I Won* Something! (*came second)

Writing about writing is all well and good, but it doesn't beat just writing. So a few weeks ago I entered a flash fiction competition run by Faber, called "quickfic". It's just a bit of fun - 250 words to be written and submitted in a few hours, based on a photo prompt, hence "quick fiction". And I came second! Which won me a lovely book of short stories.

I thought I'd share it here. So, here's the image, followed by my little story.

Quick Fic Image

Seaview by Greg Lovell

I suppose it is rather a lot of me, yes. It’s only that, well, Dorothy is just better with the camera. Says I can’t hold the darn thing straight! And who am I to argue?

There was actually quite a bit of sun for the time of year. She kept telling me; “Put a hat on George, for Pete’s sake! You’ll burn in a flash.” And she was right, as usual; I think I did go a bit pink.

But there were no crowds. You know how Dorothy hates crowds. All those queues and the litter and the bits of exposed bodies no-one really ought to see. So it was perfect really.

Planning was down to yours truly, of course. We’ve never really gone in for anything too fancy, so I chose the Seaview. Do you know it? Funnily enough, it’s got everything you’d need, apart from a view of the sea! We did laugh.

It was only for four days in the end. Enough time, really. Quite a few of things we’d have gone to see had closed. I wonder what these people do when they’re not running the steam train, or the ice cream stands or the postcard stalls. Do you think they fly south? Get away from the grey and the cold? Do they leave behind everything they’ve worked for for so long, just in the hope that there’s something more exciting on offer somewhere else? Perhaps they’ve got no choice. Dorothy would probably know.

(I should just explain that when I saw the photo, I took it to be a man wearing a homemade filming contraption - kind of an early selfie stick. Look closely! The story makes more sense if you can see that too.)

Don’t Stop Me Now, I’m Having an Experience!

Shuffle closer, dear reader, and prepare to benefit from the wisdom of my experience. We all understand experience, don’t we? Experience is the product of what you’ve done in your past. Paths trodden, people met, hurdles leapt and trials passed. But wait! Experience is also the now. You can buy an experience to experience today!

Of course, there has always been more than one meaning of the word “experience”. This isn’t etymologically unusual. A “lift” is both an elevator and a boost – similar, but not the same. There are countless examples. What has happened in recent days is a worrying confusion between the two meanings of experience and, remarkably, it’s arisen in that bastion of clear thinking and straight talking, the House of Commons.

David Cameron, in defence of our MPs (struggling by on £67,000 a year, paid through taxation) having second jobs, said that limiting people to a single role would rob the House of vital experience. Sir Peter Tapsell went so far as to suggest that banning the experience brought about by second jobs would lead to a House of Commons filled with “obsessive crackpots” or “those who are unemployable elsewhere”.

I’m all in favour of MPs having experience. If they’ve done something other than work in politics, it certainly would help them to understand the country better. Before they commit to serving the public as an elected representative on nearly triple the average salary, experience of something else would be very useful. They can then apply this experience to the challenges they face in their new role.

But working for another organisation at the same time as you’re doing one very important job is a quite different thing. Newly retiring Sir Malcolm Rifkind is on the board of Alliance Medical, earning £60,000 a year for attending 10 meetings. Alliance Medical recently won a contract from the government to provide scanning services in the NHS. Its bid was £7m more than the public NHS provider’s bid. But it won. I’m in no way suggesting Sir Malcolm could possibly have influenced this process, although as a paid advisor to Alliance, he must have been jolly pleased with the outcome. He’s paid to be happy about this. What about his constituents, who pay his £67,000 MP salary? Is it good for them? Or is this situation, which the PM labels “experience”, a waste of money and a clear and obvious conflict of interest? Never mind. Experience is a good thing, you see! That hugely valuable trait we should be delighted to find in our MPs.

And here is where the word “experience” trips us up. Rifkind is having an experience at Alliance Medical – it’s happening right now. How the experience he’s going through at Alliance might inform his work as an MP is rightly troubling. The concurrency of this experience makes it entirely different to potentially beneficial experience born of past work. One day, he may look back on this time and consider himself wiser for the experience. At the moment, it just plain stinks.

And our deeply worried friend Sir Peter himself isn’t bringing “experience” in the traditional sense of having faced challenges that would help him to empathise with his constituents’ travails. It transpires he’s having an experience too, although he forgot to mention it at the time. The undoubtedly joyful experience of earning £30,000 a year advising a Japanese bank for 10 hours each month.

So while we might welcome MPs with experience, we should be very wary of any who are having a well-paid experience right now. And particularly of those who deliberately confuse the two.

It All Started With Google

It all started with Google. Almost inevitably it took an American company to really bring the idea of employee values to the mass market. “Don’t be evil”, they said. Whatever you think about the nefarious tax avoidance Google indulges in, it was at least a clear message to people working there. They’re thinking of changing it now, apparently. So just as the market leaders move out of the space, British companies are stepping in.

I was “shopping around” recently to find the best deal on a product that I never see and is utterly identical regardless of who sells it, when I noticed one supplier had just adopted the Google approach. It’s a large company; let’s call it “Utiloscam”. I’m saying no more to protect the horribly guilty. I’ll get to the way Utiloscam has presented its values in a moment. First, let’s look at Google. “Don’t be evil,” sounds fairly banal, doesn’t it? Are we expected to be grateful that a company implores its employees not to embody the ethics of Beelzebub? Well, up to a point. But it has its merits as a motto. Firstly, it’s quite striking. People remember it. It’s short, punchy and makes you think. It’s anti-corporate in its tone – companies never used to talk like that. And because it’s widely known, there must at least have been something nagging away in the back of the Google exec’s mind, as he toyed with the idea of stealing someone’s personal details for profit. Hypothetically.

So, as a value – something to identify the company in the minds of users and workers – it’s pretty successful. And when other companies recognised the usefulness of this, they started to think about doing something similar themselves.

Which brings us to Utiloscam. Now Utiloscam isn’t any more or less evil than any other large organisation, in truth. It seems to suffer from a similar level of delusion about its merits as nearly everyone else selling us stuff. It wants to convince itself that it’s more than what it is – another distressing trait of companies these days – but that can be forgiven for now. No, what is so eye-bleedingly awful about Utiloscam is its approach to values.

Seemingly convinced that one value is good, so seven must be better, Utiloscam has launched upon the world a set of statements so screeching meaningless, that in their faux-positivity, they become a black hole of dreadfulness. I’m not going to analyse in great detail the individual statements – partly because it’s not fair on you to be forced to read them and partly because that’s not really my point. Let’s just say that if you think, as an organisation, you need to tell employees that “we want to make things better” and then in the next breath “we communicate as people”, you are patently doing neither. You communicate as a 1980s Hallmark card and so make things worse.

There’s a reasonable test of the significance of a statement (which admittedly doesn’t always work) that involves stating the negative and seeing if that is worth countering. So, if you say as a company “we’ll reply to you within a day”, it’s not particularly inspiring, but at least makes sense when set against “we won’t reply to you within a day”. It’s got value to the reader – it tells you more about the organisation. However, if you say (using the test) “we want to make things worse”, you know the contrary statement is a waste of type. As for “we communicate as people”, it rather invites the question “what on earth else are you going to communicate as?” A short-haired musk rat?*

I understand what Utiloscam is trying to do. It’s trying to be “normal” and “honest”. It wants to make statements that are unequivocal and show it to be a straightforward kinda place. It has failed. Spectacularly. It’s done the opposite. It’s chosen too many values so it looks like it can’t decide on one. It’s left its audience bemused as to why it felt the need to tell us these things. In an effort to be natural, it comes over as trying so hard that it looks desperate. It’s the small child virtually dislocating its shoulder as it puts its hand up to shout out “Values! I’ve got values! Miss, miss! Me miss! Values!”

So what’s the lesson? These kinds of value statements only have value themselves if they sound sincere, are simple and say more than just the toe-curlingly obvious. If you read them and they make you question their existence – a sort of “that makes me think they’ve got something to hide” response, then they shouldn’t be there. What I thought after encountering Utiloscam’s values is that they don’t have any clear idea of what their values are, but they really think they should have some. It’s a worse than nothing approach.

Or, as Google might have said: “Don’t be needy”.

*I don't know if such a thing exists. Hopefully it does.

GloboComm - Give Us Our Language Back!

Someone has stolen the English language and I think we should ask for it back. Fear not, this isn’t some pseudo-Faragian rant about how it’s every man’s right to use abusive language towards women without some hysterical harpy leaping up and burning her bra. Or indeed a paean to the good old days when casual racism was treated with the levity it deserves. No, it’s much more serious than that. It’s about what companies are doing to English and how they must be stopped.

Before I begin, I’d like to make it clear that any resemblance to the practices of any organisation I may or may not have worked with, living or dead, is entirely coincidental. And frankly, it would be nigh on impossible to identify a particular corporation when the abuse to which I will refer is so widespread as to have infiltrated every business in the land.

This thing I will go on to explain is something that sounds good, but like so many things that sound good, is in fact dreadful. I’ll cut to the chase. It’s calling colleagues inside your organisation “customers”. There. Shocked, are you? Well bear with me. So, for example, if you’re the person who turns computers off and then on again when they break, the poor sap whose marketing report suddenly disappeared is your “customer”.

customeralwaysright-300x294The logic here is clear. Well, it’s simple, which is not quite the same thing. Someone from a management consultancy was thinking about new ways to dress up their services (telling bosses to fire people) when they stumbled on something so ground-breaking that it emerged from their mind as a fully-formed PowerPoint presentation. “The customer is always right”, thought Jed. “And if the customer is always right, why not make everyone the customer! Then, every time a colleague does something for someone, they can act like that person is a customer! So they’ll treat them in a super-awesome way (Jed’s American, I think)!” I then picture Jed pulling his jacket over his head and airplaning (American) around the office shouting “wooooooo”.

And what a grand idea it is. Treat everyone like a customer, and then whatever it is you do in your job to help that person will be so much better because you care about them as much as you do your actual customers. It’s possible you’ve already spotted a potential flaw in this. But, in fact, the reality of how most organisations treat their actual customers (yes you, BT. And every train company) isn’t the problem here. The problem is that Mick in sales, or Diane in comms, they just aren’t your customers. They’re your colleagues. Your workmates. Fellow employees. Lots of words can be used to describe to them, but they are categorically not customers.

“But wait”, pipes up Jed (his bonus is riding on this being a success, remember) “they are like customers. They come to you for a service, so they are customers for your service. Which means – OH MY GOD – you can deliver them customer service.” Then he’s off with the plane thing again.

I have one very significant problem with this approach. And lots of smaller problems with it, but let’s stick to the biggie. It actually comes back to Jed’s eureka moment and the notion that “the customer is always right.” Put aside, if you can, the fact that hardly any businesses make you, the actual customer, feel that you’re right. Or even half-right. In fact, most businesses see you as a pretty irritating distraction from their real purpose – having stupidly long and unnecessary internal meetings.

Now, with your disbelief firmly suspended, think again of the implication of calling your colleagues “the customer”. Firstly, like it or not, you can’t shake the notion that this makes them more right than they used to be. So now, if you’re, say, a writer (plucked from the air, this) then you need to write exactly what Brian in networks thinks you should. He’s the customer, after all. The fact that Brian is a barely literate simpleton whose knowledge of English flows exclusively from back copies of Computer Shopper isn’t important. He’s the customer now.

In any normal, sensible, functioning organisation, the writer in our example would politely advise Brian that sentences are allowed to end and his draft document should aim to include more words that are not acronyms than are. She’d say, “Brian, you know networks. Your knowledge of networks leaves me cowering in the corner, afraid that computers will take over the world. But you can’t write. At all. Your emails make grown men weep. Let me do the writing, you stick to connecting stuff with wires or whatever and everyone at GloboComm will be happy.”

No longer. Because Brian is a customer, the notion of different people being good at different things is abandoned. You’re not allowed to burn Brian’s document in your bin, laughing demonically. Not any more.

Now, none of this is to say that colleagues shouldn’t be treated with respect. But if you introduce the idea that everyone is a customer, then teamwork, collaboration and the sense that you’re all in it together at GloboComm, goes out of the window. You’ll be judged on how happy the customer was. Not on how good you are at what you do, but on how well your performance was perceived by someone who, by definition, is significantly worse at whatever it is than you are.

It’s too late, of course. Jed’s genie is out of the bottle. And because his idea sounds like it should be good, everyone now thinks that it is. But it really, really isn’t good. It’s a case of using entirely the wrong word and reaping havoc because of it.

If you don’t agree and think this is, in fact, a major breakthrough in how companies are run, then you’re wrong. I can say you’re wrong, because you’re not my customer. You’re probably someone I vaguely knew at university reading this on Facebook while Brian sorts out your email. Let him do his job. He’s better at it than you.

Rewriting Depression

Two things to tell you. One, I’m writing a book (you might know this already). Two, I suffer from depression. As things stand right now, managing the first is harder than the second. I’ve toyed with the idea of discussing depression on this blog for a long time, but it was difficult for all kinds of reasons. Primarily, I was embarrassed. No matter how many times you’re told that “you wouldn’t be ashamed of breaking your leg”, there’s a stigma around mental health which doesn't exist for most other illnesses or injuries (unless you get a hoover stuck up your arse, or similar). So, rather than give you a long explanation of what happened to me, I thought I’d share a very short extract from my book (likely publication date - never). Most of the novel is entirely fictional, but because it addresses a main character with depression, I’ve obviously drawn on some of my experiences.

The set-up here is this - depression is a character in the book. He (and it is a he) has a voice and narrates large chunks of the story. So here, when he talks about “we”, he means both himself (the depression “character”) and the main real person,who is having the breakdown at this point. And when he says “I”, it’s the depression talking and “he” is Nick, the main human character with whom the depression shares his existence. Clear? No, probably not. Anyway….

Here’s how I try to describe having a nervous breakdown:

“We stared at the floor. A voice was echoing miles away. The world was frozen in front  of our face and we had forgotten how to move, how to see, how to feel. A distant touch on our arm. The nervous reaction that would have turned our head felt like treacle running through our body, crawling from arm to shoulder to neck and then head. It seeped into our brain and, like a cloud drifting on a windless day, our head moved to the left.

A sound came from the person beside us. Their face was familiar but seemed out of place. Inside, we were writhing in a brutal ecstasy. A moment of powerful climax. We squeezed together everything we were and everything we are and bound it tighter and tighter until…

a flood of fear, hope, love, hate, loss, failure, weakness and despair erupted inside us. Then the tears. The endless, uncontrollable tears as the person we were gushed out of us. Heaving sobs forced out a torrent of pain. Our wrists curled inwards – fists clenched to the point of drawing blood, the tension in our forearms causing veins to push out onto our skin. Paralysed.

And suddenly our mind became blindingly clear. The inevitability of death not so much a desire as a fait accompli. We didn’t fight. We couldn’t fight. It was just there. The only thought in a mind cleared of everything else. We expected it to simply come. To scoop us up from the dirty bench in the dirty park in front of our wife and children and take us. Death not as a journey or even a destination, but death as us and us as death.

For two days we stayed together. Our body was redundant really. We had stepped into a new place and all there was was us and nothing. Nothing stretched out like a desert – squeezing us with its vastness. We’d found enough inside us to ask for things to be hidden. No knives, glass, pills, drink, belts or ties.  And we looked at nothing and nothing paid us no attention at all. But wherever we turned, it was there. If we tried to look up to the future, a sharp light burned our eyes and so we stared back at nothing again.

There are only two things that can happen. Either you can live, or you can die. And, quite clearly, we lived. We weren’t relieved, or angry, but we weren’t dead. And if you’re not dead, then sooner or later you need to live. So, slowly, hesitantly, we were helped to the doctor. And then we knew we would live a little more, not because we were helped, but because we were frustrated that we hadn’t been. And that meant that we’d found a reason to live, even if it was destructive and not the reason it should have been. It was enough for us to loosen our grip on one another. Just enough to for me to see a chance for another moment of ecstasy in our future. And just enough for him to take the step that led to the hospital.

And when we ended up in the hospital, slowly I unwound myself further and there was a little distance again. But neither of us could forget what we’d been through. How close we’d come to leaving this world as one. I was content to rest for a brief while, but the passion and the power of that day left me wanting more. And we’d laid the foundations for much more. A hit to take us to the very edge of existence. An opiate-like high which next time, we might not come down from. It was a risky business, but what is life if not a series of risks. Ours were just going to be bigger, higher, darker and louder than the rest.”

All I’m hoping from this is that a few people get a better understanding of depression, or at least start to think about it, even if just for a minute or two. And if you’d like to learn more, then the social media campaign “time to change” and the charity Mind are great places to start. Thanks for reading.

The Unlikely Inspiration of a Museum of Freaks

In January I started a course with Faber & Faber on writing a novel. My application consisted of 1000 words of a book I've been working on for years. It wasn't really going anywhere until I had something of a revelation and changed my approach. The "new" story apparently had enough about it and I was accepted.

A typical Hunterian specimen

The course presents an eye-opening way to approach writing. We're encouraged to think about point of view, narrator, dialogue and structure in a way you tend not to when you just sit and write. It's changing the way I think about all writing. And indeed reading, too.

Last week, we were asked to "kidnap a character". This meant finding an unsuspecting member of the public and imagining their story. Faber & Faber's offices are in Bloomsbury and so we were released into the wilds of central London to find someone to use for our writing. I found myself in the Hunterian Museum. It's bizarre, unnerving and utterly fascinating. Based on a collection of animal and human samples, it's ostensibly a surgical museum, but probably draws as many visitors intrigued by the skeletons of famous travelling "giants" and "dwarves" of the eighteenth century. Some people inevitably come for the twisted and deformed samples - stored in thousands of glass jars lining the walls.

I saw a man walking methodically around the museum, quietly studying every exhibit - reading the signs in detail, ignoring the video of brain tumour surgery (skull sawing and all) to read about a heart-lung machine. I watched him pause at an exhibition about the early days of plastic surgery - pioneered during the First World War, when the hideous shrapnel injuries were unprecedented. He was, I discovered as I left, chaperoning a group of young adults, although he didn't interact with them at all until they reached the shop.

We returned to Faber's offices and were given 30 minutes to write a story, imagining our character and something they had great affection for. With this quite wide brief in mind, here's what I wrote:

Alf and Tommy

I can never go straight there. It takes me a while to build up to it. The kids wonder why we keep coming back here, but they don't really mind. Let dad have his moment - we can run about laughing at the dissected penises. Peni? Penises.

The animals first, to ease myself in. You feel bad for the deformed rat foetus, but then what kind of life would it have had? Then past the syphilitic bones - dissolved basically. The sheep gut condom makes me a bit self-conscious, to be honest.

It's ridiculous that there are no other pictures of him. How can they all have been lost? I suppose my dad wasn't so bothered. Perhaps he saw the image of his father - face scarred and distorted, even as he grew old - and thought only of pain. There probably weren't very many pictures to begin with. He wasn't a shy man in life, but it's not hard to imagine that he avoided cameras. Who wants to feel like a sideshow freak, even if the picture was taken with love?

It always annoys me that he's in the bottom light box. I have to crouch so low to see in. It's not designed for people to look for long, I suppose. When I do put my eyes against the holes and see the first grainy, green-lit photo, I hope it's not him. I don't want him to be in there, staring out at the twin-skulled cat all day and night.

Turning the knob, I know the order well. Tommy, Derek, Wilf, Robert, then him. I've given them names, you see. Maybe others come and do the same and give my grandfather a name too. Perhaps even the right one - Alf would be a reasonable guess.

I don't mind that so much of his face is missing in the picture. In my memory he is never less than whole and I can fill in the gaps where his cheek and jaw were. He had no choice but to learn to smile with his eyes and he did it with such a forceful luminosity that it took my breath away every time I saw him. It felt like a special light had gone on, just for me.

I didn't tell him what was happening at school or why I so hated the endless terms. I'd told my dad and look where that got me. But with him, I was free. Free and safe. For anyone to leave half of his face on a Belgian field and be such a complete human being still staggered me. That he could give so much love when most men would be consumed with hatred made him all the more incredible.

So I crouched and I stared and I had the same quiet conversation as always. "Love you, Pappy." I turned the wheel to Tommy. "Sorry Tom." But Pappy had seen enough horror - at least I could protect him from any more. "Love you , Pappy."

No Wheels on My Wagon

A few days ago, I gave up drinking for six weeks. I’m going on holiday in the summer and I felt my liver deserved a holiday too. Obviously we can’t go together, so it was going first. In a bid to tackle the habitual reach for a beer when I cook dinner, I thought I’d try out a range of alternatives. I’m sure sirens were screeching at Tesco HQ as they realised I was buying products so out of kilter with my Clubcard profile, or indeed that of any sane adult, that their entire IT system must be in meltdown.

I began this experiment cautiously, sticking to the alcohol free facsimiles of recognised brands – Becks Blue and Cobra Zero. These have the visual cache of looking like proper beer. In fact, if you didn’t really like beer, you could be convinced that this was the real deal. A bit like if you were a lifelong vegetarian, you could be convinced that “facon” was a reasonable approximation of its (very distant) porky cousin. What I would say for these two, is that they are not horrible. Drinking them isn’t unpleasant; it just isn’t all that nice. Unlike drinking beer.

I’ve never drunk Kopparberg cider because it’s always appeared to be a nasty, sweet, travesty of a drink. Essentially an alcopop. If this is true (and I can’t be sure), then those clever people at the Kopparberg industrial facility have really nailed it with Kopparberg Alcohol-Free. It tastes exactly like a miserable, cloying, pear “flavour” beverage should. Like American sweets, basically. Avoid.

Wisely, Becks Blue elected to stay out of this group shot

So, onwards, and to what can only be described as the most optimistic piece of marketing this side of the Rhine. Erdinger isn’t a German alcohol-free beer. Good God no! It’s sports nutrition. Lucozade for people who really care about the Bavarian Purity Law. If you’ve ever wondered how Germans can drink all that lager and still produce football teams dramatically better than our own, wonder no more. They’re drinking Erdinger, with its isotonic balance, folic acid and vitamin B12 fortification “which help reduce fatigue, promote energy yielding metabolism and support the immune system.” When you realise you’re essentially drinking a health food supplement, you start to quite enjoy Erdinger. Can I suggest that if you play a team sport, get the coach to bring out a tray of pints of Erdinger at halftime, while talking loudly about “being in the zone”, “winning every challenge” and “staying focused”. I guarantee you’ll win the second half as your opponents mentally crumble.

Finally, I tried Equator. I should say I am furious with the makers of Equator. On the label it claims to be a “beer flavour drink”. Equator is not a “beer flavour drink”. It’s utterly undrinkable. This miserable concoction falls at the very first hurdle. In fact, it falls over in the stable, weeks before the race, clutching its head and screaming “WHY?” Never in the short history of alcohol-free drinks for people who can’t stop drinking alcohol has anything so gut-wrenchingly despicable been foisted on the public. I can only assume it’s called Equator because the best use for it would be to test which way liquid flows down the sink at zero degrees latitude. It hasn’t even got the decency to be fizzy enough to hide the taste.

After three hellish days, I didn’t so much fall off the wagon as leap off it gleefully, push it down a cliff and set fire to it. So (and here’s the tenuous language bit), alcohol–free alcoholic drinks are just as contradictory as they sound. Don’t be lured into this false paradise of guilt-free beer. If you’re going to stop drinking, be an adult about it and drink Coke, or water, or tea. And never, ever, drink Equator.

Getting Some TXT Education

I have a friend – let’s call him Paul (because that’s his name) – who likes to use a system called Whatsapp to communicate with me and other friends. It’s an excellent system, in fact. It allows you to send messages, pictures, sound clips and videos in real time to one or more of your contacts. It lets us chat, basically. The way Paul uses the system is quite different to other people I know. He is wedded to the use of text (or txt) language. Everything he writes is abbreviated. This used to make sense when you were being charged for individual text messages, but Whatsapp is ostensibly free. There are no limits on the number of characters you can use in each message. Bluntly, you don’t need to use the abbreviations. However, Paul insists. In recent days, communication between certain friends and Paul has broken down because all we talk about is the way Paul writes, rather than what he’s saying. Most of the conversation comprises wild guesses at what his latest abbreviation is supposed to mean.

It’s a pretty trivial example, but it got me thinking about how often this ends up being true in other situations. Very often, the medium is the message, as much as the content. So, in recent debates about immigration, there’s at least as much importance placed on the way the topic is described as there is on any policies that may be advanced. In fact, these policies are usually put forward to “deal” with immigration. Now, it’s rare that you “deal” with something that isn’t already perceived to be a problem. You tend not to “deal” with being given a great birthday present, or being told that you are fit and healthy.

So when politicians and said to be “tackling” immigration, they are usually also “talking tough”. I am quite sure that communications experts have advised them that what they say is basically irrelevant, as long as the language fits the narrative of a problem that must be addressed. Much of what David Cameron said this week on immigration was revealed to be factually dubious, practically irrelevant or hopelessly vague. However, the news outlets all picked up on the speech as a new approach to “dealing” with immigration. It doesn’t really matter whether it is or it isn’t. It doesn’t even matter if there is much of a problem there in the first place. What matters is that the language is king. To be on the right side of the argument (as a conservative press sees it), you just need to sound tough.

While we’ve been wasting time trying to understand what Paul’s been on about this week, without getting close to any meaning, politicians have also focused on language. Only they’ve been very deliberate. They understand that when language is emotive, the underlying reasoning is secondary. In a different way, they’re doing what Paul’s inadvertently done – used language to blind us to the message. Though I doubt very much anyone cares what Paul was saying (we think he was planning to order a curry), a lot of people care about what the Prime Minister says. But more importantly, they care about how he says it.

Is it Time to Bring Up The Body of Nuance?

Imagine if you will that everyone in real life was an exact human embodiment of their social media outpourings. We would be overrun by aggressive, bullying, blinkered bigots who were funny about 1% of the time and derived their moral philosophy from a tea-towel. Them and really intensely boring people. Anne Boleyn (possibly)

I’ve just finished reading Bring up the Bodies, by Hilary Mantel. It’s the sequel to Wolf Hall and concerns the events surrounding the rather abrupt breakdown of Henry VIII’s marriage to Anne Boleyn. Mantel was recently caught up in a row about a speech alleged to have denigrated our future queen, Kate (you know, Pippa’s sister).

On the surface, there may not be much correlation between Facebook, Twitter and the like and a barney about a royal. But I think there is. It’s nuance. Social media effectively destroys nuance. In 140 characters, it’s virtually impossible to create subtlety of argument. Most people don’t try and, more importantly, most readers don’t look for it. I couldn’t help but wonder if the reason why Mantel’s speech caused such apoplexy amongst some of our more “conservative” newspapers was because they had lost the ability to detect textured, thoughtful prose. Or they hadn’t read it.

The speech in its entirety is a brilliantly constructed expose of the public image of royal figures, from Anne Boleyn to Kate. Taken out of context, a comment that Kate is “precision-made, machine-made” seems rather mean, but that’s to avoid the important parallels the speech draws out between historical and modern royalty. It seems to me that Mantel’s main point was that the press and so the nation mould these women first into vessels for our own notion of beauty and then, into wombs. It’s an indictment of us, not them.

My reading may be wrong – plenty of commentators thought it was a spiteful speech. I don’t particularly care what conclusion people reach, as long as they read the whole thing. Then think about it. You would hope that reviewers of Bring up the Bodies would have read it and thought about it before commenting. It’s a book that demands attention. It’s extraordinarily detailed, but it doesn’t bludgeon an emotional response from the reader. The central character, Thomas Cromwell, is as nuanced as any in contemporary fiction.

Social media has its place – I’m a big fan – but it’s increasingly obvious that this place is not at the heart of debates which require facts, argument, subtly, balance or consideration. As we live our real, offline lives, we appreciate that people are multi-dimensional. We may like or dislike them, but we don’t reduce them to 140 characters. Sometimes our lives and our language need nuance. If we all took a break from pillorying Nick Clegg or describing our cat’s breakfast, we’d discover it isn’t all that difficult to find.

Reality Bites

I’ve been pondering the nature of reality recently, as is one's wont. Not perhaps to the depths of Descartes or Wittgenstein, but pondering none the less. In fact it's truer to say I've been musing on the linguistic concept of reality or “real”. “Real” is a synonym for “true” in common parlance. So when we are told we can read about "the real Katie Price", we are being sold, notionally at least, the objective truth about erstwhile model Jordan. But consider how this expression is given an entirely contrary meaning in two parallel phrases. A "real woman" is media shorthand for an everyday woman - flawed but confident. Imperfect but all the more honest and therefore relatable because of it. It's a standard counter to the unrealistically perfect images of high-profile women (who are, bizarrely, put on a pedestal by the same incongruent commentators). "Ah, but she's a real woman, just like you and me. Not like Kate, or Sienna, who we worship / sneer at from afar." says someone deeply confused in the Daily Mail features department.

Consider then the “real man”. The real man is a kind of macho-sensitive ideal: Milk Tray meets David Beckham via someone suitably strong and silent yet still able to share his feelings. In contrast to their female counterparts, I'm pretty sure real men don't have weight problems that can be patronisingly transmuted into joie de vivre.

So "real" in the context of women and men has developed bizarrely conflicting meanings. It's a very telling example of how cultural context and usage loads words with meaning. It’s probably best to leave the exploration of reality to the philosophers, but for writers, understanding the meaning of words is at least as important as knowing the definition. Really.

Can Words Ever be Wasted? It's a Racing Certainty

You can’t get away from horses in the UK at the moment. They are either turning up in your lasagne or stalking David Cameron’s leadership. Both of these stories have great comic potential in my mind, if for no other reason than they are taken dreadfully seriously and in the big scheme of things, really aren’t important. If you want jokes about horses and food, can I suggest Twitter. I’m going to write briefly about Adam Afriyie, the stalking horse that wasn’t. Afriyie is a previously unknown MP who seems to have delusions of grandeur. Journalists across the land have been scurrying around trying to find out something about this mystery man with the boundless self-confidence. What they discovered is that he is very rich and largely made his money selling words.

Mr Afriyie is no author, however. He’s not even a journalist, a scriptwriter or a playwright. He runs a company which provides articles to web sites looking to improve their search engine rankings. His is a content sweatshop. His workers are required to churn out documents, which include all important keywords, to be uploaded to web sites and never read. It’s words as commodity. Widget words.

The articles were about 250 words long, for which customers would pay £18. The writers would have strict targets to hit. One manager spoke of creating 100 articles in a 30 hour shift. Can you imagine what he was putting out by the end?

It’s tempting to be terribly pious about this. Language has the potential to be enormously powerful, to inspire love or fear, to topple governments and to heal great divides. Afriyie is casting this to the wind. He’s stripping out the poetry and leaving us with little black lines. But what’s wrong with that? In most other forms of sustenance we have the prosaic and the exotic. Baked beans and chateaubriand. T-shirts and tiaras.

For me, it’s not so much that this company makes money from cheap content, it’s that the words are meaningless. Articles are created as a way to hold keywords in place, which themselves are just signposts for something else. It's not the banality of  the company’s product, it’s the pointlessness.

Frankly, Mr Afriyie, you are wasting words. You’re building roads from them, stuffing them into cavity walls. Is it possible to imagine a sadder way to waste such a precious gift? Writing articles that no one wants to read, or probably ever will, written by people who don’t know or care what they’re writing about. Soulless. You’d be better off making up jokes about burgers winning the Grand National.

Cow Horse

A Picture Tells a Thousand Words (none of them written by Sylvia Plath)

Depression is either a) horribly debilitating, painful and wounding; or b) a bit like shopping for shoes. As Sylvia Plath's quasi-autobiographical novel, the Bell Jar, is re-released, take a guess what the cover designer thinks. belljars

This is a timely reminder that it's not always the words that we use which influence our perceptions, but how they are presented.

(Image courtesy of London Review of Books - http://www.lrb.co.uk/blog/2013/01/31/fatema-ahmed/silly-covers-for-lady-novelists/)

The Pitfalls of Populism

There's a very odd debate going on in the UK at the moment, between two words that no-one uses in everyday talk, but have polarised the country. The words are "shirker" and "striver". Ask yourself if you have ever used either of these in ordinary conversation. It's unlikely. How then, can these phrases encapsulate a hugely significant argument about social security, work, effort and reward? The truth is that these words originate in a tabloid hinterland where people still call chocolates "chocs" and attractive women are "lovelies". They are loaded terms precisely because they have no common application. If you hear the word "striver", you don't think of strivers you know, or the last person you called a striver. You accept the simple, comic-book definition because you don't have any other associations with the word.

In that sense, they are very useful words if you are looking to simplify an incredibly complicated debate. Who wouldn't support a striver ahead of a shirker? The problem for those who adopt this technique is when the words are applied in a context the reader relates to. Is your lovely neighbour who lost their job after an accident a shirker? And is the rich man down the road who does something in finance, has left his wife and family and dates a string of younger women, a striver? In the real world, things are complicated. Everyone probably strives on occasion and shirks at times. Life is nuanced in a way that this debate can't begin to capture.

There's a useful lesson for writers here. Tabloid phrases can be very helpful in creating a clear, straightforward, almost cartoonish image in reader's minds. When you want to explain something simple, use simple language. This comes with a warning though -  if you try to break down complex issues, particularly highly emotional ones, into over-simplistic catchphrases, you will start to look cheap as soon as your readers dip beneath the headline.