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Monday, June 20, 2011

 

Why I'm a Royalist

[This is an issue that sometimes comes up when chatting on other blogs, so may be a familiar position to come cyber-friends already. But I thought it'd be useful to put somewhere findable, anyway.]

Royals, eh? Who needs 'em? Bunch of taxpayer-supported parasites. Outdated, and they're no better than anybody else anyway. We should be a republic like everywhere sensible, right?

Well, no. The way I see things, we rather do need the royals.

Let me tell you a story.

Once upon a time in the dark era of George W. Bush, my future husband and I travelled round the world. In getting from Sydney to New York, we had to make a stopover in LAX, which is to say, Los Angeles airport.

Now, LAX was a horrible place, a ghastly place. Few airports are comfortable, but even fewer of them are staffed by security bristling with terrifying weapons and showing the kind of don't-even-think-about-it attitude towards paying customers on holiday that you'd normally expect to see from prison guards towards their charges the day after a riot. LAX was one of these unusual places. With a thirteen-hour flight behind us and a seven-hour one before us, and with no more dastardly intentions than to visit my sister and her family and maybe take a turn around Central Park while we were at it, it was genuinely frightening to find ourselves in a place that was working hard to convince us that we were one wrong turning away from a cavity search and a week in jail until someone could get hold of the British Ambassador. For an airport in a democratic nation, it felt strangely like being in a third world dictatorship.

But here's the thing that really clinched it. To enter this world of Dantean customer service, we all had to pass under an archway. At the top of this archway were two framed pictures - tatty ones, looking like they'd been cut from some cheap magazine - of George Bush and Dick Cheney. America mooning the world, was my second thought, but my first, instinctive reaction was the sense, as I said, that this felt like entering a dictatorship. Not just because it was Bush, though obviously that didn't help, but because putting the president up on the wall like an icon you pass under to enter the country is not the usual decorating choice in a democratic country. I'd been to quite a few democratic nations by now, and this was new, and threatening. Elected officials are not usually raised so high.

But, I wondered to myself, would Britain do something like that? I didn't think we'd put any face out so prominently ... but we might put a picture up somewhere in the airport.

The thing is, it wouldn't have been of the Prime Minister. It would have been of the Queen.

And in that moment, I realised I was a royalist.

Here's the problem. Some people have itchy knees; they need to genuflect to something, and if nothing suitable is around, they'll genuflect to something unsuitable. And that can be extremely dangerous.

Authoritarians like symbols; they like people to set above themselves and treat as an incarnation of the country and its values. If nobody else will do, they'll do it with someone who's supposed by their very nature to be first among equals and nothing more. But there is an alternative: have in place a traditional, unquestionably legitimate symbol - who can't do very much damage.

A royal family serves this purpose beautifully. Their whole function is, in a constitutional monarchy, symbolic. The Queen, God bless her, has practically no executive power. She sanctions and certifies various executive ceremonies in a way that confirms their legality, but this is ritual, and if she ever refused, I very much doubt her refusal would carry the day. It might cause a constitutional crisis, but one that would be entirely focused around the question, 'Okay, so how do we overrule the monarch?' The Queen can't propose laws, she can't take sides on them, she can't even vote. Her position, in practice, is that of a servant of the law, not a master or a maker.

So if people turn their icon-making towards her, it can do no harm at all. She represents the nation, but she lacks the authority to steer it in the wrong direction. Worship her all you like; it won't make her any more powerful.

Worship the Prime Minister though ... and now we're in serious trouble. Prime Ministers can steer the nation in the wrong direction. They do it all the time. And while there's often little the public can do to stop them - we wound up in Iraq despite massive protests - you never hear anyone suggesting that we should 'respect the office' of Prime Minister the way you often hear Americans suggesting one should 'respect the office' of President. No one says, 'Well, he is the Prime Minister' in that Mia-Farrow-in-Rosemary's-Baby voice ('Well, he is the Pope...') the way I've heard people say, 'Well, he is the President.' Nobody has very much respect for Prime Ministership; respecting the office is rare enough that there's pretty much no chance it will, in any way, impede people from exercising the good old British tradition of disrespecting the person holding it. We've had charismatic Prime Ministers who did inspire worship, usually to the detriment of the nation (Thatcher comes to mind), but there's no tradition of automatic respect for Prime Ministers. There's much more of a tradition, even among authoritarians, of assuming that the Prime Minister is a crooked bastard.

Which is extremely useful in a democratic nation. In a democracy, leadership is a job, and one that's supposed to place you subordinate to the needs of your citizens. Our Prime Ministers are far from consistent at doing that job well - but at least nobody thinks otherwise. Which limits what a Prime Minister can expect to get away with. Not nearly as much as it should, but a bit, and more than the alternative. People who want someone to worship don't need to aim it at the PM; they have royalty.

Royal families, in short, can act as a kind of siphon for authoritarianism. By existing to serve a symbolic, reverential function, they split reverence and leadership into two separate categories, leaving everyone free to remember that the elected leader may be nothing more than some tosser in a suit who'll get fired if we catch him taking bribes.

I don't reverence royalty, but I value it. Some people want kings. I'd rather they had one, safely contained within constitutional conditions, than that they made one out of a person with the real power to do harm. Because when that happens, we start forgetting what democracy really is.

Thursday, June 16, 2011

 

Tessitura

The other day, somebody showed me a bad book*. They thought it would interest me to see how bad it was, so I started the first page not expecting very much in the way of quality. What I encountered, though, was not just shoddy work, but really startling levels of badness: active disasters rather than passive failures. The first sentence got me laughing in astonishment, and it just went on from there. It was really, impressively awful. It was ghastly.

And here's what elevated it to ghastly rather than just mediocre: the writer was trying to be lyrical. I could see what they were aiming for: there were metaphors and images and attempts at implication, all the things you'd find in the work of a poetic stylist. But they just couldn't do it. They didn't have a good enough ear, and kept creating sentences that, by narrowly missing their mark, ended up not just boring but silly, full of unfortunate overtones or bizarre oddities. Rather than sounding poetic, it made the narrative voice sound rather thick, as if the images arose not from a sense of visionary connection but from a certain confusion about what was what. The author was trying to pull off a trick that they didn't have a fine enough sense of language to manage.

Reading this disaster area, a word occurred to me. The word was 'tessitura.'

For those of you who aren't familiar with the term, tessitura, when applied to a singer, means the range where the voice feels most comfortable and sounds the best. Above and below the tessitura are notes the singer can reach, but they're more of a stretch, more inclined to rumble or squeak, less suited to show the singer's voice to its best advantage. It only struck me when reading this bad prose, but it's actually an incredibly useful term to consider in the context of writing.

I used to work in a shop in Covent Garden, a hub of tourism where, partly because the Royal Opera House is situated there, a lot of buskers perform their sets in the street. Tourists think it must be nice to be serenaded while you work, but the workers quickly get sick of it, because you hear the same bloody things over and over again. Singers perform several sets a day but have only a single back-up tape to accompany them, so it's the same set, the same songs in the same order, and to make it worse, many of them choose the same songs as each other. Most of them are performing light classics, the kind of thing that fit in with the operatic background but don't put too much strain on an amateur voice, and that are, for bonus points, recognisable to tourists who may tip more if they hear something familiar. There are only so many arias that fit the bill. Extracts from Carmen featured heavily, but the one that everybody, everybody, everybody seemed unable to resist (or so it felt) was 'Summertime - a very nice song that I never, ever want to hear again.

And there was one woman who sang it in particular. If you're reading this, Ms Singer, I'm sorry, but every time I heard your voice, I fantasised about throwing water balloons at you.

It was the rendition of 'Summertime' that did it. Near the end, she'd take a vocal swoop up a sudden octave, showcasing a soprano ability that - I'm sorry - she really didn't have. She could get up to the note, just about, but it a way that sounded far more shrieking than soaring, and wasn't always in tune either. It was within her range, but it was outside her tessitura. The song didn't call for it; it was her own addition - but she would have sounded much better if she hadn't taken that unnecessary leap.

There are writers who are not particularly elaborate stylists. Some people just write plain, lucid, sturdy prose that calls little attention to itself either through memorable beauty or noticeable missteps and just allows the reader to concentrate on the story. Nothing wrong with that; not a thing. Good plain prose is like good plain cooking: more skilled than it looks and very satisfying to curl up with on a cold evening.

A writer of that kind is staying within their tessitura. They're not trying to jump the octave: they're sticking to what they can do and doing it well. On the other hand, there's also such a thing as a writer with a high tessitura, someone who works best with a poetic style and suffers if they try to render it plainer. I've seen someone with an intensely lyrical writing style take the advice of people who doubted she could sustain it and end up wasting a lot of time trying to flatten out her beauties. She didn't produce good plain prose: she produced shackled poetic prose, and what she needed to do was go back to her tessitura and write more poetry. A coloratura doesn't do well trying to be a mezzo. If your tessitura is for highly elaborate writing, it's just as bad an idea to try to be plain as it is for a plain writer to try to be elaborate.

I can't say for sure; my tessitura tends towards the rhythmical and the imageful, so I can't really write about good plain writing from the inside. But what I am sure of that you shouldn't try to strain for poetry. If a comparison occurs to you, by all means put it in, but effortful images show. You wind up less tessitura than Tessie Tura from Gypsy, struggling to impose 'finesse' on a bump-and-grind act and singing about how you gotta get a gimmick.

We speak of writers having 'voices', particularly of them finding their voices. I've always found the former to be true but the latter to be alienating: it implies your voice is something you have to go looking for, an external, disconnecting process. If one hasn't found one's voice, how can one use it? But it's only through using our voice that we find out how to use it best. I think instead it makes sense to say that one needs to feel out one's tessitura: to start speaking or singing until you settle on what's most comfortable - because it's almost certainly in the comfortable range where it'll sound best.



*No, I'm not going to say what the book was. I'll review works of art or analyse their implications critically, but with really bad books there's not much to do except take cheap laughs at their expense, and that's neither nice nor professional. It was just a bad book.

Thursday, June 09, 2011

 

Antlers

When I was nine, a fashion for scary stories went round the school. They were what I'd probably call 'campfire stories' now - and indeed, they whispered around the coach and the dorms on school trips - but we told them everywhere. We passed them on and listened with fascination, and anyone who had a new one was guaranteed attention.

The Blue Nun. The Blue Doll. The Golden Leg. These haunting little sketches were, literally, colourful. But here's one I remember particularly clearly, for reasons that will become the burden of my song: The Green Room.

Late at night, a man arrived at a guest house. Sitting on the steps was an old woman, who looked up at him.

Don't sleep in the Green Room, she said.

But arriving at the desk, he found himself informed by the landlord that all the rooms except one were occupied. The Green Room, though, was free, and he could be checked in straight away.

It was late and dark, and the man didn't want to go back out into the night, so he accepted the landlord's offer and was duly shown upstairs. The Green Room was an old-fashioned little nook, with a curious decoration in it: a large stuffed stag, its antlers tethered to a heavy concrete block.

The man got into the bed and fell asleep. At midnight, though, he woke.

At first he thought he was dreaming, or that it was an odd effect of the light: the stag's legs seemed to be missing. But as he watched, its back disappeared.

Then its front legs.

Then its head, until only the antlers remained.

The man leaped out of bed in panic - just as the antlers disappeared, and the concrete block fell on his pillow right where his head had just been!

In the morning he went out onto the front steps. The old woman turned and looked up at him.

You have survived, she said. You were more fortunate than I. And she disappeared.

I loved those spooky stories. My friend told this one over lunch, and we all listened, rapt ... and in the chilled silence that followed, I said:

'Why did the landlord keep renting the room out?'

Not unnaturally, this irritated the teller no end: 'You're so logical!' she cried in annoyance. It was something of an insult: you can't call your friends boring or pedantic when you're a nine-year-old girl, but that was clearly the message. How unimaginative, to bring the story down to earth like that!

Except I grew up to be a writer of imaginative literature. And I still love ghost stories. Looking back, I think it was one of my first encounters with the shape in the body.

I still love The Green Room, actually. I can see it in my mind: the damp, countrified room with cold blankets on the bed, unwarmed by central heating; the slightly dusty stag; that odd detail about the block (a concrete one? Bleak urban concrete tethered to a stuffed woodland deer? It's a decor choice as jarringly inappropriate as the mixture of human bones and chicken feathers in The Texas Chainsaw Massacre); the numinous symbolism of it being the antlers that disappear last. I can still hear the drone of the old woman, see her faded crochet shawl fluttering in the breeze. And actually it's an easy fix: all one has to do is make the landlord a bit suspicious - or if one wants to move from the realm of fairy tale to ghost story, call the man a rich American traveller and comment that the guest house seems dilapidated but the landlord's expensively dressed. That's the kind of thing one does with campfire stories anyway: one adapts them as one passes them on. I already adapted The Green Room in that presentation: the old woman disappearing at the end was my invention. (As my friend told it, I think, she just explained that the old woman had also died there, and I thought I'd sharpen it up a bit.)

I love campfire stories. (If anyone's got some, I'd love to hear them.) But holes in them bothered me from an early age. It was the same itch that bothered me when we sang, 'But little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes' in 'Away in a Manger': the itch of an imagination that sensed that sentences and stories had natural shapes, and felt out of kilter when the shape was wrong. It could have legs and tail and back and head, but if the antlers were missing - if something was askew in it - it'd fall.

The fantasy writer Samuel R. Delany, according to my husband, once argued that one couldn't really teach writing, because it depended on having a template, a blueprint, a shape in one's body that one either had or didn't. Whether or not that shape is something some people have and some lack, or whether everyone has them and some people have better access to them than others, I couldn't say. But the shape in your body seems exactly right.

A friend of mine once told me about neurolinguistic programming, saying that people tend to think in, and hence respond better to, visual, auditory or kinesthetic terms. I don't know quite what I think about that in general, but I tried applying it to myself and ran into a thicket. I have a verbal brain, very much so. My visual memory is very poor, my sense of pitch only adequate, but words are smooth and easy for me and always have been. But while you can say 'I see' to someone visual or 'I hear where you're coming from' to someone auditory or 'I think I can grasp that' to someone kinesthetic, what do you say to a verbal person? And how do I describe verbal issues in words?

The answer seems to be kinesthetic: the shape in the body. When I describe how a story works to myself, it tends to be in physical terms: a net that needs more strings in its underpinning, a sculpture with a smooth curve to it, a sentence that goes either ding or clunk when tapped, a sentence I weigh in my hand for balance like a knifethrower before the throw. To grasp how the words are working, I can't describe it in words. I can't, to use a term from primary-school mathematics, show my working out: I can only show the result. The best I can do is to ask questions: why did the landlord keep renting the room?

I love stories where not everything needs to be explained. The fact that the antlers disappear last and hold up the whole weight is good: that piece of inexplicability hums, like the resonance within the hollow body of a violin. Stories need gaps; you can't drum on a piece of concrete. There are resonant gaps and weakening gaps, though; you don't pour concrete in, but you add another wire to lash this point to that.

Ach, I can't explain it. I never could. I just want to know: when the landlord said there was only one room left, what was the look on his face when he said it?

Wednesday, June 01, 2011

 

Mikalogue of romance


Ginger: Come into the garden, Mika...

Mika: Oi! Who you?

Ginger: From the fencetops I sing my love. Come and play wif me.

Mika: OI! You in Mika's garden! Pissoff!

Ginger: Mika be mine, come play wif me, You are all a kitty could dream, Your fur is as golden as chicken skin, Your fur is as white as cream...

Mika: PISSOFF!!! This is Mika's garden!

Ginger: Mika my love?

Mika: Gonna punch you, tresspasser!

Ginger: Let me stare into your tuna-gold eyes...

Mika: Yeah, gonna stare you down, chump.

Ginger: Such is the beauty, I sigh among the grass.

Mika: PISSOFFFFFF!

Ginger: Agh!

Mika: And STAY out!

Ginger: The course of true love never did run unbashed. I shall return, beloved...

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