Amy has been reading a novel – in English. She came to me slightly truculently as I sat on a divan at Great Secret Miss, her finger marking a page. I could see that she meant business, so I forestalled her.

I wiped my chin ostentatiously with a paper napkin. It had been provided by the management for that purpose and incongruously enough it bore on it an illustration of a cute Chinese rabbit.

Goodness, I said, this porridge is good. Just the thing now it’s turning cold at last. I do hope that The Porridge Man is not dead but sleeping, but, either way, what a bowl-full!

Amy ignored this, and indicated a page in her novel.

““Good God,” he sighed”, she said. What means ““Good God,” he sighed”? How?

I smiled sweetly.

How what?

How sigh and say ‘Good God’ at one time?

She attempted this feat. She got the sigh perfectly, but, as she suggested, the semantic element was compromised.

It doesn’t mean that. It means, “”Good God,” he said and he sighed” or ““Good God,” he said in a sighing voice.” But I agree. I try never to do it myself. For one thing it breaks number three of Elmore Leonard’s essential ten rules for writing:

Never use a verb other than “said” to carry dialogue.

Mind you, ““Good God,” he said in a sighing voice” almost breaks rule four:

Never use an adverb to modify the verb “said”…he admonished gravely

… “in a sighing voice” being an adverbial phrase.

There are worse examples. I particularly hate ““Good God,” he chuckled”. I’ll be the judge of whether there’s anything funny going on. ““Good God,” he gibbered” or ““Good God?” he asked” ought to be all right, but I wouldn’t use them. As I say, I always try to follow Elmore Leonard’s rules. Most of them.

What you mean, you follow Elmore Leonard’s rules?

Don’t you read my blog, Amy?

She looked embarrassed. She had forgotten.

I catch up every week, every two week. Busy with proper novel.

That hurt – twice. Amy, blackest and biggest in the tag cloud, could not be bothered to read what is in many ways her own blog. And then she compares it unfavourably with what was probably a badly-written self-satisfied great lump of fiction, no doubt with a beginning, a middle, a heart-warming end and the flashbacks that seem to be compulsory these days.

I muttered in Mandarin that I was singing to a cow. Because I was irritated I got the tones wrong and had to repeat it. When she finally understood she said:


‘Hah’ is a good English word, but Amy brought to it a Chinese sensibility. As a result it bore no relation at all to the apparently equivalent ‘ah’. In Mandarin there are four tones in which vowels may be expressed, those that I had just muddled in my reference to singing to a cow. ‘Ah’ is delivered, even when one is speaking English, in the level ‘tone one’, but ‘hah’ in the more declamatory falling ‘tone four’.

In Pinyin, the tones would be written āh and hàh respectively.

Having delivered her “Hah!” she flounced off.

No doubt Amy’s so-called novel includes at least once the phrase: Never a dull moment!. I would never write that, because I also try to follow George Orwell’s rules for writing, number one of which is:

Never use a metaphor, simile or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.

But Never a dull moment! is what I thought as a stunningly gorgeous transsexual entered Great Secret Miss and walked up to me and in a dark brown voice she said…

…but before she could, I interrupted her:


P2 looked slightly crestfallen. I hastened to reassure her.

What a triumph, P2! And what a departure! So much more convincing than the lady in the Ridley Road market.

P2 fingered her crotch, with an air of purpose, but also I thought with an air of slight surprise.

There is not a moment to lose, she said.

It was the cellar room, familiar from so many trips before. The figure had his back to me.

Uncle E, I said.

He turned. It was not my great-uncle Edgerton. It was his brother Winthrop – and he looked grim.

They’ve got him, he said, and you must rescue him. There’s not a moment to lose.

The spine-chilling instructions that Uncle Winthrop then gave me I shall reveal at the appropriate time. Before I knew where I was I was back at Amy’s, on the divan, slightly winded.

I should like to be able to say that I sat there considering the enormity of my task with resolute determination. But you know how at moments of potential greatness irrelevant thoughts buzz round your mind like pernicious flies. So it was with me then. This is what I thought:

First, do I trust Uncle Winthrop? I knew that he lost his wits, but I didn’t know when. Had he lost them already by late 1934?

Secondly, I looked again at the paper napkin. I had used it to wipe The Porridge Man’s porridge from my chin but I had retained it in my hand. It had been to 1934 and back. Something had been nagging at my mind. It was the cute rabbit. The Japanese have cute rabbits but for the Chinese a rabbit is generally something for the hot pot. I looked more closely. Beneath the rabbit in cursive script it read ‘Thumper’. Was the poor lad trying to tell us something?

And lastly I thought, I wish that I understood, like P2, the mechanics of time travel as I try to understand the mechanics of writing.

I could have been a contender.

(Orwell Rule 1).

Tagged , , , , , , ,

7 thoughts on “Mechanics

  1. SB says:

    Of course, Thumper could have perished in a fire or a gas explosion like pretty much everyone else, but, obviously, he belongs to that creative elite, which remains creative even faking their own deaths. In this case the paper napkin you have used must be a signature of sorts, I guess.

  2. alablague says:

    I’m worried he’s stuck somewhere and the paper napkin is his cry for help.

    Then again, if he is, I’m confident he can break on through to the other side.

  3. SB says:

    By the way, as far as I know, the real words of the real man, who lived on the real waterfront and later became Terry Malloy in the film were “I could have been a container”. Malcolm Johnson simply misheard him. That real man was so fascinated with the new container shipping facilities, which made the docks, where he has been working at the moment, obsolete, that he came to envy the containers, to see them as his competitors. The containers were all new, expensive, brightly coloured and travelled far and wide as opposed to the people around them, who were, for the most part, old, poor, uniform and only travelled beyond the waterfront when either drunk or considerably desperate. The phrase became widespread at the time and Orwell, with his own travel experience being rather scant and unsatisfying – whether in the capacity of a lowly official, as a tramp or as a war tourist – grew so fond of it that he even made a rule for himself – the most important of them all, the rule number one – never to use this expression in public. To the best of our knowledge he did follow this rule with iron determination throughout his entire life.

    • alablague says:

      That explains everything – for example why Orwell retired to the remote and sparsely inhabited island of Jura at the end of his life. He just couldn’t trust himself to remain silent.

      It is recorded that during the frequent high winds there when he believed that he could not be overheard he would leave his croft and shout into the Atlantic storm, ‘I could have been the retainer!’. This was taken by the good people of Jura to refer to his thwarted desire (thwarted because of the risk of his coughing blood into the consomme) to become the butler of the Laird of Jura.

      But we know better.

      • SB says:

        From that comes the word ‘Orwellian’ meaning “pertaining to containers, retainers or retailers in a particularly meandering, circuitous way; completely unhinged; utterly and perversely desirable”, as in: ‘Orwellian state’, ‘Orwellian solution’ or ‘Orwellian job’.

  4. SB says:

    One question keeps nagging at some obscure part of my brain, namely, how truculent (on the Beaufort scale) Amy would have become if she had read this: “she added, after hesitating a little, with a rising sob of mortification”? I know that, as the legend has it, the Dickens of Detroit nicked his rules from the IKEA manual for the IVAR bookcase, being especially impressed by the last part that sums up all the previous ones: “If it looks like a bookcase – reassemble it”. But as a touchstone this little trick of the trade can do more harm than good I am afraid, especially if applied without due restraint, by a foreigner, at home, unsupervised, with the full involvement of the entire respiratory tract, to a random piece of creative writing completely devoid of such wisdom.

  5. […] de force, I Will Always Love You, he had torn something. You may remember that his name had later materialised on a small piece of paper, accompanying a stylised representation of a rabbit, at Great Secret Miss. […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: