Distraction

There’s an uh…just a moment….yes Like… as I was saying there’s a thing that is causing some debate over the future…of the future of that-which-that-concentration. Not concentration so much as the removal of all the other things that can be distracting. Distraction. It’s bad. It’s everywhere and it’s digital.

The human attention span is threatened: civilisation may depend on it, yet like a rock star on coke, or a surly teenager, we blow it on all kinds of distractions.

While all the focus is on… Microsoft published a report which stated that the widespread usage of smartphones has led to an 8 second attention span compared to 12 seconds in 2000. Facebook updates and YouTube videos are more …That’s a 33% loss. Microsoft didn’t state what the attention loss was over but their end user license agreements are well-known to glaze the eyes and halt mental function

Statistics: Great, aren’t they? There’s one used by the media. The average viewer has a low and rapidly falling attention. In political campaigns that can have a… politicians have to speak in slogans. There’s no empirical evidence for crashing attention spans as fact. It allows media to dictate the form and flow of information. As opinion and current practice it’s a certainty.

For several hundred years people have complained that it’s not what it used to be, or it’s all getting worse. It’s a predictable and relative perception. It exaggerates and privileges an unreliable point of view.

While all the attention is on reading and the loss there, think a bit about writers. It affects them too and it takes forever to write a paragraph as all the distractions are killing the flow of concentration that Dickens took for granted.

In the grab of anecdotal opinion the analysis and data by Daniel Levitin and Susan Greenfield is excluded. Quantifiable and measurable evaluation should improve understanding. Their work is not the same as the spurious uncorroborated semi-plausible statements that are pushed through comment pages.

Not that it matters. Not that any of you have read this far.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Truth

Since the 1990s the poet Philip Larkin has been in an awkward place. If he’d been a gonzo journalist, or a novelist with a subject matter on the underclass, it might not have been as troubled, but perhaps because of the way poetry is consumed, and by a certain public, that his unpleasant, insular and antediluvian attitudes horrified people as it did.

Reading Larkin’s poems again it is quite obvious that it was all there: the loneliness and isolation, the bitterness and envy, the rage and contempt for anyone to read. It’s all open and honest. Maybe at a time – in the ‘60s and ‘70s – the voice and perception were thought to be a type of posture, not intrinsic to its author, simply artifice to bring about an effect.

I suppose the question is why should this matter? Writers do not have to be truthful and it’s a fundamental error to interpret what’s on the page in biographical terms: something that David Wallace reminded a Rolling Stone editor who shadowed him on his Infinite Jest tour.

D H Lawrence welcomed the First World War as a means to clean up the filth of humanity, and he meant the working classes, an attitude which is not very easy to square with his background and work. Many artists shared Lawrence’s opinions. Mass slaughter, it seems, can be extolled for good purpose.

Pound and Céline (Ferdinand – not Dion) like Larkin encountered similar changes to their reputation due to their political and anti-Semitic allegiances. Over fifty years after their deaths readers are not as conflicted in reading Voyage au bout de la nuit or The Cantos.

Larkin’s poems are heralded for their truth which stems from his own honesty and his ability to craft syllables so well. In another fifty years readers may be able to find a form of reconciliation between the poems and the poet.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Paperback

It’s a contemporary irony that paperback books have been celebrated for turning 80. Penguin books were rightfully applauded for lasting so long and changing reading habits profoundly. A country and western song in encomium must be inevitable.

George Orwell’s reaction to Penguin paperbacks was a minor revelation. He said that as a reader he applauded them, but as a writer he found them to be anathema. In a further quote he explained that cheap books were not good for the book trade and that a consumer with a budget of five shillings (£54.12 in 2014) would spend one shilling and sixpence on a book (£16.23 in 2014) and the rest at the cinema.

These remarks indicate two disturbing aspects about Orwell: the apparently proletarian St Francis was intuitively a rent-seeker as he wanted to retain a greater share of the budget and not lose it to the cheap format, and secondly, he displayed his class’s scorn for the cinema. His contempt for cinema may have had an economic rationale too because the remaining budget could be spent there, or at the pub for several pints of beer.

In any case, Orwell’s comments illustrate that change can be difficult for producers. The shifting digital landscape for music, movies and books is the current phase in the process.

The change in the form, price and utility of the book got me thinking about that paean to the humble paperback, the song – Paperback Writer, largely written by Paul McCartney.

In a pitch, or introductory letter, McCartney pleads his case on rather thin evidence. The story description is tenuous and in place of the total word count, the total number of pages are given, with the caveat that more are being done, so the book is incomplete. Then, with increasingly desperate promises to modify the text, all in pursuit of the ambition of being a writer in paperback, the letter collapses into some tedious repetition.

McCartney is very talented: a composer, multi-instrumentalist, and, I am reliably informed, as a drummer he has a straight synchronized funk feel, similar to Stevie Wonder. Despite these abundant and manifest talents, McCartney’s publishing pitch wouldn’t cut it now, but the basic mistakes can be fixed by consulting agents and publishers’ guidelines.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Extract 7: The Hidden Bend: Piers is discovered

On a humid, warm, Friday afternoon she met Piers for lunch and they were walking slowly window shopping, chatting leisurely as Piers did not have to return to the office. There was a holiday air, of leisure and time-wasting, as people prepared to go on vacation, or that businesses had lowered their activity to a level where things were being postponed because senior people were on their vacations. Angela and Piers went from shop to shop, Angela reviewing the goods on display, inviting comment, but Piers could not really feign interest after the third shop and muttered back basic replies to keep her satisfied. She kept his hand in hers, loose, fingers wiped and stroked against the other, but a constant touch as she led him along the pavement, and mollified him that it would be over soon, to appease him; while Piers took in the street, the other shops and the pedestrians: lone shoppers, business people, groups of children, either boys or girls self-involved, walking on the road, obstructing others, and laughing at each other’s comments as they gobbled ice creams, drank from cans of soft drink while some smoked cigarettes. Eating and smoking in the street disgusted Piers. He was aware that Angela had said something but he was elsewhere, mentally removed from another shop window, a taxi and its diesel engine had driven past, drowned her completely, she pulled him to her and like rag doll he was pulled from his inertia to her body, when she imposed a kiss on his lips before he could react, not that he did not want her kiss him, but there was a time and place – as he said – which she rejected as too small minded, and public kissing like eating and smoking was unacceptable. At the margin of his eye he spied three girls on a corner, and then it came into focus instantly, the girl, one of them, one of the girls was Jane: Jane, his daughter.

She, Jane, the daughter, stared hard and lost, as if looking at a doppelganger and questioning her eyes for seeing what she was seeing, whether it was real and actual or an effect, a mysterious double that popularly was said to inhabit the world, but her stare was unwavering and the longer she prised open the image the anger rose of betrayal of what her mother would say, though she had no excuse for being in that street when she was, as she was apparently at college and deceiving her parents and wasting their money for sending her there. But that did not matter because she realised this man with a woman was her father. Piers extricated himself from Angela’s embrace; she felt his arms abruptly tear her from him, she frowned curiously and almost said, “What are you doing, what’s going on?”; but she stopped as she saw him look at the girl, Jane, whose reaction showed she knew the man, at the corner, she followed his gaze and seemed to know intuitively that this girl was his daughter.

Piers broke from Angela and at first he jogged then ran the hundred or so yards to Jane at the corner; she stuck transfixed with her friends as the threatening figure of the man came to them. He stopped and leant over to her height, face to face, held her shoulders and shaking them, “What are you doing here? Why aren’t you at college?” His vehemence, his animal fury was a terrible force of will. She said nothing: her friends backed away slyly, he saw them move and still fixed on his daughter he waited, cooler now, but enraged mindful of how he appeared in the street. He saw a church behind her, in the middle of the road, eighteenth century, with columns and well-proportioned, built when the area was hardly laid out as it was today; and the idea crossed his mind that it was better place to discuss things with his daughter, better to talk to her there than in the street in full view. Jane was still silent, and he said to her, “See the church, go there and wait. I’ll be two minutes.” She turned and did as he commanded; Piers turned to go back to Angela who had followed him cautiously, mindful not to intrude, and she was watching the clash between father and daughter. When he faced her (her eyes read his face, his worried expression) and he said, “That was Jane: I don’t know what she saw, or what she thinks of it all. She ought to be at school – her maths. Damn her! I have to go now.” He kissed Angela’s cheek, uptight, an obligatory parting kiss. Angela stroked his arm, and said nothing, she could nothing now, she was unnecessary now, just leave him to his own life and wait for his call later, days, perhaps weeks, she did not know; it was not her life her business, the duties, the burden of raising children.

He walked away from Angela, his sharp footsteps on the concrete and she followed him into the church. The gnawing feeling rose in her, she closed her eyes to ignore it and walked back in the opposite direction.

The church was empty, quiet, no one, except for a frightened and alarmed girl, who had never seen her father so angry sitting in a pew, her legs clapped together, her hands in her lap. His footsteps came to her and she turned, looked up to him. He said, “I am sorry for what happened outside, it was the shock.” He paused, he sat beside her, looking at her in the face, eye to eye, “What are you doing here? Isn’t it a college day, or am I mistaken?” She collected her thoughts, “It is, I came up with my friends, Lizzie and Dominica just for the afternoon, we’d been to classes in the morning.” He said nothing. They sat in silence. Then he said, “Alright I see, you had a free afternoon.” Jane nodded; it was partially true but he seemed to be allowing her to avoid a punishment, at least now for wagging college. And another pause because he knew he had to say something about the woman, who had held him, kissed him, but he didn’t know what Jane had seen, or what she construed from the scene. “I suppose you are wondering about that lady, the one in the road, I mean the pavement, the one I was with?” Jane said nothing; she kept a poker face. “She’s a friend, she’s an artist. Her name is Angela White. And well, she had a show of her pictures, a very good one, and we were talking and she had need of investment advice and I offered, you see, and we were out, and well artists are very spontaneous people, emotional and go with their wishes, very tactile…” He ended there, unconvincing. Jane did not react. He looked at her. “You know what tactile means don’t you?” And she nodded. He went on, “And that can be embarrassing for normal people, that is, not artists, like me.” Jane looked at her father and she was not certain if it was true, but she made a calculation that he had forgiven her for skipping college and whether she believed the story about the woman or not, she would accept it nonetheless to keep the peace. “It was really nothing”, Piers said to underline the lack of any real basis to any scandalous idea Jane may have. “Are we straight on that? Are we together on the facts?” Jane said yes. “Well, let’s be getting you home, and to your books; you must have a lot on and much to study.” She stood up and he embraced her, “No need to mention this to Mummy”, he said. He broke from the embrace, Piers looked at Jane seriously and he said, “A second hand story about what looks like…best leave it, just to keep us all on an even keel.” Jane said, “OK, and about college, too?” He nodded, “Absolutely. Anyway what’s one afternoon at your age? I’d be disappointed if you weren’t skipping some classes, even a little bit. Now come on with you and I’ll buy you an ice if you like.” He pulled her closer to him; she liked the pressing feeling of his arm and hand on her shoulder.

And they left the church, into the street, his hand on her shoulder and Piers took Jane to an Italian café in Soho and bought her a three scoop gelato with pistachios and chocolate syrup. He had an espresso and afterwards they walked to a tube station where Piers gave her some extra money and told her to go home while he had to return to his office. She kissed her father and disappeared down the stairs to the station.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Lists

I think it was Roland Barthes who asked the question whether a shopping list should be considered part of a writer’s work. This thought crossed my mind with the title of Morrissey’s foray into prose as his book has the word Lists in the title. Judging by some reviews that novel is already on several lists of some kind or another.

Rabelais’s Gargantua and Pantragruel probably started the idea of lists. For Kundera that book is the Ur-novel, so it probably did begin lists. Gargantua and Pantragruel has lots of lists, tripe and clothes are early ones. The consequence of all the tripe is spelled out in all the digestive processes of excessive indulgence. Another list master, the Marquis de Sade, used them in his ritualistic fantasies of degradation.

Lists comprise a large part of various sections in Ulysses. This feature may be the basis of a doctoral thesis, or two, or three, or more. Online, I found The Alimentary Lists in Ulysses. Endless names of councilors or some botanical items in Ireland run for pages; its effect is slightly deadening each time another list runs over a page, like hearing a hand beating a table.

Minute detail adds texture and realism to a description, except when it becomes hyperbole. The significance of lists can be to exaggerate, be ironic, to poke fun at the academic style, something Beckett does well in his various recitations of pseudo-knowledge, but in Ulysses it does seem at times as if Joyce was kibitzing: write a few lists and then go out for a glass of wine.

I am not sure a shopping list belong to the collected works, although it’s true that letters are, and a shopping list may, like a letter, provide insight into daily routines: dry cleaning, food preferences and alcohol consumption, but perhaps the thing that makes its inclusion problematical, is that, like a phone directory, a shopping list lacks an obvious narrative, however many items or characters there are.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.

Extract 6: The Hidden Bend: The Soldier’s journey home

The farmer, the son, the brother, he was no longer a soldier; he did not know who he was. He was all three, he was as many as four people, he was something else, formed into another person when he must serve that new aim or he was made incarnate by another person; he did not know what it was, or how he had changed, he could not as yet, as he had to discover it over again.

The drifting entity he was now had become visible on the morning he had finished being a soldier. From the time of departure from the camp, he and the others had selected to be farmers, food growers, for the country. When they were told to leave the army, their home over the past five-six years, their recent memories, the comradeship, the fighting that bound them, with their uniforms removed, they were just young men in long shirts standing on the open back shelf of the truck, glum and sullen. Meanwhile the former comrades sentinel silent in the morning light watching him, the ex-soldier depart, saying nothing, while the truck’s engines ground metal on metal and lurched with the gears to reach speed, and then the sturdy vehicle gathered the momentum to exit the camp for their last time as he stood, hand on rail, watching the men he knew well leave the farewell group in camp, to wander to their morning duties.

At the city’s main railway junction, the train and rail network was barely working but for the main lines to other towns north and east. Transporting supplies for the city was critical and the cargo included the men going to other stations and their homes to the north and east of the country. Out of the main lines the rail network is fractured and the men know they know will have to hitch rides and walk to reach their villages and homes. The train took him and the bulk of the other ex-soldiers to a railway heading that was a full day’s travel. It was not a hard or boring journey: they played cards, gambled on dice, they talked, told jokes already heard a dozen or two dozen times already but in the slow hours and tedium of looking out of the metal bars over the windows, across the vacant fields in the hot day’s sun, it was something to break the boredom; they ate from their metal boxes some bread and a dish of pork with vegetables, the army’s farewell gift for their services, and women sold them drinks from the side of the tracks when the train stopped for water and coal.

At the next junction it was late, near midnight, the station had the unsettling, nervous mix of quiet and anticipation that all stations have but was more pronounced at night, more acutely aware at night of what may happen; of people moving while the homes near the railway were in blackness, people in their beds sleeping. The station’s serenity was ruptured by the boots of the drivers and other train personnel as they climbed in and out of locomotives, and along the platforms, but they were not alone, and naturally, the soldiers were ubiquitous in strategic communications assets, patrolling the tracks and the platforms because stations were targets for the remnants of the government forces still fighting on in their desperate and hopeless struggle. The patrolling soldiers’ torches burned brightly in their hands, flicking from side to side, dissolving the shadows, alert to any sound, and the bats’ wings above could make them lift their arms ready to fire.

With the train timetable he, the ex-soldier, and the others had to wait, pass time because their next train was not for another two and a half hours; who else but a railway administrator would make trains connect with two hour gaps in between. No doubt they had their reasons, the time the drivers preferred to work or the interchange between trains coming from long distances, or some other innocuous explanation that travelers can never divine. It’s a question that made the men, the former soldiers, angry. The boredom of waiting on a platform, having by then told every joke they knew, played Pok Deng and Cắt Tê, and now wanting to sleep, produced a sharp irritation, which the men displaced by walking about, kicking their legs into mid-air to shake out the frustration. It had happened in camp, when they were forced inside for long periods; shutting people together for too long and they get a fever, they needed to break out. The young men felt it intensely. In the night on the station the jokes became taunts in a moment, with the turn of a head, just one comment, a truth uttered after years of living together and bored to the limits of their patience they expressed to reassert control over the other, plain facts and resentments held for a long time, which had been held to keep the peace. Picking at each others weaknesses turned mean. A man leapt to his feet, and faced the foe to end the accusation, to stifle the lie, to defend himself. They settled with the intercession of other men, sat back on the hard benches, lit cigarettes to quell their fury, leaned forward with elbows rested on knees, the cigarettes glowing in their hands as they spat on the ground, mumbling broken phrases across the darkness which settled the feud.

©Copyright Guy Cranswick 2015. All Rights Reserved.