Wordpower

It seems appropriate to begin the 2021 blogs on 26 January, Australia Day and also India Republic Day. That is because those two milestones are linked: Australia is desperately seeking a stronger relationship with India to offset an awful and deteriorating one with China; and more broadly, both are in many ways dealing with post-colonial consequences.

Which, in a strange way, is where Leicester University enters the story. It was announced recently that, as part of a significant set of academic staff reductions, a swathe of English literature courses there would be jettisoned so that, for example, Chaucer and other early moderns would no longer be taught. All those “traditional” courses would be replaced by ones focused on more “relevant” issues like diversity, sexuality, race and ethnicity in a move to “decolonise” the curriculum.

Needless to say, that has sparked controversy in that it raises a host of questions about the nature and purpose of learning (and teaching), the politicisation of education, the balance between student “demands” and educational principles, and all the rest. Australian readers will see an updated return to the struggles over “black armband” history as denounced by John Howard when he was prime minister, while others around the Western world will see various “culture wars” revisited.

One clear marker in all this, however, is confirmation of the power of language and the significance of words. In Australia this year, “Australia Day” as a celebration has been renamed by many as “Invasion Day”, signifying the idea that the 1788 arrival of the first settler ships with all their convicts began the history of subjugating indigenous peoples.

What seems to be missing here is the idea that any resistance might have occurred. I am currently reading Waves Across the South: a New History of Revolution and Empire by Sujit Sivasundaram, who argues that populations across the Indian Ocean and the Pacific were far more energised by and activist as a result of the idea of revolution during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries than previously imagined. His compelling story is punctuated by many detailed stories about how individuals did that and how bureaucracies responded. It paints a wonderfully more nuanced condition than that of a binary “foundation celebration/genocide” one.

That simply goes to show that history, including literary history, really does still matter.

If you even think about doubting that, then you must read Pip Williams simply wonderful The Dictionary of Lost Words. Briefly, it traces the fictionalised life of the daughter of one of the lexicographers who created the Oxford English Dictionary. The kid grows up under the table in the dictionary project’s work room, and begins collecting word slips that fall on the floor. As she grows, that leads her to investigate all the important “women’s words” that the OED males deem unnecessary for inclusion. And that, of course, leads her to Mrs Pankhurst and the Suffragettes, and the idea that words are, indeed, hugely important in their use and abuse.

That theme is underlined tremendously in Tim Parks’ most recent book, Italian Life. Regulars here know that Parks is one of my favourite writers so when I suggest this is one of his very best it sets a very high bar indeed. He lays this out as an account of how an outsider may approach becoming an Italian, not just by being resident but by “thinking” as an Italian. His conclusion is that the latter stage is almost unattainable. The story unfolds on several layers, as always in his work, but essentially follows the story of how an Englishman tries over several years to construct a career in an Italian university. Along the way, Parks illuminates the challenges and obstacles by way of reference to characters and typologies of behaviour found in Italian literature ranging from fables through to the great crime novels of Leonardo Sciascia.

Again, the use of words and language is central to how superiors exert their wills and subordinates try to counter.

As well as being a great writer Sciascia was also an Italian leftist politician, and that reminds us of the power of language in directing national policies and agendas. Among other things, Sandi and I have been binge watching The West Wing. It is hard to imagine that it ran from 1999-2006 because, like Yes Minister, it retains a currency that is hard to imagine. The imaginary President Jed Bartlett is a polymath nerd economist who has won a Nobel Prize and berates his staff with a range of abstract knowledge. Contrast that with what America has just had for the past four years, and the difference is stark. That same contrast runs through the show: my favourite here would be press spokeswoman CJ Cregg (immortalised by Allison Janney) whose eloquence and smartness have been contrasted so spectacularly by people like Sean Spicer, Sarah Huckabee Sanders and, most recently Kayleigh McEnany. The number of times they all “misspoke” is legion, beginning with Spicer’s claim that Trump’s inauguration was the “biggest” ever – that set of a chain of “greatest ever” claims.

We also watched the much-vaunted David Hare-written Roadkill starring Hugh Laurie, but I have to say I found it way less impressive than Hare’s earlier Collateral starring Carey Mulligan. The story and dialogue (that is, the language) in the latter was infinitely more nuanced.

It is a penetrating insight into the obvious to say that the quality of the language helps determine the quality of a work, but it is a great reminder – in one West Wing episode communications maven Sam Seaborn (played by Rob Lowe) wants to recall an issued communique because he had not written it well enough. Oh, we all feel like that sometimes, as the show’s main writer Aaron Sorkin would know only too well.

But when we think about it more, language and words are the makers or breakers, which takes us back to the world of academia. An academic journal reviewer once reported that a submission of mine “read so well that I immediately became suspicious.” The piece never appeared so say no more. But I was reminded of that reading Anne Gerritsen’s The City of Blue and White: Chinese Porcelain and the Early Modern World which charts the rise and decline of the kiln city of Jingdezhen in Jianxi province. Her story is how its white then blue and white porcelain became central to global demand and so stimulated all sorts of trade and commerce patterns that put China on its modern path.

The story is a marvellous one in which I have a strong interest because of my addiction to the polychrome Peranakan porcelain (from the Straits Settlements of Penang, Malacca and Singapore) that was all made in and around Jingdezhen through the later nineteenth century. And in my cruise lectures (remember them?) I frequently talked about the Chinoiserie phases that swept the early modern world and why all that came about.

Anne Gerritsen starts and ends with a contemporary visit to the shard market in Jingdezhen to show why the subject is important, and that is what a novelist or a screenwriter might do. But in between she has to follow the “academic” language and custom that has restricted us all, to the detriment of the story. (Sujit Sivasundaram avoids a lot more of that, to his credit). So I began to imagine how a Pip Williams or a Tim Parks might have written that story of Chinese porcelain, and how much bigger the readership might have been.

And I immediately thought of someone I have written about before in these blogs: Elmore Leonard, the absolute master. I put my sister-in-law onto Elmore recently and she promptly downloaded the whole collection, but also found me an early paper edition of the short story collection, When the Women Come Out to Dance. That collection includes “Fire in The Hole” that sparked the creation of one of the greatest television series ever, Justified.

The opening to that short story is simple, and magnificent:

                        They had dug coal together as young men and then lost touch

 over the years. Now it looked like they’d be

                        meeting again, this time as lawman and felon, Raylan

                        Givens and Boyd Crowder.

And the setup is equally neat:

                        The day the Marshals Service assigned Raylan to

                        a Special Operations Group and transferred him

                        from Florida to Harlan County, Kentucky, Boyd

                        Crowder was on his way to Cincinnati to blow

                        up the IRS office in the federal building.

Elmore Leonard’s rules for writing are, if anything, even better than those from Stephen King that are perhaps better known.

If only they could be circulated more widely among the university presses. It is tempting to think that if that happened, then in Australia government would understand the work of the universities way better and that would remove the current impasse as to the future of tertiary education.

So if Chaucer does have to go, replace him with Elmore Leonard, we will all benefit.

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