What do Stanley Kubrick, Thelonious Monk and Groucho Marx have in common?

Thelonious Monk
Clue: the answer is not "facial hair"

Give up? You might as well, because you’re not going to guess. It’s that they all brightened up my lunchtime today, courtesy of the always-fascinating Letters of Note and its upstart sibling Lists of Note. Stop what you’re doing and read all three of them: it’s worth it.

Stanley Kubrick’s list of titles in search of a script

Thelonious Monk’s advice to musicians

Groucho Marx’s letter to the Franklin Corporation

You’re welcome.

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Oh

Look at that: last week I posted about avoiding the word “maybe”, among others. Then I used it in my very next post. I think maybe I’ll take “maybe” off the list of banned words. It’s too useful.

Banned words

As of today, I am experimenting with being assured and unambiguous in my writing style. Here is a list of words which are henceforth banned:

Almost

Maybe

Possibly

Probably

Could

Might

If you spot me using any of them or their derivatives, please issue a sharp admonishment.

More words

Here is another blog post, with words in it. You can read it and decide what you think it means, but what it means for you won’t be the same as what it meant for me, because words aren’t thoughts or things but ways of describing thoughts and things – and however carefully we use them, we can only ever hope to make an approximate match with what goes on inside another person’s head.

At least, that’s what I’ve always thought. And I wasn’t alone: the sentiment has been expressed more eloquently many times by more original thinkers than me, including but not limited to Benjamin Franklin (“Words may show a man’s wit, but actions his meaning”), George Bernard Shaw (“Words are only postage stamps delivering the object for you to unwrap”), Voltaire (“One great use of words is to hide our thoughts”) and Albert Einstein (“I rarely think in words at all. A thought comes, and I may try to express it in words afterward.”).

We all use words to hide our thoughts. Of course we do. If I’m asked a difficult question, or made to think about something that makes me uncomfortable, my instinctive response is to come up with an articulate, beautifully-composed answer that communicates precisely nothing at all, but has a joke at the end so I get away with it, at least for now.

So if language hides our thoughts, what is the use of, say, talking cures? Aren’t we just dancing around the reality of our existential angst when we sit on a sofa and pour out a stream of words to another person?

Well, maybe. But I had a conversation with a psychiatrist recently (not as part of a medical consultation), and he told me that for psychotic people, language is what shapes their whole world. All the confabulations, all the paranoid convictions that form the basis of the psychotic’s experience, are built from words. That’s why mad people talk to themselves, or hear voices: their alternate worldview doesn’t have its location in thoughts or actions or feelings or things, but in words. Isn’t that interesting, if it’s true, which it sounds like it should be? And the corollary of that is that words are more important than I think they are: that words can change the shape of our thoughts, rather than just inadequately expressing them. And if they can change the shape of our thoughts, they can change the shape of us.

All of this coalesced in my mind when I read a tweet by Dan the other day. He’d come up with a breautiful thought overnight, but couldn’t quite remember it:words are tools that rewire soulsAnd I thought yes, that’s exactly how it works. Language is much, much more powerful than my reductive analysis gives it credit for. My words may not express me, but they can change me. And they can change you – just not in ways that I can predict.

(I think that’s why poetry can be so powerful. The act of choosing the exact, the only, words that express your idea make misinterpretation more likely, but that in turn allows the reader to infer a meaning that is personal to them. Poetry is the most pared-down way of using words that there is, and sometimes the fewer words you use, the more you say. Which brings us back to where we came in, but via an interesting diversion.)

Lovecraft

I’ve just read a book of stories by H. P. Lovecraft, because his was the first name that came back when I took the I Write Like test, and because I am generally in favour of well-written horror stories.

Well, I’m not sure that these are either of those things. The writing’s not bad, exactly, but it’s fairly impenetrable in places. I’ve chosen an extreme example, but I have limited patience for paragraphs like this, from The Lurking Fear (unedited; ellipses his):

Shrieking, slithering, torrential shadows of red viscous madness chasing one another through endless, ensanguined condors of purple fulgurous sky… formless phantasms and kaleidoscopic mutations of a ghoulish, remembered scene; forests of monstrous over-nourished oaks with serpent roots twisting and sucking unnamable juices from an earth verminous with millions of cannibal devils; mound-like tentacles groping from underground nuclei of polypous perversion… insane lightning over malignant ivied walls and demon arcades choked with fungous vegetation…

I mean, what?

Where the stories work best is where there’s less fervid description and something is actually happening. The Dunwich Horror is really good up until the moment when the genuinely frightening half-human creature quietly disappears, at which point it becomes too abstract to retain my interest.

Maybe this is my fault: maybe I don’t have a brain that’s equipped to loosen itself from the bounds of mundane experience and appreciate a fantasy world where nothing bears any relation to anything. But these stories are fantasy, or maybe science fiction, not horror. To my mind, real horror arises from the creeping realisation that something that feels familiar is not what it seems. There are writers who can rouse me to night-time terrors – Mary Shelley, Stephen King, Edgar Allen Poe – but for me there’s not enough of real life in Lovecraft’s stories to make them truly frightening.

That said, the guy himself is pretty frickin’ scary:

H P Lovecraft and cat

So that’s something.

Green Grow the Rushes

I’ve had this song in my head for a week. We used to sing it around the campfire at the Russian church camps I went to as a teenager, and I loved the words, which are a mixture of obvious Christian references (“ten for the ten commandments”) and lines so obscure that nobody has ever worked out what they mean (“two, two, the lilywhite boys, clothèd all in green ho ho”).

It’s also terrific fun to sing, and can last the full length of a shower or even quite a hefty round of washing up. This video gives you the guitar chords for added activity value.

NB: he has some of the words wrong. In addition to the lilywhite boys, who in his version are “all dressed up” in green ho ho (much less poetic), he seems to sing “five for the simples at your door”, which is charming but incorrect. It’s symbols. Here are the complete lyrics, should you want to sing along (this is just the last verse, but you can extrapolate):

I’ll sing you twelve ho

Green grow the rushes ho

What is your twelve ho?

Twelve for the twelve apostles

Eleven for the eleven that went to heaven

And ten for the ten commandments

Nine for the nine bright shiners

And eight for the April rainers

Seven for the seven stars in the sky

And six for the six proud walkers

Five for the symbols at your door

And four for the gospel makers

Three, three, the rivals

Two, two, the lilywhite boys, clothèd all in green ho ho

One is one and all alone and ever more shall be so

Lost in translation

The beloved and I took a speedboat ride up the Thames yesterday evening. I would heartily recommend it – it’s very exciting – but it does do interesting things to your hair. There were only six of us on the boat, plus a captain and a guide, and once we got past Tower Bridge we went super-fast, accompanied by the theme tunes from Baywatch and then James Bond. It was brilliant, and I was only a tiny bit scared.

Then we ate at Caffe’ Vergnano on the South Bank. I really like it there, but it’s somewhere I have usually gone before a film or a show, so I tend to go early and it’s always fairly empty. Last night we were there later on, and it was very busy. Halfway through our meal they seated a couple so close to us that it was nearly impossible for me to leave my seat without crashing into their table. It added an element of challenge to the evening, but it also gave us the chance to listen in to their conversation. Actually we had no choice: she was more or less completely silent, but he had a great booming voice that drowned out the sound of the trains just feet above our heads. Sadly they were speaking a language I didn’t recognise – I don’t speak many languages, but I can recognise the sound of a lot of them, and this wasn’t one I knew. It might have been Portuguese, or one of the eastern European languages that has nothing to do with Russian.

Anyway, I don’t know how much I would have enjoyed listening to him had I known what he was saying, but listening with no idea what he was talking about was great fun. He had a peculiarly mirthless laugh with which he punctuated every sentence. Because I didn’t recognise the words he was using, I have attempted to reproduce them phonetically, to give you an idea:

Amazon turquoise Lithuanian bathtub. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Malevolent projector foolproof simian pilot. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Christmas fettucine bones, bananas and bra. Ha. Ha. Ha.

It was disconcerting, but also kind of fascinating, and loud enough that it was easier for us to listen to him than attempt a conversation of our own. She sat in silence opposite him, occasionally joining in with the solemn laughter. I tried to imagine what he might be saying. The tone implied that it was probably something like

We have trapped your father in a dungeon. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. If you do not tell us where the jewels are he will die. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. We will show him no mercy. Ha. Ha. Ha.

But I think that was just the way he spoke. He was probably saying

Look at these jokers next to us. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. They are listening to me instead of having a conversation of their own. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. Ha. And they both have hair that points vertically upwards. Ha. Ha. Ha.

Me Cheeta

It took me ages to read Me Cheeta, mainly because I lost the first copy and had to wait while Amazon delivered a replacement. In the meantime I read Murder At The Academy Awards™ by Joan Rivers, which coincidentally was quite similar, except that it was rude about living movie stars rather than dead ones.

Anyway. To begin with I had a conceptual problem with Me Cheeta because I couldn’t quite work out what it was for. Why publish a fictional autobiography of a real animal? If it had no ambition other than to be funny, would that sustain 300-odd pages?

To begin with, I didn’t think it would. It’s full of scandalous stories about legendary Hollywood characters, but without knowing whether they’re true, false or vicious rumour I couldn’t quite bring myself to care about them. I had the same problem I have when I read fantasy novels (OK, I only tried it once), which was that without an anchor to something I recognise that tells me what’s real and what isn’t, none of it matters.

Except that bit by bit, it grew on me. There is a certain amount of scurrilous badmouthing of people who don’t seem to deserve it, but as it goes along it turns into something quite different – a love story, a poem, a tale of loss and loneliness, which is certainly made up, but now that we’re definitely in the realm of fiction that’s suddenly OK.

And there is some beautiful writing. You know when an image is so lovely you have to stop and drink it in for a few moments before you can carry on reading? Those images must be different for different people, and anyway they probably only work in context, but I’m going to share one with you all the same because I think it’s just perfect. Here’s Cheeta describing the view from the terrace of a movie star’s mansion:

The lawn that rolled your eye down to the inevitable rectangle of turquoise was as densely irridescent as a hummingbird’s breast. If you watched very closely you could see the dents left in it by the gardeners’ footsteps disappear slowly back into its sheen, like the marks of fingers on a human arm.

Isn’t that great?

And it is very funny, and very smartly written in places. And, well, the last chapter made me cry. So despite my initial misgivings, I am recommending it wholeheartedly.

The reverse bullshit principle

I learned a lot in my four years at university, but I can’t explain why some of what I learned has long receded from my memory and some remains crystal-clear. I could tell you all about Haussman’s Paris, and quite a lot about Georges Seurat, and a fair amount about new towns. But I spent as long learning about German Expressionism as I did any of those other things, and of that once-treasured knowledge I have retained exactly nothing.

The most useful thing I learned at university, though, didn’t have anything to do with my degree course, and I am delighted to be able to pass it on to you now, having been reminded of it this morning by a job advertisement that was looking for “committed and capable” candidates. With lifelong gratitude to Professor Peter Vergo, who taught it to me, I present you with The Reverse Bullshit Principle.

The reverse bullshit principle (you need only cap it up the first time) holds that if, when the sentiments contained in a given statement are reversed, the statement becomes ridiculous, then it wasn’t worth making to begin with.

For example, this sentence, taken from a different job advert:

In addition, the applicant must want to be a contributor on a team that strives for excellence and continuous improvement on a daily basis.

Could, when subjected to the reverse bullshit principle, be rewritten thus:

In addition, the applicant must want to be a contributor on a team that strives for mediocrity and sporadic improvement on an infrequent basis.

As the example illustrates, if the opposite of what you’re saying is clearly ridiculous, then what you’re saying should – well, it should go without saying.

The use of the reverse bullshit principle makes it easier to work out when someone is spouting nonsense for the sake of making a noise, rather than because they have anything worth saying. It is useful in all walks of life, but writers in particular should take careful note of it. When I worked in a bookshop we used to sell a remarkably high number of copies of a book called The Career Guide for Creative And Unconventional People (I am linking to it so you can see the font they used for the front cover, which should have provided a clue if nothing else did that this was not a volume worth reading). I longed for the day when someone would come in and say “Ah, but I’m unimaginative and ordinary, so that’s not the book for me!”.

Tomorrow, when I am at home and have the relevant volume with me (I need to quote from Vasari), I will tell you about the second most interesting thing I learned at university.

Two things about homoeopathy

1. I am sad that we’ve lost the middle “o”. It’s universally spelled “homeopathy” now, by everyone but me. I don’t know what drives the urge to discard unpronounced letters in certain words (encyclopaedia, foetus) and not others (psychopath, night), but whenever we do it we lose a link to the origin of the word and its meaning, and I think it’s a shame.

2. I don’t use homoeopathic remedies myself, and from the limited amount I’ve read on the subject I’m not convinced they have a benefit other than as a placebo. However, I’m not angry enough about it to want to protest about it by staging a mass overdose outside branches of Boots.

I can understand the desire to ask the NHS not to spend money on something you don’t believe has any scientific basis, but what can it matter if Boots choose to sell it and people choose to buy it? You can buy herbal remedies and sleeping aids and albums by Muse and all sorts of things which I don’t personally believe deliver any benefits, but if you want them, I’ve no objection to your being allowed to obtain them.

I feel about it a bit as I do about religion. I happen not to believe in a god, but I’ve no desire to start telling other people they shouldn’t either. Some people value their faith above cold hard scientific fact, and I think we should probably let them make that choice. Where belief specifically promotes something dangerous, there’s a reason to challenge it, but I don’t extend that to taking out adverts on the sides of buses, or organising variety shows celebrating atheism. There’s something ungenerous and mealy-mouthed about it, and although I am proud to be a rationalist and an unbeliever, I would like us as humans to be adult enough to make room in the world for people who feel differently, and confident enough in our own beliefs that we don’t need to feel threatened by other people’s.

(Also, arnica totally works on bruises.)