we might find an answer if we think a bit more about the old man and his looms. In his youth, the man interprets his dream in the only terms that make sense at the time: what he dreamt was complex machinery that flew through the air; the only complex machinery that he and his neighbours know is the loom; so that is how he describes his dream to them.

We could imagine that a cult might grow up, predicated on the man’s dream, so that people live in daily expectation of seeing looms in the sky; they invest a great deal of emotional and intellectual energy in it, discussing it, writing poetry about it, painting pictures, writing songs and music – and because they know a great deal more about looms than they do about aerial flight, it would be no surprise to find that the loom-like aspect of the vision predominates and features in all sorts of elaborations derived from it, perhaps about the wondrous material that will be woven on these aerial looms, and the properties that might have.

Against that background, picture what happens on the day the loom-cult-folk are out on the hillside at their toil (cutting peat, probably) when of a sudden a great noise makes them all look up and over the brow of the hill comes a fantastic contraption, a Bristol Boxkite perhaps, accompanied by an equally fantastical Avro Triplane. The pilots give a cheery wave as they sweep overhead at no great height. The old man, now revered as the founder of their cult, dozing amid the bog-cotton, squints upwards from his deckchair at the sound, then cries out, with a laugh of recognition, ‘those were the looms I saw!’

Consternation! one can imagine that a great many people will not be pleased, the marvel of the aircraft notwithstanding. ‘Those are not looms,’ they will say. ‘We know what looms look like! and where is the wondrous sky fabric that was to be woven on them?’ It may be that among them weaving has become a very profitable activity on account of the curious cult that attaches it, and people come from far and wide to buy their products. Now, with this frankly insane outburst from their revered – but, it must be said, somewhat senile and doddery – founder, all that is in jeopardy. Those people will be more likely to hush the old man up and lock him away – ‘for his own good’ – than pay heed to what he says.

But there will be some – delighted, perhaps, by the sheer marvel of the aeroplane – who take the old man’s part, and insist on the legitimacy of his interpretation – ‘yes, we can see it like that, that is what it meant all along.’ To them, all the weaving lore and the rest will fall away like so much chaff, a discarded husk now seen as of no relevance: they will be for building an aeroplane factory or becoming pilots; they will see that it was not weaving but flight that was the thing of real significance; they will alter their poetry, their music and their art accordingly.

Hmm. I think there might be the possibility of a short story there, or better still, a film. As for prophecy and the second sight, that will have to wait till another day –  yet there is a curious link to them, in the person of JW Dunne, an Irish aeronautical engineer and pioneer aviator, who enjoyed a great vogue at one time for his attempt to provide a theoretical footing for his personal experiences of prescience in dreams, An Experiment with Time.

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