Thursday, 31 May 2007

On the Simile and Metaphor

I have just stared to read Victor Pelevin, The Clay Machine Gun, he being someone of whom I have never heard despite the fact that his book was short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize. (Why on earth I should know what books are short-listed for the Russian Booker Prize I have no idea but, nonetheless, I feel qualms of guilt.)

Pelevin, according to the notes, is hugely popular in Russia and, to quote the New York Times Magazine, is ‘a genuinely popular serious writer’.

However, to get to the meat of the matter, the tropes that have suggested this piece are my friend Stuart’s favourite bugbears, the metaphor and simile.

In chapter one, Pelevin writes: ‘there was the same grey sky like an old, worn mattress drooping down towards the earth under the weight of a sleeping God’.

A witty description most would agree, even Stuart, but what does it add, I wondered, to my understanding of the state of the heavens? Surely it is sufficient to describe the sky as grey, a state recognisable wherever one lives?
To be fair to Stuart, his objections to the metaphor and simile are not to them as tropes per se but to there misuse either through overuse or their inappropriateness. So, to return to the simile in question, does it fall into either of these categories? For obvious reasons, a single simile cannot be classified as being overused in terms of one of too many, so does it fall into the second category?

While it would have been sufficient to have left the description of the sky as grey, the addition of the simile adds a quality, not necessarily to my understanding of the state of the sky, but to my understanding, if you like, of the climatic conditions of the novel.

I am in a place where an absolute being apparently makes himself comfortable on a lumpy grey mass of water vapour thus threatening to crush the perfection of his creation. This is obviously a place that is subject to a fine precipitation of irreverence and gusts of mockery. (Pelevin is not the only one permitted to indulge in metaphorical whimsy.)

What is the conclusion to these rather trite observations? Only this, that one function of the metaphor or simile in the novel is to create an ambience for the whole, and that, judiciously used, it acts like the music track to a film in helping to underline qualities of the narrative that are best dramatised obliquely than through direct description.

Wednesday, 30 May 2007

Les Jours à Salade

It is the last day of May and another wet, miserable day. (Hurry up global warming I say, at least here in Brighton.) As a consequence I have spent the morning constructively mooching around the web before remembering to pay a visit to a blog I came across sometime ago. If anyone wants to see just what a blog can be, there is no better example than Petite Anglaise .

As the author outed herself, or more accurately was outed with the benefit of an additional ‘s’, i.e. ousted, by her former employers for blogging, I can name her as Catherine Sanderson. Happily, Catherine won her claim for unfair dismissal in March this year and was awarded €44,000 damages plus costs. (I discover in the same article that this practice of being fired for blogging is known as being dooced ‘in honour of the American designer and blogger Heather Armstrong, writing under the pseudonym Dooce, who was fired in 2002’.) The event hasn’t caused Catherine permanent damage. Her sudden leap to fame brought an invitation to appear on Richard ‘n Judy (ok, that must have hurt) and a two book deal with Penguin.

In a recent article for The Guardian, Catherine writes of the dangers of blogging, specifically with regards to employment, but also the fact that your once closely guarded anonymity can be compromised. Now, the fact is I have never made any attempt to preserve my privacy online and, to be honest, as a writer I don’t want to. I don’t pretend that anything I write is necessarily the truth. I use this space to muse, scribble, fantasise, and invent. Or, rather, I will use this space to muse, scribble, etc. However, I recently had occasion to reconsider my brashness when I came across a horrific example of cyber-stalking as documented by the blogger, Rachel from North London. I only skimmed some of the history but it appears some lunatic called Felicity Jane Lowde has hounded this unfortunate woman for over a year. Despite court orders and the like she is still the target of this woman’s unwarranted venom.

I do envy Petite Anglaise and not just for her facility with words but also because she lives in Paris. I too once resided there for a couple of years. As you can see, I lived in the 5eme arrondissement, a mere 200 metres from Notre Dame (which was handy as I was a practising Catholic in those days).

Be you of the faith or not and if you’re ever in that city, take time out to visit the cathedral when they hold a recital there or a sung Mass. The music gathers in a cloud that seems to float overhead in a manner that is, in the true sense of the phrase, awe inspiring. I don’t suppose it is any accident that the acoustics create such an effect as I am sure that that was precisely the desired outcome of the generations of builders who constructed the building.

These images, which I have borrowed from Wikipedia, contrast Notre Dame post its recent restoration to the state it was in at the turn of the last century.

Notable is the state of all the buildings on the Île de la Cité, which look uniformly grim in their soot. One can only imagine that every major city throughout Europe must then have appeared equally forbidding. Indeed, I remember as a boy being driven through Liverpool, en route to the station and the miserable journey that would take me to my boarding school, and thinking how black and dirty everything seemed compared to the clean, rain-washed Welsh town of Dolgellau where we then lived. (And, I hasten to add, this was not at the turn of the 19th century.)

I loved living in Paris, especially once I had found my apartment. It was situated on the second floor and so typically had a balcony that ran the width of the building. This I could access through any one of three sets of windows that opened out on to it from my interconnected living rooms.

(The bloke having one of his many cheeks pinched, and who was as tall as he was wide, is Remy Fabrikant, a Swiss German/French art director who greatly enhanced my life in Paris. I miss him and his gargantuan appetite for life.) All the rooms, bar the kitchen, were stately in their proportions and as I only ever used the kitchen to boil the kettle I didn’t really care how small it was.

Regularly on my way across le Pont St Louis, which connects the two isles in the Seine, towards my favourite bar in the Marais, le Petit Feu à Cheval, rue Vieille-du-Temple, I would pause to look downstream towards the Eiffel tower across the floodlit brilliance that is Paris at night and pinch myself just to check I was actually present.

I have always been a Francophile and rue the fact that my mother, who spoke perfect French, never conversed to me in that tongue from birth. So I arrived in France with slightly better than ‘O’ level spoken French, which didn’t improve much for the first six months as I was working in a small office of mixed nationalities, so everyone spoke English. However, after that period I was moved to work in the main agency (advertising) to work with a French art director, Hervé Plummet, whose English was worse than my French. My linguistic skills improved dramatically in a comparatively short period.

The urban myth is that all Parisians are markedly rude, even the French living outside the capital claim so, but I found them no ruder than Londoners and in certain ways friendlier. If you make the effort to speak their language, they’ll make the effort to pretend to understand. Early on in ma vie en Paris I went to buy a ticket for the Metro.

‘Un billet à l’Odeon, si vous plaît,’ I asked in my politest French.

Unfortunately no one had informed me that double ‘l’ after an ‘i’ is, in most cases and certainly this, silent. What I had in fact asked for, as any French speaker will tell you, is a billet, or a bed, to the Odeon. Eventually the laughter on the other side of the grille died down but only after I had blushed to the roots of my hair (not a claim I could make now) wondering precisely what I had said. I just thought if I have to make an arse of myself every time I open my mouth in order to learn this language then arse it is. And cul it was.

Tuesday, 29 May 2007

Blogs, Blogging and History

I have been following a lively debate about the pros and cons of academic blogging being conducted by a number of military historians, two of whom, coincidently, I know,Ester MacCallum-Smith and Gary Smailes.

Gary writes about ‘[t] he democratising effect of the web,’ in the sense, as I interpret it, that the web breaks down the historical, hierarchical academic structure; with the result that this will release ‘a hoard of amateur historians.’ He goes on to argue ‘that control will be brought about through the development of networks and communities, with university lecturers forming an integral controlling factor. They will act as a ‘listening post’ and a ‘voice of reason’ in the fragmented network of research groups.’ In other words, a sort of Blog Open University of History.

I am no historian, military or otherwise, nor am I an academic though, having completed an MA in Modern French Thought, I would classify myself as a textual interrogator, not strictly a Derridean deconstructionist but inevitably persuaded by his thought. That said, the current discussion has prompted me to ponder on the question of what is history and what it is to blog.

History must always be contemporary; its function, determination and application is governed by the underlying assumptions and values – cultural, political, religious and social – of the era in which it is discussed. The web, of course, influences all these factors. (In fact, one can argue, it is helping to polarise and entrench opinion within certain of them, e.g. religion and politics.) But is it a determining cause or a contributing factor?

It is a fact that just as it is impossible to see the ground directly beneath one’s feet so it is to see the presuppositions that one stands on in life, which is precisely why we need historians and philosophers to look back and analyse the ground we have covered in the hope that we will better understand the point to which we have arrived as well as provide answers as to where we might be going. (Down the pan if I continue this metaphor much longer.)

If I take Gary’s ‘democratising effect’ as the assertion by the individual to claim back what he regards as rightfully his, and combine that with the rise of blogging and online networks then I believe you can identify a drastic shift of the individual’s sense of identity, not in the sense of who he is but what he is, his Being. (And forgive me for using the male gender but it is a tradition in philosophical thought, a description that inflates the value of this text to the point of pretentiousness.) Though this modification has not necessarily been wrought by the web, the latter has for sure aided and abetted it.

It is the manifestation of identity through a form of symbiotic relativism. It is not, in Ester’s words, so much ‘[w]e think therefore we are, therefore we blog’, but we blog so that we are because we are linked. My Being is confirmed by my connections. (Be honest, how often have you Googled yourself?) It may be regarded as the polar opposite of Sartre’s thought where the Other was always hostile and thus ‘the essence of relations between consciousnesses… is conflict’? (Sartre, Being and Nothingness, 2001, p. 429.) Now the essence of relations between consciousnesses is confirmation, albeit remotely, of mutual self. In fact, the remoteness of the relationship is not an unfortunate happenstance but essential. Again we have swung 180 degrees, this time from the Socratic belief that the written word is to be distrusted, as it is open to interpretation without immediate riposte, to the idea that the written word, however slippery, has some form of immortality attached to it unlike the spoken word or, indeed, ourselves. Our blog is now our soul.

This is a long way from the original debate, but that is blogging for you.

Tuesday, 22 May 2007

I have to say that ever since I signed up to the 'In search of Adam' campaign my flatmate has been taking it very seriously.

She spent the whole of this morning scrutinising every individual the length and breadth of Western Road. The fact that is was a beautiful sunny morning was obviously just a coincidence, for when I accused her of using the unfortunate Adam as an excuse for starting her tan, she was most indignant claiming that she was a Goth and sunlight was a complete anathema to her - pale skin being de rigeur among her kind. After which she flounced out of the flat and spent the rest of the afternoon down at the local police control room studying the input from the 3.9 million CCTVs that spy on this little city of ours.

Don't ask me how she managed to blag her way in but she spent a fruitless afternoon and came away suitably pale and wan.

Thursday, 17 May 2007

After further research into the Miss Thompson twins, as I believe it is now safe to refer to them, I have discovered the remarkable influence that they had on the young, and older, Winston.

Is it too much to conjecture that the young Winston's prelediction for le chapeau melon, as our whimiscal French cousins like to refer to the bowler hat, was as a direct influence of these two formidale ladies?

He certainly continued with the style into his later years.

Though, perhaps, he eventually rebelled against it.

In the beginning…

I live on Western Road, Brighton, in a large thirties building accommodating five floors of purpose built flats, six floors if you include the penthouse (but I don’t as that is way above my means let alone my head).

Western Road is the main shopping drag in Brighton. At one end, it plays host to the city’s modest shopping mall, Churchill Square, and, at the other, the floral clock. While some may feel that so naming the mall is a slice of self-aggrandisement too far, there is a tenuous link. As a young lad, Churchill did attend a preparatory school for a brief period run by the Misses Thompson in Hove. Though the good people of Hove may feel pissed off by this theft of a piece of their corporate identity, Brighton’s need for tokens of respectability is greater. Brighton has never had a good press ever since George Part III went mad and allowed his son first to open the Regency and then the Pavilion .

You can’t help feeling whoever it was that baptised the roads of Brighton were somewhat confused about the compass. No argument that Western Road is appropriately named as it does point towards the setting sun. However, the street that runs in the opposite direction and points to the rising sun is named North Street. While the street that leads in a southerly direction down to the sea is named West Street. By the time they came to identify a road to christen South Street, the authorities that be had given up. What, by their logic, should have been South Street is called Queen’s Road. These were clearly not naval men though loyal to Her Majesty, Queen Victoria d'Este of the House of Hanover, every one.

Brighton is not a place for the paranoid. With over 4 million CCTV cameras constantly broadcasting, this noble and once free country of ours is now the most scrutinized on earth. And of those 4 million, 3.9 million are concentrated in Brighton. Paranoia is contagious especially among the boys and gals in blue. Brighton police famously overact to any form of demonstration. During the early days of protest against the Iraq war, I counted 150 protestors being shepherded down Western Road by over 200 police – this soon after I had attended a demonstration in London where over a million demonstrators were marshalled by a single mounted policeman on a white horse.

Am I paranoid? Not me! Just because I don’t trust anyone doesn't make me paranoid. Oh no! It may make them paranoid, but not me.