Tuesday, September 25, 2007

Things Once Common, Now Extinct. No 3: Newts.

'Newt'. Funny little word. It sounds properly ancient, doesn't it? If you travelled back through the ages saying the word 'newt' to people, you imagine that it would be many hundreds of years before you got to a point in history where nobody understood what you were talking about. Shakespeare, Chaucer, Aubrey, all would have used the same word that we do now. You could probably have had quite the conversation with them. 'Newt?' 'Ah! Newt!' And so on.

Yet the newt is not quite as ancient as I thought. I learn today that the term was originally 'ewt', and it was one of those word cases known as false splitting. 'An ewt' became 'a newt'. Orange is a better known example. 'Narangi' in Sanskrit, still 'naranja' in Spanish, it became 'norange' in English. Easy to see how a norange would then develop into an orange.

But back to newts. The current Mayor of London is famously fond of them, and I have to say that I am too. Wonderful little gadgets. Palmate, Crested, the Common or Smooth, I've kept them all - or at least kept them as long as the old tin bath in our garden could contain them. They usually made a bid for freedom after a day or two, and took their chances. And sometimes, a day or two after that, you'd find a newt-shaped splatter out on the front path or beside one of the dustbins, all dried up in the sun. And then you'd have to put on your wellie boots and go to the pond and catch some more. Such is the unthinking cruelty of boys.

Once natural features of the landscape, ponds were essential watering holes for sheep and cattle before the advent of water troughs, but they had a far more important role as ready made adventure playgrounds for us children. You could chuck things in them, fish stuff out of them, go skating on them in winter, even drown in them if you weren't paying attention. And of course they were the most wonderful pet shops. Frogs, sticklebacks, whole flotillas of water-boatmen - you just went down to the pond and helped yourself. And if you got fed up with the amphibious, then exploration of the immediate surroundings would often turn up some other class of pet for your entertainment - a slow-worm, maybe, or one of those little black lizards, or a baby rook. It was an unfortunate creature that decided to take up residence in or around a pond. Destined for a long and peaceful life it wasn't.

I liked newts best, though. They were so pretty and so very easy to catch. Plus they didn't hop about like frogs were apt to, and so they might stay in their tin bath and submit to being 'looked after' a little longer than a frog would. Consequently their survival rate was much lower. If the cat didn't get them then a diet of Sunblest and Kennomeat probably would.

But despite my best efforts I don't really suppose that I'm responsible for the demise of the newt. By the time I left Somerset all the ponds in our area had gone. I can remember there being a good half dozen within easy walking distance of where we lived, but eventually they were all filled in, built on, or simply reclaimed as valuable land. So it's the pond that has actually become extinct, and from there a whole microcosm of nature has disappeared - including the common newt and the very common little boy.

I blame the farmers of course. Well, it's only fair. They blamed me often enough, as I recall.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Keep it simple, stupid.

Today I find the word 'chthonic' in the middle of a book review that I'm reading. Chthonic? Am I really supposed to know what that means? I'm wary of even trying to pronounce it, having only just eaten. So I must either look it up or make a guess. I look it up. It means 'of the underworld'. Oh.

We expand our vocabulary in order to find better ways of expressing ourselves, and it's no great hardship to have to reach for the dictionary once in a while. This is how we learn. But for a writer to use a word in the certain knowledge that the majority of readers won't know its meaning is surely to use the wrong word. Cleverness over clarity.

Judging the vocabulary of your target age group is one of the great disciplines of writing children's books. The most complex of subjects and emotions and ideas can be tackled, but you really can't expect kids to be thumbing through Webster's at every other sentence. So what do you do - dumb it all down and try to keep your prose to words of one syllable? (Which I almost managed to do there.) No. You reign in the adult writers' tendency to show everyone what a smartarse you are, and go for clarity. And yes, this is a discipline, but by no means a limitation. Simple can still be elegant, poetic even.

'Explain it to me in layman's terms' is what we say to our doctor/accountant/lawyer/garage mechanic, when they start to go over our heads.
'Alright then,' they reply, 'You've got malaria/you owe the taxman/you're going down/your car's knackered.'
'Oh. Then why didn't you say so, instead of giving me all that technical guff? You had me worried there for a moment - just look what you've done to my pulse rate. I've come over all tachycardic...'

Tuesday, September 18, 2007

Something about books

I tend not to talk very much about the process of writing, unless I'm specifically invited to. There are so many ways of approaching it, so many areas of conflicting advice, that it’s difficult to find universal truths or even anything reliably useful to say on the subject. Certainly there are few unbreakable rules in the pursuit of ‘good’ writing.

It was heartening, therefore, to hear a critic give an insider’s view as to how a book might be judged. Here also, on the other side of the fence, there seems to be no one standard by which the worth of a book can be measured, no straightforward method of reaching a conclusion. ‘Good’ writing isn’t that easy to pin down. (Or maybe it’s simply that good writing isn’t that easy to put down.) I read the following newspaper article a week or so ago, and enjoyed it so much that I asked its author if she would post it to me.

This is Claire Armitstead, literary editor of The Guardian, and for my money a voice of reason:

25 Aug 2007: The Guardian - Page 42 - (332 words)
Readers’ page: Questions, questions: How do you judge a book?
By: Claire Armitstead

The question I’m most often asked, when people hear I run a literary prize, is “what makes a good book?” Putting aside the obvious answer - if I knew that, I’d have written one - it tends to throw me into a frenzy of shrugs and approximations. I had an argument with a Booker-winning author about this, and he was adamant a great novel had to work on the level of the sentence: every sentence should be beautifully balanced, free from cliche and redundant wordage or sentiment. I rarely encounter one of those, and if I do, I fear I might dismiss it as precious.

Isn’t it possible a great book can be constructed from individual sentences that aren’t that perfect?Might that not be the whole point? How can you evoke a rough, porous old world in sentences that are smooth and impermeable? It’s an impression confirmed by my reading for this year’s Guardian first book prize: several works of fiction were so glassily accomplished that I longed for some fissure, some tree root to trip me up and make me feel something, anything, beyond cool admiration.

At the other end of the faultline are the great galloping books with a big story to tell and no particular elegance in telling it. These are often stories of extremity - personal, political in either fiction or non-fiction - that seem to get by on some notion of authenticity. If they connect with the reader, who am I to say they are not good books?

All I can say, in the end, is that a good book is one that does what it intends to do (surprising how many first novels lose the plot towards the end). Yes, they do need to be well-written and they do need to tell an interesting story, but they also need to have an energy, a spark that is easier to recognise than it is to analyse, for the simple reason that a really good book is unique unto itself.

Sunday, September 09, 2007

A Brief Encounter

Going shopping with a teenager demands more physical endurance than I can now muster, and so two hours of hurtling through the malls and department stores of Huddersfield yesterday had about done for me. I was flagging somewhat, and as I reached the exit door of Boots my youngest daughter was already down the steps and out into the street.
Coming up the steps – and at a far more sensible pace – was an elderly man. I was glad of the excuse to stop for a moment, and so I held the door open for him and waited. As he drew level he glanced up at me and smiled. “Thank you,” he said.
It was only when he spoke that I realised who he was: Peter Sallis.

The TV programme ‘Last Of The Summer Wine’ must be into something like its zillionth series, and so Mr. Sallis’s face (as the character of Cleggy) is familiar to all in the UK, but it was his voice that I recognised first - the unmistakable voice of Wallace and Gromit.

There’s a connection between us, though he wouldn’t know it. Twenty years ago, when I was involved in making the children’s TV animation series, 'Bump', we were looking for someone to do the narration. I remember a meeting between the animation team from CMTB and the producers of the series.
“You know who’s got a great voice?” I said. “That guy in ‘Last Of The Summer Wine.”
“Who – Compo? Bill Owen?”
“No, the other one. The one who plays Cleggy: Peter Sallis?”
“Oh yeah, I know who you mean…”
The idea was tossed around a bit, but I think maybe the producers felt that I’d had more than enough input already, what with doing the artwork and the music. And in any case Dennis Hooper, the main man behind 'Bump', already had another actor in mind, 'Hi-de-Hi' star, Simon Cadell. It was Simon who eventually got the job, and very good he was too.

Bristol in the late eighties was a big centre for animation. Everybody knew each other and there was a fair bit of crossover from team to team. Steve Box, new boy on the CMTB team, eventually became Nick Parks’ right hand man over at Aardman Animation, and I think Terry Brain from CMTB also did some work for Aardman.

A couple of years later, when the first Aardman production of Wallace and Gromit was released, I recognised the voice that I’d first come up with for Bump. Peter Sallis. Hey, I told them you’d be good, I thought. Probably just coincidence, but I’ve often since wondered whether my suggestion had subconciously been taken on board, to crop up again at Aardman.

So anyway, I was remembering all this yesterday as I held open the door of Boots the chemist for Peter Sallis. Maybe he was there to buy some Wallace and Gromit shampoo, or some Wallace and Gromit soap-on-a-rope. I bet people keep asking him to say ‘Cracking weather, Gromit’ or ‘I do like a nice piece of Wensleydale.’ Does he bless the day that Wallace and Gromit came into his life, or does he curse it? And is it in any way my fault? Too late to bring it up now of course.
“Thank you,” he said.
“You’re welcome,” I said, and let the gentleman pass by.