A Wingful of Eyes*

wingful of eyes

It’s amazing how often you have to go back to the beginning in order to find the end.

More often than not I begin to write with no clear concept of where I’m going. About half way through I begin to get some kind of clue of what I am trying to say and, by the time I begin to understand the point towards which I am painfully inching, I find that it has been there right from the start.

When you write, whatever you write, there are only three places you can be: the past, the present or the future. The past is ok, but it requires such a lot of research. Everything is checkable. Everything is verifiable. Everything is refutable. Even if the past is only used as a backcloth, it has to be correct. There will always be someone to tell you if it is not. The way I write, I tend to focus whatever concentration I can muster onto the voices rattling around inside my head. These internal conversations lead to everything else and when they take wing, it is a little too easy for me to take my eye off the factual ball. I don’t want to know that he couldn’t have switched the kettle on as electric kettles had not been invented at that date or she couldn’t have hidden the samovar in her knickers as no-one wore them then: the concentration necessary to get the background right would mean that I would have no chance of keeping up with the narrative popping around inside my skull. I would become the poor man’s AJP Taylor – and, for my money, one of those is quite enough. That doesn’t mean it can’t be done. If you want to read what can be done by gloriously mixing together fact and fiction (both your own and that of others) have a gander at ‘W.G.Grace’s Last Case’ by the magnificent William Rushton and understand why I avoid even the slimmest chance of comparison with him like the plague.

The present, I find, is such a difficult tense to write in. The grammatical hoops through which one has to jump, chew you up (I know, I know, but these hoops can chew) and spit you out. Most fiction written in the here-and-now is actually written in the past tense (as, intriguingly is most fiction set in the future) because it makes things so much easier. The present is, however, a great place to write because it needs relatively little research – unless the taxman is reading, when it needs loads. I know what happens if I switch the kettle on – it blows the fuse because I never remember to put any water in it; I know what happens if I get on the number 9 bus – I arrive two hours later than planned, on the other side of town to my destination, with a fungal infection I most certainly did not have on departure. There are few constraints to setting your work in the present, for a start, most of us have absolutely no idea of what is actually going on, so we have no factual basis for saying ‘Hang on a minute, that would never happen’, and therefore opportunities to tamper with reality (or something similar to it) are almost limitless. You cannot deny that Donald trump is currently President of the United States of America, but I defy you to find any good, solid proof that he is not an alien lizard.

Push hard enough against the present and you will fetch up against the future. It waits in store for all of us: we are all heading towards the self-same exit door, but we will not all reach it at the same time. But (and this, I have just decided, is my point) what we do all gain with age is the belief that we can see how things are going – that having seen where they have been, we are somehow more able to understand what lies ahead. In that, we are, most of us, sadly deluded. Just take a glance at Brexit (sorry): whichever way it ends up going, whatever the eventual outcome, vast swathes of us will have been proven wrong in our prophecies of doom or in our visions of a golden tomorrow. That’s just the way it is. Few of us can assemble our experiences of today and somehow use them to accurately predict the shape of tomorrow. There are, of course, exceptions. ‘Nineteen Eighty-Four’ for instance, was written in the past, predicting a future that, for much of the world is now the present. The world is full of Big Brothers, China alone (it would seem) has a million Room 101’s. However, for every prediction of thoughtcrime we have one of a world ruled by mutant frogs. The thing about the future, it seems to me, is that it is actually just the past dressed up in a different way. The uniform has altered, but the righteousness of incontestable ‘truth’ remains unhindered. There will always be those that ‘do’; there will always be those who control those that ‘do’, and there will always be those that ‘do’ those that control those that ‘do’.

Maybe the ability to predict the future relies simply on the ability to observe the past and to understand just how, exactly, it evolved into the present. Change the names, throw in a pacifying drug, a constantly wittering radio companion, an overarching discipline, a war-mongering despot, a gullible proletariat, a never-ending war, a totalitarian regime and Presto! Ladies and Gentlemen, I give you the future. As I say, it’s amazing how often you have to go back to the beginning in order to find the end.

There is a feeling we all know
Something happened long ago
When you remember who you were
Makes you what you are today
*‘Wingful Of Eyes’ – Gong (M. Howlett)

Newspeak – The Curse of the Smartphone



George Orwell’s dystopian masterpiece 1984, describes a society in which the ruling autocrats control the population by restricting the scope of the vocabulary they are able to use. Negative words are removed from the language so that they cannot be applied either to the government or the actions they take. The word ‘bad’ is excised from the dictionary, but the word ‘good’ remains. To articulate the concept of ‘bad’ the suffix ‘un’ is added to ‘good’: thus ‘bad’ becomes ‘ungood’, awful becomes ‘plus-ungood’ and cataclysmic becomes ‘double-plus-ungood’. But it’s not ‘bad’. Get the drift? Good. Given sufficient time, the very concept of bad disappears, even in unconscious thought. Big Brother may be ungood, but he is never bad. An idiot is unclever, a bloody idiot plus-unclever and a blithering moron is in the White House.

‘So, what,’ I hear you ask, ‘is your point? What are you going to witter on about today?’’ I’ll tell you. The point is this. For Orwell the diminution of language was a tool of the oppressor, secateurs to rational thought, but in truth it is one of the few things that he didn’t get quite right. We do not need the government to denude and impoverish our beautiful language, we are doing it all by ourselves. Or, more correctly, we are doing it all by our smart phones. When we text, we abbreviate words into a vowel-less cluster of letters and numbers, sentences are truncated into a string of meaningless acronyms, the language of Shakespeare has become a kind of guttural Esperanto. Messages are so condensed that meaning is hard to ascertain and connotation is lost to such an extent that the only way you can let someone know that you are joking is by sticking a grinning face at the end of it. Who could possibly guess what emotion the staccato missive of random symbols is meant to convey unless it has an emoji at the end?

And Textspeak has spread beyond the world of texts into the language of the everyday. Who doesn’t say ‘LOL’ every now and then? I have heard people actually articulating emojis in normal speech: ‘So I said to him, don’t worry, you’ll be great, smiley face…’ And I know, I understand, that language evolves. It always has. Imagine trying to get by today, speaking as Shakespeare would have you speaking. I imagine that the attempt to get a half bottle of cheap vodka at 2am in the local mini-mart from a surly sleep-starved Latvian for whom English is the fourth language would not be particularly well received, particularly if it started with ‘Forsooth’. You would be perceived, initially, as quaintly eccentric, but very shortly afterwards as a PITA and within no time at all you would find yourself in secure accommodation sharing a room with Russell Brand.

Anyone who has read Russell Hoban’s Riddley Walker (and if you haven’t, please allow me to recommend it to you) will understand how baffling a language can be when it is just a sidewise step away from our own, until, quite suddenly, you start to hear the new words in your head where you would have heard the old words. Understanding comes in a wave through which the submerged brain suddenly bobs to the surface with the realisation that two words that sound roughly similar and are used in the same way, probably mean the same thing – or similar – and, pausing only to pop on a pair of water wings, works the rest out for you. But, and here’s my real problem, that doesn’t really help me when a word I am familiar with, a word I have grown up with, suddenly, and without warning, has its meaning totally and irrevocably changed. When a good word, a friendly word, suddenly becomes a bad word and the bad word becomes the accepted term. Words that are in common usage become unacceptable; words that are acceptable sink into disuse. Suddenly I am marooned at sea again. Innocently dropping the wrong word into a sentence is as fraught as dropping a three year old into a swimming pool: it can go one of two ways, and neither of them the way that you predicted.

It is so easy to offend people when so many are so willing to be offended. It’s the keeping up that’s the problem. Have you any idea, for instance, how confused it makes a man of my age to hear that someone is being trolled? To my memory a troll is part of the family that lives under the rickety rackety bridge: if you don’t want to be trolled, use a different bridge. I remember when mobile technology was a new caravan. I remember when ‘f*ck’ was the rudest word imaginable, before it became what it is today: a uni-purpose verb, noun, adjective, pronoun and adverb used by all. The world’s first, and possibly only, truly egalitarian word. Does anybody else still go for a widdle? Does anybody else still wear a pully? I didn’t realise how regional our language was until somebody I was speaking to did not understand the word mardy. I thought that everybody dackered down now and then. A strange country is this when so much can be read into the way you pronounce the word scone. It says much about us as a race, that we have as many words to describe a bread bun as the Eskimos have for snow. (I wrote that, and now I’m not even certain that Eskimo is any longer an acceptable word.)

When I was younger, a pension was something that was paid by the government to a person from the date of their retirement until the date of their death – the two being separated by about twelve months on average. Now it is something you start to worry about at birth, contribute to from age 18, pay all your life and draw at eighty if you live that long. A prostate was an almost mythical organ that gave endless trouble to the elderly. Now it seems to trouble people who are really quite young. Come on, play the game, please give me back the patriotism that was the love of one’s own country and not the hatred of everyone else’s. Please give me back the time when short-term memory was the ability to recall names, faces and events from the recent past and not…

… Oh bugger!