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?