Everything but the Fuchsia

IMG_3344Only fuchsias are worth saving.

At a recent workshop run by my friend Nina she offered several sentences taken from gardening books as the prompt for a spell of writing.  While many of the sentences were amusing, in fact so deliciously amusing that we were a little at risk of spending too much time enjoying them, or wondering at their out of context profundity, than writing our own new words….. If you keep chicken you’re ahead of the game; spend as much as you can afford; this linguistic dithering is offensive and ought to be straightened out…… 

For me there was only one obvious choice.  Only fuchsias are worth saving.  It has a certain gnomic potency, a rule to live by……. something straight out of the screenplay for Being There.  It did however also generate an immediate picture in my head, and it was a picture of this fuchsia.  It’s a bold, rather brassy shrub, with large double purple and red flowers, ballerinas with full skirts, dancing in great troupes all summer long.  I now have a half written short story for which this was the jumping off point.

The weather this summer has been perfect for prolific flowers, and now I’ve overcome my childhood habit of popping the buds between my thumb and forefinger before they were ready, they are blooming in their own time.

Isn’t ‘fuchsia’ an interesting word?  It was only when I was writing this that I realised I didn’t know how to spell it.  According to one entry I found online (when I was checking) it is frequently misspelt fushcia, presumably by people like me, who sort of know the letters that are in there and try to arrange them so that they reflect the usual pronunciation.  And we’re all wrong.  But now, I think, I’ll remember it.  Maybe.

A Little Domesticty

IMG00719-20130114-1814I’m still having trouble with my internet connection, so the post today will of necessity be brief.  I’ve been indulging a little domestic tidying up.  Ironing isn’t my favourite activity; it may date back to the 1970s when I had to negotiated increases in pocket money with my father based on inflation and increased productivity (in my case doing the ironing), but however it arose, the consequence is that I dislike it.

This ironing board was particularly irksome as its cover kept rucking up in use; but look at the new cover I’ve found.  It’s too big, but it stays in place and it’s wordplay, which for the moment, is enough to at least make me use it for a short session, so at least I have smooth pillow cases on which to sleep.


Reflections – A Photo

IMG_1280The suggestion of ‘reflections’ for this week’s photo has come at an opportune time, when I have been reflecting on the future of this blog.

It’s not even that it’s an anniversary, unless 23 months could be treated like one or indeed unless 682 posts is some kind of landmark, but latterly I’ve been wondering at the diffuse nature of what I’ve been writing.  At the outset, the idea was to write something every day, and that exercise of itself, because I am so motivated by a deadline, brought out some interesting ideas.   Now I think I need to refocus again.

Bear with me in my reflecting phase.


Ailsa has suggested ‘mystical’ as a prompt for a travel photograph this week.  It is a word that sent me to the dictionary, as I had a feeling that it is one for which the meaning has subtly changed in recent years.  My Concise Oxford dates from 1976, when I received it for Christmas, so I knew would give me a base definition against which to test my supposition.

For mystical, its definition is ‘of mystics or mysticism; having direct spiritual significance’.

As an adjective it denotes spiritually allegorical or symbolic; occult, esoteric, or of hidden meaning.  A mystic, is one who seeks by contemplation and self surrender to obtain union with or absorption into the Deity, or who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond the understanding.  Hence mysticism (often derogatory).

For some reason, I like that ‘often derogatory’.

There is little mention of the mysterious or atmospheric with which we might associate the word today, although the allegorical, occult or the idea of hidden meaning, gives a hint of the trend in usage.

Focusing on the idea of spirituality, here is a head in St Margaret’s church in the grounds of Felbrigg Hall in Norfolk.  I don’t know who it is or why it’s on the wall in the church, but there is something satisfying about the simple lines and the smooth shapes, even if his flat head might only be for resting a candle on.

Rereading ‘one who believes in spiritual apprehension of truths beyond understanding‘ has a certain unexpected synchronicity in the wake of the discriminatory decision by the Church of England yesterday not to allow women to become bishops.  Mysticism in action?

Traveller or Tourist?

Are you a traveller or a tourist?  If an item I heard recently on a radio programme is to be believed, this is an extremely loaded question.  It seems that the majority of people who write about travel on their blogs describe themselves as ‘travellers’, and rarely as ‘tourists’.

A couple of things interested me about this report, and the interview with the academic sociologist who had undertaken research on the subject.  The first was the discovery that there was an academic sociologist making a study of travellers’ tales blogs. I’d never really thought about what such a researcher actually does, but if they can study this, there must be no end of things to which they might get to the bottom.

The second was that the research was done entirely by studying posts published in blogs; very specifically, the academic had no direct contact or conversation with any of the writers.  What she discerned from her reading was that those who believe themselves to be ‘travellers’ also believe they are having a more ‘authentic’ experience, and rather look down on ‘tourists’, which is generally used in a pejorative way.

By the written word shall ye be known.

My elderly Concise Oxford dictionary offers little help in distinguishing between the two vying words: to travel is to make a journey, especially one of some length to distant countries (and, to act as a commercial traveller, or door to door sales man), while a tourist is a person who makes a tour, traveller, especially for recreation; however ‘tourist class’ is the lowest class of passenger accommodation in ship train etc, and a ‘tourist trap’ is a place that exploits tourists.

I’ve never thought much about how I would describe myself when I am at large in the world; but now that I’ve posed the question, I think I’d say I’m a tourist when I travel through one place after another.  The subjective judgemental distinction I draw in not that between tourist and traveller, but between those who travel in a group, and those who do not.  I’ve done both, and there are advantages and disadvantages to each of them.

When I did my trip around the world on my own, I treated it as a full-time project, almost as a job of work, to do the research, see the site and record my impressions; periodically I joined a group, and felt like I was on a holiday, I had to pay much less attention, I went along with the flow, I did what I was told, I ate and slept when and where I was delivered.  I relaxed, until I started feeling antsy wanting to be on a solo jaunt again.

Recently I’ve been undertaking a periodic effort to visit places in London that are on the ‘tourist trail’ but which I’ve never been to before.  One noticeable thing about most of these outings is that, as a resident Brit, I have generally been in a minority; providing anecdotal evidence that we tend not to visit the sites of interest on our doorsteps.  If we didn’t go on a school trip we may never actually visit our own national patrimony.

The only occasions I can recall rejecting being designated a tourist was when I lived in Moscow.  At the time, the entry price for many museums and galleries was one thing for Russian residents and something 100 times greater for foreign tourists.  There was always a dispute at the ticket office and we would have to go to the supervisor’s office, show the residents stamps in our passports and argue that just because we were foreign didn’t mean we were in the tourists price category.

So what are you, tourist or traveller?  And what makes one experience more ‘authentic’ than another?


Scene: Interior, Sunday morning, rain beating against the window, fire in the grate.

S is sitting in an easy chair, her glasses on the end of her nose, pen in one hand folded newspaper in the other.  R is lying on the sofa, her feet resting over the arm, her eyes closed.

S reading intently: 12 down, Mathematician and physicist, born 1643, two words, 5 and 6.  I, three somethings, C, 6 blanks.

R: Yes.  We know that one.

S: Who?

R: Oh I can’t think of his name.  But, you know, the one who had the apple fall on his head……worked out gravity.

S: William Tell?

R:  No!

S: Doesn’t fit anyway.

R, sitting up: Newton!

S: I knew it was Isaac something.

Word for the Day

During his talk a few days ago, Richard Ford used the word fricative.  I don’t think I’d ever heard it before, but, from the sound of it, I felt that I knew straightaway what it meant.  It had to be something to do with the percussive sounds of consonants blown through with air, if the principles of onomatopoeia are worth anything.

Finally, yesterday I got round to looking it up in the dictionary, my parents’ well battered volume of the Oxford English, which does sterling service in support of checking spelling for their weekly crossword marathons, and just assisted me in the writing of onomatopoeia when the spellchecker let me down so woefully!

So, here you are: fricative, adjective denoting a type of consonant made by the friction of breath in a narrow opening, producing a turbulent air flow; noun, a consonant made in this way e.g. f and the.

Richard Ford used the word in the context of describing how he constructed what, for him, were the right sentences.  He reads out his work to hear the sound of it, to know that the flow has the rhythm and cadence he wants, and so that the fricatives are doing their work harmoniously.

But with the dictionary open, it was hard to resist the other words on the page.  Fricative comes after fricassee (a dish of stewed or fried pieces of meat served in a thick white sauce), and before friction (the resistance that one surface or object encounters when moving over another)….. and my favourites: fribble (noun, informal, a frivolous or foolish person), and friar’s balsam (a solution containing benzoin in alcohol, used chiefly as an inhalant), and Freudian slip (an unintentional error regarded as revealing subconscious feelings).

Now, to try and write a paragraph containing all of them…… any suggestions?

Olympic Time Wasting

These Olympics have become all rather time consuming, I am very surprised to confess.

I started out as a confirmed agnostic, and then accepted the invitation from friends to attend a couple of events early last week, so I would have my own Olympic experience, even though neither was at the newly constructed Park in Stratford.  My enjoyment of them was, I feel in the proper spirit of the Games,  of being not about the sport but about the taking part.

I’ve also one of the volunteer  games-makers staying with me for the duration, and so I’ve been taking a bit more of an interest in the television coverage than I might otherwise have.  I realised on Saturday night, when I was watching the athletics on my own and was on the edge of the sofa cheering Mo Farah across the line in the 10,000m, that I might have become a bit addicted to it all.

My interest lies in the people and their stories and the manner of their telling.  The stories are fantastic, full of dedication, self denial and focussed bloody mindedness; the drama is in the split seconds or millimetres that separate euphoric victory from dismal defeat.

And for a lover of language, the essential, concentrated twiddle twaddle cliché that is the currency of sports commentating is a fascinating mixture of both tortured dross and pure gold.  One interesting development in 2012 , and one that sets my teeth on edge each time I hear it, is that ‘podium’ and ‘medal’ appear to have become verbs.  There is hope that this or that person ‘will medal’, and when they do, everyone is very pleased that they ‘have podiumed’.  I’ve not yet worked out of they are full synonyms, but I’m going to hold out against their usage.

Clichés abound, so I have become particularly appreciative of the commentators who manage to avoid them.  At the moment, my conclusion is that retired athletes don’t have a very wide vocabulary, Michael Johnson and John McEnroe excepted.  Everything is unbelievable and  incredible, which suggests a poverty of imagination which I find hard to believe is the pre-requisite for athletic success.

To avoid the risk of banality overload, the BBC have mixed in some literate presenters with the former competitors.  So far my favourite demonstration of what each brings linguistically was in one little snippet from the swimming pool.  I can’t recall the precise context, but in discussing the tactics one participant might consider in order to do better, Clare Balding, the journalist commentator, suggested that the athlete needed to approach the problem’ tangentially’; Mark Foster, retired swimmer commentator, said they should ‘think outside the box’.  Yup, Mark, there’s nothing like saying the same thing again but nowhere near so well.

As well as dawn to dusk sports coverage, even the BBC news is dominated by Olympic reporting, when we are given the benefit of a summary from a news journalist.  After the screaming and shouting commentary of  Usain Bolt’s victory in the 100m, which was ‘unbelievably fast’, Tim Franks gave us a slightly different simile to encapsulate the ‘slow start’:   ‘Bolt started with all the nimbleness of a wardrobe’.

On the up side, I’ve been feeling so guilty about all this television watching, I finally got around to cleaning the oven; the box of heavy duty cleaner has been beside the cooker, where I put it to try to shame myself into action, for several weeks.  Perhaps not quite the ‘Legacy’ the Olympic committee had in mind……

By common consent at the moment, one of the highlights of the TV coverage so far, has been the endearing joy of Bert Le Clos when his son won a medal in the swimming pool.  (I hope non UK readers can see this.)

The Ironies of the Spell-Checker

What with not being that good at spelling, and an even worse typist, I tend to rely on the spell-check (note the inclusion of the hyphen, required to pass the spelling test) facility in word processing software to catch my more grievous failures.  But sometimes, it seems, I have a vocabulary that confuses the embedded dictionary; it litters my draft with those accusatory wavy red lines, but offers no credible replacements, and I have to resort to alternative methods: searching for the spelling of the word I want on-line, or going ultra traditional and looking in my 1975 Concise Oxford Dictionary.

The spell-check facility in WordPress makes me laugh most days.  It’s very particular: type WordPress and it simply won’t have it – get that middle P into capitals to win the tick of no underlining.

Type in the word ‘blog’ and it shakes its head, rejects it, and offers unhelpful alternatives of glob, bog, slog or biog.  And I ask,  is ‘biog’ a word?  Turns out it’s not; if at the end of writing a draft, I click on the spell check button for one last review of the piece, it tells me biog isn’t a word, and suggests blog, big, bog, bio and, bios instead.  But now it doesn’t like bios, and gives me boos, biogs, bis and bias ….. and now I’m in a descending spiral of spelling inconsistencies.

What started me thinking about this, and playing around with words on the screen was a sentence I wrote a couple of days ago ‘….he examined his reaction with a cool analytical eye…’ and the checker insisted that I couldn’t mean ‘eye’, shouldn’t it be ‘I’?  and no matter how I look at the context, I can’t see any way that I would fit there.

Do you ever find yourselves jousting with the spelling software, or is it just me?

Authenticity or Bust

There is  a lot written about the need to find one’s own authentic voice when writing.  You hear stories of people working for years struggling to find that turn of phrase, that rhythm that is uniquely their own, that tone which expresses their intent precisely.

At the beginning of this year WordPress suggested it as a topic for a post.  Have you found your own authentic voice?

I made a note of the idea in my diary, a subject to keep in my back pocket for when I needed one.  I wasn’t quite ready to write about it immediately; I needed the topic to settle a little; I wanted some time to ponder the idea of authenticity.  It means reliable, genuine or trustworthy, doesn’t it?

How can I judge my own?  Everything I’ve produced, I’ve written myself; every email, letter of complaint,  application form, powerpoint presentation, short story, every blog post, a completed novel, several novel false starts, hundreds of writing exercises, thousands of words explaining tax and accounting rules.

I wouldn’t know how to begin to copy anyone else’s style, and I would never (well hardly ever) brazenly copy someone else’s sentences word for word, but I am different people in different contexts, I express myself differently depending on the circumstances.  Is one style more authentic than the other?

Is the stream of consciousness email, full of non sequitors, partial sentences, grammar and spelling mistakes, any less my voice than a formal document setting out a business proposal on which I have worked hard to make fluent, clear and persuasive, even for non native English speakers (let’s leave out the hideousness that is a bullet point list, of which I have been a guilty use in the past)?

Is a spontaneous timed writing exercise any less my voice than the 20 chapters of my completed novel?  Does working on something make it more or less authentic?  Sometimes things written at speed with no thought of where they’re heading have more fluency and originality than something which has been edited and re-edited. A case in point is Chapter 1 of my novel, which, since I first wrote it longhand sitting on the roof of a rented house on the Greek Island of Syfnos, has gone through at least nine iterations.  I no longer have any idea whether it has authenticity of any kind.

And what of the near 200,000 words I’ve written on this blog since January 2011?  Of course they’re authentic, but are they my polished self, or the spontaneous one?  I think they’re somewhere in between.  Sometimes I write them at great speed, with very little editing along the way (with apologies for the grammatical and spelling infelicities that sprinkle them), if I didn’t I would never have managed to post something most days; sometimes it takes me longer, especially if I want to give a considered comment on something I’ve read or seen.

I’ve realised that a key element to maintaining the regular posting is that no single entry can be allowed to matter too much.  If any one had to carry a weight of expectation or be of superlative quality, wit, relevance or erudition, I’d worry too much about them, I’d spend hours havering over this word or that, they’d become like homework rather than my own little soap box.

So, authenticity of a sort…….

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