I have been a disciple of George Orwell, his rules on writing simply and clearly expressed plainly and amusingly in Politics and the English Language, and his statement that “good prose is like a window pane”–you see straight through it to the matter being conveyed. Indeed, the BMJ will this week post a blog in which I push and elaborate that message.

Now: recantation.

This morning in the closing pages of Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence: How to Turn the Perfect English Phrase I read:

“Above all, I hope I have dispelled the bleak and imbecilic idea that the aim of writing is to express yourself clearly in plain, simple English using as few words as possible. This is a fiction, a fib, a fallacy, a fantasy and a falsehood. To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.”

I agree and disagree.

Forsyth has in his book run through all the figures of rhetoric and shown beyond dispute how they can be used to create beautiful and memorable writing, much of which is far from simple and plain. The book is filled with wonderful quotes, most of them well known because the figures have been used so effectively, although often unconsciously. Many of the quotes obscure meaning, but beautifully.

The figures of rhetoric were devised by the Greeks and the Romans and taught in English grammar schools in the time of Shakespeare. Shakespeare used them to great effect. Now they are not taught, but many–perhaps all–great writers use them unconsciously.

Where I depart from Forsyth is in his last line: “To write for mere utility is as foolish as to dress for mere utility.” Most people dress most of the time for utility–I imagine that even Forsyth does–and most writing is for utility. Certainly scientific writing is. And for utility it is much better to follow the simple rules of Orwell (short words, short paragraphs, use the active voice, prefer the Anglo-Saxon to the Latin, etc) than attempt when writing about the complications of hysterectomies to use the figures of rhetoric.

Even if you could write your scientific paper in the style of Shakespeare, Proust, Dickens, or Roth it would be unwise to do so. And 99.9% of us simply can’t.

Recantation: partial.


I do recommend Forsyth’s book, and, mainly to try and get the figures into my head, I’m summarising them one by one on my blog. I’ve done some already.




A three-year-old and whelks

Alexander is naturally intrigued by my 2kg string bag of whelks. He handles them with care as I point out the whelk inside the shell. I have to boil them alive, which makes me feel mildly uncomfortable, and for a moment I worry about upsetting Alexander. But I needn’t worry as he has as yet no notion of death or, come to that, of being alive. He knows that when he shoots me I fall to the ground, but he doesn’t know that I’m simulating death.

Once the whelks cool, I show him how to winkle out the whelk, remove its cap, and eat it. I offer him a whelk. He puts it in in his mouth, but, unsurprisingly, spits it out almost at once. I eat it, which fascinates him. He wants me to eat more. He likes winkling out the whelks, with some assistance for me, and then giving them to me to eat.

When he wakes the next morning, he says “Granddad eat wood.” Least I heard it as “wood” and didn’t understand, but he went to the fridge and tried to take down the whelks. I taught him to say “whelk.” The game started again with us winkling out the whelks together and then me eating them. This is breakfast. Even I, a whelk zealot, am unsure about whelks for breakfast, but they are as scrummy as ever. I offer Alexander a whelk, but he screws up his face and refuses. He likes me eating them, but perhaps one day he’ll eat them himself–become the only whelk-eater in Mexico.



The last whelk-eater in Clapham

Whelks were once available all across South London. You’d be in a pub, and a man with a white coat and straw hat would tour the pub with a large basket filled with seafood–whelks, cockles, mussels, winkles, and prawns. You could eat them then and there, possibly with white pepper and vinegar, with your pint. A golden age.

Now it’s almost impossible to find a whelk in South London. Ironically, you have to go to a fancy French restaurant to eat a whelk, the food of the poor (not that we were that poor), at two quid a whelk. The only way I can get a whelk is to order them through Moxon’s, Clapham’s fanciest, and perhaps only, fish shop. And they can get them only in 2kg bags, which is about 100 whelks, a lot even for a fanatic.

“Do you want all 2kg?”

I don’t, so I ask: “Could you sell the rest?”

“Probably not.”

“Is there no demand for whelks?”


“Am I the last whelk-eater in Clapham?”

“It seems you are. We sell more in our Dulwich shop.”

What? I think, astonished. More in Dulwich? Like every Brit I have finely tuned sense of class. Dulwich is posher than Clapham. How can they sell more whelks? I think that it must be intruders from Peckham, which is now hip rather than posh. There must be a few old whelk-eaters left in some of the less fashionable backstreets, probably in council houses.

I feel obliged to buy all 2kg, but it’s only £12. Hard, I think, to get so much protein so cheaply.

The whelks are, of course alive, pulled from the sea less than 24 hours ago. I cycle home with my whelks, thinking that I must get them onto boil as soon as possible.

Perla, my Mexican daughter-in-law, and Alexander, my grandson, are both fascinated and horrified by the whelks. Perla doesn’t like that I’m going to boil them alive. She feels for them. I suffer mild qualms, but boil away.

Once cooled they are delicious. I eat them without anything, no pepper or vinegar. Once they age, I might resort to condiments.

Later in the afternoon I do my errands and pass many discarded Christmas trees. Perla thinks that it’s sad to slaughter so many trees, and I’m coming to think she’s right. I think of my whelks, boiled alive. Later that evening I watch a scene in a film of the Queen shooting a stag. I hate that. I could never shoot a stag, a fine and beautiful animal–far finer and more beautiful than me or the Queen. I think again of my whelks. A whelk is not a stag, but it is a living creature.

The next morning I am somewhat consoled when I read in John Banville’s brilliant sequel to Portrait of a Lady of a vegetarian who would not eat anything with a face. A whelk, I think, does not have a face.

I will continue as the last whelk-eater in Clapham.


A strong novel that lays open its entrails

Amazon prompted me to read My name is Lucy Barton by Elizabeth Strout, and Amazon got it right. Slowly but surely Amazon–or is it Google?–knows more about me than anybody else. Indeed, with the clarity of their machine minds and their inability to forget, they know more about me than I know about myself: my memories are muddled, my thinking muddy, imprecise.

In part this is a novel about writing a novel. I realise that many of the books I read include somebody writing a book or play. Perhaps it’s to be expected: you must write about what you know, and if you are a writer you know about writing.

My Name is Lucy Barton is a spare, lonely book. Compared with other books I’ve read recently it reads like a book in monochrome rather than a book in colour. The sentences are simple; the metaphors few. The scenes are short and contain little. Lucy’s life story emerges in fragments and is sketched rather than told. Elizabeth Strout is almost the antithesis of Henry James, but both are wonderful writers. Both leave a lot to the imagination of the reader, even though James seems to tell you everything.

I was interested in Lucy’s story, and the book makes acute observations on being a human; but I was just as interested by Strout writing about writing.

First, she tells us why she writes: “But the books brought me things. This is my point. They made me feel less alone. This is my point. And I thought: I will write and people will not feel so alone!”

Then she tells us, through a teacher of creative writing (an alter ego surely), what her job is: “What is your job as a writer of fiction?” And she said that her job as a writer of fiction was to report on the human condition, to tell us who we are and what we think and what we do.

Next, she tells us when she started to write her novel: “And I took the subway home alone; it was not a night I loved the city I have lived in for so long. But I could not have said exactly why. Almost, I could have said why. But not exactly why. And so I began to record this story on that night. Parts of it. I began to try.”

Amazingly, in the middle of her novel she tells us what the novel is about and how it will be received. Again the words come from her teacher, an alter ego presumably:

“People will go after you for combining poverty and abuse. Such a stupid word, ‘abuse,’ such a conventional and stupid word, but people will say there’s poverty without abuse, and you will never say anything. Never ever defend your work. This is a story about love, you know that. This is a story of a man who has been tortured every day of his life for things he did in the war. This is the story of a wife who stayed with him, because most wives did in that generation, and she comes to her daughter’s hospital room and talks compulsively about everyone’s marriage going bad, she doesn’t even know it, doesn’t even know that’s what she’s doing. This is a story about a mother who loves her daughter. Imperfectly. Because we all love imperfectly. But if you find yourself protecting anyone as you write this piece, remember this: You’re not doing it right.”

There is also advice on how to write: go “to the page with a heart as open as the heart of God.”

The creative-writing teacher also tells her what she can’t do: she “reminded us that we never knew, and never would know, what it would be like to understand another person fully.”

She also advises: “You will have only one story,” she had said. “You’ll write your one story many ways. Don’t ever worry about story. You have only one.” This quote makes me think of a favourite quote from Henry James: “We live but an afternoon and strike but one note.”

There is a sense that novelists write the same book again and again.

We are also told what the book is not about: “This is not the story of my marriage. I cannot tell that story: I cannot take hold of, or lay out for anyone, the many swamps and grasses and pockets of fresh air and dank air that have gone over us.” We think that we would like to read that book.

Finally, we are reminded–and inveterate readers need reminding–that books and “real life” are not the same thing:  “Mom, when you write a novel you get to rewrite it, but when you live with someone for twenty years, that is the novel, and you can never write that novel with anyone again!”

Lucy Barton


The figures of rhetoric VIII: Hyperbaton: ‘This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.’

Hyperbaton is when you put words in an odd order, which is difficult to do in English.

Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun. Although we don’t consciously know this, it feels odd if the order is different.

The concern with order leads to the false concept that you cannot end a sentence with a proposition. It seems to be like the “split infinitive,” one of the few grammatical rules that people know–and yet wholly wrong.


Winston Churchill: ‘This is the kind of English up with which I will not put.’

Richard Lovelace: Stone walls do not a prison make,/Nor iron bars a cage …

Shakespeare: Uneasy lies the head that wears the crown

Quotes from The Story of Philosophy IIIe: Frances Bacon: “Philosophy directs us first to seek the goods of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied, or not much wanted.”

“Philosophy directs us first to seek the goods of the mind, and the rest will either be supplied, or not much wanted.”

“The End of Our Foundation is the Knowledge of Causes and secret motions of things; and the enlarging of the bounds of human empire, to the effecting of all things possible.”

“It will not be amiss to distinguish the three kinds, and as it were grades, of ambition in mankind. The first is of those who desire to extend their power in their native country; which kind is vulgar and degenerate. The second is of those who labor to extend the power of their country and its dominion among men; this certainly has more dignity, but not less covetousness. But if a man endeavor to establish and extend the power and dominion of the human race itself over the universe, his ambition is without doubt both a more wholesome thing and a nobler than the other two.”

“Money is like muck, not good unless it be spread.”


The figures of rhetoric VII: Aposiopesis: “Percy, thou art dust And food for …”

Aposiopesis is Greek for becoming silent and is signalled in English by three dots…

There are three reasons for aposiopesis: you can’t go on; you don’t need to go on; or you want to leave the audience hanging.

From Shakespeare

But thought’s the slave of life, and life time’s fool;

And time, that takes survey of all the world,

Must have a stop. O, I could prophesy,

But that the earthy and cold hand of death

Lies on my tongue: no, Percy, thou art dust

And food for …

From Henry IV, Part 1, the death of Henry Percy

And From King Lear:

No, you unnatural hags, I will have such revenges on you both,

That all the world shall … I will do such things …

What they are, yet I know not: but they shall be

The terrors of the earth.