I can’t lie to you; this is my fourth attempt at writing this post and my eyes are beginning to seize in much the same way as my legs do in the back of a Fiat Panda. It is an experiment that is working about as well as seabird social distancing at a seafront whelk stall. When I write, regardless of purpose, the title is almost always the very last thing I add. I’ve never quite got the hang of using the title to entice the reader in. Most of my early posts used a single word heading, which I was quite happy with, until, in February of last year, I got a little missive from WordPress, instructing me in the dark art of penning the kind of title that would have the cognoscenti hammering at my door, when, flushed with ‘headline envy’ I decided to jolly mine up a little bit. Certain words and word-combinations rated higher than others so I wrote a post about it, utilising the highest ranking title I could devise – How to Undertake a Futile Quest for the Ultimate Headline – and my readership rocketed by nil. My following post was called Spring, and the vacuous search for readers I did not deserve stalled before it began.
A couple of weeks ago I used the above title in the body of my 200th post. It was intended to express my belief that we should extract every last ounce of joy we can, from anywhere we can find it. Calmgrove suggested that it would make a good title, so I typed it at the top of the page and… nothing. I intended to write the post that would follow effortlessly on, but I had nothing to back it up. It was a mistake. Working this way will not become a preferred modus operandi for me. It is so hard to do, but I can’t stop now. My only plan ‘B’ is a short dissertation about grass (the lawn kind) and a quick glance at my back catalogue will tell you that I have already been there at least twice before and on neither occasion did I make any kind of an impression. I did not get approached by The Royal Horticultural Society to give the keynote speech at their next annual conference. Just as well really, Monty Don might well be there and I have a very heavy axe to grind with him. Having nothing more to fall back on in times of blight than an account of the blade by blade demise of my lawn does not fill me with hope for the future – besides, I get far too exercised by it to make jokes. Like the erstwhile Monty, I might slip into an earnestness that induces coma.
Generally, when I write, I begin with the idea. It does not need to be a great idea, it does not need to be ‘clever’, it just needs to be an idea. ‘Flimsy’ is often more than adequate, if I’m honest. Once I have the idea, I can begin to write and when I start to play with words they begin to find their own rhythm and that’s when I get interested. Plots are amorphous. Even within an eight hundred word dash they can evolve before the stagger towards the finishing line, but words, however mundane, can sparkle if they are given the chance – and you can be assured, my words may well not be worth reading, but they are always buffed up to the lustre of Donald’s brass neck. Only as I get ready to publish does the post get given a title.
When I first started paid work, some forty plus years ago, I had money, real money, disposable income for the first time in my life and music was how I chose to dispose of some of it. Vinyl albums, as they then were, were a very much larger slice of weekly income than today, with the average ‘chart album’ costing the equivalent of a three-bed semi at Woolworths to my recollection, but I still managed to buy one a week. This continued until I got married, at which time any disposable income I had suddenly became decidedly indisposable. Until then, every other week I bought an album that I knew I wanted, whilst on alternate weeks I bought an album about which I had no knowledge, simply to experience the thrill of the completely unknown: perversely something I find much easier to achieve these days with the realisation that I know so very little. Some of these records became lifetime loves, some became scratched and distorted placemats and some became extremely unwanted gifts for whomever I chose to give them to. I chose records I had heard about; records by bands I had heard about; records by bands with names that fascinated me, or simply records with titles that piqued my curiosity – a love that lingers still – and the memory made me realise that I really ought to start to think about my titles a little more.
Much of my old vinyl is in storage. My record deck and the vinyl I still manage to play – rarely now, because the speakers attached to the old hi-fi have the habit of undermining the house’s foundations – are downstairs and I have jogged today, so the stairs are one step too far, but looking along my office CD racks, I begin to feel that the art of the intriguing album title has, like my ability to get up after kneeling down, become a thing of the past.
I am currently playing a CD by Mostly Autumn called Dressed in Voices, so I’ll start there. It is a brilliant phrase which I am desperate to use for a title – as soon as I can figure what it means. It appears in the lyric: Dressed in voices, but my skin is on fire/And you’re not listening anymore (Josh) which, if I’m honest, doesn’t help me much at all. I don’t know exactly what the writer was wishing to say, but I do get the essence of it and, ironically, I’m happy in the knowledge that he was able to express such sorrow in three tiny words. But possibly – and here’s the intrigue – it does not speak of sadness to you. Possibly it is a phrase that means something quite different to you, and that is great. It’s deliberately left open, that’s how words work. Context is everything. Well, not everything, there is chocolate and wine as well, but it is crucial to interpretation. Ask any politician whose words have been taken out of it. Even the most carefully chosen words are capable of misinterpretation given half a chance – it is why we have become so reliant upon emojis. Who needs to fret – as I do – over the application of grammar and syntax, when a yellow smiley face will do just as well?
Words have power. They can create a feeling that transcends understanding. A great example of this is Achtung Baby by U2. I will not get drawn into a discussion here of either band nor music – that is a can of worms I have no desire to open – but what a great title. Two words, somehow at odds with one another, one jolting phrase, which completely sums up the ‘feel’ of the whole album. Genius – ask Bono.
Who wouldn’t want to hear Richard and Linda Thompson’s Hokey Pokey, Gong’s Camembert Electrique, It Bites’ The Big Lad in the Windmill? You don’t have to know who Francis Dunnery is, to want to know what’s going on within ‘Let’s Go Do What Happens’. It has to be a happy experience, doesn’t it? (It is.)
Mind you, there are also moments of false hope. Take for instance The Winkies, a band name so good that their first (and, coincidentally, last) album did not even need a title. I bought it because the name made me smile and despite the fact that the cover was a distinctly embarrassing one to hand over to the teenage girl behind the counter, who had the good grace to disguise her blush with a smile. There had to be some kind of genius within that cover. It was a lesson to me that hope can lie: that intrigue is not an infallible guide. The album is awful and although I have kept it as a salutary lesson and novelty beer-mat, frankly, I would have been better served by feeding the money it cost directly to a Chaplinesque little seabird. Any attempt to suck the colour from that one would leave you with a very sore throat indeed…