Monday, July 10, 2017

In the street where you live


In her ‘erotic thriller’ In the Cut, published in 1995, Susanna Moore has her heroine (a New York creative writing teacher fascinated by shifts in language) observe that people used to say (for example) ‘I live in Smith St’ and now they say ‘I live on Smith St’; and that a friend from the Midwest pronounces route as rout, which suggests that route pronounced root was still commonplace even in New York as late as the 1990s. Now all one hears out of America is route rhyming with out; and the usage has begun to take hold in New Zealand too, influenced no doubt by the use of router in the wireless sense. No one, even in New Zealand, would pronounce it rooter. And I can’t help but notice that the on usage regarding streets is taking over here too.

Thursday, June 15, 2017

Hold the ladder steady

 
Who creates? Who decides? For convenience’s sake we attribute work to individuals (‘It needs but a man and and a candle to make a play,’ said Arthur Miller) but no one ever acts completely alone. ‘Writing about the Giotto frescoes in the Scrovegni chapel just outside Padua,' says Richard Hoggart with patent scorn in The Way We Live Now, 'one author suggests that the credit for these masterpieces…should be shared between the artist, his assistants and the man who held the ladder.’ 

On the other hand, here's William McCahon, looking back in 2002 on the years since his father’s death in 1987: ‘We were never expected to have a voice or even to be seen as having a valid claim to McCahon as intellectual property. But increasingly, I think we, the family, have the pre-emptive claim because we in a sense were sacrificed to this work and are part-authors of it.’

Sunday, May 21, 2017

Too late


Harold Bloom speaks of ‘aftering’—the gnawing thought that we have always, somehow, arrived after the event. The artist is there for the event all right; but the memory of it flies even as he writes it down or tries to make art out of it. In that sense, as T S Eliot says, every poem is an epitaph; not the living message but the words etched on the gravestone of whatever passed, and passed on. 

Some of our gravestones are very beautiful.

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Even I

 
Genesis, chapter 6, verse 17: having given Noah extraordinarily explicit instructions about how to build an ark, God (in the King James version) says ‘behold, I, even I, do bring a flood of waters upon the earth.’  

Even I? With this burst of false modesty, is God implying that the human beings he created might have doubted his powers? It sounds like a sort of ‘So you thought I couldn’t do it, eh? Well, I’ll show you what I’m capable of’ remark. Or is he suggesting that there is some greater power whom he, though junior, can easily match? Did he, in fact, have someone above him whom he worshipped and longed to emulate? Someone who’d created him, as he created us? 

Who, in short, was God’s God?

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

Unchanged


Growing up in the 1950s, I remember how my mother, coming home from somewhere where she’d been out, would go into the bedroom and get unchanged. That phrase has fallen out of use now but if you’d changed to go out, then it made sense to say that, when you came in again, you got unchanged. It seems to me now a metaphor for the times. The default was ‘unchanged.’ That was the norm then.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Truce

Now we are in the time of truce, politically speaking. Politicians abide by it every summer. No papers are signed, no declarations made, but by unspoken agreement they withdraw from battle. A curious business: for 11 months of the year the members of all parties attack and challenge each other as if their lives depended on it. The urgency of the nation’s problems apparently demands it. Answers are sought, assurances given, taunts and tirades fly. But come Christmas, the rhetorical guns fall silent, as the real guns did on the Western Front in the First World War. One is irresistibly reminded of the famous stories about troops in opposing trenches singing carols to each other, even coming out into no man’s land to play a game of football. As if the terrible reasons for being at war with each other were not really that momentous—not even true, perhaps. If trying to kill each other mattered so much for the rest of the year, how could it be set aside so easily now? Was war in fact a giant game, to be taken up and put down as one chose?

So with our politicians. They have all gone on holiday and only the faintest murmur of disagreement clouds the air. We scarcely know where our leaders are. We may not want to know, I grant you—perhaps the public welcome this respite from having them in our faces all the time—but what about the ‘issues’ that seemed so vitally important during the rest of the year? What are we supposed to believe? That somehow ‘child poverty’ and ‘housing crisis’ have stopped happening? That the poor have taken a break too—kicked back for three or four weeks without a worry in the world before, come 18 January, when cabinet meetings resume, suddenly feeling poor again? I don’t think so. But how is it that politicians can so easily put on the back-burner what for the rest of the year is supposed to be boiling its head off on the front element?

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Emergency requisitioning

It was after the Haiti earthquake in 2010 that the American journalist Rebecca Solnit wrote a memorable condemnation of the media’s use of the word ‘looting’ when massive disasters occur. What would you do? she asked. ‘Imagine, reader, that your city is shattered by a disaster. Your home no longer exists, and you spent what cash was in your pockets days ago. Your credit cards are meaningless because there is no longer any power to run credit-card charges. Actually, there are no longer any storekeepers, any banks, any commerce, or much of anything to buy. The economy has ceased to exist.’ If, then, you go out and help yourself to food, water and medicines from stores, she asks, should that make you a criminal? Should you be labelled a looter in the international media? Or are you in fact a rescuer, helping, perhaps to save the lives of your children? In short, Solnit asks (and this is the big question), is the survival of disaster victims more important than the preservation of everyday property relations? Yet here we are again with the survivors of Typhoon Haiyan being labelled looters left, right and centre. I’m with Solnit on this: ‘looting’ and its derivatives are very loaded words, and every time I see or hear them used, I feel we comfortably-off Westerners run the risk of sounding grossly patronizing towards people whose suffering is, for most of us, unimaginable. I agree with her completely when she says we need to banish the word ‘looting’ and call it instead (for example) emergency requisitioning. If you take necessary supplies to sustain human life in the absence of any alternative, she says, ‘Not only would I not call that looting, I wouldn’t even call that theft.’