Does anyone else listen to ‘In Our Time’ on Radio 4?
It’s a programme about historical figures who have had an effect on our own times, and although I find Melvyn Bragg as irritating as the next person, sometimes the topics are interesting so I keep the radio on after ‘Today’ has finished. And yet all too often I end up turning it off in sheer irritation. Why? One reason only – and that is, because his guests will insist on using the dramatic present.
And what is the dramatic present? I hear you cry. Well, it’s the use of the present tense to make a story seem more immediate and compelling – as though it’s happening now, rather than in the past. A good writer – or storyteller – can use this to great effect. Shakespeare does it in a number of places, such as here where Ophelia is describing Hamlet’s madness, shifting between past and present as she sinks into the story and pulls herself out again:
“He took me by the wrist and held me hard;
Then goes he to the length of all his arm;
And, with his other hand thus o’er his brow,
He falls to such perusal of my face
As he would draw it. Long stay’d he so;
At last, a little shaking of mine arm
And thrice his head thus waving up and down,
He raised a sigh so piteous and profound
As it did seem to shatter all his bulk
And end his being: that done, he lets me go . . ..”
(Ophelia in Act One, scene 1 of Hamlet by William Shakespeare)
That is what I call a good use of the dramatic present. Not that it is necessary to use it in order to involve the reader in a story: I may be wrong, but in the entire HP series I don’t think J K Rowling once uses the dramatic present – and yet nothing could be more thrilling, more tense and more involving than these novels. (Although I suppose you could say Harry does get some dramatic presents: the sword of Griffyndor, the cursed locket, the snitch with writing on it, the invisibility cloak…) But whether it’s Harry Potter in the past or Ophelia in the present, these are worth a million academics going on about how Paracelsus is born in such and such, grows up in such a place and does this, that and the other. All that does is to dull the mind; it’s like jargon, a knee-jerk use of language as a kind of shorthand for actually bothering to describe something effectively. I wish they’d stop it.
A lot of historical programmes are annoying, now I come to think of it. I find Simon Schama very irritating, and as for that woman who does the stuff about the Tudors, Lucy Worsley, I find her simpering, smirking flirtation with the camera utterly unbearable to watch – which is a pity because I suspect that without it, the programmes might be quite interesting…