Snow and other falls

I see that it’s one of those packed literary anniversary days: the births of Robert Burns, Virginia Woolf, Somerset Maugham, J. G. Farrell – and the death of Dorothy Wordsworth. Unusually, I’ve read at least some work by all of the celebrants, though – Sassenach! – not that much Burns.

In his column published on 25 January 1908, Ford Madox Ford remembered one of the maxims of his old schoolmaster: ‘“Schreib wie du sprichst!”’ Ford went on: ‘Write as you speak! What a glorious but impracticable counsel! For if we had written as we spoke then what a queer mixture of schoolboy slang in English, what an ungrammatical colloquial German, what queer French or Virgilian Latin it would have been!’ And yet: ‘“Schreib wie du sprichst!” How often since then have I repeated those words to neophytes; how often have I not striven after that impossible ideal!’ So much of English prose writing, he asserts, has been damaged by adherence to stilted, flowery or Latinate models. And Doughty? ‘I detest his style; I revel in his books.’ The latest of these, Wanderings in Arabia, Ford finds ‘a work of great value, that value lying in ‘the number of sensations that it conveys.’ Doughty’s book ‘is of this great value and interest, for it is really a projection of life; not a mere “writing about” things.’[1]

Writing versus speaking: an old song. The idea of writing just as you speak would, I suspect, appal some people: yet anyone giving a presentation—or writing a poem, or a story, or anything else—must surely need to gauge how it sounds. Can it be read aloud without sounding awkward, pompous, false? If you can’t voice it without tying yourself in knots, pity the poor devils who are going to be on its receiving end.

So, the past week: what stands out? The inauguration, naturally – and not just Amanda Gorman, hugely impressive as she was. ‘My God’, the Librarian said as she caught sight of the Biden and Harris contingents, ‘their families look like normal families!’ And so they did, yet another point of marked contrast with what came before.

Beyond that: we have surely passed the point at which even the vigorous promoters of Brexit could pretend that it was anything other than the crippling disaster half the country always knew it would be – and the many people who voted for it must finally suspect that they are, as they undoubtedly are, viewed with utter contempt by those who brought it about, including the xenophobic right-wing press. Strange, though, how unwilling the authors of this catastrophe are to own it and take responsibility for it – as adults surely should do..

What else? I suppose my grasping the fact that we probably had two serious chances to tackle Covid-19 in this country – and blew them both. Now we hear of discussions about border restrictions – at least ten months late – and quibbles over who should be subject to them. Just people from Brazil and South Africa? All that inconvenience at Heathrow, dear me. And I sit here wondering just who is at Heathrow and why the hell are they there? Stay home! There’s a pandemic!

On the plus side: snow! And, definitely, Russell Davies’ devastatingly good It’s a Sin; and, a little on the down side again, my latest minor kitchen injury. No doubt, most people get through life without the base of a wine glass breaking off in their hand and making a mess of it – but it seems I’m not one of them.


[1] This column is reprinted in Ford Madox Ford, Critical Essays, edited by Max Saunders and Richard Stang (Manchester: Carcanet Press, 2002), 52-55. Ford is writing about Wanderings In Arabia, arranged and introduced by Edward Garnett (Duckworth, 1908).

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