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Posts Tagged ‘writing’

I broke my vow – again. It must be four years since I vowed never, ever to see another 3D film at the cinema; and two or three times I have been lured back by simple curiosity, or by the shallow desire to see the ‘unmissable’ film that everyone else is seeing (a playground fear of being left out), or by the reassurances of a friend that this really is worth it.

There are some beautiful images in Life of Pi. It wasn’t actually the visual effects that struck me most, but the fluid cinematography of the first half hour – India in pastel colours rather than the usual primary ones; and a fairy-tale glow about the zoo, the swimming pool, the family dining table. But as a film, it doesn’t work. It’s a series of short stories rather than a novel; some of them fun, some of them deadly dull. The spirituality is too syncretistic to have any bite.

Now and then, when a film is getting high percentages on Rotten Tomatoes (in this case 89%), and in my humble opinion it doesn’t deserve them, I delight in searching through the bad reviews – conveniently flagged up by the splattered green tomatoes – for confirmation of my artistic discernment. Peter Bradshaw says everything that needs saying in a single paragraph:

No one can doubt the technical brilliance of Ang Lee‘s new film, an adaptation of Yann Martel‘s Booker-winning bestseller from 2001, a widely acclaimed book that I should say I have yet to read. The effects are stunning, more impressive than anything in the new hi-tech Hobbit, and on that score, Peter Jackson can eat his heart out. But for the film itself, despite some lovely images and those eyepopping effects, it is a shallow and self-important shaggy-dog story – or shaggy-tiger story – and I am bemused by the saucer-eyed critical responses it’s been getting.

The last line of the review is a classic version of ‘damning with clear but carefully targeted praise’:

This is an awards-season movie if ever there was one. It deserves every technical prize going.

There was, however, one fascinating theological scene. Pi, from a Hindu family, is dared by his brother to go into a Catholic church and drink the holy water from the font by the door. He rushes in, drinks, and then stops and gazes around the interior of the church. We are led to believe that he hasn’t been in a church before, or that he hasn’t ever taken the time to look properly.

When he sees an image of Jesus, he is transfixed. A priest comes through the church and talks to him. Pi asks (I’m paraphrasing from memory): Is it true that God became a human being like us? And why? And the priest answers: Yes, he became one like us. He became small so that we would not be frightened by him. He became our brother so that we would be able to approach him. He died for us so that nothing, not even death, would keep us apart from him. Pi, the Hindu boy, announces that he wishes to be baptised.

It’s a simple, un-ironic presentation of the Christian message, and of a child in all innocence discovering a life-changing spiritual truth. It doesn’t happen very often in cinema.

(Then, just a few moments later, he announces that he wants to be a Muslim as well as a Christian, and at the same time to remain a Hindu; it’s very confusing in the film – perhaps it makes more sense in the book, which I haven’t read. This is why I called it syncretistic!)

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I saw this on Facebook at the weekend, in a shortened version. Then I hunted down the original set of rules, apparently written by Frank L. Visco and originally published in the June 1986 issue of Writers’ digest.

writing by AJ Cann

Here they are:

  1. Avoid Alliteration. Always.
  2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
  3. Avoid cliches like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
  4. Employ the vernacular.
  5. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
  6. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are unnecessary.
  7. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
  8. Contractions aren’t necessary.
  9. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
  10. One should never generalize.
  11. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
  12. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
  13. Don’t be redundant; don’t use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
  14. Profanity sucks.
  15. Be more or less specific.
  16. Understatement is always best.
  17. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
  18. One word sentences? Eliminate.
  19. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
  20. The passive voice is to be avoided.
  21. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
  22. Even if a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
  23. Who needs rhetorical questions?

And this second set of rules is derived from William Safire’s Rules for Writers:

  1. Parenthetical words however must be enclosed in commas.
  2. It behooves you to avoid archaic expressions.
  3. Avoid archaeic spellings too.
  4. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  5. Don’t use commas, that, are not, necessary.
  6. Do not use hyperbole; not one in a million can do it effectively.
  7. Never use a big word when a diminutive alternative would suffice.
  8. Subject and verb always has to agree.
  9. Placing a comma between subject and predicate, is not correct.
  10. Use youre spell chekker to avoid mispeling and to catch typograhpical errers.
  11. Don’t repeat yourself, or say again what you have said before.
  12. Use the apostrophe in it’s proper place and omit it when its not needed.
  13. Don’t never use no double negatives.
  14. Poofread carefully to see if you any words out.
  15. Hopefully, you will use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
  16. Eschew obfuscation.
  17. No sentence fragments.
  18. Don’t indulge in sesquipedalian lexicological constructions.
  19. A writer must not shift your point of view.
  20. Don’t overuse exclamation marks!!
  21. Place pronouns as close as possible, especially in long sentences, as of 10 or more words, to their antecedents.
  22. Writing carefully, dangling participles must be avoided.
  23. If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
  24. Avoid trendy locutions that sound flaky.
  25. Everyone should be careful to use a singular pronoun with singular nouns in their writing.
  26. Always pick on the correct idiom.
  27. The adverb always follows the verb.
  28. Take the bull by the hand and avoid mixing metaphors.
  29. If you reread your work, you can find on rereading a great deal of repetition can be by rereading and editing.
  30. And always be sure to finish what

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Go and see Ruby Sparks. I nearly walked out after fifteen minutes, because it seemed like the most saccharine and cliché-ridden romantic comedy. But then she appears – the writer’s dream becomes his reality – and you realise that under the guise of a good-natured rom-com there lies a dark and disturbing psycho-drama and a clever philosophical meditation on love, power, freedom and identity. It’s one of the most thought-provoking films I’ve seen this year.

Minor plot-spoilers follow, but not much more than is in the trailer. He is a writer; he starts writing about a woman who has appeared in his dreams, and he creates the perfect woman who will fill his lonely heart. Then she appears, for real, and after the slapstick scenes of him and his brother coming to terms with that, he has to get on with the business of really knowing and loving her.

And of course the person he has created stops fitting into his model. So he breaks his self-imposed rule, and starts re-writing who she is, even as he is in the middle of the relationship. It goes funny, and pear-shaped, and self-defeating, and then very, very dark, before the inevitable (and I thought quite beautiful) light-filled resolution.

Like any good fairy-tale or parable, it presents in an outlandish form something that is so normal we have stopped seeing it. In this case, that we are attracted to people (not just romantically) because they match what we find attractive, what we hope to find in another; and that – often – we subtly and not-so-subtly pressure and manipulate people to conform to our expectations of what the relationship should be about.

So there is a joy in discovering ‘the other’, but the other is objectified and can become a projection of our own hopes. Then we realise that they are more than the person we want them to be – they are the person they want to be, and a person we may never appreciate or even understand.

Is the first kind of attraction inherently narcissistic and manipulative? Is all love, at least at the beginning, a form of fantasy? How do we keep the delight in finding someone who fits with our dreams at the same time as giving them the space to surprise and unsettle and disturb? We objectify someone, but we can’t live with an object for very long.

And if, to take the questioning much further, the person begins to realise that they have in some sense been created by another, where does that leave them? How do we set them free, without losing everything? How do they set themselves free? This isn’t such a fantasy: think of the myriad ways in which we have all been ‘created’, formed, by others – by parents, teachers, friends, culture, society…

I’m being very heavy, because I came away with my head spinning. It’s not as heavy as I have made it out – in fact it feels like a bit of fluff. That’s what makes it so clever, it’s a breezy romcom that reads, afterwards, like a lecture in philosophy or psychology. It’s intriguing and great fun.

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In my recent post about Web 3.0 I used the phrase layered reality to describe the way that information from the virtual world is becoming embedded in our experience of the real world in real-time. Instead of stopping the car, looking at a physical map, memorising the directions, and then starting off again; now you see a virtual map on your sat nav that matches and enhances the physical reality in front of you. It adds another layer. The next step – part of Web 3.0 – is that the technology that delivers the layer is wearable and invisible, so that the layering is seamless. We have had mobile conversations via earpieces for years now.

The best example of this is the Google Glass. Messages and information that up to now would appear on your computer screen or mobile phone now appear on the lens of your glasses as part of your visual panorama. Fighter pilots have had information appearing on their visors for a long time, so that they can read instruments without having to take their eyes off the scene ahead. The Google Glass is just the domestic equivalent of this.

Take a look at this wonderful video demo:

Claire Beale explains more about the implications for mobile technology:

Ever since Tom Cruise showed us in Minority Report a future where reality is a multi-layered experience, gadget geeks have been waiting for technology to deliver on Hollywood’s promise.

Now virtual reality is about to become an actual reality for anyone with the right sort of mobile phone after Telefonica, the parent company of O2, signed a revolutionary deal last week with the tech company Aurasma.

Aurasma has developed a virtual reality platform that recognises images and objects in the real world and responds by layering new information on top. So if Aurasma’s technology is embedded into your mobile phone, when you point your phone at an image it can recognise, it will automatically unlock relevant interactive digital content.

For brands, this type of kit has some pretty significant implications. It means that commercial messages can now live in the ether around us, waiting to be activated by our mobiles. If your phone registers a recognised image such as a building, a poster or a promotional sticker in a store, say, it will play out videos, 3D animations or money-off coupons to entice you to buy.

See this video demo from Layar:

You don’t just see, you see as others see, you understand what others understand, it’s almost like sharing in a universal consciousness. That’s part of the wonder of this new augmented reality, and also the danger; because it all depends on trusting the source, the provider. Who controls the layers?

But the idea of layering reality is not really new, in fact ‘layered reality’ could almost be a definition of human culture. Culture is the fact that we don’t just experience reality neat, we experience it filtered through the accumulated interpretations of previous generations. The primordial example of culture as a layering of reality is language: we speak about what we see, and cover every experience with a layer of language – before, during and after the experience itself.

And writing is literally putting a layer of human interpretation on top of the physical reality before you: carving some cuneiform script into a Sumerian brick; painting a Chinese character onto a piece of parchment; printing the newspaper in the early hours of the morning. Endless layers that stretch back almost to the beginning of human consciousness.

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I can’t believe it – this is my 500th post! (I’m not counting, but by chance I saw the ’499′ pop up on the last one). 500 scintillating insights; 500 pieces of finely wrought prose, where ‘every phrase and every sentence is right’ (almost Eliot); 500 breathtakingly beautiful bridges and unexpectedly daring tangents.

OK, maybe the prose is moving from finely wrought to overwrought; I could also have said: 500 half-formed ideas at the end of the day.

Let’s celebrate with some decent writing, about writing itself - with one of my favourite passages from TS Eliot’s Little Gidding:

What we call the beginning is often the end
And to make an end is to make a beginning.
The end is where we start from. And every phrase
And sentence that is right (where every word is at home,
Taking its place to support the others,
The word neither diffident nor ostentatious,
An easy commerce of the old and the new,
The common word exact without vulgarity,
The formal word precise but not pedantic,
The complete consort dancing together)
Every phrase and every sentence is an end and a beginning,
Every poem an epitaph. And any action
Is a step to the block, to the fire, down the sea’s throat
Or to an illegible stone: and that is where we start…

And how to celebrate and reflect for this 500th post? Well, we certainly need a magnificent bridge. The banner image you have been looking at for the last three years, at the top of each page, is a shot over New York with Hell Gate Bridge in the background. Here it is in a much better shot:

And in order to allow a little bit of self-analysis for this 500-post celebration, here is the ‘tag cloud’ from these 500 posts. Remember, this doesn’t analyse the words I have used in the writing itself, but the number of times I have chosen to tag a particular post with one of these labels. Anything that has come up twelve times makes the cloud, so the tags with the smallest fonts below represent 12 posts each, and the largest numbers of posts (as you can see below) are about: internet (35), love (37), faith (38) and freedom (44). You can send in your psychoanalytical conclusions on a postcard.

If you want to actually search for these tagged topics, see the proper and updated tag cloud in the right-hand column.

Thanks for your support over these nearly three years, your loyal and devoted reading (or your random ending up here through an accidental search or a false tap on the iPad), your occasional comments. Thanks to all those whose beautiful images I have borrowed (legally I hope, and with due accreditation, usually via creative commons). Apologies that I haven’t always had the time to enter into dialogue properly with all the comments, as they deserve.

I’ve nearly always enjoyed the thinking and writing (and choosing pictures). I’ve sometimes felt the obligation to keep going for consistency’s sake – but soon I’ve been glad that I have. I’ve always wished I had more time to ponder and shape the ideas, and the words themselves.

It’s a strange thing, ‘airing your thoughts’. Strange for being both personal and public; the inner life and the life outside; the quiet of the computer screen as you compose the blog, and the clatter of each post landing on several hundred other screens and phones around the world.

I won’t say ‘Here’s to the next 500 posts’, because I’d hate to make that kind of commitment. But I’ll keep going for the moment.

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We had a week of silent retreat at the end of last month. Silence, of course, doesn’t mean silence; it means no talking. During meals it meant the clatter of cutlery and the slurping of coffee at breakfast, a selection of classical music at supper, and someone reading to us over lunch – in the monastic tradition.

A pulpit in the refectory of a Carmelite friary in Malta, where a friar would read to the community during meals

It’s very rare, as an adult, that you just sit back (or hunch forward over your lunch) and have someone read to you. One part of the mind is concentrating on the words, and enjoying the language and thoughts and stories. Another part is able to be more attentive than usual to the surroundings, to the senses – the taste of the food, the sheer physical presence of the person opposite you, the sounds of the room and the world outside. And another part of the mind, or perhaps the heart, falls into a semi-conscious slumber, like when you are sitting on the back seat of the car as a child, gazing out the window, as your parents talk about important things you only vaguely understand.

And the soul, somehow, at least in the context of a retreat like this, can be liberated into a kind of domestic contemplation, a stillness that you carry from the chapel into the dining room, that isn’t disturbed by the need to chat over lunch.

It reminds me of the film The Reader (I haven’t read the original novel), where the central part of their complicated relationship is her request to be read to (I won’t give any plot away!). And one of the parents who helped me with the parents booklet gave this simple advice:

Encourage your children to read. Go to the library with them. And continue to read aloud to them, even if they can read well themselves. It gives you an opportunity to talk and learn and grow together. You can usually find a book to read to children of different ages, so your children can be together in this way now and then.

So it’s good to be read to now and then!

Do you have any moments, as an adult, when someone reads to you, or when you are in a group that is being read to? I think it’s quite rare, but I might be wrong.

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I reviewed Marilynne Robinson’s latest book in the Tablet recently. My very first post, nearly three years ago, referred to a passage about wonder in her extraordinary novel Gilead.

When I Was A Child I Read Books is a collection of essays about subjects as diverse as Calvinist theology, evolutionary psychology, American hymnody, Japanese economics, growing up in small-town Idaho, and the decline of democracy. You may not have a passionate interest in all or any of these topics, but the book is still well worth reading, because her deepest concern is always to understand what it means to be human, what it means to confront the reality around us, and what lies just beyond the boundaries, in ‘the vast terrain of what cannot be said’.

I won’t copy the whole review here, but here is a passage about Robinson’s distinctive interest in religion:

I doubt that there are many self-professed ‘unreconstructed liberals’ who wear their Calvinism on their sleeve. Robinson is never preachy, but it’s clear how her Christian faith informs her view of things. Religion, for her, is not a cosy enclave, but a disruptive force, which expands and shatters the narrow definitions we would otherwise have of ourselves and our world.

The story of God’s extravagant, wondrous love casts a ‘saturating light’ over the whole of human history. Even original sin, which seems such a pessimistic idea, points to ‘the literally cosmic significance of humankind as a central actor in creation who is, in some important sense, free to depart from, even to defy, the will of God’.

Theology, in other words, leads us back to anthropology – to our understanding of the human person. Robinson laments the loss of the word ‘soul’ in contemporary discourse, and has a clear-sighted view of how human dignity needs some external theistic foundation if it is to be defended. Why? Because any notion of human ‘exceptionalism’ needs to anchor our nature, our dignity, ‘in a reality outside the world of circumstance’.

When the Declaration of Independence states ‘that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights’, it makes the human person sacred, once by creation and again by endowment, ‘and thereby sets individual rights outside the reach of rationalization’. Religion, in this context, stops our thinking from becoming too narrow or domineering.

Robinson is a debunker of lazy ideologies. She is incensed by the reductionist assumptions implicit in so much contemporary thought. Evolutionary psychology, for example, focusses its attention on the adaptations it claims allowed human beings to survive on the primordial savannah – but marginalises everything else about us. For Robinson, our humanity consists in the fact that we do more than survive. ‘This kind of thinking places everything remarkable about us in the category “accidental”.’

So yes, I’m recommending it. But even more so, I’d recommend Gilead.

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There is a lovely online debate going on about how best to organise your bookshelves. It falls under that more general heading of ‘cataloguing disputes’ or ‘making lists about lists’.

Here are Stephen Moss’s reflections:

Ah, how to organise one’s bookshelves? One of life’s central questions, and well done Alexander McCall Smith for raising it on Twitter yesterday. Perhaps not everyone would consider this a vital topic, but for me it is. Just as Casaubon in Middlemarch is trying to find “the key to all mythologies” (the title of his unfinished book), so I believe that if I can arrange my library properly, everything will be solved. Who needs the Higgs boson? The real key is where to file The Iliad. Poetry or history?

I have about a dozen categories. Fiction is the largest. It is arranged alphabetically by author and then chronologically where I have several titles by the same writer. There are sections devoted to poetry, memoir, biography, essays, travel writing and plays, all organised alphabetically. Books in these categories have a better chance of surviving than novels, which tend to be culled first. There are smaller sections, more loosely organised, devoted to dictionaries, reference works, art, music, sport and chess. I also have a shelf of foundation texts – the Bible, the Qur’an, the Mahabharata, Plato, Aristotle, St Augustine, Thomas Aquinas and the modern philosophers. I admit this shelf is very inaccessible.

History is a large section. It begins with general histories, and then takes a predictable course from Sumeria and Egypt to the Third Reich. There is a problem with a book such as Roy Foster’s Modern Ireland 1600-1972, because I don’t have a separate Irish section and can’t decide whether it should be in general histories or in chronological sequence. For the moment it sits awkwardly in the 17th century, next to Simon Schama’s The Embarrassment of Riches. Clearly I need to spend the rest of the day assessing this. One day, when I build my book annexe, all these questions will be resolved. Then, the whole of existence will be mapped, classified, ordered, and I can die happy. George Eliot was unnecessarily cruel to Casaubon. He was definitely on to something.

There are some lovely comments below his piece:

melymnn: I organize my books by publisher and colour and I’m not even ashamed to admit it. Come at me, bro.

Gdhsyerehdjsue: I have colourbetised my books and it looks great.

Mark Barnes: My entire collection is organised by Dewey, and catalogued on LibraryThing.com. Perhaps I need to get out more. That said, not only can I easily find my own books, but I now know exactly where to go in most libraries I visit.

msmlee: The WORST way to organise bookshelves is by an immediately discernible order to the untrained, non-bibliophile eye – you are not running a public library, you are arranging your bookshelves as a means of self expression, why do it so that others could find your books easily without having acquired your particular history of book encounters??? No, the right way to shelve books is not alphabetically, not chronologically, and certainly not by colour. I can stomach somebody’s bookshelves arranged broadly by subject, but that is only elementary level to book organising. You have to organise books in such a way that ONLY YOU know the rhyme and reason for these books being together, and really showed that you have actually READ the books to know what they are about before filing them.

ontheotherhand2010: Not trying to sound aggressive or anything, but… Who cares. Get a life. As long as you can find them, why does it matter? FYI I have mine in about half a dozen fairly broad categories or so (not alphabetical), which is enough for me to know roughly where they are located. I stopped being pedantic with the exact location of my books in my late teens. Maybe you should give it a rest as well…

To this last commentator I’d reply: If you can’t understand why someone wants to catalogue and sort and order and list and arrange and argue and shape and obsess and file and group and re-group and on and on and on, without it having to be explained to you, then you never will. It’s part of being human. Maybe the obsessiveness isn’t, but the impulse is.

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My other highlight from the Royal Wedding was the trees that were brought into the nave of Westminster Abbey. It wasn’t just that they beautified the interior of the Abbey, like an oversized bunch of carefully arranged flowers; it was the magical sense they created that by entering into this building you were actually going out into another completely different world.

I’ve always loved this kind of illusion. It demonstrates how going inside can sometimes take you outside; how fixing your glance on something small can sometimes make your vision much broader. It’s like a metaphor for the power of the imagination itself, which uses something ordinary to transport you somewhere extraordinary. The very act of reading, for example – so still, so stationary, so solitary – is to float up into another world, or fall down into a rabbit-hole of adventure.

The trees in Westminster Abbey made me think of one of my favourite childhood books, Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak, where the inner walls of Max’s bedroom are transformed into the treescape of a terrifying jungle. And the wallpaper in David Bowie’s The Man Who Fell to Earth that turned his sitting room into an autumnal forest. And Lucy clambering through the wardrobe as the coats turned into leaves and branches and the darkness opened out into the forest snow of Narnia. And Dr Who stepping into the Tardis.

My favourite example of this kind of imaginative inversion is St Francis of Assisi’s Portiuncula. This is the little medieval chapel that once sat in the forest in the plain below Assisi. But they cut down the trees and built an enormous basilica over the entire chapel. So now you leave the streets, walk into the Church of St Mary of the Angels, and instead of being ‘inside’ you are transported ‘outside’ to the forest glade surrounding the chapel. Every time I have been there I have been struck with child-like wonder.

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James Delingpole started blogging about two years ago. He has come to the conclusion that it is:

far more addictive, expensive, energy-sapping and injurious to health than crack cocaine.

Part of the problem is that his Telegraph blog has been enormously successful:

I’m not boasting. It really is popular. Obviously I don’t always get the 1.5 million hits I had when the Climategate story broke. But in an average week the number of hits I get is roughly twice the circulation of The Spectator, and in a good one bigger than those of the Guardian and the Independent put together.

And the reason for this is that… I have a talent for blogging. Admittedly I’m no use for gossip or inside-track Westminster analysis. What I can do though, better than most, is that mix of concentrated rage, flippant wit, irreverence, bile and snarkiness which many blog readers seem to think defines the art.

Again, I say this not at all in order to boast. Discovering in middle age that you have a rare gift for deriding idiocies on the internet is like suddenly finding you’re the world’s most accurate lichen-spotter or first-rate squirrel-juggler or that you can identify aircraft just by looking at the contrails. It’s not something that makes you go, ‘Thanks, God!’

Some may think this ungrateful of me. After all, thanks to my blog, I’m at least ten times more famous than I used to be — with readers all over the world who think I’m just great. But what most people don’t understand (only bloggers do, in fact) is the terrible emotional, physical and financial price you pay for this privilege.

In Delingpole’s eyes, the success and the likelihood of burnout seem to be inseparable, because of the compulsive nature of the effective blogger.

There are only so many really first-class bloggers out there and unless they’re being paid to do it as a full-time job (which only a handful are) then they’re almost bound, as I just have, to retire hurt.

When I looked back at the last 18 months and wondered why I’d got so ill, the answer became pretty self-evident: it’s because every spare scrap of time that had hitherto gone on stuff like pottering in the garden, having the odd game of tennis, taking the kids to school, listening to music, reading, walking and relaxing, had been almost entirely swallowed up by blogging.

And I can’t pretend I didn’t enjoy doing it: that’s the problem — it’s an addiction. As a blogger you can’t read a news story without wanting to comment on it. You’re constantly trawling your other favourite blogs to see whose story is worth following up. And when you’re not doing that, you’re busy catching up with the hundreds of comments below your latest post, trying not to be cut up by the hateful ones, while trying to respond encouragingly to the sympathetic ones. I love it. I love my readers (the nice ones anyway). But for the moment I love slightly more the idea of not driving myself to an early grave.

I don’t think I’m at the burnout stage yet.

You can see Delingpole’s website here, and his old Telegraph posts here.

There is a quick online test you can take to see how addicted to blogging you are – try it here. It only takes 30 seconds. The last question, for any blogger, is very funny indeed. I came out at an unimpressive 64%.

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With a title like ‘Plagiarism and the internet’, you are expecting me to write about how plagiarism is infinitely easier and infinitely more common than it was before the advent of the internet. Well it is. But it’s also true that the internet has made it a lot easier to discover whether someone is plagiarising, and where they are getting their materials from.

Jimmy Wales, one of the Wikipedia founders, explains all.

The German defence minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg has announced his resignation after admitting that he had plagiarised parts of his PhD from the University of Bayreuth. Online tools played a big role in exposing his methods: for almost two weeks a group worked to identify the specific sections from his thesis that were lifted straight from other sources. When they realised that Google Docs – although a useful tool for small group collaboration – wasn’t the right platform for mass participation in the project, they created a “wiki” (a site for collaborative works) named PlagiPedia to handle the effort.

In just a few days the wiki went into overdrive: from no page views on 16 February to nearly 2m on 18 February. A university investigation – culminating in a decision described by Debora Weber–Wulff, a professor of media and computing at Berlin university, as the fastest by a German academic institution in 400 years – resulted in the revocation of Zu Guttenberg’s doctorate. To date, the wiki has received 40,000 comments and 15,000 Facebook “likes”, and there are 1,224 pages on it exploring the details of the accusations of plagiarism against him.

Last week a second wiki was launched to explore whether Saif Gaddafi’s PhD thesis from the London School of Economics included plagiarism. A few days later Britain’s Media Standards Trust unveiled a website called churnalism.com which helps expose plagiarism in the media. By pasting press releases into a “churn engine” readers can discover the extent to which they have been recycled, verbatim, in online news articles. The internet is thought to have fostered a cut-and-paste culture of uncritical plagiarism: schoolteachers and university lecturers in particular regularly complain about coursework lifted straight off the site that I run, Wikipedia. But, if nothing else, sites like Plagipedia and churnalism.com show us that the internet is perfectly capable of correcting its own follies.

Of course Saif Gaddafi is guilty of far worse than plagiarism. But his history with the LSE is a black mark for the institution, and in particular for the examiners, such as Lord Desai, who approved his thesis. We may be able to forgive them some aspects of this – plagiarism is sometimes notoriously difficult to detect, particularly when you have only a small committee of experts doing the examining.

In the open-source software world we have a saying: “Many eyeballs make all bugs shallow.” Similarly, many people working together to look for plagiarism can be dramatically more effective than only a few.

The key internet rule now is not to avoid copying, but to admit it when you do.

The text on the image reads:

You go on YouTube for example and you post a video clip…within hours you’ll have hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people doing variations of your act….It used to be that if you were in the realm of popular culture, you would be inspired by an earlier performance, by an earlier style, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles, for example. But that would really be incumbent upon you to create an original style, a trademark style. That’s what you were known by. Now the important thing is to copy. It’s a copy culture. [Lee Siegel, author of Against the Machine: Being Human in the Age of the Electronic Mob]

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Stephanie Sadler runs a lovely blog called Little London Observationist. Her tag-line is a quote from Robert Brault: “Enjoy the little things, for one day you may look back and realize they were the big things.”

She has a series of posts called ‘Listen to a Londoner’, and I was honoured to be the subject of her interview yesterday. Some readers might be interested, although I mustn’t assume everyone is as London-centric as I am. It’s too long to paste in one go. The first half of the interview was about general London living – so let me copy it here. And then I’ll put up the reflections on religion which came at the end.

LLO: As a born and raised Londoner, what are the most noticeable ways the city has evolved in your lifetime?
SW:
 It’s bigger and busier. I remember a study recently about how our walking speed has increased (they secretly time you crossing bridges etc). It’s more culturally and ethnically diverse. Immigration has enriched London immensely. Random landmarks that didn’t exist when I was born in 1966: the Gherkin, the Millennium Bridge, the London Eye, Oyster Cards, sculptures on the fourth plinth, Boris Bikes, Tate Modern, the ubiquitous CCTV camera. Tragic losses: the Routemaster bus.

LLO: Tell us a bit about your background and your blog, Bridges and Tangents.
SW:
 I was born in University College Hospital just off Tottenham Court Road, when my parents were living in Chiswick. I grew up in Harpenden, near St Albans. I’m a Catholic priest and I work in the seminary in Chelsea, where we prepare men for the priesthood. I never imagined I’d start a blog. It happened quite quickly. I was thinking of writing a book, and a friend pointed out that if I really wanted to communicate and share ideas, then a blog would be more immediate and reach far more people. The penny dropped.

LLO: Freedom is your most used tag on your blog. In a recent post, you wrote “Perfect freedom is being able to step off the back of a London bus whenever you want, whatever the reason, and walk into the sunset without a bus-stop in sight.” Are there other London moments that give you a perfect sense of freedom?
SW:
The fact that London is a city for walking around gives me the greatest sense of freedom. Other random moments of exhilaration, freedom and space include: sitting at the front on the top deck of a double-decker bus; looking at the cityscape from the middle of any of London’s beautiful bridges; jaywalking with abandon — in the knowledge that this would be illegal in some countries; walking through the parks; and along the river at South Bank.

LLO: Can you recommend a few places in London to go for a sense of spirituality without stepping foot in a church/temple/mosque, etc?
SW:
 Whenever the next Kieslowski retrospective runs at the British Film Institute; standing over the Greenwich Prime Meridian line, knowing that you are at the still point of the cartographic world; walking round the Serpentine; the Jubilee Line station at Canary Wharf.

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Bridges and Tangents is one year old today. 365 days, 190 posts, 1500 tags, goodness knows how many words. You can read the first post here – about ‘wonder’ in Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead. Amazing how a hesitant step into the unknown future quickly becomes a moment of nostalgia. The exhilarating adventure of ‘being-for-itself’, as Sartre would say, of reaching beyond, easily slips into the familiarity of ‘being-in-itself’ – the world that we know and depend on.

San Francisco, Bay Bridge

I am not seeking comments or accolades here, just letting you know that I intend to keep going, for now. Blogging in this way is simply part of life for me now. I enjoy the excuse to think (if one were needed) and to write; every now and then I’m delighted with a discovery and get huge satisfaction from sharing it; and the rhythm of reflection and writing isn’t too time consuming. The danger is that something once fresh will become staid; I’ll just have to watch out for that, and perhaps circumstances – or some new form of social communication – will take over before then.

Ancient clapper bridge over the East Dart River at Postbridge

The effects are still largely unknown, but it’s good to get feedback and conversation in the comments, and when I bump into people who have come across the blog. Thanks especially to those who have been reading regularly, to those who have recommended the blog to others, and to those who have taken the time to comment.

Tangent by Whatknot

To celebrate, as you can see, I’ve hunted out some beautiful images of bridges and tangents.

Tangents by Seth Anderson

Let’s see how it all develops over the next few months.

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Zadie Smith reads at the Ding Dong lounge by deenah moffie.

Zadie Smith giving a reading

I posted a few weeks ago about hedgehogs and foxes: Isaiah Berlin’s way of categorising intellectuals as ‘big thinkers’ with one key idea, or as feral creatures who scurry around picking up scattered ideas.

Zadie Smith has a wonderful article about the process of writing a novel. She says that there are two distinct approaches. The Macro Planner ‘makes notes, organises material, configures a plot and creates a structure — all before he writes the title page’. The security of the overarching structure gives him a freedom to adapt what goes on inside. The Micro Manager, Smith herself, starts at the first sentence of a novel and finishes at the last. The story can only emerge once the starting point is right.

It’s not uncommon for Macro Planners to start writing their novels in the middle. As they progress, forwards or backwards, their difficulties multiply with their choices. I know Macro Planners who obsessively exchange possible endings for one another, who take characters out and put them back in, reverse the order of chapters and perform frequent—for me, unthinkable—radical surgery on their novels: moving the setting of a book from London to Berlin, for example, or changing the title. I can’t stand to hear them speak about all this, not because I disapprove, but because other people’s methods are always so incomprehensible and horrifying. I am a Micro Manager. I start at the first sentence of a novel and I finish at the last. It would never occur to me to choose among three different endings because I haven’t the slightest idea of the ending until I get to it, a fact that will surprise no one who has read my novels. Macro Planners have their houses largely built from day one, and so their obsession is internal—they’re forever moving the furniture. They’ll put a chair in the bedroom, the lounge, the kitchen and then back in the bedroom again. Micro Managers build a house floor by floor, discretely and in its entirety. Each floor needs to be sturdy and fully decorated with all the furniture in place before the next is built on top of it. There’s wallpaper in the hall even if the stairs lead nowhere at all.

Because Micro Managers have no grand plan, their novels exist only in their present moment, in a sensibility, in the novel’s tonal frequency line by line. When I begin a novel I feel there is nothing of that novel outside of the sentences I am setting down. I have to be very careful: the whole nature of the thing changes by the choice of a few words. This induces a special breed of pathology for which I have another ugly name: OPD or obsessive perspective disorder. It occurs mainly in the first 20 pages. It’s a kind of existential drama, a long answer to the short question What kind of a novel am I writing? It manifests itself in a compulsive fixation on perspective and voice. In one day the first 20 pages can go from first-person present tense, to third-person past tense, to third-person present tense, to first-person past tense, and so on. Several times a day I change it. Because I am an English novelist enslaved to an ancient tradition, with each novel I have ended up exactly where I began: third person, past tense. But months are spent switching back and forth. Opening other people’s novels, you recognise fellow Micro Managers: that opening pile-up of too-careful, obsessively worried-over sentences, a block of stilted verbiage that only loosens and relaxes after the 20-page mark is passed. In the case of On Beauty, my OPD spun completely out of control: I reworked those first 20 pages for almost two years. To look back at all past work induces nausea, but the first 20 pages in particular bring on heart palpitations. It’s like taking a tour of a cell in which you were once incarcerated.

Yet while OPD is happening, somehow the work of the rest of the novel gets done. That’s the strange thing. It’s as if you’re winding the key of a toy car tighter and tighter… When you finally let it go, it travels at a crazy speed. When I finally settled on a tone, the rest of the book was finished in five months. Worrying over the first 20 pages is a way of working on the whole novel, a way of finding its structure, its plot, its characters—all of which, for a Micro Manager, are contained in the sensibility of a sentence. Once the tone is there, all else follows. You hear interior decorators say the same about a shade of paint.

I always thought I was Macro Planner: I’m pretty organised and I like to know where I am going. But I recognise this experience of obsessing about a single sentence, or searching for a single idea or image. Often, writing a talk or a sermon, I will draft a whole plan — and it just doesn’t work. It’s only when I find a single thought that encapsulates what is important and what I want to say that it all falls into place, like a roll of carpet unfurling itself with a single shake.

It’s well worth reading the whole article and applying it not just to writing, but to thinking, and to life. I like especially step number 8: ‘Step away from the vehicle’.

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I went to bed the other night convinced that I had invented a new word. I was going to launch it in this blog; then it would go viral; and in a few years’ time people would be referencing me as the originator in all the important dictionaries.

dictionary-1 copy.jpg by TexasT's.

The next morning, of course, I discover that ‘blogfather’ has 92,600 returns on Google, and that someone even merits the title ‘the BlogFather’ (Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, well-known not just for his prominence in the blogosphere but also for the encouragement he has given to many new bloggers).

The Act of Blogging by Michael Borkowsky.Why was I thinking along these lines? Because during a conversation about ideas and writing I encouraged a friend of mine to start blogging — and she did! Take a look at the results here.

I won’t pretend this experience is up there with celebrating a baptism or becoming a real godfather. But there is a quiet satisfaction in seeing something come to light in the virtual world that might otherwise have remained hidden.

You need something to say, of course. And something that is worthwhile — at least to a few people. But sometimes you only discover what there is to say, and whether it is worthwhile, by actually trying to say it.

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I’ve been dipping into the Guardian’s How to Write, edited by Philip Oltermann. There is a 100 page style guide, lots of general advice for writers, and separate chapters on: Fiction, Books for Children, Memoir and Biography, Journalism, Plays and Screenplays, and Comedy. It’s full of wisdom, and practical tips. Many of the articles are available online here.

There are many passages I would like to quote. I can’t resist these two paragraphs on cliches:

Overused words and phrases to be avoided, some of which merit their own ignominious entry in this blog, include: back burner, boost (massive or otherwise), bouquets and brickbats, but hey…, count ‘em, debt mountain, drop-dead gorgeous, elephant in the room, fit for purpose, insisted, key, major, massive, meanwhile, politically correct, raft of measures, special, to die for, upsurge; verbs overused in headlines include: bid, boost, fuel, hike, signal, spiral, target, set to.

A survey by the Plain English Campaign found that the most irritating phrase in the language was at the end of the day, followed by (in order of annoyance): at this moment in time, like (as in, like, this), with all due respect, to be perfectly honest with you, touch base, I hear what you’re saying, going forward, absolutely, and blue sky thinking; other words and phrases that upset people included 24/7, ballpark figure, bottom line, diamond geezer, it’s not rocket science, ongoing, prioritise, pushing the envelope, singing from the same hymn sheet, and thinking outside the box.

You can tick me off whenever I use any of the above.

Another suggestion that came up more than once was to aim at a plain style and avoid using adjectives and adverbs. I’d like to try this, but not at the end of a long day…

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Britain Going Blog Crazy - Metro Article by Annie Mole.What makes a good blog? What makes a successful blog? What makes a worthwhile blog? I’ve no idea. (And – it’s worth noting – these are quite different questions.) I ask them because I am celebrating an anniversary today. Not ten years or even a year, but three months of happy blogging. This might seem a bit premature, but I said to myself when I began that I would keep going for six months come what may; so the halfway mark gives a small excuse to take stock.

Mostly, I’ve really enjoyed it. I’m posting about three or four times a week, and the rhythm of writing has forced me to think about the topics at hand, and made me reflect more generally on what is happening around me and in the press. I’m more curious, and a bit braver about trying to express (or at least trying to form) my own opinion. Usually an idea grabs me or annoys me and I scribble it down for an upcoming post. Now and then I’m feeling a bit blank or too busy to think, and I feel the pressure to write (‘what if I fall silent?!’). Then something catches my attention, or I put it off for a day.

Other unexpected effects of starting to blog: I write quicker than three months ago; and once or twice a post has grown into an article that has been published – so the blogging has helped me risk stepping into a more public debate. Hopefully, some of the posts have got people thinking about something they might have missed, and reflecting a bit more deeply. This is the point! And that is what makes me feel as a priest that it is worth wasting a little bit of time on this.

The stats: I get about 100 page hits a day. WordPress doesn’t tell you how many unique visitors you get, and I don’t want to sign up to these statistics websites because with my love of detail I would get drawn into obsessing about the stats. Anyway, if there are a hundred page hits, and each person is clicking on each of the twenty-five posts displayed, then that means four people are reading the blog each day! (I know, it’s possibly slightly more than that…)

But I had one exceptional weekend, just ten days ago. For some reason my post about ‘best movies of the decade’ got picked up and put on the WordPress homepage (they choose a few every day) – this is like getting invited to the Oscars – and I had six thousand hits in three days. Suddenly I was ‘out there’ in this strange world of connections and clicking and commentators; and then, as quickly as the link was taken off the WordPress page, I was back in my office with my four friends… WordPress.com, by the way, has been a fantastic (and free) host.

my brief moment in the blogging stratosphere last weekend

I’m still not sure if the blog has any unity. Friends have called it ‘eclectic’ – I think they mean it is pretty random. This is my concern, that there is no focus or theme to the posts, so readers aren’t quite sure what they are coming to, or why they should come back. Perhaps it doesn’t matter too much. Or perhaps there is a theme developing: Even with all the random posts about film or technology or faith or morality, I feel an underlying thread is the question ‘what does it mean to be human?’ I teach a number of courses in philosophy and theology, and most of the posts here would provide food for thought in the course called ‘Philosophical Anthropology’ – the philosophy of the human person.

So another three months lie ahead. To any regular readers: Now is the time for feedback. I’m not fishing for compliments, just genuinely wanting to know how you are finding the blog. What have you enjoyed most? What isn’t working? What would make it more interesting for you? Any concrete advice about the topics that could be considered, the frequency of posts, the length of posts, the use of images, etc. In a nutshell, what has your experience been?! (As they say…)

Do post any of your thoughts in the comments box below. And that is another matter itself – how do you encourage people to comment and interact more?

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I’m a great fan of the novelist Robert Harris. I got hooked when I read the first three pages of Archangel, and then devoured Fatherland and Pompeii. I’ve only just got round to reading his magnificent Imperium. It’s the story of Marcus Cicero, set in the last years of the Roman Republic, told by his secretary Tiro. And – for the most part – it is true.

Cicero by tonynetone.

Even though I lived in the city for five years, when I was training for the priesthood, I can honestly say that this is the first time ancient Rome has ever come alive for me. Cicero leaps out of the page – a brilliant, ambitious lawyer, full of insecurities and foibles, who longs to climb to the top of Roman politics. There are sublime moments when he comes to the defence of the weaker man against some monstrous injustice. And there are other times when it is clear he will sell almost his soul in order to gain his heart’s desire.

Ancient Rome (Detail) by Alun Salt.

The political campaigns feel as contemporary as the debates in an episode of The West Wing. And all the while – this is a thriller, remember – you are desperate to know what happens next. I had coffee with a friend just after I had finished the book, and he started to tell me what happens in Part II (in the recently published Lustrum), casually recounting a bit of supposedly well-known history. I cut him off quickly, grateful for my ignorance, in case he spoiled the pleasure of reading the next installment.

It’s about power, as it’s title proclaims. And how political power – even with all the idealism and public-spiritedness - will always be inseparable from ambition, money, friendship, vanity, jealousy, favours given, favours expected. This is not cynical – just realistic. The question is how to make this messy and ambiguous reality work – as far as possible – for the common good, and not against it; how to make it serve the cause of justice even as it serves the inevitable ambitions of those involved. There are so many contemporary parallels.

It’s also about writing and making speeches and the agony of facing a deadline with a blank sheet of paper before you. Here is one lovely quotation to end with:

No-one can really claim to know politics properly until he has stayed up all night, writing a speech for delivery the following day. While the world sleeps, the orator paces around by lamplight, wondering what madness ever brought him to this occupation in the first place. Arguments are prepared and discarded. Versions of openings and middle sections and perorations lie in drifts across the floor. The exhausted mind ceases to have any coherent grip upon the purpose of the enterprise, so that often – usually an hour or two after midnight – there comes a point where failing to turn up, feigning illness and hiding at home seem the only realistic options. And then, somehow, under pressure of panic, just as humiliation beckons, the parts cohere, and there it is: a speech. A second-rate orator now retires gratefully to bed. A Cicero stays up and commits it to memory. [Arrow Books, 2007, p. 132]

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Writing is hard – for most of us. I remember reading a biography of the journalist Malcolm Muggeridge. Whenever he went on holiday he would take a huge pile of books with him to review. Most days he would get through one of these substantial works and dash off an article of two or three thousand words without notes or pause for thought.

Writing words.. by _StaR_DusT_.

At the other end of the scale is Don DeLillo, one of my favourite novelists. He is so meticulous in the process of writing that he gives every paragraph its own sheet of paper, as if to say: You are important; I’m going to take you seriously; I’m going to give you space to breathe. I’ve always wanted to try it…

I mention all this because I’ve just come across Hugh Trevor-Roper’s ‘Ten Commandments of Good Writing’, a summary of some of the advice the renowned historian would give to his young students to foster their clarity of expression. I’m not sure if it is in copyright or not – the printed copy I have says that it had formerly been circulated only in samizdat. You can see the whole version online here. Here are the first four commandments – and the ones I need to remember most often:

(1) Thou shalt know thine own argument and cleave fast to it, and shalt not digress nor deviate from it without the knowledge and consent of the reader, whom at all times thou shalt lead at a pace which he can follow and by a route which is made clear to him as he goeth.

(2) Thou shalt respect the autonomy of the paragraph, as commanded by the authority and example of the prophet Edward Gibbon, for it is the essential unit in the chain of argument. Therefore thou shalt keep it pure and self-contained, each paragraph having within it a single central point to which all other observations in it shall be exactly subordinated by the proper use of the particles and inflections given to us for this purpose.

(3) Thou shalt aim always at clarity of exposition, to which all other literary aims shall be subordinated, remembering the words of the prophet commandant Black, “clarté prime, longueur secondaire.” To this end thou shalt strive that no sentence be syntactically capable of any unintended meaning, and that no reader be obliged to read any sentence twice to be sure of its true meaning. To this end also thou shalt not fear to repeat thyself, if clarity require it, nor to state facts which thou thinkest as well known to others as to thyself, for it is better to remind the learned than to leave the unlearned in perplexity.

(4) Thou shalt keep the structure of thy sentences clear, preferring short sentences to long and simple structures to complex, lest the reader lose his way in a labyrinth of subordinate clauses; and, in particular, thou shalt not enclose one relative clause in another, for this both betrays crudity of expression and is a fertile source of ambiguity.

And the last one can’t be left out:

(10) Thou shalt carefully expunge from thy writing all consciously written purple passages, lest they rise up to shame thee in thine old age.

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