Thursday, May 17, 2007

The war on cliche-cliche

Here is the opening of Christopher Ricks's essay on "Cliche" in State of the Language (1980), a fat volume with many surprising authors (Enoch Powell! Angela Carter! Randolph Quirk! Something for everyone!) that I bought purely for the pleasure of this quote:

The only way to speak of a cliche is with a cliche. So even the best writers against cliches are awkwardly placed. When Eric Partridge amassed his Dictionary of Cliches in 1940 (1978 saw its fifth edition), his introduction had no choice but to use the usual cliches for cliches. Yet what, as a metaphor, could be more hackneyed than hackneyed, more outworn than outworn, more tattered than tattered? Is there any point left to - or in or on - saying of a cliche that its "original point has been blunted"? Hasn't this too become blunted? A cliche is "a phrase 'on tap' as it were" - but, as it is, is Partridge's "as it were" anything more than a cool pretence that when, for his purposes, he uses the cliche on tap it's oh so different from the usual bad habit of having those two words on tap? His indictment of "fly-blown phrases" has no buzz of insect wings, no weight of carrion.

Even George Orwell (whom William Empson, with an audacious compacting of cliches, called the eagle eye with the flat feet) - even Orwell had to use the cliche-cliches (hackneyed, outworn), and could say, "There is a long list of fly-blown metaphors which could be similarly got rid of if people would interest themselves in the job," without apparently being interested himself in whether fly-blown wasn't itself one of those metaphors which could be got rid of.

Ricks goes on to argue that writers can make intelligent, meaning-reviving use of cliche, quoting examples from Geoffrey Hill and, inevitably, Bob Dylan. "Cliches invite you not to think - but you may always decline the invitation, and what could better invite a thinking man to think?" I can't think of a better invitation, if you regularly wax sarcastic about writing, to think harder about the terms you use to do it.

[State of the Language, edited by Leonard Michaels and Christopher Ricks, California, 1980. You want this one, not the disappointing Faber-published sequel dated 1990. I bought my copy from the revived Skoob, now buried under the Brunswick Centre. Presumably a more prominent space would detract from the parade of expensive chain stores that make good, in a bad way, on the centre's claim to be "a high street for Bloomsbury". No matter: the basement shop has a decent amount of space, the lighting's good enough that you don't much miss the windows, the range of books is as wonderful as ever and there's now an official Skoob Glob. And they have a second copy of State of the Language (1980), if you're interested...]

Wednesday, May 16, 2007

Another ruddy booklist

Obviously the problem with that list of books designed to entice reluctant boys into reading is that it doesn't contain enough things that Daily Mail readers were forced to work through when they were little. That is the problem with all lists of books for children. Lists of books for adults are prone to more or less the opposite problem; they are snobbish, hidebound, difficult, highbrow - though to say "elitist" might not, in this context, be politically correct.

Mask off, I think giving school libraries the money and the permission to buy boy-enticing pulp is rather a fine move, although making it a high-profile initiative may serve to reinforce the idea that boys don't read. On the contents of the list I'm not much qualified to comment. I'm happy to see the inclusion of adventuresome books with female lead characters (Northern Lights, A Hat Full of Sky), but then I was a boy who read all my sister's Mallory Towers books, my pre-pubescent misogyny temporarily crushed by Enid Blyton's narrative drive.

Around town

The British Library has just opened Sacred, a large and reverent exhibition of holy manuscripts designed to show the common roots of the Abrahamic faiths. It has also just positioned security men to check your bag as you go into the building. I would so love to live in a world where those two facts seemed unlikely to be connected.

(Disclaimer: I haven't actually been in to Sacred yet, by the way, so I can't guarantee that its reverence is total; was at the BL for other reasons that may result in a further post here.)

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Experiments in everyday life

Having bought a shelving unit the other day (this one - notice Muji's sensible, if selfish, policy of only delivering items it would be simple to carry home in the first place), I can confirm two things:

i) If you walk down Oxford Street attempting to stabilise a heavy, tilting 8ft-long package with one hand and gripping a shopping bag and an umbrella with the other, you will still be offered free papers.

ii) Faced with an obviously out-of-depth person attempting to transport a heavy 8ft-long package, the bus passengers of south-east London are incredibly kind, helpful and tolerant, and manage hardly to snigger at all.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Interview envy

You're talking to the intelligent and - by the sound of his songs - potentially prickly lead singer of an indie band. Your first question is "Ever been in a fight?" And your first answer goes like this. Lucky, lucky, clever old you.

(Via, eventually, the Maud Newton link to the article in the same issue of The Believer on the Codex Seraphinius, which I clicked on because a friend had previously directed me to a MetaFilter discussion on the subject. He reads MeFi and likes it; I like it but don't tend to read it, except when he points me to it, when there is every chance that I'll end up stealing a link. That makes this site a sort of MetaMetaMetaFilterFilterFilter, but not in a good way.)

Nazi swing on Radio 3

I should stop posting BBC links that expire after a week, but yesterday's Sunday Feature was deeply, deeply, deeply strange: an analysis of the propaganda swing tunes broadcast on Nazi radio to Britain, which involves (i) playing skin-crawlingly anti-semitic rewrites of "Makin' Whoopie" and the like, delivered in an accented song-speak remarkably like the MC's in Cabaret; and (ii) delineating the bonkers musical politics prosecuted by Goebbels. The trumpeters in this repulsive little band were, apparently, the only ones in the Reich permitted to use mutes. You have until Saturday.