Thursday, 25 May 2017

W is for WORDS

                'He words me, girls, he words me, that I should not
                 Be noble to myself'
                                            - Antony and Cleopatra, V, ii, 192-3

In Shakespeare's play the queen has been listening to the empty promises of Caesar. She is not taken in by them and thus expresses her contempt. We are all familiar with the ways politicians play with words, using them to convey lies, half-truths, evasion and misinformation, investing them with emotional overload. We are aware of the slippery use of 'weasel words'. We know what they are doing, though not enough of us, like Cleopatra, call their bluff. It's not only politicians who abuse language. Advertisers study the psychology of words, so that they can select the ones which will evoke favourable responses in those who read or hear them. Academics use 'in' words to impress their peers (e.g. 'metanarative' instead of 'big story'). Writers of instruction manuals for our ever-more-complicated electrical devices seem incapable of writing an English sentence uncluttered with jargon, acronyms and symbols. And as for social media afficianados ... well, I won't go on. The point I want to make is that one of our tasks as writers is to preserve, protect, cherish and glory in that galaxy of glittering objects that provide our bread and butter - words.

Those of us whose natural tongue is English are the privileged guardians of the richest and most expressive written language in the world. We must protect it. From change? No, heaven forfend! Language evolves, and quite rightly so. But it should become richer for change and not poorer. For example, what is happening to the word 'persuade'? It is being barged out of the vocabulary by 'convince'. Now, the two words are not synonymous. You might persuade someone to do something without convincing him/her that it's a good idea. And there's another thing: political correctness has made us so gender sensitive that it is becoming commonplace to abandon grammar altogether. You would not be surprised nowadays to come across such a sentence as: 'Every member of the team has their special responsibility'. Yuk!

How can we buck this appalling debasing of our beloved English? It goes without saying that we should acquire, principally through our reading, as large a vocabulary as we can so that our writing will be as nuanced as possible; so that we can express our meaning with the finest degree of precision. This may not always be appreciated, as I discovered when a reviewer hauled me over the coals for using the word 'fissiparous'. In the context of what I was describing it meant precisely what I was trying to convey (i.e. 'having a tendency to fragment') but it was not a word he was familiar with and he accused me of making it up. Not that I would be offended at being accused of verbal innovation. There's nothing wrong in occasionally, being playful with our language. Shakespeare was a splendid maker-upper of words. In the quote above he takes that very noun 'words' and makes it powerfully a verb. We can almost see the sneer on Cleopatra's lip - 'He words me, girls'. Speaking, I find, can be a real help in finding the right combination of words. if I'm having difficulty with a passage, I say it aloud. Does it flow off the tongue or judder? Is the sentence too long? Is the paragraph overloaded? Do the chosen words convey mood as well as meaning?

We're not jailers of the language but we are guardians. We should be trying to keep its feet on the right path. If we don't, no-one else will. We're not pedagogues, either. We are not here to teach our readers how to write. And yet, in a sense we are. Just as our use of language has been shaped by all the authors we have read, so we are, unconsciously, influencing those who read our books, imparting to them our love of words. At least, I hope so.

Friday, 19 May 2017


This is to introduce Superstition and Science - Mystics, sceptics, truth-seekers and charlatans, which will be published on 25 May. In this book I try to describe the major developments of Western thought in the three centuries between the Renaissance and the Enlightenment in a way that is accessible to the general reader. This is a mammoth subject and it may be that I was audacious to attempt it. However, I believe that there are valid reasons for dissecting this period of intellectual history.

The reason that is the most immediately obvious is that these centuries (c.1450-c.1750) produced some of the more remarkable and fascinating characters in the history of our civilization - people who challenged old certainties, advanced new ideas, plunged deeper into the mysteries of the cosmos than anyone had dared to plunge before, and made discoveries that benefited their own and later generations. They are a varied pantheon of brilliant, often clashing, intellects - Copernicus, Luther, Harvey, Spinoza, Bacon, Descartes, Galileo, Pascal, Dee, Locke, Rousseau and many others. Some are household names, familiar to most of us. Others are worthy of being rescued from relative obscurity. But, important as they are, we must not examine them in isolation in order to understand them. We must not locate them in an ivory tower labelled 'History of Thought'. They were of their own time, responding to contemporary events and fashioned by the world in which they lived. For most of the period under review that was a violent world. Political and religious conflict unleashed devastating wars and unspeakable violence which decimated populations but also inspired invention. Some of Leonardo da Vinci's visionary drawings were for war machines. The telescope was first conceived as a tool for military leaders. Improved navigation for fighting ships was an offshoot of star gazers' speculations about the movements of heavenly bodies.

Then, there is still a need to underpin with fact our study of the development of philosophical thought. It is not a single, simple line that can be drawn on a graph which begins in naive ignorance and rises to sophisticated understanding. The book is deliberately called Superstition AND Science, not Superstition TO Science. Human affairs are much too complex for such simplicity. Religion and magic are no more boon companions than science and atheism are inevitable bedfellows. The quest for truth in medieval Europe was, almost exclusively, the preserve of churchmen. They held a monopoly of learning and learning was based on revelation and observation. Revelation consisted of truths enshrined in the Bible, the writings of the great doctors of the Church and the wisdom inherited from the classical world - predominantly from Aristotle. The sine qua non of all intellectual speculation was that 'life, the universe and everything' could only be understood in terms of the interaction of two spheres - nature and supernature. The two momentous events that gave rise to the Renaissance - the invention of movable-type printing, and the influx of ancient Greek and Latin texts following the collapse of Byzantine Christendom - did not change this basic approach to scientia (knowledge). Throughout the period covered in Superstition and Science scholars continued to seek truth in the 'Book of Nature' and the 'Book of God'. By 1750 atheism had scarcely dared to show its face. Most men of science were also men of faith. Thus, Robert Boyle, the father of modern chemistry, in A Free Enquiry into the Vulgarly Received Notion of nature (1686) attacked the atheism he associated with libertinism; and Sir Isaac Newton devoted more mental energy to the second coming of Christ than to the theory of gravity. And if we see Galileo's spat with the Vatican as proof that religion and science were incompatible in the 17th century it is because our vision is dimmed by 21st century secularist assumptions.

Speculation about the cosmos and man's relationship to it was not confined to scholars. Magic (black and white), alchemy, herbalism, astrology and folk religion were all facets of the prism that was popular belief and which cast its rainbow of everyday life. Even mathematicians like John Dee and Tycho Brahe were primarily in demand for casting horoscopes. Who could doubt that, just as the seasons for planting and harvesting were determined by the cosmic dance of earth and sun, so in all other human endeavours it was wise to fall in with what was 'written in the stars'. And just as acorns turned into oaks and caterpillars into butterflies why should lead not be transmutable into gold? The Holy Roman Emperor, Rudolph II, was not the only magnate who spent a fortune surrounding himself with 'wise men' who claimed to be able to harness the powers of the spirit world.

Meanwhile, official religion had not remained unaffected by the ambitious speculations of thinking men. Theologians responded to and contributed to the realignment of thought. The Reformation produced devout men and women who pitched individualism against the dictates of Catholic traditionalism, just as the Renaissance produced free-thinkers who challenged political and artistic conventions. From Luther to Wesley the lives and writings of Christian thinkers demonstrated new ways of thinking and believing. 

These are just tasters of the kaleidoscopic narrative that makes up Superstition and Science, a book that places the achievements of great pioneers like William Harvey, Andreas Vesalius, Johannes Kepler, Thomas Hobbes and the founders of the Royal Society alongside the puzzling assertions of mavericks like Paracelsus, Michael Servetus and Giordano Bruno. It is as we see such remarkable individuals against the background of their own, often violent, world that we can assess more clearly the places they occupy in that bigger narrative that is the adventure of the human spirit.

Thursday, 18 May 2017

V is for VANITY

For writers vanity is not admiring what you've written. Sometimes - just sometimes - that is justifiable. To have worked hard and long on a chapter, or even a page, and to have reached the point at which you can say, 'Yes, that really is what I meant; I couldn't have put it better' is justifiable self-satisfaction. To believe and seek to persuade other people to believe that you are something special because you write books - that's vanity. The tendency towards this kind of self-love has always been obnoxious but it has been encouraged by the development of marketing trends over recent years. Now that authors are expected to be involved in promotion - not just attending the occasional launch or festival but maintaining a social media presence - the temptation is strong to become self-advertising 'brands'. It can have a deleterious effect on written style, as when an author cultivates literary eccentricities in order to declare to readers 'look how clever I am'.

It is understandable that wordsmiths feel the need to do something - anything - to draw attention to themselves. In Britain alone 150,000 new titles are published every year. Most of them are doomed, after a short shelf-life, to disappear without trace. With insecurity built into the very framework of our lives it's not surprising that some of us resort to any tricks we can think of to stand out from the crowd. I believe we all need to guard against this tendency for at least two reasons. The first is that it goes against the grain - at least for many authors. We are solitaries. Large chunks of our lives are spent in confined spaces, shut up with our emerging creations. We don't devote much of our time to cavorting before the public, either in the real world or cyberspace. I've often thought that being a famous author is probably the most satisfactory form of celebrity because you lead a normal life without being recognised everywhere you go. Therefore, to actually seek admiration can set up real tensions. The other reason is that vanity is usually self-defeating. We live, are discovered and, hopefully, enjoyed in our printed words. It is the transmutation of our imagination and intellect into readable prose or verse that impacts on readers. The more we intrude our personalities - through the text or the advertising paraphernalia that increasingly precedes or accompanies the text in the market place, the more we bore or irritate our fans. For example, it is one thing to flag up on twitter each new publication and quite another to name drop or announce to all the other creatures in the aviary what fun we had doing the research or explain how we succeeded in tackling a difficult aspect of the subject. Of course, there are a few folk out there who are genuinely interested in the writer's craft but don't let's kid ourselves that the world loves us as much as we love ourselves. Readers want the product not the producer.

It could be reasonably argued that all authors are, of necessity, vain. We have the effrontery to think that what we want to say is of such interest and value to people that they will part with good money to read it. Perhaps we should remind ourselves frequently that our subject matter lies largely 'out there' rather than within. It was one of the more attractive Puritan divines of the 17th century who observed, 'None are so empty as those who are full of themselves'. We offer readers our view of the world but what matters is not that it is our view but that it is based on keen and honest observations - less introspection and more extraspection. The dish we serve up may be piquant, strong-flavoured, sweet or highly-spiced but it will be made more palatable if served with the sauce of modesty.
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Thursday, 11 May 2017

U is for UP TO SNUFF

Back in the 18th and early 19th centuries taking snuff (powdered tobacco) was a rich man's vice and the valuable commodity was carried in ornate boxes crafted in gold, mother-of-pearl and other precious materials. Thus, if you were 'up to snuff' you were the tops in terms of wealth, fashion and sophistication. Few people now indulge this habit but the phrase 'up to snuff' lives on as a way of describing things or people of recognisably superior quality. How can we achieve this accolade for our work as writers? The only people who can confer it are our readers. That means we can't know whether our books are recognised as having real quality until they are published. By then it's too late to improve them. What steps, then, can we take while our work in in progress to ensure that it has a good reception and reflects favourably upon our skill as writers?

Well, we could let friends or family members read it. Not the best idea! It's a bit like putting our own child out to foster parents. We are reluctant to see it forming other relationships. As for the chosen readers they are likely to be very complimentary because they want to please us. If they stifle their reservations we have learned nothing. On the other hand, if someone gives us honest critical feedback we might resent it - and bang goes a beautiful friendship!

Alternatively, we could put our precious MS out to a professional reader. There are plenty offering their services - for a fee. The best ones will tactfully give considered advice. Here, the problem is that we are dealing with just one individual, whereas the success of a book depends on the favourable concensus of thousands of readers, each with his or her own preferences. More importantly, such paid critics have no personal investment in our work. They will not share in our success or failure once the book hits the market.

It remains true that the best people to help us raise our game are agents and publishers' editors. They do have a stake in furthering our careers. If we prosper, so will they.

So much for seeking criticism. The other side of the coin is knowing how to take it. Whatever we write reaches its 'finished' form as the result of a long, continuing process of self-criticism (or it most certainly should). We are constantly changing, revising, crossing out and re-inventing. We - and only we - know what we want to say and how we want to say it. As a result, it's not easy to accept from someone else any suggestion that we may have got it wrong, that it could have been done better. Successful writing involves compromise because we need to write, not only what we want, but what other people want to read. Compromise is never easy. If we reject it, there's no point in our seeking advice in the first place. If we slavishly follow every amendment urged upon us, we will end up with something that does not satisfy us and may well not satisfy others.

In bygone eras social climbers tried to get up to snuff by slavishly following fashion and I guess not a lot has changed in that regard. It may be true that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery but it seldom, if ever, works in the writing world. Copying popular authors' subject matter and style invariably ends up by exposing our own lack of 'flair' or 'elan'. And, in my opinion, there's something tawdry about piggy-backing on someone else's achievements. We should be offering our own skill and insight to the world.

Will we be rewarded in material terms for doing so? Well, it would be nice to believe that 'genius will out' but experience suggests that, 

     Full many a flower is born to blush unseen
     And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

There are two truths about the writer's world that are profoundly unfair: too much rubbish gets published and too much work of real merit does not get into print. But success is not solely measured in material terms. Self-satisfaction, regardless of market reaction, is worth more in the long term. An author whose life and work are marked by passion, imagination, persistence and sheer, bloody slog is, I suggest, a creative agent who is truly up to snuff.
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Monday, 1 May 2017


     It is remarkably appropriate that today marks the 500th anniversary of one of the more unsavoury events in the history of England's capital city. An angry mob of some 2,000 people rampaged through the centre of London bent on 'bashing foreigners'. The premises of alien traders and artisans (mainly French, Flemish and Italian) were broken into and looted. Several of the inhabitants were injured, though, remarkably, no-one seems to have been killed by the rioters. Law and order was only restored with difficulty by mounted troops who were even more violent than the protesters. Some 300-400 offenders were rounded up and, at a hastily convened court, the ringleaders were convicted of 'disturbing the peace of Christendom' and summarily hanged, drawn and quartered.
     At first sight this looks like a simple example of ugly xenophobia. Politicians and rabble-rousers can always rely on distorted national pride to channel discontent into an attack on 'them'. It matters not who the 'them' are, whether Flemish weavers, Muslim women wearing traditional dress or Mexican immigrants. All that matters is that the chosen scapegoats are 'different', 'foreign', 'not like us'. The Evil May Day riots of 1517 certainly had their origins in inflammatory preaching. Some two weeks earlier an open-air preacher in Spitalfields, an area where many immigrants lived, railed against their alien customers. He protested that they took the jobs of honest Englishmen and deflowered their wives and daughters. This mingling of truth, prejudice and downright lies did its work and, by the end of April it needed only one spark to set fire to the dry tinder of grumbling and gossip. That spark was a notice pinned to a door of St Paul's Cathedral calling all 'true Englishmen' to assemble at the church of St Martin-le-Grand on the next public holiday - May Day.
     Most people do not follow closely the intricacies of national and international politics. That makes them easy prey for rabble-rousers offering simple answer to complex problems, particularly if those answers are emotionally loaded. That was certainly the case in 1517. If the rioters had a genuine grievance they were not the fault of the strangers in their midst. It was the economic system which was responsible for the influx of European settlers and that system had the full backing of the Tudor regime. London, like all major European cities, was cosmopolitan. The smooth running of commerce require foreign banks and merchant houses to keep offices and agents in the English capital. The high quality English merchandise was, in some measure, dependent on immigrant craftsmen, such as Flemish dyers, who were particularly skilled at their job. The government profited from the settlement of overseas workers by the imposition of alien taxes. Clothiers and other industrial tycoons enjoyed close relations with their associates beyond the Channel. Government profited from import and export duties which made up a substantial part of annual revenue, and to encourage foreign businessmen the Crown extended special privileges to them. And at a diplomatic level national prosperity demanded the safe and easy routine operation of business across national borders. All this helps to explain the knee-jerk reaction of the authorities to the popular protest of 1 May 1517.
     When the initial panic had died down. Henry VIII, in a stage-managed display of royal magnanimity, pardoned the remaining rioters who had been arrested. Assurances were given to foreign ambassadors that their fellow nationals would continue to enjoy the protection of the government. Essentially nothing changed - in the short term. In the long term Londoners learned to live with their foreign neighbours. Many of those neighbours married into English families, leaving nothing but their surnames as an indication of their origins. That is the way communities develop. All western nations are inhabited by mongrel populations. As long as countries prosper they will continue to attract fresh waves of settlers. The only way to stop this process is to stop being prosperous.
     But, then, that is just another over-simplified solution.