Immaculate Writing

My fellow WordPress blogger Whistles in the Wind introduced me to the work of Josephine Poole. She is a remarkable writer, so far as I know still alive but largely forgotten; she disturbs neither Kindle nor Wikipedia. She published a number of books for adolescents. They’re tautly written, short and frightening. Intruders come into settled village communities and wreak havoc. Sometimes the intruders are literally diabolical. Usually there is a sensitive adolescent character or two. Sometimes they foil the diabolical intruder, sometimes they become diabolical themselves. The books were written forty or so years ago, and I suspect that the adolescent readers at whom they were aimed were more literate then than they might be now. Anyway I love them. You can find them on Abebooks. Moon Eyes is a good one to start with.

In addition, Josephine Poole wrote two novels for adults: Yokeham and The Lilywhite Boys. These are also remarkable. Unfortunately, when addressing adults, she abandons the tautness of the style that she uses for her young readers. The books are like stories which she has written in her usual concise manner and then splattered with similes and other figures of speech, and lots of adverbs and adjectives. Many sentences require two reads to understand what she is getting at. I think that they are great novels (truly) in search of an editor. Others of course will disagree.

Whistles in the Wind warned us of a problem with The Lilywhite Boys. It was published by John Murray, the distinguished publishing house that dates back to at least the Eighteenth Century, that more recently brought us John Betjeman, James Lees Milne and Patrick Leigh Fermor and is now part of the Hachette magazine group. Murrays assigned the book an ISBN number, as publishers do. Decades later they assigned the same ISBN number to Gyles Brandreth’s diaries, which they also published. This was wrong but it happens.

I ordered The Lilywhite Boys on Abebooks. There is a place to add a special message for the bookseller. I always wondered what that would be: ‘Happy Christmas!’, perhaps, or ‘I am allergic to bubble wrap’. Anyway this time I wrote ‘Yokeham by Josephine Poole, not Brandreth please.’

I received the Brandreth diaries of course. I was told that the Abebooks software could recognise a book only by its ISBN number. I got my money back, and the dealer graciously told me that I could keep the book.

I wouldn’t have bought it but I read it: with unexpected pleasure. Gyles Brandreth is my age, we were at Oxford at the same time and it is amusing to read his totally different take on things that happened to both of us. He missed out on Dope, Revolution and Fucking in the Street, not to mention the all-important music of the Sixties, just as I missed out on illustrated jumpers, actresses of a certain age and dear Noel Coward – the Master, you know. I chuckled when I read that, much later in life, he consulted ace lawyer Derek Sloane (sic!)! He entirely fails to remember that this was the same Derek Sloan, a school friend of mine, to whom he had addressed the remark ‘Could you pass the marmalade, please?’ at breakfast in New College in 1968!!! Derek told me at the time! Gyles was so famous! Even then!

One reason why the diaries are so readable is his effortlessly classical style. Apart from the exclamation marks, they are lucidly and grammatically written. He specifically credits his English teachers, but we were all taught like that in those days, if we went to independent or grammar schools. And then it’s in the blood; there is nothing so upsetting as a sentence that cannot be parsed. One of the happiest afternoons of my life I spent in a bar in the West Village with my friend David Attoe, debating over vile American beer whether in Caesar’s ‘I came I saw I conquered’ the clauses could properly be separately by commas.

(The consensus was ‘yes’.)

I thought about this in relation to another blogger, whom I always read: Storyshucker. Stuart M Perkins writes this. As he says in About, he:

is originally from Richmond, Virginia. He enjoys relating his observations of daily life and recollections of growing up in a large family surrounded by cousins and animals.

His stories are wry, well put-together and touching. They are also clear and readable. Recently he got into trouble with some self-appointed member of the grammar police, who was rather rude. His followers piled in to support him and so did I. I thought that since most of what you read on the internet is barely coherent it was absurd to criticise someone with all his good qualities.

Weeks later, the followers continue to pile in. Most of them say the same thing: writing is self-expression; rules are for killjoys. And at this point my hackles start to rise. What do I really think?

Of course writing is self-expression, but publication is for readers, not writers, and readers demand clarity as a minimum and elegance too, if possible.

Clarity without grammar is hard to achieve.

But people who write grammatically but have cloth ears may achieve clarity but never elegance. Compare Simon Heffer, who wrote the Daily Telegraph Style Guide, and Keith Waterhouse and his English Our English and How to Sing It, based on his Daily Mirror style guide. The give-away is usually the split infinitive. There is no reason to avoid split infinitives except that they weren’t possible in Latin – which is no reason. People excoriate split infinitives because they feel they have to take a stand and it’s easy to recognise them. It’s like people who go to the opera: it’s a cultural night out for those who feel threatened by music. Heffer is huffy on the subject of split infinitives; Waterhouse isn’t. Heffer’s writing is accurate but dull; Waterhouse’s sings.

(And so does Stuart Perkins’ and Josephine Poole’s, except when she’s being grown-up.)

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