Cassocks, Hassocks or Tussocks?

Or mattocks? This morning OH got confused between cassocks and hassocks (as we all do from time to time) and I found it very funny. But why? It’s not always amusing to confuse words so why are some funnier than others? Every comic writer knows there are some words which are intrinsically funny and some which just fall flat. Victoria Wood was a prime example of someone who knew the comic power of language and amplified the argot she grew up with in a way we immediately recognise. But what makes a word funny? Why are hassocks and cassocks funny? Is it because they sound a bit rude? Is it the juxtaposition of the ecclesiastical and the naughty that amuses? I think we should be told.

But I don’t know if comic writers are the best people to tell us. Victoria Wood is sadly no longer around but in any case the process of writing, the choosing of words, is instinctive. You don’t consult a thesaurus and make a shortlist of the best words; you juggle a few in your mind and pick the one that suggests itself. You might say the words choose you – which is in fact what a lot of writers do say, not least Winnie-the-Pooh:

‘They (the shillings) wanted to come in after the pounds, so I let them. It’s the way to write poetry, letting things come.’

Of course lots of authors, mainly of the egoistical, entitled kind, pretend to be in charge of everything they write. I say bollocks. Hassocks to you, I say; that is totally not true. No writer is consciously in charge of everything they write, or if they are, what they write will be total cassocks. Things come to you. Yes, you choose what to write and what to leave out; yes, you are in charge of editing and organising the work. But you cannot and never will be able to control what comes to you and what does not come. That is the great mystery of art.

At this point I am reminded irresistibly of Will Self. I haven’t heard him say this but I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that he believes himself to be totally in control of his work. He packs his sentences with so many clever ideas that it’s rather like eating one of those disgusting Victorian roasts with one bird stuffed inside another. You just get a flavour of turkey when you realise there’s pheasant inside that and snipe to follow with just a hint of skylark to finish. It’s completely indigestible. There’s no joy in his work and very little instinct; it’s all ideas – clever, yes, but in my mind devoid of creative flow.

To some extent I sympathise. It’s not the easiest thing to admit to not being in control of your work; to some people it makes you sound weak or lazy – as if you’re waiting in a deckchair leafing through a magazine and waiting for inspiration to strike – though nothing could be further from the truth; the clear and focussed attention needed to allow creativity is anything but idleness. And it takes some humility to acknowledge that your best ideas come from the beyond: as JK Rowling said, ‘Harry Potter strolled fully-formed into my mind on a train.’ She was on her way from Manchester and by the time she got to London many of the characters had taken shape.

Now that’s my kind of inspiration. Some days all I get are tussocks. Or do I mean mattocks?


Kirk out

Me, MySelf and Will

I’m trying to think of something good to say about Brexit: meanwhile here is some light music.

The last couple of weeks or so, we’ve been buying a pro-Remain paper called the New European which this week thought it was a good idea to turn over an entire issue to Will Self’s Brexit diary for March.  Self does not suffer from low self-esteem: some people might struggle to fill 50 pages of a national newspaper with their own thoughts; some might wonder what right they had to do so.  Not Self: and in an issue entitled A Plague on all Your Houses we learn that Will is pissed off with everybody.  His scorn, like muck spread on a field, is scattered everywhere; it covers Brexiteers, Remainers, Kippers, the Far-Right, the far Left, Momentum, the undecided, the alienated, the aloof and anyone else I’ve forgotten to mention.  In fifty excoriating pages Will Self finds an unkind word for all of us which left me wondering, where’s the moral high ground Self inhabits and how do the rest of us get there?  Because although he admits he can ‘remoan for England’ his scorn attacks everyone but himself.  He is – or appears to be – above or at any rate beyond all this.

Yes, we’re in a mess and no, we can’t see any way out; but what possessed the New European to turn an entire edition over to a man who criticises everything while proposing nothing, I can’t fathom.  OK, full disclosure; I don’t like Will Self.  I never have: his monotone drawl (a bit like a flattened Clive James) irritates me and his show-off cleverness annoys me – but none of this would matter if he had something helpful to say.  He doesn’t.

In case you didn’t know, Will Self is clever.  His writing style makes this very clear; he never uses one word where several adjective-laden ones will do, and makes each phrase carry so much extra weight that it’s hard to get hold of the main point of the sentence.  You might think that, like Wilde (only less ironically) he has nothing to declare but his genius – except that he does have things to declare and my god, he declares them.  Here’s a couple of typical examples:

‘My collaborator [in the paper] Martin Rowson sent me satiric little cri de coeur along these lines first thing, along with his latest twisting of the human form in to Mobius strip of scato-suggestiveness.’

Here he is slagging off John Bercow for ‘subverting the constitution’ (commentators including Laura Kuenssberg disagree):

‘There he is, depriving the Prime Minister of her third baby vote, and leaping out under the quizzical eye of the lancet window behind the speaker’s chair, his geometrically-patterned skinny tie, hip in around 1996, flapping behind him along with his batman gown…’

Scorn is Self’s stock-in-trade and he really goes to town here.  The paper’s editorial talks of ‘uncomfortable, even painful truths’ and there are plenty of those (I fully accept responsibility as a Remainer for not realising how many people felt ignored, and for in that sense being elitist) but in the end who appointed him judge, jury and executioner and why?  In this daily diary of March (up to the 26th when the paper had to be put to bed) he attacks virtually everyone and everything.  He’s mean about Harry Potter (‘liberal solipsism’) he loathes Jeremy Corbyn (though he’s no Blairite) he’s thoroughly nasty about Comic Relief and his rudeness about Stephen Fry by way of quoting Julie Burchill is insulting on a number of levels (‘Stephen Fry is a stupid person’s idea of what an intelligent person looks like.’)

There’s more, much more along these lines: in commenting on the mosque murders he scorns ‘the telegenic and impeccably liberal Ardern, who’ll order all evil to quit the world with a simple cry of ‘Expelliarmus!” and several times makes unpleasant reference to Radio 4, ‘superannuated funny-man Steve Coogan’, ‘presenter of a Radio-programme-for-the-four-people-in-Britain-who-still-read-books, Mariella Frostrup’ and ‘the oscillating deputy leader of the Labour Party and world-class fat-shamer Tom Watson.’  Blimey.

There was so much of this that, whether I agreed with any of it or not, it was hard to take.  Of course this type of ridicule is the cut-and-thrust of ordinary political satire but Self goes so far beyond satire and into spite that it begins to look like misanthropy.  In fact the only time he approaches human sympathy is when he chats to ordinary people in Stoke, one of the highest leave-voting areas in the country.

But none of this would matter so much if out of the morass he had some sort of proposition arising from it: if not a solution then some sort of way forward; some means of uniting the opposed and healing the rift.  But unless this is some sort of backhanded way of uniting everyone against him by attacking us all, he doesn’t.  Not one word does he say about the future; which is why as well as irritating the paper is singularly unhelpful.

Still, those who like Self’s particular brand of ornate vitriol will probably love it.  And he’s here all week…

Kirk out