Misuse of Metaphor

My blood pressure must be rocketing up.

I know that English is overflowing with everyday metaphors – they are part of its richness, and serve to increase its potential for the transmission of meaning – but I have become more and more irritated as I listen to politicians and pundits who pepper their pronouncements with metaphors which are either exhausted or inappropriate.

Long ago, an English teacher explained to me that a metaphor is a lie which reveals a truth: the soldier was not really a lion in the battle, but to say that he was reveals more vividly the extent of his courage. Fine. But what the teacher did not mention was the capacity of metaphor to help with the construction of false narratives, what we now might call ‘nudging’ or ‘spin’.

When the phrase ‘ramping up’ began to appear in every press conference from Downing Street, I started to wonder why this verb was being chosen instead of the more straightforward ‘increase’ (e.g. for available quantity of protective equipment, number of tests etc). Was it believed to imply a greater urgency, or to provide connotations of a well-oiled machine in action?

I told myself my suspicion of the Westminster government was making me over-cynical about their intentions, but close attention to their utterances gave me more cause for scepticism.

A series of statements seemed to suggest that coping with the virus could be understood in the context of road travel. Actions requiring to be carried out quickly would be done by ‘pressing the accelerator to the floor’. Happenings that had to be eliminated would bring about ‘a foot firmly on the brake’. The ‘journey’ out of the crisis would be made clear in ‘a roadmap’. Weary metaphor was having the effect of obscuring what would actually be done.

But even more worrying was the relentless use of the discourse of wartime to create an analogy between the coronavirus pandemic and WW II, and to encourage the population to accept the government’s presentation of events in the light of this. There was ‘an enemy’ with whom we had to ‘battle’, showing ‘The Dunkirk Spirit’, and marching in ‘lock-step’ to overtake desired outcomes.

It seemed to me that this analogy was not appropriate, given that some medical opinion speaks out against the language of battle and struggle being used in relation to illness. This is not to deny the courage and effort shown by people either during WW II or during the present crisis. It is simply to suggest that they are not the same, and the encouragement by politicians for us to see them as equivalent perhaps disguises political motives, seeking to draw attention away from other issues.

This morning, on BBC radio four’s ‘More or Less‘, statisticians examined the figures given in Downing Street press conferences for numbers of tests carried out. They identified how the figures had been manipulated to allow a claim of ‘100,000 tests in a day’ to be made falsely, by counting tests sent out by post to be counted as tests actually carried out on patients and workers.

The media tell us that trust in the government is a crucial element in bringing back some kind of normality to daily life. I fear that the evidence coming from Westminster does little to inspire my trust in the capability or trustworthiness of the current UK government. I shall continue to keep a watchful eye on their actions . . . and metaphors.

Housebound Haiku

I had never heard the phrase ‘creative writing’ until I became a student in the late 1960s. For one hour per week during my first year as a student teacher, a fascinating woman called Kate McQueen endeavoured to engage a group of more than 20 assorted males, ranging in ages from 17 to approximately 50 (one wouldn’t I admit to his actual age) in writing in a variety of literary genres.

Those were the days when the popular press would have had you believe that ‘Proper English’ was no longer being taught in Britain’s schools. In fact, what was happening was an attempt by the Colleges of Education to encourage teachers to be less obsessional about spelling, punctuation and grammar, and give a little more attention to the style and content of what pupils were being asked to write.

Miss McQueen had her work cut out. Many of her class had already been indoctrinated in the belief that the essential quality in a writer was the ability to correctly position an apostrophe. Some of her older students had, during the years of Scottish teacher shortages, been working uncertificated. They were being forced to gain teaching qualifications by the newly-formed General Teaching Council and attended under protest. Some secretly believed that they already knew more about how to teach than those lecturing them. They were not always biddable.

We were asked, at the start, to produce short descriptive pieces. We were moved gently on to character sketches from memory, and then from imagination. We built up to the construction of stories. So far, there was compliance. However, rumblings of discontent began to be heard when we were invited to consider poetry: not manly, robust poetry in the style of the Burns Supper, or even the rhythmic, rhyming verse of the Secondary School anthologies. Dear me, no! We were invited to write Haiku.

None of us had any knowledge of Japanese poetry, even in translation. Our lecturer explained the conventions of the form – a short, poetic ‘snapshot’, usually depicting a scene from nature, in three lines of 5, 7 and 5 syllables, not required to rhyme.

She intended, I think, to force us to put aside our existing notions about poetry, and to go boldly where most of the group had not previously ventured. My recollection is that some would not participate at all, some drafted jokey or ribald responses, and a few of the more sensitive souls produced pastiches of extracts from Bob Dylan songs.

The episode came to my mind recently while I was searching online for something to occupy me during the present period of National Confinement. I came across, and joined a 1000-strong Facebook group called The Daily Haiku, which invites members to submit short poems in the Japanese form, on any subject. These are sent to all other members without any editorial comment or interference. As is to be expected, the quality of submissions can prove variable, but are fascinating for all that. And my sense of competitiveness drove me to join in.

I spent some time finding out about the history of Haiku, reading original Japanese examples in translation, and looking at English-language versions, (there is a good introduction at https://www.poetryfoundation.org/learn/glossary-terms/haiku-or-hokku), and then tried my hand.

You can read my initial efforts at: https://ragmansbugle.wordpress.com/april-2020/

Lockdown Lethargy

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My first reaction to the news that we were to be confined indoors for a number of weeks was selfish gloom. I cheered myself up by promising that this would be the perfect opportunity for some sustained composition. I even took advice from a sprightly young woman on the TV, making a timetable for my day that included morning reading and afternoon writing. Self-discipline was to be my watchword. Some hope!

A regiment of seducers conspired to lure me away from my intended, worthy labours: I really had to keep up with the news on Radio 4’s Today programme; I was then required to cross check for veracity by dipping into TV news; e-mail and Facebook came next; suddenly the sounds of lunch being prepared became a further distraction; Nicola Sturgeon’s daily briefing drew me deep into the afternoon; before I knew it, my bedtime was looming without any worthwhile literary production having been achieved.

And so it went on. The not-particularly well-laid schemes failed at the first test. The firmer I tried to be with myself, the more I found my days being fruitlessly squandered. As the news became ever more serious, my ability to tear myself away from media reporting diminished.

In an effort to refocus, I dug out some older pieces of writing that had lain abandoned for ages, did some touching up and editing, and sent them to journals calling for submissions. I presumed that, with so much time on so many editorial hands, speedy responses would be obtained. Sadly, only a couple of rejections hastened home to roost; the rest seem to have disappeared into Lockdown Limbo. My paranoia quotient soared. And all the while, the news from the outside world grew more and more grim.

I have now become so annoyed with myself for my inability to use time profitably that I have begun an onslaught on the pile of books that have lain unread since Christmas. Today I finished reading Transcription by Kate Atkinson, and feel the better for it. Maybe tomorrow, I’ll stumble across an idea for a story. . . if I can summon some resolve.

Look after yourselves.

Saying The Unsayable

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Checking through my social media the other day, I came across expressions of outrage at statements made in print by the journalist and self styled ‘social commentator’, Toby Young. I was not particularly surprised, given that Young makes a habit of inviting outrage by espousing right-wing, libertarian views likely to infuriate more liberal sections of the British population.

I first became aware of Young a number of years ago, when he appeared as part of a panel on the BBC TV lunchtime programme, ‘The Daily Politics’. As befits the BBC requirement for political even-handedness, Young had been invited to put the case for The Right on the issues being discussed. On that occasion, his views did not seem particularly extreme, until talk turned to Free Schools, then being promoted by the Cameron government.

On this subject, Young showed himself to hold ideas close to those of 19th century public schools, ideas which, if put into practice, would have further deepened the inequalities current in English education, and would have resulted in taxpayers bearing the cost for setting up and running establishments that resembled ‘traditional’ prep schools. Free schools were his particular hobby-horse of the time, and I was struck by his clear delight in seeking to contradict the consensual views of other members of the panel.

I was interested enough to read his extensive profile on Wikipedia, much of it written by himself, and discovered that his career, such as it is, has largely been based on the practice of attracting attention to himself by claiming the right to say whatever he likes, no matter how offensive, in support of freedom of speech. Recently, he has been involved in the setting up of an organisation which seeks to give succour to writers and academics whose views have been attacked, on grounds of ‘political incorrectness’.

During his journalistic career, he himself has been criticised for, among other things, misogynistic and homophobic tweets, anti-Semitic views, advocacy of eugenic ideas relating to intelligence, and most recently, claiming that spending public money on saving lives of elderly people during the coronavirus crisis is ‘irresponsible’.

My first reactions to such ‘coat trailing’ used to be anger and a desire to see the perpetrators silenced, but over the years I have come to feel that it is better that those who hold such outrageous views, and use them in cynical attempts to gain public notoriety, should be allowed to express themselves as freely as the law permits. By letting them air their poison, those of us who are less extreme in our beliefs are able to identify them for what they are, and to counteract the harm they do by more rational (and humane) argument.

I am, however, aware that this is a position that my younger self would never have tolerated. But then, intolerance can, itself, be poisonous, can it not?

Hors de Combat

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It is common knowledge that the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom is a great admirer of Winston Churchill. He has written a biography of the wartime leader, and it is reputed that his relentless drive to become leader of the Conservative Party, and thus PM, has grown out of a desire to emulate the great man.

Watching his daily press briefings during the current health crisis, I cannot help wondering whether, somewhere in his secret heart, Boris is relishing having a situation to manage which has been described as ‘the most serious since World War II.’

These thoughts were further stimulated by hearing his choice of metaphor in a recent broadcast: according to our national leader at Westminster, we are ‘at war’ with the virus.

Unfortunately, Boris’ rhetorical style does not match up to that of his erstwhile hero. Instead of a clear and measured delivery, our PM provides for us, through often spluttering verbal episodes, messages which can be convoluted, at times even self-contradictory. A notable example of this was his exhortation to the vulnerable to stay at home, but to feel free to go out and enjoy themselves.

Without wishing to be party political, I cannot help but compare his performances with those of the First Minister of Scotland, who has been, so far, a model of honesty, transparency and lucidity in her messages to the public.

As someone self-isolating on grounds of age and health, and therefore not currently participating in any battles, I much prefer her straightforward clarity to his attempt to draw a somewhat inappropriate historical parallel.

 

True to Form

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When I was still at primary school, my parents bought me a book entitled ‘A Pageant of History’. It was a child’s guide to kings and queens (mainly English) and national heroes and heroines (Churchill, Drake, Nelson and the like). Each topic was covered in a couple of pages, and the general thrust of the publication (coming as it did only a few years after the Coronation of Elizabeth II) was to reinforce the superiority of ‘Britishness’ and glorify the ‘New Elizabethan Age’ as it was then being dubbed. It was very much of its time, and in keeping with what was being taught in schools.

One of the iconic figures described was William Shakespeare. His background and writing career were briefly summarised, and at the foot of a page, almost as an afterthought, his Sonnet 116 (‘Let me not to the marriage of true minds / admit impediments . . .’) was printed in full. I found it fascinating.

I could not understand much of the meaning, other than that it was about love, but the strange language and the rhythm of the poem held my attention and were like a puzzle to me. I even went to my elder brother, who had recently finished secondary school, and asked him what it meant. He told me that it was very complicated and meant for grown-ups, and that I would understand it when I was older. Consequently, the poem endured as an enthralling mystery, eventually committed to memory and its meaning struggled with over the years.

It also left me with a fascination with sonnets: the variety of structures applied in the form, the differing subjects for which the form has been used over centuries. It was almost inevitable that I would come to attempt to use the form in my own writing, and I have been delighted to have had a couple published. My early fascination with one particular sonnet also led me to play around with its ideas and language.

The poems below were both published online in  Allegro Poetry 24, in March 2020.

 

The Bonfire of The Collected Works

The final straw, that last rejection slip.

Its savagery left me in no doubt

as to the weakness of the works. Found out!

The editor, whose words cut like a whip,

was right to deal his harsh but honest blow,

despite the hours I’d spent, relentlessly

struggling to give my words integrity.

So ended all my hopes; they had to go.

One last read-through, then thrust into the fire.

Sometimes odd lines still drift into my mind,

nothing of substance, nothing to admire.

I try to grasp them, sensing on my hand

a chill, like memory of dead desire,

or flakes of ash on a November wind.

 

Response to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 116

Tumbledown, an ancient house to let,

this fabric that endures of you and me

attracts no offers; not for rent, not

even as investment to

guarantee us comfort in frail age. The

beams and rafters, bricks and roughcast of a marriage

now show decay, the wear and tear of

time; what once was regular, now out of true.

Still, we try to show that neither of us minds,

and even to best friends will not admit

that love and trust surrender to impediments.

Copyright © Gordon Gibson

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A Problematic Poet

I first encountered the poetry of Philip Larkin when I was a student in the late 1960s. Although he had gained a growing reputation at that time, particularly on the strength of The Whitsun Weddings (published in 1964), he was not, perhaps for reasons of propriety, being taught in many Scottish schools.

I was impressed by his ability to focus on the everyday, in both subject and language, and intrigued by the sometimes morose mood he evoked in his poems. And of course it was fashionable to be able to quote from some of his ‘disreputable’ works, so different from the standard fare of the classroom.

Larkin has been much in my thoughts recently, after borrowing from a friend Somewhere Becoming Rain, a collection of critical writings on the poet by Clive James, published in October 2019 during his own final illness. James, an admirer of Larkin, had written reviews, criticisms and poems in appreciation of the poet’s work throughout his own literary and journalistic career, and presented these chronologically in his collection.

Since his own death in 1985, Larkin’s reputation has suffered because of revelations which subsequently surfaced about his personal life: his political views and admiration of Margaret Thatcher; his outrageous statements in private correspondence with friends; his refusal to marry any of the women with whom he had relationships; and the increasingly outspoken language of some of his unpublished poems, first made public in his posthumous Collected Works.

James, in his later writing about Larkin, felt obliged to explain or apologise for what he saw as mischief or bad judgement in some of the letters and unpublished work, while holding fast to his belief that here was a truly great poet. Reading what he had to say sent me back to read poems I had not revisited in a long time.

If you wish to consider / reconsider your own view of Larkin’s place in 20th century writing, the link below will take you to an excellent starting point, giving an overview of his biography, a good selection of his best-known poems and some contrasting critical views.

https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poets/philip-larkin