Wednesday, June 22, 2016

Political Mandate (or not)

There has been a lot of talk recently in Australia (with a federal election on the way) about the meaning of a political mandate. When a party is elected into power, does that mean it has a mandate, a right, to put into place all the policies which it took with it into the election?

The answer is NO, and the reasons are quite simple.

When I go to the polling booth I have to make a choice between parties which have proposed a whole raft of policies. Some of those policies I will agree with; some I will not. This is true on both sides of politics. If I decide (for example) that Party A’s economic agenda is, on balance, slightly better than that of Party B’s, and I decide to vote for them on that basis, that does not mean that I support all their other policies. I might not agree, for instance, with their policy on the environment or towards asylum seekers. Just because I decide to vote for a party on the basis of one or a few issues this does not mean that I do, or am obliged to, support all their policies. Nor do I believe it gives them an automatic right to implement those policies.

Democracy does not begin at 8 am and end at 6 pm on polling day. Democracy requires that I and every one of us continues to advocate for the things that are important to us. It also demands that the government of the day be perpetually answerable to the people, and not just on one day every three years or so.

Just because I voted for YOU does not mean that I believe in everything you stand for; and I will continue to speak loudly and irritatingly about those things I think you have wrong.

Sunday, April 24, 2016


My overseas readers may not know what ANZAC Day is. It has to do with the Gallipoli landing during the First World War. It is a very big day in Australia, and seemingly becoming bigger every year.

It is almost sacrilegious and possibly even considered treasonous to say anything that might be regarded as a criticism of this day. Few in Australia regard Christmas or Easter celebrations with anything approaching religious reverence. ANZAC Day is the only holiday in the Australian calendar that attracts this kind of reverence, from the religious and non-religious alike.

I write the next paragraph with some hesitation, because I suspect many in Australia might find its fairly mild wording offensive. Here goes:

‘Today (25 April) marks the anniversary of the attempt, during the First World War, by the allied forces, including Australia, to invade that well-known enemy of Australia, Turkey. The attempt was ill-conceived and disastrous. Unsurprisingly, the Turks vigorously (and successfully) defended their territory. In Australia we commemorate this event as ANZAC Day. I’m not sure how they commemorate it in Turkey.’

Whatever is going on around ANZAC Day in Australia is a little strange and perhaps also a little frightening. Whatever it is, ANZAC Day is not simply a day when we commemorate and honour those whose lives have been lost in war. We have Remembrance Day—or perhaps you know it as ‘Armistice Day’: November 11—to do that. At least that marks the end of the First World War: a suitable time, one would think, to remember the cost of war. ANZAC Day commemorates an attempt to invade another country for strategic purposes: to control the Dardanelles, a strait providing a sea route to the Russian Empire. It is, of course, tragic that so many people lost their lives in that pointless exercise. The Turks who lost their lives during that campaign (does anyone know how many?) were defending their territory. The Australians who tragically died were not defending Australia—despite the propaganda that surrounds ANZAC Day. Unless, of course, you subscribe to the dictum that attack is the best form of defence: easily used to justify any form of aggression.

I am all in favour of remembering the horrors of war, and commemorating the tragic and often pointless loss of life. Remembrance Day is a perfect time to do that. I am less comfortable with the mythology that continues to build around the commemoration of ANZAC Day. I in no way want to belittle the price men paid at Gallipoli—allied troops and Turks alike. But it is a stretch to claim that the Australians (at least) gave their lives in defence of Australia. It’s sad but true—and no fault of theirs—that they gave their lives in a much less worthy cause.

Tuesday, April 19, 2016

'Naturalistic' Dialogue

We writers often try to write dialogue in what we regard as a naturalistic style, but this can be fraught with difficulties. The result may not be what we intended.

We know that the spoken word is very different from the written word. We rarely speak in nice, complete, neat, grammatically correct sentences. Our speech stops and starts; words slide together; we leave the beginnings and endings off words; we pronounce words in particular ways; we change direction in mid sentence. It is the ‘words slide together; we leave the beginnings and endings off words; we pronounce words in particular ways’ that causes the difficulties.

The problem with depicting a character as speaking in a particular accent is that we all have accents, although we seldom realise it of ourselves. If we choose to represent the speech of (say) our Scottish or Irish characters in a particular way, why don’t we do so for all the other characters? The result is usually somewhat clichéd, and some of the characters verge on becoming caricatures. If we wish to represent a character as being less well educated—for example by dropping Hs or leaving the ends off words—we are being unfair to them, because we probably also do that ourselves!

Consider this sentence: ‘Are you going to eat that or not?’ Now say it out loud. How many of you said ‘you’ and ‘going to’? I imagine most of us (brilliantly well educated or not) said something like: ‘Are y’ gonna eat that or not?’ I suggest that when we write a sentence of dialogue, we can assume that the reader will ‘hear’ the latter (or something like it) without our having to spell it out. When it is spelled out it can become difficult to read (and downright annoying). It is also incredibly difficult to maintain such patterns consistently. If I write: ‘Whad’re y’ havin’ f’ dinna’, am I going to do this every time the character speaks? When I as an editor come across something like this, should I be going through and removing the Gs off the end of all this character’s words, because I can guarantee there will be plenty of them. It is as much a nightmare trying to edit this into some kind of consistency as it is to write it consistently in the first place.

Then there is the question of how you actually represent these sounds. Short of using formal phonetic notation, it is very difficult to properly represent pronunciation. Consider this sentence which I came across recently: ‘I do luv a good soup.’ Why ‘luv’ rather than ‘love’? How am I meant to pronounce it? Is the vowel sound the same as in ‘put’ or ‘cup’? These are different sounds in my particular accent. The vowel sound in ‘cup’ (for me) is identical to that in ‘love’. On the other hand, ‘put’ is a different sound from ‘putt’ (which, for me, is like ‘love’ and ‘cup’). So ‘luv’ is unhelpful. How I hear it will depend on where I come from, which is the same for ‘love’ in any case, so why bother spelling it differently? My mother, for instance, in her Birmingham accent, will say ‘love’ as if the vowel is the same as in ‘put’ rather than ‘putt’, but as far as she is concerned she is saying ‘love’ as it is meant to be said, and who am I to tell her otherwise?

Note that an accent is different from dialect. A dialect uses different words, rather than just pronouncing the same word differently. If you can use authentic dialect (and not just what outsiders often wrongly consider to be authentic dialect) that is great.

I always think that a better way to alert the reader to a particular speech pattern is to point it out in the narrative: ‘I struggled to understand his strong Scouse accent’ (for example). ‘Fred always misplaced his Hs when he was speaking.’ Then you don’t have to write it all the time. The reader will hear it. If the reader doesn’t know what a Scouse accent (Liverpool) sounds like, nothing you write on the page will help!

I would never say never write out these ‘naturalistic’ passages of dialogue. On occasion it might be helpful if you want to create a particular effect. But if you do, do so sparingly and with great care. Ask yourself: Will this sound to the reader the way I want it to sound? To some it will; to others it won’t.

Monday, January 11, 2016

David Bowie and me

I know. I suppose everyone will want to have their say about David Bowie, which goes to show what an important influence he has been.

The very first song I heard by David Bowie on Australian radio, and the first to which I attached his name, was ‘Queen Bitch’, from the ‘Hunky Dory’ album. A song with the words ‘queen’ and ‘bitch’ in the title? Would that get airplay in the US even today?

Oh yeah
I’m up on the eleventh floor and I’m watching the cruisers below
He’s down on the street and he’s trying hard to pull sister Flo
Oh, my heart’s in the basement, my weekend’s at an all-time low
’Cause she’s hoping to score, so I can’t see her letting him go
Walk out of her heart, walk out of her mind, oh not her

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

She’s an old-time ambassador of sweet-talking, night-walking games
And she’s known in the darkest clubs for pushing ahead of the dames
If she says she can do it, then she can do it, she don’t make false claims
But she’s a queen and such are queens that your laughter is sucked in their brains
Now she’s leading him on, and she’ll lay him right down
Yes, she’s leading him on, and she’ll lay him right down
But it could have been me, yes, it could have been me
Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

So I lay down a while and I gaze at my hotel wall
Oh, the cot is so cold it don’t feel like no bed at all
Yeah, I lay down a while and I look at my hotel wall
And he’s down on the street, so I throw both his bags down the hall
And I’m phoning a cab ’cause my stomach feels small
There’s a taste in my mouth and it’s no taste at all
It could have been me, oh yeah it could have been me
Why didn’t I say, why didn’t I say, no, no, no

She’s so swishy in her satin and tat
In her frock coat and bipperty-bopperty hat
Oh God, I could do better than that

You betcha
Oh, yeah

What the hell was this song about? It was 1972, I was fifteen years old and I didn’t have a clue. But I knew that it was in some way subversive, and I was hooked. Here was my Elvis, my Beatles or my Rolling Stones: someone my parents would hate.

I was (as usual) a bit behind the times. There were other songs—‘Changes’, ‘Starman’, ‘Ziggy Stardust’, ‘Space Oddity’—that other people apparently already knew. I was a nerdy, fifteen-year-old sci-fi geek, and here was the stranger in a strange land himself; here was the real Valentine Michael Smith. Those weirdly alien-sounding vocals, the bizarre haircut and make-up, the outrageous costumes. ‘The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars’. It was all there. ‘Ziggy Stardust’ remains—and I don’t think this will be widely disputed—one of the greatest albums of all times.

Over the years David Bowie continued to evolve and experiment, to excite, baffle and disappoint his fans. I suspect all those who count David Bowie among their favourite recording artists will have their favourite era. This will probably be the era in which they first discovered him. He continued to re-invent himself, never content with the success of the past, never content just to repeat himself, never content to simply please his existing fan base. I always wanted everything David Bowie did to be touched with genius, but not all of it was, of course. I hate some of what he did. But he never gave up. He kept coming back. The ‘plastic soul’ era; the Berlin era; the ‘Metal Machine’ era; the ‘Scary Monsters’ era; the ‘new wave/pop’ era. I didn’t like everything he did; but someone else always did.

Then, later in life, in 2002, he surprised me with what I think is one of his best albums, ‘Heathen’. The next two were not so much to my taste. And the latest, ‘Blackstar’, released on his sixty-ninth birthday, just a couple of days before his death? Weird, certainly. I may hate it. I’m not sure. But, once again, he was David Bowie being out there, very much a stranger in a strange land.

There is, of course, much more to David Bowie’s life and career: his collaborations, his movies, his artwork, his internet savviness. He was always the consummate market expert, even down to the timing of his death. Love it or hate it, ‘Blackstar’ is almost guaranteed to become a classic.

David Bowie was my voice in the early years of the nineteen seventies. He expressed for me all the weirdness I was too timid to express myself. Over the years, even during those eras when I didn’t particularly like his work, he was never far from my thoughts. I always had an eye out for news about him. He has accompanied me through life since I was fifteen years old. He is the ultimate icon for my generation. The deaths of very few celebrities have moved me personally. The death of David Bowie has. I feel I have lost a friend and companion this day.

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Hemingway, the App

Every now and then a new application pops up that will claim to make you a better writer, or that will offer to edit your work for you. Of course, MS Word itself offers to do some of this, with its spell checker and grammar checker, and I think we all know that the results are chequered at best.

I came across an app recently: the ‘Hemingway App.’ It claims ‘to make your writing bold and clear’. It does this by pointing out what sentences it considers hard to read or very hard to read; phrases that have simpler alternatives; the number of adverbs (of which it will specify what it considers to be a suitable number for a piece of writing of that length); and uses of the passive voice. It is called the ‘Hemingway App’ because Hemingway is so often held up as a writer whose writing is ‘bold and clear’, a paragon for all writers since. He is often cited by those whose aim is the extinction of adverbs. Once you begin to look more closely at Hemingway’s writing, of course, it becomes clear this his writing is far from always ‘bold and clear’; nor does he particularly shy away from the use of adverbs.

Any piece of software like this is just begging to be put to the test, and this can be done on their web site here: Text can be entered and subjected to scrutiny. Naturally, the first author anyone is going to subject to this analysis will be Hemingway himself. Here is the opening paragraph of For Whom the Bell Tolls:

He lay flat on the brown, pine-needled floor of the forest, his chin on his folded arms, and high overhead the wind blew in the tops of the pine trees. The mountainside sloped gently where he lay; but below it was steep and he could see the dark of the oiled road winding through the pass. There was a stream alongside the road and far down the pass he saw a mill beside the stream and the falling water of the dam, white in the summer sunlight.

The first thing the app does is identify three out of four sentences as ‘hard to read’. Erm, well … Either the software can’t count or it is not able to identify sentences very well. There are only three sentences here. Perhaps the app doesn’t know what semi-colons are. Nevertheless, it highlights the whole passage as ‘hard to read’. Hard for whom, one wonders. It identifies ‘gently’ as an adverb and advises its removal. Really? ‘The mountainside sloped where he lay’ would be an improvement? What mountainside doesn’t slope? So, remove an adverb and generate a tautology. The point is that it slopes gently here and not precipitously. The app apparently has no problem with this sentence opener: ‘There was a stream alongside the road …’ I would consider this passive, but the app doesn’t. As an editor I would change this to: ‘A stream ran alongside the road …’ So … not a great start for the app.

It rated this passage a ‘ten’ (good). The lower the rating, the higher the readability, apparently. It goes up to twenty-four. Even the lowest rating of ‘one’, however, is still only ‘good’.

Here’s a passage from a Hemingway short story:

I guess looking at it now my old man was cut out for a fat guy, one of those regular little roly fat guys you see around, but he sure never got that way, except a little toward the last, and then it wasn’t his fault, he was riding over the jumps only and he could afford to carry plenty of weight then. I remember the way he’d pull on a rubber shirt over a couple of jerseys and a big sweat shirt over that, and get me to run with him in the forenoon in the hot sun. He’d have, maybe, taken a trial trip with one of Razzo’s skins early in the morning after just getting in from Torino at four o’clock in the morning and beating it out to the stables in a cab and then with the dew all over everything and the sun just starting to get going, I’d help him pull off his boots and he’d get into a pair of sneakers and all these sweaters and we’d start out.

The app gave this a grade of twenty (poor). That it may be—we are harsh critics—but the point of including it here is to consider adverbs more closely. I have highlighted the adverbs; I see ten of them. The app identified one: roly. Which, of course, isn’t an adverb. (Is it even a word without its ‘poly’ partner?) So … the software doesn’t appear to know what an adverb is.

Finally, who could resist entering some gibberish.

Me thinks this um piece of software is crap. But it likum this. Car happy not today. Me good writer ugh.

This (apparently) is a Grade 1 (but still only ‘good’) piece of writing, with no issues at all. Now I understand what I have been doing wrong.

Some might advise caution when using, or even considering purchasing, the Hemingway App. I would never do that, of course. 

[By the way, this post rated ‘seven’. I’m not at all sure that I should be happy about that!]

Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Review: 'A Yellow-Winged Stranger' by Imran Usman

This is an interesting book and worth persisting with, despite the flaws that I will mention in a moment. It is difficult to allocate it to a genre. I suppose it fits into the ‘literary fiction’ catchall, but that doesn’t say much. There is almost an air of magical realism about the book. I say ‘almost’, because the elements that contribute to this impression turn out to have a logical explanation: for example, a prisoner finding writing upon the wall of a prison cell that relates directly to his own life. For a moment the laws of nature appear fragile. Almost.

The story begins with a family situation, Howard and his parents, which ends with a death. This then segues into the trial of a young man, Ethan, for murder; he is suspected of being a notorious serial killer. The connection between these two parts of the story is not immediately obvious. This then segues into the story of Jack, which is written by Jack himself on the walls of Ethan’s cell. This, then, becomes a first person narrative, whereas the surrounding story is in the third person. Again, the connection of this story with the other stories is not immediately apparent, but gradually emerges. This is a very successful and clever device, despite the apparent implausibility. Then the different strands of the story begin to interact and are skilfully woven together. Even minor characters in the story—a lawyer, a policeman, a forensic investigator—find their place in the back story that emerges.

This is cleverly done, and I think it works, although I did at times find myself a little confused, wondering if the ‘Matt’ (for example) mentioned at this part of the story was the same as the ‘Matt’ mentioned earlier. I think I had it sorted in the end, although one or two nagging doubts about who was who, when and where, remained.

The characters are well drawn and complex. I particularly liked the character of Jack, whose story is written on the cell wall. I am not always a fan of first person narration, but I think this works particularly well. The writing of this particular stream of the narrative was also of a higher quality.

This brings me to the major flaws of the book. In many places the English is very poor. There is poor grammar and incorrect word choice. I imagine that English is not the author’s first language. Several times, particularly early on, I almost gave up on the book because of this, although I am glad that I didn’t. The language at times is excessively flowery, and the characters and narrator are sometimes prone to lapsing into philosophical discourses. This may work well with an Indian audience (the author was born in India) but less so with a Western audience. Although there are still flaws in the ‘Jack’ narrative, I thought the writing was of a higher quality, at times even acquiring a certain beauty.

Many will be put off by the flaws in the writing, or will not have the patience to wait for the strands of the story to be woven together; but those who persist to the end will, I think, be pleased with the result.

I have decided to no longer rate books using the star system. I don't think it is helpful.

Thursday, December 17, 2015

When World Views Clash (and when don’t they?)

The former prime minister of Australia, Tony Abbott, recently stated in an article in an Australia newspaper: ‘Cultures are not all equal. We should be ready to proclaim the clear superiority of our culture to one that justifies killing people in the name of God.’

Where to begin with the issues raised by a comment like this?

First of all, I want to make some obvious points, which nevertheless are rarely made. What we believe, we believe to be true. A tautology? Possibly. The point is that we believe ‘facts’, accept ideas, adopt values because we think they reflect reality at one level or another. Our world view is precisely that, an understanding of the world, because we think—at least at some level—that the world is really like that. (It is tempting to put so many of these words in quotation marks, because their meaning is so slippery and elusive.) We may not always be fully conscious or aware of our own basic world view, but it is there if we dig deeply enough.

So, if I believe that the world is created by a supreme, divine being who has some purpose for this world and for me personally, it is an inevitable corollary of this that I think those who don’t believe in such a being are mistaken. Their view of the world is inaccurate, inappropriate—in some way ‘inferior’ to mine—if the superiority of a belief system is measured in terms of how accurately it reflects ‘reality’. (Here come those damn quotation marks again!)

If we hold to a particular view of the world (and who doesn’t?) it is, therefore, somewhat disingenuous to claim, for example, that all belief systems are ‘equally valid’. It is, of course, entirely possible to hold such a view, but it must, paradoxically, exclude those belief systems (most of them, I suspect) which don’t share it. We may acknowledge someone’s right to hold a view that is different to our own, but we nevertheless believe our own world view to be correct. At least provisionally correct; the best we can do at the moment. There remains here, at least, the acknowledgement that no world view is actually complete or perfect; that additional information may require us to modify that point of view; and that perhaps, on some issues at least, the jury is currently out. The more one is convinced of the truth (read ‘superiority’) of our own world view—some might say, the stronger our ‘faith’—the less room there is for such tolerance, ambiguity and uncertainty.

The second point I want to make I will pose as a question: what criteria can we use to evaluate a culture or world view? The difficulty here is that we can only do so from within our own. I know of no way to elevate ourselves above all cultures and adopt some entirely objective perspective. Consider the points I made in the previous paragraph. They reflect my world view. I believe that a certain humility vis à vis questions of truth is a good thing. I believe that some ambiguity and uncertainty about the nature of reality is inevitable. This is not true of all things. Some issues I believe to be settled. For me, the jury is not out on everything. With respect to those things about which my mind is firmly made up, I will be less tolerant of divergent opinions. I will acknowledge a person’s right to a different point of view, which is actually code for acknowledging their right to be wrong. But this acceptance of ambiguity and this (limited) tolerance of other points of view are not shared by everyone. There are plenty of belief systems in which doubt is anathema, in which truth is absolute and unambiguous. People hold to those views as firmly as I hold to mine, probably more so. Am I right, or are they right? Of course I think I am right. But is there some higher, objective position from which I can claim this with certainty? I don’t believe so. They probably do, and they call it god (by whatever name). So even the question of whether there is some higher, more objective perspective from which to determine ‘truth’ may or may not constitute part of someone’s world view. Herein lies the path to infinite regress.

I heard the new Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau say the other day, with regard to diversity: ‘The elements on which we are similar are far greater than the elements on which we are diverse.’ I don’t doubt that this is true, in simple, quantitative terms. Nevertheless, it is always the differences that loom largest in our minds. We may agree about 99% of things, but it is the 1% about which we disagree that occupies our time and attention. Qualitatively, the one per cent comes to matter much more than the ninety-nine per cent. Is this something deeply ingrained in our psyche over the course of evolution? After all, it is precisely the differences between organisms that drive the process of evolution. Psychologically, I think it is very difficult to focus on the ninety-nine per cent and not be constantly drawn back to the one percent.

I always fall back on this position: while I cannot give definitive answers to questions such as these, I think it is important that they be raised. We need to bring questions like these to the forefront of our minds whenever we are considering the important issues with which the current social and political state of the world confronts us. We need to be aware of our own world view and its limitations. We need to acknowledge our own areas of doubt and uncertainty. At the same time, we need to be aware of the issues that are, in our mind, unambiguous and non-negotiable. We need to be aware of what constitute, for us, absolutes, while at the same time acknowledging our inability to justify their absolute status. In doing this we acknowledge the limits of our certitude without necessarily abandoning it. We need to be aware that we cannot transcend our own perspective. No matter how many steps we take along the infinite regress towards objectivity, we always remain securely ensconced within our own limited point of view.

Life is always much simpler for those who live in certainty and are guided by absolutes. Unfortunately, the world is also made more dangerous by them. As long as they live exclusively within a culture which shares their world view—they imagine such exists—everything is just peachy. When they come up against a world view that is different from theirs, war is inevitable.

If for no other reason than that it may help to avoid war and promote the survival of our species, I will advocate for uncertainty and ambiguity every time. This means, of course, that uncertainty and ambiguity are among my absolute non-negotiables. What happens when my belief system clashes with one in which these very things are totally anathema? Let’s just say that I wouldn’t want to be at a dinner party with Tony Abbott and Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. At such a dinner party they might find themselves surprising allies against me.