Saturday, September 22, 2012

'Lyricism is a function of precision'

Writing is a craft. It is learnt in the way that cabinet making is learnt, or a musical instrument is learnt, which is to say by practice and the often effortful acquisition of technique. Richard Sennett, in his brilliant book on the idea of craft, estimates that it takes 10,000 hours to learn to play the violin well or to make an admirable cabinet. It takes even longer to become a writer, because before you become a writer you must first become a reader. Every hour spent reading is an hour spent learning to write; this continues to be true throughout a writer's career. Reading bad writers can be as useful as reading good ones. To continue the cabinet-making analogy, reading good writers shows you how to achieve the verbal equivalent of the tongue-and-groove joint, the well-bevelled edge, the countersunk screw, the mahogany inlay or the beeswax polish. Reading bad writers, you see how the chisel can leap and gouge the wood, how joints can be left unflush and how hinges can creak.

You don't have to read within your tradition or form, of course. JG Ballard, for instance, read almost no fiction, preferring what he memorably called the "grey literature" of technical manuals, medical journals and police reports. I like to read as much as I can from the tradition in which I supposedly work. All of the books in my writing room are either travel literature, or nature writing, or a mix of the two. On the lower shelves, within grab-able reach, I've got my favourites: Jonathan Raban, Italo Calvino, Rebecca Solnit, Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, Hugh Brody, Annie Dillard, John Muir, Gretel Ehrlich, Tim Robinson, JA Baker, Barry Lopez

It's these last two writers who have influenced me more than any others: Baker, author of The Peregrine (1967), and Lopez, whose masterpiece is Arctic Dreams (1984) but whose essay collections Crossing Open Ground and About This Life are also magnificent. In The Peregrine I saw how to describe the rapid actions of nature, and I experienced the power of Baker's metaphors: what an early reviewer called their "magnesium-flare intensity". Lopez's hymn to the Arctic revealed to me the possibility of entwining cultural history, anthropology, travelogue, science and elegy. Lopez also convinced me that lyricism is a function of precision – and that exact and exacting attention to the natural world is a kind of moral gaze.
-- Robert Macfarlane

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

'The head inside out'

Once their faces were turned outward, men became unable to see themselves, and this is our great weakness. No longer able to see ourselves, we imagine ourselves. 
-- Rene Daumal

Friday, September 14, 2012

Unseen because not perceived

The landscapes I have in mind are not some part of the unseen world in the psychic sense, nor are they part of the unconscious. They belong to the world that lies visibly about us. They are unseen merely because they are not perceived: only in that way can they be regarded as invisible.
-- Paul Nash, quoted by Robert Macfarlane in an introduction of Nature Near London by Richard Jefferies

Thursday, September 13, 2012


An iridescent blue iceberg in the Southern Ocean, near Antarctica. The blue is created from thousands of years of snow slowly compressed into a hard glacier. As air is squeezed out, ice crystals grow, absorbing light from the red end of the visible spectrum, leaving blue light to be refracted. Photo by David Walsh

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

The best of times...

Anthony Barnett quotes Frank Cottrell Boyce:
Political discourse is largely addressed to the worst of us. I'd like to see the best of us – the idealistic, altruistic, connected side of us – taken into account. When it comes to motivation, for instance – for years, we've been told that you need to give massive salaries and bonuses to the "best" people in order to keep them. In the past two weeks, we've seen brilliant work done by people – athletes, coaches, volunteers – who have no notion of financial reward. The best people are attracted to challenges, and driven by loyalty, vision, altruism, fun. People who can be bought for big salaries are not the best but, in fact, the worst – disloyal, unimaginative, restless and unsatisfied. For years, we've been systematically seeking out the very worst people and putting them in charge of our banks and big companies.

Thursday, September 06, 2012

Hungry ghosts

A praed isn’t necessarily dead. In some interpretations, Anderson tells us, it’s an individual who’s committed minor offences, and been condemned to a particularly nasty perpetual hunger – for blood and pus – which can’t be satisfied because he or she has only a pinhole for a mouth. This isn’t the case, however, with the victims of the venerable abbot’s fantasies. Their orifices aren’t scanted, and the torments warn that trespasses will lead to suffering now, in much the same way as drug addiction soon tells. Luang Phor Khom explicitly ordered his sculptors to shame the sinners by exposing their all – hence the raucous nudity. So it might have been possible, for example, to meet a lover illicitly in the wat one night and return the following month to find oneself depicted and branded, bloodied and skewered, one’s guts spilling out, breasts lopped off and genitals horribly swollen and luridly aflame. Narokphum is a kind of Struwwelpeter sculpture garden, filled with the dire consequences of bad behaviour come from the mind of a raging celibate. 
-- Marina Warner