Archive | September, 2014

Does Grammar Matter?

28 Sep

I’ve just finished reading a short volume that I picked up from my local bookshop. I Used to Know That: English by Patrick Scrivenor – can that name be real? – is one of those primers seeking to pilot us through the perilous waters of English grammar and correct usage. Every few years, I’ll submit to the guidance of such a book to test the continuing seaworthiness of my prose. I always find myself in disagreement on certain points with the authors of these guides. After all, writing style is a matter of preference and any book that sets out to lay down rules for it is bound to raise some objections. Nevertheless, the central tenet, that written English should conform to a logical structure, strikes me as a sensible one.

Navigating those choppy waters...

Navigating those choppy waters…

Does it matter if the sentences that you write are poorly constructed, perhaps riddled with clichés, malapropisms and spelling errors? Some would say not. It’s all about the ideas or the story. Those who object to substandard prose are pedants or ‘grammar Nazis’. Everyone has a novel in him and has the right to knock it out in a matter of weeks then press it upon the world. Only an elitist would deny him this right.

I would argue that this is mistaken. Without clarity and elegance, prose will neither inform nor appeal. Writing is a craft to be learned like any other and if you’re not prepared to put in the time you’ll never be any good at it (do you sense that I’m warming up for my annual NaNoWriMo tirade?). Generally speaking, crafting a properly constructed sentence comes as second nature to those who spend their time reading and writing. Rules are there to be broken, perhaps, but only by those who are aware that they are doing so.

Nona Rhino is back…

The process of composing fiction is often termed ‘creative writing’ and this offers us some clues. As a creative art, writing should aspire to an aesthetic. Poorly formed sentences are almost always ugly. And since writing is at the heart of the process, the writer has a duty of care. If you choose to call yourself a writer then the quality of your prose matters. No painter or sculptor worthy of the name would claim that the execution of his finished work was unimportant. Why should writing be any different?

Nobody’s prose is flawless. To err is human. A lack of concern for such mistakes smacks of complacency, though, and constitutes a literary own goal.

All text and images © PSR 2014

Something Written on the State of Denmark

10 Sep

Well, here I am, back after another little interlude…

Those familiar with this blog will know that I have something of a Nordic fixation. I loved the Moomin books as a child. A little later, I worked my way through the plays of Strindberg and Ibsen. My solitary directing credit is for Strindberg’s The Father. Latterly, I’ve been reading the novels of Per Petterson and Roy Jacobsen. It was some six years since I’d last visited Scandinavia. And so to satiate my obsession, I sailed to Denmark this summer and spent a week exploring the country with an Inter-Rail ticket.

I’d been to Denmark once before, a long time ago. Its towns and cities are picturesque and clean. Every city seems to possess a magnificent red-brick cathedral. There’s a gentle beauty to the rolling hills in the countryside, dotted with copses and lakes. Village churches, standing on the hilltops, were almost invariably whitewashed with red pan-tiled roofs, old buildings painted a deep orange. The food and beer were superb, the people friendly. And just as Finland is rightly proud of Tove Jansson, so every town in Denmark seems to claim that Hans Christian Andersen lived, worked or studied there.

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Everywhere I went seemed to claim some connection with Hans Christian Andersen. This one was in Odense on the island of Fyn.

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Roskilde’s medieval cathedral, a world heritage site

In København, I met up with my old friend, Mette, with whom I’d been at university in England. A quarter of a century had passed since we’d last seen each other. On the train, on the way to meet her, as I passed through Ringsted and Roskilde, I thought about how the world had changed in that time. The Berlin Wall had still been standing, the last time that I saw her. In the intervening time, corporations had taken over almost every aspect of human activity. Their latest ruse was those little hand-held devices that had turned human beings into a race of idiots, obsessed with trivia and trite sound-bites, failing to notice the people around them in the real world, existing in their atomised bubbles. Mobile phones had barely existed twenty-five years ago. Mette and I put the world to rights. It was great to see her.

I even managed a jaunt across to Sweden, a short ferry crossing from Helsingør (Hamlet’s Elsinore) to Helsingborg.

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Sweden seen from Denmark (the ramparts of Hamlet’s castle)…

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…Denmark seen from Sweden (high up in Helsingborg)

I stocked up on ideas for my writing and got a fair amount done. A favourite place to stop off and think was a little bar faraway from the tourist area. Its only fault was that small bars are exempt from the smoking ban. You can’t have everything, I suppose. I can even report that Denmark has a fair Thin Lizzy tribute band called Lizzy Stuff whom I saw perform in a club in Århus. Sadly, I shan’t be catching the boat from Harwich to Esbjerg again. At the end of September, the service comes to an end after 150 years in operation. Having travelled the breadth of the country on DSB’s smart, high-tech trains – yes, they’re still state-owned – I arrived back at Harwich International station with a clutch of Danish visitors. The little train that came to meet us resembled a 1950s tube train and didn’t seem to have been cleaned since then. What must the Danes have made of it? Joining the Norwich to London mainline, we transferred onto forty year old ‘express’ trains. Our visitors must have thought that they’d arrived in a third world country. These were the ones on which you have to push down the window on the inside to open the door from outside. Only in England…

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The author’s favourite bar on a street corner in downtown København

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A retired locomotive – it’d be state-of-the-art in England…

All text and images © PSR 2014