Sunday, March 31, 2013

YESTERDAY'S ESSAYS



Why write a blog? Why indeed. Sometimes, when the mind is blank or the spirits are low, ideas seem hard to find. Most writers know that they are everywhere, teeming, insistent, bossy and in-your-face, but hunting for them is the surest way for them to scoot under the nearest stone, only to emerge in the middle of the night to thumb their noses at you.

Today's blogs are yesterday's essays. In the old days writers, when they weren't writing books, often wrote essays. These were published in magazines, which snapped them up for their eager, discerning readers. Essays were often many hundreds of words long, they explored a subject, or a thought, in a leisurely way, writers had space to move, and readers had time to read and think. Blogs have to be short, like sound-bites, to catch the attention of readers who have less time and are easily bored.

A blog, like an essay, is a means of experimenting with your "voice". It is a way to have your say about what interests you, and to say it in a controlled and considered way rather than in the hurried blurt of a tweet. It is a forum where you have control over everything: subject, style, content, length, frequency. That means that you can take risks now and again. And take the heat if it goes wrong. No one is waiting to correct or change what you write, or to reject it out of hand. No one is the boss of your blog but you.

A blog makes it possible to paddle in the tiny waves at the edge of the surf and learn how it feels, before launching into the ocean of the real literary world. A blog can be edited, changed or deleted at any time, and the commitment need not be terrifying. Or terrifyingly permanent.

Blog posts should be interesting. I'm aware that posts about, say, my great-grandfather's old immigrant sailing ship Euterpe aren't for everyone, and nor are posts about writing, or earthquakes, or painting or anything else that I might feel like writing about. But if there is variety, and the posts are not totally incompetent, readers gravitate to the site. It takes time to develop a regular readership, and word has to be spread somehow. I'm constantly amazed at how, now and then, there is a surge of interest and the stat-counter leaps for the stratosphere. Something, somewhere, triggers a gratifying spike.

That's why we write blogs – for those tingling moments of gratification.

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

LADIES AND GENTLEMEN, BLOKES AND SHEILAS



As an unreconstructed pedant I sometimes get embroiled in matters of grammar and literary style. And it can happen on-line, with strangers. Take, for example, a recent discussion about the word ladies. Which of course got tangled in a to-and-fro about the f-word: feminism.

Few still grimly insist that we always refer to female persons as women, or the horrible wimmin. Yes, language and its uses change over time and no, I'm not a dinosaur, trying to keep language intact and archaic. Try reading Chaucer or even Shakespeare to see where that would lead us. I'm just glad that we now seem to be accepting the word ladies again – surely a sign that we have grown out of the dummy-spitting era of the sixties and seventies.

There are no right or wrong words, only appropriate or inappropriate words. And it depends a lot on context. Someone talking to a room full of women would probably call them ladies if addressing them formally, as in "Good morning ladies." Later she might ask "all the women who work full time" to raise their hands. If it was time for a break she could lighten the tone and say, "right girls, coffee's ready!" Same session, same speaker, different context.

The terms lady and gentleman were once used, even officially, to indicate social status. Not so now. My mother used to say, with raised eyebrows, "ladies don't!" It was shorthand for don't do that, it's bad manners and not ladylike. Ladies and gentlemen behave in acceptable ways – acceptable, that is, for the times and circumstances. To describe them as such is to bestow a particular kind of compliment, one that acknowledges style, dignity and good manners: they don't eat peas off a knife, they stay upright when plastered, and wouldn't dream of dancing on tables at a golden wedding party. Women brawling outside a pub at two in the morning are not ladies.

We know what people mean when they say that someone is no gentleman. He is a man who barges through the door instead of holding it open, or watches his partner struggle with the heavy shopping. A tramp can be a gentleman, a lord can be a cad and therefore not a gentleman. A man wanted by the police cannot be described on television as a gentleman if he is violent and should not be approached.

We pedants are an endangered species. Soon no one will be left to care about the proper use of language and grammar. We will be carted off to our graves still squawking about apostrophes and brandishing our red pencils. In the meantime, and for the record, it's ladies and gentlemen, men and women, guys and gals, blokes and sheilas. But not ladies and men, ladie's and guy's, gentlemen and sheilas.


Thursday, March 14, 2013

ON BUYING A BRA


Today this is a women only page – men should probably go and read another blog (but come back soon). Today is a day to venture into the section of a department store that displays lingerie and makes men shy like horses at a paper bag in a ditch. Today we are going to discuss bras, and more specifically the choosing of new bras.

Women tend to put this off because we can find it an uncomfortable, almost humiliating, experience, but like going to the dentist, at some point we always know when it is time to bite the bullet. Only women who are slight and don't really need one enjoy the hassle of buying a bra. They can choose from the huge range of size 10 or 12 tiny bright flirty styles that come in all colours, stripes and polka dots, frills and ruffles. They don't even have to try them on, except when buying their first, because they know the size they want, they only need to choose colour and style.

The rest of us – the vast army of the rest of us – must make more, um, weighty decisions. And our choices are much more limited. For us, the joke goes that there are only four types of bras: Catholic (supports the masses), Salvation Army (lifts the fallen), Presbyterian (keeps them staunch and upright), and Baptist (makes mountains out of molehills). There is also, for the secular woman, the German (holtzemfromfloppen). We must paw through those endless racks of pretty little bras looking for the few, usually near the floor, in black, white or that horrible fawny pink, that are the only ones in our size.

The alternative is to admit defeat, summon a hovering salesperson and ask her to find three or four 18DDs in white or black, no underwire, and bring them to one of the cubicles so we can try them on. Ah yes, the cubicles: searchingly bright lights and huge mirrors that make us look like dugongs the moment we strip off. I think that right there is what makes the experience so unnerving – the mirrors at home are so much kinder. The saleswomen, however, probably know that and don't bustle and poke unless asked but hover outside the cubicle listening for squeaks of distress. Then she can offer help, suggest that she could find more possibilities, or send for reinforcements in the form of the corsetiere.



Friday, March 8, 2013

THE TOY CUPBOARD



Still harping on about things ... When AJ and I were in London many years ago we were in the early throes of planning our future. Neither of us had a clue about any of the practical matters involved, but we had a gut instinct that setting up house together required some sort of infrastructure. Like furniture. Kitchen stuff. Bath towels.

My mother-in-law, bless her wise and understanding heart, realised that we were babes in the wood and gave us an amazing book – a huge heavy tome, a sort of "housekeeping for dummies". Half of it contained really basic cooking advice like how to boil potatoes and make toast. The other half had hundreds of useful household hints about such quaint mysteries as stain removal and darning, instructions on how to iron shirts and fold them afterwards, and six useful things to do with nail polish including stopping a ladder in a stocking.

She also suggested that we visit the Ideal Home Exhibition, a vast emporium glittering with the latest of everything for the house and garden. There we were mesmerised by a snake-oil salesman with a slick patter that had us lining up eager to buy one of each of what he was showing us: an apple-corer, a crinkle-cut chip slicer and a knife sharpener.

Since those days we have fallen for a variety of much more sophisticated gadgets. For a while they took up space, they whizzed and whirred, they rumbled, buzzed and rattled, and then they were put away in the toy cupboard. We have had a yoghurt maker of incredibly stupid design; an electric chip fryer which taught us that cooking anything in hot oil was an unpleasant experience; a pressure cooker that I always expected to blow up; an electric coffee percolator that didn't percolate the coffee but just brought it to the boil before turning itself off; another coffee maker that hissed importantly but spat out only luke-warm coffee.

I resisted buying a bread-maker because I liked making dough by hand, but AJ kept on about it and in the end said he'd make the damn bread. So he did. He got bored though, and up went the bread-maker into the toy cupboard, to join the coffee grinder, a couple of stove-top espresso percolators, and a battery operated mini-whisk that barely turns cream let alone soup. But we didn't fall for a ridiculous plastic thingy designed to make hard boiled egg-peeling easier. I mean, how much easier can it be? Just crack it and slip the shell off. We finally learned that the best thing is to ignore anyone, especially on television, who says "but wait ... there's more!"

Thoreau got it right. He said that "our inventions are wont to be pretty toys, which distract our attention from serious things. They are but improved means to an unimproved end." Nearly everything in the toy cupboard has been given away. But what is still here in the kitchen drawer? An apple-corer and a knife sharpener.