The next ten words

Some time ago I posted an article called Precision Tools. It covered quite a complex sequence of ideas that had been taking shape in my thought for a few months. And yes, it’s longer than the average blog post, at just under 2,500 words.

One reader commented that he thought there was material in there for two or three posts. Perhaps it should be broken up into parts, he suggested, to allow each idea to be discussed properly. 

We seem to have accepted that blog posts shouldn’t go much beyond 800 words, and that that they shouldn’t cover more than one main idea. Why? Do we not risk losing our ability to construct (or, as readers, to follow) a complex argument? Is this perhaps a symptom of a society that fails to nurture polymathy?

My correspondent told me that on another site, one devoted to SME business people, he’d been told that his posts were too complex. He’d been advised to run them through some special software to determine the reading age at which they were targeted, and to reduce that age to 15/16.

As a litmus test of how society is operating, I find that rather scary. Continue reading

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Another excellent reason to live to one hundred

The Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and DisappearedThe Hundred-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out of the Window and Disappeared by Jonas Jonasson

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Gloriously absurd and implausible, with a charmingly diffident hero who manages to bumble through the twentieth century, from one major world event to the next, leaving political turmoil and outbreaks of peace in his wake. Now he has climbed out of the window of his residential home to avoid his own hundredth birthday party, and bumbles instead into an adventure involving a suitcase, an international criminal gang, a redhead, a yellow bus, an elephant and an increasingly frantic state prosecutor.

It has the same delightful, dry, straight-faced narrative voice – lightly seasoned with irony but with not a shred of sarcasm – of the best children’s literature (A.A. Milne comes to mind). Everyone, or at least everyone who matters, is going to live happily ever after, says the narrator’s tone (a phrase which will never quite mean the same to me again!), but we’re all going to have some thumping good adventures along the way. And so we do.

To be read when you’re in need of a laugh or when you need to believe in a truth that is as strange as fiction. Or indeed at any other time. Superb.

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Expanding our vocabulary

First please listen to this. It’s an extract from Gesualdo’s Tristis est anima mea, from his Tenebrae Responsories for Maundy Thursday. Listen in particular, if you will, to the section from about 2:07 to 3:07.

Not a happy man, Gesualdo. He had murdered his wife and her lover, and spent his later life in increasing isolation and, it would appear, psychological turbulence. Even without knowing the details of his personal life, though–and they aren’t for the faint-hearted–you cannot listen to this piece without realising that this is a composer with something out of the ordinary to say.

And he has created a new vocabulary with which to say it.

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“I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.” – from the Harvard Business Review

An interesting take on the value of good grammar from Kyle Wiens in the Harvard Business Review.

“…Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts…”

Read the whole article at I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why. – Kyle Wiens – Harvard Business Review.

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Clean forgotten

One of the many good memories I will carry with me into 2013 was hearing the author Salley Vickers speak in Winchester last November. Her debut novel, Miss Garnet’s Angel–which I talked about in my last post–remains a close and trusted friend, one of those few books I can always turn to when I need to walk a little taller or to remind myself who I am.

Not that it is a book about heroism or achievement or courage in adversity. It’s a book about the power of quietness–the quietness of Julia Garnet herself, and the quietness of the forces that start to work on her when she arrives in Venice. The power is shown the more clearly when Miss Garnet’s friend Vera Kessel visits from London, untouched by the few weeks’ transformation that Miss Garnet has experienced, and full of the cynicism of the lifelong communist and the certainties of ignorance.

20130111-145421.jpgQuietness and inner transformation are common themes throughout Salley Vickers’ novels. Her latest book, The Cleaner of Chartres, however, introduces a new element: the value of forgetting.

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The shock of the familiar

20121126-080828.jpgIt is always a revelation to come back to a piece of music one has known well after a period of absence. But seldom is that revelation so startling, so exhilarating, so cathartic as it was for me when first I heard Ian Bostridge’s recording of Britten’s three great orchestral song cycles, Les Illuminations Op. 18, Serenade Op. 31 and Nocturne Op. 60.

These three pieces were once intimate friends of mine. Twenty-six years ago I wrote my A-level extended essay on the Serenade and Nocturne. (My teachers, I suspect, thought me barking mad–why write an extended analytical essay for A-level when one could submit a Grade VIII practical result? To each his own. I never regretted it.)

I know all three works from the 1964 Britten/Pears recording; I’d originally learned the Serenade from a 1970s recording on LP by Ian Partridge and Nicholas Busch, paired with the Violin Concerto (another old and new friend of mine). My Britten/Pears CD disappeared some years ago and I’d somehow never replaced it.

I do remember a phrase from the sleeve note of the Partridge LP, though. It said something to the effect that “Britten can always make us hear a tonic triad or a C major scale as if we have never heard it before.” As a general observation that has always rung true. It is even more profoundly true, however, of Bostridge and Rattle’s interpretation of these three pieces. This is no re-interpretation; it is not a response to earlier recordings, whether by Britten or others; it is a joyous discovery of a great new unknown treasure.

All this has made me think about discovery and re-discovery in a new way. Continue reading

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Of service and sacrifice

So another Remembrance Day has faded from its annual blaze of red amid November’s greys. And this year, as so often before, I am left pondering the words of St. John (15:13): “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.”

The sermon at our remembrance service pointed out that ‘sacrifice’ is one of those words that has been cheapened by casual over-use. And certainly this is a time of year that should help us to re-calibrate our vocabulary, to comprehend the magnitude of the sacrifice of those who have given their lives for the things we and our children take for granted today.

Goodness knows there’s plenty we do take for granted. In many ways, our lives are secure enough that we can afford to get irritated by things that intrude on our personal convenience or comfort – things like not being able to find a parking space, or having to reset the wi-fi when it breaks down. I get irritated when I have to sacrifice (sic) an hour or so of my valuable time (sic) to sit in a meeting with merchants of hot air and opinions.

It is salutary to reset my own expectations by immersing myself in the war poets, or by staring at a 68-year-old piece of paper which sits on my desk, to which a GPO clerk once glued the strip of telegram tape which told my grandfather that “your son Flying Officer James Donald Farrar (142059) is reported missing as the result of air operations”.

Now that’s sacrifice.

I realised something else during last Sunday’s service, though. Continue reading

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