Wednesday, April 29, 2015

A MATTER OF STYLE


I have been tidying up archives, both physical and digital, while looking for CDs that could be reformatted and used for storage. Trawling through old files, I was struck by how much my writing style has changed over the years.

Style is a personal matter. Oscar Wilde said that “one’s style is one’s signature” but, like a signature, it can change over time. Early works, even published ones, can look embarrassing a couple of decades on, and it’s as well that most of mine have disappeared into that great re-cycling bin in the sky.

Style can and must also be adapted to accommodate the requirements of a given magazine, newspaper or publisher. Standard advice to newbie writers has always been to tailor submissions to fit in with the voice and content of the publication you propose sending it to.  An aw-shucks story about puppies would not fit comfortably into the Wall Street Journal and it is a basic rule that, when ignored, ends in tears.

In the golden olden days as a part-time freelance writer my market was mainly newspapers and occasionally magazines.  And yes, newspaper editors actually read, and sometimes even published, freelance offerings then because readers had the time and inclination to read them. But even newspapers differed, one from another, from stuffy and old-school to chatty and informal.

From my old files it is only too clear that in those days I tended towards the stuffy end of the spectrum. No spotty sub-editor was going to catch me out with spelling, grammar and punctuation. I put my apostrophes in the right place and probably could still parse* a sentence accurately. I would never have ended a sentence with a preposition as I have done in the third paragraph above. The archive is full of perfectly formed but creaky, dusty and even pompous articles that wouldn’t have a show of getting published now.  But everyone else was writing like that too.

Times have changed, thank goodness. I like the casual, informal tone of most of today’s writing. If nothing else, blogging has taught me to let go, to take a chance, to make mistakes, to experiment.  Literary critic and writer Cyril Connolly said that a writer arrives at a good style when his language performs what is required of it without shyness. I will always be a pedant when it comes to grammar but at least I am learning to discard stuffy old school teaching and perhaps even how not to be shy.

*Parsing: to break a sentence into its component parts and describe them in terms of grammar

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

WINNING PRIZES


Isn’t it weird that, in spite of so much screeching from our television sets urging us to buy this or that and go in the draw to win some amazing prize, we never hear of anyone winning anything?  Is selling stuff so difficult that they have to bribe us to buy? Wouldn’t you think that there would be trumpetings as each winner was handed a year’s supply of petrol vouchers, free house insulation or a new car?

There must be thousands of lucky people who have won prizes big and small just for buying something, signing up for something, or joining something. Imagine it: there could be a 24-hour TV channel solely devoted to the prize-giving ceremonies. Wonderful publicity, if you like that sort of thing. No, come to think of it, it wouldn’t.  It would be a colossal bore.

Such idle musings have arisen because I have here in my hand, addressed to me personally, a piece of paper from a mail order company assuring me that the enclosed ticket is guaranteed to be a winner. Yes! I have definitely won! It’s a promise! But wait, there’s more. I can’t have my prize. Nope. To get it, I would have to send an order to these people, and then they would decide which one of several prizes to send me.

I was content with my previous dealing with this particular company. I ordered, and received, several items that I needed – oh alright, fell for – and received the “prize” of a watch which, in spite of not being the $25,000 top prize which I really, really wanted, was acceptable. Indeed, I ended up wearing the watch all winter because my good one was stuck in summer time (long story, but it’s fixed now). So, it was a fair result and I had no complaint.*

The company is still trying to tempt me with catalogues though. In the latest one the top prize is $20,000 cash, which would be very nice, thank you – but I don’t rate my chances. The other prizes are of no interest, and I’m not falling for the hype. I’ve cottoned on to their cunning scheme. They are dangling glittering baubles in front of my eyes to tempt me into the never-ending, circular process of buying, and receiving a little something extra, but never getting my sticky paws on that magic pot of big money.  

But isn’t it weird that it’s OK to tell someone, by name and in writing, that she has won a prize but, essentially, that she can’t have it unless she buys more stuff?

* I blogged that story on 28 January and 14 February, 2014, for anyone who wants to wander back and have a look.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

DEAR HEART


In the small collection of poetry books on my shelves is Dear Heart, a book of 150 New Zealand poems by many poets about the things that love is, and some of the ways that we can know it. They date from the 1930s to the present and while some are romantic, none can be called mushy. Like the song says, love is all around. It takes many shapes, comes in many moods. It can be fleeting and ephemeral or constant and reliable. It can overwhelm the unwary, ebb away unnoticed, grow and change like the seasons.

There are poems to make you linger, and poems to skim through and, unexpectedly, return to because they have stirred a memory or an insight. The New Zealand landscape is here, as the light in the background, or nudging forward as the focal point, demanding to be noticed. There is beauty of course, and the prosaic, like Sam Hunt's Letter Home: "row out and catch the tide, / our blue dinghy stacked with beer; / ride the drift whichever way / as long as that long tide and half / the cold brown bottles last; / don't fear you'll ever be lost."

Some are deceptively simple, as though any one of us could have written them, given a shaft of sunlight or a glimpse of a swan on water. But of course we couldn't have, it only looks easy.  Some are almost narratives, like Fiona Kidman's The Ngaio Tree, which begins: "So here come the kids, skidding their school bags / across the floor, blazers flung awry on the chairs ..." and takes us back with the old ngaio tree to those who played in its branches or gathered beneath it.

Others seem like fragments, only a couple of lines but perfectly formed. There are poems that make me smile, like Harry Ricketts' Free Fall, recalling a telephone conversation that ends with an unexpected intergenerational about-turn. There are one or two that puzzled me, even when explained, but that's alright, poems should make us think, and these do. Some are almost jolly, like the tumpety-tum of Kevin Ireland's The Wish: "She asked me what / I might desire / her flesh, her mind / her eyes of fire?" while others bury their rhythms in lyrical lines that look like prose.

The New Zealand voice is clear as a bellbird throughout this book, as in Diana Bridge's Life Eternal, here in its entirety, with the cheery down-home Kiwi-ness of the last line:  "the silver of / his whistling / her singing / from the kitchen / Schubert's Impromptu / though neither / knew it /  life eternal / good as."

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

BIG BABIES


A couple of years ago I reviewed a book by Michael Bywater titled Big Babies, or, Why Can’t We Just Grow Up? It was a gloriously subversive, middle-aged, book-length rant from a self-confessed Big Baby, banging on the bars of his play-pen.

Begonias
Michael Bywater declared that people out there are meddling with us and he went after them with a shot-gun. They included politicians, law-enforcers, industrialists, television programmers, advertisers, credit-controllers, celebrities, sign-writers. They tell us what to eat, what to think, how to dress. They invent medical conditions and then sell us the cures.

They write articles that unsettle us, create new doubts, new scares and tweak old ones so that we end up depressed and envious, sure that everyone else has more money, raunchier sex, bigger houses, fancier cars, flatter stomachs, more exciting social lives.

Other people in the firing line were those who, every time something bad happens, demand laws to prevent it happening again. Yes, fireworks can injure, pools have water in them and children could drown, dogs can be dangerous, old gravestones sometimes lean and fall over, people can drop into open manholes or trip over paving stones, smoking does injure our health, and if we eat too much we get fat. 

All true, but what Bywater found so infuriating, and made him shout from the page, sometimes in capital letters, was that the architects of the mummy state believe we aren’t capable of dealing with this terrible, dangerous world on our own. They make silly laws, protect us, nag, scold, scare and bully us – in short, they infantilise us. 

They warn us about dangers, just like mummies do, by sticking notices on toasters which say be careful, you’ll burn your fingers. They try to ban junk food and fizzy drinks, knives, smoking, even New Year’s Eve, because there will be too many people and you could be crushed. Everywhere it’s mummy-speak: we’re watching you, do as you’re told, we know best.

They serve childish programmes on television where advertisers try to make us buy things to make us happy. Goodies are dangled in front of our eyes: see what baby can have!  Buy what you want, have it now and pay later.  Bywater, having reached the age beyond which advertisers are no longer interested in him (that is, anyone over forty), was maddened by the language used to tempt us to watch, to spend.  And he fairly gibbered at the very thought of political correctness.  Is this, he roared, the way to treat grown ups?

Bywater’s next stage must be that of a grumpy old man, and I hope to read the book he’ll surely write then. It took me twice as long to read this one as it should have because I was laughing, cheering and shaking my rattle so hard.

 

Wednesday, April 1, 2015

HOW IT ALL BEGAN


(with thanks to whoever sussed this out - sorry to say, not me)

In ancient Israel, it came to pass that a trader by the name of Abraham Com did take unto himself a young wife by the name of Dorothy. And Dot Com was a comely woman, broad of shoulder and long of leg. Indeed, she was often called Amazon Dot Com.

And she said unto Abraham, "Why dost thou travel so far from town to town with thy goods when thou canst trade without ever leaving thy tent?"

And Abraham did look at her as though she were several saddle bags short of a camel load, but simply said, "How, dear?"

And Dot replied, "I will place drums in all the towns and drums in between to send messages saying what you have for sale, and they will reply telling you who hath the best price. The sale can be made on the drums and delivery made by Uriah's Pony Stable (UPS)."

Abraham thought long and decided he would let Dot have her way with the drums. And the drums rang out and were an immediate success. Abraham sold all the goods he had at the top price, without ever having to move from his tent.

To prevent neighbouring countries from overhearing what the drums were saying, Dot devised a system that only she and the drummers knew. It was known as Must Send Drum Over Sound (MSDOS), and she also developed a language to transmit ideas and pictures - Hebrew To The People (HTTP).

And the young men did take to Dot Com's trading as doth the greedy horsefly take to camel dung. They were called Nomadic Ecclesiastical Rich Dominican Sybarites, or NERDS.

And lo, the land was so feverish with joy at the new riches and the deafening sound of drums that no one noticed that the real riches were going to that enterprising drum dealer, Brother William of Gates, who bought off every drum maker in the land. Indeed he did insist on drums to be made that would work only with Brother Gates' drumheads and drumsticks.

And Dot did say, "Oh, Abraham, what we have started is being taken over by others."

And Abraham looked out over the Bay of Ezekiel, or eBay as it came to be known and said, ”We need a name that reflects what we are."

And Dot replied, "Young Ambitious Hebrew Owner Operators." 

"YAHOO," said Abraham. And because it was Dot's idea, they named it YAHOO Dot Com.

Abraham's cousin, Joshua, being the young Gregarious Energetic Educated Kid (GEEK) that he was, soon started using Dot's drums to locate things around the countryside. It soon became known as God's Own Official Guide to Locating Everything (GOOGLE).